The Decade Before 1888
This crucial decade witnessed a remarkable unfolding
of Ellen White's essential balance between justification and perfection.
While she continued to fight a rear-guard action against Holiness
fanaticism, during this decade a growing emphasis on justification began
to unfold in her writing. We will begin by taking a further look at her
dealings with the Holiness advocates.
These later cases of Holiness fanaticism were very
similar to those she encountered during her first decade of public
ministry. As with the earlier cases, all the later instances of Holiness
emphasis on sinless perfection were negative. One of the most
instructive examples of these later experiences with the partisans of
sinless perfectionism was the case of a certain "Brother B."
The Fanatical "Brother B"
In a letter to S. H. Lane, published in the Review
of June 6, 187E James and Ellen White spoke of
the condition of "Brother B" as one whom "Satan is pushing
. . . to cause disaffection in the Indiana Conference under the pious guise of Christian
holiness." They went on to assent to "holiness of life" as
"necessary," but censured "the spirit of popular
sanctification" as detrimental to "present truth,"
specifically the "Sabbath, the third angel's message, and the health
In a wry twist they declared that some of the "sanctified"
"have even reached the almost hopeless position that they cannot
sin" and "have no further use for the Lord's
Prayer, which teaches us to pray that our sins
may be forgiven." They further observed that such Holiness people
have "very little use for the Bible, as they profess to be led by
the Spirit." The
Whites then called anyone who cannot sin the "veriest
Laodicean," and they defined true sanctification as that which
comes through "obedience of the truth and of God."
The wry twist was concluded with what amounted to a
wonderful touch of ironic humor. The Whites' recommendation for Brother
B was that he be "treated at the Sanitarium, at Battle Creek, for
the improvement of his health."
It is interesting that they used this case as a
summary of 30 years of experience in dealing with the "fanaticism
which has grown out of the teachings of ultra holiness." What was
it that caused this negative reaction to Holiness teachings?
Although the Holiness manifestations were often quite
emotional, the key objection to such Holiness teachings was their
proneness to hypocritical fanaticism (ignoring the sober fruits of
obedience as the essential characteristic of sanctification) and their
downgrading effects on Adventist doctrinal distinctivesthe platform of
What are we to make of all these experiences?
What is the bottom line in all this? The sum of it seems to go like
this: Sanctified obedience is very important, but the hallmark of the
rest of Ellen White's ministry was to warn against emotional,
self-righteous, perfectionistic fanaticism and any teaching or
experience that would destroy the doctrinal core of Adventism.
The Anti-Law Extremists
It is indicative of Ellen White's balance in her
ministry of salvation that she could not only rebuke the perfectionism
of the Holiness fanatics, but also give equally stern warnings to the
law-denouncing "cheap grace" preachers. It is this decade before 1888 that signals
a remarkable upsurge in emphasis on Christ's justifying merits, but it
is always a doctrine that features earnest obedience as the inescapable
fruit of divine forgiveness.
The Pacific Voyage of 1878In
the summer of 1878, while on a voyage to Oregon, she felt led to
confront boldly a certain Elder Brown, who was claiming publicly that it
was impossible for anyone to keep God's law and that no one will get to heaven by keeping the law.
He then went on
to say that "Mrs. White is all law, law; she
believes that we must be saved by the law, and no one can be saved
unless they keep the law. Now I believe in Christ. He is my
Ellen White was quick to challenge him in a pointed
reply. "That is a false statement. Mrs. White has never occupied
that position. . . . We have always taken the position that there was no
power in the law to save a single transgressor of that law. . . .
"Christ did not come to excuse sin, nor to justify
a sinner while he continued to transgress that law....
"What is the sinner to be converted from? The
transgression of God's law to obedience of it. But if he is told that he
cannot keep the law of God . . . to what is he then convertedfrom
transgression of the law to a continuance in that transgression? This is
absurd" (ST, July 18, 1878). She concluded by reproving those who
"cry Christ, Christ, only believe on Christ, when they do not the
works of Christ." And then she directly addressed Elder Brown:
"Please never again make the misstatement that we do not rely on
Jesus Christ for our salvation, but trust in the law to be saved. We
have never written one word to that effect."
Her parting shot was to accuse him of teaching
"that the sinner may be saved while knowingly transgressing the law
It is interesting that in reporting this
confrontation to her readers in the Signs she found it
"incredible" that one professing to be a "Bible student .
. . should affirm that no man ever kept the law of God, or could keep
She reveals to us what was probably the underlying
issue that motivated most opponents of Seventh-day Adventism and what
called forth such a pointed response: "This is the fearful position
taken by many ministers, in order to get rid of the Sabbath of the
When sorely pressed by what she felt was gross
misrepresentation, she declared that salvation by obedience to the law
is impossible, but salvation without obedience
is also just as impossible. She declared that we are justified only by faith in the "merits"
of Christ, but such faith will never excuse transgression (ST, July
In relationship to our grasp of her doctrine of salvation, this
revealed much about Ellen White's developing
understanding. Clearly salvation was only by faith in Jesus' merits, but
significant obedience by faith was also possible for the true believer.
