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Ellen White on the Humanity of Christ

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II



Chapter Nine

Christ's Humanity,
Justification, and Perfection

Ellen White's view of Christ's humanity contains many elements of mystery. Furthermore, because we find statements that seem hard to reconcile with one another, some have even concluded that she was simply contradictory in her presentations on Christology. I would firmly suggest that such a charge not only is harsh but also represents a lack of appreciation for two key elements in her thought.

Central Factors in Ellen White's Understanding

The first element is the striking doctrinal consistency in a large body of writings produced over the course of six decades by a thinker who wasn't attempting to do an academic, systematic, or technically doctrinal work.

She did not confine her comments on the nature of Christ to any one major work, but scattered them throughout her writings. Often they showed up in rather surprising settings. My observation is very similar to Eric C. Webster's: "The general consistency in Ellen White's views over a considerable span of time is a testimony to her clarity of thought" (149).

The second factor is that her views are more than just noncontradictory; I would strongly suggest that these seemingly irregular features are what give her thought its power and depth. Ellen White could sound like the author of the book of Hebrews when she discussed Christ's profound identity with humanity and John the Beloved (John 8:46) when she discussed His amazing uniqueness.


Causes for Misunderstanding

The problems in understanding Ellen White have arisen when her interpreters have (1) wanted to emphasize one aspect of His humanity to the neglect of the other, or (2) when they have attempted to totally re solve a mystery that can't be solved by human minds. If there were no mystery, what need would there be for faith?

For Ellen White, the stress on uniqueness or identity seemed to depend largely on what doctrinal issue she was dealing with.

When she spoke of victory over sin and Christ's power to sustain struggling sinners, she was more likely to emphasize identity. But when she presented Christ as a sinless, sacrificial substitute and one who is able to free us from the guilt of sin, she would emphasize uniqueness.

Christ's Sinless Uniqueness and "Sinful Nature"

Though His "spiritual nature was free from every taint of sin" (ST, Dec. 9, 1897; 5BC 1104), He was a rather typical first-century human being. It seems best to express the freedom of His "spiritual nature" from sin this way: He was affected by sin but not infected with it.

Ellen White was clear that He took "our sinful nature" (7-ABC 453), but only in the sense of a lessened capacity as a result of the principle of physical inheritance.1 He was weak, frail, infirm, degraded, degenerate, deteriorated, wretched, and defiled, but somehow He was not "altogether human, such an one as ourselves; for it cannot be" (5BC 1129). Whatever this lessened capacity involved, it did not include (1) yielding to corruption (He never committed an act of sin) or (2) "a taint of sin" or "an evil propensity" in His sinless "spiritual nature" (ST, Dec. 9, 1897; 5BC 1128). While Christ was not just like fallen humans, He was enough like them to identify with their "infirmities" in their struggle with temptation. His nature, however, was enough unlike them to be a sinless, substitutionary sacrifice.

Some Compelling Implications About Sin

Such conclusions about Christ's sinlessly unique nature receive strong support from some powerful implications arising out of Ellen White's understanding of sin and sinfulness. Let's refresh our thinking on the issues and questions in chapter 2.


First, could Jesus have had the very same nature that we receive from sinful Adam and still be our Saviour? Let's be even more explicit with Ellen White's terminology: Could Jesus be our saving, sacrificial substitute and still be called "naturally depraved" (IHP 163), "corrupt" (1SM 344), and be characterized as having "inherent propensities of disobedience" (5BC 1128), "hereditary and cultivated tendencies to evil" (CT 20), or "a bent to evil" (Ed 28, 29)? Could Jesus save babies born with the "inheritance" of "selfishness ... inwrought in" their "very being" if He had been born with the same "inheritance" of "selfishness" (HS 138, 139)? I would like to confess that the answer to such compelling questions should be a firm no!

It is quite obvious that the thought of Ellen White contains an inherent demand that in some important respects Jesus had to be uniquely sinless. It had to be true not only of His acts but also of His inherited nature. The reason for this is that if He was sinful in either His acts or inherited nature, He could not be an effectual Saviour from sin. Such a conclusion becomes almost overwhelmingly compelling when we recall the following statement:

"Man could not atone for man. His sinful, fallen condition would constitute him an imperfect offering, an atoning sacrifice of less value than Adam before his fall."

Two paragraphs later she says:

"Christ alone could open the way, by making an offering equal to the demands of the divine law. He was perfect, and undefiled by sin. He was without spot or blemish" (RH, Dec. 17, 1872).

Second, I would suggest that Ellen White's understanding of Jesus' role as our constantly available intercessor calls for a powerful accenting of the sinless uniqueness of His human nature. Once again we need to remind ourselves about the pointedly practical applications of her view of Christ's intercession. Such application reached its climactic expression in manuscript 50, 1900 (found in 1SM 344): "Oh, that all may see that everything in obedience, in penitence, in praise and thanksgiving, must be placed upon


the glowing fire of the righteousness of Christ." Again I would point out to the reader that in this important statement she was clearly referring to "the religious services, the prayers, the praise, the penitent confession of sin" that "ascend from true believers . . . to the heavenly sanctuary, but passing through the corrupt channels of humanity, they are so defiled that unless purified by blood, they can never be of value with God" (italics supplied).

