At Issue Index   Table of Contents   Previous   Next

Ellen White on Salvation

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II


Chapter Fourteen

Perfection Before 1888

We are now ready to tackle the most challenging part of Ellen White's teaching on salvation—perfection. Our purpose is to seek to understand how her view of perfection unfolded during the post-1888 era, the era of her greatest emphasis on justification. This will be the critical exhibit of her that we have been dealing with from the very beginning of her ministry. The key question is How will the great surge of emphasis on justification affect the unfolding of her teaching on perfection for the balance of this post-1888 era? But before we examine the post-1888 era, it will prove helpful to trace her understanding of perfection as it unfolded throughout the years leading up to 1888.

Perfection, Sanctification, and Justification

For Ellen White, perfection was just about synonymous with sanctification. But we must always remember that perfection (no matter what it meant in any given passage) was the goal of sanctification.

In her thought justification and sanctification need to be distinguished, but not separated. The same goes for sanctification and perfection. Justification often defined perfection and always formed the foundation of the experience of sanctification. Sanctification often defined perfection, but at the same time perfection was always the goal of sanctification.


Sanctification and Perfection Before 1888

A number of different facets or characteristics go into Ellen White's definition of perfection, and to get the full picture we need to understand each facet in its relationship to the whole. It is sort of like a great baseball team: there are star characters who really stand out, but the team is incomplete if a good supporting cast of characters on the bench is lacking. The whole team needs to be looked at, not just the outstanding players.

What follows is a review of all the essential "players" on Ellen White's "team" perfection.

The Goal and Attainment of Perfection

Probably the most striking features of Ellen White's presentation of the doctrine of perfection is the high goal to be attained and the many forthright, ringing declarations that its attainment is possible.

The Goal of Perfection—
The following terms and expressions come from the entire pre-1888 era and express the goal of perfection in seemingly absolute terms.

"We can overcome. Yes; fully, entirely. Jesus died to make a way of escape for us, that we might overcome every evil temper, every sin, every temptation" (1T 144). "The Son of God was faultless. We must aim at this perfection and overcome as He overcame" (3T 336). Human beings can reach "a perfection of intelligence and a purity of character but little lower than the perfection and purity of angels" (4T 93). "All His righteous demands must be fully met" (RH, Aug. 23, 1881). "Every defect of character must be overcome, or it will overcome us, and become a controlling power for evil" (ibid., June 3, 1884). "The law demands perfect, unswerving obedience" (TM 440). "Satan could find nothing in the Son of God that would enable him to gain the victory. . . . This is the condition in which those must be found who shall stand in the time of trouble" (GC 623).

In addition to these presumably absolute expressions, there were numerous strong presentations that believers, after the Fall, must meet the same standard as required of Adam before the Fall. She was explicit that God's requirement of "Adam in paradise before he fell" is just the same "at this moment" for all who live "in grace" (RH, July 15, 1890). She 


further enforced this by declaring that it is "not the work of the gospel to weaken the claims of God's holy law, but to bring men up where they can keep its precepts" (ibid., Oct. 5, 1886).

The various contexts of these statements make it clear that this is a requirement that is to be met in the believer's Spirit-empowered performance, not just through the accounting of Christ's perfect life of obedience to the penitent's account.

These are some of the strongest and most perplexing statements of perfection found in the writings of Ellen White. The key issue is whether her definition of perfection was qualified because of the sinfulness of human nature. We will deal more with this critical question a little later. Another theme that expressed the high goal was her repeated employment of Matthew 5:48: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." Pointing to the importance of this theme, she clearly outlined the goal: "Holiness of heart and purity of life was the great subject of the teachings of Christ. In His Sermon on the Mount, after specifying what must be done in order to be blessed, and what must not be done, He says: `Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.'

"Perfection, holiness, nothing short of this, would give them success in carrying out the principles He had given them" (2T 441).

Please note that "perfection and holiness" (apparently one and the same thing here) were not only the goal, but also the means of "success in carrying out the principles" of the Sermon on the Mount. A very similar expression was published in the Review of September 20, 1881: "`Be ye therefore perfect, [even] as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.' It should be our lifework to be constantly reaching forward to the perfection of Christian character, ever striving for conformity to the will of God. The efforts begun here will continue through eternity."