The European Tour: 1885-1887
Ellen White's years of ministry in Europe were rich
in expressions of the great experience of salvation. Her sermons and
writings from this period breathe a wonderfully balanced mix, which
emphasized the pardon of sin and grace to resist temptation.
But probably the most revealing instance of her balance
between pardon and obedience came during the fall of 1885 as she
ministered amid the tragic circumstances of Edith Andrews.
This young woman, a worker at the Seventh-day Adventist
publishing house in Basel, Switzerland, was dying of tuberculosis.
Apparently Edith's impact on the other youthful workers at this
institution had not been spiritually positive. But in her last days she had
manifested sincere repentance. Ellen White spoke directly to her
regarding her feeble inability to repent "thoroughly," but
assured her that "Jesus' precious mercy and merits" make up
for "the deficiencies on the part of His repenting, humble
ones" (letter 26, 1885, cited in Delafield 89).
Edith died in Jesus on December 24, 1885, and Ellen
White recorded this touching comment: "We have evidence that
Edith's life is not what it might have been, but her last days were days
of penitence, repentance, and confession. We have reason to believe that the
pitying Redeemer accepted Edith" (MS 30, 1885, cited in Delafield
Again it must be emphasized that Ellen White's practical
theology manifested a wonderful balance. For those burdened with a sense
of sin, she spoke of the "pitying Redeemer's" acceptance. For
the bitter opponent of the Ten Commandments she upheld the authority of
God's law and Christ's power to inspire and produce obedience.
Ellen White as an evangelist and pastor was growing in
her emphasis on acceptance through Jesus' merits, but the accent on
gracious obedience was never very far from the center of her teachings
The 1883 General Conference Session
Although there has been an enormous amount of focus
on Minneapolis and 1888, there has been a relative lack of attention
given to the General Conference session in Battle Creek in November of
What is remarkable about this session were the
sermons given by Ellen White. These talks mainly centered on
"pardon and justification" and were clearly anticipations
of what was to come to a floodtide after the 1888 Minneapolis General
Conference session. They were such powerful expositions of justification
by faith that I feel this conference can in some sense be called the
"Minneapolis before Minneapolis"!
Up to this time Ellen White had had precious little to
say about justification. While her teaching was clear that justification
was "pardon" and "forgiveness," it was not until the
1880s that there began to appear this sharpening focus on a more Lutheran by faith
alone understanding of justification. In other words, sinners could
never save themselves by their good works of charity and obedience, but
only through faith in Christ's merits alone.
In fact, the first published linking of Luther and
justification came in the Signs of May 31, 1883. This development was
probably a result of her research for The Spirit of Prophecy, volume 4
(1884), which became the immediate forerunner of her classic The Great
Controversy (1888). This work extensively expressed her understanding of
how God led Luther and the Reformation movement in a wonderful unfolding
of the vital issues having to do with the "great controversy
between Christ and Satan."
What were the factors that called forth this new
emphasis on justification by faith alone?
Obviously, the above-mentioned work on The Spirit of
Prophecy, volume 4, especially the portions dealing with the history of
the Reformation, had raised her awareness about the subject. Other
factors, however, also certainly played a role.
There were Ellen White's repeated confrontations with
the "believe, only believe" advocates. These challenges
certainly helped sharpen her understanding of what believing really
meant. In other words, justification as a true article must be clearly defined over against the
advocates. Historically there has never been any factor so efficient
in calling forth doctrinal clarification as heresyreal or perceived!
Finally, the major factor that spurred her rising
emphasis on justification seemed to be her growing sense that there
was unwitting legalism creeping into the ranks of Seventh-day
Adventism. She detected a preoccupation with obedience and the law that was
practically obscuring the assurance of God's acceptance through faith.
This eclipse of assurance also benighted the lives of many Adventist
This latter factor was explicitly apparent in her
pointed remarks directed to the ministers at the 1883 General
Conference session: "I have listened to testimonies like this: `I
have not the light that I desire; I have not the assurance of the
favor of God.' Such testimonies express only unbelief and darkness.
Are you expecting that your merit will recommend you to the favor of
God, and that you must be free from sin before you trust His power to
save? If this is the struggle going on in your mind, I fear you will
gain no strength, and will finally become discouraged....
"Some seem to feel that they must be on
probation, and must prove to the Lord that they are reformed before
they can claim His blessing. ... Jesus loves to have us come to Him
just as we are-sinful, helpless,
dependent. We claim to be children of the light, not
of the night nor of darkness; what right have we to be
During this decade just prior to 1888, Ellen
White continued to express her understanding of perfection in a way
that clearly differentiated her teaching from the Wesleyan view and
its fanatical perversions. But it is also apparent that her balanced views on
salvation called for her to turn up the volume in behalf of a
powerful emphasis on justification by faith alone. What is
interesting, however, is the vital role played by James White in
this growing emphasis on the uplifted Christ, who justifies by
* RH Apr. 22, 1884. These sermons were published in the Review and Herald of April 15, 22,
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