Can Seventh-Day Adventism Be Reformed?

Dear Pastor Gabe

Thank you for When We Understand the Text and all your videos. I noticed in your video on Jehovah's Witnesses that you mention Seventh Day Adventism, and you mention that an Adventist can be a Christian, but in the fine-print you say that you wouldn't advise attending a Seventh Day Adventist church. I wasn't able to find a WWUTT video on SDA though. Do you have one? 

I grew up SDA, then when I got to college I started attending a reformed Baptist church. It was there I met my wife and she happens to have an SDA background as well. Recently we've been talking about it and wondering if the SDA church might be a mission field for us. Here's the question that I have: Do you think that the Seventh Day Adventist Church can be reformed, or do you think that a person should leave the SDA church altogether? Thank you again for all that you do.

Josh, Tampa, FL

Thank you for your e-mail, Josh! No, we don't have a WWUTT video on Seventh Day Adventism, although that's one I've been meaning to do. The short answer to your question is this: No, I do not think the SDA church can be reformed. I have known and worked with a few Adventists whom I believe to be born-again Christians. But if you were to come in to an SDA church with gospel-centered and doctrinally-sound teaching, the church would change so drastically that it would not look at all like the Seventh-Day Adventist church looks now.

Consider the doctrine behind the church's namesake: Seventh Day Adventist. One of their fundamental teachings is Sabbath worship. Now that sounds harmless enough. What's the big deal if a church wants to worship on Saturday? Romans 14:5-6 says, "One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor to the Lord." So isn't the Adventist just choosing to worship on Saturday because he's fully convinced that's the day he should worship?

It actually goes quite a bit deeper than that. Infused in the Seventh-Day Adventist movement is this entire hermeneutic related to the Sabbath Day. When you go to the SDA church's website, there's a section of by-laws over 6,000 words long committed to proper Sabbath observance. A person's keeping of the Sabbath Day serves as kind of a "test" as to whether or not that person is genuine in their faith and worship of God:
"Meaningful Sabbath observance indicates that acceptance of God as Creator and Owner and acknowledges His authority over all creation, including oneself. Sabbath observance is based on the authority of God's Word. There is no other logical reason for it."
Sabbath observance also has eschatological implications. In other words, it even plays into their beliefs and teachings about the end-times:
"Meaningful Sabbath observance testifies to the fact that we have chosen to obey God's commandment. We thus recognize that our life is now lived in obedience to God's Word. The Sabbath will be a special test in the end time. The believer will have to make a choice either to give allegiance to God's Word or to human authority."
Even though these by-laws don't teach that if you break the Sabbath you'll go to hell, they do seem to imply that if you are not a regular observer of the Sabbath you are not truly a worshiper of God, and in the end you'll be excluded from His kingdom.

Contrast this with Colossians 1:16-17 which says, "Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ."

Huh. Yeah. That verse kind of sounds important.
To bring in Christ-centered teaching such as this reference in Colossians -- with an understanding of certain Old Testament laws being types and shadows that point to Christ Jesus -- would un-do a fundamental Seventh-Day Adventist teaching on the Sabbath. They would essentially be losing the very thing their name is predicated upon. So again, gospel teaching would change Adventism so much, it wouldn't even resemble an SDA church anymore. The SDA church is not a reflection of the early church as Christ meant it to be. It can't be reformed.

I understand why someone would think it could be. Adventists uphold the infallibility of Scripture, substitutionary atonement, resurrection of the dead, justification by faith alone, and overall their doctrine resembles trinitarian Protestant theology (but with an Arminian hermeneutic). This is why I believe a person can become a Christian in the SDA church (unlike the Jehovah's Witnesses, who teach heresy). But if that person is growing in their understanding of the Scriptures, and if they really know what their movement is teaching, they shouldn't remain an Adventist.

Another common doctrine in the SDA is annihilationism: the wicked will not suffer eternal torment in hell, the Adventists teach, but instead will be permanently destroyed. This is simply unbiblical. Matthew 25:46 says the wicked will go away into eternal punishment. Revelation 14:11 says that the worshipers of the beast will be tormented day and night, and they will have no rest.

Now, not every SDA church is the same. Like most Baptist churches, each congregation is autonomous. Some don't teach the more controversial secondary matters. But the church overall is still founded on false teaching.

Ellen G. White, one of the principle founders of the movement, made a bunch of wonky predictions influenced by notorious false teacher William Miller. White backed Miller's prophecy that the end of the world would come in 1844. When of course that didn't happen, she used Miller's same method to predict that the end of the world would come in 1851.

Ellen G. with her husband, James White. (Not Dr. James White.)
She blamed the fact that the world didn't end on the Seventh Day Adventist congregants because they didn't have enough faith. If they had been "united upon the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus, how widely different would have been our history," she said. Despite her flops, the Adventist church still holds her writings as an authoritative source of truth. From their 28 Fundamental Beliefs:
"The Scriptures testify that one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. This gift is an identifying mark of the remnant church and we believe it was manifested in the ministry of Ellen G. White. Her writings speak with prophetic authority and provide comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction to the church. They also make clear that the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested." 
(Yes, because apparently the Bible's declaration of it being authoritative wasn't enough, and we needed Ellen G. White to tell us.)

There are a number of tertiary and secondary issues that Adventists elevate to the level of "fundamental," and this divides Christians, not unifies them. As Dr. Al Mohler explains, "The misjudgment of true fundamentalism is the belief that all disagreements concern first-order doctrines. Thus, third-order issues are raised to a first-order importance and Christians are wrongly and harmfully divided."

My recommendation to a practicing Seventh-Day Adventist is that they leave the church and attend a sound, gospel-teaching church. Note that I say attend another, not start another. I think if someone leaves the SDA and goes right to starting a new church, there are some potential dangers there. I won't go into my whole opinion on it, but let me just point to 1 Timothy 3:6. An elder or an overseer "must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil."

It's simply too soon to come out of false-teaching and start your own church. Look for a good, gospel-centered, doctrinally sound gathering and get fed. Grow under the teaching of someone who is submissive to and passionate about the word of God. Perhaps your ministry, Josh, will be pointing others toward churches that offer Christ-centered teaching, and away from the bad teaching of Seventh-Day Adventism.

This Q&A was featured on the WWUTT podcast episode #120. You can subscribe to the podcast by clicking here!

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