Sin, the Human Condition,
Our grasp of Ellen White's understanding of sin is one
of the most critical themes to be settled if we are to gain clear
conceptions of her views on salvation. If we do not get this area right,
it will not only seriously skew how we understand her doctrines of
justification and perfection, but also seriously degrade our view of
For Ellen White, sin was defined as both acts of
transgressing God's will (1SM 320) and a condition of depravity that
involves inherited sinful "propensities,"
"inclinations," "tendencies," and a "bent"
to sin (that is, inbred or indwelling sin) (5BC 1128; Ed 29; IHP 195).
Depravity, Guilt, and "Original Sin"
In the area of depravity and sinful condition,
Ellen White's thinking is a bit elusive. Her concept of "original
sin" was certainly not in the Augustinian/Calvinistic tradition
of "total depravity." This view of total depravity is one of
the basic reasons Calvinists teach irresistible predestination. The
Calvinistic logic goes like this: Sinners are so deranged and depraved
by sin that they cannot even respond to God's redemptive initiative. Therefore, God must irresistibly bestow it upon whomsoever He so
chooses in His inscrutable wisdom.
Total depravity notwithstanding, there were elements in
her thought that definitely spoke of depravity as the natural,
inherited condition of sinful human beings. "We must remember
that our hearts are naturally
depraved and we are unable of ourselves to pursue a
right course" (IHP 163). Adam's sin definitely caused his
"posterity" to be "born with inherent propensities of
disobedience" (5BC 1128). But such "depravity" is not
"total depravity," and sinners still have the ability
(popularly called "free will") to respond to God's saving
To briefly sum up: the term original
sin (with its strong overtones of total
depravity) does not quite seem to fit her understanding. On the other
hand, being born morally neutral or with natural tendencies to do
right also does not fit. In the thought of Ellen White we humans come
into the world as tragically damaged goods, not simply unfortunate
babes in the woods who suffer lapses of memory and numerous little
mistakes. We are seriously depraved and corrupted!
Are We Born Guilty?
With depravity clearly understood, let us now turn
our attention to the most elusive element in Ellen White's thinking
about sinthe issue of guilt. Human guilt is universally acknowledged,
but the question that has most vexed Adventist thinking is, Are we born
Some have strongly denied that we are born with
guilt (Wallenkampf and Lesher 716). But what is to be made of the
following statement? "The inheritance of children is that of sin.
. . . As related to the first Adam, men receive from him nothing but
guilt and the sentence of death" (CG 475). This statement caused
Robert Olson to declare that "we are born in a state of guilt
inherited from Adam" (Olson, 28).
The reader may reasonably question what Ellen White
meant when she declared that "men receive from [Adam] nothing but
This issue of guilt has caused much
misunderstanding, but see what you think of the following suggestion.
Ellen White understood the issue more in a practical sense rather than in some abstract,
theoretical way. For her, sin was stubbornly
self-evident in our realistic, everyday experience. She unequivocally
declared that "selfishness is inwrought in our very being."
"It has come to us as an inheritance" (HS 138, 139).
For Ellen White, sin and its baleful results were
ultimately inexplicable. What is all too stubbornly obvious, though,
is not Adam's
inexplicable rebellion, but our own individual guilt
flowing inexorably from our sinful choices: "It is inevitable
that children should suffer from the consequences of parental
wrongdoing, but they are not punished for the parents' guilt, except
as they participate in their sins. It is usually the case, however,
that children walk in the steps of their parents" (PP 306).
"As a result of Adam's disobedience every human being is a
transgressor of the law, sold under sin" (IHP 146).
Ellen White did not feel called upon to address the
question of God's fairness in allowing a sinful nature to be passed on
to Adam's offspring. Apparently she was just not theologically
troubled by the thought that God allows humans to be subject to an inheritance that
leads inevitably to sinful acts, which result in guilt.
Again it must be emphasized that her concern was a
matter of stubbornly hard practical realism: depraved humans have
"sinful natures," "a bent to evil," and
"propensities to sin," which lead to sin and guilt. Because
of this, sinful humans are responsible for their sins, and this is the
main issue that confronts not only the sinner, but also the redeeming
God. Thus it is obvious that theoretical questions about
"original guilt" did not concern her.
Depravity, Guilt, and Merit
What was very clear in the thought of Ellen White was her view of
depravity and its impact on redemption. Human depravity makes the best
efforts of penitent, redeemed believers meritoriously unacceptable.
This is the very tough, down-to-earth bottom line in her thinking on
salvation, especially as she warred against legalism. "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"and here 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" (1SM 344).
Human "corruption" and depravity always leave
the stench of "earthly odor" on even the best that believers
can produce. This stench makes their works meritoriously unacceptable.
