What Does It All Mean?
With all the discussion and debate about Ellen
White's views on justification and perfection, I feel the reader is
entitled to know what this study has contributed to my thinking on these
vital issues. I will not review the development of her teachings in this
final chapter. That can be traced in the periodic summations scattered
throughout the previous chapters. But for the sake of clarity and some
further expansion, I suggest the following interpretation.
It is clear that Ellen White's understanding of
justification by faith had almost every legal or objectively forensic
element that the sixteenth century Reformers Martin Luther and John
Calvin argued for. Although her understanding of salvation sounds more
like Wesley's emphasis than that of the earlier Reformers, she did go
beyond Wesley in declaring that Christ's life and death must be
accounted to believers all the way, not just at the beginning of
Christian experience. In other words, justification is always
concurrent with sanctification.
John Wesley and Ellen WhiteWesley was wary
of the view that both the life and death of Christ are legally accounted
to the records of believers, feeling that such a view would deny the
necessity of sanctification and perfection. But Ellen White had no such
reservations. Her 1883 and post-1888 explanations of justification by
faith were powerfully clear statements of justification defined as God's
act in declaring penitents to be free from condemnation.
Ellen White's presentation of salvation was a feast that
consisted of all the redemptive delights that both the Lutheran and
Wesleyan traditions have passionately hungered for, with very little
dislike for what they both tended to neglect or downgrade.
Believers Justified Every MomentAt the risk of being
repetitious, let us get it clear in our minds: the moment a sinner
repents and confesses, that moment he or she stands forth fully accepted
in the Beloved by the merits of Christ's life and death ministered
through His constant and objective heavenly intercession. By faith,
every moment believers are reckoned perfect in Christ Jesus: not on the
basis of their performance, but through Christ's gracious and
It is usually this theme that the strong advocates of
perfection need to pay attention to with greater care. Do we really
believe that Jesus accepts us fully and completely through His merits
Faith and ObedienceBut such an experience of
justification is retained only on the basis of faithful loyalty to
Christ, which is expressed in constant obedience and repentance. It is
this side of the balance that the justification advocates usually need
to concentrate on with more care. Such obedience, however, is the best
that believers can do by God's grace, and Ellen White never understood
such obedience as generating saving merit.
It seems that the best way to sum up the balance in
Ellen White's teaching on faith, merit, and obedience goes like this:
believers are justified evidentially by works of perfect obedience. But
they can be justified meritoriously only by faith in the merits of
Christ, which He accounts to us by His constant intercession. Sinners
are saved in experience by faith, in merit by the grace of Christ
accounted to us, and obedience is the essential evidence of faith's
acceptance of Christ's precious merits.
The word "perfection" is often thought of as
only applying to absolute, antiseptic sinlessnessnothing less, nothing
more. Such a view is static and usually deals only with specific
actions, habits, and behavior. But Ellen White's thought is more
realistic and complex than such simplistic notions. Her views on
perfection reveal a wonderfully balanced outline that
features six levels of experience. These levels
logically follow one after the other. To remove them from their place in
the sequence or to deny any one of them is to distort the balance of the
This wonderfully panoramic vision goes like this:
1. Reckoned PerfectThe moment we repent and trust
the saving merits of Christ, that moment we are reckoned as completely
perfect in Him. His perfection is ours by faith, despite past sins and
present, unwitting failures.
2. Dynamic Growth Seen as Relative PerfectionIf we are
moving forward by faith, growing in grace, and developing characters
patterned after the likeness of Christ, we are relatively perfect at
every stage of growth. We are inevitably deficient and immature, but
such growing (though immature) believers are nonetheless perfect. A
plant is perfect at each stage of its development, despite its lack of
full maturity. In sum, perfection is dynamic growth in attitude and
3. Loving Obedience
and No Willful SinningIt is possible for us to reach a level of
maturity that will finally feature a constant and spontaneous manifestation
obedience to all the will of God and a noticeable lack of manifest
key features of such a level of maturity are:
a. We will not be conscious of any absolute
perfection. The closer we come to Christ and His perfection, the greater
will be our realization of our own defects.
b. Perfection is all possible obedience to God's will
in probationary time. This obedience is produced by the right use of the
will in cooperation with the empowerment of divine grace.
