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Ellen White on Salvation

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II


Chapter One

The Salvation Dilemma: 
How Shall We Proceed?

The subject of salvation continues to generate intense interest among Seventh-day Adventists.  It is also a tragic fact that this interest has produced considerable controversy and division.  The major focus of these divisive debates has been on the teachings of Ellen G. White.

In some respects this spotlighting of Ellen White's teachings on salvation is welcome. In the wake of the unsettling agitation over the charges of plagiarism in the early 1980s, it is encouraging that once again we seem to be concentrating on the central message of the prophet rather than on the messenger. Certainly the controversies over her alleged literary dependence opened up new insights about the way inspiration works, but all too often the discussion about literary sources missed the beauty and power of her message.

It is my growing conviction that the biblically based gospel message taught by Ellen White will more than vindicate the messenger. The gospel is still abundantly good news, and Ellen White's understanding of it has wonderful power and balance. Not only does it have power to bring peace, joy, and hope in Jesus, but it can also bring us back to a more scripturally based gospel witness.

The Controversial Issues

The main issues that have continued to provoke controversy are (1) justification by faith and (2) perfection. The meaning of perfection has 


proved especially resistant to any sort of satisfactory consensus. It has been at the root of almost all the debates in the history of Seventh-day Adventist discussions about salvation.

During the past 35 years a veritable flood of pamphlets, tapes, magazine articles, and books has addressed this subject. All this outpouring of materials has been in addition to numerous official and unofficial church conferences that have been convened to seek clarification on justification and perfection and the closely related subject of the humanity of Christ. I have actively participated in this study and discussion since the early 1970s. My own interest stems from an appreciation of the sheer importance of the subject and my personal redemption. Such sustained interest, however, involves not only my own salvation, but also a deep desire for the unity and effectiveness of the church. Our gospel witness cannot possibly be effective if we are not clear on what the gospel is but are perpetually wrangling about it among ourselves.

This raises the key question: How can we come to a resolution that will bring the desired unity and convincing witness?

Before I make some suggestions for resolution, I would like to ask the reader some questions: Have you ever had the experience of entering into a spirited discussion with someone on Christian perfection and get a "zinger" Spirit of Prophecy statement thrown at you, only to find out later that you had been ambushed with a quotation that was taken out of context? Have you ever had the disconcerting experience of really studying hard to gain a dearly held position on perfection, only to find out that some industrious researcher using the resources at the Ellen G. White Estate has dug up a statement that calls into question your dearly held position?

I have certainly experienced the chagrin involved in both of these bewildering experiences. But my main chagrin has been the distress of seeing sincere people becoming badly divided and at war with one an other regarding issues that should be bringing joy and the most heartfelt unity. In fact, one of the really tragic ironies in this whole fractured phenomenon has been that Ellen White clearly tells us that one of the important fruits of Christian perfection is unity: "Unity is the sure result of Christian perfection" (SL 85). Isn't that statement an eye-opener?


I not only desire personal understanding, joy, and peace, but also want to see my church united and moving forward in its witness to a troubled and shattered world. Does not the church have much better news to give than reports of disconcerting disunity?

Suggestions for Resolution

I would suggest that resolution should begin with intense personal study. And anyone engaging in such intense study will prayerfully take a hard look at all, not just some, of what Ellen White had to say about salvation and closely related issues. I have long felt that we need to take a more comprehensive look at what she had to say, rather than constantly mulling over our favorite statements. All too often in our repetitious brooding we are only feeding our pet prejudices rather than getting at the issues. Furthermore, this hard look will certainly involve taking care to study her thought in literary, personal, and broadly historical contexts.

The Difficulties of the Task

With these convictions in mind, my first goal was to do thorough research in order to gather all the really important statements on salvation. My second object was to seek the context (and not just the literary context) of not only particular statements but also the larger setting of Ellen White's overall life and ministry.

The task has involved a number of difficulties.

First, there is the controversial history. It is hard to be objective when controversy is involved. The argumentative juices can easily begin to flow, and the usual result is further confusion and division rather than unifying clarity. It would become all of us to acknowledge honestly our personal prejudices and then make an earnest effort to keep our preconceived ideas out of the picture. Even Ellen White herself said that "we have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn" (CWE 37; see also Schwarz 393, 394).