Thus it is clear that her comments on Matthew 5:48 were employed to express not only a high goal, but the dynamic means to reach this goal. Perfection was thus defined as both a goal and a relative experience that consists of pressing toward the goal. The concept she pictured here arises out of the whole experience of growth. The goal of growth is always maturity, but there is relative perfection at each stage of the dynamic unfolding


The Attainment of Perfection—Not only was the demand and goal of perfection very high and seemingly absolute, but she also was very positive that this goal is attainable. Indeed, it must be attained this side of the close of probation and the glorification of the saints at the Second Coming.

There were numerous biblical witnesses whom Ellen White put forth as examples that such an attainment was possible this side of glorification, but her chief witness was Jesus Christ. His example became the key exhibit that she used to combat the challenge of her opponents that it is impossible for sinners to obey God's law perfectly. She saw this as one of Satan's great lies, and she clearly stated that Christ's sinless life is the answer to Satan's deceptive lie that perfect obedience is impossible.

Repeating an often-heard plea that "it's natural for me to be quick; it's my temperament," she responded by declaring that "all these 'natural' infirmities can be overcome by grace. . . . `It's natural.' Satan loves to hear this." She then concluded with the strong affirmation that "Jesus says, `My grace is sufficient for you"' (YI, November 1857). It is possible for penitent sinners to overcome temptations that appeal to both inherited and cultivated tendencies to evil, and there is no excuse for indulging in transgression.

Not only is there the example of Jesus in His humanity, but also there are those of Enoch, Daniel, Joseph, and Paul. All these Bible characters she regarded as positive, real-life demonstrations that it is possible for fallen humanity—through the grace and example of Jesus—to overcome fully.

The Distinguishing Qualities of Perfection

It is in this section that Ellen White's understanding begins to reveal its qualifying characteristics. In the previous section perfection was defined as seemingly absolute and attainable in this life by penitent sinners through Jesus' example and grace. But there were distinguishing and qualifying characteristics in her understanding of perfection!


Full Surrender—Perfection is an experience that arises out of full surrender and consecration to God's will and guidance in the life. No halfhearted commitment could attain the high goal of full and entire victory over sin. 

Active Effort Required—The attainment of perfection is not a passive affair, but one that requires special effort on the part of the believer. There was no hint of "cruise control"* passiveness in Ellen White's sketch of Christian experience. Believers must move forward in faith at God's command and not idly lie back waiting for some special inspiration or shock treatment to move them to a life of vigorous character development.

The illustrative image which immediately comes to mind is the effort that the paralytic by the Pool of Bethesda needed to make in response to Jesus' command to get up and walk.

The Fruit of Dynamic Sanctification—Perfection is an experience that results from sanctification. Sanctification was understood to be dynamic and progressive—not static. Included in this expression was the closely related concept that sanctification is the "work of a lifetime." This, therefore, led to the very direct conclusion that sanctification is not an instantaneous experience.

No One to Claim Perfection
—Closely related to the concept that sanctification is dynamic and progressive (and not instantaneous) was the clear warning that no one is to claim perfection. The reason for this warning arose primarily out of Ellen White's important insight into personal spirituality and the way sinful humans come to conviction of sin. The concept went essentially like this: the closer one comes to Christ, the clearer the vision of the divine perfection will be; consequently, there will be a greater realization of sinfulness, and the penitent one will have no desire to claim perfection.

For Ellen White, perfection, in at least some qualified sense, is attainable, but such an attainment for the spiritually perceptive Christian will always be a consciously receding horizon that can never be reached and claimed this side of glorification.

An Important Debate—Ellen White's interpreters disagree as to whether those who refuse to claim holiness or perfection are really sinlessly perfect or just being shy about their spiritual growth. Let us try to sharpen the focus on this issue with two questions: Is their refusal to claim


perfection reflective of a truly realistic view that their perfection is relative, or are they truly sinlessly perfect and just being spiritually modest? Is the perfection they refuse to claim relatively sinless or absolutely sinless?

Dennis Priebe feels that "there can be a difference between being sinless and claiming to be sinless" (84). He bases this conclusion on Ellen White's statement which declared that "no one who claims holiness is really holy. Those who are registered as holy in the books of heaven are not aware of the fact, and are the last ones to boast of their own goodness" (ST, Feb. 26, 1885).

Helmut Ott seems to be more accurate in his appraisal of the numerous statements that Ellen White makes to the effect that holy saints have not, nor ever will, claim holiness or sinlessness. Referring to her statements that the saints will not claim "to be pure and holy" (GC 470) and noting their confession of a "sense of. . . weakness and imperfection" (PP 85), Ott comments: "Their admission of guilt and sinfulness did not result from a false sense of modesty or an inability to recognize their true spiritual standing. Instead, it rested on the fact that their unusually close relationship with God enabled them to acquire both the point of reference and the spiritual perception they needed to see themselves as they really were" (58, 59).

