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Ellen White on Salvation

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II


Chapter Thirteen

Justification After Minneapolis
—Maintaining Gospel Balance

Some students of Ellen White, in their zeal to emphasize objective justification through the merits of Christ, have not wanted to recognize that Christ's "merits" are intimately involved in character development. Probably the most representative is Helmut Ott. "We should not take expressions such as `union with Christ,' `divinity and humanity combined,' and `partaker of the divine nature' as references either to a pantheistic mixing of God and man or to a mystical blending of divine and human identities. The phrases are not suggesting a supernatural integration of human and divine natures, or some form of human deification" (68).

Ott here expresses a warning that has some validity in light of the pantheistic environment of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Seventh-day Adventist theological discussion. However, he takes it too far in restricting these expressions only to justification and imputation. "The believer 'becomes a partaker of the divine nature' when—and by reason of the fact that—he exercises `faith in Christ, his atoning sacrifice.' Clearly, the righteousness of Christ is not a spiritual substance or a moral element that somehow gets infused into the believer" (ibid. 68).

For Ellen White there is never a meritorious infusion of righteousness, but righteousness certainly is active in the soul of the believer to beget righteous acts and character. It was clear to her that what was 


infused has no saving merit to justify the believer. The righteousness, however, was certainly a "moral element that somehow" got "infused into the believer," according to Ellen White.

In principle, this ongoing expression was but a further clarification of the saved from sin, not in sin theme. Imputation was to be distinguished from impartation, but never separated. The people of God can experience real victory over sin only if they know that they are fully accepted in Christ's merits and righteousness.

Seemingly Inconsistent Statements

There were a few Ellen White statements that seem a bit doctrinally imprecise in their expression of the relationship between justification and sanctification. *  They seem mainly to have been borne out of her deep desire to avoid the extremes of legalistic works of obedience and faith "alone" concepts that make the law of none effect.

The following is typical of such seeming imprecision: "Man cannot be saved without obedience" and "Christ should work in him to will and to do of His good pleasure" (RH, July 1, 1890). What she seemed to be suggesting was not works that have merit, but the clear understanding that with Christ's help, believers can develop characters fit for heaven. 

This was all very closely related to the persistently stated theme of being saved from sin, not in it. This is clearly the intent of her statement in Signs, December 28, 1891: "Through obedience to all the commandments of God, we are accepted in the Beloved." This seems quite legalistic until the next paragraphs, where she states that "no one" with "an intelligent knowledge" of God's will "can be saved in disobedience." 

Another interesting development that seemed to approve of theological imprecision was her declaration that "many commit the error of trying to define minutely the fine points of distinction between justification and sanctification" (1888 Materials 897).

This seems to be a rather curious statement for Ellen White to make, because she had herself quite carefully defined the distinctions between justification and sanctification. But what she most likely had in mind were the dogmatic, strained definitions of extremist Seventh-day


Adventist Minister E. R. Jones (not to be confused with his more well known contemporary A. T. Jones).

She clearly rebuked Jones for trying to define "all the whys and wherefores as to what constitutes the new heart" or the "position" that "they can and must reach so as never to sin." She pointedly admonished him that he had "no such work to do" (1SM 177; we are not finished with the case of E. R. Jones and will meet up with him again in the next major section, which deals with perfection). This reference was written in May of 1890 and is the only statement that comes close to giving a hint as to what Ellen White was complaining about in the somewhat curious sounding manuscript 21, 1891.

Justification From 1893 Through 1902

The concepts of the right relationship between law and grace as well as faith and works were clearly reinforced but received no perceptible embellishment during this period from the perspective of the development of her doctrine of justification. The development of this concept of justification had reached its full maturity in the late 1888 through 1892 period.

Christ's Merits and Priestly Intercession

The quartet of ideas that grew out of her conception of the high priestly intercession of Christ unfolded along the following lines. 

Christ's Merits Make Our Obedience Acceptable
—The idea that the merits of Jesus make "the religious services" of believers acceptable to God continued to receive elaboration. But it was expressed not in new or original terms, but only in superbly comprehensive statements and concise clarity.

The consummate expression of the need for constant acceptance (and her expression of objective justification) came in the powerful statement of manuscript 50, 1900. To give the impact of its clarity and comprehensiveness, it is cited at length.

