One of the most foundational of our distinctive Seventh-day Adventist beliefs, based directly on Scripture, is the belief in freedom of choice. Freedom of choice is really the central theme of the great controversy between good and evil. It reaches far back to before the beginning of time. God’s system of government has always been based on His character; after all, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Any obedience that stems from force or fear is contrary to God’s principles. The devil attacked the foundation of God’s system of government by claiming that no one worships God out of love, only out of fear. So God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, providing human beings freedom of choice—the choice to obey Him or not.
After our first parents were enticed into choosing Satan’s rulership, they, in effect, lost their power of choice. There was no way back to the perfect state of loving obedience to God. The initiative had to come from outside. God had a solution. Before the creation of the earth God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit had formulated the plan of salvation, in which Jesus would take our place. So Christ came to this earth and lived a life of loving obedience to His Father, refuting Satan’s claim that God’s law of love could not be obeyed. He then died for us and paid the price for our sins that we may once again have the power of choice.
Christ’s work for our salvation did not end with His death on the cross. He is interceding for us now in the Most Holy Place in the heavenly sanctuary. The investigative judgment begun in 1844 (Dan. 8:14) revolves largely around choices, as the records of each individual’s choice for or against God is being made public.
The Heart Must Be in It
This is why Seventh-day Adventists vigorously promote the protection of the religious rights of any person. We want to protect the right of every person to make a decision for God. Of course, we do not want to protect inappropriate things that are completely against God’s law, but we want everyone to be able to have the choice of believing in a loving and powerful God who has provided salvation for each of us. While we wish everyone would know and love the God of Scripture, we don’t force this on anyone. Forcing someone to do even right things goes against God’s will and plays into Satan’s lie about God. God must be obeyed out of love. This is the essence of religious liberty.
In most places people generally think that freedom to worship is a good thing. Most would say that they believe in religious liberty. When visiting various countries in which freedom of conscience is allowed, I thank government officials for the religious freedom provided to their citizens, indicating that this principle is the foundation of a strong society and nation. But the application of this principle is often very different.
In some places where no religious emphasis was allowed in the past, the political scene has changed, only to be replaced by a dominant religion that may be hostile to other religions. It appears that some people want religious liberty for themselves but not for others. This selective application of religious freedom is something that Seventh-day Adventists must guard against and never be guilty of, even as we grow numerically and in influence.
As we look back in history, we can see that whenever religion and politics are closely united, there is a potential for abuse. Often when predominant religious organizations have access to social and political leverage, there is the potential for diminishing personal freedoms for those who may not be in the majority. This is why it’s important that Seventh-day Adventists worldwide constantly take the initiative to familiarize local and national governments, civic leaders, other religious organizations, and business leaders with the beliefs we have and the need for religious liberty.
This must go further than just a list of beliefs, and must include our approach to life as advocates of freedom of conscience. When people get a better picture of who Seventh-day Adventists are, governments, other religious organizations, and leaders in various areas of activity will be able to see that Seventh-day Adventists are not some strange, dissonant group, but are people who have the welfare of humanity at heart, and that we are committed to building up society and the nation. In this way our plea for religious freedom will be far better understood and received.
Knowing Who We Are
The Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department (PARL) of the General Conference produces excellent materials and works diligently to raise awareness of the issue of religious freedom worldwide by influencing thought leaders. However, this is not enough. We need every Seventh-day Adventist to understand, become involved in, and promote the issue of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. We all have to communicate our understanding that life is an all-encompassing gift, created by God, involving the physical, mental, social, and spiritual facets of our lives.
Of all people on this earth, Seventh-day Adventists should be the friendliest and most proactive in demonstrating who we are, what we are, what we stand for, and how we can help build positive societies. Wherever we are we must look for opportunities to associate with people while not giving up our distinctive beliefs in any way. While we don’t believe in ecumenism, we must look for opportunities to work with people in helping them make good choices. As we make friends we will be asked to explain our distinctive beliefs and lifestyle choices. This will provide us with opportunities to explain ourselves, and help people to know who we are and why we are such advocates of religious liberty.
We will have the opportunity to share our faith personally and to share Christian literature, including the wonderful book The Great Controversy, which its author, Ellen White, indicated she wished to have more widely circulated than any of her other books. This particular book dramatically shows the importance of religious liberty and the need to make right choices in following God. Why not reread this book this year in preparation for a wonderful worldwide distribution program in 2012 and 2013?
Even in places where religious freedom is practiced there is always the threat of losing what is not valued and appreciated. This is why constant vigilance is the price of religious freedom. Religious liberty is not just peculiar to Seventh-day Adventists—it is something that Seventh-day Adventists are uniquely qualified to champion for the world at large.
Showing Who We Are
A friend of mine had a sign that stated, “Preach the Gospel Always—When Necessary, Use Words.” Being a Seventh-day Adventist goes so much further than just a set of beliefs or a chosen lifestyle. Ultimately it is about our personal relationship with God and our treatment of others. It is about the choices we make that ultimately place us completely in God’s hands as we allow Him to work in us through the Holy Spirit. We must clearly understand that we are saved by grace, and are completely dependent and indebted to a loving and powerful God who not only created us but redeemed us. When this happens, our lives will not take on a mechanistic, legalistic approach to our faith. Rather, our lives will take on a dynamic that is Spirit-filled because of our gratefulness and complete surrender to God.
There’s a saying: “There is more religion in a loaf of bread than one might think.” When we share a loaf of bread with a neighbor, or help someone with some basic needs, someone in prison, someone who is having trouble in their own home or marriage—wherever it might be, when we are actually helping people, that is where we are powerfully telling the world who Seventh-day Adventists are.
Even while we champion religious freedom we know from prophecy that at some time in the future a number of factors will come together that will begin to curtail freedom of conscience all over the world. However, we should still be optimistic about the future, because we know the end of the story. The Bible assures us of the prophetic destiny for God’s people. When I read books like The Great Controversy, I know that God’s church will go through to the end, and that God has His hand over His church.
As we guard and champion the precious gift of religious liberty let us use the freedom to point people to the Originator of choice, a loving and wonderful God.
Ted N. C. Wilson is president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.