Justification After Minneapolis
Some students of Ellen White, in their zeal to
emphasize objective justification through the merits of Christ, have not
wanted to recognize that Christ's "merits" are intimately
involved in character development. Probably the most representative is
Helmut Ott. "We should not take expressions such as `union with
Christ,' `divinity and humanity combined,' and `partaker of the divine
nature' as references either to a pantheistic mixing of God and man or
to a mystical blending of divine and human identities. The phrases are
not suggesting a supernatural integration of human and divine natures,
or some form of human deification" (68).
Ott here expresses a warning that has some validity
in light of the pantheistic environment of late-nineteenth- and
early-twentieth-century Seventh-day Adventist theological discussion.
However, he takes
it too far in restricting these expressions only to
justification and imputation. "The believer 'becomes a partaker of
the divine nature' whenand by reason of the fact thathe exercises
`faith in Christ, his atoning sacrifice.' Clearly, the righteousness of
Christ is not a spiritual substance or a moral element that somehow gets
infused into the believer" (ibid. 68).
For Ellen White there is never a meritorious infusion of
righteousness, but righteousness certainly is active in the soul of the
believer to beget righteous acts and character. It was clear to her that
infused has no saving merit to justify the believer.
The righteousness, however, was certainly a "moral element that
somehow" got "infused into the believer," according to
In principle, this ongoing expression was but a
further clarification of the saved from sin,
not in sin theme.
Imputation was to be distinguished from
impartation, but never separated. The
people of God can experience real victory over sin only if they know that they are
fully accepted in Christ's merits and righteousness.
Seemingly Inconsistent Statements
There were a few Ellen White statements that seem a
bit doctrinally imprecise in their expression of the relationship
between justification and sanctification.
They seem mainly to have been
borne out of her deep desire to avoid the extremes of legalistic works of
obedience and faith "alone" concepts that make the law of none
The following is typical of such seeming imprecision:
"Man cannot be saved without obedience" and "Christ
should work in him to will and to do of His good pleasure" (RH,
July 1, 1890). What she seemed to be suggesting was not works that have merit, but the clear
understanding that with Christ's help, believers can develop characters
fit for heaven.
This was all very closely related to the persistently
stated theme of being saved from sin,
not in it. This is
clearly the intent of her statement in Signs, December
28, 1891: "Through obedience to all the commandments of God, we are
accepted in the Beloved." This seems quite legalistic until the
next paragraphs, where she states that "no one" with "an
intelligent knowledge" of God's will "can be saved in
Another interesting development that seemed to
approve of theological imprecision was her declaration that "many
commit the error of trying to define minutely the fine points of
distinction between justification and sanctification" (1888 Materials
This seems to be a rather curious statement for Ellen
White to make, because she had herself quite carefully defined the
distinctions between justification and sanctification. But what she most
likely had in mind were the dogmatic, strained definitions of extremist
Adventist Minister E. R. Jones (not to be confused with
his more well known contemporary A. T. Jones).
She clearly rebuked Jones for trying to define
"all the whys and wherefores as to what constitutes the new
heart" or the "position" that "they can and must
reach so as never to sin." She pointedly admonished
him that he had "no such work to do" (1SM
177; we are not finished with the case of E. R. Jones and will meet up
with him again in the next major section, which deals with perfection).
This reference was written in May of 1890 and is the only statement that
comes close to giving a hint as to what Ellen White was complaining
about in the somewhat curious sounding manuscript 21, 1891.
Justification From 1893 Through 1902
The concepts of the right relationship between law
and grace as well as faith and works were clearly reinforced but
received no perceptible embellishment during this period from the
perspective of the development of
her doctrine of justification. The development of this
concept of justification had reached its full maturity in the late 1888
through 1892 period.
Christ's Merits and Priestly Intercession
The quartet of ideas that grew out of her conception of
the high priestly intercession of Christ unfolded along the following
Christ's Merits Make Our Obedience AcceptableThe idea that the merits of Jesus
make "the religious services" of believers acceptable to God
continued to receive elaboration. But it was expressed not in new or
original terms, but only in superbly comprehensive statements and
The consummate expression of the need for constant
acceptance (and her expression of objective justification) came in the
powerful statement of manuscript 50, 1900. To give the impact of its
clarity and comprehensiveness, it is cited at length.
"Christ as high priest within the veil so immortalized Calvary
that though He liveth unto God, He dies continually to sin, and thus if
any man sin, he has an advocate with the Father. . . .
