Perfection Before 1888
We are now
ready to tackle the most challenging part of Ellen White's teaching on
salvationperfection. Our purpose is to seek to understand how her view
of perfection unfolded during the post-1888 era, the era of her greatest
emphasis on justification. This will be the critical exhibit of her that
we have been dealing with from the very beginning of her ministry. The
key question is How will the great surge of emphasis on justification
affect the unfolding of her teaching on perfection for the balance of
this post-1888 era? But before we examine the post-1888 era, it will
prove helpful to trace her understanding of perfection as it unfolded
throughout the years leading up to 1888.
Perfection, Sanctification, and Justification
For Ellen White, perfection was just about synonymous
with sanctification. But we must always remember that perfection (no
matter what it meant in any given passage) was the goal of
In her thought justification and sanctification need
to be distinguished, but
not separated. The
same goes for sanctification and perfection. Justification often defined
perfection and always formed the foundation of the experience of
sanctification. Sanctification often defined perfection, but at the same
time perfection was always the goal of sanctification.
Sanctification and Perfection Before 1888
A number of different facets or characteristics go into Ellen
White's definition of perfection, and to get the full
picture we need to understand each facet in its relationship to the
whole. It is sort of like a great baseball team: there are star
characters who really stand out, but the team is incomplete if a good
supporting cast of characters on the bench is lacking. The whole team
needs to be looked at, not just the outstanding players.
What follows is a review of all the essential
"players" on Ellen White's "team" perfection.
The Goal and Attainment of Perfection
Probably the most striking features of Ellen White's
presentation of the doctrine of perfection is the high goal to be
attained and the many forthright, ringing declarations that its
attainment is possible.
The Goal of PerfectionThe
following terms and expressions come from the entire pre-1888 era and
express the goal of perfection in seemingly absolute terms.
"We can overcome. Yes; fully, entirely. Jesus died
to make a way of escape for us, that we might overcome every evil
temper, every sin, every temptation" (1T 144). "The Son of God
was faultless. We must aim at this perfection and overcome as He
overcame" (3T 336). Human beings can reach "a perfection of
intelligence and a purity of character but little lower than the
perfection and purity of angels" (4T 93). "All His righteous
demands must be fully met" (RH, Aug. 23, 1881). "Every defect
of character must be overcome, or it will overcome us, and become a
controlling power for evil" (ibid., June
3, 1884). "The law demands perfect, unswerving obedience" (TM
440). "Satan could find nothing in the Son of God that would enable
him to gain the victory. . . . This is the condition in which those must
be found who shall stand in the time of trouble" (GC 623).
In addition to these presumably absolute expressions,
there were numerous strong presentations that believers, after the Fall,
must meet the same standard as required of Adam before the Fall. She was
explicit that God's requirement of "Adam in paradise before he
fell" is just the same "at this moment" for all who live
"in grace" (RH, July 15, 1890). She
further enforced this by declaring that it is "not
the work of the gospel to weaken the claims of God's holy law, but to
bring men up where they can keep its precepts" (ibid., Oct. 5, 1886).
The various contexts of these statements make it clear
that this is a requirement that is to be met in the believer's
Spirit-empowered performance, not just through the accounting of
Christ's perfect life of obedience to the penitent's account.
These are some of the strongest and most perplexing
statements of perfection found in the writings of Ellen White. The key
issue is whether her definition of perfection was qualified because of
the sinfulness of human nature. We will deal more with this critical
question a little later. Another theme that expressed the high goal was
her repeated employment of Matthew 5:48: "Be ye therefore perfect,
even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." Pointing to the
importance of this theme, she clearly outlined the goal: "Holiness
of heart and purity of life was the great subject of the teachings of
Christ. In His Sermon on the Mount, after specifying what must be done
in order to be blessed, and what must not be done, He says: `Be ye
therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.'
"Perfection, holiness, nothing short of this, would
give them success in carrying out the principles He had given them"
Please note that "perfection and holiness"
(apparently one and the same thing here) were not only the goal, but
also the means of "success in carrying out the principles" of
the Sermon on the Mount. A very similar expression was published in the
Review of September
20, 1881: "`Be ye therefore perfect, [even] as your Father which is
in heaven is perfect.' It should be our lifework to be constantly
reaching forward to the perfection of Christian character, ever striving
for conformity to the will of God. The efforts begun here will continue
Thus it is clear that her comments on Matthew 5:48 were employed to
express not only a high goal, but the dynamic means to reach this goal.