Second, Ellen White left us an astonishingly large volume of literature that totals more than 25 million words in books, magazine articles, letters, and unpublished manuscripts. The task of getting through so much matter seems impossible.


But the good news is that the very practical Ellen G. White Estate has moved forward in the past few years in providing wonderfully efficient research tools. Through the use of the latest technology in information processing, we now have computerized indexes that provide astonishingly ready access to not only the published but also the unpublished letters and manuscripts. Today the serious researcher can rather easily gather all the essential documents in relatively short order. I am glad to report that this gathering work is now the easy part of Ellen White studies!

The truly demanding work comes in seeking out context and meaning. The first task in getting the context involves the sometimes painstaking task of dating certain documents. But again I bear glad tidings. In the vast majority of cases, this can be done with ease and accuracy! When all this preliminary work has been completed, however, the ultimate challenge is to make sense out of the collection.

I would like to testify that while the task is not a snap, it is interesting how patterns of development, emphasis, and meaning begin to reveal themselves as one carefully and prayerfully pores over the collected documents.

My Approach to the Task

Here is how I went about the study. Using the computerized technology, I tried to locate every use Ellen White made of such key words as "justification," "imputation," "impartation," and "perfection" (and their varied forms: "justify," "justified," "just," etc.) from 1845 to 1902. 1 searched through her published and unpublished works.

In addition to her primary writings, I consulted many compilations, serious research documents, important magazine articles, and popular books by recognized participants in the righteousness by faith discussions. All these documents I carefully combed through for any important Ellen White statements that I might have missed in searching through her writings. I lay no claim to have found every single statement, but I am confident that what I did find gives a clear enough picture so that I can avoid the charge of suppressing contrary evidence.


All these statements I then placed in chronological sequence in an attempt to study her doctrine of salvation in a developmental way rather than just topically. While many fine works have been done on this subject, they are almost all topical and doctrinal in nature, rather than primarily historical in focus. This study is primarily developmental and historical in nature and only secondarily topical and doctrinal. But the historical nature of this study is not an end in and of itself. It is the means to reach important goals of grasping what she taught about justification and perfection.

Two questions have been raised that I think should be forthrightly faced.

First, when we speak of Ellen White's doctrinal development, do we mean that she moved from error to truth? My answer is a firm "Not so!" When we speak of her development, we mean the way she grew in meeting new and different challenges and how she moved from simple, more childlike expressions of truth to greater clarity and sophistication.

A good illustration of the latter trend in her thinking can be easily demonstrated when Early Writings is compared with The Great Controversy. The first work is written in the simple style of a young

woman who is being led through the battlefield of a cosmic conflict. The Great Controversy is a marvelously sophisticated weaving of biography, history, prophetic interpretation, and theology. Yet the movement is not from error to truth.

Second, why did I take this study up only to 1902? The answer is quite simple. Looking through all the literature, I found no pathbreaking statements after 1902. Subsequent study has confirmed my original findings.

Study Goals

My goals have been basically three: (1) to seek to clarify the development and understanding of Ellen White's doctrine of Christ's humanity; (2) to clarify her teachings on salvation, especially her concepts of justification and perfection and the way these two aspects of her thought interrelate; (3) to set forth my own interpretation of her understanding of the humanity of Christ, justification, and perfection.


I do not claim to be the last word on these subjects, but I do earnestly pray that my work will benefit the serious reader and will be a means to bring not only a clearer understanding of the precious gospel, but also the wonderful fruit of unity and witnessing power in the church.

A Note of Explanation

In the chapters that follow I have tried to use Ellen White's own words as much as possible. In pursuit of this goal I have pulled out the key words and phrases so as to avoid a lot of long, cumbersome statements. Thus there will be many quotation marks. So the reader is alerted to read carefully and is reminded that when there are quotation marks they usually refer to the published words of Ellen White.

The Abiding Balance

Before we begin, allow me to share with you my central proposition or thesis about Ellen White's basic views on salvation.

From the beginning she evidenced a clear understanding that justification and perfection are closely related and that the believer cannot have one without the other (1T 22, 23). The emphasis and exact relationship will vary somewhat throughout the years, but the delicate balance in their relationship will be a constant during the rest of her ministry. This balance between justification and perfection can be likened to a seesaw. Sometimes one side is up and the other down, but a good teeter-totter experience will always feature two evenly matched participants complementing and balancing each other. For Ellen White, the balancing act began early in her Christian experience.

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