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Ellen White on Salvation

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II


Chapter Nine

Justification by Faith—Before 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 perfection.

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 it.


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 1870s. 

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 self-understanding.

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 aftermath.

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 Separated
Her earliest 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: "He continued his strict and self-denying life, not now as the ground, but the result of faith; not the root, but the fruit of holiness" (GC 256).

Christian Assurance
In 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. 1

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 will fall!

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 accounting of 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 this:

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, 1884).

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 God's


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 His own."

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 atonement" (ibid.).

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. . . . 

"There is 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, 1884).

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 believer.

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 sinning—perfection of nature as opposed to perfection of character. [back] [top]

2 This theme is addressed in more detail in chapter 6. [back] [top]

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