The Salvation Dilemma:
How Shall We Proceed?
The subject of salvation continues to generate
intense interest among Seventh-day Adventists. It is also a tragic
fact that this interest has produced considerable controversy and
division. The major focus of these divisive debates has been on
the teachings of Ellen G. White.
In some respects this spotlighting of Ellen White's
teachings on salvation is welcome. In the wake of the unsettling
agitation over the charges of plagiarism in the early 1980s, it is
encouraging that once again we seem to be concentrating on the central message
of the prophet rather than on the messenger. Certainly the controversies over her alleged
literary dependence opened up new insights about the way inspiration
works, but all too often the discussion about literary sources missed
the beauty and power of her message.
It is my growing conviction that the biblically based gospel message
taught by Ellen White will more than vindicate the messenger. The gospel
is still abundantly good news, and Ellen White's understanding of it has
wonderful power and balance. Not only does it have power to bring peace,
joy, and hope in Jesus, but it can also bring us back to a more scripturally
based gospel witness.
The Controversial Issues
The main issues that have continued to provoke controversy are (1)
justification by faith and (2) perfection. The meaning of perfection has
proved especially resistant to any sort of
satisfactory consensus. It has been at the root of almost all the
debates in the history of Seventh-day Adventist discussions about
During the past 35 years a veritable flood of pamphlets, tapes, magazine
articles, and books has addressed this subject. All this outpouring of
materials has been in addition to numerous official and unofficial
church conferences that have been convened to seek clarification on
justification and perfection and the closely related subject of the
humanity of Christ. I have actively participated in this study and
discussion since the early 1970s. My own interest stems from an
appreciation of the sheer importance of the subject and my personal
redemption. Such sustained interest, however, involves not only my own
salvation, but also a deep desire for the unity and effectiveness of the
church. Our gospel witness cannot possibly be effective if we are not
clear on what the gospel is but are perpetually wrangling about it among
This raises the key question: How
can we come to a resolution that will bring the desired unity and
Before I make some suggestions for resolution, I would like to ask the
reader some questions: Have you ever had the experience of entering into
a spirited discussion with someone on Christian perfection and get a
"zinger" Spirit of Prophecy statement thrown at you, only to
find out later that you had been ambushed with a quotation that was
taken out of context? Have you ever had the disconcerting experience of
really studying hard to gain a dearly held position on perfection, only
to find out that some industrious researcher using the resources at the
Ellen G. White Estate has dug up a statement that calls into question
your dearly held position?
I have certainly experienced the chagrin involved in both of these
bewildering experiences. But my main chagrin has been the distress of
seeing sincere people becoming badly divided and at war with one an
other regarding issues that should be bringing joy and the most
heartfelt unity. In fact, one of the really tragic ironies in this whole
fractured phenomenon has been that Ellen White clearly tells us that one
of the important fruits of Christian perfection is unity: "Unity is the sure result of Christian
perfection" (SL 85). Isn't that statement an eye-opener?
I not only desire personal understanding, joy, and
peace, but also want to see my church united and moving forward in its
witness to a troubled and shattered world. Does not the church have much
better news to give than reports of disconcerting disunity?
Suggestions for Resolution
I would suggest that resolution should begin with intense personal study. And anyone
engaging in such intense study will prayerfully take a hard look at all,
not just some, of what Ellen White had to say about salvation and
closely related issues. I have long felt that we need to take a more
comprehensive look at what she had to say, rather than constantly
mulling over our favorite statements. All too often in our repetitious
brooding we are only feeding our pet prejudices rather than getting at
the issues. Furthermore, this hard look will certainly involve taking
care to study her thought in literary, personal, and broadly historical
The Difficulties of the Task
With these convictions in mind, my first goal was to do
thorough research in order to gather all the really important statements
on salvation. My second object was to seek the context (and not just the
literary context) of not only particular statements but also the larger
setting of Ellen White's overall life and ministry.
The task has involved a number of difficulties.
First, there is the controversial history. It is hard to be objective
when controversy is involved. The argumentative juices can easily begin
to flow, and the usual result is further confusion and division rather
than unifying clarity. It would become all of us to acknowledge honestly
our personal prejudices and then make an earnest effort to keep our
preconceived ideas out of the picture. Even Ellen White herself said
that "we have many lessons to learn, and many, many to
unlearn" (CWE 37; see also Schwarz 393, 394).
