As a child, whenever I heard the hymn “Amazing Grace,” I wondered who Grace was and why she was so amazing. You may laugh, but even as a teenager, while singing this same hymn, I’d usually point to one of my friends and jokingly change the lyrics to, “…that saved a wretch like you!” I always believed in God, and I knew Jesus died for me; I just didn’t realize how much I needed saving. I thought that I was a pretty “good” person—I didn’t lie, steal, murder, or commit any other major sin. I thought sin was just something one did occasionally…not a chronic human condition.
My parents enrolled me in the Seventh-day Adventist school system, even though they didn’t fully believe the teachings of Ellen White. They had read many of the books and historical documents exposing her plagiarism and criticizing the doctrines of the early Adventist movement (such as the investigative judgment). Even so, my parents were uncomfortable letting go of their Adventist heritage and the concept of Sabbath-keeping, which seemed to them to be the one thing that Adventism had gotten right. I was taught many Adventist beliefs at school, but my family rarely went to church together. The end result was that I felt I had all the right doctrines and that I was lucky to be in the “remnant church”, yet I could not have told you what Ephesians was about, or whether the book of Hebrews was in the Old or New Testament! I would tell others that I believed the Sabbath was the correct day of worship, but I never truly kept it. I was no better than the whitewashed tombs in Matthew 23:27, “…which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.”
After college, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the film industry. I began attending a nearby Adventist church for the sake of making friends, even though I knew through what my parents had shared with me that the Adventist church had some incorrect teachings. Initially I became quite involved, but because I did not believe Ellen White was a true prophetess, one of the 28 fundamental beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist church, I couldn’t be baptized; hence, I hit a glass ceiling in my ability to participate in ministry. After a while I became frustrated and drifted away from church. I was too afraid to go to a non-Adventist church that worshiped on Sunday and thought it would be better not to go at all! Without realizing it, I gradually put God out of my mind, an attitude which opened the door for me to pursue my own selfish desires.
Holy Spirit at work
It didn’t take long in the amoral, materialistic world of Hollywood for me to hit a low point and realize I was broken, lost, alone, and spiritually dead. It was then, when I was 26, that the Holy Spirit revealed to me my wicked, selfish, and prideful nature—not a nature that had developed because I had left church, or because I had committed any certain sin, but the nature that was always and is always there. I better understood what Jesus meant in Luke 7:47 when He said, “…he who is forgiven little, loves little.” I saw that I had easily slipped away from loving God and Jesus because I had not realized how much I needed forgiving. For the first time, I found myself completely humbled before God. I realized my need for a Savior. I repented and prayed that God would help me learn more about him. I didn’t yet understand exactly how forgiveness and salvation worked, or just exactly how I was supposed to follow Jesus, but I wanted to learn.
I knew from my past experience that I couldn’t fully commit to the Adventist church. I didn’t want anything holding me back in my faith, so even though it felt wrong to go to church on Sunday, I desperately wanted to hear what other Christians believed. My roommate at the time invited me to Grace Community Church in Sun Valley. I felt comfortable there because, culturally, this church reminded me of my conservative upbringing. They sang traditional hymns and everyone dressed up on Sunday. However, the doctrines that John MacArthur and the other pastors taught each week at first unnerved me…and rightly so! Even though I knew in my heart that I was sinful, I didn’t want to be reminded of it every week. If what I was being taught at this new church was true, that “all our righteousness is as filthy rags” (Is. 64:6), I would not be able to correct my sinful nature on my own. The seemingly paradoxical relationship between faith and works still eluded me. The Bible calls us to “sin no more” (Jn. 5:14) and to do good works (Jas. 2:14). I didn’t understand what it meant to live a life of faith filled with the fruit of the Spirit, with complete dependence on and trust in God. Surely for God to forgive my wicked heart—I needed to do something extraordinary for Him, something way above and beyond all comprehension, a task which seemed impossible.
Accompanying all of this inner turmoil, I was struggling as the only “ex-Adventist” I could find at this church (though there were a couple former members of the Worldwide Church of God to whom I could relate). Pork seemed to be the primary dish at every event. Even the salads had meat in them, leaving me quite hungry. I would proudly tell my new friends that I was a vegetarian and had never eaten meat in my entire life, while ravenously scarfing down breadsticks. They would gawk at me wide-eyed and slack-jawed, as if it was a miracle I had not wasted away from malnourishment. No one understood where I was coming from or why I was struggling with certain doctrines. I was not used to expository preaching and was surprised to realize that I didn’t know the Bible as well as I thought I did. In any given sermon it was not uncommon for the pastor to reference a dozen different passages of Scripture. Everyone brought their Bibles and quickly flipped to the verses. I could not keep up and was embarrassed to admit that aside from the Pentateuch, the four gospels, and Revelation, I had a poor understanding of how the Bible was structured! I quickly memorized the canon of Scripture from the table of contents just so I wouldn’t appear ignorant. This accomplishment made me feel good for a while until one Sunday morning a girl asked me if my Bible was new. It wasn’t. I realized later she must have thought this because not a page was ruffled nor a verse underlined, and I probably hadn’t taken it out of its box more than ten times in ten years!
