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Ellen White on Salvation

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II


Chapter Seventeen

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 White
—Wesley 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 Moment—At 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 meritorious accounting.

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 alone?

Faith and Obedience—But 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 sinlessness—nothing 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 whole picture.

This wonderfully panoramic vision goes like this:

1. Reckoned Perfect—The 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 Perfection—If 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 actions.

3. Loving Obedience and No Willful Sinning—It is possible for us to reach a level of maturity that will finally feature a constant and spontaneous manifestation of loving obedience to all the will of God and a noticeable lack of manifest sinning. The 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 sinning.

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 vision.

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 goodness—all 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 Trouble
—Her 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 Glorification—Perfection 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 of Satan.

6. Constant Growth Throughout Eternity—Perfection 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.

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