Justification by FaithBefore 1888
Even though perfection has been the subject of more
controversy than has justification, the meaning we give to justification
will have a decisive impact on the final definition we give to
The doctrine of justification by faith is certainly
open to distorted interpretations. When Christians talk about
"faith alone," the big temptation has usually been to go to
some extreme that takes sin lightly and destroys the importance of
obedience. But clearly the biblical view is salvation from sin, not in
it. The history of doctrine is full of examples in which this sensible
old adage has been sadly neglected.
It is my firm conviction that Ellen White taught a
powerfully objective doctrine of justification, but one that does not
tolerate willful, premeditated, easy-come-easy-go attitudes toward sin.
Yet if the gospel of justification by faith is taught
the way it should be, it may sometimes sound like cheap grace nonsense
that makes God's law of none effect. The reason for this seeming
perversion is that none of the works of obedience manifest by even
"true believers" (Ellen White's term, not Eric Hoffer's) could
ever have saving merit.
On the other hand, a balanced teaching of the gospel will also sound
like the most demanding forms of perfectionism. The reason for this is
that true forgiveness is the key to obedience and all true victory over
sin. Receiving God's forgiveness in justification is always accompanied
by submission to His Lordship! The fruit of such Lordship will be strict
obedience to the Lord's will. Again, we are not saved in sin but from
So if you find yourself tempted to accuse me of legalistic
perfectionism or to start throwing around such loaded terms as new
theology, Fordism, and cheap grace, please
hear me out and carefully weigh my evidence from Ellen White on
justification by faith.
Justification Before Minneapolis and 1888
As has been pointed out in the first section of this
book, Ellen White developed a fairly clear understanding of
justification during her sanctification crisis as a teenager. Serious
doctrinal reflection on justification in her writings, however, did not begin to manifest itself until the
Again it must be emphasized that her understanding before this
time was clear that justification was "pardon" and
"forgiveness," but it is only with this period that
justification begins to receive extended theological clarification and
emphasis explicitly essential to Seventh-day Adventism's doctrinal
The most important presentations on justification before Minneapolis
came in the addresses that she gave at the 1883 General Conference
session in Battle Creek, Michigan, November 9-20. The balance between
justification and sanctification had been there from the very beginning
of her ministry, but with these addresses this balance tipped the seesaw
toward a greater stress on the importance of justification. This
sharpening balance became fully expressed in the crisis of 1888 and its
Key Elements in Expressing Justification
What were the key elements in her pre-1888
understanding of justification by faith alone? The following were most
typical of the way she expressed the doctrine and the experience of it.
Faith and Works Never SeparatedHer
reflections on justification had more to do with guarding the importance
of obedience than projecting a clear concept of objective justification:
"Faith will never save you unless it is justified by works" (2T
159; published in 1868). "Faith must he sustained by works; the
doers of the work are justified before God" (ibid. 167).
Closely related to this prevalent argument against
anti-law excuses for disobedience was Ellen White's often-repeated
expression that the sinner "can be saved from his sins, but not
in them" (ST,. Sept. 4, 1884). This whole concept
manifested Ellen White's clear
understanding that faith must always be accompanied by works and that
law and gospel are never to be separated, even though their roles are to
be clearly distinguished.
One of the most forceful expressions of this close relationship between
law and grace, or true faith and obedience, was given in her summation
of the experience of John Wesley following his Aldersgate experience:
continued his strict and self-denying life, not now as the ground, but the
faith; not the root, but
the fruit of
holiness" (GC 256).
Christian AssuranceIn 1870 she declared that
believers "should know that we are enjoying the favor of God, that
He smiles upon us, and that we are His children indeed . . . [The
believer] believes the promise, and it is accounted unto him for
righteousness" (RH, Mar. 29, 1870).
It is interesting that this clear statement on the believer's assurance
came before Ellen
White's clearest declarations on justification were preached and penned.
