Objections and questions of many kinds have arisen through the years in the ongoing Adventist controversy over salvation, perfection, and the cluster of issues attendant to Last Generation Theology. A number of these objections we have addressed already in this series. What follows in the present article is an effort to consider and address other significant objections and questions relative to these issues.
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The present writer is well aware that the following are but a few of the questions many have raised, or may wish to raise, regarding the subjects addressed in this series. (I have prepared a book manuscript which addresses 42 of these objections, which will hopefully be published in the coming months.) My hope and prayer is that what follows will address as many of the major concerns of our readers which have yet to be considered in the articles of this series thus far published.
Question No. 1: If babies are not sinners at birth, do they need a Savior?
Yes. This is because, as this series has shown, Biblical salvation includes both forgiving and transformative righteousness (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14; II Thess. 2:13; Titus 3:5). Remember that according to the Bible, God’s will for us is to claim His power not to sin (I John 2:1). This same verse goes on to say, “And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Again we note how forgiveness is available if we sin, not when.
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Ellen White, like the Bible, is clear that “sin is not a necessity” and that “there is no excuse for sinning.” But even those who haven’t yet sinned, or who have ceased from sinning, can only do this through heaven’s saving power. Both forgiveness and empowerment comprise Biblical salvation. Newborn children don’t yet need forgiveness, but they do need the Spirit’s empowerment to keep from falling. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from his birth (Luke 1:15). Commenting on John’s experience, Ellen White says:
Even the babe in its mother’s arms may dwell as under the shadow of the Almighty through the faith of the praying mother. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from his birth. If we will be in communion with God, we too may expect the divine Spirit to mold our little ones, even from their earliest moments.
The same holds true for the saints living after the close of probation. They will stand without a Mediator—that is, without the continuous availability of forgiveness. But this doesn’t mean they will stand without a Savior. The sanctified resistance of evil made possible by the Spirit is very much a part of salvation (II Thess. 2:13). Again, we note Ellen White’s declaration that “our sanctification is the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Because even the perfectly sanctified Christian needs God’s power to keep from falling so long as this life lasts, such persons are still in need of a Savior even though they have fully ceased from sin.
Question No. 2: Doesn’t the story of Joshua and the Angel (Zech. 3:1-5), as recounted in the writings of Ellen White, teach that the end-time saints are still sinning?
No. The writings of Ellen White are clear that the sins described in the lives of God’s people during this narrative are past, not present.
Let’s review this story as it unfolds in the Bible:
And He showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the Angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him. And the Lord said unto Satan, The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan; even the Lord that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee: is this not a brand plucked out of the fire? Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and stood before the angel. And He answered and spake unto those that stood before him, saying, Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him He said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment. And I said, Let them set a fair mitre upon his head. So they set a fair mitre upon his head, and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord stood by (Zech. 3:1-5).
The writings of Ellen White apply this experience from the post-exilic history of Israel to the antitypical experience of God’s saints in the final moments of the end-time investigative judgment, just before the close of probation. The Angel of the Lord before whom Joshua stands is identified by Ellen White as Jesus Christ, who mediates for His people before His Father’s throne.
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The claim of those who believe this narrative proves that the people of God at the very end of probation will still at times fall into sin is based on such statements as the following from Ellen White’s recounting of this story and commentary concerning it. But the reader will carefully notice that every reference to the sins of God’s people in the following passages are in the past tense. Note the phrases in italics, supplied by the present writer:
‘Are these,’ he [Satan] asks, ‘the people who are to take my place in heaven, and the place of the angels who united with me? . . . Look at the sins which have marked their lives. Behold their selfishness, their malice, their hatred toward one another.’ The people of God have been in many respects very faulty. Satan has an accurate knowledge of the sins which he has tempted them to commit.
Elsewhere we read:
Now he [Satan] points to the record of their lives, to the defects of character, the unlikeness to Christ, which has dishonored their Redeemer, to all the sins which he has tempted them to commit.
Joshua’s victory and that of his people are described as follows:
Israel was clothed in ‘change of raiment,’—the righteousness of Christ imputed to them. The mitre placed upon Joshua’s head was such as was worn by the priests, and bore the inscription, ‘Holiness to the Lord,’ signifying that notwithstanding his former transgressions, he was now qualified to minister before God in His sanctuary.
In other words, Ellen White is clear in the above statements that Satan’s accusations, while correct with regard to the past, are correct no longer. She goes on to say, in this same context:
But while the followers of Christ have sinned, they have not given themselves to the control of evil. They have put away their sins, and have sought the Lord in humility and contrition, and the Divine Advocate pleads in their behalf.
Another recounting of this story by Ellen White makes it plain that the taking away of the filthy garments of God’s people is conditional on their obedience to the requirements of God:
The Lord does not deny the charge of Joshua’s unworthiness, but He demonstrates that He has bought him with a price. He clothes him with His garments of righteousness, not putting these garments over the filthy garments of disobedience and transgression, but saying first, ‘Take away the filthy garments from him.’ Then He said to Joshua, ‘Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment.” “Let them set a fair miter upon his head. So they set a fair miter upon his head,’ and on this miter was written, ‘Holiness to the Lord.’
This change is made on condition of obedience. ‘Thus saith the Lord of hosts, If thou wilt walk in My ways, and if thou wilt keep My charge, then thou shalt also judge My house, and shalt also keep My courts, and I will give thee places to walk among these that stand by.’
When God’s people repent of their sin in departing from plain Bible truth, they will bring forth fruit meet for repentance. Jesus will hear their prayers. They will work the works of righteousness. If those who have departed from the Lord will take warning, if they will change their course of action, they will be received into favor, and their transgressions will be pardoned.
Not only is this pardon of sin promised solely on condition of obedience and a turning away from sin; it is equally clear in this statement that the garments of Christ’s righteousness are not placed over the filthy garments of sin, but rather, in place of them. The filthy garments are removed; the sins they represent are in the past. No forensic covering for continuous, presumably unavoidable disobedience is described here.
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An even stronger statement, also commenting on the story of Joshua and the Angel, makes it clear that those who haven’t stopped sinning are not a part of the group from whom the filthy garments are removed:
‘And He showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him. And the Lord said unto Satan, The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan, even the Lord that hast chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee; is not this a brand plucked out of the fire? Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments and stood before the angel’ (Zech. 3:1-3). Joshua here represents the people of God; and Satan pointing to their filthy garments claims them as his property over which he has a right to exercise his cruel power. But these very ones have improved the hours of probation to confess their sins with contrition of soul and put them away, and Jesus has written pardon against their names.
Those who have not ceased to sin and who have not repented and sought pardon for their transgressions are not represented in this company.
In other words, Ellen White is unmistakably clear that those represented by Joshua in this narrative, whose filthy garments are removed and replaced with a change of raiment, are no longer committing sin.
Some will point our attention to the following statement, also in the context of the story of Joshua and the Angel, which speaks of Jesus making up for the “unavoidable deficiencies” of His people:
Jesus is perfect. Christ’s righteousness is imputed unto them [His people], 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. When Christians are faithful to each other, and loyal to the Captain of the Lord’s host, never betraying trusts into the enemy’s hands, they will be transformed into Christ’s character.
But we have seen already, in our review of Ellen White’s statements relative to this story, that the sins of God’s people are in the past. They are not unavoidable because our sinful natures make them inevitable even for the sanctified Christian, but rather, because the past cannot be changed. The sinful past of God’s saints can only be covered by the forgiving righteousness of Jesus. But the taking away of the record of sin which these filthy garments represent is only possible because God’s people, through God’s power, have confessed, forsaken, and conquered these transgressions.
Some will direct our attention to a later version of the story of Joshua and the Angel in Ellen White’s writings, which presumably places the imperfections of God’s people in the present tense. Here is the statement in question:
He who has been most abused by their ingratitude, who knows their sin and also their penitence, declares, ‘The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan. I gave My life for these souls. They are graven upon the palms of My hands. They may have imperfections of character; they may have failed in their endeavors; but they have repented, and I have forgiven and accepted them.’
Notice once again, despite the claims of certain ones, that the sins of God’s people described in this statement are still depicted as in the past. Notice how the statement says Jesus “has been” abused by their ingratitude, that “they may have failed” in their endeavors. We don’t read of Jesus still being abused by the saints’ ingratitude, nor do we read of continued failings on their part. As with what we’ve found in the Ellen White statements considered earlier, the sins of God’s people here described refer to the record of their lives, not their continuing experience.