What they really were is perfect and holy in only a relative sense of the word, and this realization is the source of the reticence—not some sense of false modesty. Furthermore, they instinctively realize that to make a claim of perfection would even endanger the beauty of the relative reality! Sinful condition always plays a subtle trick on even religious persons: they are usually quite optimistic about their "own righteousness, which is of the law" (Phil. 3:9). Truly converted persons are much more sober about the reality of moral self-deception.

Perfection Accompanied by Strict Obedience
—Sanctification and perfection involve a reverence for and strict obedience to the law of God. The focus here is the practical outworking of her firm conviction that believers are saved from sin, not in sin. Sinners are not saved by works, but neither are they saved without them (ST, July 13, 1888).


But she was careful in her emphasis on obedience to deny that this strict obedience was mere respectable morality or moralism. All true perfection must arise from an experience that senses a need for Christian conversion. "Some feel that they are almost right, because they do not commit outbreaking sins, and because they live moral lives. But all children, youth, middle-aged, and aged, have a work to do in taking the steps in conversion for which Jesus has given them an example in his life....

"All who live have sins to wash away. They may have good intentions, and good purposes; they may have noble traits of character and live moral lives; notwithstanding, they need a Saviour" (YI, February 1874).

Symmetrical ObedienceA special feature of perfect obedience was that it should be symmetrical. This term refers to balance in carrying out God's will—not emphasizing one duty at the expense of another (3T 243ff.). She repeatedly sought to lead the faithful into an all-fronts battle against sin. "I know that those who bear the message of truth to them do not properly instruct them on all points essential to the perfection of a symmetrical character in Christ" (4T 314, italics supplied).

It is entirely possible that what she had in mind were the many people whom she met who made high claims to perfection and holiness, but whose personal lives were moral disasters.

The picture here is of tragicomic persons who do not understand the "weightier matters of the law" in their pathetic imbalance. They might be faithful in one area of devotion, but grossly negligent in others. Their health reform, for instance, "strains out gnats" while swallowing the "camels" of vegetarian gluttony. They are skilled in vegetable cookery but can easily become cannibalistic gourmets, feasting on the carcasses of their doctrinal opponents. They are experts at removing specks from the eyes of others while looking foolish with grotesque logs coming out of their own. Such lack of symmetry had no part in Ellen White's view of perfect obedience!

Perfect Believers Are Still Subject to Temptation
—An experience of perfection does not mean that believers have reached the point of being free from temptations or totally above the possibility of sin. The perfect ones will be out of temptation's reach only after glorification (ST, June 9, 1881, and Mar. 23, 1888). Any claim to freedom from temptation this side of glorification is perfectionism, not a true perfectionist experience.


Feelings and Impressions Do Not Define Perfection— Sanctification and perfection were not to be defined by feelings and impressions. Feelings and impressions have their proper sphere, but are not the key determining factor of a genuine experience of perfection.

Impressions also included claims to be led of the Holy Spirit, especially if such pretensions conflicted with God's law or a plain scriptural principle (ST, Feb. 26, 1885). For Ellen White the business of religion was a very sober, no nonsense affair. Feelings and strong expressions of emotion received a rather skeptical review.

Here is another concept that clearly distinguishes Ellen White's view of perfection from the Wesleyan model. In her opinion the Wesleyan "witness of the Spirit" was too open to fanatical abuse. She urged believers to move forward in faith, trusting the clear promises of God's Word, not feelings and impressions.

The Perfect Ones Do Not Excuse or Cherish Sin—One of the most important qualities of a genuine experience of sanctification and perfection is that there will be no cherishing, excusing, or indulging in sin. This is closely related to her important distinction between willful, premeditated sinning and unwittingly being deceived or surprised into sin.

In the thought of Ellen White, no sin is excusable, but it is a vastly different spiritual psychology to sin willfully as opposed to being deceived or surprised into it. .

It is very striking that many uses of the word "perfection" (and its variations) were often associated in the same context with an attitude that will not excuse or cherish sin of any kind—known or otherwise.

Such an association is strong evidence that for Ellen White perfection negatively meant the absence of (1) an attitude of excuse or cherishing sin and (2) the performance of willful and premeditated acts of sinning. Positively it meant doing the best one could do.

