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Ellen White on Salvation

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II


Chapter Six

Sin, the Human Condition,
and Salvation

Our grasp of Ellen White's understanding of sin is one of the most critical themes to be settled if we are to gain clear conceptions of her views on salvation. If we do not get this area right, it will not only seriously skew how we understand her doctrines of justification and perfection, but also seriously degrade our view of Christ's humanity.

For Ellen White, sin was defined as both acts of transgressing God's will (1SM 320) and a condition of depravity that involves inherited sinful "propensities," "inclinations," "tendencies," and a "bent" to sin (that is, inbred or indwelling sin) (5BC 1128; Ed 29; IHP 195).

Depravity, Guilt, and "Original Sin"

In the area of depravity and sinful condition, Ellen White's thinking is a bit elusive. Her concept of "original sin" was certainly not in the Augustinian/Calvinistic tradition of  "total depravity." This view of total depravity is one of the basic reasons Calvinists teach irresistible predestination. The Calvinistic logic goes like this: Sinners are so deranged and depraved by sin that they cannot even respond to God's redemptive initiative. Therefore, God must irresistibly bestow it upon whomsoever He so chooses in His inscrutable wisdom.

Total depravity notwithstanding, there were elements in her thought that definitely spoke of depravity as the natural, inherited condition of sinful human beings. "We must remember that our hearts are naturally


depraved and we are unable of ourselves to pursue a right course" (IHP 163).  Adam's sin definitely caused his "posterity" to be "born with inherent propensities of disobedience" (5BC 1128). But such "depravity" is not "total depravity," and sinners still have the ability (popularly called "free will") to respond to God's saving offer.

To briefly sum up: the term original sin (with its strong overtones of total depravity) does not quite seem to fit her understanding. On the other hand, being born morally neutral or with natural tendencies to do right also does not fit. In the thought of Ellen White we humans come into the world as tragically damaged goods, not simply unfortunate babes in the woods who suffer lapses of memory and numerous little mistakes. We are seriously depraved and corrupted!

Are We Born Guilty?

With depravity clearly understood, let us now turn our attention to the most elusive element in Ellen White's thinking about sin—the issue of guilt. Human guilt is universally acknowledged, but the question that has most vexed Adventist thinking is, Are we born with it?

Some have strongly denied that we are born with guilt (Wallenkampf and Lesher 716). But what is to be made of the following 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). This statement caused Robert Olson to declare that "we are born in a state of guilt inherited from Adam" (Olson, 28).

The reader may reasonably question what Ellen White meant when she declared that "men receive from [Adam] nothing but guilt."

This issue of guilt has caused much misunderstanding, but see what you think of the following suggestion. Ellen White understood the issue more in a practical sense rather than in some abstract, theoretical way. For her, sin was stubbornly self-evident in our realistic, everyday experience. She unequivocally declared that "selfishness is inwrought in our very being." "It has come to us as an inheritance" (HS 138, 139).

For Ellen White, sin and its baleful results were ultimately inexplicable. What is all too stubbornly obvious, though, is not Adam's 


inexplicable rebellion, but our own individual guilt flowing inexorably from our sinful choices: "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. It is usually the case, however, that children walk in the steps of their parents" (PP 306). "As a result of Adam's disobedience every human being is a transgressor of the law, sold under sin" (IHP 146).

Ellen White did not feel called upon to address the question of God's fairness in allowing a sinful nature to be passed on to Adam's offspring. Apparently she was just not theologically troubled by the thought that God allows humans to be subject to an inheritance that leads inevitably to sinful acts, which result in guilt.

Again it must be emphasized that her concern was a matter of stubbornly hard practical realism: depraved humans have "sinful natures," "a bent to evil," and "propensities to sin," which lead to sin and guilt. Because of this, sinful humans are responsible for their sins, and this is the main issue that confronts not only the sinner, but also the redeeming God. Thus it is obvious that theoretical questions about "original guilt" did not concern her.

Depravity, Guilt, and Merit

What was very clear in the thought of Ellen White was her view of depravity and its impact on redemption. Human depravity makes the best efforts of penitent, redeemed believers meritoriously unacceptable. This is the very tough, down-to-earth bottom line in her thinking on salvation, especially as she warred against legalism. "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"and here 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" (1SM 344).


Human "corruption" and depravity always leave the stench of "earthly odor" on even the best that believers can produce. This stench makes their works meritoriously unacceptable. Only what has come from the "untainted" nature of the sinless Jesus has saving merit.