c. There will be neither cherishing of sin, nor
rebellious attitudes of presuming on God's grace by willful
disobedience. John Fowler suggests that such a person is "sinful by
nature" but "is not sinning in deliberate violation of God's
law" (Fowler 148). In a word, there will be no premeditated
d. Perfection has been, and always will be, a consciously receding
horizon and never claimable in this mortal sphere. Here she was in
direct conflict with the Wesleyan expectation that sinners could claim
conscious and instantaneous victory over known sin. And the reason
for this is that Wesley's ultimate definition of perfection was that
it was victory over known sin. For Ellen White, perfection did involve
victory over known sin, but it was a deeper, more all-encompassing
R. N. Flew raises a warning flag about a common pitfall in the
experience of perfection. He suggests that if known transgression is the
only object of sanctification, then perfection will depend on our
"own insight into" our motives, previous moral development, and our
"knowledge" of ourselves. All this is very shaky ground for
claiming perfection, and Flew's comments are powerfully insightful.
"Many otherwise good people are unconscious of their own
selfishness. The quarrelsome man genuinely thinks that everyone is
unreasonable but himself. The revengeful man believes that he is
animated only by a proper self-respect. . . .
"These considerations which hold good even of the commoner vices,
the more flagrant sins, are true of the subtler and more deadly sins of
the spirit. Pride in all its forms, vanity, egotism, spiritual
complacency, a self-centered religion, the pharisaism which is goodness, and yet is false
goodnessall these forms of moral evil are most likely to appear in
those whose lives are disciplined and virtuous" (Flew 333).
Flew's criticism of Wesley could never be directed at Ellen White. Her
stress was always on the dynamic aspects, and sanctification was always
called "the work of a lifetime."
Furthermore, Ellen White's understanding of the demands of God's law and
her view of the pervasiveness of sin as a deranging power in the human
soul was more concrete and radical than Wesley's.
4. Perfection in the Time of TroubleHer
descriptions of the experience of the sealed and loyal saints during the
time of trouble following the close of human probation seem to represent
an understanding of perfection that is very closely related to point 3
above. Yet her descriptions speak of a total lack of blatant sinning
during this period. It is this total lack of open, identifiable sinning
that distinguishes the perfection of the loyal during the time of
trouble from their experience before probation closes.
What is certain is that there will be no manifestations of premeditated
sinning during the time of trouble, and God's people can recall no
sins that have not been repented of and forsaken. While they are not
aware of any conscious sins, they do have further
"earthliness" to be removed during this terrible ordeal.
While it is not entirely clear if they will or will not be committing
"errors," "mistakes," and manifesting
"unavoidable deficiencies" during this time, W. Richard Lesher
has probably summed it up best when he declared that for Ellen White
individuals are "sinner[s]" though they may not
"always" be "sinning" as "a practicing
sinner" (Lesher 246). Such is certainly true of the saints during
the time of trouble.
5. Sinless at GlorificationPerfection in the fullest sense of the word
"sinless" comes for the first time at the appearing
of Jesus, when we will receive immortality and will no longer be subject
to the passions of the sinful nature and Satan's deceptive temptations
6. Constant Growth Throughout EternityPerfection will continue to
manifest itself as constant growth into the likeness of Christ's
character through all eternity.
Perfectionist or Perfectionism?
Ellen White was certainly a perfectionist, but she was
not advocating perfectionism.
I am using the expression perfectionist in the sense that sinners can
gain victory over sinful attitudes and actions, but they retain their
corrupt natures, which are subject to temptation until glorification.
They experience victory over hereditary and cultivated tendencies to
sin, but the propensities and tendencies are never wholly removed till
the Second Coming.
Perfectionism, on the other hand, involves believers
coming to the place where, before glorification, they would no longer
feel the effects of temptation. In other words, they would have not only
transformed characters, but also their sinful natures would be
eradicated. Clearly this was not Ellen White's position.
A Gracious Optimism
Ellen White was most optimistic about what could be accomplished when the human will is combined with divine power. Great
heights of character development will result. And can we not call this
good news? I am personally thankful that I do not have to be burdened
with any hereditary or cultivated defect. Certainly there is victory not
only from the guilt of but also the power of sin!
For Ellen White, salvation was the persisting path to personal
character perfection. All her theological resources were brought to bear
on this central theme, and no aspect of her instruction was lacking in
its doctrinal and practical applications.