Perfection and Closing Events
Whenever a discussion of Ellen White and perfection
arises, it is almost inevitable that the subject of the character
perfection of God's people during the time of trouble will come up. As
has already been pointed out in chapter 5, the perfection of the saints
during this time is one of the most problematic areas in Ellen White's
thought. In addition to the complex nature of her conceptions, the
sinless perfection advocates consider her statement that God's people
will have to "stand in the sight of a holy God without a
mediator" (GC 425) to be one of the strongholds of their position.
In other words, they understand Ellen White to be saying that God's
people are so sinless that they no longer have sin in any shape or form
and thus do not need Jesus' mediation.
Therefore we have devoted a whole chapter to a discussion of this
rather challenging and important subject. But before we consider the
character of the saints during the time of trouble, we should review
some general considerations about the relationship of closing events to
Fear and the Nearness of Christ's Coming
In the discussion about closing events in chapter 5 of this book, the
basic relationship between a strong anticipation of Christ's coming and
character development was outlined. From that discussion it is quite
clear that Ellen White understood the "shortness of time" as a
legitimate motivation for believers to perfect characters that would
stand the scrutiny of the pre-Advent judgment, the rigors of the time of
and the awesome presence of Jesus at His appearing.
Ellen White, however, was not fond of fear as a primary motive in
striving for character perfection.
Fear and PerfectionFirst
of all, she declared that "the shortness of time is frequently
urged as an incentive for seeking righteousness and making Christ our
friend." But she went on to urge that "this should not be the
great motive with us; for it savors of selfishness." She then
asked: "Is it necessary that the terrors of the day of God should
be held before us, that we may be compelled to right action through
fear?" Her forthright answer was that "it ought not to be
so" (ST, Mar. 17, 1887; italics supplied).
Thus despite the rather frightening descriptions of the
awfulness of the close of probation, the time of trouble, and the day of
Christ's personal appearing (GC 613-652), she could urge the "love,
mercy, and compassion" of Jesus as one who will "walk
with" believers and "fill" their "path with
light" (ST, Mar. 17, 1887).
Complementing the theme of love (not fear) as the
great motive were numerous statements urging that now"today"is the time of preparation for the trying times
ahead. Typical of such expressions is the following.
"Live the life of faith day by day. Do not become
anxious and distressed about the time of trouble, and thus have a time
of trouble beforehand. Do not keep thinking, `I am afraid I shall not
stand in the great testing day.' You are to live for the present, for
this day only. Tomorrow is not yours. Today you are to maintain the
victory over self" (ibid., Oct.
The Investigative Judgment and the Time of Trouble
How do the closely related themes of the
investigative judgment, the close of probation, and the character state
of believers during the time of trouble contribute to an understanding
of Ellen White's teaching on perfection?
Sanctification and the Investigative JudgmentEllen
White used the investigative judgment as a springboard to present the
importance of both justification and sanctification. The theme is packed
with motivational consequences and is another illustration of her gospel
As a motivational factor for sanctification, she made
numerous comments that speak of the close relationship between character
purification and the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary. The following
"While the investigative judgment is going
forward in heaven, while the sins of penitent believers are being
removed from the sanctuary, there is to be a special work of
purification, of putting away of sin, among God's people upon earth. . .
. When this work shall have been accomplished, the followers of Christ
will be ready for His appearing" (GC 425).
These comments sound almost as if there is some special
dispensation of power associated with the period of the investigative
judgment. But Ellen White nowhere explicitly spoke of such a
dispensation of special power that is to be uniquely available to the last
generation. Such power has always been available to believers.
Perfection and the Time of TroubleBefore we tackle this complex
and problematic issue, a brief
outline of the way final events will unfold is in order.
The close of probation signals the end of the
pre-Advent, investigative judgment. This review of individual histories
reveals to the universe who will comprise the contrasting hosts of the
redeemed and the lost.
The completion of the investigative judgment will
then usher in the close of probation, and it is at this time that the
earth will be plunged into the time of Jacob's trouble. This will be a
most severe test of the endurance of the faithful.
