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
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
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
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
"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,
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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"
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!
I must confess that I am
indebted to Desmond Ford for the essential phrasing of this sentence.
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).
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.