Last Generation Theology, Part 10: Ellen White on Sin and Human Nature

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Last Generation Theology, Part 10: Ellen White on Sin and Human Nature

A prominent Adventist scholar who has studied the topic of salvation in Ellen White is Woodrow W. Whidden. His book Ellen White on Salvation”[1] is a classic chronological study of our prophet’s views on this important theme. Given that such a study already exists, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Therefore, this two-part article will be a summary of some key points in this book. I will briefly describe her conversion story and her understanding of sin, atonement, Christ’s humanity, justification, and sanctification (perfection).

 

Related Article: Ellen White and the Basics of Salvation

White’s Conversion Story (pp. 15-22)

Born to devoted Methodists, Ellen White’s experience of salvation began in Portland, Maine. When she was nine, Ellen was injured by a classmate and thought she would die. This prospect led her to seek God’s forgiveness of sin, and as a result she found a much-treasured peace. However, during William Miller’s lectures on the second coming, Ellen, then twelve, went into a personal crisis, deeply aware of her unworthiness. Without the assurance of acceptance, she was terrified at the thought of being eternally lost.

Her crisis began to resolve at a camp meeting in Buxton two years later when she rebuilt her hope through a deeper understanding of faith. Once again, she found peace in being forgiven. Ellen was baptized upon her return and developed a longing to be sanctified. However, she was soon ushered into another crisis, again after attending William Miller’s lectures. These left her confused and discouraged, feeling unholy, and therefore not ready to meet Jesus. She dwelt often upon the concept of holiness of heart, and “longed above all things to obtain this great blessing” (1T 22).

In Holiness Methodism, which was central to her spiritual formation, there was a concept of a “second blessing,” (also referred to as “entire sanctification,” “full salvation,” “holiness of heart,” “perfect love,” or “Christian perfection”). This “second blessing” implied that after justification and the assurance of forgiveness, the Christian would experience sanctification, which “was to come instantaneously and was to be confirmed by the Spirit’s clear witness that the genuine article had been granted.” (17) White’s period of emotional anticipations and doctrinal confusion came to an end when she experienced this “second blessing” as she answered God’s call to pray publicly. She once again found peace and happiness, and from that time on had no other personal crises concerning her salvation for the rest of her life.

In the first decade of her ministry, White encountered several cases of fanatical claims to sinlessness and holiness. These were perversions of the instantaneous sanctification taught in Methodism and the fanatics were eventually exposed as immoral. White denounced this extremism, and particularly “the expectation that believers should claim an instantaneous experience and the more emotional emphasis that seemed to be much in vogue at the time.” (22)

Two aspects are notable in the wake of her experience with Holiness Methodism:

  1. Although in a modified form, White retained throughout her ministry a strong emphasis on sanctification and perfection.
  2. She consistently taught that sanctification is the work of a lifetime, as opposed to the fanatical understanding of perfection as instantaneous. “Perfection was not to be claimed as some sinless accomplishment, but rather sought as a way of life that would see believers grow in grace until they received the finishing touch of sinlessness at glorification.” (22)

 

Summarizing the effect of her upbringing upon her ministry, Whidden writes:

 

“[White] never seriously doubted her acceptance with God after she achieved “the blessing” in 1842. While there was a move toward a more Lutheran understanding of justification, this move always carried with it the emphasis on perfection typical of her background in both fervent Holiness Methodism and Millerism.” (32)

White’s View on Salvation Before 1888 (pp. 23-32)

During the decade preceding the 1888 Conference in Minneapolis, White consistently demonstrated a balance between justification and sanctification, with a notable growing focus on justification. As before, her views on Holiness fanaticism’s “emphasis on sinless perfection were negative” (24). This is well exemplified in her letter concerning “Brother B”, whom “Satan is pushing . . . to cause disaffection in the Indiana Conference under the pious guise of Christian holiness.” (Review, June 6, 1878).

James and Ellen White condemned the experience of some who considered themselves sanctified and deemed to “have even reached the almost hopeless position that they cannot sin” and “have no further use for the Lord’s Prayer, which teaches us to pray that our sins may be forgiven.” (Review, June 6, 1878).  They also noted the minimizing of Scripture by Holiness people, since they claimed the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  In White’s view, a person who claims he cannot sin is a true Laodicean.