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In light of the language we have found in this statement, in addition to numerous other passages in which Ellen White declares the saints approaching probation’s end to be fully free from sin through heaven’s power, we are constrained to understand the above statement that the saints “may have imperfections of character” to refer to the record of their past. The consistent testimony of Biblical and Spirit of Prophecy teachings regarding the Last Generation saints is that sin will be fully expunged from their lives in advance of probation’s close. Isolated statements which on the surface may appear to teach otherwise must be read in both their immediate context and in light of the inspired consensus.
Again, we recall those Bible passages which affirm the ability of those connected with God’s power to live lives free from sin:
Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord. Blessed are they that keep His testimonies, and that seek Him with the whole heart. They also do no iniquity; they walk in His ways. . . . Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee (Psalm 119:1-3,11).
Awake to righteousness, and sin not (I Cor. 15:34).
Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (II Cor. 7:1).
Elsewhere in Scripture, the same imperative is stated, in particular with regard to those awaiting Jesus’ second coming:
The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies, neither shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth; for they shall feed and lie down, and none shall make them afraid (Zeph. 3:13).
Wherefore, brethren, seeking that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye be found of Him in peace, without spot, and blameless (II Peter 3:14).
Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
And every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure (I John 3:2-3).
To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me in My throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with My Father in His throne (Rev. 3:21).
And in their (the saints’) mouth was found no guile, for they are without fault before the throne of God (Rev. 14:5).
Ellen White echoes these Biblical teachings when she makes the following exhortations regarding the sinless obedience God expects of the final generation of Christians:
Those who receive the seal of the living God and are protected in the time of trouble must reflect the image of Jesus fully. . . .
I saw that none could share the “refreshing” (latter rain” unless they obtain the victory over every besetment, over pride, selfishness, love of the world, and over every wrong word and action.
Not one of us will ever receive the seal of God while our characters have one spot or stain upon them. It is left with us to remedy the defects in our characters, to cleanse the soul temple of every defilement. Then the latter rain will fall upon us, as the early rain fell upon the disciples upon the day of Pentecost.
The church, being endowed with the righteousness of Christ, is His depository, in which the wealth of His mercy, His love, His grace, is to appear in full and final display. . . . The gift of His Holy Spirit, rich, full, and abundant, is to be to His church as an encompassing wall of fire, which the powers of hell shall not prevail against. In their untainted purity and spotless perfection, Christ looks upon His people as the reward of all His suffering, His humiliation, and His love, and the supplement of His glory.
The Saviour is wounded afresh and put to open shame when His people pay no heed to His word. He came to this world and lived a sinless life, that in His power His people might also live lives of sinlessness. He desires them by practicing the principles of truth to show to the world that God’s grace has power to sanctify the heart.
In the day of judgment the course of the man who has retained the frailty and imperfection of humanity will not be vindicated. For him there will be no place in heaven. He could not enjoy the perfection of the saints in light. He who has not sufficient faith in Christ to believe that He can keep him from sinning, has not the faith that will give him an entrance into the kingdom of God.
When He comes, He is not to cleanse us of our sins, to remove from us the defects in our characters, or to cure us of the infirmities of our tempers and dispositions. If wrought for us at all, this work will be accomplished before that time. When the Lord comes, those who are holy will be holy still. . . . The Refiner does not then sit to pursue His refining process and remove their sins and their corruption. This is all to be done in these hours of probation.
Question No. 3: Doesn’t the Bible say, “There is none righteous; no, not one” (Rom. 3:10)?
That’s what it says, but in context, this is not a reference to the possibilities available to the sanctified Christian. The first three chapters of Romans demonstrate how everyone—Jews and Gentiles alike—stand guilty before God and thus in need of Christ’s righteousness. The verse just prior to Romans 3:10 makes this obvious:
What, then, are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin (verse 9).
The issue in this context is not what converted Christians, who are partaking of Christ’s righteousness through both justification and sanctification, are capable of becoming. Paul is simply saying that “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23), and thus stand in need of what Christ can do for them. He is certainly not saying that even with the power of Christ in the Christian’s life, a certain degree of sin remains inevitable.
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Later in this same epistle, Paul assures his readers that “sin shall not have dominion over you” (Rom. 6:14), and “that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4). Elsewhere he writes:
Awake to righteousness, and sin not (I Cor. 15:34).
Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (II Cor. 7:1).
For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds. Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (II Cor. 10:4-5).
And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly: and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (I Thess. 5:23).
In other words, those who claim God’s power and promises through conversion and sanctification possess the means to keep from sinning, something those without Christ (described in Rom. 1-3) are incapable of doing.
Question No. 4: When Paul writes, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), the phrase “come short” is in the present, continuous tense. Doesn’t this mean sin remains inevitable for all so long as this life lasts?
Again, we refer to the verse’s context. Paul is not writing about Christians who partake of the power and righteousness of Jesus; but rather, of the fact that the entire world has sinned, fallen short of God’s glory, and thus needs Jesus. In numerous other passages the same author is clear that through Jesus’ power in the life, sin can be extinguished and the law fulfilled in the practical choices made by believers (Rom, 8:4; I Cor. 15:34; II Cor. 7:1; 10:4-5; Phil. 4:13; I Thess. 5:23).
It is possible when studying the Bible, to force words and phrases to work overtime. Those who stretch the phrase “fall short” (Rom. 3:23) to imply continuous sin even in believers have clearly fallen into this trap. This misunderstanding becomes obvious not only when one considers the context, but also the totality of Bible passages—including those by Paul himself—which make it clear that perfect obedience is possible for Christians through heaven’s imparted strength.
Question No. 5: Doesn’t Paul’s experience in Romans 7 prove that sinless obedience remains out of reach for the converted Christian?
No. Let us review the verses in question:
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law, that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:
But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Rom. 7:14-8:1).
Quite obviously, the man described in Romans 7 is in complete spiritual captivity, while the first verse of chapter 8 describes a complete change in this condition.
There is no victory in Romans 7, no advancement whatsoever. If these verses described someone experiencing a general upward trend of spiritual growth, a trend nevertheless marred by occasional defeats and backsliding, it could be argued that this was a converted Christian. But Romans 7:14-25 contains nothing but defeat, nothing but bondage. This is not the life of a genuine Christian.
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Some will point to the verses where Paul admits the law is spiritual (verse 14), concedes its goodness (verse 16), and delights in it (verse 22). Many insist that only a converted Christian could say these things. But Saul of Tarsus, as a Pharisee, certainly believed the law was holy, just, and good. Devout Jews and Muslims today would say the same thing. Millions more in today’s world know God’s law is good and that they should keep it, but because they don’t have Jesus, they lack the power to do so. How many smokers know they shouldn’t smoke, how many with drug, sexual, or other addictions know they should quit, but lack the strength to do so since they don’t know Jesus?
We need to remember the kind of person the apostle Paul was before his conversion. While according to pharisaical righteousness he considered himself blameless (Phil. 3:4-6), his conscience told him otherwise. This is why Jesus, on the Damascus road, declared to him, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (Acts 9:5).
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We need to speak carefully when we say the man of Romans 7 is unconverted. He is not an unconverted person who loves sin and feels no need. Rather, he is an unconverted person under conviction of his need, which is exactly what Paul, or Saul, was before his conversion.
We can praise God that, as noted above, Paul doesn’t stop at the end of Romans 7. He moves on to chapter 8, and in so doing makes clear that his erstwhile slavery has been replaced by freedom and victory:
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. . . . For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death: but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. . . . For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live (Rom. 8:1-2,5-9,13).
Notice that the flesh and the carnal mind, which we find in control in Romans 7, are under the control of the Holy Spirit in Romans 8. In chapter 7 Paul describes himself as “carnal, sold under sin” (verse 14). In chapter 8 he maintains that the carnal mind cannot be subject to the law of God (verse 7), while at the same time making it clear that for those who walk after the Spirit rather than the flesh, the righteousness of the law is fulfilled (verse 4). Since the law is clearly being obeyed in chapter 8, the carnality of chapter 7 has obviously been replaced by the spirituality of chapter 8. In Romans 7 Paul is carnal, unable to keep the law he loves. In Romans 8, by contrast, he has become spiritual, and is thus able by God’s grace to fulfill the law’s righteousness (verse 4).