Maybe I can help you visualize the concept. I once lived in a rural setting in north central Georgia, where there were many logging trucks traveling the country roads. One morning I was running late to meet a radio appointment in town, and in my rush I ran into one of those trucks as it was coming around a blind corner. This accident was partly my 


mistake (as a result of my lack of punctuality), but I did not get up that morning longing to go out and purposefully ram the first logging truck I could find! My problem was a weakness, not an attitude. There is a world of difference.

Believer's Perfection Never Absolute—It should already be clear from the above discussion and from the presentations on justification in the previous chapter that perfection in the Christian experience is never absolute and can never be exactly the same as the experience and the perfection of Jesus. But the nonabsolute or relative nature of the believer's human perfection was further clarified in the following closely related ways.

1. Jesus is the only one who was absolutely perfect. In fact, Ellen White described those who claimed to be "equal with Him in perfection of character" as committing "blasphemy" (RH, Mar. 15, 1887). Compared with Christ, human perfection is always relative.

2. In addition to the comparison of human perfection with the absolutely perfect Jesus, the relative nature of the believer's perfection was expressed numerous times by Ellen White in simple, forthright ways to the effect that "you cannot equal the Pattern [Christ], but you can resemble it" (MS 32, 1887, 2 MR 126).

3. Aside from the more specific statements about the relative nature of perfection, there were numerous "His sphere, our sphere" statements. "As God Himself is perfect in His exalted sphere, so should His children be perfect in the humble sphere they occupy" (2SP 225). In relationship to defining the believer's perfection, it is not entirely clear what she was referring to in this expression.

She often used the "His sphere, our sphere" concept in commenting on Matthew 5:48. She seems to be referring to capabilities and powers (1888 Materials 146), which differ from person to person and certainly differ when the human is compared with the divine.

Though this "His sphere, our sphere" expression is a bit elusive, the gist of it seemed to be another way of saying that believers should do the best that they can with all the gifts, natural and supernatural, that are available to them in their sphere of existence. The bottom line, though, is that perfection is something different in God's sphere than it is in the human sphere.


Special Miscellaneous Characteristics—Ellen White occasionally lifted up for special treatment certain virtues, which mainly involve proper attitudes, the chief ones being humility and patience.

Another special feature was unity among believers. This accent on unity was probably because of a number of divisive and self-righteous critics of the Seventh-day Adventist Church who were claiming perfection, all the while creating strife in the church.

These three special characteristics need further comment.

1. Unity—Ellen White felt that the unity of believers would be an important hallmark of a true experience of sanctification and perfection. "Unity is the sure result of Christian perfection" (SL 85). False sanctification, on the other hand, seemed tailor-made to produce division, and she negatively referred to "those who accept this bogus sanctification [and] do not hesitate to draw away from the body and set themselves up as criteria." She went on to observe that "the very ones who claim sanctification have in their hearts insubordination, pride, envy, jealousy, and evil surmising of their brethren" (ST, Oct. 23, 1879).

2. Humility—"Those who experience the sanctification of the Bible will manifest a spirit of humility" (GC 470). This virtue was closely associated with the consciousness of not only creatureliness, but also sinfulness. Probably one of the reasons for her pointed rejection of the Wesleyan practice of claiming and testifying to the experience of perfection was that it was too easily subverted to manifestations of pretentious and false claims (ibid. 470-472; see 2T 638).

3. Patience—Without patience "we shall never reach a state of perfection" (HS 134).

The Means of Perfection

Though Ellen White spoke of making strenuous efforts in the life of sanctification, the effort was always conceived of as being empowered by God's grace. This grace was primarily ministered through the Word and the Spirit, working in intimate concert. This combined ministry would bring spiritual truth home to the individual heart in such a way that character transformation takes place.

Summation of the Pre-1888 Perfection Expressions

As Ellen White moved into the experience of Minneapolis and 1888, she had a complete and comprehensive doctrine of perfection. But the initial question of this chapter still calls for an answer. How did her understanding of perfection play out in the important years following 1888, which featured such a great emphasis on justification?

We will get to this question in chapter 16, but before we deal with it, there is one final issue that we need to address: How perfect is the perfection required of the saints who will make it through the time of trouble and will meet Jesus in peace at His second coming?


* I am indebted to Martin Weber for this wonderful metaphor [back] [top]

At Issue Index   Table of Contents  Previous   Next