"Christ as high priest within the veil so immortalized Calvary that though He liveth unto God, He dies continually to sin, and thus if any man sin, he has an advocate with the Father. . . .


"Let no one take the limited, narrow position that any of the works of man can help in the least possible way to liquidate the debt of his transgression. This is a fatal deception. . . .

"This matter is so dimly comprehended that thousands upon thousands claiming to be sons of God are children of the wicked one, because they will depend on their own works. God always demanded good works, the law demands it, but because man placed himself in sin where his good works were valueless, Jesus' righteousness alone can avail. . . . 

 "No sin can be committed by man for which satisfaction has not been met on Calvary. Thus the cross, in earnest appeals, continually proffers to the sinner a thorough expiation. . . .

"As you come with humble heart, you find pardon, for Christ Jesus is represented as continually standing at the altar, momentarily offering up the sacrifice for the sins of the world. . . . A daily and yearly typical atonement is no longer to be made, but the atoning sacrifice through a mediator is essential because of the constant commission of sin. . . .  Jesus presents the oblation offered for every offense and every shortcoming of the sinner" (1SM 343, 344). 

It is clear that this powerful expression of objective justification referred primarily not to reprobates who had just come to Jesus for pardon, but to the ongoing needs of "true believers."

"The religious services, the prayers, the praise, the penitent confession of sin ascend from true believers as incense 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. They ascend not in spotless purity, and unless the Intercessor, who is at God's right hand, presents and purifies all by His righteousness, it is not acceptable to God. All incense from earthly tabernacles must be moist with the cleansing drops of the blood of Christ. He holds before the Father the censer of His own merits, in which there is no taint of earthly corruption. He gathers into this censer the prayers, the praise, and the confessions of His people, and with these He puts His own spotless righteousness. Then, perfumed with the merits of Christ's propitiation, the incense comes up before God wholly and entirely acceptable. Then gracious answers are returned.


"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. The fragrance of this righteousness ascends like a cloud around the mercy seat" (ibid. 344).

Christ's Merits Make Up for Our "Deficiencies"—The statements that spoke of Christ's merits acting as a buffer or safety net for human failure continued. "I rest in His love, notwithstanding my imperfections. God has accepted His perfection in my behalf." The very next paragraph continued with the admittance that "if we were perfect, we would not need a Saviour, a Redeemer to rescue us from the slavery of Satan" (letter 24, 1895, in 12 MR 35). They also showed no real development. Again it is clear that these expressions had come to full maturity in the 1889-1892 period.

Fending Off Satan's Taunting Accusations—The expression of dramatic dialogue, with penitent sinners responding to the taunts of Satan, the use of Zechariah 3, and the application of the proceedings of the investigative judgment to justification continued to be employed during this period, but with no discernible development.

Though the justificationist application of the investigative judgment was not very prominent after 1892 (even noticeable by its rare use), it did receive one very interesting use in 1893 in which the closely related themes of Christ's intercession with His merit and the work of judgment were tied together. "The work of God is to be carried on to completion by the cooperation of divine and human agencies. Those who are self-sufficient may be apparently active in the work of God; but if they are prayerless, their activity is of no avail. Could they look into the censer of the angel that stands at the golden altar before the rainbow-circled throne, they would see that the merit of Jesus must be mingled with our prayers and efforts, or they are as worthless as was the offering of Cain. Could we see all the activity of human instrumentality, as it appears before God, we would see that only the work accomplished by much prayer, which is sanctified by the merit of Christ, will stand the test of the judgment. When the grand review shall take place, then shall ye return and discern between him that serveth God and him that serveth Him not" (CS 263).


God's Willingness to Pardon—The expression of God's willingness to pardon sinners continued with numerous uses, but there was no discernible development compared with the previous period.

God's Infinite Requirements Necessitate Justification

The distinctive Ellen White concept that believers are required to meet the same standard as the unfallen Adam continued to find sparing but very important usage during this period. Furthermore, this thought seemed to be very closely associated with the increasing use of the idea that Christ's merits are the key to victory over actual sin and temptation in the believer's life. And all this was closely associated with the resurgence of emphasis on sanctification, character transformation, and perfection, which becomes patently evident in the last half of the 1890s and the first three years of the new century.