Perfection was thus defined as both a goal and a relative experience
that consists of pressing toward the goal. The concept she pictured here
arises out of the whole experience of growth. The goal of growth is always maturity, but there is relative
perfection at each stage of the dynamic unfolding
The Attainment of PerfectionNot
only was the demand and goal of perfection very high and seemingly
absolute, but she also was very positive that this goal is attainable.
Indeed, it must be attained this side of the close of probation and the
glorification of the saints at the Second Coming.
There were numerous biblical witnesses whom Ellen White
put forth as examples that such an attainment was possible this side of
glorification, but her chief witness was Jesus Christ. His example
became the key exhibit that she used to combat the challenge of her
opponents that it is impossible for sinners to obey God's law perfectly.
She saw this as one of Satan's great lies, and she clearly stated that
Christ's sinless life is the answer to Satan's deceptive lie that
perfect obedience is impossible.
Repeating an often-heard plea that "it's natural
for me to be quick; it's my temperament," she responded by
declaring that "all these 'natural' infirmities can be overcome by
grace. . . . `It's natural.' Satan loves to hear this." She then
concluded with the strong affirmation that "Jesus says, `My grace
is sufficient for you"' (YI, November 1857). It is possible for
penitent sinners to overcome temptations that appeal to both inherited
and cultivated tendencies to evil, and there is no excuse for indulging
Not only is there the example of Jesus in His
humanity, but also there are those of Enoch, Daniel, Joseph, and Paul.
All these Bible characters she regarded as positive, real-life
demonstrations that it is possible for fallen humanitythrough the grace
and example of Jesusto overcome fully.
The Distinguishing Qualities of Perfection
It is in this section that Ellen White's understanding
begins to reveal its qualifying characteristics. In the previous section
perfection was defined as seemingly absolute and attainable in this life
by penitent sinners through Jesus' example and grace. But there were
distinguishing and qualifying characteristics in her understanding of
Full SurrenderPerfection is an experience that arises
out of full surrender and consecration to God's will and guidance in the
life. No halfhearted commitment could attain the high goal of full and
entire victory over sin.
Active Effort RequiredThe attainment of
perfection is not a passive affair, but one that requires special effort
on the part of the believer. There was no hint of "cruise
passiveness in Ellen White's sketch of Christian
experience. Believers must move forward in faith at God's command and
not idly lie back waiting for some special inspiration or shock
treatment to move them to a life of vigorous character development.
The illustrative image which immediately comes to mind
is the effort that the paralytic by the Pool of Bethesda needed to make
in response to Jesus' command to get up and walk.
The Fruit of Dynamic SanctificationPerfection is an experience that
sanctification. Sanctification was understood to be dynamic and progressivenot
static. Included in this expression was the
closely related concept that sanctification is the "work of a
lifetime." This, therefore, led to the very direct conclusion that
sanctification is not an instantaneous experience.
No One to Claim PerfectionClosely related to the
concept that sanctification is dynamic and progressive (and not
instantaneous) was the clear warning that no one is to claim perfection.
The reason for this warning arose primarily
out of Ellen White's important insight into personal spirituality and
the way sinful humans come to conviction of sin. The concept went
essentially like this: the closer one comes to Christ, the clearer the
vision of the divine perfection will be; consequently, there will be a
greater realization of sinfulness, and the penitent one will have no
desire to claim perfection.
For Ellen White, perfection, in at least some qualified
sense, is attainable, but such an attainment for the spiritually
perceptive Christian will always be a consciously receding horizon
that can never be reached and claimed
this side of glorification.
An Important DebateEllen White's interpreters disagree
as to whether those who refuse to claim holiness or perfection are
really sinlessly perfect or just being shy about their spiritual growth.
Let us try to sharpen the focus on this issue with two questions: Is their refusal
perfection reflective of a truly realistic view that
their perfection is relative, or are they truly sinlessly perfect and
just being spiritually modest? Is the perfection they refuse to claim
relatively sinless or absolutely sinless?
Dennis Priebe feels that "there can be a difference
between being sinless and claiming to be sinless" (84). He bases
this conclusion on Ellen White's statement which declared that "no
one who claims holiness is really holy. Those who are registered as holy
in the books of heaven are not aware of the fact, and are the last ones
to boast of their own goodness" (ST, Feb. 26, 1885).
Helmut Ott seems to be more accurate in his appraisal of
the numerous statements that Ellen White makes to the effect that holy
saints have not, nor ever will, claim holiness or sinlessness. Referring
to her statements that the saints will not claim "to be pure and
holy" (GC 470) and noting their confession of a "sense of. . .
weakness and imperfection" (PP 85), Ott comments: "Their
admission of guilt and sinfulness did not result from a false sense of
modesty or an inability to recognize their true spiritual standing.
