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Ellen White on Salvation

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II


Chapter Fifteen

Perfection and Closing Events

Whenever a discussion of Ellen White and perfection arises, it is almost inevitable that the subject of the character perfection of God's people during the time of trouble will come up. As has already been pointed out in chapter 5, the perfection of the saints during this time is one of the most problematic areas in Ellen White's thought. In addition to the complex nature of her conceptions, the sinless perfection advocates consider her statement that God's people will have to "stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator" (GC 425) to be one of the strongholds of their position. In other words, they understand Ellen White to be saying that God's people are so sinless that they no longer have sin in any shape or form and thus do not need Jesus' mediation.

Therefore we have devoted a whole chapter to a discussion of this rather challenging and important subject. But before we consider the character of the saints during the time of trouble, we should review some general considerations about the relationship of closing events to sanctification.

Fear and the Nearness of Christ's Coming

In the discussion about closing events in chapter 5 of this book, the basic relationship between a strong anticipation of Christ's coming and character development was outlined. From that discussion it is quite clear that Ellen White understood the "shortness of time" as a legitimate motivation for believers to perfect characters that would stand the scrutiny of the pre-Advent judgment, the rigors of the time of trouble,


and the awesome presence of Jesus at His appearing. Ellen White, however, was not fond of fear as a primary motive in striving for character perfection.

Fear and Perfection—
First of all, she declared that "the shortness of time is frequently urged as an incentive for seeking righteousness and making Christ our friend." But she went on to urge that "this should not be the great motive with us; for it savors of selfishness." She then asked: "Is it necessary that the terrors of the day of God should be held before us, that we may be compelled to right action through fear?" Her forthright answer was that "it ought not to be so" (ST, Mar. 17, 1887; italics supplied).

Thus despite the rather frightening descriptions of the awfulness of the close of probation, the time of trouble, and the day of Christ's personal appearing (GC 613-652), she could urge the "love, mercy, and compassion" of Jesus as one who will "walk with" believers and "fill" their "path with light" (ST, Mar. 17, 1887).

Complementing the theme of love (not fear) as the great motive were numerous statements urging that now—"today"—is the time of preparation for the trying times ahead. Typical of such expressions is the following.

"Live the life of faith day by day. Do not become anxious and distressed about the time of trouble, and thus have a time of trouble beforehand. Do not keep thinking, `I am afraid I shall not stand in the great testing day.' You are to live for the present, for this day only. Tomorrow is not yours. Today you are to maintain the victory over self" (ibid., Oct. 20, 1887).

The Investigative Judgment and the Time of Trouble

How do the closely related themes of the investigative judgment, the close of probation, and the character state of believers during the time of trouble contribute to an understanding of Ellen White's teaching on perfection?

Sanctification and the Investigative Judgment—Ellen White used the investigative judgment as a springboard to present the importance of both justification and sanctification. The theme is packed with motivational consequences and is another illustration of her gospel balance.


As a motivational factor for sanctification, she made numerous comments that speak of the close relationship between character purification and the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary. The following is typical: "While the investigative judgment is going forward in heaven, while the sins of penitent believers are being removed from the sanctuary, there is to be a special work of purification, of putting away of sin, among God's people upon earth. . . .  When this work shall have been accomplished, the followers of Christ will be ready for His appearing" (GC 425).

These comments sound almost as if there is some special dispensation of power associated with the period of the investigative judgment. But Ellen White nowhere explicitly spoke of such a dispensation of special power that is to be uniquely available to the last generation. Such power has always been available to believers.

Perfection and the Time of Trouble
—Before we tackle this complex and problematic issue, a brief outline of the way final events will unfold is in order.

The close of probation signals the end of the pre-Advent, investigative judgment. This review of individual histories reveals to the universe who will comprise the contrasting hosts of the redeemed and the lost.

The completion of the investigative judgment will then usher in the close of probation, and it is at this time that the earth will be plunged into the time of Jacob's trouble. This will be a most severe test of the endurance of the faithful.