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Paul is captive to the law of sin and death in Romans 7 (verses 23-24). In Romans 8 he is “free from the law of sin and death” (verse 2). In Romans 7 he is clearly in subjection to the fleshly nature (verses 17-18,20,23). In Romans 8 he declares that “ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you” (verse 9). And in another epistle, he makes it clear that now, as a Christian, he keeps under his body and brings it into subjection (I Cor. 9:27). In contrast with Romans 7, where Paul speaks of the fleshly nature “bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (verse 23), he writes elsewhere of the necessity of “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (II Cor. 10:5).
These two sets of verses cannot apply to the same spiritual condition, for Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24). Either we will be captive to the flesh, or captive to Christ.
When we compare Romans 7 and 8 with Galatians 5, we see this point demonstrated again. Paul declares in Galatians, in language similar to what we find in Romans 7:
For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would (Gal. 5:17).
But just prior to this verse he writes: “This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (verse 16). Then, after describing the fruits of the flesh as well as the Spirit (verses 19-23), he declares:
And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts (verse 24).
Once again Paul is clear that captivity to the flesh—not being able to do the things that we would—is broken by belonging to Christ and partaking of the Spirit’s power.
Question No. 6: Doesn’t Ellen White say that while we can copy the pattern of Jesus’ character, we can never equal it?
The Ellen White CD-ROM lists at least eight references that use this or similar language. The context of them all is similar if not identical. The one most often quoted is the following:
He is a perfect and holy example, given for us to imitate. We cannot equal the pattern; but we shall not be approved of God if we do not copy it, and, according to the ability which God has given, resemble it.
But the context of this statement shows what the pattern is which she says we can’t equal:
He [Christ] laid aside His glory, His dominion, His riches, and sought after those who were perishing in sin. He humbled Himself to our necessities, that He might exalt us to heaven. Sacrifice, self-denial, and disinterested benevolence characterized His life. He is our pattern.
Earlier in this volume we find this:
Our Lord and Saviour laid aside His dominion, His riches and glory, and sought after us, that He might save us from misery, and make us like Himself. He humbled Himself and took our nature that we might be able to learn of Him, and, imitating His life of benevolence and self-denial, follow Him step by step to heaven. You cannot equal the copy, but you can resemble it, and according to your ability do likewise.
Later in the same volume we find similar words:
He laid aside His glory, His high command, His honor, and His riches, and humbled Himself to our necessities. We cannot equal the example, but we should copy it.
A comparable point is made in two similar passages:
Our Lord and Saviour loved every creature. He laid aside His dominion, riches, and glory and sought after us, sinful, erring, unhappy, that He might make us like Himself. He humbled Himself and took upon Himself your nature that He might be able to teach you to be pure, correct in character, and free from all impurity of sin, that you might follow Him to heaven. He suffered more than any of you will be called to suffer. He gave all for you. What have you given to Jesus for this great love? Have you practiced the same toward your brethren? Have you copied His example in patience, in self-denial? You cannot equal the pattern, but you can resemble it.
We shall never be called upon to suffer as Christ suffered; for the sins not of one, but the sins of the whole world were laid upon Christ. He endured humiliation, reproach, suffering, and death, that we by following His example might inherit all things.
Christ is our pattern, the perfect and holy example that has been given us to follow. We can never equal the pattern; but we may imitate it and resemble it according to our ability.
In each of these statements, and in similar ones, the pattern we are told we can’t equal is that of Christ’s infinite love, humiliation, suffering, and sacrifice for our sins, not the pattern of sinless obedience. We can’t equal the pattern in question because we don’t have the throne of God to give up, nor have the sins of all humanity been laid upon us. The sinless angels can’t equal this pattern either.
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Another such statement speaks of Christ’s infinite goodness as the pattern we cannot equal but must strive to follow:
What efforts are we putting forth as the believers of unpopular truth, in self-denial, in self-sacrifice? We can never equal the Pattern, because it is infinite goodness practiced in His human nature, yet we should make determined efforts with all the powers of our being to follow His example.
What is the pattern we can’t equal? Christ’s “infinite goodness.” Again, even the sinless angels can’t equal that. Only God is capable of infinite goodness, and Jesus demonstrated that goodness by coming to earth as the sacrifice for our sins. But in no way, is this or any comparable passage saying our Lord’s sinless obedience is a pattern fallen beings cannot equal, even through heaven’s power.
Question No. 7: Doesn’t Ellen White say we can only be perfect “in our sphere.”
A number of Ellen White statements use this language, such as the following:
In His (Christ’s) life upon earth He plainly revealed the divine nature. We should strive to be perfect in our sphere, as He was perfect in His sphere.
With our limited powers we are to be as holy in our sphere as God is holy in His sphere.
But the statement below gives us a clearer picture as to what “sphere” Ellen White is talking about:
He tells us to be perfect as He is, in the same manner. We are to be centers of light and blessing to our little circle, even as He is to the universe. We have nothing of ourselves, but the light of His love shines upon us, and we are to reflect its brightness. “In His borrowed goodness good,” we may be perfect in our sphere, even as God is perfect in His.
A similar statement reads as follows:
When perfect faith and perfect love and obedience abound, working in the hearts of those who are Christ’s followers, they will have a powerful influence. Light will emanate from them, dispelling the darkness around them, refining and elevating all who come within the sphere of their influence, and bringing to a knowledge of the truth all who are willing to be enlightened and to follow in the humble path of obedience.
In other words, the “sphere” Ellen White is talking about is the environment in which we live, defined by the limitations of time and space. We cannot serve equally all the billions living on this planet, nor can we avail ourselves of unknown opportunities. Our physical strength, the time at our command, the hours in the day, the need to balance our various responsibilities, impose a variety of restraints on our potential in God’s service.
This is the “sphere” Ellen White is describing, in which we are to be perfect just as God is perfect in His own much larger sphere. In no way, does she say, in this context or elsewhere, that “perfect in our sphere” means we can only be perfect within the limitations imposed by a presumably unconquerable sinful nature.
In fact, earlier in the context of one of the above statements, we find the following words, which comment on Matthew 5:48: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”:
The conditions of eternal life, under grace, are just what they were in Eden–perfect obedience, harmony with God, perfect conformity to the principles of His law. The standard of character presented in the Old Testament is the same that is presented in the New Testament. This standard is not one to which we cannot attain. In every command or injunction God gives there is a promise, the most positive, underlying the command. God has made provision that we may become like unto Him, and He will accomplish this for all who do not interpose a perverse will and thus frustrate His grace.
Question No. 8: Ellen White states, “We are not to be anxious about what Christ and God think of us, but about what God thinks of Christ, our Substitute.” If this statement is true, why are the saints after probation’s close in agony over whether or not their sins have been pardoned?
First of all, we need to look at this statement in context:
Our dependence is not in what man can do; it is in what God can do for man through Christ. When we surrender ourselves wholly to God, and fully believe, the blood of Christ cleanses from all sin. The conscience can be freed from condemnation. Through faith in His blood, all may be made perfect in Christ Jesus. Thank God that we are not dealing with impossibilities. We may claim sanctification. We may enjoy the favor of God. We are not to be anxious about what Christ and God think of us, but about what God thinks of Christ, our Substitute. Ye are accepted in the Beloved. The Lord shows, to the repenting, believing one, that Christ accepts the surrender of the soul, to be molded and fashioned after His own likeness.
Quite obviously, while the above statement refers to Jesus as our Substitute, it isn’t substitutional righteousness that is its primary focus, but rather, the cleansing of the life from all sin by Jesus’ blood through the experience of sanctification, which of course involves the surrender, molding, and fashioning of the soul after the likeness of our Lord. The statement’s admonition against dependence on what man can do is clearly not a reference to sanctified obedience, but rather, to what human beings attempt in their own strength apart from conversion.
The reason, therefore, that “we are not to be anxious about what Christ and God think of us, but about what God thinks of Christ, our Substitute,” is not because substitutional, forensic righteousness is all we need to be saved. We have seen how both the Bible (II Thess. 2:13; Titus 3:5) and Ellen White are clear that demonstrative righteousness is as much a part of how we are saved as declarative righteousness. Rather, we are not to be anxious about what Christ and God think of us because the blood of Christ makes possible the total purging of our lives from sin through sanctified transformation and the victory it brings. Scripture states, regarding the sanctifying power of Jesus’ blood:
He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses; Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? (Heb. 10:28-29).
Wherefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered without the gate. . . . Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, Make you perfect in every good work to do His will, working in you that which is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen (Heb. 13:12,20-21).
Notice clearly how the above passage describes the blood of Jesus as the agent which works in the believer that which is well pleasing in God’s sight. This is obviously more than some legal, or forensic, declaration of righteousness. This is internal transformation, which the Bible here declares to be part of the work of Jesus’ blood in the saving process.
The following Ellen White statement makes it clear that the cleansing accomplished by Jesus’ blood includes the work of sanctification and character development:
When Christ shall come, He will not change the character of any individual. Precious, probationary time is given to be improved in washing our robes of character and making them white in the blood of the Lamb. To remove the stains of sin requires the work of a lifetime. Every day renewed efforts in restraining and denying self are needed. Every day there are new battles to fight, and victories to be gained. Every day the soul should be called out in earnest pleading with God for the mighty victories of the cross.
Obviously, Ellen White in this passage is referring to sanctification, especially as she speaks here of the “work of a lifetime.” Elsewhere she uses this term specifically with regard to sanctification: “Sanctification is not the work of a moment, an hour, a day, but of a lifetime.”
Other statements likewise affirm the sanctifying work of the blood of Jesus in the life of the Christian:
Shall I stand without fault before the throne of God? Only the faultless will be there. None will be translated to heaven while their hearts are filled with the rubbish of earth. Every defect in the moral character must first be remedied, every stain removed by the cleansing blood of Christ, and all the unlovely, unlovable traits of character overcome.
Search, oh search, as for your life, and condemn yourself, pass judgment upon yourself, and then by faith claim the cleansing blood of Christ to remove the stains from your Christian character. . . . . Jesus will receive you, all polluted as you are, and will wash you in His blood, and cleanse you from all pollution, and make you fit for the society of heavenly angels, in a pure, harmonious heaven.
And what, according to the same author, is our “fitness for heaven”?
The righteousness by which we are justified is imputed; the righteousness by which we are sanctified is imparted. The first is our title to heaven; the second is our fitness for heaven.
Elsewhere, along similar lines, we read:
A probation is granted us to wash our robes of character and make them white in the blood of the Lamb. Who is doing this work? Who is separating from himself sin and selfishness?
He who has died to redeem you has promised to guide you and clothe you with His own righteousness, if you will but loathe sin and purge yourself from evil by washing your robes of character and making them white in the blood of the Lamb.
‘The wages of sin is death.’ Sin, however small it may be esteemed, can be persisted in only at the cost of eternal life. What is not overcome will overcome us, and work out our destruction. We must wash our robes of character in the blood of the Lamb until they are white and stainless.
What is more, the Ellen White statement quoted in this objection cites the apostle Paul’s assurance of being “accepted in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6). In other statements of Ellen White, as our series has noted, she is clear that to be accepted in the Beloved is conditional, not just on forgiveness, or justification, but on sanctified obedience as well:
There is no way back to innocence and life except through repentance for having transgressed God’s law, and faith in the merits of the divine sacrifice, who has suffered for your transgressions of the past; and you are accepted in the Beloved on condition of obedience to the commandments of your Creator.
Through Jesus there is divine sympathy between God and the human beings who, through obedience, are accepted in the Beloved. Thus humanity conforms to the will of divinity, fulfilling the words, ‘If ye love Me, keep My commandments.’ The commandment-keeping people of God are to walk in the sunlight of Christ’s righteousness, their countenances expressing cheerfulness and thanksgiving, joyful in the assurance: ‘Blessed are they that do His commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and enter in through the gates into the city.’
Through obedience to all the commandments of God, we are accepted in the Beloved.
Finally, the assurance offered by the Ellen White statement cited in this objection applies to Christians in every age, including those after the close of probation. What the saints after probation’s close will do during the Time of Jacob’s Trouble is to scrutinize their hearts and lives, to make sure every sin in their experience has been forsaken and placed under the blood of the One whose life has been offered as a substitute for their past transgressions. As the substitutional life of Jesus is available only for those sins that have been confessed and forsaken (II Chron. 7:14; Prov. 28:13; Isa. 55:7; I John 1:9), the saints’ post-probation agony as to whether or not their sins have in fact been both confessed and forsaken, is not at all in conflict with Ellen White’s assurance that “we are not to be anxious about what Christ and God think of us, but about what God thinks of Christ, our Substitute.”
Question No. 9: Doesn’t Ellen White say somewhere that the general trend of the life is all that God looks at in His assessment of Christian conduct, and that for this reason, occasional sin does not alter our relationship with Him?
Here is the statement being referred to, in context:
A person may not be able to tell the exact time or place, or trace all the chain of circumstances in the process of conversion, but this does not prove him to be unconverted. . . . While the work of the Spirit is silent and imperceptible, its effects are manifest. If the heart has been renewed by the Spirit of God, the life will bear witness to the fact. While we cannot do anything to change our hearts or to bring ourselves into harmony with God; while we must not trust at all to ourselves or to our good works, our lives will reveal whether the grace of God is dwelling within us. A change will be seen in the character, the habits, the pursuits. The contrast will be clear and decided between what they have been and what they are. The character is revealed, not by occasional good deeds and occasional misdeeds, but by the tendency of the habitual words and acts.
In other words, the subject here is the reality of one’s initial conversion, not what God ultimately requires of the converted believer. In other statements Ellen White is clear what the latter requirements are:
Christ has promised to make them [His people] harmonious on every point, not pleasant and agreeable and kind today, and tomorrow harsh and disagreeable and unkind, falsifying their profession of faith.
Are there those here who have been sinning and repenting, sinning and repenting, and will they continue to do so till Christ shall come? May God help us that we may be truly united to Christ, the living Vine, and bear fruit to the glory of God.
If in fact, the general trend of one’s life is sufficient so far as one’s fitness for heaven is concerned, then God owes a big apology to Adam and Eve. The general trend of their lives when they transgressed God’s law was certainly moving in the right direction. But all it took was one sin to remove them from Eden. And according to the Bible, all it will take is one sin—unconfessed and unforsaken—to keep any of us from returning to Eden. Hence the following pronouncement by the apostle James:
For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. . . . So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty (James 2:10,12).
Question No. 10: What about sins of omission? How does a fallen being avoid these?
Sins of omission are a very real thing, but are often exaggerated and misunderstood when it comes to the issue of sinless obedience and its possibility here on earth. A related talking point is the theory that only “infinite perfection” can fulfill the demands of God’s law, and thus only an infinite Being—Jesus Christ—can satisfy those demands. The same argument seeks to prove that even if fallen beings could manage to avoid committing specific acts forbidden by the divine law, no fallen being could—or so it is claimed—possibly fulfill all the law’s positive commands. Sins of omission, it is alleged, are innumerable for us all, thus presumably making necessary a substitute righteousness as the sole ground of salvation.
This argument, in a curious way, seeks to raise the standard of God’s law so stratospherically high that it would seem those denying the possibility of perfection are really the ones upholding the law’s purity and sacredness. Such reasoning views the law as covering every conceivable area of omission in a person’s life, making no allowance for mortal limitations or the need for rest. But, so the argument goes, this impossibly high standard has been met by the infinite, substitute righteousness Jesus offers, for which we can presumably rejoice.
It is true, as Ellen White says, that “the life of Christ reveals an infinitely perfect character.” This simply means that the perfection revealed in Jesus’ life—as in that of His Father—goes far beyond either the absence of sin or the perception of the creature. But this hardly means that only infinite beings can live without sin and thus perfectly obey God’s law. The angels and unfallen citizens of the universe are not infinite, yet they are certainly sinless. Nowhere do either Scripture or Ellen White teach that the law demands infinite perfection as a condition of salvation. If this were true, God alone would qualify, for only He possesses infinite perfection.
This argument reaches breathtaking heights in the words of two modern Adventist authors:
As the first deception enticed man to transcend his state and achieve equality with the Creator, so the last deception (in this author’s view, the hope of sinless living here and now) allures the believer to outgrow his sinful condition and achieve equality with the Saviour.