What makes this whole sequence of events interesting is
that from God's point of view the personal salvation of the redeemed
will no longer be in question: they have been sealed with "the seal
of the living God"an unseen mark that will certify their characters to
be irreversibly set (GC 613-615; 2T 191). But the sealed ones are not
conscious of their status before God. They will not know that they are
sealed. They will be involved in a terrible struggle of soul, seeking
the assurance of sins forgiven and earnestly reviewing their life
histories seeking to call up any unconfessed sins. Ellen White is quite
consistent in her concept that for the faithful, perfection is always a
consciously receding horizoneven during the time of trouble (GC
Ellen White's Most Perplexing Statement
But her most challenging and perplexing statement
is that the sealed believers will have "to stand in the sight of a
holy God without a mediator. Their robes must be spotless, their characters
must be purified from sin by the blood of sprinkling"
(GC 425). What does it mean to live in the "sight of a holy God
without a mediator"?
This question comes into sharp focus when we recall
the powerful expression of objective justification involved in Ellen
White's concept of Christ's ministry of mediation for believers. This
intercession is not only needed to minister the benefits of redemption
to the lost and alienated sinner, but was also deemed necessary to
purify the earnest deeds of "true believers" from the
"taint of earthly corruption." This was because such deeds had
been done by "true believers" but who nevertheless still
remained burdened with the "corrupt channels of humanity" (1SM
So here are the "true believers" struggling
through the most severe test of faith imaginable. Furthermore, in this
brutal struggle they still possess mortal bodies that are oozing the
"taint of earthly corruption" from their "corrupt channels.
" All that they do
is "defiled" by "earthly corruption." Yet they have
to struggle on "without a mediator"! What is to be made of all
Living Without a MediatorFirst of all, let us be
reminded that Ellen White was clear that the sealed believer's eternal
destiny will not be at stake. All living humans will have conclusively
and irrevocably chosen sides by the time probation closes. This is not
because God makes some arbitrary decree, but because every person will
have made a final choice to be loyal or lost. The close of probation
simply confirms that the choices are now irreversible. So to live
without a mediator means that the lost will no longer be able to switch
While this point is relevant, it does not seem to speak
to the main thrust of her perfectionistic comments in The Great
Controversy about the time of trouble. It is true that there will be no
switching sides, but the main thrust is not choice of salvation or damnation.
The central issue is the perfection of the redeemed. Could it be that
character will have become so perfect that they will have
had their sinful natures, their corrupting channels, totally purged and
eradicated as they enter this crisis?
For Ellen White, the answer was negative. She never
taught such a perfectionism. She spoke of character perfection this side
of glorification, but not in terms of the final eradication of sinful
nature. She clearly stated that "we cannot say, `I am sinless,' till
this vile body is changed and fashioned like unto His glorious
body" (ST, Mar. 23, 1888, in 3SM 355). So the struggling, sealed
believers retain their "vile bodies" with their "sinful
natures" (though they commit no acts of pre-meditated sin) during
the time of trouble.
What, then, did she mean when she spoke of a perfection
that does not need the mediation of Jesus? Does she mean that they will
not need Christ's grace or that Christ will no longer be sustaining them
in their severe trial? Will they have built up such a reservoir
of grace within that they will no longer have to look without to Christ?
If the answer is yes to these questions, then the entire
thrust of Ellen White's understanding of salvation would be severely
distortedeven stood on its head.
It would have been strange for one who had so
consistently urged believers to look away from self and constantly to
behold and trust in Jesus as their advocate and mediator now to urge
them to begin to look within for some internal, subjective stockpile of
This issue becomes especially acute when we realize that
no one knows the hour when probation closes. On this point Martin Weber
has made some cogent observations. "If we did not have access for
forgiveness after probation closes, and we did not know when that time
arrived, how would we know when to stop trusting in Jesus and start
putting confidence in our own character development? If so, would it not
be dangerous to form the habit of looking outside of ourselves to Jesus
now, when we will shortly be deprived of the privilege without knowing
when?" (24, 25).
A Perfection That
Needs No Mediation?What is to be made of such a perfection that does
not need Christ's mediation?
I suggest a twofold answer.
First, all restraints on evil are removed.