What makes this whole sequence of events interesting is that from God's point of view the personal salvation of the redeemed will no longer be in question: they have been sealed with "the seal of the living God"—an unseen mark that will certify their characters to be irreversibly set (GC 613-615; 2T 191). But the sealed ones are not conscious of their status before God. They will not know that they are sealed. They will be involved in a terrible struggle of soul, seeking the assurance of sins forgiven and earnestly reviewing their life histories seeking to call up any unconfessed sins. Ellen White is quite consistent in her concept that for the faithful, perfection is always a consciously receding horizon—even during the time of trouble (GC 616-622).


Ellen White's Most Perplexing Statement— But her most challenging and perplexing statement is that the sealed believers will have "to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator. Their robes must be spotless, their characters must be purified from sin by the blood of sprinkling" (GC 425). What does it mean to live in the "sight of a holy God without a mediator"?

This question comes into sharp focus when we recall the powerful expression of objective justification involved in Ellen White's concept of Christ's ministry of mediation for believers. This intercession is not only needed to minister the benefits of redemption to the lost and alienated sinner, but was also deemed necessary to purify the earnest deeds of "true believers" from the "taint of earthly corruption." This was because such deeds had been done by "true believers" but who nevertheless still remained burdened with the "corrupt channels of humanity" (1SM 344).

So here are the "true believers" struggling through the most severe test of faith imaginable. Furthermore, in this brutal struggle they still possess mortal bodies that are oozing the "taint of earthly corruption" from their "corrupt channels. " All that they do is "defiled" by "earthly corruption." Yet they have to struggle on "without a mediator"! What is to be made of all this?

Living Without a Mediator—First of all, let us be reminded that Ellen White was clear that the sealed believer's eternal destiny will not be at stake. All living humans will have conclusively and irrevocably chosen sides by the time probation closes. This is not because God makes some arbitrary decree, but because every person will have made a final choice to be loyal or lost. The close of probation simply confirms that the choices are now irreversible. So to live without a mediator means that the lost will no longer be able to switch sides.

While this point is relevant, it does not seem to speak to the main thrust of her perfectionistic comments in The Great Controversy about the time of trouble. It is true that there will be no switching sides, but the main thrust is not choice of salvation or damnation. The central issue is the perfection of the redeemed. Could it be that their 


character will have become so perfect that they will have had their sinful natures, their corrupting channels, totally purged and eradicated as they enter this crisis?

For Ellen White, the answer was negative. She never taught such a perfectionism. She spoke of character perfection this side of glorification, but not in terms of the final eradication of sinful nature. She clearly stated that "we cannot say, `I am sinless,' till this vile body is changed and fashioned like unto His glorious body" (ST, Mar. 23, 1888, in 3SM 355). So the struggling, sealed believers retain their "vile bodies" with their "sinful natures" (though they commit no acts of pre-meditated sin) during the time of trouble.

What, then, did she mean when she spoke of a perfection that does not need the mediation of Jesus? Does she mean that they will not need Christ's grace or that Christ will no longer be sustaining them in their severe trial? Will they have built up such a reservoir of grace within that they will no longer have to look without to Christ?

If the answer is yes to these questions, then the entire thrust of Ellen White's understanding of salvation would be severely distorted—even stood on its head.

It would have been strange for one who had so consistently urged believers to look away from self and constantly to behold and trust in Jesus as their advocate and mediator now to urge them to begin to look within for some internal, subjective stockpile of strength.

This issue becomes especially acute when we realize that no one knows the hour when probation closes. On this point Martin Weber has made some cogent observations. "If we did not have access for forgiveness after probation closes, and we did not know when that time arrived, how would we know when to stop trusting in Jesus and start putting confidence in our own character development? If so, would it not be dangerous to form the habit of looking outside of ourselves to Jesus now, when we will shortly be deprived of the privilege without knowing when?" (24, 25).

A Perfection That Needs No Mediation?—What is to be made of such a perfection that does not need Christ's mediation?

I suggest a twofold answer.