Furthermore, this statement is mentioned here to
suggest the clarity of Ellen White's pre-1888 understanding of
justification. The discussion of the believer's assurance in Christ was
not a prominent theme in her writings, and this immediately raises the
question as to why there were so few discussions on this issue.
The reasons for her reticence in this expression appear to be twofold:
1. She perceived serious dangers in the Calvinistic expression of
assurancepopularly known as "once saved, always saved." She
felt, along with Wesley, that this doctrine was an invitation to
presumptuous sinning, causing sinners to think that they were
"beyond the reach of temptation" (COL 155).
2. But Ellen White had an even more fundamental objection to saying
"I am saved." "Those who accept Christ, and in their
first confidence say, I am saved, are in danger of trusting to
themselves" (ibid. ).
In her view, Christian experience has to do with a constant
looking away from self and a continuous, conscious dependence on
Christ's acceptance and power. Such dependence is based not on how
believers feel, but
what they know about themselves and about Christ. About
themselves, they know they are weak and in constant "need of divine
strength" (ibid.). About Christ, they know that He loves them and
wants them to be saved and that He has the power to do the work they
cannot do for themselves (SC 50-55). Certainly such an understanding
rules out not only Calvinistic "once saved, always saved"
assurance, but also perfectionism.
This concept can perhaps be best illustrated by the old broom-standing-in-the-palm-of-your-hand trickthe moment you take your
eyes off the broom head and look at your hand, that moment the broom
Christ's Merits and Priestly IntercessionThe following
four concepts are closely related to one another. All have as their
common thread the concept of Ellen White's lifelong emphasis on the high
priestly intercession of Christ, who was seen to be constantly
interceding or advocating for the believers with His own
"merit." Furthermore, in the thought of Ellen White, Christ's
intercessory ministry is always bound up with His merits. Thus the
concept of Christ's merit underlies each of the following points. From
1870 on there was a host of statements to the effect that only the
"merits" of Christ could be the basis of salvation, not human
works of obedience.
1. Christ's merits make our obedience acceptable. The
year 1870 witnessed the first of many expressions of the theme that the
"merits" of Christ make the "efforts" of believers
"to keep His law" acceptable to
God (RH, May 31, 1870). She repeated and developed this
theme throughout the coming years into one of her strongest expressions
of objective justification (especially after 1888).
This concept was built upon the understanding that all
the good works of human beings are polluted with sin and need the
objective, accounted merits of Jesus to make them acceptable. And this
sinners as just (or righteous) through Christ's merits
was conceived of as constantly necessary all through life! Objective
justification is required all the way. "The true follower of
Christ" "will see more clearly his own defects, and will feel
the need of continual repentance, and faith in the blood of
Christ" (ibid., Oct. 5, 1886; italics supplied).
This concept is illustrated by a neat looking shirt
that appears to be quite clean, but when it is put on, the polluting odor becomes quite
apparentdespite the deceptive appearances.
2. Christ's merits make up for our "deficiencies." Closely
related to the concept that Jesus is constantly interceding with His
"merits" for the sinner were three expressions of the
believer's needs that were inextricably bound up with one another.
First, as mentioned above, even the good things believers do are
polluted by their sinful natures. Second, not only do their sinful
natures pollute the good things that they do, but also their performance
always involves "deficiencies" and failures. Third, in spite
of their sinful natures and deficiencies, however, Christ is willing to
intercede, but only for those who have a right attitude toward their
sinfulness, "deficiencies," and errors. The dynamic went like
Ellen White repeatedly expressed a "high demand" (my words,
not hers) understanding of perfect obedience, but there are numerous
statements that tend to provide a buffer or safety net against failure
to reach the "high demand." Essential to this concept is her
teaching that a proper attitude toward Christ and sin on the part of
believers makes it possible for Christ to account His righteousness (His
"merits") to them despite their deficiencies and failures to
meet the high demand.
