In the previous two articles from this series [Part 10: EGW on Sin and Human Nature] [Part 11: EGW on Justification and Sanctification], we looked at Ellen White’s view on salvation, zooming into her understanding of justification and sanctification/perfection. In this article, we will get an even closer look at her view of perfection, specifically as the concept relates to last-day events and the last generation alive on earth when Jesus returns. This article is based on pages 131-156 from Woodrow Whidden’s Ellen White on Salvation,[i] as well as some personal study on the concept of perfection in Ellen White’s writings.
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Perfection During the Time of Trouble
As Adventists, we believe that during the investigative judgment the destinies of all persons will be decided based on their individual choices. Once the investigative judgment has ended and there is no turning point in salvation, the intercessory ministry of Jesus is no longer needed, and therefore will also have closed. The closing of this judgment and of the intercessory ministry of Jesus ushers us into a time of “Jacob’s trouble.” A passage by White describes this period of time thus:
“Those who are living upon the earth when the intercession of Christ shall cease in the sanctuary above are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator. Their robes must be spotless, their characters must be purified from sin by the blood of sprinkling. Through the grace of God and their own diligent effort they must be conquerors in the battle with evil. While the investigative judgment is going forward in heaven, while the sins of penitent believers are being removed from the sanctuary, there is to be a special work of purification, of putting away of sin, among God’s people upon earth. (GC 425.1, emphases mine)
What does she mean by “their characters must be purified from sin by the blood of sprinkling” and “there is to be a special work of purification, of putting away of sin”? Is she suggesting that the last generation needs to achieve sinlessness “while the investigative judgment is going forward”? If yes, then Christ’s death is no longer needed for them, for their own sinlessness could acquit them before God. But she clearly states that the purification takes place through Jesus’ blood (by the blood of sprinkling), which is in line with the overall Biblical teaching that no person can be saved but through Christ’s merits and His perfect, substitutionary sacrifice. Moreover, this interpretation does not make sense, since, once again, salvation cannot be the purpose of purification and of standing before God without a mediator after the destinies have been irreversibly sealed (see GC 613-615; 2T 191).
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What, then, is the purpose of this character perfection and purification White calls us to, and how does she understand the concept of perfection given human finitude and sinfulness?
Purpose of Perfection
Last Generation Theology suggests that a third phase of atonement is needed to fully vindicate God before the universe. In their view, the sealed 144,000, with help from God, must achieve sinless character perfection and demonstrate before the universe that humans can keep the moral law, thus justifying God’s request of obedience. Dennis Priebe writes:
“I believe that the primary reason for a short delay before Christ’s coming during which there is no Mediator is to dramatize before the watching universe the reality of God’s complete power over sin in the lives of those whose wills are totally and forever united to His own. . . The close of probation will play an important part in the final demonstration that God is making before His universe: that, indeed, it is possible for fallen man to obey God’s law, which is righteous and good and holy.”[ii]
In other words, God’s purpose for this time after the closing of probation is to show that the sealed saints can obey Him perfectly and not commit sin, thus vindicating the fairness of His character in requiring obedience to the moral law. According to Priebe, as long as the forgiving grace is available, Satan has an advantage over God by holding a stronger influence over people that God.
“My influence over them, says Satan, is greater than your grace and your power over them. All you can do is keep on forgiving their continuing sinning. As long as forgiveness is all your atonement plan can offer, my charge stands. You haven’t defeated me yet.”[iii]
Therefore, God needs to withdraw the forgiving grace for a period of time in order to demonstrate that humans can reflect the image of God fully. This will be accomplished through the 144, 000, and “through them Satan will be forever defeated.” If even one of these commits one sin, clarified Priebe, God loses the great controversy. In the LGT view, the last generation’s character perfection, here synonymous with sinlessness, is vital for God to win.