First, all restraints on evil are removed. Among Ellen White's earliest comments about the time of trouble and the close of probation, she made it clear that the end of Christ's mediation signals the removal of all restraint on the evil passions of the lost (EW 279ff.; GC 613, 614).

Her description of the world during the time of trouble is nothing short of a dramatic horror thriller. The only restraint that will be placed on the satanically controlled hosts of the lost is that they will not be allowed to kill the "sealed ones" (GC 629-631). But beyond this the world is a living hell. To live without a mediator means to live by faith in a world that is spiritually and physically coming apart at the seams.

If believers have not exercised faith during their little, daily, probationary times of trouble, they will not have the experience to face this grand and horrible crisis. Yet even this still does not seem to get at what The Great Controversy (425) statement says about the perfection that will characterize the sealed believers.

Second, we need a qualified understanding of perfection. The explanation seems to arise out of Ellen White's understanding of perfection. God's sealed and faithful people are regarded as perfect in the sense that they are no longer cherishing sin or committing overt sins—sins that are deliberately or willfully performed. They will be imperfect in the sense that they still have sinful natures, so all that they do is less than the best. They still have unavoidable deficiencies, but they do not indulge in or commit premeditated acts of sin. Jesus is still making up for their "unavoidable deficiencies," "defects," "shortcomings," "mistakes," 1 and "errors," but He is no longer mediating for the unsealed—the rebellious, willful, high-handed, sin-excusing sinners.

Let us carefully consider two lines of evidence for this interpretation: (1) repeatedly Ellen White suggested that the sins which are the major concern in character development are those that are willful, premeditated, cherished, indulged in, and excused; (2) it is striking how often the context of her time of trouble perfection descriptions spoke of or implied that perfection is an attitude that despises sin, avoids indulging in and cherishing it, and seeks the paths of obedience, doing the best that can possibly be done.


The reader should carefully observe the context of the statement about "the time when we are to confess and forsake our sins that they may go beforehand to judgment and be blotted out," the time when believers are to cleanse themselves "from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God."  The context of this statement also speaks in warning tones about indulging "one known sin" that "will cause weakness and darkness, and subject" believers "to fierce temptation" (HS 155).

In an obvious reference to the investigative judgment, she spoke of a "character that God can approve," "characters . . . printed upon the books of Heaven . . . [that] are fair and perfect." Then she urged that "it is our duty to render to God the best service possible" (ST, July 28, 1887; italics supplied). 

During a sermon at Orebro, Sweden, in 1886, she spoke of "the Lord . . . weighing character in the sanctuary today, and those who are careless and indifferent, rushing on in paths of iniquity, will not stand the test" (ibid., Dec. 29, 1887; italics supplied). She is clear that the type of character which will prove to be a failure is that which features carelessness and indifference to sin—"rushing on in paths of iniquity." This is a far cry from "unavoidable deficiencies" and "defects."

Note carefully the following reference, which seems to speak in the most absolute terms of the perfection of believers during the time of trouble. "Now, while our great High Priest is making the atonement for us, we should seek to become perfect in Christ. Not even by a thought could our Saviour be brought to yield to the power of temptation. . . .  He had kept His Father's commandments, and there was no sin in Him that Satan could use to his advantage. This is the condition in which those must be found who shall stand in the time of trouble" (GC 623).

But right in the middle of this very absolute view of perfection she had this to say: "Satan finds in human hearts some point where he can gain a foothold; some sinful desire is cherished, by means of which his temptations assert their power" (ibid.).

Ellen White made it clear that the key issue in perfection and temptation is what to do with "sinful desire" that "is cherished." Doesn't it seem reasonable to conclude that if those who are cherishing sin will not


make it, then the implication is that those not cherishing sin are the "perfect" believers who "stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator" (ibid. 425)?

These sealed saints will have become so accustomed to trusting Jesus, loving the right, and cherishing obedience that they will no longer commit sins that need a mediator. Jesus will still be their mediator, in the sense of sustaining them in their weakness, but He will no longer intercede for those involved in rebellion and willful transgression.

