It is apparent that some elements of Ellen White's
understanding of the atonement are implicit in the great controversy
theme, but further clarification is necessary. Her teaching on the
atonement was essentially a further working out of the theme of the
justice and mercy as the two essential sides to the
coin of God's character of love.
Furthermore, in her teaching the term atonement was
very comprehensive. It was used to express all that the Trinity has
done, is doing, and will do to reconcile sinners (6T 364). For the
reader who has sampled widely in her writings, such a broad view of
the atonement might seem a bit elementary. But in the setting of the
emerging Adventist discussion of the atonement, her views are quite
Early Adventist Views on the Atonement
In the early days of Seventh-day Adventism certain
influential writers were quite explicit that the atonement did not
refer to Christ's death on the cross, but only to His work in the Most
Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary since October 22, 1844 (see Froom
The restricted atonement views of these influential
pioneers give us another insight into Ellen White's doctrinal and
theological independence. Although she did not deny that the work of
atonement involved Christ's work in the heavenly sanctuary, she did make it abundantly
clear that the term atonement also included His death on the cross
(7aBC 459, 460).
Atonement and Free Will
If we are to grasp her thinking on the atonement, we must get a
sense of the importance that free will, or choice, played in her
understanding. Because Ellen White clearly rejected the more
deterministic views of the sixteenth-century Reformers, she has often
been criticized for applying the atonement beyond the cross.
But given her free-will understanding of human
nature, it was only natural that she would see God's reconciling
efforts as having to involve earnest appeals and not just arbitrary
choices as to whom is to be saved and damned. Ellen White clearly
taught that God has provided the atonement of the cross as "a
ransom for all," as stated in 1 Timothy 2:6. The atonement is
provided for all, but it becomes effective only for believers who
respond to God's prior, initiating calls for repentance and surrender
(7aBC 468; GW 414).
Thus Christ's intercessory work was clearly viewed as
being a part of the atonement. His heavenly intercession makes the
implications of the cross effective for believers. As the history of
God's dealing with the sin problem unfolds, Christ applies the benefits wrought
out on the crossmanifesting both mercy and judgment.
In fact, Ellen White makes the stunning
characterization of Christ's "high priestly" ministry as an
immortalizing of "Calvary." This ministry thus makes the
provisions of the cross eternal in time for the benefit of
"whosoever will" (MS 50, 1900, cited in Wallenkampf and
Lesher 722). It would be fair to say that Ellen White regarded the
atonement as moving in a line across the history of redemption, rather
than involving just one point in historythe cross (Wallenkampf and
Lesher 715). Therefore, atonement not only involved making provision
for the forgiveness of sins, but also application of these gracious
provisions to repentant sinners.
Atonement involved not only Christ's death on the
cross, but also Christ's intercession, which makes His life available
to repentant, trusting believers. Such trusting belief not only
receives God's acceptance, but is also powerfully motivated to imitate
Christ's life. So the atonement has implications for the sanctification
experience of believers, not just their experience of
forgiveness and acceptance.
Historic Views of the Atonement
I would like to suggest that there is not one
historic interpretation of the atonement under which Ellen White's
thought can be exclusively categorized. Fritz Guy is
correct when he says that her teaching is "a more adequate expression of the biblical witness
. . .
than is any of the historic views of atonement." Her thinking,
however, has some "important similarities to, as well as
differences from, the distinctive ingredients in all" the classic
expressions of the atonement (Guy 9).
It is almost as if she went on a shopping trip at the
doctrinal supermarket and was able to get all the choicest fruits
without picking up a single rotten theological apple.
Space does not permit a detailed analysis of all the
major views, but we will touch on three that seem to be most central
to her understanding of salvation.
The Moral Influence TheoryThis theory has in recent
years grown in popularity among Seventh-day Adventists. In fact, this
view has become so compelling for many that they have tried to make it
the dominant, controlling view in Ellen White's
presentations on the atonement.
The moral influence advocates lay great emphasis on
Christ's death as a manifestation of God's love to a lost world.
its most extreme form it has been proclaimed that Christ's death as a
requirement of God's justice (Christ's death satisfying divine justice) was
not necessary. These advocates hold that Christ's death was given only
to demonstrate God's love, which emanates in "moral
influence" to an alienated world.
What are we to make of this theory?
It is certainly true that Ellen White saw the cross as the supreme
manifestation of God's love. There are elements of loving moral
influence that are communicated both to sinners and the unfallen
beings of the universe: "Through the cross, man was drawn to
God," and the sinner "was drawn from the stronghold of
sin." The "cross speaks . . . to worlds unfallen . . . of His
great love wherewith He has loved us" and "is the
unanswerable argument as to the changeless character of the law of
Jehovah" (7aBC 470, 471).
But the cross speaks of more than mercy. Among other things, it also
speaks of a powerful condemnation of sin by the "holy love of a
holy God" (Guy 10). Ellen White's comments make it clear that
"moral influence" was always connected with this convicting
holiness of God, not just some general expression of forgiving love that
excludes the "satisfaction" of divine justice.