Only what has come from the "untainted" nature of the sinless
Jesus has saving merit.
Failure to grasp this significant bottom line can
lead to all sorts of theological and practical mischief. A clear
understanding of this concept will always protect against any sort of
human glory in self-generated merit. It is absolutely clear that we can
do nothing, positively nothing, to gain God's favor. Even the
Spirit-inspired works of charity and obedience have no saving merit.
Depravity, Merit, and Perfection
Ellen White's very clear teaching on sinful
corruption and the taintedness of human effort not only played an
important role in her battles with legalism, but also has critical
implications for our understanding of how her view of perfection is to
Ellen White was very clear that sinners will retain
their sinful natures until glorification (ST, Mar. 23, 1888), and thus
there will never be a time during which the fruits of their
sanctification experience will ever be perfect enough to become meritorious. She
spoke of character perfection
(which is carefully defined), but never of nature perfection this side
But her qualifications were not based on adjusted
requirements of law. Her adjustments were based solely on her
understanding of human sinfulness that afflicts the entire personmind,
body, and spirit in profound unity. The only solution for this
adjustment is the continuous reckoning of the meritorious perfection of
Christ's life and death to sinners' accounts. Certainly this
understanding of human nature must be taken into consideration in any
evaluation of her understanding of perfection.
In the light of such understandings of human nature,
law, and sin, how is her understanding of perfection to be stated?
was clear that sinners will never be conscious of their perfection, but
what sort of perfection could they have this side of glorification
that would be
unconsciously present? Such questions as these will be the
central theme of the later sections of this book.
This clear understanding of human sinfulness,
corruption, or depravity has further implications for the way she
conceived her doctrine of free will and God's saving initiative.
Depravity, Divine Calling, Conversion, and Free Will
Ellen White stood very much in the popular American
tradition of free will. For her, however (as for Wesley), it is probably
better expressed as "free grace" proceeding from God's
redemptive initiatives. In simpler terms, what this means is that God seeks us before we
would ever think to (or be willing to) seek after Him.
It has been thus since the "original sin" in
Eden. When Adam and Eve ran from God in the shame of their fig leaf
self-righteousness, God came seeking them!
Ellen White was clear that when sin entered the world,
the will of human beings became enslaved (ST, Nov. 19, 1896) and
"through the will . . . sin retains its hold . . . upon
[humanity]" (MB 61). Thus there is no power in the "unaided
human will" (8T 292) to oppose sin. But through Jesus Christ the
will of the human being is freed (SC 48).
"It is impossible for us, of ourselves, to escape
from the pit of sin in which we are sunken. . . . His grace alone can
quicken the lifeless faculties of the soul, and attract it to God, to
holiness" (ibid. 18:
see also p. 24).
She further underscored this concept of divine calling
when she declared that repentance "is beyond the reach of our own
power to accomplish; it is obtained only from Christ, who ascended up on
high" (ibid. 25). Thus Ellen
White was clear that "man is not capable of originating such a
repentance as this, and can experience it alone through Christ"
Her understanding of sinfulness not only comprehended
the needs of the penitent sinner at the beginning of Christian
experience, but all through the experience of the cooperating believer.
"We are unable of ourselves to pursue a right course. It is only by the grace of God,
combined with the most earnest effort on our part, that we can gain the
victory" (CT 544).
Not only did Ellen White understand the atonement in
continuous terms, but she also saw conversion in much the same light. It
was the whole process of God's interaction with the soul, not just one
initial event, that received the focus. Conversion involved submissive
responses (which did not necessarily have to be emotion-laden) to God's
gracious initiative and daily submission to His leading, guidance, and
Here is the very bedrock of all true experience in
sanctification and perfection. Redemption is Christ-centered in all its
aspects of calling, conviction, forgiveness, empowerment for obedience
(and service) and glorification. But each step comprehends the humble
response of the human subject. God was never seen as acting in a forced
or deterministic fashion in His dealings with sinners.
What can we say is the bottom line on sin?
White, depravity does not debase us to the point that God has to
determine everything for us. She was not a Calvinist! She held that God
never forces the will. But the effects of sin are so pervasive that we
need God's convicting, calling, converting, justifying, and empowering
grace at every advancing step in our experience of salvation.
First, our sins and sinfulness are deranging and
deluding enough to make it necessary for God to send us a wake-up call;
otherwise we would never come to our senses.
Second, our depravity is so pervasive that we need
Christ's merits to account us upright every moment of our Christian
walk. As our sin pollutes even the best things that we do as Christians,
the sober reality is that nothing we could do would ever merit or earn
A further implication of such pervasive depravity is that we can
never claim perfection in any sense of sinlessness (either in our nature
or acts) this side of glorification. Therefore, we need Jesus to declare
us "perfect" all the way to the gates of glory.