Among Ellen White's
earliest comments about the time of trouble and the close of probation,
she made it clear that the end of Christ's mediation signals the removal
of all restraint on the evil passions of the lost (EW 279ff.; GC 613,
Her description of the world during the time of trouble is nothing
short of a dramatic horror thriller. The only restraint that will be
placed on the satanically controlled hosts of the lost is that they will
not be allowed to kill the "sealed ones" (GC
629-631). But beyond this the world is a living hell. To live without a
mediator means to live by faith in a world that is spiritually and
physically coming apart at the seams.
If believers have not exercised faith during their
little, daily, probationary times of trouble, they will not have the
experience to face this grand and horrible crisis. Yet even this still
does not seem to get at what The Great Controversy (425) statement
says about the
perfection that will characterize the sealed believers.
Second, we need a qualified understanding of perfection. The
explanation seems to arise out of Ellen White's
understanding of perfection. God's sealed and faithful people are
regarded as perfect in the sense that they are no longer cherishing sin
or committing overt sinssins that are deliberately or willfully performed. They will be
imperfect in the sense that they still have sinful natures, so all that
they do is less than the best. They still have unavoidable deficiencies,
but they do not indulge in or commit premeditated acts of sin. Jesus is
still making up for their "unavoidable deficiencies,"
"defects," "shortcomings," "mistakes,"
and "errors," but He is no longer mediating for the unsealedthe rebellious, willful, high-handed, sin-excusing sinners.
Let us carefully consider two lines of evidence for this
interpretation: (1) repeatedly Ellen White suggested that the sins which
are the major concern in character development are those that are
willful, premeditated, cherished, indulged in, and excused; (2) it is
striking how often the context of her time of trouble perfection
descriptions spoke of or implied that perfection is an attitude that
despises sin, avoids indulging in and cherishing it, and seeks the paths
of obedience, doing the best that can possibly be done.
The reader should carefully observe the context of the
statement about "the time when we are to confess and forsake our
sins that they may go beforehand to judgment and be blotted out,"
the time when believers are to cleanse themselves "from all filthiness of the
flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God." The
context of this statement also speaks in warning tones about indulging
"one known sin" that "will cause weakness and darkness,
and subject" believers "to fierce temptation" (HS 155).
In an obvious reference to the investigative judgment,
she spoke of a "character that God can approve,"
"characters . . . printed upon the books of Heaven . . . [that] are
fair and perfect." Then she urged that "it is our duty
to render to God the best service possible" (ST,
July 28, 1887; italics supplied).
During a sermon at Orebro, Sweden, in
1886, she spoke of "the Lord . . . weighing character in the
sanctuary today, and those who are careless and indifferent, rushing on
in paths of iniquity, will not stand the test" (ibid., Dec. 29,
1887; italics supplied). She is clear that the type of character which
will prove to be a failure is that which features carelessness and
indifference to sin"rushing on in paths of iniquity."
This is a far cry from "unavoidable deficiencies" and
Note carefully the following reference, which seems to
speak in the most absolute terms of the perfection of believers during
the time of trouble. "Now, while our great High Priest is making
the atonement for us, we should seek to become perfect in
Christ. Not even by a thought could our Saviour be brought to yield to
the power of temptation. . . . He had kept His Father's commandments, and
there was no sin in Him that Satan could use to his advantage. This is
the condition in which those must be found who shall stand in the time
of trouble" (GC 623).
But right in the middle of this very absolute view of
perfection she had this to say: "Satan finds in human hearts some
point where he can gain a foothold; some sinful desire is cherished, by
means of which his temptations assert their power" (ibid.).
Ellen White made it clear that the key issue in perfection and
temptation is what to do with "sinful desire" that "is
cherished." Doesn't it seem reasonable to conclude that if those
who are cherishing sin will not
make it, then the implication is that those not
cherishing sin are the "perfect" believers who "stand in
the sight of a holy God without a mediator" (ibid.