While White rebuked the Holiness fanatics’ perfectionism, she equally condemned the minimizing of the law and the preaching of cheap grace. The law does not in itself have the power to save sinners, but obedience to it is a mark of a saved Christian. She wrote:

“What is the sinner to be converted from? The transgression of God’s law to obedience of it. But if he is told that he cannot keep the law of God . . . to what is he then converted—from transgression of the law to a continuance in that transgression? This is absurd.” (ST, July 18, 1878).

 

For her, “salvation by obedience to the law is impossible, but salvation without obedience is also just as impossible. She declared that we are justified only by faith in the ‘merits’ of Christ, but such faith will never excuse transgression.” (25) Thus, White kept a balance between law and grace, pointing those burdened by sin to Christ’s mercy, and those inclined to neglect the law to its importance and to Christ’s enabling.

White did not write much on justification until the 1883 General Conference in Battle Creek. There she centered her sermons on forgiveness and the Lutheran concept of justification by faith, likely resulting from her research for what would become, in 1888, The Great Controversy. Sinners can only be saved by faith in Christ, not by obedience to the law. Her focus was probably due to the rising legalism in the Adventist church, which was shadowing the assurance of salvation through faith in Christ.

Ellen White was also influenced by her husband’s pre-death emphasis on divine love and faith, as well as his expressed impression that “we have a testimony for our people at this time, relative to the exalted character of Christ, and His willingness and power to save.” (RH, Feb. 8, 1881) Soon after his passing she confessed to her son the mistake of neglecting to write “on subjects the people need that we have had light upon and can present before them, which others do not have” (letter 17, 1881, in 10 MR 38, 39). She also recalled publicly a vow taken by her husband’s deathbed to fulfill her duty of bringing “an element in[to] this work that we have not had yet” (MS 9, 1890, In 1 SAT 124) – namely, justification by faith.

 

Law and Grace (pp. 35-39)

The writing that sums up well White’s view on salvation and the proper relationships between law and grace is the chapter “It Is Finished” in The Desire of Ages. This central theme of her theology was presented on the backdrop of the great controversy metanarrative. In short, Satan laid out three charges against God’s character and leadership:

  1. God is arbitrary and unfair to require obedience to a law that cannot be kept.
  2. To be just, God must punish sinners (and justice ousts mercy, so God cannot forgive).
  3. God’s mercy shown at the cross ousted justice, and therefore the law has been annulled.

The answer to these charges is the Christ-centered gospel story – “the revelation of the character of God, who is both just and merciful, whose moral demands are absolutely essential to the welfare of His created beings, and whose mercy is unbounded to penitent souls.” (36) Both justice and mercy show God’s love, and both are essential to a correct understanding of God’s character.

 

Sin and Human Nature (pp. 41-46)

White defined sin as transgression of God’s will and a state of depravity. While she did not adopt the Calvinist view of total depravity, she spoke of sinful, inherited “propensities,” “inclinations,” “tendencies,” and of the human “bent” towards sin. (5BC 1128; Ed 29; IHP 195).

“We must remember that our hearts are naturally depraved and we are unable of ourselves to pursue a right course.” (IHP 163).

“The inheritance of children is that of sin. . .   As related to the first Adam, men receive from him nothing but guilt and the sentence of death.” (CG 475).

“It is inevitable that children should suffer from the consequences of parental wrongdoing, but they are not punished for the parents’ guilt, except as they participate in their sins. It is usually the case, however, that children walk in the steps of their parents.” (PP 306).

“As a result of Adam’s disobedience every human being is a transgressor of the law, sold under sin.” (IHP 146). 44

“The religious services, the prayers, the praise, the penitent confession of sin … ascend from true believers . . . to the heavenly sanctuary, but passing through the corrupt channels of humanity …  they are so defiled that unless purified by blood, they can never be of value with God.” (1SM 344). 44

 

Since our depravity is not total in such a way as to preclude a response to God’s prevenient grace, humans can choose to accept Christ’s imputed and imparted righteousness. Thus, she was not a determinist like Calvin, but an Arminian. Yet she clearly highlighted the pervasiveness of sin, so that “we need God’s convicting, calling, converting, justifying, and empowering grace at every advancing step in our experience of salvation…. Redemption is Christ-centered in all its aspects of calling, conviction, forgiveness, empowerment for obedience (and service) and glorification. (46) In her view, humans will retain the sinful nature until glorification, therefore at no point in earth’s history can any human being achieve a meritorious level of sanctification. (ST, Mar. 23, 1888).

