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Perfect In Christ

Helmut Ott


An Examination of Key Ellen White Statements
Which Have Been Used to Support Perfectionism

We made at least three assertions in this book that require further elaboration:

1. In the introduction we stated that although Ellen White wrote much on the topic of the mediation of Christ, she did not always do so systematically or as clearly as one might wish. Consequently some statements are susceptible to being misunderstood. Therefore it should come as no surprise if individuals use them to support views that, instead of centering on Christ and His redemptive ministry in heaven, focus primarily on man and his meager achievements here on earth.

2. In the sixth chapter we indicated that Ellen White rebuked Elder E. R. Jones for using her writings to bolster the idea that before the end of probation God’s people can and must reach the condition where they are perfectly righteous in themselves and learn to live without sinning. Some time later she did the same to others, such as S. S. Davis and R. S. Donnell, who advocated similar ideas. 3. And we said that some statements if not rightly understood and properly applied can indeed lead to the type of erroneous views presented by Jones and others.

It is important to note at the outset that usually three factors combine to lead to a misinterpretation of a given passage. The first relates to what the passage actually says. For whatever reason, the wording is not precise enough, and therefore the reader can interpret it in more than one way. The second factor has to do with what the researcher brings to the text—his presuppositions and prior understanding of the subject. His viewpoint will invariably influence his "hearing," in spite of his sincerity and his honest attempts to be objective and open-minded. The third element refers to the methodology the researcher uses in the process of understanding and applying the concepts presented in the passage he investigates.

The purpose of this appendix is threefold: First, to find out whether Ellen White’s writings really contain passages that advocate extreme ideas such as those presented by Elder Jones and his followers. Second, to explore some reasons why their views do not truly reflect the passages they claim for support, and to examine some of the methodological inadequacies that led them to their mistaken conclusions. And third, to establish as far as possible the true meaning and real intent of some of the statements involved. In other words, we wish to show how such passages actually agree with the concepts we have in this book established from Ellen White’s writings.

We will divide our discussion into two general sections. In the first one we will consider some Ellen White statements that seem to endorse the idea, advanced by Jones and his supporters, that both man’s body and his character must be fully restored to sinlessness and holiness before the end of probation. Unfortunately, space considerations do not allow us to treat this subject as thoroughly as desired. In the second section we will examine in depth the one passage in Ellen White’s writings that appears to provide the strongest support to the theory that the believers who will be alive at the Second Advent must be sinlessly perfect like Jesus.

I. Ellen White’s "Support" for the Idea That Believers Must Reach a State of Total Sanctification Before Probation Ends

The concepts advanced by E. R. Jones, the holy flesh people, and their followers (from now on referred to simply as the holy flesh doctrine) can be summarized as follows: 1. The believers who will be alive when Jesus returns can and must reach a state of flawless righteousness of being. The physical, moral, and spiritual aspects of their being—their body as well as their character—must be sinlessly perfect, just as Jesus is. 2. They must learn to live without sinning and to render flawless obedience to the will of God. 3. Finally, they must achieve this double objective fully before the world’s probation comes to an end. Otherwise they disqualify themselves for salvation.

A-1 The Believer’s Body Must Be Totally Sanctified Before the World’s Probation Comes to an End

In this section we will use the issue of the reproduction of the image of God in the believer to illustrate how a faulty methodology can lead to the conclusion that Ellen White supports the idea that even the believer’s body must regain original holiness during his present life on earth. In the process we will see how a faulty methodology results in extreme and unwarranted views even when most of the steps leading to the final conclusion are logical and valid. To begin, let us state four basic points that we can adequately establish from her writings:

1. God created man in His own image, an image that included man’s total person—the spiritual, moral, and physical dimensions of his being (Education, pp. 15, 20; Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 45; cf. The Great Controversy, p. 645). 2. The image of God in man has been marred and well-nigh obliterated by sin (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 595; Education, p. 76; Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 294). 3. Christ came in order to restore the image of God in man (The Desire of Ages, pp. 37, 38, 478, 671; Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 436; The Great Controversy, p. 645). 4. The restoration of God’s image in man is made possible through such means as the work of the Holy Spirit, the knowledge of God, and obedience to the Ten Commandments (The Desire of Ages, p. 391; Testimonies, vol. 8, p. 289; In Heavenly Places, p. 146).

One can build an apparently strong case for the idea that the entire being of man—his spirit, soul, and body—has to be restored to holiness before the end of probation by quoting a carefully selected group of Ellen White passages such as the following ones:

The sanctification set forth in the Sacred Scriptures has to do with the entire being—spirit, soul, and body (The Sanctfied Life, p. 7; italics supplied). The true Christian obtains an experience which brings holiness. He is without a spot of guilt upon the conscience or a taint of corruption upon the soul.... His body is a fit temple for the Holy Spirit (In Heavenly Places, p. 200; italics supplied).

Every Christian may enjoy the blessing of sanctification (The Sanctqied Life, p. 85). Through obedience comes sanctification of body, soul, and spirit (My Life Today, p. 250). Everyone who by faith obeys God’s commandments will reach the condition of sinlessness in which Adam lived before his transgression (In Heavenly Places, p. 146; italics supplied).

When the Lord comes, those who are holy will be holy still. Those who have preserved their bodies and spirits in holiness, in sanctification and honor, will then receive the finishing touch of immortality.... As we lay hold upon the truth of God, its influence affects us. It elevates us and removes from us every imperfection and sin, of whatever nature. Thus we are prepared to see the King in His beauty and finally to unite with the pure and heavenly angels in the kingdom of glory. It is here that this work is to be accomplished for us, here that our bodies and spirits are to be fitted for immortality. . . . And what is the work that we are to undertake here just previous to receiving immortality? It is to preserve our bodies holy, our spirits pure, that we may stand forth unstained amid the corruptions teeming around us in these last days (Testimonies, vol. 2, pp. 355, 356; italics supplied).

By placing the emphasis on certain aspects of these passages and pushing their literal wording to the limit, it is possible to draw a conclusion similar to this one: Christ came that the image of God may be reproduced in man. Through obedience comes sanctification of body, soul, and spirit, and everyone who obeys will reach the condition of sinlessness in which Adam lived. Since it is here—in this world—that our bodies and spirits are to be fitted for immortality, it follows that we have to reach such a state of total sanctification during our present lives before the end of probation.

