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Ellen White on Salvation

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II


Chapter Twelve

Justification After Minneapolis
—From Late 1888 to 1892

The comparison of Ellen White's post-Minneapolis periods with her pre-Minneapolis conceptions of justification is best demonstrated by comparing the major expressions or categories used in chapter 9 with how they unfolded during each of the periods of the post-Minneapolis era. Any additions to these three essential expressions will be noted as the study unfolds.

Faith and Works Never Separated

The close relationship between law and gospel, faith and works, and the expression that sinners are saved from sin, not in sin, continued with undiminished force during this critical period that saw Ellen White's most vigorous explanations of justification.

The balance between justification and sanctification that had been in her understanding from the earliest days was not denied or modified, even though the justification side was now receiving its most forceful expression. There were no marked changes in her basic doctrine from the previous era, and such a lack of change is strong evidence of the central importance of the justification/sanctification balance in the salvation teachings of Ellen White.

The quartet of ideas growing out of her emphasis on the high priestly intercession of Christ unfolded in the following manner.


Christ's Merits Make Our Obedience Acceptable—The expression that the "merits" of Christ make the "efforts" of believers "to keep His law" acceptable to God is not only repeated but also clarified to give an even stronger statement of objective justification. She not only spoke of Christ's "merits" making their efforts acceptable, but she explicitly called these "merits" "His perfection."

"When He sees men lifting the burdens, trying to carry them in lowliness of mind, with distrust of self and with reliance upon Him," the sinner's "defects are covered by the perfection and fullness of the Lord our righteousness." Such humble believers are "looked upon by the Father with pitying, tender love; He regards such as obedient children, and the righteousness of Christ is imputed unto them" (1888 Materials 402; IHP 23).

In the important manuscript 36, 1890, Ellen White used the strong expression "creature merit" and spoke of its "utter worthlessness . . . to earn the wages of eternal life." It is not entirely clear from the context if this refers to the believer's present efforts (not just the preconversion efforts of the well-meaning but misguided penitent to win God's favor), but the strong implication is that this was what she had in mind. She referred to "a fervor of labor and an intense affection, high and noble achievement of intellect, a breadth of understanding, and the humblest self-abasement" (FW 23) as needing to "be laid upon the fire of Christ's righteousness to cleanse it from its earthly odor before it rises in a cloud of fragrant incense to the great Jehovah and is accepted as a sweet savor" (ibid. 24). She then reinforced the need for Christ's intercessory ministry (and the implication that it was the converted believer's righteousness that was in vogue here) with the declaration that "my requests are made acceptable only because they are laid upon Christ's righteousness" (ibid.).

The notion that it is the believer's prayers for the forgiveness of sin that need intercession, however, became explicit in 1892. "But suppose that we sin after we have been forgiven, after we have become the children of God, then need we despair? No; for John writes, 'My little children, these things I write unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.' Jesus is in the heavenly courts pleading with the Father in our behalf. He presents our prayers, mingling with them the precious incense of His own


merit, that our prayers may be acceptable to the Father" (RH, Mar. 1, 1892). It was clearly stated that whatever believers do—even their best works—is in need of the objective ministry of Christ's intercession to make their works acceptable.

The picture that she portrayed here is probably the most arresting depiction of objective justification Ellen White would ever give. She pictures sinners as outwardly doing the right things, but their actions are in desperate need of Christ's precious incense—"His own merit." This justification is objective in that its power depends on what Christ does in heaven, not what goes on subjectively in the believer. What goes on in the believer is good, but not good enough!

This most powerful portrayal would continue to receive further expression (and some elaboration) through 1902.

Christ's Merits Make Up for Our "Deficiencies"
—Already in the immediately preceding section, we have clear examples of what I call her safety net expressions: even if believers "sin" after having been forgiven, they have their prayers for forgiveness perfumed with the "fragrance" of the "incense of His own merit." Please note that these "merits" are to be contrasted with "creature merit" of sinful humans. With the power of Christ's merits being offered to the sinful (by nature), deficient, sinning, but penitent and loyal children of God, they have their "unavoidable deficiencies" made up for them by the "imputed" righteousness of Christ (3SM 195-197).