"Let no one take the limited, narrow position that any of the
works of man can help in the least possible way to liquidate the debt of
his transgression. This is a fatal deception. . . .
"This matter is so dimly comprehended that thousands upon
thousands claiming to be sons of God are children of the wicked one,
because they will depend on their own works. God always demanded good
works, the law demands it, but because man placed himself in sin where his
good works were valueless, Jesus' righteousness alone can avail. . .
"No sin can be committed by man for which satisfaction has not been
met on Calvary. Thus the cross, in earnest appeals, continually proffers
to the sinner a thorough expiation. . . .
"As you come with humble heart, you find pardon, for Christ
Jesus is represented as continually standing at the altar, momentarily
offering up the sacrifice for the sins of the world. . . . A daily and
atonement is no longer to be made, but the atoning
sacrifice through a mediator is essential because of the constant
commission of sin. . . . Jesus presents the oblation offered for every
offense and every shortcoming of the sinner" (1SM 343, 344).
It is clear that this powerful expression of
objective justification referred primarily not to reprobates who had
just come to Jesus for pardon, but to the ongoing needs of "true
"The religious services, the prayers, the praise,
the penitent confession of sin ascend from true believers as incense 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. They ascend not in spotless purity, and unless the
Intercessor, who is at God's right hand, presents and purifies all by
His righteousness, it is not acceptable to God. All incense from earthly
tabernacles must be moist with the cleansing drops of the blood of
Christ. He holds before the Father the censer of His own merits, in
which there is no taint of earthly corruption. He gathers into this
censer the prayers, the praise, and the confessions of His people, and
with these He puts His own spotless righteousness. Then, perfumed with
the merits of Christ's propitiation, the incense comes up before God
wholly and entirely acceptable. Then gracious answers are returned.
"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. The fragrance of this
righteousness ascends like a cloud around the mercy seat" (ibid.
Christ's Merits Make Up for Our "Deficiencies"The statements that spoke of Christ's merits acting as a buffer or
safety net for human failure continued. "I rest in His love,
notwithstanding my imperfections. God has
accepted His perfection in my behalf." The very
next paragraph continued with the admittance that "if we were
perfect, we would not need a Saviour, a Redeemer to rescue us from the
slavery of Satan" (letter 24, 1895, in 12 MR 35). They also showed
no real development. Again it is clear that these expressions had come
to full maturity in the 1889-1892 period.
Fending Off Satan's Taunting AccusationsThe expression
of dramatic dialogue, with penitent sinners responding to the taunts of
Satan, the use of Zechariah 3, and the application of the proceedings of
the investigative judgment to justification continued to be
employed during this period, but with no discernible development.
Though the justificationist application of the
investigative judgment was not very prominent after 1892 (even
noticeable by its rare use), it did receive one very interesting use in
1893 in which the closely
related themes of Christ's intercession with His merit and the work
of judgment were tied together. "The work of God is to be carried
on to completion by the cooperation of divine and human agencies. Those
who are self-sufficient may be apparently active in the work of God; but
if they are prayerless, their activity is of no avail. Could they look
into the censer of the angel that stands at the golden altar before the
rainbow-circled throne, they would see that the merit of Jesus must be
mingled with our prayers and efforts, or they are as worthless as was
the offering of Cain. Could we see all the activity of human
instrumentality, as it appears before God, we would see that only the
work accomplished by much prayer, which is sanctified by the merit of
Christ, will stand the test of the judgment. When the grand review shall
take place, then shall ye return and discern between him that serveth
God and him that serveth Him not" (CS 263).
God's Willingness to PardonThe expression of God's
willingness to pardon sinners continued with numerous uses, but there
was no discernible development compared with the previous period.