Failure to grasp this significant bottom line can lead to all sorts of theological and practical mischief. A clear understanding of this concept will always protect against any sort of human glory in self-generated merit. It is absolutely clear that we can do nothing, positively nothing, to gain God's favor. Even the Spirit-inspired works of charity and obedience have no saving merit.

Depravity, Merit, and Perfection

Ellen White's very clear teaching on sinful corruption and the taintedness of human effort not only played an important role in her battles with legalism, but also has critical implications for our understanding of how her view of perfection is to be understood.

Ellen White was very clear that sinners will retain their sinful natures until glorification (ST, Mar. 23, 1888), and thus there will never be a time during which the fruits of their sanctification experience will ever be perfect enough to become meritorious. She spoke of character perfection (which is carefully defined), but never of nature perfection this side of glorification.

But her qualifications were not based on adjusted requirements of law. Her adjustments were based solely on her understanding of human sinfulness that afflicts the entire person—mind, body, and spirit in profound unity. The only solution for this adjustment is the continuous reckoning of the meritorious perfection of Christ's life and death to sinners' accounts. Certainly this understanding of human nature must be taken into consideration in any evaluation of her understanding of perfection.

In the light of such understandings of human nature, law, and sin, how is her understanding of perfection to be stated?  She was clear that sinners will never be conscious of their perfection, but what sort of perfection could they have this side of glorification that would be 


unconsciously present?  Such questions as these will be the central theme of the later sections of this book.

This clear understanding of human sinfulness, corruption, or depravity has further implications for the way she conceived her doctrine of free will and God's saving initiative.

Depravity, Divine Calling, Conversion, and Free Will

Ellen White stood very much in the popular American tradition of free will. For her, however (as for Wesley), it is probably better expressed as "free grace" proceeding from God's redemptive initiatives. In simpler terms, what this means is that God seeks us before we would ever think to (or be willing to) seek after Him.

It has been thus since the "original sin" in Eden. When Adam and Eve ran from God in the shame of their fig leaf self-righteousness, God came seeking them!

Ellen White was clear that when sin entered the world, the will of human beings became enslaved (ST, Nov. 19, 1896) and "through the will . . . sin retains its hold . . . upon [humanity]" (MB 61). Thus there is no power in the "unaided human will" (8T 292) to oppose sin. But through Jesus Christ the will of the human being is freed (SC 48).

"It is impossible for us, of ourselves, to escape from the pit of sin in which we are sunken. . . . His grace alone can quicken the lifeless faculties of the soul, and attract it to God, to holiness" (ibid. 18: see also p. 24).

She further underscored this concept of divine calling when she declared that repentance "is beyond the reach of our own power to accomplish; it is obtained only from Christ, who ascended up on high" (ibid. 25).  Thus Ellen White was clear that "man is not capable of originating such a repentance as this, and can experience it alone through Christ" (1SM 393).

Her understanding of sinfulness not only comprehended the needs of the penitent sinner at the beginning of Christian experience, but all through the experience of the cooperating believer. "We are unable of ourselves to pursue a right course. It is only by the grace of God, combined with the most earnest effort on our part, that we can gain the victory" (CT 544).


Not only did Ellen White understand the atonement in continuous terms, but she also saw conversion in much the same light. It was the whole process of God's interaction with the soul, not just one initial event, that received the focus. Conversion involved submissive responses (which did not necessarily have to be emotion-laden) to God's gracious initiative and daily submission to His leading, guidance, and empowerment.

Here is the very bedrock of all true experience in sanctification and perfection. Redemption is Christ-centered in all its aspects of calling, conviction, forgiveness, empowerment for obedience (and service) and glorification. But each step comprehends the humble response of the human subject. God was never seen as acting in a forced or deterministic fashion in His dealings with sinners.


What can we say is the bottom line on sin?  For Ellen White, depravity does not debase us to the point that God has to determine everything for us.  She was not a Calvinist!  She held that God never forces the will.  But the effects of sin are so pervasive that we need God's convicting, calling, converting, justifying, and empowering grace at every advancing step in our experience of salvation.

First, our sins and sinfulness are deranging and deluding enough to make it necessary for God to send us a wake-up call; otherwise we would never come to our senses.

Second, our depravity is so pervasive that we need Christ's merits to account us upright every moment of our Christian walk. As our sin pollutes even the best things that we do as Christians, the sober reality is that nothing we could do would ever merit or earn our salvation.

A further implication of such pervasive depravity is that we can never claim perfection in any sense of sinlessness (either in our nature or acts) this side of glorification. Therefore, we need Jesus to declare us "perfect" all the way to the gates of glory.

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