The idea that Christ's merits provide the basis of victory is quite understandable in the setting of her exposition of the profound balance between justification and sanctification. The thought here always seemed to be that believers just simply cannot begin to walk in the Christian life unless they know they are accepted in Christ through His merits.

The concept that believers must meet the same standard as the unfallen Adam was expressed in curious, seemingly contradictory ways. 

How Are We "Justified by Perfect Obedience"?—The most perplexing statement of this concept came in 1901: "Only by perfect obedience to the requirements of God's holy law can man be justified. Let those whose natures have been perverted by sin ever keep their eyes fixed on Christ, the author and the finisher of their faith."

Five paragraphs later she said: "Those only who through faith in Christ obey all of God's commandments will reach the condition of sinlessness in which Adam lived before his transgression. They testify to their love of Christ by obeying all His precepts" (MS 122, 1901, in 8 MR 98, 99).

What makes this statement quite puzzling is its use of the word "justified," which seems to go contrary to her customary use of the term. She spoke of "perfect obedience" that justifies, an obedience that can be


reached "through faith in Christ," an obedience that will "through faith" reproduce "the condition of sinlessness in which Adam lived before his transgression." This is the most perplexing statement in all Ellen White's discussion of justification.

If she had been required to stick to her own clear definition of "justified" and her overwhelmingly customary usage of it, then it is clear that what was manifested here was either a flat-out contradiction or possibly a lapse in precision.

Are We "Counted Precious" by "Imparted Righteousness "?—At least one other perplexing statement should be mentioned. She claimed that "it is only because of Christ's imparted righteousness that we are counted precious by the Lord" (RH, Aug. 24, 1897, italics supplied). Again it seems that her use of "imparted" was either a clear contradiction to customary meaning or a manifestation of imprecision. The latter seems to be the case in this sentence.

An Explanation of Perplexing Statements

What are we to make of these perplexing statements, especially the strongly worded phrase that "by perfect obedience to the requirements of God's holy law," man is justified?

In the setting of her overall usage, with an amazingly consistent expression of objective justification (throughout many years of ministry), this statement also seems to be a lapse in precision. It appears that the word "sanctified" would have fit much better. But could there be some deeper issue emerging in these statements?

It looks as if this emphasis on obedience and sanctified perfection was but a part of a larger movement in the unfolding of Ellen White's teaching on salvation. This larger movement seemed to reflect a growing fear that false definitions of faith were again looming as the larger threat.

Could it be that she sensed God's people making a subtle shift in attitude? Was faith being understood as mere mental assent, with no corresponding need to obey God's law? During this period the evidence certainly suggests that she felt the major enemy was not unwitting 


legalism but "believe, only believe" holiness perversions (real or perceived) that denied the importance of loving obedience.

It could be that what she was expressing in these seemingly imprecise and contradictory statements was her counterpart to the Epistle of James. "But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? . . . Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only" (James 2:20-24).

This was in contrast to the issues that brought on the crisis of Minneapolis and 1888. In that setting Ellen White gave Seventh-day Adventism her emphasis on the primary burden of Romans and Galatians. "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ. . . . that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified" (Gal. 2:16).

Whatever these statements meant in relationship to her exposition of justification, they were certainly forceful expressions of her ongoing delicate balance that sought to hold together merit and obedience, faith and works, law and gospel as the mutually complementary (not contradictory) essentials of salvation.

Summation of the Justification Development

While Ellen White's understanding of justification by faith was quite fully expressed by 1888 (especially between 1883 and 1888), the four years immediately following Minneapolis was the period of full maturity.

It was a full maturity in the sense of greater clarity of expression and marked emphasis.

The late 1890s and the first three years of the new century witnessed a greater emphasis on the importance of obedience in relationship to justification. It was this expression that presented the most puzzling statements in Ellen White's literature on justification.

In the light of the dominance of emphasis on the importance of obedience throughout her ministry, it is probably appropriate that the developments of this post-Minneapolis era would climax with a return


to an emphasis on perfection. With a grasp of her understanding of justification, we are now prepared to look at how her understanding of perfection unfolded.


*  Some have even accused Ellen White of just plain inconstancy and contradiction. But I think the discussion in the next chapter will lay to rest this serious charge. [back] [top]

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