God's Infinite Requirements Necessitate Justification
The distinctive Ellen White concept that believers
are required to meet the same standard as the unfallen Adam continued to
find sparing but very important usage during this period. Furthermore,
this thought seemed to be very closely associated with the
increasing use of the idea that Christ's merits are the key to victory
over actual sin and temptation in the believer's life. And all this was
closely associated with the resurgence of emphasis on sanctification,
character transformation, and perfection, which becomes patently evident
in the last half of the 1890s and the first three years of the new
The idea that Christ's merits provide the basis of
victory is quite understandable in the setting of her exposition of the
profound balance between justification and sanctification. The thought
here always seemed to be that believers just simply cannot begin to walk in
the Christian life unless they know they are accepted in Christ through
The concept that believers must meet the same standard
as the unfallen Adam was expressed in curious, seemingly contradictory
How Are We "Justified by Perfect
Obedience"?The most perplexing statement of this concept came in
1901: "Only by perfect obedience to the requirements of God's holy
law can man be justified. Let those whose natures have been perverted by
sin ever keep their eyes fixed on Christ, the author and the finisher of
Five paragraphs later she said: "Those only who
through faith in Christ obey all of God's commandments will reach the
condition of sinlessness in which Adam lived before his transgression.
They testify to their love of Christ by obeying all His precepts"
(MS 122, 1901, in 8 MR 98, 99).
What makes this statement quite puzzling is its use
of the word "justified," which seems to go contrary to her
customary use of the term. She spoke of "perfect obedience"
that justifies, an obedience that can be
reached "through faith in Christ," an
obedience that will "through faith" reproduce "the
condition of sinlessness in which Adam lived before his
transgression." This is the most perplexing statement in all Ellen
White's discussion of justification.
If she had been required to stick to her own clear
definition of "justified" and her overwhelmingly customary
usage of it, then it is clear that what was manifested here was either a
flat-out contradiction or possibly a lapse in precision.
Are We "Counted Precious" by "Imparted Righteousness
"?At least one other
perplexing statement should be mentioned. She claimed that "it is
only because of Christ's imparted righteousness that we are counted precious
by the Lord" (RH, Aug. 24, 1897,
italics supplied). Again it seems that her use of "imparted"
was either a clear contradiction to customary meaning or a manifestation
of imprecision. The latter seems to be the case in this sentence.
An Explanation of Perplexing Statements
What are we to make of these perplexing statements,
especially the strongly worded phrase that "by perfect obedience to
the requirements of God's holy law," man is justified?
In the setting of her overall usage, with an amazingly
consistent expression of objective justification (throughout many years
of ministry), this statement also seems to be a lapse in precision. It
appears that the word "sanctified" would have fit much better.
But could there be some deeper issue emerging in these statements?
It looks as if this emphasis on obedience and sanctified
perfection was but a part of a larger movement in the unfolding of Ellen
White's teaching on salvation. This larger movement seemed to reflect a
growing fear that false definitions of faith were again
looming as the larger threat.
Could it be that she sensed God's people making a subtle
shift in attitude? Was faith being understood as mere mental assent,
with no corresponding need to obey God's law? During this period the
evidence certainly suggests that she felt the major enemy was not unwitting
legalism but "believe, only believe" holiness perversions (real
or perceived) that denied the importance of loving obedience.
It could be that what she was expressing in these seemingly imprecise
and contradictory statements was her counterpart to the Epistle of
James. "But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is
dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered
Isaac his son upon the altar? . . . Ye see then how that by works a man is
justified, and not by faith only" (James 2:20-24).
This was in contrast to the issues that brought on the crisis of
Minneapolis and 1888. In that setting Ellen White gave Seventh-day
Adventism her emphasis on the primary burden of Romans and Galatians.
"Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but
by the faith of Jesus Christ. . . . that we might be justified by the faith
of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law
shall no flesh be justified" (Gal. 2:16).
Whatever these statements meant in relationship to her exposition of
justification, they were certainly forceful expressions of her ongoing
delicate balance that sought to hold together merit and obedience, faith
and works, law and gospel as the mutually complementary (not
contradictory) essentials of salvation.
Summation of the Justification Development
While Ellen White's understanding of justification by
faith was quite fully expressed by 1888 (especially between 1883 and
1888), the four years immediately following Minneapolis was the period
of full maturity.
It was a full maturity in the sense of greater clarity
of expression and marked emphasis.
The late 1890s and the first three years of the new
century witnessed a greater emphasis on the importance of obedience in
relationship to justification. It was this expression that presented the
most puzzling statements in Ellen White's literature on justification.
In the light of the dominance of emphasis on the
importance of obedience throughout her ministry, it is probably
appropriate that the developments of this post-Minneapolis era would
climax with a return
to an emphasis on perfection. With a grasp of her
understanding of justification, we are now prepared to look at how her
understanding of perfection unfolded.
Some have even accused Ellen White of just plain inconstancy and
contradiction. But I think the discussion in the next chapter will lay
to rest this serious charge.