How can finite creatures ever think they can reach the spiritual state of an infinite God? Such thoughts transformed the angel Lucifer into the demon called Satan (see Isaiah 14).
With all due respect and kindness to these men, I must say their logic truly escapes me. Satan most assuredly did not aspire to be “like the Most High” in character! Rather, he wanted to be like the Most High in position and external power. Deception has truly reached new heights when the desire of believers to claim God’s power to be free from sin is seen as following the example of the author of sin himself!
Regarding sins of omission, one contemporary Adventist author has written:
In gratitude for salvation, all sincere Christians keep the commandments—but we cannot rely upon that for our standing with God. That’s because the law requires that everything it represents must be performed on a continuous basis, every waking moment, seven days a week. And this involves more than merely resisting the temptation to do something wrong or to think forbidden thoughts. God’s law curses not just sins of commission (the bad things we do) but also sins of omission (the good things we don’t do enough of).
No serious Bible student would take issue with the fact that sins of omission do exist. But the above author goes far beyond what Inspiration teaches concerning this problem. What he fails to consider is that if his definition of perfection and the law’s demands is accurate, even Jesus wouldn’t qualify as perfect. After all, He could have spent many more decades on earth and visited all the far-flung societies and civilizations then in existence, healing all the sick and suffering of every land. Why, instead, did He confine His labors to one tiny corner of the world?
Our series has noted that even the sinless angels of heaven didn’t fully understand Satan’s devices and malevolence till he brought about the death of the Son of God, thus severing himself from the affections of the unfallen universe. We saw how understanding this reality enables us to understand how the saints during the time of Jacob’s trouble still need to have Satan uprooted entirely from their affections, even though the inspired pen is clear that all sin, by this point, has been fully expelled from their lives.
The fact is that no created being can be infinitely righteous. Only the Godhead possesses such righteousness. But it is obviously not correct to say that the Godhead alone possesses absolute sinlessness.
While still in Australia during the 1970s, the late Desmond Ford said on one occasion: “I’ve sinned a thousand times while preaching this sermon.” Not long thereafter, during a week of prayer at Pacific Union College in California, he even claimed that slouching in a chair—presumably because it restricted blood circulation—was therefore a violation of God’s law and thus needed justifying righteousness to cover it. (Again, one can’t help wondering about Jesus Himself, who doubtless assumed many physical postures during His carpentry work, not to mention His prayer life.)
During that same time, Ford was fond of quoting the following Ellen White statement as “proof” that man’s sinful nature puts perfection out of reach even for the sanctified Christian:
If the law extended to the outward conduct only, men would not be guilty in their wrong thoughts, desires, and designs. But the law requires that the soul itself be pure and the mind holy, that the thoughts and feelings may be in accordance with the great standard of love and righteousness.
After quoting this passage in one setting, Ford then commented:
Perfectly sinless behavior is possible only to a perfectly sinless nature.
But if Ford had simply finished the very page where the above Ellen White statement was found, his theory would have been quickly exploded. She goes on to say, concerning the law’s requirements:
He (Christ) came to fulfill all righteousness, and, as the head of humanity, to show man that he can do the same work, meeting every specification of the requirements of God. Through the measure of grace furnished to the human agent, not one need miss heaven. Perfection of character is attainable by every one who strives for it. This is made the very foundation of the new covenant of the gospel.
One must change the meaning of the plainest words to even remotely suggest that merely declarative, forensic righteousness is being referred to in this passage. It is clear from what is stated here that Jesus’ fulfillment of the law can be duplicated by man through the power heaven provides, and that the perfection here described is one toward which we should strive, not some legal decree credited to our account once and for all.
Moreover, in another statement we have noted already, where Ellen White speaks of thoughts and feelings and their relation to holiness, she is clear at what point these become sinful:
There are thoughts and feelings suggested and aroused by Satan that annoy even the best of men; but if they are not cherished, if they are repulsed as hateful, the soul is not contaminated with guilt and no other is defiled by their influence.
Which means, when she writes in the earlier statement that the thoughts and feelings must be in accordance with God’s standard of righteousness, she is speaking of what the will chooses to cherish, not the natural tendencies people are born with. Never are the latter depicted in either Scripture or Ellen White as constituting sin itself, thus requiring God’s forgiveness even before a sinful choice occurs.
Several decades ago, another opponent of perfection theology wrote the following, in an effort to debunk the possibility of perfect obedience to God’s law here on earth, even for the sanctified:
I have long suspected that those who believe in perfection now have not thought much about what perfection really implies. It means not only keeping God’s law flawlessly but also taking advantage of every opportunity to do good unto others at whatever personal sacrifice. It means living in austerity and giving all that we can for the poor and for spreading the gospel. It means returning good for evil on every occasion and never harboring a grievance against anyone, not even for a moment. It means never permitting an improper thought to enter our minds on the Sabbath day (or any other day, for that matter), always putting the most charitable interpretation on others’ behavior, never expressing our ego-hunger in any of the myriad subtle ways to which we are prone, always being cheerful and uncomplaining in times of adversity.
Being perfect must also mean that when we reflect upon our life as we pray, we are unable to find a single aspect of commission or omission, in which we fall short of Jesus’ example. And doing all this (and more) without ever having a self-congratulatory thought!
When I think of what perfection means in truly gritty, down-to-earth, realistic terms, I am tempted to say to the perfection-now folks, O come off it! Who are you trying to kid?
Such is the cocktail of truth, misguidance, and speculation that results when we seek to explain God’s requirements in our own way. Where the above author is particularly mistaken is when he speaks of never “permitting” wrongful thoughts to enter our minds, or never “having” such thoughts—when, as we have seen from the inspired pen, the duty of the Christian is to reject such thoughts when they occur, not to never encounter them. It’s like the old saying, “You can’t keep the crows from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”
Equally injurious along the same lines as the thoughts shared in the above letter, is the notion that Christians must live in “austerity” in order to fulfill the requirements of the Christian faith “at whatever personal sacrifice,” apparently leaving no time for leisure, self-rejuvenation, or pleasure of any kind—which is what “austerity” usually means.
Sadly, such extreme talk about the loftiness of the divine standard (i.e. no allowance for omission due to time-space limitations, etc.) reduces to absurdity the solemn, common-sense quality of God’s expectations of His people. No Biblical or Spirit of Prophecy counsel, when carefully studied and compared with context and the inspired consensus, can rightly be understood as upholding such a standard. The demands of the law, as defined by Inspiration, most assuredly take into account the limitations of time and space. Indeed, the psalmist declares, “For He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). As we noted in addressing a previous question, it is these limitations—not, as some allege, the presumably inevitable presence of sin—to which Ellen White refers when she speaks of being perfect “in our sphere.”
One of the authors quoted earlier, in defense of this impossibly high standard, quotes the following two Ellen White statements:
Many are deceived as to their true condition before God. They congratulate themselves upon the wrong acts which they do not commit, and forget to enumerate the good and noble deeds which God requires of them, but which they have neglected to perform.
It is wrong to waste our time, wrong to waste our thoughts. . . . If every moment were valued and rightly employed, we should have time for everything we need to do for ourselves and for the world.
The author in question then comments:
In my dark years of legalism, I would agonize about exactly where to draw the line between wholesome rest or recreation and wasting time in idle moments. Was my conscience too keen, my standards too high? Absolutely not! God’s standards were higher than I could imagine! To Him, every moment of time really is sacred for service, and even one second wasted is sin. Let’s not deny this, hoping to get some kind of discount on God’s law so we can somehow become worthy in our own righteousness. Instead let’s humble ourselves at the Cross and pray: ‘Lord, we really want to do our best, but You know we also need to rest and take time off. It’s hard to know when we cross the line between fulfilling necessary duties and succumbing to the temptation to overwork. Thank you for Your mercy on our ignorance and failures. Thank You that salvation is not based upon how successful we are in time management or anything else, but rather on our acceptance of Christ’s success as our Saviour.’
One wishes not to sound harsh in replying to such sentiments. But what we really have here is pharisaism in reverse. God’s standard is depicted as unreasonably, unbearably high, yet we are assured that Jesus has done it all, thus fulfilling this unreasonable, unbearable standard on our behalf. Sadly, the above author fails to consider Ellen White statements such as the following, which provide a balancing view of what God requires of our time:
I was shown that Sabbathkeepers as a people labor too hard, without allowing themselves change or periods of rest. Recreation is needful to those who are engaged in physical labor, and is still more essential for those whose labor is principally mental. It is not essential to our salvation, nor for the glory of God, to keep the mind laboring constantly and excessively, even upon religious themes.