It is important to note that such a concept has a considerable degree of internal consistency. According to the passages just quoted, the whole image of God is to be reflected in the believer, not just some of its parts. Therefore, if God’s image is to be restored during the present life at all, then the process must include both man’s character and his body. To leave the body out of the restorative process splits the image of God, and hence destroys the whole argument.

According to this view, the work of the Spirit and the believer’s experiences in the present life are sufficient in themselves to complete the restorative process. That is why its proponents say that the last generation of believers will be able to reach the condition in which they will be worthy to earn God’s final verdict of approval at the pre-Advent judgment on the basis of their personal accomplishments. God will not condemn them, because they no longer have anything wrong with them. He will accept them because the spiritual wholeness they achieved in their personal lives makes them worthy of His acceptance. The image of God—embracing both their personal character and their basic nature as human beings—has already been fully restored. As a result, they are perfectly righteous, like Jesus, and therefore worthy of eternal life.

A-2. An Examination of the Idea That Man’s Body Must Be Restored to a State of Total Sanctification Before Probation Ends

It seems rather obvious that one can build as "good" a case and find as much Ellen White "support" for the idea that the body of man has to be restored to sinless perfection as for any other aspect of the holy flesh doctrine. Therefore, if the concept does indeed accurately represent what Ellen White taught, then the church should have had no difficulty accepting it as a truly Adventist position.

That has most definitely not been the case, however. Instead, we find this: 1. The Adventist Church has never endorsed the idea that the image of God—embracing the moral, spiritual, and physical dimensions of man’s being—will be fully restored in the believer before the end of probation. 2. Although the literal reading of many passages in her writings appears to express ideas similar to what E. R. Jones, the holy flesh people, and their followers advocated, Ellen White rejected their views, rebuked them for misusing her writings in support of their beliefs, and warned the Adventist community about the dangers their teachings pose for the church at large.

These two factors alone should have kept us from ever entertaining such extreme ideas again. Unfortunately the history of our church indicates that while the holy flesh movement was short-lived, the peculiar mind-set its adherents exhibited, the extreme views they proposed, and the inadequate methodology they used in their interpretation of both Scripture and Ellen White’s writings have remained with us. It seems that there always exists a segment of the Adventist Church that unmistakably resembles the former movement, that has a strong attraction to the idea of complete moral perfection and total holiness of being, and that has an exaggerated fascination with the prospect of reaching a state of sinlessness—being like Jesus—before the end of probation.

Since the Adventist Church has so categorically rejected the idea that God’s image—comprising man’s spirit, soul, and body—will be completely restored in the believer this side of glorification, we will limit our discussion to considering briefly just a few statements that should help us to reach a more balanced understanding of the issue.

Much may be done to restore the moral image of God in man, to improve the physical, mental, and moral capabilities.... And while we cannot claim perfection of the flesh, we may have Christian perfection of the soul. Through the sacrifice made in our behalf, sins may be perfectly forgiven. Our dependence is not in what man can do; it is in what God can do for man through Christ. When we surrender ourselves wholly to God, and fully believe, the blood of Christ cleanses from all sin (Selected Messages, book 2, p. 32).

Notice several points here:

1. "Much may be done" to restore God’s image in man, to improve the moral, mental, and physical capabilities. Clearly it is a beginning, an improvement, but not a full restoration to the moral perfection and spiritual wholeness that God initially created.

2. "We cannot claim perfection of the flesh." Since the expression the flesh really refers to our basic nature as sinful human beings and not to our blood, tissues, and bones, this passage actually establishes the fact that we cannot claim perfection of what we are as beings, and not merely that we cannot perfect our physical bodies in this life.

3. We may have perfection of the soul. "Through the sacrifice made in our behalf, sins may be perfectly forgiven." Note that Ellen White does not link soul perfection to something that happens in the believer—such as his moral transformation, character development, and spiritual maturation. Nor does she attribute it to something the believer does—such as his flawless obedience and sinless living. Instead, she associates soul perfection with what God does for the believer through Christ, namely the perfect forgiveness and total cleansing that only the Saviour’s atoning blood can produce.

The following passage is even clearer in its rejection of the idea that we can achieve perfection while in the flesh:

If those who speak so freely of perfection in the flesh could see things in the true light, they would recoil with horror from their presumptuous ideas.... Let this phase of doctrine be carried a little further, and it will lead to the claim that its advocates cannot sin; that since they have holy flesh, their actions are all holy (ibid.).

Three concepts here particularly relate to our topic:

1. Those who believe that it is possible for us to be perfect in the flesh—that is, in our present sinful condition as fallen beings—do not see things in their true light. 2. If they could view things as they really are, they would recoil with horror from "their presumptuous ideas." 3. The belief of perfection in the flesh leads to another error, namely the mistaken idea that because they have become holy, they now can live without sinning.

The third point radically contradicts a concept we discussed earlier, namely the idea that because our natures are fallen, sinful, and unholy, we are incapable of rendering perfect obedience. Notice:

It was possible for Adam, before the fall, to form a righteous character by obedience to God’s law. But he failed to do this, and because of his sin our natures are fallen and we cannot make ourselves righteous. Since we are sinful, unholy, we cannot perfectly obey the holy law. We have no righteousness of our own with which to meet the claims of the law of God (Steps to Christ, p. 62). The law demands righteousness, and this the sinner owes to the law; but he is incapable of rendering it (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 367). [The law] could not justify man, because in his sinful nature he could not keep the law (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 373).

The perfection theology we are discussing has at least three major negative side effects:

First, after endeavoring for a time to become perfect in character and behavior, many become discouraged and often give up Christianity altogether. It is particularly true of young people who as a rule are too honest to deceive themselves into believing that they are indeed becoming sinlessly perfect like Jesus.

Second, the belief in sinless perfection appears to have little—if any—positive effect on the lives of those who embrace it. One observes no perceptible evidence that they are better parents, neighbors, or workers, or that the fruit of the Spirit—such as love, kindness, tolerance, and faith—has reached a level of greater maturity in them than in the rest of Christ’s imperfect but growing disciples.

Two basic reasons account for this:

1. Those enticed by such ideas develop an obsession with holiness that is strictly theological or intellectual. They seem to think that what really counts is not tangible evidence that they are indeed changing, growing, and maturing as Christians, but proof that they have endorsed the idea that sinless perfection is possible in this life. They assume that if they just hold on to their belief, they will somehow be part of the remnant. Consequently, they usually are more concerned with convincing others about the correctness of their theories than with endeavoring to develop the fruit of the Spirit in their personal lives.

