Seventh-day Adventism is a non-Christian faith!” said a minister from another denomination to me recently. His chief accusation against Adventists? “They believe they are saved by works.” The evidence? “Look at all the unscriptural rules. You don’t eat this, you don’t drink that. There’s no freedom in Christ.”
I asked him why a true Christian wouldn’t faithfully follow the principles of good health laid down in Scripture, but there was no moving him. To him these things were iron-clad evidence of legalism. I found out later from a friend that after our conversation he made it a special point to preach a sermon in his church about the spiritual freedom he has because he eats bacon.
A little later I became involved in a similar discussion but this time it was with Seventh-day Adventists. Do church members today really need to worry about things like diet and alcohol? Are these things really “salvation issues”?
“We’ve moved on from the 'legalism' of previous generations,” they contended, “and we are now free in Christ to eat and drink as we please.”
As I reflected on these two parallel exchanges I realised that, both inside and outside our Church, the same attacks are being levelled at the Adventist lifestyle. This despite the fact that science is finally lining up behind the health principles that we have been teaching for so long. A plant-based diet, regular rest and exercise, abstention from harmful substances, committed altruism and communal spirituality have caused us to be blessed. How can we be moving away from what God has given us, just at the time when society is finally embracing the benefits?
Perhaps it could be because of a growing misunderstanding of what Seventh-day Adventism actually is.
For both my pastor friend and my Seventh-day Adventist friends, the issue was salvation. They felt these distinctive points of lifestyle were something that Adventists do to be saved.
In Revelation 14:12 (NKJV) the third angel cries, “Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.”
This text summarises the core of Adventism: salvation through faith in Christ, which results in committed obedience to Him.
When we try to justify an unhealthy practice by saying it isn’t a “salvation issue”, we miss the point. The fact is that an infinite number of things can be said not to be salvation issues, because there really is only one salvation issue.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8 NKJV). God has bestowed His grace and salvation upon us as a free gift. If we desire to receive that gift we respond in faith. We all learned that in Sabbath School when we memorised John 3:16, didn’t we? That really is the only salvation issue in Scripture. Everything about Christian lifestyle, whether big or small, flows from this. Every good work, every act of obedience, every moment of consecration, every choice to avoid sin, it all follows from the salvation that is already ours by faith.
That is why Paul says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10 NKJV).
"So what if I have a few drinks occasionally?" someone once asked me. "If God forgives murderers, won't He forgive me?" The key issue here is not God's mercy but the opposition between salvation by faith versus rebellion against God.
We are not saved by obedience but neither are we saved by wilful disobedience.
If the Holy Spirit moves on the heart of a murderer and he repents, he will be saved. However if, later on in his life, the Holy Spirit brings him to conviction about his use of alcohol and he says, "I don't care what God says about this, I'm going to do it anyhow!" that is rebellion. It is the opposite of faith. That is how a person forfeits their salvation.
If however he says in his heart, "I don't have the strength nor the desire in myself to quit drinking. But I want God's will in my life. If He will teach me from Scripture and give me the power to overcome, I will submit my life to His will." In this attitude of faith and submission, even if he goes on to struggle with the habit for years before God gives him victory, he will not lose salvation. He is acknowledging the righteousness of God's command and walking in a saved relationship with Him.
We obey God, not to be saved, but because we love and trust Him. He has already saved us when we believed. Love, not the hope of rewards in the kingdom, is the driving force that changes our lifestyles. In fact, when we really love Jesus, heaven itself is a side issue. The only reason we really want to go there is not the wonderful rewards but because we want to be with Him.
Specifically as it pertains to health, my pastor friend asked, "Why do Seventh-day Adventists have standards that go so far beyond what Scripture requires for salvation? Even though your fundamentals say you are saved by grace, you must surely be legalists at heart. Otherwise you wouldn't have so many health rules! In Scripture you don't have to do any of these things to be saved!"
He seemed surprised to learn that we already know that! But it’s a good question. Why are our standards so high?
I believe it’s because Seventh-day Adventists have a deeper understanding of the length and breadth of the gospel. That's not to say that we know it all and there is nothing others can teach us. However the light of the sanctuary and great controversy teachings give us a profound comprehension of God's unfathomable love for us in Christ. We look at the cross and see the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, who crushed the head of the serpent by being bruised for our iniquities, who intercedes for us in heaven and is returning in glory to reign, who will open judgement before us and then destroy death, sin and Satan forever heralding a new creation. We look and we are overwhelmed.
Through perceiving His amazing love for us, we fall head over heels in love with Him. Thereafter we no longer want to get by on just the bare minimum for salvation. We want to be wholly consecrated and submitted in every way possible to our Saviour who has done so much for us. Yes, we want to live by the moral principles that all Christians live by, but we also want more! We want to give up every habit that harms the body-temple in which Christ resides. We want to rest with Him on His day. We want to give more and more of our resources toward His work. Despite our present condition, we want to eat and drink and live our lives as closely as possible to the perfect ideal He created for us in Eden before sin. What’s more, we can show Scriptures that reinforce the fact that people who are in love with the Lord will naturally respond in this way. It is all a labour of love! This is who Seventh-day Adventists are.
We are not legalists, we are "lovely-ists"!
This sets us free from judging others by these standards because we know how desperately short we are falling of Christ's purity. We also remember that God is dealing with us slowly, so we likewise give others patience, love and prayer as they grow into these principles.
Of course, Adventists like any other Christians, aren’t immune from mixing up the fruit of the Spirit with the price of salvation, believing it is our “good works” or “avoidance of bad works” that gains us entrance to heaven. But just because there is a counterfeit, it does not mean there is not a genuine article. If we put our faith in our own works, we will fail. If we put our faith in the atoning blood of Christ, we will be both redeemed and transformed.
So when it comes to our lifestyles let's look to Jesus each day and be “lovely-ists”, not justifying poor lifestyle decisions, but rather acknowledging our insufficiency and asking Him daily for transforming power to overcome.
Let’s not be legalists; let's all be lovely-ists!
Daniel Matteo pastors the Edmonton and Mossman churches in Far North Queensland.