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Ellen White on Salvation

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II


Chapter Seven

The Atonement

It is apparent that some elements of Ellen White's understanding of the atonement are implicit in the great controversy theme, but further clarification is necessary. Her teaching on the atonement was essentially a further working out of the theme of the relationship of justice and mercy as the two essential sides to the coin of God's character of love.

Furthermore, in her teaching the term atonement was very comprehensive. It was used to express all that the Trinity has done, is doing, and will do to reconcile sinners (6T 364). For the reader who has sampled widely in her writings, such a broad view of the atonement might seem a bit elementary. But in the setting of the emerging Adventist discussion of the atonement, her views are quite remarkable.

Early Adventist Views on the Atonement

In the early days of Seventh-day Adventism certain influential writers were quite explicit that the atonement did not refer to Christ's death on the cross, but only to His work in the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary since October 22, 1844 (see Froom 159-175).

The restricted atonement views of these influential pioneers give us another insight into Ellen White's doctrinal and theological independence. Although she did not deny that the work of atonement involved Christ's work in the heavenly sanctuary, she did make it abundantly clear that the term atonement also included His death on the cross (7aBC 459, 460).


Atonement and Free Will

If we are to grasp her thinking on the atonement, we must get a sense of the importance that free will, or choice, played in her understanding. Because Ellen White clearly rejected the more deterministic views of the sixteenth-century Reformers, she has often been criticized for applying the atonement beyond the cross.

But given her free-will understanding of human nature, it was only natural that she would see God's reconciling efforts as having to involve earnest appeals and not just arbitrary choices as to whom is to be saved and damned.  Ellen White clearly taught that God has provided the atonement of the cross as "a ransom for all," as stated in 1 Timothy 2:6.  The atonement is provided for all, but it becomes effective only for believers who respond to God's prior, initiating calls for repentance and surrender (7aBC 468; GW 414).

Thus Christ's intercessory work was clearly viewed as being a part of the atonement.  His heavenly intercession makes the implications of the cross effective for believers.  As the history of God's dealing with the sin problem unfolds, Christ applies the benefits wrought out on the crossmanifesting both mercy and judgment.

In fact, Ellen White makes the stunning characterization of Christ's "high priestly" ministry as an immortalizing of  "Calvary."  This ministry thus makes the provisions of the cross eternal in time for the benefit of "whosoever will" (MS 50, 1900, cited in Wallenkampf and Lesher 722).  It would be fair to say that Ellen White regarded the atonement as moving in a line across the history of redemption, rather than involving just one point in history—the cross (Wallenkampf and Lesher 715).  Therefore, atonement not only involved making provision for the forgiveness of sins, but also application of these gracious provisions to repentant sinners.

Atonement involved not only Christ's death on the cross, but also Christ's intercession, which makes His life available to repentant, trusting believers.  Such trusting belief not only receives God's acceptance, but is also powerfully motivated to imitate Christ's life.  So the atonement has implications for the sanctification experience of believers, not just their experience of forgiveness and acceptance.


Historic Views of the Atonement

I would like to suggest that there is not one historic interpretation of the atonement under which Ellen White's thought can be exclusively categorized. Fritz Guy is correct when he says that her teaching is "a more adequate expression of the biblical witness . . . than is any of the historic views of atonement."  Her thinking, however, has some "important similarities to, as well as differences from, the distinctive ingredients in all" the classic expressions of the atonement (Guy 9).

It is almost as if she went on a shopping trip at the doctrinal supermarket and was able to get all the choicest fruits without picking up a single rotten theological apple.

Space does not permit a detailed analysis of all the major views, but we will touch on three that seem to be most central to her understanding of salvation.

The Moral Influence TheoryThis theory has in recent years grown in popularity among Seventh-day Adventists.  In fact, this view has become so compelling for many that they have tried to make it the dominant, controlling view in Ellen White's presentations on the atonement.

The moral influence advocates lay great emphasis on Christ's death as a manifestation of God's love to a lost world.  In its most extreme form it has been proclaimed that Christ's death as a requirement of God's justice (Christ's death satisfying divine justice) was not necessary.  These advocates hold that Christ's death was given only to demonstrate God's love, which emanates in "moral influence" to an alienated world.

What are we to make of this theory?

It is certainly true that Ellen White saw the cross as the supreme manifestation of God's love. There are elements of loving moral influence that are communicated both to sinners and the unfallen beings of the universe: "Through the cross, man was drawn to God," and the sinner "was drawn from the stronghold of sin." The "cross speaks . . . to worlds unfallen . . . of His great love wherewith He has loved us" and "is the unanswerable argument as to the changeless character of the law of Jehovah" (7aBC 470, 471).


But the cross speaks of more than mercy.  Among other things, it also speaks of a powerful condemnation of sin by the "holy love of a holy God" (Guy 10).  Ellen White's comments make it clear that "moral influence" was always connected with this convicting holiness of God, not just some general expression of forgiving love that excludes the "satisfaction" of divine justice.