2. The eschatological nature of the perfection doctrine offers its adherents hope for tomorrow without imposing any obligations for today. By projecting the attainment of perfection into the future, it distracts them from the opportunities and responsibilities of the present. Thus, instead of motivating them to strive for progressive victory over specific problem areas in their lives now, it deludes them with the unrealistic hope of total victory right before probation ends.

The third negative side effect of the belief that we can be sinlessly perfect in this life is its tremendous capacity to beguile those who embrace it, making it extremely difficult either to dissuade them of their mistaken ideas or to lead them to a more balanced understanding of the gospel of Christ. Ellen White knew the problem from personal experience:

We feel sad to see professed Christians led astray by the false and bewitching theory that they are perfect, because it is so difficult to undeceive them and lead them into the right path (The Sanctified Life, p. 12). Self-righteousness is the danger of this age; it separates the soul from Christ. Those who trust in their own righteousness cannot understand how salvation comes through Christ (Faith and Works, p. 96).

Notice the following points: 1. Those who believe they are perfect—who trust in their own merits for a right standing with God—have been led astray by an erroneous and seductive idea. 2. Therefore, it is difficult to break its hold on them and help them understand how salvation comes through Christ. 3. Ellen White expressed sadness and pain at finding them so entrenched in their deceptive theory that they were no longer able to understand, and unwilling to accept, the gospel.

It is important to remember that a person does not need to actually say, "I am perfect," in order to be guilty of the arrogant attitude Ellen White found so offensive. If such were the case, then her statements would apply to few people, since no one in his right mind ever dares to make such a claim. Instead, she contradicted a particular kind of theology, a specific viewpoint, namely the false and bewitching theory that sinless perfection must become a reality to us during our present lives.

A-3. A More Balanced View on the Issue of the Reproduction of the Image of God in the Believer

To conclude our discussion in this section, we will state what we consider to be a more balanced understanding of this concept—an understanding that fully harmonizes with the theological scenario, based on Ellen White’s writings, that we have described in this book: The image of God begins to be restored in the believer the moment he is spiritually united to Christ at conversion, continues to be more fully reproduced in him throughout his life as a Christian, and reaches its complete, final, and permanent restoration at the second coming of Christ. At that time—when the kingdom of glory replaces the kingdom of grace—God will return all the redeemed to the condition of perfect spiritual wholeness with which He created man in the beginning. As a result of His re-creative act, all the redeemed will then—for the first time ever—reflect the image of God in their own person as fully as did Adam and Eve before the Fall.

According to this view, the work of the Holy Spirit and the believer’s experiences in the present life—his change, growth, and maturation—begin the work of transformation, but only God’s re-creative act at the time of glorification will complete Christ’s image in the redeemed. Since full restoration is possible only at the Second Coming, the last generation of believers will be as dependent on the mediation of Christ in the Father’s presence as were all previous ones. In spite of their progress in spiritual growth and moral development, the last generation will not find acceptance with God on the basis of who they are or what they did, but on the fact that they come to the Father through the Son, and therefore are righteous in Christ.

B-1. The Believer’s Character Must Reach a State of Sinless Perfection Before the End of Probation

Since the idea that the believer has the entire image of God—spirit, soul, and body—reconstituted in him before the end of probation is indefensible, some have argued that it is only the believer’s character that must reach a state of sinless perfection by that time. The following are some of the passages they use as support:

Whatever may be our inherited or cultivated tendencies to wrong, we can overcome through the power that He is ready to impart (The Ministry of Healing, p. 176; italics supplied). There is no difficulty within or without that cannot be surmounted in His strength. . . . There is no nature so rebellious that Christ cannot subdue it, no temper so stormy that He cannot quell it, if the heart is surrendered to His keeping (Ellen G. White, in The Watchman, Apr. 28, 1908; italics supplied).

Through the plan of redemption, God has provided means for subduing every sinful trait, and resisting every temptation, however strong (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 82; italics supplied). 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, and sit down at last with Him (Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 144; italics supplied). Those who, through an intelligent understanding of the Scriptures, view the cross aright, those who truly believe in Jesus, have a sure foundation for their faith. They have that faith which works by love and purqies the soul from all its hereditary and cultivated imperfections (ibid., vol. 6, p. 238; italics supplied).

God expects us to build characters in accordance with the pattern set before us. We are to lay brick by brick, adding grace to grace, finding our weak points and correcting them in accordance with the directions given (Child Guidance, p. 165). Through affliction God reveals to us the plague spots in our characters, that by His grace we may overcome our faults (The Desire of Ages, p. 301). Trial is part of the education given in the school of Christ, to purify God’s children from the dross of earthliness. . . Often He permits the fires of affliction to burn, that they may be purified (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 524).

On the basis of a literal reading of such statements, some argue for complete sanctification and flawless perfection something like this: 1. We can surmount all our inherited and cultivated tendencies to evil through the means God has provided. 2. Trials and afflictions are God’s instruments to reveal to us our character defects so that we may correct them. 3. A right understanding of Scripture and true faith in Jesus purify the soul of all its imperfections. 4. God has provided the means for resisting every temptation, however strong, so that we may overcome fully, entirely. 5. Therefore, nothing could possibly hinder the last generation of believers from reaching a state of total righteousness of being and of entire sinlessness of conduct.

B-2. An Examination of the Idea That the Believer’s Character Must Reach a State of Sinless Perfection Before Probation Ends

Before we draw any conclusions either about the precise meaning of the passages just quoted or about Ellen White’s true position on the subject, we must consider some factors and concepts essential to a correct understanding of the whole issue: 1. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these statements—she could hardly have worded them otherwise. Ellen White could not have said, for example, that we can overcome only some evil tendencies to evil, that Jesus can subdue only some rebellious natures and quell only some stormy tempers. Besides not being the whole truth, such phrasing would lead to either rationalizations or discouragement on the part of readers struggling with such things in their lives.

2. The problem is created when we push the passages beyond their proper limits, when we respect their wording but not their intent, or when we make their literal meaning neutralize the deeper, more significant concepts they contain. There is a radical difference between saying, for example, that God often uses trial and affliction to reveal to us some specific defects in our characters and claiming that trial and affliction are the means by which we will overcome each and every one of our imperfections, so that we may achieve flawless perfection. We have no more right to claim that we can be sinlessly perfect because Ellen White says we can overcome every sin than to claim that we can have an infallible theology because Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit "will guide you into all truth" (John 16:13), or that we can predict the future because Paul said we "can do all things through Christ" (Phil. 4:13, KJV).

