No, You Can’t

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No, You Can’t

I’ve been reading through Steps to Christ again (for the hundredth time) lately, and last week I noticed a word that kept popping up repeatedly. Intrigued by the thought, I decided to search how many times the word was used in the small book and the context in which it was used. What I discovered was fascinating. And critical.

The word is “cannot,” and Ellen White uses it over and over and over again. It’s as though she is desperately seeking to help us understand something. So many times we think we can, but Ellen White wants us to understand that we cannot.

What is it that she wants us to understand we cannot do? Check these out (and look them up for yourself so you can see the full context; the page numbers are in the parentheses).

According to Ellen White, we cannot:

  • Change our hearts (18)
  • Purify the springs of life (18)
  • Control our thoughts, impulses, affections (47)
  • Change our hearts (47)
  • Give to God the heart’s affections (47)
  • Atone for our past sins (51)
  • Change our hearts (51)
  • Make ourselves holy (51)
  • Resist evil (52)
  • Originate or produce love (59)
  • Make ourselves righteous (62)
  • Perfectly obey the holy law (62)
  • Become partakers of the life which Christ came to give (67)
  • Bear fruit of ourselves (68)

It’s like a broken record – especially the idea that we cannot “change our hearts,” which she says three times!

Do we get it (and this doesn’t even take into account other phrases she uses that are of a kindred nature, like “It is impossible for us, of ourselves, to escape from the pit of sin in which we are sunken” [p. 18])? Do we understand that we are completely powerless – in and of ourselves – to do anything good? That we can’t save ourselves, fix ourselves, change ourselves, even give God our affections?

This tells me, among other things, that simply telling people what to do is not enough – because simply telling them what to do does not give them the ability and moral strength to accomplish it. They will simply become better informed sinners.

What we thus need is someone else to do it for us. We need someone to obey for us, to make us holy, to produce love in our hearts. Indeed, we need someone else to change our hearts – since we cannot do any of these things ourselves.

That someone is, of course, Jesus.

Such a thought is beautifully and succinctly explained in two places (among many others) – one of them in Steps to Christ, and another from another source. First, from the other source. Notice how Ellen White explains justification by faith:

What is justification by faith? It is the work of God in laying the glory of man in the dust, and doing for man that which it is not in his power to do for himself. When men see their own nothingness, they are prepared to be clothed with the righteousness of Christ. (Manuscript Releases, vol. 20, p. 117)

Secondly, this beautiful paragraph from Steps to Christ:

When, as erring, sinful beings, we come to Christ and become partakers of His pardoning grace, love springs up in the heart. Every burden is light, for the yoke that Christ imposes is easy. Duty becomes a delight, and sacrifice a pleasure. The path that before seemed shrouded in darkness, becomes bright with beams from the Sun of Righteousness. (p. 59)

This second quote is just one of many from that classic book that explains it like this. The point of it all is that when we recognize our inability and cling to Christ, receiving His pardoning grace, it changes our filthy hearts, and those things we once found impossible to do in our own strength become very possible by the grace of God.

But this can only happen when we first recognize what we cannot do – indeed, when we first recognize the utter impossibility of doing any of these things of ourselves.


This article is reprinted with permission from the author’s original blog post

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About the author


Shawn Brace pastors two churches in Maine. He has written two books, and he blogs about his favorite subject, "Christ Our Righteousness," at