At the risk of being repetitious, let us get the point of God's holiness clear in our minds: The merciful "moral influence" of Christ's atoning death is beyond question, but such manifestations of "influential" love came through God's holy justice, not to its exclusion!  Expressions of God's love are always based on both divine justice and mercy (not on mercy alone). 

At this point it is important for us to ask What is "wrath"?  It seems that what makes the more extreme forms of the moral influence theory attractive are the unsavory connotations that go along with God's justice being expressed as wrath.  The word "wrath" seems to conjure up visions of God losing His temper, giving sinners "the back of His hand," suggesting that He gets some retaliatory, tit-for-tat satisfaction out of destroying sinners.

But Ellen White's view of God's wrath is that He must finally act to put an end to those who reject His offers of a just mercy.  In the writings of Ellen White there are just too many indications of God's active wrath to say that He is too merciful to destroy sinners actively.

Now, there are certainly statements to the effect that sin is self-destructive (GC 35, 36).  And sin is manifestly self-destructive. But let us pursue Ellen White's treatment of the theme of God's justice a bit further.

Is it not a fact that God is the source of all life? Is it not His restraining power over the forces of evil that gives us protection? Furthermore, is not God the one who temporarily grants self-destructing sinners life in probationary time? I do believe the answers are obvious.

Now let us go a step further. Doesn't it seem that God would be just as surely responsible for the death of sinners by withdrawing His life-giving power as He would be in directly destroying them by the fires of hell?

Since God is the source of all life, it is quite apparent that He is also ultimately the one who allows death! And whether such death is 


actively brought on or passively allowed really makes no difference if one wants to lift the ultimate responsibility for the death of sinners from God. The really definitive question is not whether God's justice is active or passive, but whether it is just and consistent with His character of merciful love.

Another nettlesome question rears its wondering head: Was the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah simply the chance circumstance of an unfortunate conspiracy of atmospheric conditions (Gen. 19:24)? Ellen White says, "The Lord rained brimstone and fire out of heaven" (PP 162). Again, was the judgment of God on Korah, Dathan, and Abiram only a tragic yawning of a long dormant seismic geological fault line in the Sinai desert (Num. 16:23-35)? Ellen White calls this judgment "the signal manifestation of God's power" (ibid. 401). Or were the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira only timely coronaries (Acts 5:1ff.)? Ellen White refers to their deaths as "the signal manifestation of the wrath of God" (AA 73) and goes on to say that "the same God who punished them, today condemns all falsehood" (ibid. 76). Will the lake of fire be merely a passive act on God's part? Referring to the lake of fire, Ellen White says that "God is to the wicked a consuming fire" (GC 673).

Was divine wrath manifested at the cross? Yes, what about the cross? Was it or was it not a manifestation of God's holy wrath against sin?

If the plain, straightforward words of Ellen White mean anything, the following challenge needs to be squarely faced: Any well-meaning person who feels that the moral influence theory cancels out the substitutionary theory of atonement as a manifestation of God's wrath against sin needs to be prepared to rip the chapter "Calvary" out of The Desire of Ages. I realize that my challenge is a bit shocking, but sometimes words are just too plain to be ignored!

Please carefully note the following citations from this climactic chapter of Ellen White's most spiritual work:

"Upon Christ as our substitute and surety was laid the iniquity of us all. . . .  The guilt of every descendant of Adam was pressing upon His heart. The wrath of God against sin, the terrible manifestation of His displeasure because of iniquity, filled the soul of His Son with 


consternation. . . .  Salvation for the chief of sinners was His theme. But now with the terrible weight of guilt He bears, He cannot see the Father's reconciling face. . . .

"Christ felt the anguish which the sinner will feel when mercy shall no longer plead for the guilty race. It was the sense of sin, bringing the Father's wrath upon Him as man's substitute, that made the cup He drank so bitter, and broke the heart of the Son of God" (753; italics supplied). 

"He, the Sin Bearer, endures the wrath of divine justice, and for thy sake becomes sin itself" (756; italics supplied).

And is God's wrath active or passive? In addition to these forcefully clear statements, Ellen White makes it abundantly evident that there is precious little emphasis on God's passive justice.

"Justice demands that sin be not merely pardoned, but the death penalty must be executed. God, in the gift of His only begotten Son, met both these requirements. By dying in man's stead, Christ exhausted the penalty and provided a pardon" (7aBC 470; italics supplied).

"As Christ bore the sins of every transgressor so the sinner who will not believe in Christ as his personal Saviour . . . will bear the penalty of his transgression" (ibid. 471).

Is there any substantive difference between pulling a plug on somebody's life-support system and switching on the "juice" to an electric chair? Again, I believe the answer is self-evident! For Ellen White, our God is love, but His love is expressed actively in justice, not just passively. He is certainly our "friendly" and neighborly "God," *  but He is more than just some benignantly concerned neighbor poignantly beckoning over the back fence and pleading with us to knock off the foolishness of our romp in the fields of sin. He is also the Holy God who has acted and will once again act in just wrath against the rejecters of His merciful offer of redemption. Again there are too many references to God's active execution of justice to say that justice is merely a passive "letting us go."