Is not the issue the same now as it will be in the time of trouble? It seems clear that the issue is ceasing to indulge in or cherish sin. To put it plainly, the sealed will have ceased to do acts of willful sinning. For those who indulge sins and sinful attitudes, Jesus will no longer be able to mediate after probation closes; they are the high-handed sinners who stubbornly retain an unconverted heart.

A very similar thought is found in manuscript 26, 1888 (1888 Materials 161, 162). After speaking of what God and Jesus are doing in cleansing the sanctuary and the blotting out of sins, she asked:

"Who expects to have a part in the first resurrection? You who have been cherishing sin and iniquity in the heart? You will fail in that day." Even though this speaks of those who will be resurrected, the same principle applies: no one who is cherishing known sin will be in God's kingdom.

That the believers are not absolutely, sinlessly perfect during the time of trouble (after probation ceases) was also hinted at in her comments in The Great Controversy on page 621. In an obvious reference to the condition of the sealed saints she said: "God's love for His children during the period of their severest trial is as strong and tender as in the days of their sunniest prosperity; but it is needful for them to be placed in the furnace of fire; their earthliness must be consumed, that the image of Christ may be perfectly reflected" (italics supplied).

It is clear that the sealed saints will not perfectly reflect (in the absolute sense) the image of Christ as they enter the time of trouble. Their eternal destiny will be settled, but their characters will still need to have "their earthliness . . . consumed"!


In light of Ellen White's overall understanding of the mental attitudes involved in both sin and righteousness, it seems consistent to understand the sealed saints as both perfect (not committing willful sins) and yet imperfect (not absolutely reflecting the perfect image of Jesus, because they will still need earthliness to be consumed).

God's Purpose for Time of Trouble

What is God's purpose in subjecting the sealed and judged saints to such a terrible ordeal?

First of all, the only explicit reason Ellen White gave for God's allowance of the time of trouble was consistent with her entire explanation for suffering (PP 68, 69, 78, 79; DA 19). God has permitted Satan to manifest the outworking of his principles since his fall, but during the time of trouble the sealed saints and the universe are given one last, full manifestation of evil (especially the death decree against the faithful saints) to demonstrate once and for all the horrible results of sin (Satan's principle) (PK 148).

Referring to the severe trials to be met in the time of Jacob's trouble, Ellen White specifically stated God's purpose: "It is designed to lead the people of God to renounce Satan and his temptations. . . . The last conflict will reveal Satan to them in his true character, that of a cruel tyrant, and it will do for them what nothing else could do, uproot him entirely from their affections" (RH, Aug. 12, 1884; OHC 321).

Two Conflicting Explanations

Aside from this one explicitly stated reason, her interpreters have come up with two quite different interpretations, which they feel are the point of her comments. These could be termed the perfectionistic and the justificationist interpretations.

The Perfectionistic Interpretation
—Dennis Priebe's arguments are a good example of the perfectionistic interpretation. "I believe that the primary reason for a short delay before Christ's coming during which there is no Mediator is to dramatize before the watching universe the reality of God's complete power over sin in the lives of those whose wills


are totally and forever united to His own. . . .  The close of probation will play an important part in the final demonstration that God is making before His universe: that, indeed, it is possible for fallen man to obey God's law, which is righteous and good and holy" (86).

Is the main point of God here to demonstrate that the sealed ones can manifest perfect obedience to the universe in resisting the temptations of Satan?  It appears that the major "temptation" which they "renounce" (OHC 321) will be the accusing assaults of the great adversary who seeks to lead them to distrust God's past pardon and mercy.

What is to be made of Priebe's interpretation?

First, his explanation is based on the theological premises of "final generation" theology, a school of thought in Seventh-day Adventist history which has contended that God absolutely needs a final generation of perfect saints to demonstrate that perfect obedience to the law of God is not just a possibility, but a reality.

Such theology has scant support in the writings of Ellen White, who held that Christ's life and death have once and for all settled the issue of whether humans can perfectly obey God's law.

