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Ellen White on the Humanity of Christ

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II



Chapter Two

What Is Sin?

The question of just how much Jesus can be like sinful humanity (both lost and redeemed) and still be a Saviour for them is crucial as to where we will end up in our understanding of Christ's humanity.

Let's try to get a grip on this issue by posing some more questions: Is there something unique to sinful human nature that makes it tragically different when compared with the human nature of Christ? Is there something special about the human nature of Christ that makes it redemptively different when compared with our own sinful natures? What does Ellen White mean by the word "sin"? Does it apply only to acts, or does it also cover a deeply deranging condition that predisposes to sin? Could Jesus be our Saviour if He had such a deeply deranged condition? And finally, did Ellen White address such questions? In answer to the last question, we can clearly state that she did. It is hoped that her answers to the previous questions will also become clear.

Sin, the Human Condition, and Salvation

Ellen White defined sin as both acts of transgressing the law of God (1SM 320)1 and a condition of depravity that involves "inherent" sinful "propensities," "inclinations," "tendencies," and a "bent" to sin (i.e., inbred or indwelling sin) (5BC 1128, Ed 29, IHP 195).

A quick glance at Appendix A in this volume should immediately alert us to the fact that Ellen White very clearly taught that sin was more


than evil actions contrary to the law of God. Sin certainly involves such acts, but she recognized a more profound and pervasive syndrome called depravity. It is a terribly systemic sickness, a deep-seated infection that produces all sorts of tragic symptoms. The symptoms (wrong acts, evil words, hateful attitudes, and so on) are only the tip of the iceberg called human depravity.

Depravity, Guilt, and Original Sin

Though Ellen White has a clearly stated understanding of infectious depravity, we still must move very carefully in this area. We need to take such deliberate care in accurately expressing her teaching simply because she is hard to categorize in the classic ways that theologians have normally characterized teachings on depravity.

She was certainly not in the Augustinian/Calvinistic tradition of total depravity. Augustine and his admirers (especially in the Calvinistic tradition) considered humans to be so depraved by "original sin" that they were totally unable to choose their eternal destiny. God had to irresistibly elect who was to be saved and who was to be damned. This quite obviously does not fit the thinking of Ellen White.

She was clearly in what we call the Arminian2 or free-will tradition: that is, humans, empowered by the grace of God, were viewed as free to choose. But at the same time Ellen White also explicitly states the reality of sinful depravity and corruption in her writings dealing with the human condition. She clearly spoke of depravity as the natural condition of humans: "We must remember that our hearts are naturally depraved, and we are unable of ourselves to pursue a right course" (IHP 163; cf. 195 and see CT 544).

What seems to concern most Seventh-day Adventists in any discussion of sin is the issue of guilt, especially when someone employs the venerated but theologically loaded expression "original sin." The question is often posed this way: Do we inherit guilt from Adam simply because we are his genetic and spiritual heirs? Are we condemned by God to an eternal death just because God allowed us to come into the world "born in sin"-that is to say, in a sinful condition


In answer to these questions, the thought of Ellen White has some complex aspects that should signal caution in the way we seek to express her response.

She was forthright in declaring that Adam's sin definitely caused his "posterity" to be "born with inherent propensities of disobedience" (5BC 1128). But such expressions as "original sin" (with its Augustinian/Calvinistic overtones) do not quite seem to fit her thinking. On the other hand, the idea that humans come into the world morally neutral (with no natural tendencies one way or the other) or as basically good does not seem to square with her views of sin.3

When we try to come to terms with her understanding of original sin, it seems that she closely approaches the views of the great Arminian preacher John Wesley. Wesley certainly viewed sinners as depraved to the extent that they have no ability to originate a saving experience. But he did not see them as so depraved that they had to be totally subject to a deterministic election on the part of the redeeming God. Sinners are not free to initiate a saving experience, but they are free to accept or reject it. This probably sums up Ellen White's understanding also.

