When I was growing up, I loved singing “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God” along with a record of the Gaither Trio. I had been born into a large family—the global Seventh-day
Adventist Church—and I considered myself part of the family of God on the basis of my status as a member of the remnant church. As I understood it, the SDA Church had been identified in
prophecy as keeping the commandments of God and having the testimony of Jesus (Rev. 12:17). The testimony of Jesus was identified as the Spirit of Prophecy (Rev. 19:10), which in turn was
interpreted as the writings of Ellen G. White, prophetess of the SDA Church.
I was born to an SDA family serving as missionaries in South America. Spiritual things were our priority. Due to the strong religious emphasis, one of my first words was Jesus.
My parents seized the opportunity of a visit from Elder Robert Pierson, President of the General Conference, to have me dedicated by the highest authority the church could offer. They were
probably even more delighted to allow Del Delker, a singer who was something like Adventist royalty, to hold me. I’m grateful to my parents that I was immersed in Bible stories from the
beginning of my life.
I loved being an Adventist because I believed Adventists were special to God because we observed His Sabbath day and received a special blessing as a result. I firmly believed that all true
Christians would give up their Sunday services and join God’s people in keeping the true Sabbath, which represented the ultimate test of allegiance to God. Because I was already worshiping on
the seventh day, I felt like a student who has read the teacher’s syllabus and discovered the only question on the final exam—a final exam that is worth one hundred percent of the grade. Pass
or fail. Like many other Adventists, I was bewildered to discover that my fellow “students” refused to accept the identification of the vital question. Instead, they kept talking about
grace and faith, as if the Teacher would really pass students who simply trust His goodness. Yes, He is merciful, but isn’t He also just? Doesn’t His law contain standards that must be
met, and isn’t His Sabbath the ultimate standard separating those who follow the easy way from those who sacrifice worldly approval, bearing the Sabbath (and the related rules) as their spiritual
“cross” (see Matt. 10:38)?
Ironically, I wasn’t sure if the Gaithers were really part of that family about which they sang so beautifully. They obviously didn’t keep all the commandments of God because they went to
church on Sunday. I took comfort in the fact that the Holy Spirit was still striving with them, but I well knew they might end up as part of a posse hunting down God’s remnant during the time
of trouble (Adventists expect believers to endure the tribulation along with the ungodly). SDAs have a great sense of separation from other believers because Ellen White taught that Protestants
and Catholics will unite with the Dragon to persecute the remnant for not keeping Sunday sacred.
I was delighted to be part of the remnant, and I felt so blessed to know the question on the final test, but there was a catch: could I actually produce the perfect answer when the testing time
arrived? I was arguably keeping the letter of the fourth commandment, but I was miserably failing to keep the spirit, and I was failing to keep the additional Sabbath requirements identified by
Ellen White. For instance, Ellen White was against eating a big meal after church, and she opposed the nap that generally resulted from generous portions of delicious food, going so far as to
assert that excessive napping constituted a breaking of the Sabbath. Adventists jokingly referred to the Sabbath nap as “lay activities” (SDA services sometimes featured a lay activities
report, but because of the joke, it was changed to the personal ministries report). I wasn’t sure if God thought lay activities was funny. In addition, I recognized that most Adventists
spent Sabbath discussing secular things and quietly wondering about the college football scores. Was our Sabbath-keeping going to do us any good in the end, or would we be numbered among the
self-righteous goats (see Matt. 25:31-46)?
It’s ironic that Seventh-day Adventists are fixated on the exact timing of sundown on Saturday night. Most don’t keep the spirit of the Sabbath, so it’s a relief when it finally ends. Of
course, it’s taboo to make such an admission. In fact, the last time I said it was when I was four years old. Mom had purchased a coloring book for me during our Friday shopping
trip. I hadn’t been allowed to color during the Sabbath hours because it wasn’t a “Jesus book,” so I was eagerly awaiting sundown. My parents finally declared that not only had sundown
arrived, but sufficient additional time had passed so that we had “guarded the edges of the Sabbath,” as Mrs. White had commanded. I was so excited! “I can color—I can color!” Some
birds were singing in the dusky evening, and I imprudently blurted, “See, even the birds are happy Sabbath is over!” My coloring book was taken away, and I learned a crucial lesson: think what you
want, but keep quiet about it! But would keeping quiet pass muster with God?