Instead, it rested on the fact that their unusually close relationship
with God enabled them to acquire both the point of reference and the
spiritual perception they needed to see themselves as they really
were" (58, 59).
What they really were is perfect and holy in only a
relative sense of the word, and this realization is the source of the
reticencenot some sense of false modesty. Furthermore, they
instinctively realize that to make a claim of perfection would even
endanger the beauty of the relative reality! Sinful condition always
plays a subtle trick on even religious persons: they are usually quite
optimistic about their "own righteousness, which is of the
law" (Phil. 3:9). Truly converted persons are much more sober about
the reality of moral self-deception.
Perfection Accompanied by
Strict ObedienceSanctification and perfection involve a reverence for
and strict obedience to
the law of God. The
focus here is the practical outworking of her firm conviction that
believers are saved from sin, not in sin. Sinners are not saved by works, but
neither are they saved without them (ST, July 13, 1888).
But she was careful in her emphasis on obedience to
deny that this strict obedience was mere respectable morality or
moralism. All true perfection must arise from an experience that senses
a need for Christian conversion. "Some feel that they are almost
right, because they do not commit outbreaking sins, and because they
live moral lives. But all children, youth, middle-aged, and aged, have a
work to do in taking the steps in conversion for which Jesus has given
them an example in his life....
"All who live have sins to wash away. They may have
good intentions, and good purposes; they may have noble traits of
character and live moral lives; notwithstanding, they need a
Saviour" (YI, February 1874).
Symmetrical ObedienceA special feature of perfect obedience was that
it should be symmetrical. This term refers to balance in carrying out
God's willnot emphasizing one duty at the expense of another (3T
243ff.). She repeatedly sought to lead the faithful into an all-fronts
battle against sin. "I know that those who bear the message of
truth to them do not properly instruct them on all points essential to
the perfection of a symmetrical character in Christ" (4T 314,
It is entirely possible that what she had in mind were
the many people whom she met who made high claims to perfection and
holiness, but whose personal lives were moral disasters.
The picture here is of tragicomic persons who do not
understand the "weightier matters of the law" in their
pathetic imbalance. They might be faithful in one area of devotion, but
grossly negligent in others. Their health reform, for instance,
"strains out gnats" while swallowing the "camels" of
vegetarian gluttony. They are skilled in vegetable cookery but can
easily become cannibalistic gourmets, feasting on the carcasses of their
doctrinal opponents. They are experts at removing specks from the eyes
of others while looking foolish with grotesque logs coming out of their
own. Such lack of symmetry had no part in Ellen White's view of perfect
Perfect Believers Are Still Subject to TemptationAn experience
of perfection does not mean that believers have
reached the point of being free from temptations or totally above the
possibility of sin. The perfect ones will be out of temptation's reach
only after glorification (ST, June 9, 1881, and Mar. 23, 1888). Any
claim to freedom from temptation this side of glorification is
perfectionism, not a true perfectionist experience.
Feelings and Impressions Do Not Define Perfection
perfection were not to be defined by feelings and impressions. Feelings
and impressions have their proper sphere, but are not the key
determining factor of a genuine experience of perfection.
Impressions also included claims to be led of the Holy Spirit,
especially if such pretensions conflicted with God's law or a plain
scriptural principle (ST, Feb. 26, 1885). For Ellen White the business
of religion was a very sober, no nonsense affair. Feelings and strong
expressions of emotion received a rather skeptical review.
Here is another concept that clearly distinguishes Ellen White's view
of perfection from the Wesleyan model. In her opinion the Wesleyan
"witness of the Spirit" was too open to fanatical abuse. She
urged believers to move forward in faith, trusting the clear promises
of God's Word, not feelings and impressions.
The Perfect Ones Do Not Excuse or Cherish SinOne of the most
important qualities of a genuine experience of sanctification and
perfection is that there will be no cherishing, excusing, or indulging
in sin. This is closely related to her important distinction between
willful, premeditated sinning and unwittingly being deceived or
surprised into sin.
In the thought of Ellen White, no sin is excusable,
but it is a vastly different spiritual psychology to sin willfully as
opposed to being deceived or surprised into it. .
It is very striking that many uses of the word "perfection"
(and its variations) were often associated in the same context with an
attitude that will not excuse or cherish sin of any kindknown or
Such an association is strong evidence that for Ellen White
perfection negatively meant the absence of (1) an attitude of excuse or
cherishing sin and (2) the performance of willful and premeditated acts
of sinning. Positively it meant doing the best one could do.
