The short answer is yes, Adventists are legalists. The caveat, however, is that this doesn’t make us unique among religions – Christian or otherwise.
But let me explain.
I had a wonderful visit yesterday with an individual who is searching for a church to call home. He is loosely connected to our church and attended once about a month ago. Following up with him to see what his experience was like and his thoughts on our take on Christianity and the Bible, I was intrigued by one of his initial reflections that seemed to be weighing heavily on his mind. “I feel like Adventists are legalists,” he bluntly shared. “Why is that?”
It certainly wasn’t the first time I had been confronted with such sentiment. In fact, it is a frequent refrain that evangelicals level at Adventists. Our knee-jerk reaction is to stick our chests out and say, “No, we’re not! Get a clue! We believe we’re saved by the grace of God just like you!”
I told my friend otherwise, however. I admitted that, by-and-large, we are. And then I told him a little story about our history – how, back in the early stages of our church, we got so excited about all the new truths we were discovering (the truth about the Sabbath, what happens when you die, health reform, etc.) that we started thinking that these were our identity and what was most important. We would have debates with other pastors and tear them to pieces.
But then, Ellen White, in the 1880s, started saying stuff like, “We have been at work on the law until we get as dry as the hills of Gilboa, without dew or rain,” (1888 Materials, p. 557) and, “The ministers have not presented Christ in His fullness to the people,” (Review and Herald, Sept. 3, 1889) and, “Many [have] lost sight of Jesus” (1888 Materials, p. 1336). God soon sent a solution, though: two young preachers brought a message of Christ’s “matchless love” that was to change the landscape of Adventism. This was a message that was to go to every church and to all the world. The end result would be, among other things, “that the world should no longer say, Seventh-day Adventists talk the law, the law, but do not preach or believe Christ” (1888 Materials, p. 1337).
The message was never given full exposure, however, and we have been suffering the results ever since.
How can I say this? The proof is in the pudding. This is a little excursus, but an important one. Ellen White said that “this message of the gospel of His grace was to be given to the church in clear and distinct lines, that the world should no longer say, Seventh-day Adventists talk the law, the law, but do not preach or believe Christ.” The fact that the world, by-and-large, is still saying that Adventists “talk the law, the law, but do not preach or believe Christ” is all the evidence one needs to conclude that “this message of the gospel of his grace” has not been proclaimed among us in “clear and distinct lines.”
Of course, there is probably no Seventh-day Adventist alive today who would deny the idea that we are saved by God’s grace. We all believe that salvation is by grace through faith.
Some would then say that the problem lies in the fact that we have not experienced it. Though something could certainly be said for this perspective, I think the problem lies still on the theoretical level. Our challenge is that we have not understood the all-consuming nature of the “gospel of His grace,” and how it is the one subject that “swallows up every other.” We think that justification by faith is one subject among many; that it has no connection to the Sabbath or the state of the dead or health. We thus preach these other subjects as isolated teachings, not realizing that they must always be preached within the context of “the gospel of His grace.”
And when we do this, our other teachings remain legalistic – as does our reputation.
But let me return briefly to my caveat: as I told my friend yesterday, legalism is not unique to Adventism. In fact, legalism is the default attitude of every human being. The proclivity to earn one’s own way, to behave a particular way in order to acquire certain benefits or avoid certain penalties, is built into our DNA. To urge conversion upon people so that they can either avoid hell or gain heaven – as is the popular method within Christianity – is nothing but legalism.
At the same time, it is my contention that all of Christendom also presents many of the teachings of Christianity in isolation from the “gospel of His grace.” We keep justification by faith and behavior apart. As evangelical theologian Roger E. Olson contends, “The gospel preached and the doctrine of salvation taught in most evangelical pulpits and lecterns, and believed in most evangelical pews, is . . . semi-Pelagianism if not outright Pelagianism” (Arminian Theology, p. 30). That is, we talk a lot about obedience – being a good spouse, living above immorality in the world – apart from the empowering grace of God, which alone can accomplish the work in our lives.
Of course, this doesn’t exonerate Adventism. It’s merely to say that we come across as exceptionally legalistic because we have some unique beliefs – the Sabbath, the importance of diet, etc. – that cause people to believe we are, by default, legalistic. Yet legalism is not determined merely by what particular outward behavior one is engaged in; it is determined by the motive of the heart. After all, God’s ultimate desire is to put His law in our hearts and minds (see Hebrews 11:10). Legalism is not thus defined by what particular laws one decides to keep; but what the motive is for keeping those particular laws.
All this is simply an appeal to my fellow Adventists, as well as an apology to the world. To my Adventists brothers and sisters, let us embrace the all-consuming nature of the gospel of His grace. Let us embrace the depth of Christ’s matchless love.
And to the world: forgive us for not presenting to you the glorious, compelling, and rich picture of God’s love that God has made us stewards of – a picture that alone can finally and fully heal us from the legalism that is innate to our DNA.