One experience during my childhood was particularly memorable to my mother, and I still consider it significant. Eyeing a picture of Jesus on the cross, I suddenly blurted, “Why?” and I
believe that God has been answering that question in my spirit ever since. While the Gaithers could sing, “I’ve been washed in the fountain, cleansed by His blood,” I wasn’t certain as an
Adventist. Was I really saved? Ellen White had forbidden us to say, “I am saved,” and I was always iffy on that point. I wanted to say it (“I’m saved” sounds so confident, so
spiritual), but I just wasn’t sure, so I would say, “I believe I’m saved.” That sounds good, but it really means, “I have reason to hope I will be saved after passing the final test.” Due
to spiritual insecurity, Adventists generally don’t refer to themselves as “born again,” probably because a person spiritually born again would have assurance of salvation. After all, they
can’t be unborn.
I didn’t have the assurance I secretly craved. In addition to knowing that my Sabbath-keeping was deeply flawed, I also recognized that the Sabbath is symbolic of one’s relationship with
God, and I knew I had problems in that area, too. Mrs. White teaches that the remnant must prove to the onlooking universe that God’s law can be kept by redeemed human beings. Therefore,
Christ tests His people by ending His intercession before God’s throne, and the righteous must then go it alone as Jacob did when he wrestled with God (see The Great Controversy, pp.
613-23). During this time, the people of God must be morally perfect. There is no mediator to cover any failure. I knew I didn’t have a perfect relationship with God, and that God
could not complete the work of character perfection unless I trusted Him perfectly. All my Sabbath observance had failed to make a difference. Even though I thought I knew the final
question, I knew I couldn’t pass the test unless God showed much more mercy than I anticipated.
During my four years at an Adventist academy, I was blessed to have a brilliant and godly Bible teacher who became a spiritual father to me. I’ll always be grateful to God for sending this
man to mentor me during a vital period of my life. He always encouraged me to think critically about spiritual things, and he presented a winsome picture of God’s gracious character. A
new universe opened for me. During my freshman year, I remember asking, “What do we have to do to be saved?” I don’t remember exactly which text my teacher cited, but it was something
similar to 1 John 5:12: “He that hath the Son hath life . . . .” On the basis of scripture, he said that we have assurance of eternal life now if we believe in
Christ. It sounded too good to be true, but I saw it in the Bible!
My mother and I soon began attending the Bible teacher’s Wednesday night Bible study covering a book of the Bible each week. Mom came because she was afraid the teacher was undermining our
traditional doctrines, but she soon fell in love with the God of scripture who seeks thoughtful relationships with human beings to whom He extends the ultimate freedom to misrepresent His character
and even to reject Him. When reading the Bible, we learned to ask, “What does this passage teach us about the character of God?” We were delighted to discover that even the difficult
passages reveal the astounding goodness of God when properly understood. God’s mercy is just and His justice is merciful. My Bible teacher was a strong supporter of Ellen White’s inspiration,
but he didn’t take a strict conservative approach to her writings. He emphasized the devotional insights contained in her books without stressing character perfection and living without a
mediator. So, I put those questions from my mind and rejoiced that I had discovered a loving God who encouraged me to ask questions, and who delighted in providing answers.