To illustrate how a reader aided by a faulty methodology can be led into theological pitfalls, let us suppose that Brother A and Brother B read the passages we quoted in section B-i. Brother A is experiencing some difficult spiritual problems. He wrestles with some deep-seated tendencies to evil, struggles with his stormy temper, and faces some persistent temptations in his personal life. Brother B, on the other hand, looks for Ellen White support for the idea that the last generation of believers must overcome all forms of sin in their lives and develop flawless perfection of being before the world’s probation ends.

Obviously, each man will interpret and apply the concepts expressed in the passages in a radically different way from the other. What each "sees" in them, what they mean to each one personally, may be poles apart. Brother A will probably realize from them that none of us has a sin problem so unique, severe, or complicated that God cannot help us solve it. He will see that his case is not hopeless after all—as he felt tempted to believe. And he will take courage in the assurance that, serious though his problem might be, God has provided the means by which he will eventually find a solution.

In contrast, Brother B will most likely use such quotations as evidence that Ellen White’s writings support his extreme ideas. After all, if there is nothing that cannot be overcome through the means God has provided, what could possibly keep the last generation of believers from becoming as sinlessnessly perfect and as morally righteous as Jesus Himself?

It is at this precise point that a faulty methodology gets us into problems. In order to be true to the text, Brother B must allow Ellen White to speak for herself. He must begin his study by establishing as precisely as possible what exactly it was that she meant when she first wrote these passages. Thus, he has to determine whether she was trying to prove—as he is—that the believer can and must reach a state of sinless perfection before probation ends. If that was not what she intended to prove, then Brother B has no right to use her statements in support of his ideas. To do so would distort her teachings, and hence would be both ethically wrong and theologically misleading.

Unless Brother B interprets these passages within the thematic context to which they belong, he will place a different construction on what they actually say and consequently make them mean something radically different from what Ellen White had in mind. As a result, the concepts she attempted to express and the ideas Brother B advocates will be unrelated, in spite of the similarity in language used. A passage that is valid and proper when interpreted and applied as the author intended it to be can lead into serious theological difficulties when we disregard either its boundaries, its intent, or its deeper meaning.

3. Although Christ’s atoning death took place at a specific time in history, His redemptive work—with all the wonderful possibilities it opens before the believer— embraces all mankind from the beginning to the end of time. Thus all God’s redemptive promises apply with equal force to the very first sinner who turned to God in repentance and faith as well as to the very last one who responds right before probation ends.

Therefore, the assurance of victory given in passages such as those we are considering here is not something new and different that was not real before but became a possibility at the time Ellen White wrote about it. Much less is it a special promise that applies only to the last generation of believers as they prepare for the pre-Advent judgment, the end of probation, and the time of trouble. On the contrary, her statements extend to all believers of all generations, and therefore we should not treat them as though they were either a particular obligation or an exclusive privilege of the last generation.

This leads us to some crucial questions: If obtaining the victory over everything that must be overcome in order to achieve sinless perfection were as simple as the passages quoted in section B-1 seem to indicate, why is it that no one has ever transcended his personal sinfulness, imperfection, and unworthiness? Why has no one ever outgrown his fallen condition and succeeded in rendering flawless obedience? Why did not even the prophets and apostles, those spiritual giants who lived closest to God—many of whom died for their faith— ever reach a state of total sanctification and complete personal righteousness? Notice:

None of the apostles and prophets ever claimed to be without sin. Men who have lived the nearest to God, men who would sacrifice life itself rather than knowingly commit a wrong act, men whom God has honored with divine light and power, have confessed the sinfulness of their nature. They have put no confidence in the flesh, have claimed no righteousness of their own, but have trusted wholly in the righteousness of Christ (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 561).

When the Spirit of Christ stirs the heart with its marvelous awakening power, there is a sense of deficiency in the soul that leads to contrition of mind, and humiliation of self, rather than to proud boasting of what has been acquired (Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, Oct. 16, 1888). No man can look within himself and find anything in his character that will recommend him to God, or make his acceptance sure.... Jesus alone is our Redeemer, our Advocate and Mediator; in Him is our only hope for pardon, peace, and righteousness (Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 332, 333).

Since we already discussed this issue earlier, we will provide just five basic reasons that should help to answer our questions adequately enough for our purpose here:

One: The formation of a righteous character is a progressive activity that lasts a lifetime.

Character building is the work, not of a day, nor of a year, but of a lifetime. The struggle for conquest over self, for holiness and heaven, is a lifelong struggle. Without continual effort and constant activity, there can be no advancement in the divine life, no attainment of the victor’s crown (The Ministry of Healing, p. 452; italics supplied).

The formation of a noble character is the work of a lifetime and must be the result of diligent and persevering effort. God gives opportunities; success depends upon the use made of them (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 223). The precious graces of the Holy Spirit are not developed in a moment. Courage, fortitude, meekness, faith, unwavering trust in God’s power to save, are acquired by the experience of years (Testimonies, vol. 8, p. 314; italics supplied).

On the basis of these passages, we conclude: 1. Only those who begin forming noble characters at birth and successfully continue doing so throughout their entire lifetime stand a chance at developing a flawless character. 2. Since it takes an entire life span to form a righteous character, it follows that a person does not complete it before he reaches the end of his days. 3.. Because the close of probation does not complete anything, but interrupts everything, it also halts the process of character development, thus frustrating the possibilities of its completion.

Two: A righteous character can be formed only through perfect obedience.

True sanctification... consists in the cheerful performance of daily duties in perfect obedience to the will of God (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 360; italics supplied). It was possible for Adam, before the fall, to form a righteous character by obedience to God’s law. But he failed to do this, and because of his sin our natures are fallen and we cannot make ourselves righteous. Since we are sinful, unholy, we cannot perfectly obey the holy law. We have no righteousness of our own with which to meet the claims of the law of God (Steps to Christ, p. 62; italics supplied).

Because righteous characters can be developed only through perfect obedience, and our obedience is at best partial and imperfect, it logically follows that we cannot form characters of such quality that God can accept them on their own merits.