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Whidden, however, notes that in White’s writings the temptation of the saints during the time of trouble is not to sin, but to distrust God’s mercy and forgiveness (see OHC 321, GC 616-623):
“They fear that every sin has not been repented of, and that through some fault in themselves they will fail to realize the fulfillment of the Saviour’s promise: ‘I will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world’ (Rev. 3:10). If they could have the assurance of pardon they would not shrink from torture or death.” (GC. 619).
“They afflict their souls before God, pointing to their past repentance of their many sins, and pleading the Saviour’s promise. . . Their faith does not fail because their prayers are not immediately answered.” (GC. 619, 620).
“If the people of God had unconfessed sins to appear before them while tortured with fear and anguish, they would be overwhelmed; despair would cut off their faith, and they could not have confidence to plead with God for deliverance. But while they have a deep sense of their unworthiness, they have no concealed wrongs to reveal” (GC. 620, emphases mine).
During the time of trouble, the sealed saints, unconscious of their salvation and sealing, are heavily persecuted from the outside and caught in an inner-struggle concerning the forgiveness of their sins. (EW 279ff.; GC 613, 614, GC 629-631). In this time of despair, they need to rely on their experience with God up to that point and on faith in Christ. Since Christ has completed the intercessory ministry, no sin can be atoned for during this time. Whidden explains that the lack of sin means that the sealed
“are no longer cherishing sin or committing overt sins—sins that are deliberately or willfully performed. … Jesus is still making up for their ‘unavoidable deficiencies,’ ‘defects,’ ‘shortcomings,’ ‘mistakes,’ and ‘errors,’ but He is no longer mediating for the unsealed—the rebellious, willful, high-handed, sin-excusing sinners. (136, emphases mine).[iv]
According to White herself, the time of trouble
“is designed to lead the people of God to renounce Satan and his temptations. . . . The last conflict will reveal Satan to them in his true character, that of a cruel tyrant, and it will do for them what nothing else could do, uproot him entirely from their affections.” (Ellen WRH, Aug. 12, 1884; OHC 321).
In her view, Christ’s obedience has settled before the universe the justice of God in expecting it, and the appropriation of His merits—the only way of salvation—has taken place before the time of trouble. Thus, during this time God continues to be vindicated before the universe through His own actions, as Satan continues to reveal his true character through his. As Whidden notes,
“the only explicit reason Ellen White gave for God’s allowance of the time of trouble was consistent with her entire explanation for suffering (PP 68, 69, 78, 79; DA 19). God has permitted Satan to manifest the outworking of his principles since his fall, but during the time of trouble the sealed saints and the universe are given one last, full manifestation of evil (especially the death decree against the faithful saints) to demonstrate once and for all the horrible results of sin. (PK 148).” (139)
As a last argument against the LGT view, White repeatedly indicates that perfect obedience is required before the beginning of the time of trouble (GC, 425, 613, 623; ER, 71; Review and Herald, Apr. 12, 1870, Aug. 12, 1884; The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 3, 40, 41; Testimonies, vol. 4, 429; vol. 5, 220, 466; Signs, Dec. 29, 1887; The Upward Look, 192). Indeed, perfect obedience has been God’s call for humans living at any point in earth history. Not only is perfect obedience God’s constant desire for all generations, but it is also an ever-receding horizon, as we learned in a previous article. Let’s return to this concept once again, with a leap back into the pre-fall Eden.
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Perfection and Endless Growth
Before we delve again into the ongoing nature of character perfection, we need to clarify the fact that, in White’s view, we cannot speak of sinlessness before glorification.
“we cannot say, ‘I am sinless,’ till this vile body is changed and fashioned like unto His glorious body. “(ST, Mar. 23, 1888, in 3SM 355).
Thus, for her character perfection does not mean sinlessness. Our sinful human nature will only be eradicated at Christ’s second coming, and before that we are considered sinful still. She also mentions a need of purification that takes place during Jacob’s trouble in the following terms:
“God’s love for His children during the period of their severest trial is as strong and tender as in the days of their sunniest prosperity; but it is needful for them to be placed in the furnace of fire; their earthliness must be consumed, that the image of Christ may be perfectly reflected.” (GC 621).