My Bible teacher’s spiritual mentor was Graham Maxwell, a prominent, though controversial, Adventist theologian. Maxwell calls his understanding of God’s character “the larger view,” and
while Dr. Maxwell is a very gracious and humble man, some of his followers can get a little puffed up about having the larger view. The larger view is a gentle re-interpretation of traditional
Adventist theology regarding the atonement, the wrath of God, and the ministry of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary. As a young person, I definitely benefited from a theology that removed some
of the rough edges of Adventism and ignored the perfectionism, but from my mature perspective, I can see that a re-interpretation of doctrines that are not biblical only serves to perpetuate those
doctrines in the minds of many. (It’s interesting to note that whenever Adventism is challenged by evangelicals, the church sends out liberals to answer the questions, resulting in a somewhat
skewed view of Adventism among many Christians.) Evangelical and liberal Adventists need to understand that a house built on sand must eventually crumble, and the unbiblical teachings of Ellen
White are the sand beneath the theological edifice of Adventism. Even so, I remain grateful to my thoughtful mentors in Adventism who taught me to question church dogma and appreciate the
goodness of God, ultimately enabling me to identify and reject the legalism of Ellen White.
As a larger-view Adventist, I felt quite important because I possessed truths not even understood by most of the remnant. My spiritual life suffered from my big-headedness. I came to
believe that not only did I have the Sabbath, but I also had an inside-track theological system that made me a special friend of God. Surely God would approve of me. After all, didn’t He
need me to help spread this message which would re-interpret Adventism and pave the way for the real issues in the great controversy to be fully understood so that Christ could come? (The
larger view de-emphasizes perfection, insisting that the remnant will vindicate God by representing His true character to the world). I felt very important, but I also knew that my spiritual
life was stagnant. In my quiet moments, I still felt ill at ease regarding my eternal destiny. I couldn’t understand how I could be blessed with so much truth and yet feel so lost, but I
After graduation from academy, I enrolled in the theology program at an SDA university, intending to become a minister. After four years of theological studies, I recognized that my
spiritual life had sharply declined from where it had been during those academy days when I had immersed myself in an exploration of the character of God. I was an empty sepulcher. I had
no business becoming a minister. Even though I bore the responsibility for my spiritual situation, I was angry with God for the necessary shift in my career plans. During my fifth year at
the university, I completed a history major to go along with my religion degree. After graduation, I transferred to another SDA college where I earned a degree in English and completed the
requirements for teacher certification. But I’m getting ahead of myself, because the Holy Spirit had a surprise for me along the way to becoming a teacher.
I’ve already mentioned Ellen G. White, whose writings are considered the Spirit of Prophecy. Because SDAs commonly refer to the prophetess as Sister White, I’m reminded again of the Gaithers
singing, “You will notice we say brother and sister ‘round here . . . .” In reality, Ellen White is the spiritual mother of the Adventist family, and I mean that respectfully because she had a
profound impact on my life—both good and bad. Before I graduated from the SDA college, I decided to read Prophetess of Health, by
Dr. Ronald Numbers, a former Adventist. Prophetess of Health approached the health teachings of Ellen White from the standpoint of a careful historian rather than from the perspective
of someone determined to promote faith in Ellen White. The book had caused quite a stir among Adventists because of the questions it raised regarding Ellen White’s inspiration. I believed
the larger view would answer the questions raised by Dr. Numbers, but I was shocked by what I discovered. I was so stunned that I even read many of the endnotes trying to determine whether
Numbers was being deceitful. But I couldn’t disprove his points. I turned to a book published by the Ellen G. White Estate entitled A Critique of Prophetess of Health, which
basically confirmed the history presented by Dr. Numbers while failing to answer the theological questions to my satisfaction. I continued researching the issues surrounding Ellen White’s
inspiration, but no one seemed to have answers that would satisfy. I gave up belief in Ellen White and dropped out of college.
I had suffered from suicidal depression for several years, and I was now in a great crisis because the spiritual underpinnings that had kept me going in the face of emotional struggles were
crumbling. Feeling utterly alone, I suffered a panic attack that lasted for more than two weeks. It would subside when I was with people, returning whenever I was alone. I knew I
was being irrational, but I couldn’t see my way through. I gave up early one morning and decided to end the pain. I knew how I intended to die, and I vowed this would be my last
day. I went back to sleep expecting more of the terrifying dreams to which I had become accustomed. Instead, I had a dream about success. I couldn’t recall the details, but I knew
that I had overcome great difficulty in the dream, and I said, “This is a sign from God. I’m supposed to live.”
