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Ellen White on Salvation

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II


Chapter Three

The Decade Before 1888

This crucial decade witnessed a remarkable unfolding of Ellen White's essential balance between justification and perfection. While she continued to fight a rear-guard action against Holiness fanaticism, during this decade a growing emphasis on justification began to unfold in her writing. We will begin by taking a further look at her dealings with the Holiness advocates.

These later cases of Holiness fanaticism were very similar to those she encountered during her first decade of public ministry. As with the earlier cases, all the later instances of Holiness emphasis on sinless perfection were negative. One of the most instructive examples of these later experiences with the partisans of sinless perfectionism was the case of a certain "Brother B."

The Fanatical "Brother B"

In a letter to S. H. Lane, published in the Review of June 6, 187E James and Ellen White spoke of the condition of "Brother B" as one whom "Satan is pushing . . . to cause disaffection in the Indiana Conference under the pious guise of Christian holiness." They went on to assent to "holiness of life" as "necessary," but censured "the spirit of popular sanctification" as detrimental to "present truth," specifically the "Sabbath, the third angel's message, and the health reform."

In a wry twist they declared that some of the "sanctified" "have even reached the almost hopeless position that they cannot sin" and "have no further use for the Lord's Prayer, which teaches us to pray that our sins may be forgiven." They further observed that such Holiness people have "very little use for the Bible, as they profess to be led by the Spirit." The


Whites then called anyone who cannot sin the "veriest Laodicean," and they defined true sanctification as that which comes through "obedience of the truth and of God."

The wry twist was concluded with what amounted to a wonderful touch of ironic humor. The Whites' recommendation for Brother B was that he be "treated at the Sanitarium, at Battle Creek, for the improvement of his health."

It is interesting that they used this case as a summary of 30 years of experience in dealing with the "fanaticism which has grown out of the teachings of ultra holiness." What was it that caused this negative reaction to Holiness teachings?

Although the Holiness manifestations were often quite emotional, the key objection to such Holiness teachings was their proneness to hypocritical fanaticism (ignoring the sober fruits of obedience as the essential characteristic of sanctification) and their downgrading effects on Adventist doctrinal distinctives—the platform of "present truth." 

What are we to make of all these experiences? What is the bottom line in all this? The sum of it seems to go like this: Sanctified obedience is very important, but the hallmark of the rest of Ellen White's ministry was to warn against emotional, self-righteous, perfectionistic fanaticism and any teaching or experience that would destroy the doctrinal core of Adventism.

The Anti-Law Extremists

It is indicative of Ellen White's balance in her ministry of salvation that she could not only rebuke the perfectionism of the Holiness fanatics, but also give equally stern warnings to the law-denouncing "cheap grace" preachers. It is this decade before 1888 that signals a remarkable upsurge in emphasis on Christ's justifying merits, but it is always a doctrine that features earnest obedience as the inescapable fruit of divine forgiveness.

The Pacific Voyage of 1878
—In the summer of 1878, while on a voyage to Oregon, she felt led to confront boldly a certain Elder Brown, who was claiming publicly that it was impossible for anyone to keep God's law and that no one will get to heaven by keeping the law. He then went on


to say that "Mrs. White is all law, law; she believes that we must be saved by the law, and no one can be saved unless they keep the law. Now I believe in Christ. He is my Saviour."

Ellen White was quick to challenge him in a pointed reply. "That is a false statement. Mrs. White has never occupied that position. . . . We have always taken the position that there was no power in the law to save a single transgressor of that law. . . .

"Christ did not come to excuse sin, nor to justify a sinner while he continued to transgress that law....

"What is the sinner to be converted from? The transgression of God's law to obedience of it. But if he is told that he cannot keep the law of God . . . to what is he then converted—from transgression of the law to a continuance in that transgression? This is absurd" (ST, July 18, 1878). She concluded by reproving those who "cry Christ, Christ, only believe on Christ, when they do not the works of Christ." And then she directly addressed Elder Brown: "Please never again make the misstatement that we do not rely on Jesus Christ for our salvation, but trust in the law to be saved. We have never written one word to that effect."

Her parting shot was to accuse him of teaching "that the sinner may be saved while knowingly transgressing the law of God."

It is interesting that in reporting this confrontation to her readers in the Signs she found it "incredible" that one professing to be a "Bible student . . . should affirm that no man ever kept the law of God, or could keep it."

She reveals to us what was probably the underlying issue that motivated most opponents of Seventh-day Adventism and what called forth such a pointed response: "This is the fearful position taken by many ministers, in order to get rid of the Sabbath of the fourth commandment."

When sorely pressed by what she felt was gross misrepresentation, she declared that salvation by obedience to the law is impossible, but salvation without obedience is also just as impossible. She declared that we are justified only by faith in the "merits" of Christ, but such faith will never excuse transgression (ST, July 18, 1878).

In relationship to our grasp of her doctrine of salvation, this incident


revealed much about Ellen White's developing understanding. Clearly salvation was only by faith in Jesus' merits, but significant obedience by faith was also possible for the true believer.

