Ellen White and the Basics of Salvation
Ellen White writes about salvation in many beautiful ways. But there is one irreducible dynamic and balance to her teaching on salvation: her grasp of the doctrine and practical experience of justification by faith.
While it is true she writes often about sanctification, that truth can never be properly understood or experienced if her teachings about justification are not understood. Even though perfection has been the subject of more controversy than justification, the meaning she gave to justification will have a decisive impact on the final definition given to perfection.
The doctrine of justification by faith is certainly open to distorted interpretations, but the most impressive thing about Ellen White's expositions of this theme is her finely tuned balance. Ellen White taught a powerfully objective doctrine of justification, but one that does not tolerate willful, premeditated, "easy-come-easy-go" attitudes toward sin.
Justification and 1888
One of the best ways to demonstrate the balance and foundational nature of Ellen White's teaching on justification is to com pare her doctrinal development before and after the critical year 1888.
In her early expositions the main concern was to avoid the "cheap grace" implications so common in mid-nineteenth-century teachings on justification; this concern was so strong that it seemed to preclude any positive expression of how justification should play out in Christian experience. So she wrote: "Faith will never save you unless it is justified by works."1
In the 1870s Ellen White began a more concerted effort to express positively what constituted the basics of justification by faith.
Probably the most original contribution to Ellen White's understanding of justification emerged out of her conviction about Christ as the believer's ever-interceding high priest. The following four concepts are closely related to one another, and I have grouped them as "the intercessory quartet." In Ellen White's thought, the major saving effect of the intercessory ministry of Christ is always bound up with His "merits." Thus the concept of Christ's merit underlies every one of the following concepts. From 1870 on, there were a host of statements expounding the theme that only the "merits" of Christ could provide the basis of salvation not works of obedience (including the believer's sanctified successes).
1. Christ's merits make obedience acceptable. This concept was built on the conviction that all the good works of sinners (including those of believers) are polluted with sin and need the objective merits of Jesus to be applied to them to make them acceptable. Such an accounting for penitent believers was deemed to be a constant necessity for the balance of their lives.2
2. Christ's merits make up for "deficiencies." Closely related to the concept that Jesus is interceding constantly for believers with His merits were three expressions of sinners' needs:
a. As mentioned above, even the good things sinners do are polluted by the sinful nature.
b. Their performance always involves "deficiencies" and failures.
c. In spite of these, Christ mercifully intercedes. But He intercedes only for those who have a right attitude toward their sinfulness, deficiencies, and errors.3 The key issue here is not some antiseptically perfect performance, but that genuine faith in the Intercessor begets perfect loyalty.4
3. Fending off Satan's taunting accusations.
Ellen White views the gracious intercession of Christ, with His powerful merits, as placing Christians on vantage ground, enabling the harried believers to admit their unworthiness and empowering them to challenge the taunts of Satan on the basis of their acceptance of His merits through faith. She employs this concept in her exposition of Zechariah 3, where through Christ Joshua is empowered to challenge Satan.5
4. God's willingness to pardon. While the three preceding points stress the proper attitude of believers, the fourth one highlights God's attitude.
At the important 1883 Battle Creek General Conference session, Ellen White tried to encourage "many discouraged ones" with the thought that in spite of "mistakes" that "grieve His Spirit," when sinners "repent, and come to Him with contrite hearts, He will not turn us away." She encouraged the penitent ones not to wait until they had reformed, but urged them "to come to Him just as we are sinful, help less, dependent."6
The post-1888 expressions
The close relationship between law and gospel, faith and works, and the expression that sinners are "saved from sin, not in sin" continued with undiminished force during the critical post-1888 years. It was this era that witnessed Ellen White's most vigorous proclamations and explanations of justification. Even though justification was now receiving its most forceful expression, (1) the core of her basic doctrine was unchanged, though significantly clarified, and (2) the remarkable justification/sanctification balance continued.
The following quartet of ideas growing out of Ellen White's emphasis on Christ's high priestly intercession unfolded in the following manner and formed the heart of her 1888 message: 1. Christ's merits make obedience acceptable. Ellen White not only repeats the expression that the merits of Christ make the efforts of believers to keep His law acceptable to God but also clarifies so as to give an even stronger emphasis on objective justification. She not only spoke of Christ's merits making their efforts acceptable, but explicitly called these merits "His perfection."