When we combine points one and two, we find that only those who rendered perfect obedience all their lives—from birth to death—could possibly achieve righteous characters. This leaves Jesus in a category all by Himself, and rightly so, since He is the only one who ever lived in full harmony with God’s will in all respects throughout His life. But those who belong to one of the following groups lack the qualifications that would enable them to develop righteous characters:

1. Those who experience periods of stagnation or regression at some time during their lifetime. Their temporary failure to grow and mature delays their progress and thus frustrates their chances at completing their character development before the end of their lives. 2. Those whose lives are cut short by premature death—through accident, sickness, war, etc.—and hence have a reduced period of time during which to outgrow their imperfection and thus achieve sinless righteousness. 3. Those who accept the gospel late in life and consequently do not have a full lifetime during which to overcome their sinful attitudes, tendencies, and habits, and to replace them with righteous ones. It is particularly true with those who experience conversion for the first time shortly before the end of probation. Since "the precious graces of the Holy Spirit "are acquired by the experience of years" and they have but a short period of time during which to acquire such virtues, one must assume that they are automatically disqualified.

Evidently we have a double problem here. On the one hand, it is difficult to understand how anyone could advance the idea that the millions of believers living on earth during the time of the end will all complete the formation of mature Christian characters right before probation ends. Like any other generation, this one will consist of individuals differing in background, in personal characteristics, and in spiritual experience. There will be small children, inexperienced teenagers, sickly and weakened older persons. Some believers will be seasoned Christians, while others will be newly born babes in Christ. Since each of them will have a unique experience with God and find himself at a stage of change, growth, and maturation that is different from others, it is totally unrealistic to expect that the entyire group will achieve character perfection all at the same time.

On the other hand, it is difficult to understand how one could possibly confuse such theories with the scriptural gospel. We saw earlier that, according to Scripture, all who accept Christ’s redemptive work on their behalf will have eternal life. Jesus "is able to save completely those who come to God through him" (Heb. 7:25) regardless of their race, color, geographical location, the particular time when they lived, or the specific point during their life span when they responded to the gospel in repentance and faith. Further, we saw that all God’s sons and daughters in Christ are heirs to the kingdom, not just those adopted early enough in life to have sufficient time to presumably complete the process of overcoming their defects, developing righteous characters, and learning to live without sinning.

Because he turned to Jesus at the eleventh hour, the thief on the cross experienced hardly any character development or behavior modification before he sealed his eternal destiny at death. Yet Jesus promised that he will be in paradise. Obviously such a "burning stick snatched from the fire" (Zech. 3:2) is not an isolated case. Only God knows how many millions throughout human history have turned to God for the first time on their deathbeds. Likewise, only He knows how many millions more will for the first time ever accept the gospel in response to the outpouring of the latter rain of the Holy Spirit shortly before the end of time.

Now, if only those who outgrew all their imperfections, developed flawless righteousness of being, and learned to live without sinning were safe to be saved, then none of the millions of last-minute believers would have any hope of eternal life. In that case, all those who accepted God’s saving grace shortly before they died, and all those who will become believers in response to God’s final appeal right before probation ends, will be eternally lost because they did not have the time required to develop perfection of character. Such an outcome would mean that the scriptural promises of forgiveness and reconciliation to those who come to the Father through the Son do not apply to them; that they yield to the Spirit’s moving, accept God’s last message of mercy and place their trust fully in Christ’s redemptive work on their behalf in vain. A theory that creates complications like these is clearly out of harmony with the gospel of Scripture.

Three: In passages like the ones we quoted in section B-i, in which Ellen White encourages the believers to continue their Christian warfare and urges them to reach for a higher goal and to strive toward perfection, she is positive about their possibilities of success. However, in passages in which she describes the experience of those who died in Christ and those who will face the pre-Advent judgment during their lifetime, she presents a radically different picture. As we saw earlier (in the third and fourth chapters), she clearly indicates that neither those who were still living by faith when they died nor those who are living by faith when probation ends reached or reach the goal of sinless perfection. In both cases she specifically mentions their "defects of character" or "defective characters" and their "unlikeness to Christ," and points out the fact that they are declared righteous before God strictly on the basis of the Saviour’s merits imputed to them by faith.

Four: Ellen White’s writings portray character perfection as relative and progressive, not total and complete.

The germination of the seed represents the beginning of spiritual life, and the development of the plant is a figure of the development of character. There can be no life without growth.... At every stage of development our life may be perfect; yet if God’s purpose for us is fulfilled, there will be constant advancement (Education, pp. 105, 106; italics supplied). We are not yet perfect; but it is our privilege to cut away from the entanglements of self and sin, and advance to perfection (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 565; italics supplied).

Man may grow up into Christ, his living head. It is not the work of a moment, but that of a lifetime. By growing daily in the divine life, he will not attain to the full stature of a perfect man in Christ until his probation ceases. The growing is a continuous work (Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 367; italics supplied). So long as Satan reigns, we shall have self to subdue, besetting sins to overcome; so long as life shall last, there will be no stopping place, no point which we can reach and say, I have fully attained (The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 560, 561; italics supplied). In ourselves we are sinners; but in Christ we are righteous (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 394; italics supplied).

Those who are really seeking to perfect Christian character will never indulge the thought that they are sinless. ... The nearer they approach to [Christ’s] divine image, the more clearly will they discern its spotless perfection, and the more deeply will they feel their own defects (The Sanct~fled I4fe, p. 7; italics supplied). There can be no self-exaltation, no boastful claim to freedom from sin, on the part of those who walk in the shadow of Calvary’s cross. . . Those who live nearest to Jesus discern most clearly the frailty and sinfulness of humanity, and their only hope is in the merit of a crucified and risen Saviour (The Great Controversy, p. 471; italics supplied).

If we are to understand Ellen White’s complex view on this topic, we must give adequate attention to several points here: 1. Although she says our lives are "perfect," yet at the same time she tells us that "we are not yet perfect." We have defects, we are sinful, we fall short of the mark, and we are unworthy. 2. While our lives may be "perfect" at every stage of development—as a recently germinated seed, as a growing plant, as a flowering bush—we still continue to advance toward perfection. 3. Our battle with self and sin, on the one hand, and our striving for righteousness and holiness, on the other, will never be complete in this life. We will never reach the place where we are free from sin or fully attain to character perfection before our probation ends.

