Unity in Faith
In 1888 Seventh-day Adventists experienced a period of intense debate over the interpretations of some key Bible texts. While pastors and church leaders were debating the identity of the ten horns of the prophecy of Daniel 7 and of the law in Galatians 3:24, few realized how their hostile attitudes toward each other destroyed their fellowship and friendship and thus marred the unity and mission of the church.
Ellen G. White deeply deplored this state of affairs and encouraged all those involved in these discussions to think carefully about their relationship with Jesus and how love for Jesus ought to be demonstrated in our conduct, especially when we disagree. She also said that we should not expect everyone in the church to agree on every point of interpretation on all Bible texts.
But she also emphasized that we should seek unity of understanding when it comes to essential Adventist beliefs (see Ellen G. White, Counsels to Writers and Editors, pp. 28–32). This week we look at some essential biblical teachings that make us Adventists and that shape our unity in faith.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, November 24.
Although as Seventh-day Adventists we have much in common with other Christian bodies, our set of beliefs form a unique system of biblical truth that no one else in the Christian world is proclaiming. These truths help define us as God’s end-time remnant.
The apostle Paul told the Corinthians that the good news is “that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself ” (2 Cor. 5:19, NKJV). Christ’s death is the means of our reconciliation with the Father, bridging the chasm left by sin and death. For centuries, Christians have pondered the meaning of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and the reconciliation He came to accomplish. This process of reconciliation has been termed atonement, an old English word that originally meant “at-onement.” This is a state of being “at one,” or in agreement. Accordingly, atonement denotes harmony in a relationship, and when there has been estrangement, this harmony would be the result of reconciliation. Church unity is thus a gift of this reconciliation.
Though we hold this belief in Christ’s death and resurrection in common with many other Christian bodies, we proclaim it in the context of the “everlasting gospel” (Rev. 14:6), part of the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14:6–12. As Seventh-day Adventists, we place an emphasis on these messages that no other Christian body does.
How can you learn to keep before you at all times the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection and the hope that it offers?
The apostles and early Christians considered Christ’s return “the blessed hope” (Titus 2:13, NKJV), and they expected all the prophecies and promises of Scripture to be fulfilled at the Second Advent. Seventhday Adventists still hold firmly to this conviction. In fact, our name, “Adventist,” states it unequivocally. All who love Christ look forward with anticipation to the day they will be able to share face-to-face fellowship with Him. Until that day, the promise of the second coming of Christ exerts a unifying influence on us as God’s people.
The Bible repeatedly assures us that Jesus will come again to claim His redeemed people. When this event will happen should not be a matter of speculation, because Jesus Himself stated, “ ‘But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only’ ” (Matt. 24:36, NKJV). Not only do we not know when Christ is coming back, we have been told that we do not know.
At the end of His ministry, Jesus told the parable of the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1–13) in order to illustrate the experience of the church as it awaits His second coming. The two groups of virgins represent two types of believers who profess to be waiting for Jesus. Superficially, these two groups appear to be alike; but when Jesus’ coming is delayed, the real difference between them becomes obvious. One group, in spite of the delay, had kept its hope alive and had made the adequate spiritual preparation. By this parable Jesus wished to teach His disciples that the Christian experience is to be based not on emotional excitement or enthusiasm but on a continuous reliance on the grace of God and perseverance in faith even when there is no tangible evidence of the fulfillment of God’s promises. Jesus invites us still today to “watch” and be ready at any time for His coming.
In the Old Testament, God instructed Moses to build a tabernacle, or sanctuary, to serve as His “dwelling” here on earth (Exod. 25:8). Through its services, the sanctuary is where the people of Israel were taught the plan of salvation. Later, in the time of King Solomon, the portable tabernacle was replaced by a magnificent temple (1 Kings 5–8). Both the tabernacle and temple were patterned after the heavenly sanctuary, “the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man” (Heb. 8:2, NKJV; see also Exod. 25:9, 40).
Throughout the Bible, it is assumed that there is a heavenly sanctuary, serving as the primary dwelling place of God. The earthly sanctuary services were “miniprophecies” of the plan of salvation and of Jesus’ priestly ministry in heaven.
Since His ascension, the heavenly sanctuary is the place where Christ conducts His priestly ministry for our salvation (see Heb. 7:25). Therefore, we are encouraged to “come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16, NKJV).
As the earthly tabernacle had two phases of priestly ministry— first, on a daily basis in the Holy Place and then once a year in the Most Holy Place—the Scriptures also describe these two phases of Jesus’ ministry in heaven. His ministry in the Holy Place in heaven is characterized by intercession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. Repentant sinners have immediate access to the Father through Jesus the Mediator (1 John 2:1). Since 1844, Jesus’ ministry in the Most Holy Place deals with the aspects of judgment and cleansing that were done once a year on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). The ministry of cleansing the sanctuary also is based on Jesus’ shed blood. The atonement performed on this day foreshadowed the final application of the merits of Christ to remove the presence of sin and to accomplish the complete reconciliation of the universe into one harmonious government under God. The doctrine of this two-phase ministry is a unique Adventist contribution to the understanding of the entire plan of salvation.