The picture here is of a high-wire artist who is talented but
realistic about the possibility of a slip. The great performer gives it
his or her best, but the safety net is always there to catch any
failures. The imputed righteousness of Christ is the "safety net" for His faithful
but unwittingly faulty children.
"When we have cultivated a spirit of charity, we may commit the
keeping of our souls to God as unto a faithful Creator, not because we
are sinless, but because Jesus died to save just such erring, faulty
creatures as we are. . . .
"We may rest upon God, not because of our own merit, but because
the righteousness of Christ will be imputed to us" (RH, Apr. 22,
We should carefully note that almost all these buffering or
"safety net" statements came after the pioneering
presentations on justification at the important 1883 Battle Creek
General Conference session.
Could it be that this more forceful expression of justification by
faith at Battle Creek tended to heighten Ellen White's appreciation of
mercy for His failing and deficient children? These
safety net statements need to be carefully compared with any similar
expressions that follow during the post-1888 era.
3. How Satan's taunting accusations are fended off. In Ellen White's
thought, Christ's gracious intercession, with His powerful
"merits," certainly placed the Christian on vantage ground.
And such vantage ground enables the harried believer to challenge
Satan's taunts. The Christian's proper response to the devil's taunting
accusations became a favorite vehicle of expression for Ellen White to
communicate the believer's acceptance in Jesus. This dramatic expression
conjures up visions of a poor, condemned person cowering under the
taunts of a pharisaic accuser who has caught her "in the very
act." The accused has no defense, only the plea of Christ's merit.
The inspiration for this expression was most likely her exposition of
Zechariah 3, the vision of Joshua the high priest. The expression was
stated this way: "We cannot answer the charges of Satan against us.
Christ alone can make an effectual plea in our behalf" (5T 472).
Then she made the justification application clear: "He is able to
silence the accuser with arguments founded not upon our merits, but on
This expression has particular importance when placed in the setting of
her description of the closing up of the "investigative
judgment," the antitypical day of atonement: "Zechariah's
vision of Joshua and the Angel applies with peculiar force to the
experience of God's people in the closing up of the great day of
This understanding of the investigative judgment was the occasion to
explain further what the proper attitude of the sinful believer should
be. She went on to picture God's last people ("the remnant
church") as pleading "for pardon and
deliverance through Jesus their Advocate. They are fully conscious of
the sinfulness of their lives" (ibid. 473).
The key issue seemed to be not some antiseptically perfect performance,
but genuine faith in the Intercessor that
begets perfect "loyalty."
"The people of God have been in many respects very faulty. . . . But
while the followers of Christ have sinned, they have not given
themselves to the control of evil. . . .
"They have resisted the wiles of the deceiver; they have not
been turned from their loyalty by the dragon's roar" (ibid. 474, 475).
Whatever the investigative judgment
meant for perfection,2
it is clear that Ellen White used it
to assure God's people that they have One as their high priest who
gladly secures "pardon and deliverance," despite the
"sinfulness of their lives." With Christ as our advocate, we
need not cower before the accusations of the great adversary.
4. God is willing to pardon. While the three preceding points stressed
the proper attitude of the believer, this next concept highlighted God's
attitudeespecially toward the believer.
At the important 1883 Battle Creek General Conference session, Ellen
White tried to encourage "many discouraged ones" with the
thought that despite "mistakes" that "grieve His
Spirit," when sinners "repent, and come to Him with contrite hearts, He will not turn us
away" (RH, April 15, 1884). And the penitent ones were encouraged
not to wait until they had reformed, but were urged "to come to Him
just as we aresinful, helpless, dependent" (ibid., Apr. 22, 1884).
The imagery here draws heavily on the parable of the prodigal son (which
is really the parable of the "prodigious love of the Father").
God is more abundantly willing to receive us than we are to come to Him!
The filthy garments permeated with the awful stench and corruption of
the pigsty are no obstacle to the Father's redemptive designs!