I find the implications of this provocative statement quite powerful! Once again it seems more forceful to focus these implications with a question: Could Jesus have a nature just like ours and still be our interceding advocate and high priest? If we, with our defiled and corrupt channels of humanity, need the constant intercession of Jesus, could Jesus intercede for us if His human nature was also defiled and corrupt? Again the question demands a resounding no!

Furthermore, the most compelling implication for ignoring this aspect of Ellen White's thought is the way that the so-called "post-Fall" interpreters always seem to want to downgrade the importance of justification. We note a disturbing tendency to collapse justification into sanctification, making the fruits of sanctified obedience part of the meritorious ground or basis of our acceptance with God (see the exchange with Kevin Paulson in chapter 11).

The danger in such a tendency has always been to return believers to the severe spiritual bondage so poignantly typified in John Wesley's experience before he came to a clear understanding of the proper relationship between justification and sanctification. The change in his experience (knowing that justification was the ground of sanctification, not vice versa) did not lead him to indulge in an attitude of cheap grace; but it did give Wesley a firm "ground" of assurance to grow in obedience. Please note Ellen White's perceptive observation: "He continued his strict and self-denying life, not now as the ground, but the result of faith; not the root, but the fruit of holiness" (GC 256).

While believers are saved experientially by living faith (active trust) and evidentially (even conditionally) by sanctified works, we are saved meritoriously only by the merits of Christ's life and death, which are forensically or legally reckoned and accounted to us through His constant intercession in heaven.


Christian obedience, "through the righteousness of Christ . . . wrought by His Spirit working in and through us," might be the "ground of our hope" for deliverance from the power of sin (see Steps to Christ, p. 63), but it can never be the meritorious ground or basis of our acceptance with Christ-either before or after conversion. If such were the case, it would create enormous spiritual problems. Christians would tend to fall into one of the ditches on either side of the highway to heaven. Either they would be tempted to think too highly of themselves (the ditch of self-righteousness) or they would end up in the anxiety that results from constantly looking to self to see if their subjective performance is good enough to merit salvation (the ditch of dispair).2

For Ellen White, the keystone that keeps justification and sanctification in proper balance is the intercessory ministry of Christ, which constantly reckons trusting (not presumptuous) believers to be perfect through justification and also constantly empowers growth in grace through sanctification. But if Jesus is inherently sinful in nature, He cannot be our effectual, interceding advocate.

In addition to these compelling implications drawn from Ellen White's definition of sinful human nature and her clear testimony that Christ had no "taint of sin" or "evil propensity" in His sinless "spiritual nature" (ST, Dec. 9, 1897; 5BC 1128), we need to consider one more provocative line of evidence for His sinless uniqueness.

A Very Stubborn Fact

The arguments of those who claim that Christ had to be just exactly like sinful humans in order to identify with them break down over one stubborn fact of human history: We have all sinned, but Christ never did. Think about that for a moment.

A previous experience in sin always strengthens the force of temptation. The desire to commit any specific act of sin will be more powerful for the one who has already done it than it will be for someone who has never indulged in it. Does this make Christ unable to succor or identify with us in our temptations?


Eric Webster forcefully lays out the relentless logic of the situation: "Right here there remains a massive gap between Christ and the sinner. At best, Christ can only face initial temptation, but He cannot be brought down to the level of the alcoholic who faces the temptation to indulge in strong drink for the thousandth time.... Christ never knew the power of habitual sin and cannot meet fallen man on that level" (419). Any attempt to drag Him down fully to our level collapses "on the bedrock" of our history of universally "habitual sin" (ibid. 420).

Can Christ Really Identity With Us?

Let's face the practical issue squarely: If Christ's identity involves (1) no history of habitual sin and (2) not being born with tendencies and propensities to sin, how then can He really identify with us in our struggle with temptation? Can such a sinlessly unique Person really be of help to us who are born with such tragic histories and corrupt, depraved tendencies?

I would suggest that Christ did not need to be born with either a bent to sin or a history of sinning to feel the power of temptation. Upon further reflection, it becomes obvious that the basis of His temptations was not an inherently corrupt nature or sordid history of sin, but the possibility of using His full deity to resist the wiles of the devil.

In other words, the key temptation for Christ was the same as it is for all humans—the desire to go it alone and depend upon self rather than divine, imparted power from above. The history of Adam and Eve, along with one third of the heavenly angels, ought to give us a clue about a simple fact of human experience: Having natural tendencies to sin is not essential to being tempted. Certainly God did not create our first parents flawed in any way. Yet they yielded to temptation.