She used "original sin" only once: "At its very source human nature was corrupted. And ever since then sin has continued its hateful work, reaching from mind to mind. Every sin committed awakens echoes of the original sin" (RH, Apr. 16, 1901; cf. 5T 645). Here she was clear that Adam's original sin echoes itself in the corruption of human nature. Again we must state that the part of her thought that is hardest to characterize is not "corruption," "depravity," or "tendencies" ("propensities" and a "bent") to sin, but the issue of guilt.

John Wood has flatly declared that she "rejects the doctrine of original sin" (The Sanctuary and the Atonement 716). Wood, however, is possibly a bit too dogmatic when he declares that "it is a fallen nature, with hereditary tendencies to sin, rather than original guilt, that makes a `sinner"' (ibid.). What, then, are we to make of the following Ellen White statement? "The inheritance of children is that of sin.... As related to the first Adam, men receive from him nothing but guilt and the sentence of death" (CG 475). The passage caused Robert Olson to declare that "we


are born in a state of guilt inherited from Adam" ("Outline Studies" 28). The reader may reasonably question what Ellen White meant when she declared that "men receive from him nothing but guilt."

The best conclusion seems to be that she understood the issue practically rather than theoretically. She was very clear that "selfishness is inwrought in our very being" and that "it has come to us as an inheritance" (HS 138, 139). The central issue, however, was not so much Adam's guilt as it was individual guilt that arises from particular sinful choices. In another setting she made this down-to-earth, commonsense observation: "It is inevitable that children should suffer from the consequences of parental wrongdoing, but they are not punished for the parents' guilt, except as they participate in their sins" (PP 306). The inevitability was then expressed with the realistic observation that "it is usually the case, however, that children walk in the steps of their parents" (ibid.). "As a result of Adam's disobedience every human being is a transgressor of the law, sold under sin" (IHP 146).

Ellen White simply did not feel moved to address the question of the fairness of God in allowing a sinful nature to be passed on to Adam's posterity.4 The thought that God allows humans to be subject to an inheritance that leads inevitably to sinful acts, which result in guilt, simply did not disturb her.

For the servant of the Lord, the issue was a matter of practical realism: humans have "sinful natures," "a bent to evil," "propensities to sin," etc., that lead to sin and guilt. Because of this, sinful humans are responsible before God to do something about their blameworthy condition.

This we see further evidenced in her understanding that babies did not need to be baptized (christened) and that they could be saved, even though they had unsaved parents (2SM 258-260).

How is it, then, that sinful beings can be blameworthy and yet not be bearing such sin as will land them in hell? The answer that seems implicit (but not totally explicit) in her writings appears to go something like this: whatever guilt infants (or any other person lacking ability to understand God's redemptive will) may have incurred (because of the presence of sinful natures in their souls) was most likely understood to


have been implicitly cared for by the saving provisions of the death of Jesus as their sin-bearer. Again we must emphasize that she does not totally spell it out, but the implication draws very close to being explicit.

She made the following statement in a letter to a family mourning the death of their children who had been lost at sea: "This we know, that His love is greater than ours possibly can be, and Jesus so loved them that He gave His life to redeem them" (ibid. 261). What is somewhat unclear about this statement is that we don't know the ages and salvation experiences of the children. It seems they were not infants.

In another statement, however, she makes it clear that infants will be in heaven, including those whose mothers didn't make it. "As the little infants come forth immortal from their dusty beds, they immediately wing their way to their mother's arms. They meet again nevermore to part. But many of the little ones have no mother there. We listen in vain for the rapturous song of triumph from the mother. The angels receive the motherless infants and conduct them to the tree of life" (ibid. 260). Thus Ellen White was quite explicit that the death of Christ has saving efficiency for infants, even though they cannot choose to be saved.

Robert Olson concurs: "We inherit guilt from Adam so that even a baby that dies a day after birth needs a Saviour though the child never committed a sin of its own" ("Outline Studies" 28).

"Their entrance into the kingdom is based entirely on the merits of Jesus" (ibid.).