Maybe I can help you visualize the concept. I once lived in a rural
setting in north central Georgia, where there were many logging trucks
traveling the country roads. One morning I was running late to meet a
radio appointment in town, and in my rush I ran into one of those trucks
as it was coming around a blind corner. This accident was partly my
mistake (as a result of my lack of punctuality), but I
did not get up that morning longing to go out and purposefully ram the
first logging truck I could find! My problem was a weakness, not an
attitude. There is a world of difference.
Believer's Perfection Never AbsoluteIt should already
be clear from the above discussion and from the presentations on
justification in the previous chapter that perfection in the Christian
experience is never absolute and can never be exactly the same as the
experience and the perfection of Jesus. But the nonabsolute or relative
nature of the believer's human perfection was further clarified in the
following closely related ways.
1. Jesus is the only one who was absolutely perfect. In
fact, Ellen White described those who claimed to be "equal with Him
in perfection of character" as committing "blasphemy"
(RH, Mar. 15, 1887). Compared with Christ, human perfection is always
2. In addition to the comparison of human perfection
with the absolutely perfect Jesus, the relative nature of the believer's
perfection was expressed numerous times by Ellen White in simple,
forthright ways to the effect that "you cannot equal the Pattern
[Christ], but you can resemble it" (MS 32, 1887, 2 MR 126).
3. Aside from the more specific statements about the
relative nature of perfection, there were numerous "His sphere, our
sphere" statements. "As God Himself is perfect in His exalted
sphere, so should His children be perfect in the humble sphere they
occupy" (2SP 225). In relationship to defining the believer's
perfection, it is not entirely clear what she was referring to in this
She often used the "His sphere, our sphere"
concept in commenting on Matthew 5:48. She seems to be referring to
capabilities and powers (1888 Materials 146), which differ from person
to person and certainly differ when the human is compared with the
Though this "His sphere, our sphere" expression is a bit
elusive, the gist of it seemed to be another way of saying that
believers should do the best that they can with all the gifts, natural
and supernatural, that are available to them in their sphere of
existence. The bottom line, though, is that perfection is something different in God's
sphere than it is in the human sphere.
Special Miscellaneous CharacteristicsEllen White
occasionally lifted up for special treatment certain virtues, which
mainly involve proper attitudes, the chief ones being humility and
Another special feature was unity among believers.
This accent on unity was probably because of a number of divisive and
self-righteous critics of the Seventh-day Adventist Church who were
claiming perfection, all the while creating strife in the church.
These three special characteristics need further
1. UnityEllen White felt that the unity of believers
would be an important hallmark of a true experience of sanctification
and perfection. "Unity is the sure result of Christian
perfection" (SL 85). False sanctification, on the other hand, seemed tailor-made
to produce division, and she negatively referred to "those who
accept this bogus sanctification [and] do not hesitate to draw away from
the body and set themselves up as criteria." She went on to observe
that "the very ones who claim sanctification have in their hearts
insubordination, pride, envy, jealousy, and evil surmising of their
brethren" (ST, Oct. 23, 1879).
2. Humility"Those who experience the
sanctification of the Bible will manifest a spirit of humility" (GC
470). This virtue was closely associated with the consciousness of not
only creatureliness, but also sinfulness. Probably one of the reasons
for her pointed rejection of the Wesleyan practice of claiming and
testifying to the experience of perfection was that it was too easily
subverted to manifestations of pretentious and false claims (ibid. 470-472;
see 2T 638).
3. PatienceWithout patience "we shall never reach a state of
perfection" (HS 134).
The Means of Perfection
Though Ellen White spoke of making strenuous efforts
in the life of sanctification, the effort was always conceived of as
being empowered by God's grace. This grace was primarily ministered
through the Word and the Spirit, working in intimate concert. This
combined ministry would bring spiritual truth home to the individual
heart in such a way that character transformation takes place.
Summation of the Pre-1888 Perfection Expressions
As Ellen White moved into the experience of
Minneapolis and 1888, she had a complete and comprehensive doctrine of
perfection. But the initial question of this chapter still calls for an
answer. How did her understanding of perfection play out in the important
years following 1888, which featured such a great emphasis on
We will get to this question in chapter 16, but
before we deal with it, there is one final issue that we need to
address: How perfect is the perfection required of the saints who will
make it through the time of trouble and will meet Jesus in peace at His
* I am indebted to Martin Weber for this wonderful metaphor