At the risk of being repetitious, let us get the point of God's
holiness clear in our minds: The merciful "moral influence" of
Christ's atoning death is beyond question, but such manifestations of
"influential" love came through God's holy justice, not to its
exclusion! Expressions of God's love are always based on both divine justice and mercy (not on mercy alone).
At this point it is important for us to ask What is "wrath"?
It seems that what makes the more extreme forms of the moral influence
theory attractive are the unsavory connotations that go along with God's
justice being expressed as wrath. The word "wrath" seems to
conjure up visions of God losing His temper, giving sinners "the
back of His hand," suggesting that He gets some retaliatory,
tit-for-tat satisfaction out of destroying sinners.
But Ellen White's view of God's wrath is that He must finally act to
put an end to those who reject His offers of a just mercy. In the
writings of Ellen White there are just too many indications of God's
active wrath to say that He is too merciful to destroy sinners actively.
Now, there are certainly statements to the effect that sin is
self-destructive (GC 35, 36). And sin is manifestly self-destructive.
But let us pursue Ellen White's treatment of the theme of God's justice
a bit further.
Is it not a fact that God is the source of all life? Is it not His
restraining power over the forces of evil that gives us protection?
Furthermore, is not God the one who temporarily grants self-destructing
sinners life in probationary time? I do believe the answers are obvious.
Now let us go a step further. Doesn't it seem that God would be just
as surely responsible for the death of sinners by withdrawing His
life-giving power as He would be in directly destroying them by the
fires of hell?
Since God is the source of all life, it is quite apparent that He is
also ultimately the one who allows death! And whether such death is
actively brought on or passively allowed really makes
no difference if one wants to lift the ultimate responsibility for the
death of sinners from God. The really definitive question is not whether
God's justice is active or passive, but whether it is just and
consistent with His character of merciful love.
Another nettlesome question rears its wondering head:
Was the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah simply the chance circumstance
of an unfortunate conspiracy of atmospheric conditions (Gen. 19:24)?
Ellen White says, "The Lord rained brimstone and fire
out of heaven" (PP 162). Again, was the judgment of God on Korah,
Dathan, and Abiram only a tragic yawning of a long dormant seismic
geological fault line in the Sinai desert (Num. 16:23-35)? Ellen White
calls this judgment "the signal manifestation of God's power" (ibid.
401). Or were the deaths of Ananias and
Sapphira only timely coronaries (Acts 5:1ff.)? Ellen White refers to
their deaths as "the signal manifestation of the wrath of God"
(AA 73) and goes on to say that "the same God who punished them,
today condemns all falsehood" (ibid. 76).
Will the lake of fire be merely a passive act on God's part? Referring
to the lake of fire, Ellen White says that "God is to the wicked a
consuming fire" (GC 673).
Was divine wrath manifested at the cross? Yes, what
about the cross? Was it or was it not a manifestation of God's holy
wrath against sin?
If the plain, straightforward words of Ellen White mean
anything, the following challenge needs to be squarely faced: Any
well-meaning person who feels that the moral influence theory cancels
out the substitutionary theory of atonement as a manifestation of
God's wrath against sin needs to be prepared to rip the chapter
"Calvary" out of The Desire of Ages.
I realize that my challenge is a bit shocking, but sometimes words are
just too plain to be ignored!
Please carefully note the following citations from this
climactic chapter of Ellen White's most spiritual work:
"Upon Christ as our substitute and surety was laid
the iniquity of us all. . . . The guilt of every descendant of Adam was
pressing upon His heart. The wrath of God against sin, the terrible
manifestation of His displeasure because of iniquity, filled the soul of His Son with
consternation. . . . Salvation for the chief of sinners was
His theme. But now with the terrible weight of guilt He bears, He cannot
see the Father's reconciling face. . . .
"Christ felt the anguish which the sinner will feel
when mercy shall no longer plead for the guilty race. It was the sense
of sin, bringing the Father's wrath upon
Him as man's substitute, that made the cup He drank so bitter, and broke
the heart of the Son of God" (753; italics supplied).
Sin Bearer, endures the wrath of divine
justice, and for thy sake becomes sin
itself" (756; italics supplied).
And is God's wrath active or passive? In addition to
these forcefully clear statements, Ellen White makes it abundantly
evident that there is precious little emphasis on God's passive justice.
"Justice demands that sin be not merely pardoned,
but the death penalty must be
executed. God, in the gift of His only begotten Son, met both these
requirements. By dying in man's stead, Christ exhausted
the penalty and provided a pardon" (7aBC
470; italics supplied).
"As Christ bore the sins of every transgressor so
the sinner who will not believe in Christ as his personal Saviour . . .
will bear the penalty of his transgression" (ibid. 471).
Is there any substantive difference between pulling a
plug on somebody's life-support system and switching on the
"juice" to an electric chair? Again, I believe the answer is
self-evident! For Ellen White, our God is love, but His love is
expressed actively in justice, not just passively. He is certainly our
"friendly" and neighborly "God,"
* but He is more
than just some benignantly concerned neighbor poignantly beckoning over
the back fence and pleading with us to knock off the foolishness of our
romp in the fields of sin. He is also the Holy God who has acted and
will once again act in just wrath against the rejecters of His merciful
offer of redemption. Again there are too many references to God's active
execution of justice to say that justice is merely a passive
"letting us go."