In White’s understanding, we are not sinless until glorification, and our earthliness is still being consumed during the time of trouble. The question I will raise is: will we reflect Christ’s character fully at glorification? Does Christ’s return and our transformation then make us perfect in character as we return to the sinless state of Eden? We may be tempted to answer yes, but White’s understanding of perfection and character growth before the Fall would question this view. Describing the perfection of God’s creation, she writes:
“In six days the great work of creation had been accomplished. […] God looked with satisfaction upon the work of His hands. All was perfect, worthy of its divine Author, and He rested, not as one weary, but as well pleased with the fruits of His wisdom and goodness and the manifestations of His glory…. Everything that God had made was the perfection of beauty, and nothing seemed wanting that could contribute to the happiness of the holy pair; yet the Creator gave them still another token of His love, by preparing a garden especially for their home.”[v][empahsis added]
“God placed man under law, as an indispensable condition of his very existence. He was a subject of the divine government, and there can be no government without law. God might have created man without the power to transgress His law; He might have withheld the hand of Adam from touching the forbidden fruit; but in that case man would have been, not a free moral agent, but a mere automaton. Without freedom of choice, his obedience would not have been voluntary, but forced. There could have been no development of character. Such a course would have been contrary to God’s plan in dealing with the inhabitants of other worlds. It would have been unworthy of man as an intelligent being, and would have sustained Satan’s charge of God’s arbitrary rule.”[vi]
“To the dwellers in Eden was committed the care of the garden, “to dress it and to keep it.” Their occupation was not wearisome, but pleasant and invigorating. God appointed labor as a blessing to man, to occupy his mind, to strengthen his body, and to develop his faculties. … So long as they remained loyal to the divine law, their capacity to know, to enjoy, and to love would continually increase. They would be constantly gaining new treasures of knowledge, discovering fresh springs of happiness, and obtaining clearer and yet clearer conceptions of the immeasurable, unfailing love of God.”[vii]
Interestingly, God’s sinless and perfect creatures were meant to develop and grow physically, mentally, relationally/emotionally, and even morally—she speaks of character development as God’s purpose for perfect, sinless human beings! Far from being an abstract and static place, as the Greeks would have us think, perfection, in God’s view, involves holistic growth—change, development, movement—all in the context of relationship!
“Man was not made to dwell in solitude; he was to be a social being. Without companionship the beautiful scenes and delightful employments of Eden would have failed to yield perfect happiness. Even communion with angels could not have satisfied his desire for sympathy and companionship. There was none of the same nature to love and to be loved.”[viii]
Perfection, therefore, is not so much a place to reach (for it is an ever-receding horizon), as it is a way of being that will always accompany us. As White implies and as Whidden has well noted,
“Perfection will continue to manifest itself as constant growth into the likeness of Christ’s character through all eternity [and] 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.” (155)
Given all this, it is safe to conclude that the purpose for the time of trouble is not the vindication of God before the universe through a perfect group of people, as LGT proponents claims, but the ongoing demonstration of God’s character and Satan’s character until God, in His wisdom, has determined that it is time for His return and reunited us with Godself.
[i] Woodrow W. Whidden II., Ellen White on Salvation: A Chronological Study (Silver Springs, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1995).
[ii] Priebe, Dennis E. Face to Face With the Real Gospel (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press,
1985), 86, cited in Whidden, 139-140. See also a summary of Norman McNulty’s and Dennis Priebe’s presentations here (link to https://thecompassmagazine.com/news/march-22-23-2019-gods-character-and-the-final-generation-conference)
[iii] Dennis Priebe, “God at Risk,” https://thecompassmagazine.com/news/march-22-23-2019-gods-character-and-the-final-generation-conference.
[iv] See HS 155, ST, July 28, 1887, ST Dec. 29, 1887, Manuscript 26 in 1888 Materials 161, 162, GC 623, GC. 425.