In view of these factors, we conclude that when Ellen White speaks of the believer’s character perfection, she means something radically different from the ideas advanced by E. R. Jones, the holy flesh people, and others. Jones and his group speak about a finalized product—a state or plateau of absolute sinlessness and total righteousness that the believer actually reaches. They write of characters without any flaws, shortcomings, or deficiencies—characters that have the same moral quality and spiritual perfection as the Saviour’s. Should those who supposedly possess such characters closely behold the character of Christ, they would not realize their own defects, as Ellen White says is the case with all true believers. Instead, they would conclude that they have indeed equaled the absolute pattern that Christ’s character establishes, and hence are worthy of eternal life.

Ellen White, on the other hand, tells of a process of change, growth, and maturation that is progressive and will never reach its culmination in our present lives. She describes an experience possible only through our faith relationship with Jesus Christ, and that takes place within the context of the covenant of grace. It brings us into gradual spiritual unity with Christ, and makes us increasingly aware of our total dependence on His saving righteousness, imputed to us by faith, for a right standing with God. According to her view, our personal relationship with Christ is the dynamic reality that causes both our acceptance with God and our growth as disciples.

Five: Ellen White’s writings center the believer’s perfection of character in Christ and His redemptive work on man’s behalf.

Jesus came to restore in man the image of his Maker. None but Christ can fashion anew the character that has been ruined by sin.... He came to lift us up from the dust, to reshape the marred character after the pattern of His divine character, and to make it beautiful with His own glory (The Desire of Ages, pp. 37, 38; italics supplied).

Through the merits of Christ, through His righteousness, which by faith is imputed unto us, we are to attain to the perfection of Christian character (Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 744; italics supplied). Though the moral image of God was almost obliterated by the sin of Adam, through the merits and power of Jesus it may be renewed. Man may stand with the moral image of God in his character; for Jesus will give it to him (Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, June 10, 1890; italics supplied).

Those who reject the gzft of Christ’s righteousness are rejecting the attributes of character which would constitute them the sons and daughters of God. They are rejecting that which alone could give them a fitness for a place at the marriage feast (Christ’s Object Lessons, pp. 316, 317; italics supplied).

We must catch several points that she makes. 1. Ellen White identifies the work of restoring God’s image and reshaping our characters as Christ’s, not ours. 2. He will make our character beautiful "with His own glory"— clearly something He provides and not something we develop. 3. We are to attain to the perfection of Christian character through the merits and righteousness of Christ imputed to us by faith. It means that the method or way for attaining character perfection does not center on our personal growth, but on Christ’s mediation in our behalf.

4. The believer will again have God’s image in his character because "Jesus will give it to him." 5. Christ’s righteousness, which can be ours only as a gift, constitutes "the attributes of character" that alone can make us fit for the kingdom. 6. The character Christ formed as God/man, He will impute to us, and it is our possession of Christ’s character that determines our acceptance with God.

As we have clearer views of Christ’s spotless and infinite purity we shall feel as did Daniel when he beheld the glory of the Lord and said, "My comeliness was turned in me into corruption" (Dan. 10:8). We cannot say, "I am sinless," till this vile body is changed and fashioned like unto His glorious body. But if we constantly seek to follow Jesus, the blessed hope is ours of standing before the throne of God without spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing, complete in Christ, robed in His righteousness and perfection (That I May Know Him, p. 361).

The preceding passage reinforces two points we have mentioned earlier: 1. We cannot claim sinlessness until the Second Advent, at which time God will restore us to humanity’s original state of sinless perfection. As we pointed out before, the reason we cannot claim sinlessness is not that there is something wrong with the actual utterance of the words, but because it is not true. 2. If we constantly seek to follow Jesus, we will stand before the throne of God complete in Christ, robed in His righteousness and perfection. Clearly, what enables us to appear flawless before God is not the perfection of character we have actually developed, but the righteousness of Christ that He imputes to us by faith.

The following passage provides the balance needed to understand this concept correctly. Speaking about Daniel’s experience in the presence of the Son of God (Dan. 10:5-8), Ellen White states:

All who are truly sanctified will have a similar experience. The clearer their views of the greatness, glory, and perfection of Christ, the more vividly will they see their own weakness and imperfection. They will have no disposition to claim a sinless character; that which has appeared right and comely in themselves will, in contrast with Christ’s purity and glory, appear only as unworthy and corruptible. It is when men . . . have very indistinct views of Christ that they say, "I am sinless; I am sanctified" (The Sanctified Life, pp. 50, 51; italics supplied).

Notice: 1. This passage does not describe the condition either of new believers or of those who have a precarious spiritual life. Instead, it describes those who, like Daniel, "are truly sanctified." 2. Such believers do not consider themselves as weak, imperfect, and unworthy because they lack spiritual discernment, but because they have a reliable view of the perfection of Christ. It is in contrast to His purity that they see themselves as they really are—as God would view them if Christ’s perfect righteousness did not cover them.

3. Finally, these believers "who are truly sanctified . . . have no disposition to claim sinless character". The reason is not that they are too modest to admit it, or that to make such a claim would be inherently wrong, instead, the reason is that their distinct view of "Christ's purity and glory" has made them painfully aware that their characters are far from being sinless.

Christ presents before us the highest perfection of Christian character, which throughout our 4fetime we should aim to reach. ... Concerning this perfection Paul writes: "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after. . . . I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil 3:12-14) (That I May Know Him, p. 130; italics supplied).

The ideal of Christian character is Christlikeness. There is opened before us a path of constant advancement. We have an object to gain, a standard to reach, that includes everything good and pure and noble and elevated. There should be continual striving and constant progress onward and upward toward perfection of character (Testimonies, vol. 8, p. 64; italics supplied). When it is in the heart to obey God, when efforts are put forth to this end, Jesus accepts this disposition and effort as man’s best service, and He makes up for the deficiency with His own divine merit (My Life Today, p. 250; italics supplied).

These passages bring together the three most significant elements concerning the issue of character development: 1. The standard that has been set—the ideal toward which we must strive—is Christlikeness. It includes everything good and pure and noble and elevated. 2. The believer’s duty is to strive, to press on, to aim for the attainment of the goal of character perfection, to experience constant progress onward and upward throughout his life. 3. When that is the believer’s deliberate objective—when he does what God knows is reasonable to expect of him—then Jesus accepts his disposition and efforts and makes up for his deficiencies. As a result, the believer is accepted as being righteous in Christ, by faith, in spite of the fact that he is still imperfect and unworthy in himself, by nature.