There are persons with a diseased imagination to whom religion is a tyrant, ruling them as with a rod of iron. Such are constantly mourning over their depravity, and groaning over supposed evil. Love does not exist in their hearts; a frown is ever upon their countenances. They are chilled with the innocent laugh from the youth or from any one. They consider all recreation or amusement a sin, and think that the mind must be constantly wrought up to just such a stern, severe pitch. This is one extreme. Others think that the mind must be ever on the stretch to invent new amusements and diversions in order to gain health. They learn to depend on excitement, and are uneasy without it. Such are not true Christians. They go to another extreme.
Our God is ever merciful, full of compassion, and reasonable in all His requirements. He does not require that we shall pursue a course of action that will result in the loss of our health or the enfeeblement of our powers of mind. He would not have us work under a pressure and strain until exhaustion follows, and prostration of the nerves. The Lord has given us reason, and He expects that we shall exercise reason, and act in harmony with the laws of life implanted within us, obeying them that we may have a well-balanced organization. Day follows day, and each day brings its responsibilities and duties, but the work of tomorrow must not be crowded into today.
Today there is need that God’s chosen workmen should listen to the command of Christ and go apart and rest awhile. Many valuable lives have been sacrificed, that need not have been, through ignorance of this command. . . . There are many feeble, worn workmen who feel deeply distressed when they see how much how much there is to be done, and how little they can do. How they long for physical strength to accomplish more; but it is to this class that Jesus says, ‘Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest awhile.’
Another Ellen White statement, which describes the Pharisees’ view of God’s law, reminds us very much of the view of the law which produces this particular objection to the doctrine of perfection in this life:
With all their minute and burdensome injunctions, it was an impossibility to keep the law. Those who desired to serve God, and who tried to observe the rabbinical precepts, toiled under a heavy burden. They could find no rest from the accusings of a troubled conscience. Thus Satan worked to discourage the people, to lower their conception of the character of God, and to bring the faith of Israel into contempt. He hoped to establish the claim put forth when he rebelled in heaven—that the requirements of God were unjust, and could not be obeyed. Even Israel, he declared, did not keep the law.
Notice she doesn’t say the rabbis were correct in seeing the law as they did, but were only wrong in thinking they could fulfill its demands without substitutional righteousness. By contrast, Ellen White makes it clear that such an impossibly high view of God’s requirements brings contempt upon the character of God. I submit that this is true regardless of who is expected to fulfill such a standard—be it Christ or ourselves. Either way, the compassionate, reasonable God of Holy Scripture degenerates into a tyrant.
Question No. 11: Many have been taught at different times in Adventist history that their names can come up at any moment in the investigative judgment and that if they haven’t achieved sinless perfection by that moment, they are eternally lost. Is this true?
No. It is not possible for the investigative judgment to pass at the present time from the dead to the living, as the Spirit of Prophecy writings are clear that this cannot take place until the final Sabbath/Sunday crisis of the last days. In Ellen White’s words:
The Lord has shown me clearly that the image of the beast will be formed before probation closes, for it is to be the great test for the people of God, by which their eternal destiny will be decided. . . .
This is the test that the people of God must have before they are sealed. All who prove their loyalty to God by observing His law, and refusing to accept a spurious sabbath, will rank under the banner of the Lord God Jehovah, and will receive the seal of the living God. Those who yield the truth of heavenly origin and accept the Sunday sabbath, will receive the mark of the beast.
However, it helps to keep in mind that while one’s name can’t come up at any moment at the present time in the investigative judgment, it remains a fact that one can die at any moment, therefore closing one’s probation and thus necessitating the need for constant and total surrender to the revealed will of God, a spirit of total repentance for past sins, and continued trust in God’s power to keep us from falling (Jude 24).
Question No. 12: If sinless obedience is necessary for those translated without seeing death, how will the millions of last-minute believers, who come out of Babylon in response to the Loud Cry message (Rev. 18:4), have the chance to perfect that kind of character?
Let us remember, first of all, that many of those who answer the summons of the Loud Cry in the last days will, until that time, have been living in accordance with all the light and truth they have thus far received. For such persons, the acceptance and practice of new truth will not be a slow and arduous process. Even for those who have much to learn, who have to “start from scratch,” the power of the Holy Spirit through the latter rain will be such that spiritual growth will take far less time than many might now believe possible. In the words of Ellen White:
Some of us have had time to get the truth and to advance step by step, and every step we have taken has given us strength to take the next. But now time is almost finished, and what we have been years learning, they will have to learn in a few months.
Let us also bear in mind that God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9). God is not going to arbitrarily close probation on people who haven’t had the time to develop the maturity essential for them to stand without a Mediator as part of the final, divinely-empowered demonstration of perfect holiness. God is the absolute Master of time, history, and the process of spiritual growth in every life. Because of this, all can be assured that probation will not cease till all who seek to be ready are in fact fully ready.
Question No. 13: How does the needful attainment of sinless obedience, along with the agony of the saints during the time of Jacob’s trouble, comport with the apostle John’s assurance that we may know that we have eternal life (I John 5:13)?
Let us consider the passage in question, in its context:
And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He that hath the Son hath life, and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God, that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God (I John 5:11-13).
But what is often ignored is what the same author, in the same context, is talking about when he speaks of having eternal life. Consider what he states in verse 20 of this same chapter:
We are in Him that is true, even in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life. And what, according to the same author in the same book, does it mean to be “in Christ”? And he that keepeth His commandments dwelleth in Him, and He in him (I John 3:24).
This, of course, is similar to the apostle Paul’s statement, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away: behold, all things are become new” (II Cor. 5:17). In other words, to “have eternal life,” as the apostle John says, is not to rest under a canopy of declarative righteousness while occasional sin persists. Rather, it means to experience the transforming power of the new creation and to thus render obedience to all of God’s commandments (Rom. 8:4).
We see the same principle explained in Jesus’ prayer for His disciples in the Gospel of John, when He prays, “And this is life eternal, that they might know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). And how, according to the apostle John, can we know that we know Jesus?
And hereby we do know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He that saith, I know Him, and keepeth not His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him (I John 2:3-4).
So it is clear that to have eternal life is synonymous in the New Testament with the keeping of God’s commandments. This is not an assurance of salvation based on forgiveness only—not by any means. True, we can be certain of God’s forgiveness if we fall into sin and experience true repentance (II Chron. 7:14; Prov. 28:13; Isa. 55:7; Matt. 6:14-15; I John 1:9; 2:1). But to “know that [we] have eternal life” (I John 5:13), when considered both in context and in the light of the full Biblical message, is also based on total surrender to the divine will through obedience to the divine law.
Ellen White echoes this Biblical focus in the following statements regarding the role of Spirit-empowered obedience in the believer’s assurance of salvation:
We cannot have the assurance and perfect confiding trust in Christ as our Saviour until we acknowledge Him as our King and are obedient to His commandments.
His (the believer’s) life, cleansed from vanity and selfishness, is filled with the love of God. His daily obedience to the law of God obtains for him a character that assures him eternal life in the kingdom of God.
If we neglect the cases of the needy and the unfortunate that are brought under our notice, no matter who they may be, we have no assurance of eternal life, for we do not answer the claims that God has upon us.
The conditions upon which salvation is assured are plain and simple, so that the wayfaring man need not err therein. . . . Let the Lord explain what He would have the sinner do to inherit eternal life. He has furnished ample provision for his salvation, for He gave Himself in Christ. He provided a salvation as full and complete as was the offering full and complete. A lawyer came to Christ asking what he should do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus said unto him, “What is written in the law? how readest thou? And He answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.
The lawyer spoke just as he was convicted, and Christ confirmed him in his interpretation of the law. “And He said unto him, Thou hast answered right; this do, and thou shalt live.” How beautiful was this truth in its simplicity! This is what God requires of us. Through faith in Jesus Christ as our substitute, surety, and righteousness, we may lay hold upon divine power, so that the righteousness of the law may be fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
The commandment-keeping people of God are to walk in the sunlight of Christ’s righteousness, their countenances expressing cheerfulness and thanksgiving, joyful in the assurance, “Blessed are they that do His commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the City.” Revelation 22:14.