This imagery was further strengthened at the 1883 Battle Creek General
Conference session with the clear warning not to be deceived with the
thought that salvation is the result of trusting "partly to God,
and partly to themselves."
"While [some] think they are committing themselves to God, there is
a great deal of self-dependence. There are conscientious souls that
trust partly to God, and partly to themselves. They do not look to God,
to be kept by His power, but depend upon
watchfulness and the performance of certain duties for acceptance with
Him. There are no victories in this kind of faith. . . .
need of constant watchfulness, and of earnest, loving devotion; but
these will come naturally when the soul is kept by the power of God
through faith. We can do nothing, absolutely nothing, to
commend ourselves to divine favor. We must not trust at
all to ourselves nor to our good works. . . . God will accept everyone that
comes to him trusting wholly in the merits of a crucified Saviour"
(ISM 353, 354).
She closed the 1883 General Conference session with a
tender expression of God's ready and constant willingness to receive and
keep sinners. "The moment you surrender yourself wholly to Him in
simple faith, Jesus accepts you, and encircles you in His arms of love.
He holds you more firmly than you can grasp Him" (RH, July 22,
Another interesting expression was the concept that
"God's requirement under grace is just the same [as] He made in
Edenperfect obedience to His law." But the strong implication was
that the only acceptable obedience to God was Christ's
"righteousness" that "is imputed to the obedient."
Then the believer was exhorted to "accept it through faith, that
the Father shall find in us no sin" (ibid., Sept. 21, 1886).
The scene here is of an Olympic gymnast needing a
perfect 10 score but knowing full well that because of a torn ligament
he or she is incapable of the 10. But the righteous "judge"
imputes it to the gymnast because of a proper attitude, not because of
the perfect performance.
It is very clear that as Ellen White approached the
crisis at Minneapolis, she had clearly explained her understanding of
justification by faith. While Minneapolis sparked a great emphasis on
this doctrine and provoked further clarification of justification as
pardon and acceptance, it will not be modified with any concepts which
suggest that believers merit salvation because of their obedience.
In the years after 1888 she would explicitly develop the
theme implicit in the thought that the merits of Christ, offered in His
high priestly intercession, make the best efforts of the believers
(defective and feeble though they be) acceptable to God. The central
thought in this theme is that Christ's obedient life is accounted to
sinners, not just His death. Let us be very clear about this one. Ellen
White taught that our acceptance with Christ is based totally on the
merits of His life and death, which are legally, judicially accounted to
us. It is not based on His death
accounted to us for forgiveness and His life imparted
to us so that we can make our own contribution to justification. It is both
His life and death that justify the penitent
Ellen White's doctrinal independence is here
dramatically illustrated in comparison with John Wesley. He was always
reluctant to declare Christ's life as accounted to believers, fearful
that such a legal accounting might endanger his doctrine of
sanctification. He feared that this would open the gates to presumptuous
sinning. But this was not the case with Ellen White.
For her, justification by faith was closely related to a
proper attitude on the part of believers toward sin, God's requirements,
and His merciful attitude toward the faithful. The believer's attitude
was declared to be one that involved a desire to obey God and a distaste
for sin in any form. (In other words, an attitude of humility as opposed
to self-righteousness.) If this attitude of loyalty toward God was
evident, then He would safely account sinners as just and righteous,
despite their sinful natures, deficiencies, and unwitting failures.
It is impressive that these safety net statements all
came after her important expressions of justification at the 1883
General Conference session. Justification is no excuse for sin, but it
does provide for the penitent Christ's merits that are a perfect atonement for the
failures of the faithful.
1 In this book the term perfectionist is not strictly negative but means to have a strong emphasis on God's transforming power. The word "perfectionism" is used only negatively in the sense of believers reaching such a state of perfection that they can no longer be subject to temptation or the possibility of sinningperfection of nature as opposed to perfection of character.
2 This theme is addressed in more detail in chapter 6. [back] [top]