Again, during this period, both of the closely related themes of "deficiencies" that need to be made up for and the forgiveness of sins committed by erring believers (but erring ones who are loyal and trying to obey) continued to receive ongoing expression. The strength of the expression, however, was increased with the declaration that these deficiencies are "unavoidable," a qualifying term not found in pre-1888 materials. Furthermore, she referred to the "merits" that humans would seek to produce not just as "merit" but clarified this with the more strikingly negative expression "creature merit."

The expression "unavoidable deficiencies" cries out for further comment. She strengthened this expression with a number of other striking terms and phrases.*


"His perfect holiness atones for our shortcomings. When we do our best, He becomes our righteousness" (1888 Materials 242).

"The sinner's defects are covered by the perfection and fullness of the Lord our Righteousness," and they are regarded as "obedient children" (ibid. 402; IHP 23).

"When we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ, we shall have no relish for sin." Such believers "may make mistakes," but they will "hate the sin that caused the sufferings of the Son of God" (RH, March 18, 1890).

"The sinner may err, but he is not cast off without mercy" (1888 Materials 898).

"If through manifold temptations we are surprised or deceived into sin, he does not turn from us, and leave us to perish. No, no, that is not like our Saviour" (RH, Sept. 1, 1891).

"Jesus loves His children, even if they err. . . . He keeps His eye upon them, and when they do their best . . . be assured the service will be accepted, although imperfect" (3SM 195, 196).

"We make mistakes again and again
," and "no one is perfect but Jesus. . . . What if in some respects we do err, does the Lord forsake us, and forget us, and leave us to our own ways? No" (1888 Materials 1089).

The collective force of these expressions certainly envisions a reassuring safety net in light of the reality of human failure. It is an unmistakably powerful expression of objective justification. While this exposition was essentially the same as during the previous era, the combined effect does seem stronger and more comprehensive in this period (at least in the number of times expressed).

Especially the phrases "unavoidable deficiencies" and "no one is perfect but Jesus" clearly provide a softening buffer against the failure to meet the "high demand" and must be seriously considered in any final definition of what Ellen White meant by "perfection."

Fending Off Satan's Taunting Accusations
—The rather dramatic expression of dialogue between the harassed sinner and the taunting devil continued to manifest itself. A direct reference to the vision of Joshua and the angel of Zechariah 3 was a marked application of the justificationist


buffering against human failure. "Jesus is perfect. Christ's righteousness is imputed unto them, and He will say, 'Take away the filthy garments from him and clothe him with change of raiment.' Jesus makes up for our unavoidable deficiencies" (3SM 196).

Please note that this use of Zechariah 3 was employed in the same context as the important expression that Christ's imputed righteousness makes up for "our unavoidable deficiencies." Furthermore, this dramatic dialogue was placed at least twice in the context of Jesus' ministry in the Most Holy Place. In the thought of Ellen White, the ministry of Christ in the Most Holy Place was intimately related to the proceedings connected with the "investigative judgment."

"Satan will accuse you of being a great sinner, and you must admit this, but you can say: 'I know I am a sinner, and that is the reason I need a Saviour.' Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (ST, July 4, 1892).

Four paragraphs later in the same article she declared: "Jesus stands in the holy of holies, now to appear in the presence of God for us. There He ceases not to present His people moment by moment, complete in Himself."

This Signs article, along with manuscript 36, 1890, ranks as one of the most powerful and comprehensive expressions of objective justification, by faith alone, in all Ellen White's writings.

This statement certainly presents the work of Christ in the Most Holy Place as having to do with objective justification, a justification that must be constantly ministered to His defective people, who are presented "moment by moment" as "complete in Himself."