And then there is that matter of salvation and God's wrath. What does all this have to say about salvation? I would suggest that the redemptive message of God is this: Our rejection of His offer of life through the 


justifying merits of Christ's death will mean our eternal death. Without Christ's substitutionary death, sinners will receive just retribution.

Let me sum it up: It is God's just love, not some cheap, mushy mercy, that saves from eternal death. Such a conclusion leads us to consideration of the next classic theory.

The Satisfaction
TheoryThe burden of this theory is to emphasize that God's justice requires satisfaction and that Christ's death brought just recompense for sin. The issue here is not God's sovereign prestige, but His character of love (Guy 9). God is not trying to prove that He is a hard-to-satisfy boss, but is maintaining the justice of His love.

While Ellen White clearly spoke of the demands of the law (God's just expression of love) being "satisfied" (7aBC 461, 465), the point is not some totaling up of a quantity of sin that requires an equal suffering (Guy 9, 10). In the final analysis the issue is God being seen as a just lawgiver and the law as an expression of His character that is satisfied (see 7aBC 470, 473).

The Penal-Substitutionary TheoryThis theory is very closely related to the satisfaction view. Both emphasize the justice of God in His love. The substitutionary theory has probably been the most popular atonement model among conservative Christians since the days of the Protestant Reformation. The gist of it goes like this: God's justice demands a penalty for the transgression of His will, and Christ's death was the penalty that is substituted for the sinner's just reward.

This theory is the dominant theme in Ellen White's thoughts about the atonement. Christ is the sinner's substitute in that He bore the penalty to satisfy the holy requirements of God's justice. And it was usually in this penal-substitutionary context that she discussed the theme of justification by faith. The essence of the thought is that God can justify sinners because Jesus has satisfied God's just requirement in both obedience to and bearing the penalty of the broken law by being the substitute (7aBC 465).

Regarding the penal-substitutionary theory, Fritz Guy has perceptively pointed out that "the death of Jesus is not God making someone else 'pay the penalty' instead of us; it is God taking the penalty on 


himself" (Guy 11). Jesus willingly paid this price not only to secure our redemption but also to demonstrate the fullness of divine love to a confused universe.


These different theories, or models, were stated by Ellen White in mutually complementary, not contradictory, ways. But again it must be emphasized that the focus of her atonement thought was centered in the concepts of penalty, substitution, and satisfaction. These became the basis of justification by faith, a justification that condemns sin, forgives the sinner, and vindicates God's law as a just expression of His character and dealings with sin.

The atonement, however, has implications for Christian experience that flow from the work Christ has done for us. These implications also involve the work that Christ does in us. The concepts of penalty, substitution, and satisfaction become the foundation for all significant victory over our sinful natures and habits of sin. God's just forgiveness is the moral influence that inspires the development of Christlike characters.

In other words, at the heart of her atonement thought was the balance between law and grace, justice and mercy, and the demonstration of this right relationship in Christ's life—and ultimately in the believer. Thus Christ's death became the basis of a cosmic vindication of God. This balancing of justice and mercy is revealed in all that God does to bring about the reconciliation of sinners in a truly profound atonement.

What Is the Point?—What is the bottom line of Ellen White's atonement thought? Without a powerful sense of retributive justice, justification by faith dissolves into sentimental indulgence. It is only the penal-substitutionary model that satisfactorily reveals the justness of God's love—a vigorously powerful love that in no way inhibits boundless manifestations of mercy. Far from it!

One simply cannot read the chapter "Gethsemane" in The Desire of Ages without being struck with two compelling factors: (1) the penal substitutionary view of the atonement is always the assumption that 


underlies her exposition and (2) many sentences and phrases speak of the intensely costly suffering of the Son of man. Take a thoughtful and reflective half hour and see for yourself.

Jesus' mental agony of Gethsemane and His experience on the cross reveal the acutely agonized suffering of the Son of God in bearing the Father's retributive wrath. Such unparalleled suffering speaks to sinners of a redemption that involves inconceivable costs. If forgiveness is a matter of mere unwarranted gratuity or mushy, sentimental indulgence on God's part, justification is cheapened and redemption becomes only an interesting novelty.

But the writings of Ellen White on the atonement far transcend mere tragic novelty. Her descriptions and reflections do not merely evidence some gratuitous or sentimental love. To the contrary, her poignant portrayals disclose an infinitely costly grace that is more precious than anything in the universe: Our eternal life demanded the very life of the Son of God! No cheap grace here!

* "See A. Graham Maxwell's Servants or Friends. I took this metaphor of God the friendly neighbor from an advertisement for this book that appeared in a recent edition of Christianity Today [back] [top]

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