Salvation, the Great Controversy Theme,
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
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"
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
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.
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
"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
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 lovea
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 Himperfect 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 deatha
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