B-3. A More Balanced Understanding of the Subject of Character Perfection

In general terms we can say that God wants to accomplish a double purpose through the plan of redemption: (1) to restore man to the condition of perfect spiritual wholeness in which He initially created him, and (2) to restore the relationship between Himself and man that sin broke. Such a dual restoration will enable the redeemed to be brought back into God’s immediate presence to renew the spiritual unity and personal fellowship with God that Adam and Eve enjoyed before the Fall.

In most cases, God’s plan for bringing man to his original state comes to full realization in three basic stages. 1. At conversion the sinner-turned-believer experiences a fundamental spiritual reawakening. His basic attitude toward God, himself, sin, and his fellowman changes radically. As his affections find a new center, his will becomes aligned with God’s will and his life takes an entirely new direction.

2. Throughout his life as an adopted child of God in Christ he experiences a progressive change, growth, and maturation that enables him to increasingly reflect the virtues of Christ’s holy character in his personal life. This is a progressive work that varies from one person to another and is never fully completed in this life. During this time, "Christ works within us, and His righteousness is upon us" (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 360). Since what Jesus accomplishes within us involves what we are as sinful beings, it is always partial and incomplete, and therefore dependent upon His imputed merits for acceptance with God. In contrast, what He does for us involves what Christ is—His personal righteousness and perfect character—and therefore is always total, complete and fully acceptable to God on our behalf.

3. At the second coming of Christ, when the eternal replaces the temporal and incorruption the corruptible, all God’s children will fully and permanently acquire a state of sinless perfection. Then, and not before, will God’s plan for the redemption of man achieve its completion. Both the relationships sin destroyed and the beings it perverted will again be exactly what they were before the Fall.

II. A Significant and Controverted Passage Reexamined.

In this section we will illustrate how a careful investigation of a particular passage sometimes leads the researcher to an interpretation radically different from the conclusion he would have reached on the basis of a superficial reading of the text. We have chosen this particular passage for three basic reasons. First, it appears to support the theory that those believers alive at the Second Advent must be sinlessly perfect like Jesus. Second, it is part of a book first published in the 1880s, and therefore could have been one of the passages E. R. Jones and his followers used to bolster their extreme ideas. And third, it is not a personal testimony addressed to a particular individual but part of a book intended for wide public circulation—a fact that increases its theological significance.

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. 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. But Christ declared of Himself: "The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me" (John 14:30). Satan could find nothing in the Son of God that would enable him to gain the victory. 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 (The Great Controversy, p. 623; italics supplied).

A casual reading could easily lead to the impression that Ellen White agreed with the idea that before probation ends, God’s people must develop a personal righteousness that measures up to that of Christ and learn to live without sinning—even by a thought—just as Jesus did. After all, the passage states that God’s people have to be perfect, that Jesus didn’t yield to temptation even by a thought, that Satan could find in Him no sin he could use to his advantage, and that this is the condition of those who shall endure the time of trouble.

However, upon closer investigation, we conclude that such an interpretation is unacceptable. First, because it creates some serious problems. Let us consider just three of them. 1. If Ellen White really believed that God’s people can and must reach a state of sinless perfection—just like Jesus—before probation ends, then it is extremely difficult to understand why she opposed Jones so decisively when he promoted that idea. It is also hard to see how she could have advocated the very same teachings she called a deception, manmade tests, a message of error that prevents God’s true message from being accepted, etc. Such a course of action would have been totally inconsistent—an obvious and unacceptable contradiction that would have severely damaged her credibility with those who want to take her seriously.

2. To make the passage endorse the ideas of Jones puts it in tension with its conceptual context. As we saw earlier, the chapter it is a part of establishes that God’s people living through the time of trouble are no more sinless, righteous, or worthy of salvation than any previous generation of believers. She states that they can see little good in their entire lives and are fully conscious of their imperfection, weakness, and unworthiness, and, consequently, depend on Christ for a right standing with God. They have the assurance of eternal life, not because they transcended their lost condition and achieve total spiritual wholeness like Jesus, but because they have repented of their sin and accept fully Christ’s redemptive work on their behalf.

3. If the quote really states that those who will stand in the time of trouble must be just as sinless and as righteous as Jesus, then it contradicts a considerable number of significant concepts clearly established elsewhere in Ellen White’s writings. In that case, her writings would provide no help for the clarification of the dynamics of God’s plan for the salvation of sinful man. On the contrary, by advocating two opposing views simultaneously, they would confuse and mislead the reader since the particular set of writings he happened to consult first would determine his conclusions. An interpretation that leads to such significant problems has to be dismissed as inadequate.

The second reason the above interpretation is unacceptable is that it does not reflect the real meaning and true intent of the passage in question. As we examine it closely, we find that it contains four major concepts that we must consider in order to understand it correctly: 1.. . . "we should seek to become perfect in Christ." There is a subtle yet extremely significant difference between desiring to "become perfect in Christ" and trying to be perfect like Christ. To be perfect like Christ is to be just as righteous, holy, and worthy in ourselves as Jesus was in Himself. It means achieving in our own lives a spiritual wholeness equal to the Saviour’s perfection in every single respect. But that is not the goal this passage sets before the believer. Instead, it challenges the believer to become perfect in Christ, which, as we saw earlier—particularly in the first chapter—means to be righteous through the merits of Christ imputed to us by faith.

2. "Now, while our great High Priest is making the atonement for us, we should seek to become perfect in Christ." Two reasons compel us to become perfect in Christ now, while Jesus is still making atonement for us—why "those who delay a preparation for the day of God cannot obtain it in the time of trouble or at any subsequent time. The case of all such is hopeless" (ibid., p. 620). First, because God’s forgiveness for our sin and Christ’s saving righteousness by means of which we are acceptable to God are mediated only through Christ while He actively ministers on our behalf in the Father’s presence. It therefore follows that if we want our sins to go beforehand to judgment and be blotted out, if we want to be covered by the imputed righteousness of Christ and thus stand flawless before the tribunal of God, then we must secure God’s forgiveness and avail ourselves of the Saviour’ s merits before Jesus ceases to mediate on our behalf.

Second, because our eternal destiny will be sealed forever at that point in time when Jesus completes His mediatorial ministry by securing God’s final and irreversible verdict of acceptance. Once the judgment ceases and our cases are permanently closed, it will be too late to do anything to change God’s decision. Now we are on probation—now is the day of salvation. Therefore, whatever we intend to do to affect our eternal destiny one way or the other we must do now. The case of those who fail to become perfect in Christ now while He mediates in our behalf "is hopeless" precisely because once Jesus completes His mediatorial ministry in heaven, the benefits of His redemptive work are no longer available to them. As a result, they have lost the only means by which they can be reconciled to God and be adopted into His family of believers.