These sealed saints will have become so accustomed to
trusting Jesus, loving the right, and cherishing obedience that they
will no longer commit sins that need a mediator. Jesus will still be
their mediator, in the sense of sustaining them in their weakness, but
He will no longer intercede for those involved in rebellion and willful
Is not the issue the same now as it will be in the time
of trouble? It seems clear that the issue is ceasing to indulge in or
cherish sin. To put it plainly, the sealed will have ceased to do acts
of willful sinning. For those who indulge sins and sinful attitudes, Jesus will
no longer be able to mediate after probation closes; they are the
high-handed sinners who stubbornly retain an unconverted heart.
A very similar thought is found in manuscript 26,
1888 (1888 Materials 161, 162). After speaking of what God
and Jesus are doing in cleansing the sanctuary and the blotting out of
sins, she asked:
"Who expects to have a part in the first
resurrection? You who have been cherishing sin and iniquity in the
heart? You will fail in that day." Even though this speaks of those
who will be resurrected, the same principle applies: no one who is
cherishing known sin will be in God's kingdom.
That the believers are not absolutely, sinlessly perfect
during the time of trouble (after probation ceases) was also hinted at
in her comments in The Great Controversy on page 621. In an
obvious reference to the condition of the sealed saints she said: "God's
love for His children during the period of their severest trial is as
strong and tender as in the days of their sunniest prosperity; but it is
needful for them to be placed in the furnace of fire; their earthliness
must be consumed, that the image of Christ may be perfectly
reflected" (italics supplied).
It is clear that the sealed saints will not perfectly
reflect (in the absolute sense) the image of Christ as they enter the
time of trouble. Their eternal destiny will be settled, but their
characters will still need to have "their earthliness . . .
In light of Ellen White's overall understanding of the
mental attitudes involved in both sin and righteousness, it seems
consistent to understand the sealed saints as both perfect (not
committing willful sins) and yet imperfect (not absolutely reflecting
the perfect image of Jesus, because they will still need earthliness to
God's Purpose for Time of Trouble
What is God's purpose in subjecting the sealed and
judged saints to such a terrible ordeal?
First of all, the only explicit reason Ellen White gave
for God's allowance of the time of trouble was consistent with her
entire explanation for suffering (PP 68, 69, 78, 79; DA 19). God
has permitted Satan to manifest the outworking of his principles since his
fall, but during the time of trouble the sealed saints and the universe
are given one last, full manifestation of evil (especially the death
decree against the faithful saints) to demonstrate once and for all the
horrible results of sin (Satan's principle) (PK 148).
Referring to the severe trials to be met in the time of
Jacob's trouble, Ellen White specifically stated God's purpose: "It
is designed to lead the people of God to renounce Satan and his
temptations. . . . The last conflict will reveal Satan to them in his true
character, that of a cruel tyrant, and it will do for them what nothing
else could do, uproot him entirely from their affections" (RH, Aug.
12, 1884; OHC 321).
Two Conflicting Explanations
Aside from this one explicitly stated reason, her
interpreters have come up with two quite different interpretations,
which they feel are the point of her comments. These could be termed the
perfectionistic and the justificationist interpretations.
The Perfectionistic InterpretationDennis Priebe's
arguments are a good example of the perfectionistic interpretation.
"I believe that the primary reason for a short delay before
Christ's coming during which there is no Mediator is to dramatize before
the watching universe the
reality of God's complete power over sin in the lives of those whose
are totally and forever united to His own. . .
close of probation will play an important part in the final
demonstration that God is making before His universe: that, indeed, it
is possible for fallen man to obey God's law, which is righteous and
good and holy" (86).
Is the main point of God here to demonstrate that the
sealed ones can manifest perfect obedience to the universe in resisting
the temptations of Satan? It appears that the major
"temptation" which they "renounce" (OHC 321) will be
the accusing assaults of
the great adversary who seeks to lead them to distrust God's past pardon
What is to be made of Priebe's interpretation?
First, his explanation is based on the theological
premises of "final generation" theology, a school of thought
in Seventh-day Adventist history which has contended that God absolutely
needs a final generation
of perfect saints to demonstrate that perfect obedience
to the law of God is not just a possibility, but a reality.
Such theology has scant support in the writings of Ellen
White, who held that Christ's life and death have once and for all
settled the issue of whether humans can perfectly obey God's law.