But a second statement that spoke to this theme during this period was an even more explicit reference to the work of Christ in the "judgment" and is found in manuscript 40, 1891: "The Lord has promised that because of the propitiatory sacrifice He will, if we repent, certainly forgive our iniquities. Now, while Christ is pleading in our behalf, while the Father accepts the merits of the atoning Sacrifice, let us ask and we shall receive. Let all confess their sins and let them go beforehand to judgment that they may be forgiven for Christ's sake, and that pardon may be written against their names. . . .


"With Jesus as your Advocate, and you believing, confessing your sins with contrition of soul, and dying to self, would you not feel assured your suit is indeed gained?" (1888 Materials 868, 869).

The implications for justification in the way she employed the concept of the investigative judgment continued the same trends as found in the previous era. The judgment not only motivated character transformation, but did so by giving assurance that the faithful could find acceptance in Christ.

God's Willingness to Pardon—The expression of God's willingness to pardon continued in much the same fashion as found in the previous era, with no marked development.

The sum total of these four critical expressions which have to do with Christ's intercessory ministry was that objective justification is needed by believers all the way through their experience. Justification always runs parallel to or concurrently with sanctification.

It is absolutely clear that believers must always be looking to Jesus for their merits. There is neither a time nor a place in our Christian experience that we can begin to look to self. Such an experience is best illustrated by the electric trolley car compared with the bus.

The trolley gets down the street by keeping its boom connected to the source of power from above. The bus gets along by depending on the power it receives from its own fuel tanks. The simple fact is that believers simply do not have enough in the "tank" to make it when it comes to merit. We must be trolley cars all the way to the kingdom—every moment and mile of the way!

God's Infinite Requirements Necessitate Justification

The concept that God's requirement is now just what it was in Eden before the Fall was expressed very clearly in justificationist terms. Ellen White used two such expressions during this period.

The first came in Steps to Christ. Because "we are sinful, unholy, we cannot perfectly obey the holy law." But despite past sinfulness sinners can be "accounted righteous. Christ's character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned" (62).


Although this application seems to have primary reference to justification, Ellen White did express her justification/sanctification balance with the thought that God works in sinners so that "with Christ working in you, you will manifest the same spirit and do the same good work— works of righteousness, obedience.

"So we have nothing in ourselves of which to boast. We have no ground for self-exaltation. Our only ground of hope is in the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and in that wrought by His Spirit working in and through us" (ibid. 63).

There was here the hint that what God does in believers can, based on a clear experience of Christ's imputed righteousness, produce "the same spirit and do the same good works—works of righteousness, obedience."

The second reference that used the "requirement in Eden" concept is found in Signs, September 5, 1892, and the theme was almost identical to what is found in the Steps to Christ reference just cited. The necessity for justification was prime, but the expression concluded with the thought that "justified by His grace" "good works will follow as the blossoms and fruit of faith."

These justificationist applications, however, did not dampen the ongoing expression of great possibilities for human achievement empowered by divine grace.

New Vehicles to Express Justification

What probably accounted for this revival and expansion of the perfectionist, transformationist use of this theme was a new concept that continued to find expression during the balance of Ellen White's ministry. It went like this:

Christ's merit and justifying work were seen as the keys to victory over sin in the life—not just a legal victory of pardon and justification, but the actual overcoming of sin in the life and character.

What Ellen White envisioned here is the Mary of Magdala response. The gracious deliverance of Jesus should always produce outpourings of lavish appreciation. How can my attitude to God be legal and behavioristic after I have felt His gracious and undeserved forgiveness?


What is going on in her thought at this critical juncture in her ministry needs careful analysis. Her vision of the intimate relationship of justification and sanctification has caused some well-meaning students of her writings to confuse the two. But Ellen White never did this, and her burden was always to make the proper distinctions. She did it, however, in ways that avoided extremes.

On the one hand, she shied away from a doctrine of salvation by the merit of imparted righteousness. On the other, she did not want to deny the powerful internal workings of God's Spirit, who makes Christ's righteousness real in our experience of obedience. In the next chapter we will carefully analyze some of her most doctrinally perplexing statements in order to see how she maintains gospel balance.

* Italics have been supplied in these quotations. [back] [top]

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