Inevitably, in a discussion such as this, the question arises as to whether salvation is lost through occasional, non-premeditated sin. The problem with such language is that there are degrees of premeditation for all of us. Ellen White is very clear as to the ultimate responsibility for every sinful choice:
However great the pressure brought to bear upon the soul, transgression is our own act.
In other statements, she is equally clear as to what happens to our relationship with God when the choice to transgress takes place:
Just as soon as we separate ourselves from God by sin, which is the transgression of His law, Satan takes control of our minds.
Every impurity of thought, every lustful passion, separates the soul from God; for Christ can never put His robe of righteousness upon a sinner, to hide his deformity.
Every transgression brings the soul into condemnation, and provokes the divine displeasure.
When man transgresses he is under the condemnation of the law, and it becomes to him a yoke of bondage. Whatever his profession may be he is not justified.
For those who fear that the definition of salvation as a work in progress will deprive them of assurance and peace of mind, let them be reminded yet again that the God we serve is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9). According to the inspired pen, repentance includes not only sorrow for sin, but also “a turning away from it.”
In another statement, the modern prophet assures the Christian:
The angels never leave the tempted one a prey to the enemy who would destroy the souls of men if permitted to do so. As long as there is hope, until they resist the Holy Spirit to their eternal ruin, men are guarded by heavenly intelligences.
No one, therefore, need indulge in these popular “assurance” illustrations we hear so often, many of which range from the frivolous to the perverse—for example, a man nailing shingles on a rooftop who accidentally strikes his thumb, utters a curse word, then tumbles over with a heart attack, or the minister conducting a pastoral visit who encounters an attractive married woman at home alone, who then seduces the pastor into adultery, only to have her husband return unexpectedly and shoot the pastor dead. Both of the above illustrations usually end with the question, “Is the one dying in the act of sin lost or saved?”
The assumption behind such illustrations is that events take God by surprise and that Christians thus need some sort of celestial “insurance policy” to cover them in case of accidents. But history never takes God by surprise. The Bible assures us that God knows the end from the beginning: “Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them” (Isa 42:9). God knows intimately the state of every heart (I Kings 8:39), and thus He knows when an individual’s probation can fairly and justly be brought to a close. Again, in the words of Ellen White: “As long as there is hope, until they resist the Holy Spirit to their eternal ruin, men are guarded by heavenly intelligences.”
During the great time of trouble, when the death decree is issued against God’s people, they will afflict their souls and search their hearts, to make sure no sin remains unconfessed or unforsaken. Like Jacob they will wrestle with God in prayer, entreating their precious Lord, “I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me” (Gen. 32:26). And what is especially telling is the following Ellen White statement, which describes in depth the anguished spirit which will possess God’s saints in this ultimate hour of trial:
Though God’s people will be surrounded by enemies who are bent upon their destruction, yet the anguish which they suffer is not a dread of persecution for the truth’s sake; 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.” Revelation 3:10. If they could have the assurance of pardon they would not shrink from torture or death; but should they prove unworthy, and lose their lives because of their own defects of character, then God’s holy name would be reproached.
Notice how Ellen White says, “If they could have the assurance of pardon,” which means that God’s people in this future moment will not in fact have the assurance of their salvation. That is the reason for their anguish. They will thus examine their lives and past experiences, and when they do so, Ellen White tells us that “their hopes sink, for in their whole lives they can see little good.” But the good news is that Ellen White goes on to clarify that despite the saints’ “deep sense of their unworthiness, they have no concealed wrongs to reveal. Their sins have gone beforehand to judgment and have been blotted out, and they cannot bring them to remembrance.”
Several pages later, the servant of the Lord describes the spiritual condition God’s people must attain in advance of the great time of trouble, in order to stand successfully during this ultimate ordeal:
Now, while our great High Priest is making the atonement for us, we should seek to become perfect in Christ. Not even by a thought could our Saviour be brought to yield to the power of temptation. . . . He had kept His Father’s commandments, and there was no sin in Him that Satan could use to His advantage. This is the condition in which those must be found who shall stand in the time of trouble.
No promise of an assured salvation based on forgiveness only, whether during the great time of trouble or before, can be found in either Scripture or the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy. We have noted twice from God’s Word that both confession and the forsaking of sin are essential in order for forgiveness to take place (II Chron. 7:14; Prov. 28:13; Isa. 55:7; Matt. 6:14-15; I John 1:9; 2:1). Ellen White confirms this truth when she defines repentance as “sorrow for sin, and a turning away from it.” And according to the passage cited above from The Great Controversy, this turning from sin is to be complete in advance of probation’s close.
Not until the voice of God turns their captivity does the agony of the striving faithful cease. Ellen White describes this moment as follows:
By the people of God a voice, clear and melodious, is heard, saying, “Look up,” and lifting their eyes to the heavens, they behold the bow of promise. The black, angry clouds that covered the firmament are parted, and like Stephen they look up steadfastly into heaven and see the glory of God and the Son of man seated upon His throne. In His divine form they discern the marks of His humiliation; and from His lips they hear the request presented before His Father and the holy angels: “I will that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am.” John 17:24. Again a voice, musical and triumphant, is heard, saying, “They come! they come! holy, harmless, and undefiled. They have kept the word of My patience; they shall walk among the angels;” and the pale, quivering lips of those who have held fast their faith utter a shout of victory.
Notice again that even at this time the saints make no claim to sinlessness, even though the inspired pen is clear that they most assuredly have reached this condition. Again, we see that it is not they who declare, “We come! we come, holy, harmless, and undefiled.” Rather, it is the voice of God that declares this concerning them. Like Job (Job 9:20-21), they won’t dare to state this about themselves, but as in Job’s case, God will do it for them (Job 1:1,8,22; 2:10). Ellen White reminds us that God will make this pronouncement Himself in one of her warnings against Christians declaring themselves sinless:
When the conflict of life is ended, when the armor is laid off at the feet of Jesus, when the saints of God are glorified, then and then only will it be safe to claim that we are saved and sinless. True sanctification will not lead any human being to pronounce himself holy, sinless, and perfect. Let the Lord proclaim the truth of your character.
Question No. 14: How do we harmonize Ellen White’s statement that “when the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own,” with her statement elsewhere, “If you are right with God today, you are ready if Christ should come today.”
First of all, we must recognize that the latter of the two statements is hypothetical, as neither Scripture nor the writings of Ellen White teach that it is possible for Christ to return at any moment. This statement reminds us of the apostle Paul’s warning that “though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). Quite obviously, when viewed in the light of the Biblical consensus, any angel preaching a gospel different from the one taught in Scripture wouldn’t be from heaven! Scripture is clear that the heavenly angels are “all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation” (Heb. 1:14). No such being would be found teaching a gospel contrary to the one taught in the Bible. Any supernatural being engaged in such nefarious work is identified in Second Corinthians 11:14-15.
But though it is not possible for Jesus to come at any moment, it is most assuredly possible to die at any moment, so the necessity of being constantly right with God is certainly the Christian’s highest imperative. But what in fact does Ellen White mean in this statement when she speaks of being “right with God today”? Let’s look at the statement in its context:
If you are right with God today, you are ready if Christ should come today. What we need is Christ formed within, the hope of glory. We want that you should have a deep and earnest longing for the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Your old, tattered garments of self-righteousness will not give you an entrance into the kingdom of God, but that garment that is woven in the loom of heaven—the righteousness of Jesus Christ—will. It will give you an inheritance among the sanctified. . . .
Are you individually daily preparing that you can unite with the family of heaven? Are you quarrelsome here? Are you finding fault with your household here? If you are, you will find fault with them in heaven. Your character is being tested and proved in this life, whether you will make a peaceable subject of God’s kingdom in heaven.
Clearly, being “right with God” as defined by the above statement is a matter of Christ living within the believer, enabling him or her to overcome and expel wicked traits of character from the life. Contrary to what some have alleged, neither this statement nor its context defines being “right with God” as a matter of declarative righteousness covering the Christian while occasional, impulsive sin continues to mar the life. Transformative, practical righteousness is the focus of this passage.