 

Atonement (pp. 47-55)

Some early Adventist writes viewed atonement as referring only to God’s intercessory ministry (Froom 159-175). While not denying this, White was clear that atonement included Christ’s death. Her view of atonement is a blended web of two prominent theories: the satisfaction theory/penal substitution theory, and the moral-influence theory. On one hand, Jesus’s sacrifice was “a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6) which satisfies God’s wrath, though it is only effective for believers, for whom He intercedes in the Heavenly Sanctuary. On the other hand, His death also exercises a moral influence that draws humans to God.

Her memorable depiction of Christ’s intercession as an immortalization of Calvary shows the importance she gave this ministry, which she considered a part of atonement. (MS 50, 1900) As our High Priest, Jesus applies the benefits of His substitutionary death for sinners across history. “Therefore, atonement not only involved making provision for the forgiveness of sins, but also application of these gracious provisions to repentant sinners.” (48) In a sense, atonement is a continuous experience rather than a point in time.

The satisfactory and substitutionary sacrifice of Christ became the foundation of her understanding of justification by faith, “a justification that condemns sin, forgives the sinner, and vindicates God’s law as a just expression of His character and dealings with sin. …Thus Christ’s death became the basis of a cosmic vindication of God. This balancing of justice and mercy is revealed in all that God does to bring about the reconciliation of sinners in a truly profound atonement.” (54)

 

The Nature of Christ (pp. 58-65)

Concerning the nature of Christ, White has many statements that point to a complex pre-Fall, sinless, and unique nature, as well as post-Fall, identifying with sinful nature. She was Trinitarian from early on and believed in Jesus’ full deity. Regarding the human nature of Christ, her often-quoted view is this:

 

“Christ reaches us where we are. He took our nature and overcame, that we through taking His nature might overcome. Made ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh,’ He lived a sinless life.” (DA 311, 312).

 

However, it is important to ask: in what way is Christ’s nature like our sinful human nature? In our church there have been two ways of interpreting her views: some see her as emphasizing what is similar between Christ and our fallen nature, while others see her as dwelling on what is different between Christ and our fallen nature (His sinlessness and uniqueness). What is clear is that by “sinful nature” (QOD 657) she only meant that Christ was subject to the physical deterioration of the human race. As Whidden writes,

 

“He was affected by sin but not infected with it.” (62)

 

Yet He was not “altogether human, such an one as ourselves; for it cannot be” (5BC 1129). Christ was unlike us in that He had no sin. This is why He alone could atone for the human race.

It is important to note here that Christ did not need to be just like us in every respect, because “the basis of His temptations was not a corrupt nature or sordid history of sin, but the possibility of using His own inherent full deity to resist the wiles of the devil.” (63) At its core, His temptations and ours are the same in the fact that both rest on self-reliance, but in a sense, they are different because Christ is different from us.

 

Related Article: Ellen White’s Final Plea

 

The issues with grasping White’s views usually arise when people elevate one aspect and minimize the other. However, she consistently maintained a balanced view of Christ’s unique nature, regarding both His divinity and His humanity as essential to His ministry of salvation. When speaking to people struggling with sin, she emphasized Christ’s identifying with us and His victory. When speaking about Christ’s sinless and substitutionary sacrifice, she underlined His uniqueness. Whidden concludes:

“When it came to Christ as a fully sinless, sacrificial substitute, she was ‘pre-Fall,’ but when she spoke of His ability to sustain in times of temptation, she stressed His identity and spoke largely in ‘post-Fall’ terms. (64)

The most important thing is that Christ was sufficiently unlike us to provide a perfect, acceptable sacrifice, and sufficiently like us to identify with our struggles and help us in our own journey.

Read the rest of Adelina’s series on Last Generation Theology

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Notes.

[1] Woodrow W. Whidden II., Ellen White on Salvation: A Chronological Study (Silver Springs, MD:  Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1995).

 

 

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Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.