Have you ever been riding somewhere on a Saturday morning and noticed achurch building with a large number of cars are parked outside? You may have even wondered what church worships on Saturday. The answer: congregations affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church. While most Christians are familiar with the SDA to some extent, most do not know very much about what it believes. Some may ask, “Are they a cult?” or “Are they authentic Christians?” The answers to those questions have been the source of some debate ever since the movement began more than a hundred and fifty years ago.
Today the SDA has more than 16 million members in 90,000 churches in more than 200 countries. The SDA North American Division (USA and Canada) has about 1.1 million members in 5,500 churches. Thus it is clear that the SDA has grown remarkably around the world in less than 200 years. The church’s current President is Jan Paulsen (born 1935 in Narvik, Norway) and its world headquarters is located in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Several prominent radio and television ministries are associated with the SDA, though they don’t always explicitly say so. For instance, the programs “Amazing Facts;” and “It Is Written” are SDA oriented. The SDA also produces publications such as “Signs of the Times;” “Liberty;” “Vibrant Life;” “Adventist Review;” and “Ministry.” The popular children’s books The Bible Story and Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories by Arthur Maxwell are published and sold by the SDA.
The SDA also owns several well-known educational Institutions including Andrews University, the Kettering College of Medical Arts, and Loma Linda University. They also own a chain of hospitals in various places around the world.
These are all interesting facts, you may say, but just what does the SDA believe and teach? How is it similar to or different from other denominations?
To fully understand SDA beliefs, we need to take a brief look at its beginnings and history. SDAs teach that the church’s founder, Ellen G. White (1827-1915), possessed a modern “spirit of prophecy.” The church maintains that as a young girl she had a series of divinely inspired visions. They say that her writings are therefore inspired interpretations of Scripture which formed the basis of the SDA.
Actually, the SDA movement was derived from several previous movements from which Mrs. White borrowed her ideas. One of those was the Millerite Second Advent Movement. A Baptist minister named William Miller (1782 -1849) had incorrectly predicted the coming of Christ in 1844. When that prediction failed, some of Millers followers claimed he had gotten the date right but the event wrong. Instead of being time for the second coming, it was the beginning of Jesus’ heavenly “Investigative Judgment” (see below).
Another SDA precursor was Seventh-day Sabbatarianism, as taught by a sea captain named Joseph Bates (1792 – 1872). He claimed he had rediscovered the lost key to understanding Scripture which was the seventh-day Sabbath.
Mrs. White’s visions combined those unusual theological notions, and others, into a unique religious system. She established the SDA movement in the 1850s. The SDA Church was formally organized in 1863 in Battle Creek, Michigan.
SDAs affirm the Christian doctrine of the inspiration and authority of the Bible. They also affirm the Trinitarian nature of the Godhead: the fatherhood of God, deity of Jesus Christ, and the Person and deity of the Holy Spirit. They teach that man was created in the image of God, but is in a fallen state of sin and in need of redemption. They affirm that Jesus was virgin-born, lived a sinless life, was crucified, dead, and buried, and rose again bodily from the grave.
These SDA beliefs are in basic agreement with historic, biblical Christianity. Thus, the SDA is not a cult by definition (see “What is a Cult – http://www.marketfaith.org/what-is-a-cult). However, the SDA can be correctly regarded as a Christian sect because it has a number of distinctive doctrines not in accord with the mainstream of historic Christian faith. We will examine some of those key doctrines.
The Remnant Church
The SDA Church teaches that Christianity in its original form was corrupted in the centuries after the New Testament era by apostate Roman Catholic popes. The sign of this apostasy was the shifting of the Sabbath day from the seventh to the first day of the week. Throughout history, they say, a small, faithful group of Christians has maintained true worship. Today the only “remnant” church is the SDA Church.
We must disagree with that assertion. The universal church consists of the body of believers in Christ in all times and all places. It is the body of Christ in which the gospel is proclaimed, Christians are nurtured in their faith, and gifts of the Spirit are exercised. No single organization can claim exclusive title as the true or remnant church. The church includes all the redeemed of all ages (see Matt. 16:15-19; Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 1:22-23, 3:21, 4:4-13).
The Seventh-day Sabbath
The SDA Church teaches that the biblical Sabbath must be observed on the seventh day of the week (Friday evening until Saturday evening) in accordance with Old Testament law. It maintains that the New Testament church observed the Sabbath which they regard as the “seal” of God’s law. They argue that those Christians who worship on Sunday are in grave error and, in the last days, will bear the “mark of the beast,” which they consider to be government forced Sunday worship.
We concede that in the early days of the Christian movement, many Jewish believers kept the Jewish Sabbath. However, the Bible indicates that early on the New Testament church regularly met on the “Lord’s Day” (first day of the week) as a memorial of Christ’s resurrection. While there is certainly no prohibition in Scripture against it, the SDA Church’s insistence that Sabbath-keeping is mandatory for Christians is unwarranted. The claim that Sunday worship is the mark of the beast is completely unfounded and is based on a faulty presupposition. Salvation and commitment to Christ are not demonstrated by adherence to external legalities (see Rom. 13:8-10, 14:4-13; 1 Cor. 16:2; Gal. 4:9-11; Col. 2:13-17).