Human Depravity and Christ's Saving Merit

Now the reader is probably saying, "What does all this have to do with the nature of Christ?" Again let us pose the question central to this study: Could Jesus have the very same nature that we receive from Adam and still be our Saviour? I would suggest that the best initial answer to our question would be to pose another set of questions: Could Jesus still be our saving, sacrificial substitute and still be called "depraved," "corrupt," and be characterized as having natural propensities and tendencies to sin-"bent to evil"? Could Jesus save babies born with an "inheritance" of "selfishness ... inwrought in" their "very being" if He had been born with the same "inheritance" of "selfishness" (HS 138, 139)? For Ellen White, the answer would appear to be a firm no!


Such a conclusion seems to find further support in a very powerful theme arising out of her clear vision of Christ as the believers' constantly interceding high priest. The thought goes like this: Human sinfulness makes even the best efforts of penitent, redeemed believers meritoriously unacceptable. Only the intercessory work of Christ as He perfumes the believers' good works with the merits of His own blood can counteract this fact!

This theme reveals the compellingly practical side of Ellen White's thinking on salvation and the humanity of Christ: "Oh, that all may see that everything in obedience, in penitence, in praise and thanksgiving, must be placed upon the glowing fire of the righteousness of Christ" (1SM 344). We should carefully note that in this important statement she was clearly referring to "the religious services, the prayers, the praise, the penitent confession of sin" that "ascend from true believers ... to the heavenly sanctuary.... but passing through the corrupt channels of humanity, they are so defiled that unless purified by blood, they can never be of value with God" (ibid.; italics supplied).5

The Implications for Christ's Humanity

It appears to me that the implications of this provocative statement in Selected Messages (book 1, p. 344) are rather compelling! Once again it seems more forceful to focus on them through a question: Could Jesus have a nature just like ours (with "corrupt channels") and still be our interceding advocate and high priest?

At this juncture of our study I will not venture a full-blown interpretation of the issue of Jesus and sin. But as we bring this chapter to a close, I would appeal to the reader to keep these questions in mind as we commence our review of the unfolding of Ellen White's understanding of the humanity of Christ.

1  In regard to her defining sin as the transgression of the law, it is clear that she understood the will of God to involve many revealed particulars. It must be emphasized, however, that the essence of all lawful requirement was expressed in the Ten Commandments. [back] [top]

2  Arminian" comes from the late-sixteenth-century Dutch Calvinist theologian Jacobus Arminius, who reacted against the very deterministic trends of the Calvinistic tradition. The most famous popularizer of Arminian concepts was John Wesley. [back] [top]


3  We often refer to such a view as Pelagianism, named after a British monk (Pelagius) who was a contemporary of Augustine of Hippo. He held that humans are not naturally corrupt and fallen and that they have the natural ability to do the right thing-if they so choose. [back] [top]

4  Edward Heppenstall, the most influential Seventh-day Adventist theologian of this generation, has some challenging concepts about the way "sinful nature" is passed along, especially as it relates to the sinlessness of the humanity of Christ. See The Man Who Is God, pp. 107-150. [back] [top]

5  This statement was the capsheaf of a lengthy development of this theme in Ellen White's thought. For a similar type of statement, note the following from her important manuscript 36, 1890: "All [that "duty prescribes"] must be laid upon the fire of Christ's righteousness to cleanse it from its earthly odor before it rises in a cloud of fragrant incense to the great Jehovah and is accepted as a sweet savor....

"If you would gather together everything that is good and holy and noble and lovely in man and then present the subject to the angels of God as acting a part in the salvation of the human soul or in merit, the proposition would be rejected as treason....

"And any works that man can render to God will be far less than nothingness. My requests are made acceptable only because they are laid upon Christ's righteousness" (cited in FW 23, 24).

Depravity always leaves the stench of "earthly odor" on even the best that believers can produce. This stench makes such "works" meritoriously unacceptable [back] [top]

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