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Ellen White on Salvation

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II


Chapter Sixteen

Perfection After 1888

Probably the best way to trace Ellen White's views on perfection after 1888 is to use the same general categories that were used in chapter 14. We will now turn our attention to this vital subject as it unfolds in relationship to the great revival of emphasis on justification.

The Goal and Attainment of Perfection

During the entire post-1888 era Ellen White did not in the least blur her vision of the high goal of perfection that was attainable. Furthermore, she stated it in the most straightforward manner. She used all the same terms that she employed in the previous era, and there was no essential development that distinguished this era from the previous one.

What is most striking about this was that the high-demand goal continued to find strong expression in the immediate aftermath of the 1888 General Conference session. She did not slacken in her expression of the goal of God's high demand for character perfection.

The Distinguishing Qualities of Perfection

The development of her understanding of the distinguishing qualities of perfection was largely complete with the publication of The Great Controversy in 1888. This does not mean, however, that these qualities were ignored after 1888. They all received extended comment and discussion, but there was hardly any noticeable development of these concepts.


A Noteworthy Development—There was, however, a noteworthy development in the way the safety net or buffering concept was utilized. There was a noticeable decline in its use between 1896 and 1902.

It seems quite apparent that the emphasis on justification that began in earnest at Battle Creek in 1883 and reached floodtide in the aftermath of Minneapolis and 1888 was a notable motivation for these statements that recognized "unavoidable deficiencies." Of the 29 statements that speak to this issue from 1888 until late 1902, 16 came between 1889 and late 1892, 10 between 1893 and 1896, and none between 1896 and 1902. There were three published in 1902.

What should we make of this phenomenon? There seems little doubt that an emphasis on justification does tend to be more expressive of the inevitability of human failure. The powerful expressions of perfection that came between 1896 and 1900, on the other hand, seemed definitely to upgrade the possibility of human victory (by grace) over sin and downgrade the recognition of inevitable failure.

Yet we need to remind ourselves that just as perfection continued to be clearly taught right after 1888, so also justification was clearly taught during the last years of the 1890s and the early years of the twentieth century (witness the comprehensive manuscript 50, 1900 [1SM 340-344]).

The Natural or Spontaneous Vision of Perfection—One distinguishing quality that was only briefly mentioned before 1888 is an expansion of the whole concept that believers will not normally be conscious of their holiness. It is what could be called the natural, spontaneous, imperceptible nature of perfection.

The post-1888 expression of this quality was keynoted with the following statement. "Imperceptibly to ourselves, we are changed day by day from our own ways and will into the ways and will of Christ, into the loveliness of his character. Thus we grow up into Christ, and unconsciously reflect His image" (RH, Apr. 28, 1891; italics supplied).

The Desire of Ages in 1898 also presented this theme. "All true obedience comes from the heart. It was heart work with Christ. And if we consent, He will so identify Himself with our thoughts and aims, so blend


our hearts and minds into conformity to His will, that when obeying Him we shall be but carrying out our own impulses" (668).

The Means of Perfection

The means of perfection received only one noticeable development after 1888—a strong emphasis on the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Though this was not a new theme, it is clear that Minneapolis unleashed a veritable flood of statements to the effect that the Holy Spirit is the great bearer of power to transform lives into the image of Christ's perfection.

This theme was rarely mentioned before 1885, but I was able to locate 45 references to it after 1888. In fact, after 1888 it is mentioned at least once every year through 1902. What is interesting is that these statements were just as strong in the immediate aftermath of 1888 as they were in the late 1890s.

It should be recalled that it was during the late 1890s that Seventh-day Adventism was afflicted with the somewhat fanatical "Receive Ye the Holy Ghost" movement in North America. Ellen White had her own personal "Receive Ye the Holy Ghost" movement going in earnest for the balance of her ministry following 1888. Despite the extremes of the "Receive Ye the Holy Ghost" movement she moved ahead with a positive message of the power and work of the Holy Spirit to perfect believers.

Motivation for Perfection and the Investigative Judgment

By 1888 the basic theology of the investigative judgment was complete, with one notable exception. This was the troubling perfectionism of Seventh-day Adventist minister E. R. Jones.

In 1890 Jones was teaching a version of perfection which claimed that before the close of probation "God's people can and must develop a personal righteousness that is as radical and complete—and . . . as meritorious—as that of Christ" (Ott 131, cf. 137, 138). Whatever it was, Ellen White was not very taken with it. In fact, she called him an extremist. "Some ministers like Edwin Jones can never take a position and hold it sensibly. He will regard matters in an intense light. He will gather up little points of seeming difference and act as though he would stake his soul upon


their verity and strength . . . He confuses minds, he buries the simplest and most essential truths by his strong expressions, his extravagant imaginations so that his labors on this coast [Pacific] are really a failure" (letter 46, 1890, in 1888 Materials 646, 647).