And then there is that matter of salvation and God's
wrath. What does all this have to say about salvation? I would suggest
that the redemptive message of God is this: Our rejection of His offer
of life through the
justifying merits of Christ's death will mean our eternal death. Without
Christ's substitutionary death, sinners will receive just retribution.
Let me sum it up: It is God's just love, not some cheap, mushy mercy,
that saves from eternal death. Such a conclusion leads us to
consideration of the next classic theory.
The Satisfaction TheoryThe burden of this
theory is to emphasize that God's justice requires satisfaction and that
Christ's death brought just recompense for sin. The issue here is not
God's sovereign prestige, but His character of love (Guy 9). God is not trying to prove that He
is a hard-to-satisfy boss, but is maintaining the justice of His love.
While Ellen White clearly spoke of the demands of the law (God's just
expression of love) being "satisfied" (7aBC 461, 465), the
point is not some totaling up of a quantity of sin that requires an
equal suffering (Guy 9, 10). In the final analysis the issue is God
being seen as a just lawgiver and the law as an expression of His
character that is satisfied (see 7aBC 470, 473).
The Penal-Substitutionary TheoryThis theory is very closely related
to the satisfaction view. Both emphasize the justice of God in His love.
The substitutionary theory has probably been the most popular atonement
model among conservative Christians since the days of the Protestant
Reformation. The gist of it goes like this: God's justice demands a
penalty for the transgression of His will, and Christ's death was the
penalty that is substituted for the sinner's just reward.
This theory is the dominant theme in Ellen White's thoughts about the
atonement. Christ is the sinner's substitute in that He bore the penalty
to satisfy the holy requirements of God's justice. And it was usually
in this penal-substitutionary context that she discussed the theme of
justification by faith. The essence of the thought is that God can
justify sinners because Jesus has satisfied God's just requirement in
both obedience to and bearing the penalty of the broken law by being the
substitute (7aBC 465).
Regarding the penal-substitutionary theory, Fritz Guy has
perceptively pointed out that "the death of Jesus is not God making
someone else 'pay the
penalty' instead of us; it is God taking the penalty on
himself" (Guy 11). Jesus willingly paid this price
not only to secure our redemption but also to demonstrate the fullness
of divine love to a confused universe.
These different theories, or models, were stated by
Ellen White in mutually complementary, not contradictory, ways. But
again it must be emphasized that the focus of her atonement thought was
centered in the concepts of penalty, substitution, and satisfaction.
These became the basis of justification by faith, a justification that
condemns sin, forgives the sinner, and vindicates God's law as a just
expression of His character and dealings with sin.
The atonement, however, has implications for Christian
experience that flow from the work Christ has done for us. These
implications also involve the work that Christ does in us. The concepts
of penalty, substitution, and satisfaction become the foundation for
all significant victory over our sinful natures and habits of sin. God's
just forgiveness is the moral influence that inspires the development of
In other words, at the heart of her atonement thought
was the balance between law and grace, justice and mercy, and the
demonstration of this right relationship in Christ's lifeand ultimately
in the believer. Thus Christ's death became the basis of a
cosmic vindication of God. This balancing of justice and mercy is
revealed in all that God does to bring about the reconciliation of
sinners in a truly profound atonement.
What Is the Point?What is the bottom line of Ellen
White's atonement thought? Without a powerful sense of retributive
justice, justification by faith dissolves into sentimental indulgence.
It is only the penal-substitutionary model that satisfactorily reveals
the justness of God's lovea vigorously powerful love that in no way
inhibits boundless manifestations of mercy. Far from it!
One simply cannot read the chapter "Gethsemane" in The
Desire of Ages without being struck with two compelling factors: (1) the
penal substitutionary view of the atonement is always the assumption that
underlies her exposition and (2) many sentences and
phrases speak of the intensely costly suffering of the Son of man. Take
a thoughtful and reflective half hour and see for yourself.
Jesus' mental agony of Gethsemane and His experience on
the cross reveal the acutely agonized suffering of the Son of God in
bearing the Father's retributive wrath. Such unparalleled suffering
speaks to sinners of a redemption that involves inconceivable costs. If
forgiveness is a matter of mere unwarranted gratuity or mushy,
sentimental indulgence on God's part, justification is cheapened and
redemption becomes only an interesting novelty.
But the writings of Ellen White on the atonement far transcend mere
tragic novelty. Her descriptions and reflections do not merely evidence
some gratuitous or sentimental love. To the contrary, her poignant portrayals disclose an infinitely costly grace that is more precious than
anything in the universe: Our eternal life demanded the very life of the
Son of God! No cheap grace here!
* "See A. Graham Maxwell's Servants or Friends. I took this metaphor of God the friendly neighbor from an
advertisement for this book that appeared in a recent edition of Christianity Today