After a few months I learned what “other Christians” believed, and I was shocked that there were far more differences than I had initially imagined between mainstream Christianity and Adventism. I became involved with theological debates, after which I would read the Bible for myself, attempting to prove them wrong. During this time, I was learning more about how to study the Bible than I realized.
Every day for the Lord
Over several months I came to understand and believe these new doctrines, but I couldn’t figure out why such a zealous group of Christians didn’t keep the fourth commandment. How could they be deluded on this one important doctrine? Eventually I began to notice that they were not “Sunday keepers” but devoted every day to the Lord. No matter when I visited the church campus, the parking lot was filled with cars. There were small groups, ministry opportunities, and Bible studies happening all week long. These people spent Saturday afternoons doing street evangelism, visiting shut-ins or nursing homes, studying their Bibles and cleaning the church’s missionary houses. Sunday was filled with Sunday school, the main church service, and fellowship over lunch followed by going back to church in the evening to hear an entirely different sermon. These Christians were eagerly feeding themselves with fellowship and the word of God as often as possible. A better way of stating it would be to say that they didn’t simply give one day to the Lord—they gave their whole lives. Suddenly the idea of keeping the Sabbath just one day a week seemed painfully inferior.
Even though I was making new friends and learning tons about the Bible, it was tough realizing that I was stepping farther and farther from my Adventist roots. If I could no longer be Adventist, I felt that I would no longer be “special”. I decided to go back and study every Adventist doctrine in hopes of salvaging some part of my cultural and religious heritage. I wanted to understand thoroughly what Adventists believed and the historical basis of those beliefs. Because I had been reading the New Testament epistles and had learned how to study Bible verses contextually, I was shocked at how incorrect Adventist teachings now seemed. Many Bible verses the Adventist church uses to support its doctrines I now realized mean the exact opposite when read in context.
For me, the final blow to Adventism came upon finding a book in my parents’ library entitled Sabbath in Crisis, by Dale Ratzlaff (now Sabbath in Christ). There was an illustration in the book that looked like a bulls-eye. In the center was the 5th commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”, representing the written commands of the Old Covenant, and in the outermost circle were the words “Love your enemies,” representing God’s true standard, which encompasses a much broader spectrum of moral behavior. Jesus outlines this new, far more demanding covenant in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7). I suddenly realized that the Decalogue was not God’s ultimate moral law, but just a bare-bones civil code. As G.K. Chesterton puts it in Orthodoxy, “The Ten Commandments which have been found substantially common to mankind were merely military commands; a code of regimental orders, issued to protect a certain ark across a certain desert.”
In other words, “Don’t kill each other!” is something a mother might yell at her hooligan sons as they run into the back yard to play, or in the Bible’s case, something God commands a group of unruly, stiff-necked people just freed from the bondage of Egypt.
When I was Adventist, so much of the teaching I heard was about what set Adventists apart from other Christians—Sabbath-keeping, annihilationism, Revelation seminars, the state of the dead—it was easy for talk of these doctrines to overshadow the gospel. I finally realized that it wasn’t assenting to the “right” set of beliefs that saves, but having faith in Jesus! It is true that the fruit of this faith is good works, but the works are just a product of our faith. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). As an Adventist I had put the Ten Commandments on a pedestal, practically idolizing them. Now I can see plainly how all of the Old Covenant laws and rituals foreshadow Christ (Col. 2). Our Sabbath rest truly is in him (Mt. 11:28).
After six months at Grace Community church and coming to the above realizations about Adventism, it happened one evening that I was reading the Bible (which up until that point had been nothing but a static, ancient text from which I had derived a system of beliefs) when suddenly it was as if the words leapt off the page. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). I can’t help but think that is when I was sealed by the Holy Spirit. I called a friend and cried on the phone for over an hour. I cried for the time I had wasted, for my wretchedness. I repented for my pride and stubbornness. I believe that this was the precise moment of my salvation. Even though I have considered myself a Christian my whole life—this is the moment I finally let go and felt the total freedom in and gratitude for what Christ fulfilled on the cross for me. I have been humbled upon realizing my true sinful nature and helplessness; I have broken God’s law and cannot save myself, even if I try my utmost. Thankfully, however, I now can proclaim, along with Paul in Romans 7:24-25, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Christ died on the cross for my sins and is my Lord and Savior. Galatians 6:14 says, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” I now can live like Abraham, with complete faith in, obedience towards, and dependence upon God. I am still growing and, of course, making mistakes. However, I am learning more about Him every day through prayer, fellowship, and continual study. I live in the freedom of knowing that in Christ, I have been completely forgiven. Today, when I sing “Amazing Grace”, I can barely make it all the way through without crying. I know that I was lost, but now am found! †
Copyright 2014 Life Assurance Ministries, Inc., Camp Verde, Arizona, USA. All rights reserved. Revised March 5, 2014. Contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lisa (Gilbert) Winn graduated from Adventism’s Pacific Union College in 2002 with a B.S. in graphic design. After college she moved to North Hollywood, California, where she worked as a video editor. She was baptized at Grace Community Church on February 10, 2007, and later met her husband, Jonathan Winn, at Calvary Bible Church in Burbank. Lisa now lives in Yucaipa, California, with her husband and their new baby boy, Daniel. They are currently members of Trinity Church in Redlands.
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VOLUME 14, ISSUE 4