Her counsel to Jones was direct. "It is not essential for you to know and tell others all the whys and wherefores as to what constitutes the new heart, or as to the position they can and must reach so as never to sin. You have no such work to do" (letter 15a, 1890, in 1SM 177).

"You will take passages in the Testimonies that speak of the close of probation, of the shaking among God's people, and you will talk of a coming out from this people of a purer, holier people that will arise. Now all this pleases the enemy. . . .

"Should many accept the views you advance, and talk and act upon them, we would see one of the greatest fanatical excitements that has ever been witnessed among Seventh-day Adventists. This is what Satan wants" (ibid. 179).

The judgment and the close of probation are proper motivators for character perfection, but extremists who wanted to go beyond character perfection into nature perfection were sharply rebuked. It is quite apparent that Ellen White did not want the perfectionistic implications of the judgment and the close of probation developed any further than she had taken them in The Great Controversy.

The Relationship of Justification and Sanctification

One of the most notable qualities of Ellen White's thought on the motivation for character perfection during the post-1888 era was the great emphasis on merit and justification as the root or foundation for victory over sin.

This theme was stated sparingly before 1888. Probably the clearest pre-1888 statement was made at the important (and often overlooked) 1883 Battle Creek General Conference session. "When we trust God fully, when we rely upon the merits of Jesus as a sin-pardoning Saviour, we shall receive all the help that we can desire" (RH, Apr. 15, 1884). 


This 1883 expression was later strengthened with her comments about Wesley's conversion. "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).

It was after 1888, however, that this theme was repeatedly mentioned in both justificationist and sanctificationist settings. It was not so much that the theme was any more clearly expressed, but that it was expressed so often. The initial statement of this concept during the 1889-1902 era was quite typical of the host of comments that followed1 Referring to the testimonies of the delegates at the 1889 Battle Creek General Conference session, she made this comment: "All related their experience the past year as being of a more spiritual character than they have had before since embracing the truth. The light of justification through faith, and that the righteousness of Christ must become our righteousness, else we cannot possibly keep the law of God, is the testimony of all who speak, and the fruit is peace, courage, joy, and harmony" (MS 22, 1889, in 1888 Materials, 461).

In the opinion of Ellen White the spiritual impact of 1888 had been most positive. And this theme continued to receive great and constant emphasis from her pen and voice for the balance of her ministry. Such constant emphasis of the root/fruit relationship of justification and sanctification presents abundant evidence of the centrality of the justification/sanctification balance in her thought. This delicate balancing was evident after 1888-during the periods of emphasis on both justification (1889-1892) and sanctification (c. 1895-1902).

Summation of the Perfection Development

The development of all Ellen White's various understandings of perfection was essentially complete by 1888. Only a few features of her doctrine of perfection received further expansion. This did not mean, however, that the doctrine was downgraded. In fact, the opposite was true. Two other developments gave evidence of this tilt toward perfection in her attempts at balance.

1. As discussed earlier, the years 1901 and 1902 witnessed a strong revival of the spirit of the New Testament Epistle of James. This revival found its most forceful pronouncement in the perplexing statement published in the Signs of July 23, 1902: "But by perfect obedience to the requirements of the law, man is justified. Only through faith in Christ is such obedience possible."

It is not entirely clear what provoked this rather uncharacteristic use of the term justified, but it certainly did evidence the great emphasis on obedience and character development in her teachings on salvation.

2. The last exhibit was the way she often described sanctification and perfection as the definition or major purpose of religion. This theme was clearly stated before 1888. "Holiness of heart and purity of life was the great subject of the teachings of Christ. . . .

"Perfection, holiness, nothing short of this, would give them success in carrying out the principles He had given them" (2T 445). 2 But this was repeatedly mentioned in the post-1888 era, with most of the emphasis coming after 1897. The expression of this theme was climaxed with two strong statements in 1902: "Our sanctification is God's object in all His dealing with us. He has chosen us from eternity that we may be holy" (letter 153, 1902, in 3SM 202). "The history of Christ's human life in our world is the record of His purpose toward us for the manifestation of His divine perfection" (RH, Oct. 14, 1902). Such expressions certainly summarize the thrust of Ellen White's understanding of perfection.

The delicate balance between justification and sanctification was a constant given throughout her entire ministry, but her teaching, with its ongoing emphasis on character transformation, is most aptly summed up as "the persistent path to perfection." Even during the period of her greatest accent on objective justification, such emphasis was always the stepping-stone to the ultimate prize—the reflection of the perfect character of Jesus in Christian experience.


1  Fifty-seven separate statements of this theme were located in the 1889-1902 era, with numerous statements appearing each year. [back] [top]

2  This statement was republished verbatim in the Review, Sept. 7, 1886.[back] [top]

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