Second, Ellen White left us an astonishingly large volume of literature
that totals more than 25 million words in books, magazine articles,
letters, and unpublished manuscripts. The task of getting through so
much matter seems impossible.
But the good news is that the very practical Ellen G. White Estate
has moved forward in the past few years in providing wonderfully
efficient research tools. Through the use of the latest technology in
information processing, we now have computerized indexes that provide
astonishingly ready access to not only the published but also the
unpublished letters and manuscripts. Today the serious researcher can
rather easily gather all the essential documents in relatively short
order. I am glad to report that this gathering work is now the easy part
of Ellen White studies!
The truly demanding work comes in seeking out context and meaning. The
first task in getting the context involves the sometimes painstaking
task of dating certain documents. But again I bear glad tidings. In the
vast majority of cases, this can be done with ease and accuracy! When
all this preliminary work has been completed, however, the ultimate
challenge is to make sense out of the collection.
I would like to testify that while the task is not a snap, it is
interesting how patterns of development, emphasis, and meaning begin to
reveal themselves as one carefully and prayerfully pores over the
My Approach to the Task
Here is how I went about the study. Using the
computerized technology, I tried to locate every use Ellen White made of
such key words as "justification," "imputation,"
"impartation," and "perfection" (and their varied
forms: "justify," "justified," "just,"
etc.) from 1845 to 1902. 1 searched through her published and
In addition to her primary writings, I consulted many compilations,
serious research documents, important magazine articles, and popular
books by recognized participants in the righteousness by faith discussions. All these documents I carefully combed through for any important
Ellen White statements that I might have missed in searching through her
writings. I lay no claim to have found every single statement, but I am
confident that what I did find gives a clear enough picture so that I
can avoid the charge of suppressing contrary evidence.
All these statements I then placed in chronological
sequence in an attempt to study her doctrine of salvation in a
developmental way rather than just topically. While many fine works have
been done on this subject, they are almost all topical and doctrinal in
nature, rather than primarily historical in focus. This study is
primarily developmental and historical in nature and only secondarily
topical and doctrinal. But the historical nature of this study is not an
end in and of itself. It is the means to reach important goals of
grasping what she taught about justification and perfection.
Two questions have been raised that I think should be forthrightly
First, when we speak of Ellen White's doctrinal development, do we mean
that she moved from error to truth? My answer is a firm "Not
so!" When we speak of her development, we mean the way she grew in
meeting new and different challenges and how she moved from simple, more
childlike expressions of truth to greater clarity and sophistication.
A good illustration of the latter trend in her thinking can be easily
demonstrated when Early Writings is compared with The Great Controversy.
The first work is written in the simple style of a young
woman who is being led through the battlefield of a cosmic conflict. The
Great Controversy is a marvelously sophisticated weaving of biography,
history, prophetic interpretation, and theology. Yet the movement is not
from error to truth.
Second, why did I take this study up only to 1902? The answer is quite
simple. Looking through all the literature, I found no pathbreaking
statements after 1902. Subsequent study has confirmed my original
My goals have been basically three: (1) to seek to
clarify the development and understanding of Ellen White's doctrine of
Christ's humanity; (2) to clarify her teachings on
salvation, especially her concepts of justification
and perfection and the way these two aspects of her thought interrelate;
(3) to set forth my own interpretation of her understanding of the
humanity of Christ, justification, and perfection.
I do not claim to be the last word on these subjects,
but I do earnestly pray that my work will benefit the serious reader and
will be a means to bring not only a clearer understanding of the
precious gospel, but also the wonderful fruit of unity and witnessing
power in the church.
A Note of Explanation
In the chapters that follow I have tried to use Ellen
White's own words as much as possible. In pursuit of this goal I have
pulled out the key words and phrases so as to avoid a lot of long,
cumbersome statements. Thus there will be many quotation marks. So the
reader is alerted to read carefully and is reminded that when there are
quotation marks they usually refer to the published words of Ellen
The Abiding Balance
Before we begin, allow me to share with you my central proposition or
thesis about Ellen White's basic views on salvation.
From the beginning she evidenced a clear understanding that
justification and perfection are closely related and that the believer
cannot have one without the other (1T 22, 23). The emphasis and exact
relationship will vary somewhat throughout the years, but the delicate
balance in their relationship will be a constant during the rest of her
ministry. This balance between justification and perfection can be
likened to a seesaw. Sometimes one side is up and the other down, but a
good teeter-totter experience will always feature two evenly matched
participants complementing and balancing each other. For Ellen White,
the balancing act began early in her Christian experience.