Morris Venden has illustrated the central dynamics involved in temptation: People who drive "wimpy" cars do not struggle with the urge to "stomp it." They know that they don't have it "under the hood." But the people who are most tempted to speed are the ones who have what we used to refer to as "440 under the hood"! Christ had infinite, divine power "under the hood," and His great temptation was to depend on self rather than the imparted power of the divine Father.


Let's Allow the Balance to Stand!

If we permit Ellen White's finely tuned balance to stand as it is, her doctrine of Christ's humanity has an appealing wholeness. When we lose sight of one side of the balance, or deny it, her thought becomes distorted and can easily be perverted into "believe, only believe" presumption or discouragingly self-centered, behavioristic extremes. Ellen White sought to uphold the delicate balance and constantly battled the extremes.

A Final Appeal

Once again I urgently suggest that we lay aside the more traditional expressions such as pre-Fall and post-Fall in this important search for doctrinal clarity! They are simply inadequate to express the richness of Ellen White's understanding of the humanity of Christ.

When it came to Christ as a fully sinless, sacrificial substitute, she was pre-Fall. But when she wrote of His ability to sustain in times of temptation, she emphasized His identity and spoke largely in post-Fall terms. A careful balancing of the terms uniqueness and identity seems to reflect more accurately the profoundly rich tensions involved in this heavy theme. 

Such a balance certainly involves some aspects of mystery. In fact, I am suggesting the use of such technical words as "balanced tension," "dialectic," or "paradox" to express her profound balance between Christ's "sinful" and "sinless" nature. But such expressions of mystery and complexity are not unique to me.

I found it very interesting (and comforting) to discover that even writers who seem to argue for the strong identity, or the so-called postFall position, also want to speak in terms of some tentativeness that evidences a recognition of a mysteriously balanced tension. Gil G. Fernandez speaks of "ambiguities" (29) and A. Leroy Moore uses the expression "paradoxical dimensions" (249).3

Furthermore, it does not seem to be accidental that their expressions come close to those of Eric C. Webster (a forceful defender of the sinless uniqueness position-essentially what the pre-Fall people argue for,) who wants to use such terms as "dialectical" (99) and "paradox, tension and antithesis" (153).


It seems that a setting of some mystery and tension, with a balanced use of the terms uniqueness and identity, best expresses her meaning. This allows each concept to make its essential contribution to her very sensible and useful Christology.

As we bring this summation chapter to a close, it is important to remember an important fact: The main purpose of Ellen White's reflections and presentations on the humanity of Christ was to serve the needs of a very practical understanding of the experience of salvation. Unless Jesus is seen as profoundly and sinlessly unique, He really cannot justify us. And if He is not deeply identified with our weakness, He will be unable to truly succor or help us in our struggles with temptation. But in the profound and comprehensive view of Ellen White, He was sufficiently both to be our complete Redeemer!  


1  I must confess that I am indebted to Desmond Ford for the essential phrasing of this sentence. [back] [top]

2  The great adversary is always attempting to entice believers to look to self (both our triumphs and failures) or the faults of others rather than to Christ (see Steps to Christ, p. 71). Ellen White is especially subtle in her analysis of this phenomenon when she lays down the following insight: "The CLOSER you come to Jesus, the more faulty you will appear in your own eyes; for your vision will be clearer, and your IMPERFECTIONS will be seen in distinct contrast with His perfect character. Be not discouraged; this is an evidence that Satan's delusions are losing their power" (BE, Dec. 1, 1892; cf. SC 28, 29, 64, 65). How can those who are coming closer to Jesus have any confidence in their acceptance with God unless they know that they are accepted through the objective, justifying merits of Jesus in His constant heavenly intercession? If they are dependent on the work that Jesus is doing through them to be the ground of their acceptance, they will never have gospel confidence, as they will always be growing in a clearer understanding of their defects.

Justification, which is grounded on the subjective work of Christ in the soul (the sanctifying grace of the Spirit), has evolved into a vicious cycle for all too many believers—especially those with very sensitive consciences. It is little wonder that so many such people have been driven either to dispair or subtle self-righteousness. Dispair is the major pitfall of the most sensitive in nature, while Pharisaic externalism and superficial behaviorism is the tragic lot of those lost in the mists of subtle self-righteousness (cf. Phil. 3:4-7). [back] [top]

3  In his earlier work, The Theology Crisis, A. Leroy Moore seemed to be arguing for a post-Fall interpretation of Ellen White's writings. But after a closer reading of this work and his more recent Adventism in Conflict, it is clear that Moore's somewhat complex principles of doing theology led him to seek to balance what he felt was Desmond Ford's overemphasis on Christ's pre-Fall uniqueness. Moore's "paradoxical" principles (not being used in a polemical setting such as The Theology Crisis) have led him to come out forthrightly for what is essentially the pre-Fall position in his recently released Adventism in Conflict. [back] [top]

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