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Ellen White on Salvation

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II


Chapter Five

Salvation, the Great Controversy Theme, 
Closing Events, and the Law

The doctrine of salvation does not develop in splendid isolation from other doctrinal factors. If we wish to get a clear grasp of Ellen White's unfolding understanding of salvation, it is important to see it not only in the setting of her life and practical ministry but also in relationship to her other teachings.

In this chapter and the three that follow we will discuss major doctrines that seem to have had a direct impact on Ellen White's teachings about salvation. These important doctrines are (1) the great controversy theme, (2) closing events, (3) law, (4) sin, especially the way it affects human nature, (5) understandings of the atonement, and (6) critical issues related to the nature of Christ (especially His humanity).  Justification by faith will be addressed in section 3 of this book.

Law and Grace in the Great Controversy Theme

The central theme of Ellen White's theology was the proper relationship of law and grace against the backdrop of the great controversy. This overarching theme is certainly consistent with her abiding balance between justification and perfection.

The law and grace setting of the great controversy theme was concisely summed up in chapter 79 of The Desire of Ages, entitled "It Is Finished." She outlined three charges that Satan has made against God's character and His government and God's answer to these indictments.


1. God is arbitrary and unfair to require obedience to His law, since this law could not be obeyed (761).

2. Mercy is swallowed up by justice, as humans cannot be forgiven by such a just God.

Both of the preceding charges were refuted in the light of the cross, where Christ demonstrated that God is not an arbitrary tyrant, but a loving and forgiving being who is just in His exercise of mercy. "God's love has been expressed in His justice no less than in His mercy" (762).

With such a refutation, Lucifer then initiated his final charge.

3. God's mercy destroyed justice, with the result that Christ's death abrogated the Father's law.

For Ellen White, this is the final issue in the great controversy. Thus, the God who was declared to be arbitrary and unforgiving is now declared to be unjust (762).

In Ellen White's universally sweeping vision, God has sought to answer these charges with the incarnation of Jesus and His subsequent heavenly intercession, second coming, the millennium, the last judgment, and the final vindication of the faithful. Therefore the gospel is the Christ-centered story of the revelation of the character of God, who is both just and merciful, whose moral demands are absolutely essential to the welfare of His created beings, and whose mercy is unbounded to penitent souls. But His mercy is extended only on the basis of holy justice.

Justice and mercy are but two sides of the same coin of God's character of love. Ellen White declared: "It is the sophistry of Satan that the death of Christ brought in grace to take the place of the law. . . . God's moral government and His grace are inseparable" (FW 30).

Practically all her doctrinal presentations uplift Christ as the covenant-keeping Redeemer in conflict with the devil. This conflict was to wrest His lost heritage from Satan's grasp and to make secure the government of Heaven on the basis of both justice and mercy.

The very heart of her understanding of God is based on the eternal authority of God's law, which is the revelation of God's character of love (GC 493), but this love is not arbitrary and is full of mercy that is just in its expression.


A further evidence to support the great controversy theme as the centerpiece of her gospel proclamation was the very practical nature of her writings. For Ellen White the issue of utmost importance was always the practical application for sin-afflicted humans, who find themselves caught on the battlefield of this great controversy. In other words, the balance between law and grace, faith and works, justice and mercy, God's character versus Satan's deceptions, was the very heart of her understanding of practical godliness and the doctrine of salvation.

Thus the very core of her teachings was the saving initiative of the Trinitarian God, who has sent the Son to seek and save the lost in the face of satanic power and falsehood. In the practical, evangelistic interest of saving the lost, her work was always to exalt God's goodness and to expose Satan's lies.

All this was based on the understanding that this world is in the final stages of the great controversy, and all teachings are to be given priority, depending upon how they inform the faithful about these central issues of law and grace. Satan is seeking to pervert both law and grace by denying one or both as essential to the understanding of God's character of love. If the mind can be philosophically or practically confused on the key issue of God's character as revealed by Christ's person and work, then Satan wins the controversy. If the mind can be philosophically and practically won to the goodness of God in Christ, then God's loving persuasion carries the day.

Closing Events

Not only did the deep conviction that the coming of Jesus was near provided an incentive to "holy living," but also the lack of holy living was her repeated explanation for the long delay of the Second Coming (Froom 565-581). Thus, to live righteously the redeemed could fulfill a threefold purpose: (1) be prepared to meet the Lord; (2) hasten the coming of the Lord, as the righteous lives of believers would witness to the "world," and hence (3) cease delaying the Second Advent.

The closely related concepts of the close of probation and the seal of God raise important questions regarding the definitions of perfection


that God's people must have in order to live through the time of trouble and meet Jesus without tasting death.

For the purposes of this study, Ellen White's most important comments relating to the close of probation and the time of trouble are found in The Great Controversy. "Those who are living upon the earth when the intercession of Christ shall cease in the sanctuary above are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator. Their robes must be spotless, their characters must be purified from sin by the blood of sprinkling" (425).

"He [Christ] had kept His Father's commandments, and there was no sin in Him that Satan could use to his advantage. This is the condition in which those must be found who shall stand in the time of trouble" (623).

In these comments are found some of the most challenging concepts in the vast body of her writings that deal with perfection. These comments have sparked much debate and are dealt with extensively in section 4.


For Ellen White the law was God's will. The primary expression, however, was found in the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20. There was thus a rather straightforward concreteness in her teachings on this theme. But such concreteness does not do away with a deep, spiritual understanding of the law. The requirements of the law were seen as "broad and deep, encompassing more than outward deeds" (Webster 92; see RH, Apr. 5, 1898).

As was previously pointed out, Ellen White conceived of the law as being inextricably bound up with the expression of God's character of love—a love that was conceived as both just and merciful. This love has been explained in Christ's teachings and lived out in His life.

The law, as given in the Ten Commandments, has authority for all dispensations of God's dealing with sinners. "But that which God required of Adam in Paradise before the Fall He requires in this age of the world from those who would follow Him—perfect obedience to His law" (RH, Sept. 3, 1901; MB



What do these important doctrinal themes contribute to a clearer understanding of salvation? The great controversy theme, with its emphasis on the balance between law and grace, powerfully points to Ellen White's call for lives of significant obedience to a law that was concretely expressed in the Ten Commandments and profoundly elaborated and illustrated in Jesus' life and teachings. All this was proclaimed in the urgent setting of Christ's soon return. Salvation and character perfection were not mere matters of passing interest, but concerns of consuming urgency.

More powerful motivators for holy living are hard to come by. These just demands for obedience, however, never cancel out God's marvelous mercy. This mercy was provided for in Christ's death—a death given for the just forgiveness of doomed sinners. The bottom line is that obedience is possible, but it is always associated with a just and loving acceptance.

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