Another crucial biblical teaching that Seventh-day Adventists believe and uphold is the seventh-day Sabbath. This is a key doctrine that brings unity and fellowship among us. It is one that, with very few exceptions in Christendom, we alone follow.
The Sabbath is God’s gift to humanity right from the Creation week itself (Gen. 2:1–3). At Creation, three distinctive divine acts established the Sabbath: (1) God rested on the Sabbath, (2) He blessed the day, and (3) He sanctified it. These three actions instituted the Sabbath as God’s special gift, enabling the human race to experience the reality of heaven on earth and to affirm God’s six-day Creation. A well-known rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, has called the Sabbath “a palace in time,” a holy day when God meets with His people in a special way.
In our desire to follow Jesus’ example (Luke 4:16), Seventh-day Adventists observe the seventh-day Sabbath. Jesus’ participation in Sabbath services reveals that He endorsed it as a day of rest and worship. Some of His miracles were done on the Sabbath in order to teach the dimension of healing (both physical and spiritual) that comes from the celebration of the Sabbath (see Luke 13:10–17). The apostles and early Christians understood that Jesus had not abolished the Sabbath; they themselves kept it as well and attended worship on that day (Acts 13:14, 42, 44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4).
Another beautiful dimension of the Sabbath is its sign of our deliverance from sin. The Sabbath is the memorial of God’s salvation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt to the rest He promised in the land of Canaan (Deut. 5:12–15). Despite the failure of Israel to enter fully into this rest because of their repeated disobedience and idolatry, God still promises that “there remains therefore a rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9, NKJV). All who desire to enter into that rest can enter it by faith in the salvation Jesus provides. The observance of the Sabbath symbolizes this spiritual rest in Christ and that we rely only on His merits, and not works, to save us from sin and to give us eternal life. (See Heb. 4:10, Matt. 11:28–30.)
At Creation, “God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7, NKJV). This account of the creation of humanity reveals that life derives from God. Is immortality an intrinsic aspect of this life? The Bible tells us that only God is immortal (1 Tim. 6:16); immortality is not given to humans at birth. In contrast to God, human beings are mortal. Scripture compares our lives with “a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14, NKJV), and at death our lives enter a sleeplike state in which there is no consciousness. (See Eccl. 9:5, 6, 10; Ps. 146:4; Ps. 115:17; John 11:11–15.)
Although people are born mortal and subject to death, the Bible speaks of Jesus Christ as the source of immortality and tells us that He gives the promise of immortality and eternal life to all those who believe in His salvation. “The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23, NKJV). Jesus “has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10, NKJV). “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, NKJV). So, there is hope of life after death.
The apostle Paul makes it clear that God bestows immortality upon people, not at the moment of death, but rather at the resurrection, when the last trumpet will sound. While believers receive the promise of eternal life at the moment they accept Jesus as their Savior, immortality is given only at the resurrection. The New Testament knows nothing of the idea of souls going off to heaven immediately at death; this teaching has its roots in paganism, going back to the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, and is not found in either the Old or New Testament.
Further Thought: Ellen G. White, “The Foundations, Pillars, and Landmarks,” pp. 28–32, in Counsels to Writers and Editors. Read the article “Doctrines, Importance of,” pp. 778, 779, in The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia.
As Seventh-day Adventists we do share important beliefs in common with some other Christian bodies. The central one, of course, is belief in salvation by faith alone through the atoning and substitutionary death of Jesus. We, along with other Christians, believe that our righteousness is found, not in our own works, but in Christ’s righteousness, which is credited to us by faith, an unmerited gift of grace. Or, as Ellen G. White famously wrote: “Christ was treated as we deserve, that we might be treated as He deserves. He was condemned for our sins, in which He had no share, that we might be justified by His righteousness, in which we had no share. He suffered the death which was ours, that we might receive the life which was His.”—The Desire of Ages, p. 25. At the same time, taken as a whole, our set of fundamental beliefs, and the practices and lifestyle that emerge from those beliefs, make us unique among the Christian world. That’s the way it should be, too; if not, why even exist, at least as Seventh-day Adventists? Our love of Jesus and the teachings we proclaim should be the most powerful uniting factors among us.
Summary: Seventh-day Adventists hold in common many fundamental beliefs. Some we hold in common with other Christians; others not. Taken as a whole, these teachings form our identity as a distinct church and are the foundation of our unity in Jesus.