Second, such a theology ignores a host of statements
about the time of trouble which clearly declare that perfect obedience
must be demonstrated before probation closes and the time of trouble
In other words, the essence of anything that Priebe
could argue for has already taken place before probation closes. In
fact, this is what the investigative judgment confirms: that God's
living faithful are trusting
and obedient and therefore can be sealed or certified as
safe to save. That does not need to be proved during the time of
In Ellen White's thinking the larger issue of the
possibility of obedience has been settled in Christ's incarnate
experience; the issue of each individual person appropriating the merits
of His life and death must be demonstrated before the close of probation
and the conclusion of the investigative judgmentnot during the time of
It would seem that what Priebe would contend for is that
during the time of trouble the sealed saints must have further
"earthliness . . . consumed." What God will seek to accomplish
is not to test their loyalty
in overt obedience, but to purify them further for His
presence and that of the angels in the scenes of glory (GC 636).
The Justificationist InterpretationHelmut Ott's
position is a good example of the justificationist interpretation. It
seems that he has clearly grasped the main purpose for God's allowance
of the time of trouble.
"Clearly, the trying experience [of] God's
people" "reveals that they recognize their helplessness and
unworthiness, that they have confessed their guilt and depend on God's
forgiveness . . . . and that they do not yield to Satan's attempts to
destroy their faith in God for deliverance" (117; see also 115).
Ott's suggestion is abundantly supported by Ellen
White's treatment of the experience of Jacob as a type of the trials
that God's sealed people will have during the time of trouble. The major
theme of The Great Controversy treatment of this time is that they will cling by
faith to God's mercy and His past pardon of their sins (616-622). The
great trial for the sealed during the time of trouble is not temptation
to commit open sins (ibid. 623),
but to doubt God's acceptance through previous pardon for sins.
"They fear that every sin has not been repented of,
and that through some fault in themselves they will fail to realize the
fulfillment of the Saviour's promise: I `will keep thee from the hour of
temptation, which shall come upon all the world' (Rev. 3:10). If they
could have the assurance of pardon they would not shrink from torture or
death" (ibid. 619).
"They afflict their souls before God, pointing to their past
repentance of their many sins, and pleading the Saviour's promise. . .
. Their faith does not fail because their prayers are not immediately
answered" (ibid. 619,
"If the people of God had unconfessed sins to
appear before them while tortured with fear and anguish, they would be
overwhelmed; despair would cut off their faith, and they could not have
confidence to plead with God for deliverance. But while they have a deep sense of
their unworthiness, they have no concealed wrongs to reveal" (ibid.
620). What the sealed ones will demonstrate is
that they can cling by faith to God's mercy and pardon. The issue of
their manifest obedience will have been settled before probation closes.
It appears that Priebe's perfectionistic bias has led
him to miss the central point. He continues to discuss issues that were
settled before probation closes, whereas God is seeking to demonstrate a
faith in His mercy that will not be moved in the face of the most severe
trial ever brought to bear on mortal flesh. In other words, the
perfectionist appropriation of the time of trouble is quite at odds with
its major purpose, which is to show forth God's great mercy and
pardoning power in the lives of His loyal and sealed saints.
We now have a rather thorough picture of Ellen
White's views on perfection as she approached the great watershed in the
Adventist treatment of salvation. With these views in mind, we are now
prepared to see how such concepts fared during the period of her
greatest emphasis on justification by faith alone. Will her balancing
act continue, or will her high doctrine of perfection be seriously
qualified or compromised as she takes on the rampant legalism of a
church in deep crisis?
Ellen White in the Review of March 18, 1890,
even implies that these "mistakes" of those who are "clothed with the righteousness
are "sins," but "sins" that are hated because they
have caused the "sufferings" of God's Son. [back] [top]
References to this full preparation
before probation closes are in the following: The Great Controversy, pp.
425, 613, and 623: "Now, while our great High Priest is making the
atonement for us, we should seek to become perfect in Christ;"
Early Writings, p. 71; Review and Herald, Apr. 12, 1870, Aug. 12, 1884;
The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 3, pp. 40, 41; Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 429;
vol. 5, pp. 220 and 466; Signs, Dec. 29, 1887; and The Upward Look,
p. 192. [back] [top]