My spiritual questions remained unanswered, but after several months of confusion, I decided to return to college and to recommit to belief in Ellen White. In particular, I strongly believed
the other SDA doctrines and even accepted the investigative judgment (based on Maxwell’s re-interpretation), and I asked myself, “How could Ellen White be a false prophet if her doctrines are all
biblical?” Several years before, I had read the book Inspiration, by an Adventist theologian named Alden Thompson. I decided to accept Dr. Thompson’s perspective regarding the
prophetic experience. I came to believe that prophets grow in their understanding of God’s truth, and that prophets may misunderstand their messages, resulting in the need for adjustments in
the inspired material. I accepted Ellen White’s messages as inspired but fallible in the human element. I believed that because prophets use their own words to describe the inspired
message, some errors will result. I also accepted the argument that prophetic fulfillment is often conditional upon obedience (or lack thereof), and I used this rationalization to excuse Ellen
White’s failed predictions. With my twin rationalizations—that prophets can misunderstand their messages and that the fulfillment of their prophecies is highly conditional—I decided that no one
would ever shake my faith in Ellen White again. I didn’t reckon with the Lord, though. He is so faithful.
After graduation, I began teaching at an Adventist academy, married Jennifer, and settled down to have a quiet life serving the Lord. I still wondered if I was saved, but I was so busy that
I had few quiet moments for reflection. I decided that I had just as good a chance at salvation as anyone, and I hoped the Lord would guide me. After I had spent several years teaching
courses in English, history, and Bible, my brother called with a big question. “Joe,” he said, “I remember that at one time you had questions about Ellen White, and then you resolved
them. How?” He proceeded to explain that his wife had been listening to Christian radio, and that the commentator had identified Ellen White as a false prophet. He mentioned a Web
site that would back up his assertion. My sister-in-law felt upset by his disrespect toward Sister White, so she went to the site intending to disprove the allegations. What a shock she
experienced! I began giving my brother my platitudes regarding misunderstandings and conditionality, but I didn’t even manage to convince myself. My wife visited the offending Web site,
and I began round two of my struggle against the Holy Spirit.
I determined to read everything I could from Ellen White in an effort to explain her embarrassing statements, misrepresentations, contradictions, and unfulfilled prophecies. As my reading
progressed, I was shocked by the depths of legalism which I encountered. The perfectionism pervading her books (it can be found in every EGW book, although it is muted in Steps to
Christ) became my top concern. I couldn’t reconcile such utter legalism with the evangelical-influenced theology I had learned from my academy Bible teacher. Trying to solve the
problem, I frantically read approximately thirty Ellen White books, but the questions only intensified.
I was still confused because I believed the doctrines of the SDA Church, and I wondered how Ellen White could have understood the Sabbath and the other doctrines that I loved if not for the
inspiration of God’s Spirit. I was particularly settled on the seventh-day Sabbath, so I was startled when my brother and sister-in-law rejected the Sabbath. I even wrote them a letter
defending the Sabbath (it was more like a small book than a letter). My brother responded to my points, but I couldn’t accept what he was saying. At the same time, I recognized that my
brother and his wife were becoming much more spiritual. I was impressed, but I was also terrified of deception. I decided that the Lord might be leading them on a strange journey, but I
was certain I would lose my salvation if I left the Sabbath. My wife and I sank very low spiritually. Even though we loved our Adventist friends, we could hardly bear attending church
because it seemed so lacking in good news. Our belief in the Sabbath pulled us toward the church while our distrust of Ellen White was pulling us away. Round two with the Holy Spirit
wasn’t going so well….