Consider this statement: "When He sees men lifting the burdens, trying to carry them in lowliness of mind, with distrust of self and with reliance upon Him" sinners' "defects are covered by the perfection and fullness of the Lord our righteousness." Such humble believers are "looked upon by the Father with pitying, tender love; He regards such as obedient children, and the righteousness of Christ is imputed unto them."7
In the important manuscript 36 of 1890, Ellen White spoke of the "utter worthlessness of creature merit to earn the wages of eternal life." It is not entirely clear from the context if this refers to believers'present efforts, but the strong implication is that this was what she had in mind. She referred to "a fervor of labor and an intense affection, high and noble achievement of intellect, a breadth of understanding, and humblest self-abasement" as needing to be laid upon the fire of Christ's righteousness to cleanse it from its earthly odor before it rises in a cloud of fragrant incense to the great Jehovah.8 It is important to note that not only are the "defects" and "sins" of true believers covered, but even their prayers need to be made "acceptable."9
In expressing these particular realities, Ellen White probably gave her most arresting depiction of objective justification. She pictured sinners as outwardly doing the right things, while their actions are still in desperate need of Christ's precious incense "His own merit." This justification is objective in that its power depends on what Christ does in heaven, not what goes on subjectively in believers. What goes on in believers is good and wholly necessary, but without the objective merits of Christ it is never good enough.
2. Christ's merits make up for believers' deficiencies. We have already seen examples of what I call the safety net expressions: even if believers sin after having been forgiven, they have their prayers for forgiveness perfumed with the "fragrance" of the "incense of His own merits." With the power of Christ's merits being offered for the sinful, deficient, sinning but penitent and loyal children of God, they have their "unavoidable deficiencies" made up for them by the "imputed" righteousness of Christ. 10
Once again in this period Ellen White continued to give expression to both of the closely related themes of deficiencies that need to be made up for, and the forgiveness of sins committed by loyal erring believers that need to be forgiven. But the strength of Mrs. White's expression was increased with the declaration that these deficiencies are "unavoidable," a qualifying term not found during the pre-1888 era. Furthermore, she referred to the merits that humans would seek to produce, not just as merit, but as "creature merit" a more strikingly negative expression.
The expression "unavoidable deficiencies" needs a further comment. Ellen White supplemented this expression with other striking terms and phrases, such as:
"His perfect holiness atones for our shortcomings. When we do our best, He be comes our righteousness." 11 "The sinner's defects are covered by the perfection and fullness of the Lord our righteousness," and they are regarded as "obedient children." 12 "When we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ, we shall have no relish for sin." Such believers "may make mistakes," but they will "hate the sin that caused the sufferings of the Son of God." 13 "If through manifold temptations we are surprised or deceived into sin, He does not turn from us, and leave us to perish. No, no, that is not like our Saviour." 14
The collective force of these expressions certainly envisions a reassuring "safety net" in view of the reality of human failure. It is also an unmistakably powerful expression of objective justification. It should also be noted that the phrase "unavoidable deficiencies" demands special consideration for its contribution to any final definition of what Ellen White meant by "perfection."
3. Fending off Satan's taunting accusations. Ellen White finds in the dramatic dialogue between the harassed sinner and the taunting devil (Zech. 3) a marked application of a justificationist buffering against human failure: "Jesus is perfect. Christ's righteousness is imputed unto them, and He will say, 'Take away the filthy garments from him and clothe him with change of raiment.' Jesus makes up for our unavoidable deficiencies." 15
Note that this use of Zechariah 3 is employed in relation to the thought that Christ's imputed righteousness makes up for "our unavoidable deficiencies." Further more, Ellen White places this dialogue at least twice in the context of Jesus' ministry in the Most Holy Place, thus connecting it intimately with the investigative judgment: "Satan will accuse you of being a great sinner, and you must admit this, but you can say. 'I know I am a sinner, and that is the reason I need a Saviour. Jesus came into the world to save sinners.' 16
Four paragraphs later in the same article she declared: "Jesus stands in the Holy of Holies, now to appear in the presence of God for us. There He ceases not to present His people moment by moment, complete in Himself." 17
This statement certainly presents the work of Christ in the Most Holy Place as having to do with objective justification, a justification that must be constantly ministered to His defective people, who are presented "moment by moment" as "complete in Himself." 18
4. God's willingness to pardon. The expression of God's willingness to pardon continued in much the same fashion as found in the previous era, with no marked development.