As we’ve noted already in our study, men and women are only responsible for the light and truth God has thus far shown them (Acts 17:30; James 4:17). We have seen how the mediation of Christ in heaven covers those sins committed ignorantly in the life of the consecrated Christian. Anyone who dies while still committing such sins, living by God’s grace in full harmony with light thus far revealed, will be saved. But this fact in no way obscures or annuls the necessity for history’s final generation of believers to achieve through heaven’s power the total conquest of all sin, ignorant and otherwise, so that they can stand in the sight of God without an Intercessor and reveal the spotless holiness of their Lord in the darkest hour of time and eternity.
Question No. 15: I’ve found in my experience that people who focus on sinless perfection focus primarily on outward behavior and misunderstand God’s love. How can we avoid this?
None can deny, to be sure, that some who have made the quest for sinless obedience their spiritual goal and focus have fallen into this trap. The only real solution to this problem is to fully internalize the message and balance found in the inspired writings relative to this topic. Certainly, no one can carefully read either Scripture or the writings of Ellen White without recognizing the pervasive, repetitive focus of the inspired pen on the necessity of heart-transformation and selfless love as the indispensable prerequisites for true obedience.
The Bible and Spirit of Prophecy writings, of course, contain a great deal of specific instruction so far as the practical ordering of our lives is concerned. If God didn’t intend our spiritual focus to include such issues, He would not have inspired His prophets to write so much about them. While some in the church have indeed focused more on outward rectitude than heart-conversion, it is fair to say—in light of the record of sacred history—that many more among us resist explicit behavioral counsel for the simple reason that it cramps their chosen style.
It must also be remembered that while love must define motive so far as genuine Christian belief and practice are concerned, it cannot by itself define content for action. This is true in human relationships as well. If, for example, a man in love knows that his wife or girlfriend prefers Indian to Italian food, he will gladly cater to this preference when anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, or other romantic encounters take place. Candid communication, not merely a loving heart, is needed for a lover to know what pleases and displeases the object of one’s love. If certain behaviors annoy one’s partner, these need to be pointed out. Love by itself won’t remove these annoyances; information is needed so that the lover can know what in fact the annoyances are and thus make an effort to desist from them.
Most important of all in this regard is the need to be sure our understanding of God’s love is strictly defined by His written counsel and not by popular culture or fashionable notions of spiritual health. Too many these days who speak of God’s love describe a god and a love quite foreign to the Biblical message. The supreme task of the Christian is to reflect and proclaim the love of God as defined and demonstrated in the Sacred Pages, not as defined or demonstrated by accepted societal norms.
The next and last installment of this series will offer some final thoughts.
 Unless otherwise noted, all Bible texts are from the King James Version.
 Ellen G. White, The Faith I Live By, p. 219.
 The Desire of Ages, p. 311.
 Ibid, p. 512.
 SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 908.
 Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 467-476; Prophets and Kings, pp. 582-592; The Great Controversy, p. 484; Review and Herald, Aug. 20, 1901; Manuscript Releases, vol. 4, pp. 249-250.
 Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 467-468.
 Ibid, p. 474.
 The Great Controversy, p. 484.
 Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 469.
 Ibid, p. 474.
 Review and Herald, Aug. 20, 1901 (italics supplied).
 Manuscript Releases, vol. 4, pp. 249-250 (italics supplied); see also vol. 21, p. 384.
 Selected Messages, vol. 3, p. 196.
 Prophets and Kings, p. 589.
 See Early Writings, p. 71; The Great Controversy, pp. 425,623; Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 187,619; vol. 2, pp. 355,505; vol. 5, pp. 214,216; Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 506-507; Evangelism, p. 702; SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, pp. 1055,1118; Review and Herald, Nov. 19, 1908; From the Heart, p. 44.
 Early Writings, p. 71.
 Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 214.
 Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 18-19.
 Review and Herald, April 1, 1902.
 Selected Messages, vol. 3, p. 360.
 Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 355.
 See Gillian Ford, The Human Nature of Christ in Salvation (Angwin, CA: Pacific Union College Religion Dept.), p. 55; Marvin Moore, Conquering the Dragon Within: God’s Provision for Assurance and Victory in the End Time (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1995), pp. 54-55.
 Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 549.
 Ibid, p. 170.
 Ibid, p. 628.
 Manuscript Releases, vol. 2, pp. 125-126.
 Review and Herald, Feb. 5, 1895.
 Manuscript Releases, vol. 16, p. 199.
 Testimonies, vol. 8, p. 86.
 Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 337.
 Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, p. 77.
 Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 694.
 Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, p. 76.
 Selected Messages, vol. 2, pp. 32-33.
 The Desire of Ages, p. 523; Acts of the Apostles, p. 482; Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 147; Special Testimonies, Series B, p. 278; This Day With God, p. 72; Review and Herald, June 26, 1900; Signs of the Times, Nov. 24, 1887; Nov. 15, 1899, etc.
 Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 429.
 Acts of the Apostles, p. 560.
 Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 705.
 Ibid, vol. 2, p. 81.
 Messages to Young People, p. 35.
 SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 960.
 From the Heart, p. 312.
 Review and Herald, March 27, 1888.
 Signs of the Times, Dec. 15, 1887.
 Review and Herald, May 3, 1898.
 Signs of the Times, Dec. 28, 1891.
 Selected Messages, vol. 2, pp. 32-33.
 Steps to Christ, pp. 57-58.
 Review and Herald, Jan. 14, 1904.
 Ibid, April 21, 1901.
 Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 60.
 Helmut Ott, Perfect in Christ: The Mediation of Christ in the Writings of Ellen G. White (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1987), pp. 147-148 (italics original).
 Keavin Hayden, Lifestyles of the Remnant (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 2001), p. 22.
 Martin Weber, Who’s Got the Truth? Making sense out of five different Adventist gospels (Silver Spring, MD: Home Study International Press, 1991), p. 105.
 White, The Desire of Ages, p. 761.
 Christ Triumphant, p. 11.
 Our High Calling, p. 321.
 See Early Writings, p. 71; The Great Controversy, pp. 425,623; Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 187; vol. 2, p. 355; vol. 5, pp. 214,216; SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 1055,1118; Evangelism, p. 702).
 Desmond Ford, quoted by A. John Clifford and Russell R. Standish, Conflicting Concepts of Righteousness by Faith in the Seventh-day Adventist Church—Australasian Division (Clifford and Standish, Publishers, 1976), p. 98.
 White, Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 211.
 Ford, “Righteousness by Faith,” Study Papers, Series One: Righteousness by Faith (Angwin, CA: Pacific Union College Religion Department, 1979), p. 20.
 White, Selected Messages, vol. 1, pp. 211-212.
 That I May Know Him, p. 140.
 Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 211.
 Reo M. Christensen, letter to Spectrum, August 1977, pp. 62-63.
 White, That I May Know Him, p. 140.
 Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, p. 77; Testimonies, vol. 8, p. 86; Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 337.
 The Great Controversy, p. 601.
 The Ministry of Healing, p. 208.
 Weber, Who’s Got the Truth?, p. 107 (italics original).
 White, Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 514.
 Ibid, p. 565.
 Christian Service, p. 248.
 Ibid, p. 249.
 The Desire of Ages, p. 29.
 SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 976.
 Early Writings, p. 67.
 Faith and Works, p. 16.
 Sons and Daughters of God, p. 42.
 Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 524.
 Signs of the Times, July 2, 1896.
 Review and Herald, May 3, 1898.
 Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 421.
 Review and Herald, July 12, 1887.
 Our High Calling, p. 214.
 Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 623.
 My Life Today, p. 250 (italics supplied).
 Steps to Christ, p. 23.
 Our High Calling, p. 23.
 The Great Controversy, p. 619.
 Ibid, pp. 618-619.
 Ibid, p. 620.
 Ibid, p. 623.
 Steps to Christ, p. 23.
 The Great Controversy, p. 623; see also Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 355.
 The Great Controversy, p. 636.
 Signs of the Times, May 16, 1895.
 Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 69.
 In Heavenly Places, p. 227.
 Early Writings, p. 254.
 The Great Controversy, pp. 425,623; Early Writings, p. 71; Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 187,340,619; vol. 2, pp. 355,505; vol. 3, p. 472; vol. 5, pp. 214,216; Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 506-507; SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, pp. 1055,1118; Evangelism, p. 702; Selected Messages, vol. 3, p. 427; From the Heart, p. 44; Review and Herald, May 30, 1882; Nov. 19, 1908.