3. "Not even by a thought could our Saviour be brought to yield to the power of temptation." Since a thought is a conscious process, it follows that the passage describes Christ’s response to situations He recognized as enticements to sin. To yield even by a thought to a perceived temptation would have been to sin knowingly, deliberately, willfully. So when Ellen White later states that "this is the condition in which those must be found who shall stand in the time of trouble," she does not say they have to develop in their personal lives a righteousness that measures up to the absolute perfection of Christ in all respects. Instead, the passage says that they must come to the place where they no longer yield to recognized temptation—where they refuse to sin willfully.

4. "Satan finds in the human hearts some point where he can gain a foothold; some sinful desire is cherished . .." Clearly the passage does not deal with sin in its broadest scope, but only with cherished sin. Ellen White here establishes a significant contrast between Jesus and the rest of us. In the human heart Satan does find a foothold "by means of which his temptations assert their power." Cherished sinful desires are like an open door that gives Satan access to the heart. They increase the power of his temptations and facilitate his victory over us. In contrast,

Satan could find nothing in the Son of God that would enable him to gain the victory. He had kept His Father’s commandments, and there was no sin in Him that Satan could use to his advantage.

We can thus see that what the quotation is really saying is that those who will stand in the time of trouble must reach "the condition" of having no cherished sinful, desires which Satan could use to his advantage in his endeavor to cause their eternal ruin. The following passage helps us understand their experience:

When we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ, we shall have no relish for sin; for Christ will be working with us. We may make mistakes, but we will hate the sin that caused the sufferings of the Son of God (Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, Mar. 18, 1890).

On the basis of such considerations we conclude that this passage from Ellen White’s writings indicates that those who shall endure through the time of trouble must have the following three characteristics: First, they are perfect in Christ. They are totally forgiven—cleansed in the atoning blood of Christ—and covered by the Saviour’s imputed merits by virtue of which they stand before the Father righteous in Christ, by faith. Second, they do not sin knowingly, deliberately, willfully. And third, they do not cherish any sinful desires by means of which Satan could gain victory over them.

It is important to note that the requirements described here represent neither a higher standard than what God has demanded in the past nor a new method for securing God’s approval and being found worthy of eternal life. At least four basic concepts discussed earlier bear this out: 1. God has always required perfect righteousness of being and total flawlessness of conduct from His children. So instead of introducing a new standard unique to the last generation of believers, Ellen White reaffirms God’s existing requirement by establishing the fact that He will not lower His expectations for those "who shall stand in the time of trouble."

2. The only way for any fallen being to achieve either perfect righteousness of being or total flawlessness of conduct has always been through the imputed righteousness of Christ. The last generation will find acceptance with God in exactly the same way. Our passage is a "what" statement, not a "how" statement. It mentions the objective God has established without describing the means He provided in the plan of redemption for its realization. But the context makes it clear that while the problem lies in us—our sin, our ignorance and weakness, our unworthiness—the solution is found in Christ, His atoning blood, His wisdom and power, His merits (The Great Controversy, pp. 623, 617f.). Thus she shows that our sin problem can be solved only through the redemptive work of Christ imputed to us by faith.

3. We have seen previously that in the past some have lived so close to God that they would have chosen to die rather than knowingly commit a wrong act. They had reached the condition described in the passage we are considering. Yet they realized that in spite of their radical commitment and outstanding faithfulness to God, they were as dependent on Christ’s merits as any other fallen being. That is why they confessed their sinfulness, recognized their unworthiness, and trusted fully on His redemptive work, imputed to them by faith, for a right standing with God.

4. The experience of the remnant church—the believers still alive during the time of trouble—will be similar to that of God’s faithful children in the past. They honestly endeavor to live in harmony with God’s will, sincerely repent of their sin, and deliberately refrain from consciously cherishing any sinful desires. And yet they will confess their sinfulness, recognize their unworthiness, and grieve over their shortcomings. That is why they will depend on Christ’s redemptive work on their behalf as fully as did all previous believers.

This understanding of the passage we are considering has many significant advantages over the interpretation we mentioned before. First, it allows the passage to speak for itself without either reading into it what is not really there or pushing it beyond its proper limits. Second, it preserves a natural consistency between the passage and its thematic context—discussed previously in the fifth chapter. Third, it harmonizes with the many comments Ellen White makes on this subject elsewhere in her writings—some of which we have discussed throughout this book. Fourth, it avoids the serious problems created by the interpretation that attempts to harmonize it with the perfectionistic views advanced by E. R. Jones and others. And fifth, we can adequately substantiate it from Scripture.

Many Differences, and Yet No Difference

Many differences will exist among the redeemed as they enter the Golden City. In their lives on earth some of them had been highly educated and were quite familiar with what God has revealed about His plan of redemption. Others had no schooling whatsoever—they had never even heard that there was such a thing as a Bible. Some had been honest, morally irreproachable persons even before they became the adopted sons and daughters of God in Christ. Others had been hardened criminals who had to battle with their evil tendencies and vicious habits all their lives. Some responded to the gospel in repentance and faith long before their cases came for review at the pre-Advent judgment, and consequently made considerable progress in their character development and behavior modification. But others accepted God’s reconciling grace at "the eleventh hour" and therefore experienced hardly any changes at all.

These are all real, significant differences. Yet they are all circumstantial, and therefore have no bearing on the eternal destiny of those involved. As far as the ground for their salvation is concerned, the redeemed will all be the same. If God had judged and rewarded them on the basis of who they really were and what they had actually done, then all without exception would have been found guilty before Him. Not one of them would have been worthy of eternal life. But because He treated them on the basis of their response to the salvation He provided in Jesus Christ, they all were made participants with Him of the Father’s inheritance.

Because by their repentance they indicated that they recognized their personal inadequacy, and by their faith they indicated that they accepted Christ’s redemptive work on their behalf, all the redeemed of all ages are entitled to full sonship through Jesus Christ and are welcome as guests at the wedding feast of the Lamb. Each of them has a golden crown, the sign of total victory through the atoning blood of Christ. And each of them is dressed in white garments, the symbol of the perfect righteousness of Christ, which gave them access to eternal life. They all know:

This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.... [God] did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:22-26).

That is why Jesus Christ will be first and foremost to all the redeemed in the earth made new. 

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