The European Tour: 1885-1887

Ellen White's years of ministry in Europe were rich in expressions of the great experience of salvation. Her sermons and writings from this period breathe a wonderfully balanced mix, which emphasized the pardon of sin and grace to resist temptation.

But probably the most revealing instance of her balance between pardon and obedience came during the fall of 1885 as she ministered amid the tragic circumstances of Edith Andrews.

This young woman, a worker at the Seventh-day Adventist publishing house in Basel, Switzerland, was dying of tuberculosis. Apparently Edith's impact on the other youthful workers at this institution had not been spiritually positive. But in her last days she had manifested sincere repentance. Ellen White spoke directly to her regarding her feeble inability to repent "thoroughly," but assured her that "Jesus' precious mercy and merits" make up for "the deficiencies on the part of His repenting, humble ones" (letter 26, 1885, cited in Delafield 89).

Edith died in Jesus on December 24, 1885, and Ellen White recorded this touching comment: "We have evidence that Edith's life is not what it might have been, but her last days were days of penitence, repentance, and confession. We have reason to believe that the pitying Redeemer accepted Edith" (MS 30, 1885, cited in Delafield 90).

Again it must be emphasized that Ellen White's practical theology manifested a wonderful balance. For those burdened with a sense of sin, she spoke of the "pitying Redeemer's" acceptance. For the bitter opponent of the Ten Commandments she upheld the authority of God's law and Christ's power to inspire and produce obedience.

Ellen White as an evangelist and pastor was growing in her emphasis on acceptance through Jesus' merits, but the accent on gracious obedience was never very far from the center of her teachings about salvation.


The 1883 General Conference Session

Although there has been an enormous amount of focus on Minneapolis and 1888, there has been a relative lack of attention given to the General Conference session in Battle Creek in November of 1883.

What is remarkable about this session were the sermons given by Ellen White. These talks mainly centered on "pardon and justification" and were clearly anticipations of what was to come to a floodtide after the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference session. They were such powerful expositions of justification by faith that I feel this conference can in some sense be called the "Minneapolis before Minneapolis"!

Up to this time Ellen White had had precious little to say about justification. While her teaching was clear that justification was "pardon" and "forgiveness," it was not until the 1880s that there began to appear this sharpening focus on a more Lutheran by faith alone understanding of justification. In other words, sinners could never save themselves by their good works of charity and obedience, but only through faith in Christ's merits alone.

In fact, the first published linking of Luther and justification came in the Signs of May 31, 1883. This development was probably a result of her research for The Spirit of Prophecy, volume 4 (1884), which became the immediate forerunner of her classic The Great Controversy (1888). This work extensively expressed her understanding of how God led Luther and the Reformation movement in a wonderful unfolding of the vital issues having to do with the "great controversy between Christ and Satan."

What were the factors that called forth this new emphasis on justification by faith alone?

Obviously, the above-mentioned work on The Spirit of Prophecy, volume 4, especially the portions dealing with the history of the Reformation, had raised her awareness about the subject. Other factors, however, also certainly played a role.

There were Ellen White's repeated confrontations with the "believe, only believe" advocates. These challenges certainly helped sharpen her understanding of what believing really meant. In other words, justification as a true article must be clearly defined over against the anti-law 



advocates. Historically there has never been any factor so efficient in calling forth doctrinal clarification as heresy—real or perceived!

Finally, the major factor that spurred her rising emphasis on justification seemed to be her growing sense that there was unwitting legalism creeping into the ranks of Seventh-day Adventism. She detected a preoccupation with obedience and the law that was practically obscuring the assurance of God's acceptance through faith. This eclipse of assurance also benighted the lives of many Adventist preachers.

This latter factor was explicitly apparent in her pointed remarks directed to the ministers at the 1883 General Conference session: "I have listened to testimonies like this: `I have not the light that I desire; I have not the assurance of the favor of God.' Such testimonies express only unbelief and darkness. Are you expecting that your merit will recommend you to the favor of God, and that you must be free from sin before you trust His power to save? If this is the struggle going on in your mind, I fear you will gain no strength, and will finally become discouraged....

"Some seem to feel that they must be on probation, and must prove to the Lord that they are reformed before they can claim His blessing. ... Jesus loves to have us come to Him just as we are-sinful, helpless,

dependent. We claim to be children of the light, not of the night nor of darkness; what right have we to be unbelieving?"*


During this decade just prior to 1888, Ellen White continued to express her understanding of perfection in a way that clearly differentiated her teaching from the Wesleyan view and its fanatical perversions. But it is also apparent that her balanced views on salvation called for her to turn up the volume in behalf of a powerful emphasis on justification by faith alone. What is interesting, however, is the vital role played by James White in this growing emphasis on the uplifted Christ, who justifies by faith.


* RH
Apr. 22, 1884. These sermons were published in the Review and Herald of April 15, 22, June 17, July 22. [back] [top]

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