One Sunday morning, I was suddenly impressed to go to church. I hurriedly dressed and hopped in my car. I didn’t know which church I would attend—I just started driving. This was
the beginning of round three with the Spirit. I walked into a non-denominational church, and the Holy Spirit was there. I tried to sing the songs, but all I could do was cry. I
began attending on Wednesday night as well because I just couldn’t get enough. I was so hungry. After a month and a half, I answered an altar call, but I didn’t even have the faith to go
all the way to the altar. I knelt in the aisle during prayer—not realizing that I was kneeling beside the retired pastor who promptly began praying over me. I repented of my sins,
accepted Christ’s substitutionary atonement on Calvary, and received His righteousness for my filthy rags. “For by one
offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Heb. 10:14).
My wife Jennifer began attending church with me on Sundays. We were still convicted to keep Saturday holy, but we were experiencing the gospel on Sunday. We wondered how the Adventist
Church could have any claim to truth if it couldn’t grasp the gospel. How could we feel the Holy Spirit on Sunday but not on the Sabbath? Jennifer finally decided she needed to research
the Sabbath for herself. I urged her not to, but she persisted, reading Sabbath in
Christ, by former-Adventist pastor Dale Ratzlaff. She cried with joy and relief as the true meaning of the Sabbath became clear. Now my life was really falling apart.
Despite the restriction of Sabbath and the feeling that I couldn’t keep it perfectly, I loved it as a time of rest, and I loved the feeling of having the Sabbath as a special sign of my devotion to
God and my standing with Him. I knew many Adventists who either didn’t believe in Ellen White’s inspiration, or whose belief was so liberal that they simply threw out most of her teachings, but
I didn’t know any Adventists who rejected the Sabbath. Not only was I attached to the Sabbath, but I also loved the SDA Church, the people in the church, and the teenagers I was privileged to
In response to my wife’s venture into “heresy,” I began reading Discovering the New Covenant,
by Greg Taylor, and I was struck hard by Colossians 2:13-17:
I had read this passage before, and I had thought I could explain it away, but Greg’s explanation was irrefutable as the Holy Spirit spoke to me in that moment. I used to argue that only the
ceremonial laws of the Old Testament were nailed to the cross, along with the rabbinical laws. However, the passage speaks about God forgiving “all our trespasses,” which means that the whole
law is referenced here because ceremonial laws wouldn’t identify all sins. Paul then says, “Therefore [because all law has been nailed to the cross] do not let
anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.” Taylor points out that the phrase “festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” is used
repeatedly in scripture, and each time, the word "sabbaths" denotes the weekly Sabbath, not the festival or ceremonial Sabbaths as Adventists claim. Festivals are yearly events, new moons are
monthly, and Sabbaths are weekly, so it follows a logical pattern: year, month, week. Had Paul been constructing the phrase that Adventists would like to see, it would actually say, “festivals,
new moons, and festivals” because the high Sabbaths were festivals. I was stunned. Suddenly, I knew that the weekly seventh-day Sabbath was part of the law that was nailed to the
cross. The word "therefore" ties the phrase about not letting others judge one’s spiritual observances back to Christ’s act of nailing the legal basis of our condemnation to the cross.
“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:1).
I want to tell my Adventist friends that I’m not trying to give you a Bible study on the New Covenant here—I’m just trying to tell the story of Christ’s faithfulness in my life. I don’t
expect you to reject any particular Adventist teaching based on this story, but I do hope to persuade you to examine the evidence regarding Ellen White, the Sabbath, the gospel, and the Investigative
Judgment. Most of all, I hope you will pray for God to lead all of us into truth, letting His will be done.
I left SDA employment after the 2008-09 school year, and Jennifer and I were baptized at a non-denominational church shortly thereafter. Before our baptismal service, I had the opportunity to
give a brief testimony. I’m so happy that a friend videotaped it so that I can share it here verbatim as a tribute to the Lord, who strengthened my feeble faith, and as a thank-you to the godly
people who embraced us when we didn’t even know if we would ever leave the Adventist Church.