Salvation Maintained by Works
The SDA Church publicly states its belief that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. However, SDA teaching often implies that certain outward acts of righteousness are necessary to maintain one’s assurance of salvation. Especially required is observance of the seventh-day Sabbath. SDA members also are expected to observe strict dietary regulations and to abstain from alcohol, drugs, and tobacco.
The SDA church’s emphasis on a healthy lifestyle is commendable. However, it does tend to drift towards a form legalism. Salvation is entirely a result of grace through faith in Jesus Christ as one’s Savior and Lord. Good works result from one’s assurance of eternal security through Christ’s finished work (see John 10:28-29; Rom. 8:1-2, 35-39; Eph. 1:13-14, 2:8-10; 2 Tim. 1:12).
The Investigative Judgment
One if the most unusual doctrines of the SDA is the “Investigative Judgment” of Christ. The SDA church teaches that the true “holy of holies” sanctuary of God is in heaven where, in 1844, Jesus began the second phase of His atoning ministry. This second phase is called the “Investigative Judgment.” It involves an examination by Christ of the dead to determine if they are worthy of being part of the first resurrection, and to determine who among the living are abiding in Christ and keeping God’s commandments.
The Bible makes no reference to the SDA’s idea of two stages in God’ plan of redemption. The SDA assertion that Christ entered the sanctuary in 1844 is unwarranted and is based on a reinterpretation of the failed Millerite prediction for Jesus’ return in that year. Christ accomplished the totality of His redemptive work on the cross and in His resurrection. Salvation is assured by God’s grace through faith in Christ. There is no need for a second phase. (see John 5:24; Rom. 5:6-10, 8:1; Col. 1:20-22; Heb. 1:3, 9:27; 1 John 5:11-13).
Death Is a State of Unconscious “Sleep”
The SDA Church teaches that people who have died are in an unconscious, sleep-like state. This doctrine is sometimes referred to as “Soul Sleep.” The theological term is “Conditional Immortality.” They maintain that all true believers are unconsciously awaiting the appearance of Christ when they will be resurrected and caught up to meet the Lord. The unrighteous wicked will be resurrected and judged after the millennium.
Contrary to this view, the Bible teaches that Christian’s spirits go to be with Christ at death. Believers live in a conscious, interim state of existence with the Lord, waiting for the day when they will accompany Him at His return. At that time, they will be reunited with their resurrected glorified bodies (see John 11:25-26; 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 2 Tim. 1:10).
The Second Coming
The SDA teaches that we are in the last days and have been since 1844. Though they do not set a date for the second coming, they do imply that it will be soon. They claim that Bible prophecy was authoritatively interpreted by Ellen G. White’s inspired visions. The prophetic timetable can be understood from events in world history from the end of the New Testament, through the middle ages, and into modern times. Thus, today, the SDA remnant church is proclaiming the final call for all people to prepare for the coming of Christ. They believe certain specific signs will soon precede the end, especially a worldwide legal requirement for Sunday worship – the mark of the beast.
The Bible does teach that Jesus will, indeed, return physically to close the age and judge mankind. Believers are to be ready at any moment for the Lord’s return. However, Mrs. White’s fanciful interpretations of the prophetic biblical writings cannot be regarded as valid by serious students of Scripture. (see Matt. 24:4-7,14,32-51; Mark 13:32; Acts 1:7; 1 Thess. 5:1-11).
The Final Judgment
The SDA church teaches that, after Christ’s thousand-year rule, a second resurrection of those not saved will occur. Those whose names are not found worthy and in the “book of life” (unsaved) will be cast into the lake of fire and annihilated out of existence. The doctrine of eternal hell is denied as unbiblical.
We must affirm the doctrine of eternal hell. The Bible teaches that the saved will enjoy eternal life with Christ and the lost will suffer eternal punishment (see Matt. 18:8-9; 25:41-46; Mark 9:43-48; John 3:16, 14:1-3; 2 Thess. 1:9; Rev. 20-22).
We can probably say many members of the SDA Church may be genuinely saved Christians based on their personal faith in Jesus Christ. They do affirm the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and salvation by grace. Nonetheless, the SDA church has teachings based on the questionable prophetic visions and writings of Ellen G. White that seriously deviate from historic Christian doctrine. Those doctrinal errors may cause SDA followers to lack the assurance of salvation and be confused about end-time teachings. They may also feel that since other Christians do not keep the seventh-day Sabbath, as they believe is required, that somehow they are spiritually superior to other Christians.
1. General Conference of SDA, Seventh-day Adventists Believe . . . A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Doctrines. Washington: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1988.
2. Knight, George R. ed., Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine, (annotated edition). Berrien Springs, Michigan: Andrews University Press, 2003.
3. Martin, Walter. “The Puzzle of Seventh-day Adventism” (updated by Kurt Van Gorder). Appendix in The Kingdom of the Cults (rev. ed., Ravi Zacharias, Gen. ed.). Minneapolis: Bethany House Pub., 2003, pp. 534-627.
4. White, Ellen G. The Great Controversy (1887) and Desire of Ages (1898), et al. (Available online at www.whiteestate.org).
© 2011 Tal Davis