The sum total of these four critical expressions regarding the intercessory minis try of Christ is that believers need objective justification all the way through their experience. Justification always runs parallel to, or concurrently with, sanctification.
Believers must be constantly looking to Jesus as the sole, objective source for their merits. There is simply no stage of development in the believers' Christian experience in which they can begin to focus on them selves or on anything they do as being sufficient to present to God.
The sobering practical implications
To ignore these concepts, inherent in the intercession of Christ in heaven, seems to lead inevitably into a tendency to collapse justification into sanctification. Such an unjustified merging steers us inexorably into making the fruits of sanctified obedience a part of the meritorious basis of believers' acceptance with God. The practical danger in such a tendency would be to return believers to the severe spiritual bondage that John Wesley experienced before he came to a clear understanding of the relationship between justification and sanctification. It was only when he came to realize that his best works lacked merit that he found real victory over sin: "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." 19
If it is true that the sanctified fruit of obedience becomes the ground or basis of our acceptance with God, the question then becomes Just how much obedience would it take to make God's children feel assured that they are accepted? The answer to this question becomes especially acute when we recall Ellen White's profound statement: "The closer you come to Jesus, the more faulty you will appear in your own eyes."20 For the truly spiritual saint, assurance based on personal spiritual growth is a constantly receding horizon. How could we ever have the assurance of Christ's acceptance and pardon if that assurance is based partly on what Christ does through or in us to the exclusion of what He is for us?
Is it not more true to the Bible and Ellen White to say that the Christian's faith and confidence are based on the knowledge that Christ accounts us accepted on the basis of what He has done (in His life and atoning death) and is now doing in His high priestly intercession in reckoning us constantly perfect by faith in the accounted merits of His objective righteousness?
If we see anything else, such as our obedience, as the basis of our acceptance with God, it subtly opens the door to self-dependence and self-righteousness. We are always much less righteous than we think we are. If I have to look to what I do for assurance, I am open not only to a gross state of self-deception, but also to a subtle temptation to concentrate on the sinful "me," rather than the sinless Christ.
What about sanctification?
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. Yet she did not get caught in "cheap grace" implications, because of her clear Wesleyan emphasis that true saving faith will also be a faith that has sanctified fruit that vindicates and confirms the justifying root. Her presentations on salvation were 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.
Such an experience is retained only when faithful loyalty to Christ is maintained. We simply will not have Jesus as justifying Saviour without having Him as sanctifying Lord. It is this side of the balance that the justification advocates usually need to reflect and focus on with greater intensity, while the sanctification advocates need to concentrate on the wonder of Christ's merits being accounted ours apart from any behavioral cause.
Summing it up
It seems that the best way to sum up Ellen White's balanced view on faith, merit, and obedience is to say: Believers are justified evidentially by works of obedience. But they can be justified meritoriously only through faith in the perfect life and atoning death 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 ac counted to us, and obedience is the essential evidence of faith's acceptance of Christ's precious merits.
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1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1948), vol. 2, p. 159. All subsequent references
are from the writings of Ellen G. White.
2 In Review and Herald, Oct. 5,1886.
3 In Youth's Instructor, May 14, 1884, and in
Review and Herald, Nov. 22,1884.
4 Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 474,475.
5 Ibid., p. 472.
6 In Review and Herald, Apr. 15 and 22,1884.
7 The Ellen White 1888 Materials (Washington,
D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1987), vol. 1, p. 402;
and In Heavenly Places (Washington, D.C.: Review
and Herald, 1967), p. 23.
8 Faith and Works (Nahsville: Southern Pub.
Assn., 1979), pp. 23,24.
9 In Review and Herald, Mar. 1, 1892; this
theme would subsequently receive its clearest
treatments in In Heavenly Places, p. 79, and
Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and
Herald Pub. Assn.), book 1, p. 344.
10 Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.:
Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), book 3, pp.
11 The Ellen White 1888 Materials (Washing
ton, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1980), vol. 1, p.
242. (Italics supplied.)
12 lbid., p. 402.
13 In Review and Herald, Mar. 18,1890. (Italics
14 Ibid., Sept. 1,1891. (Italics supplied.)
l5 Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 195,196.
16 In Signs of the Times, July 4,1892.
18 The Ellen White 1888 Materials, vol. 2,
19 See The Great Controversy (Mountain View,
Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 256.
20 Steps to Christ (Mountain View, Calif.:
Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 64.