Second, such a theology ignores a host of statements about the time of trouble which clearly declare that perfect obedience must be demonstrated before probation closes and the time of trouble begins.2

In other words, the essence of anything that Priebe could argue for has already taken place before probation closes. In fact, this is what the investigative judgment confirms: that God's living faithful are trusting and obedient and therefore can be sealed or certified as safe to save. That does not need to be proved during the time of trouble.

In Ellen White's thinking the larger issue of the possibility of obedience has been settled in Christ's incarnate experience; the issue of each individual person appropriating the merits of His life and death must be demonstrated before the close of probation and the conclusion of the investigative judgment—not during the time of trouble.

It would seem that what Priebe would contend for is that during the time of trouble the sealed saints must have further "earthliness . . . consumed." What God will seek to accomplish is not to test their loyalty


in overt obedience, but to purify them further for His presence and that of the angels in the scenes of glory (GC 636).

The Justificationist Interpretation—Helmut Ott's position is a good example of the justificationist interpretation. It seems that he has clearly grasped the main purpose for God's allowance of the time of trouble.

"Clearly, the trying experience [of] God's people" "reveals that they recognize their helplessness and unworthiness, that they have confessed their guilt and depend on God's forgiveness . . . . and that they do not yield to Satan's attempts to destroy their faith in God for deliverance" (117; see also 115).

Ott's suggestion is abundantly supported by Ellen White's treatment of the experience of Jacob as a type of the trials that God's sealed people will have during the time of trouble. The major theme of The Great Controversy treatment of this time is that they will cling by faith to God's mercy and His past pardon of their sins (616-622). The great trial for the sealed during the time of trouble is not temptation to commit open sins (ibid. 623), but to doubt God's acceptance through previous pardon for sins.

"They fear that every sin has not been repented of, and that through some fault in themselves they will fail to realize the fulfillment of the Saviour's promise: I `will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world' (Rev. 3:10). If they could have the assurance of pardon they would not shrink from torture or death" (ibid. 619). "They afflict their souls before God, pointing to their past repentance of their many sins, and pleading the Saviour's promise. . . .  Their faith does not fail because their prayers are not immediately answered" (ibid. 619, 620).

"If the people of God had unconfessed sins to appear before them while tortured with fear and anguish, they would be overwhelmed; despair would cut off their faith, and they could not have confidence to plead with God for deliverance. But while they have a deep sense of their unworthiness, they have no concealed wrongs to reveal" (ibid. 620). What the sealed ones will demonstrate is that they can cling by faith to God's mercy and pardon. The issue of their manifest obedience will have been settled before probation closes.


It appears that Priebe's perfectionistic bias has led him to miss the central point. He continues to discuss issues that were settled before probation closes, whereas God is seeking to demonstrate a faith in His mercy that will not be moved in the face of the most severe trial ever brought to bear on mortal flesh. In other words, the perfectionist appropriation of the time of trouble is quite at odds with its major purpose, which is to show forth God's great mercy and pardoning power in the lives of His loyal and sealed saints.


We now have a rather thorough picture of Ellen White's views on perfection as she approached the great watershed in the Adventist treatment of salvation. With these views in mind, we are now prepared to see how such concepts fared during the period of her greatest emphasis on justification by faith alone. Will her balancing act continue, or will her high doctrine of perfection be seriously qualified or compromised as she takes on the rampant legalism of a church in deep crisis?


1  Ellen White in the Review of March 18, 1890, even implies that these "mistakes" of those who are "clothed with the righteousness of Christ" are "sins," but "sins" that are hated because they have caused the "sufferings" of God's Son. [back] [top]

2  References to this full preparation before probation closes are in the following: The Great Controversy, pp. 425, 613, and 623: "Now, while our great High Priest is making the atonement for us, we should seek to become perfect in Christ;" Early Writings, p. 71; Review and Herald, Apr. 12, 1870, Aug. 12, 1884; The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 3, pp. 40, 41; Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 429; vol. 5, pp. 220 and 466; Signs, Dec. 29, 1887; and The Upward Look, p. 192. [back] [top]

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