You can’t get very far into Ellen White without coming across a statement on perfection or obedience. To some people (including myself in the past) these statements can be troubling because they can seem very legalistic.
Here are a few such statements:
“But very few of the Christian world are following their Master in a course of humble obedience, progressing in holiness and perfection of Christian character.” (Con 73.1)
“The ideal of Christian character is Christlikeness. There is opened before us a path of constant advancement. We have an object to gain, a standard to reach, that includes everything good and pure and noble and elevated. There should be continual striving and constant progress onward and upward toward perfection of character.” (CCh 78.6)
“The life which Christ alone can give is given only upon condition of obedience.” (Ms 163a, 1898.2)
Although these statements are confusing, particularly when placed alongside other, seemingly contradictory, statements, I believe the real problem isn’t what Ellen White said, but what we assume she meant. Most of us read words like “perfection” and “obedience” coupled with verbs like “striving” and “progressing” and infer that Ellen White meant we are to put in some kind of effort until we are perfectly sinless. We assume that the way Ellen White used these words matches with how we use them.
Perhaps we need to look for answers in a new direction. Rather than reading our definitions into Ellen White’s words, what if we sought to understand them from within her theological context?
So, what was Ellen White’s theological context?
We know that Ellen White was baptized as a young child into the Methodist church and that she was a very active member until her family was excommunicated for their Millerite views. Methodism at the time was still heavily influenced by John Wesley, who had died only a few decades before.
John Wesley’s views are clearly described in his book, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.
In this short account, John Wesley describes his understanding of perfection that he had at the beginning of his ministry as being unchanged throughout his life. In other words, what Wesley taught on the topic was a consistent teaching that he passed on to Methodism. Seeking to more clearly elucidate what he meant by the term “Christian Perfection,” he explained it at length in a question-and-answer format.
“QUESTION. What is Christian perfection?
“ANSWER. The loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions, are governed by pure love.
“Q. Do you affirm, that this perfection excludes all infirmities, ignorance, and mistake?
“A. I continually affirm quite the contrary, and always have done so.
“Q. But how can every thought, word, and work, be governed by pure love, and the man be subject at the same time to ignorance and mistake?
“A. I see no contradiction here: `A man may be filled with pure love, and still be liable to mistake.’ Indeed I do not expect to be freed from actual mistakes, till this mortal puts on immortality. I believe this to be a natural consequence of the soul’s dwelling in flesh and blood. For we cannot now think at all, but by the mediation of those bodily organs which have suffered equally with the rest of our frame. And hence we cannot avoid sometimes thinking wrong, till this corruptible shall have put on incorruption.” (The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, 1831, p. 500)
Wesley also went to great lengths to explain why his understanding of perfection wasn’t a perfection in which there is no fault or mistake (his term for non-rebellious sins that the Christian accidentally falls into).
“(1.) Every one may mistake as long as he lives. (2.) A mistake in opinion may occasion a mistake in practice. (3.) Every such mistake is a transgression of the perfect law. Therefore, (4.) Every such mistake, were it not for the blood of atonement, would expose to eternal damnation. (5.) It follows, that the most perfect have continual need of the merits of Christ, even for their actual transgressions, and may say for themselves, as well as for their brethren, `Forgive us our trespasses.’” (ibid., p. 501)
Finally, in an attempt to be as clear as he possibly could, Wesley ended his account with a basic summary of his views of perfection.
“1. By perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God, and our neighbor, ruling our tempers, words, and actions. I do not include an impossibility of falling from it, either in part or in whole…. And I do not contend for the term sinless, though I do not object against it
“2. As to the manner. I believe this perfection is always wrought in the soul by a simple act of faith; consequently, in an instant. But I believe a gradual work, both preceding and following that instant.” (ibid., p. 531)
This was Wesley’s view and American Methodism during the early 1800s consequently emphasized perfection. By this point the Second Great Awakening was in full swing and Methodism, with its focus on sanctification, was at the forefront of this revival. Despite this, Ellen White describes the confusion that she had as a child in regards to sanctification (which Wesley equated with perfection).
“Among the Methodists I had heard much in regard to sanctification…. But I could not comprehend what was necessary in order to be fully consecrated to God.” (LS80 150.2)
“I felt that I could only claim what they called justification. In the word of God I read that without holiness no man should see God. Then there was some higher attainment that I must reach before I could be sure of eternal life…. In my mind the justice of God eclipsed his mercy and love.” (LS80 151)
Spiritually confused and discouraged, the young Ellen White finally confided her feelings to her mother who advised her to talk to the Methodist-Millerite preacher Elder Stockman. Elder Stockman encouraged Ellen White in the love and acceptance of God and helped to remove her sense of confusion. Ellen White later wrote of her interview with him that she “obtained more knowledge on the subject of God’s love and pitying tenderness, [from Elder Stockman] than from all the sermons and exhortations to which [she] had ever listened.” (LS80 159) Shortly after talking with Elder Stockman Ellen White received the blessing that she had been seeking. This blessing she interpreted to be the so-called “second blessing” of sanctifying faith.
From this point on Ellen White’s life diverged from Methodism. She accepted the doctrine of the state of the dead as Adventists now believe it before 1844. Shortly thereafter her family was excommunicated from the Methodist church for upholding the Millerite message. And after 1844, of course, Ellen White’s efforts and ministry focused on gathering together the Advent believers and organizing them into a unified body.
So what were Ellen White’s later views on perfection and how did they relate to her earlier Methodist understanding?
Ellen White wrote quite a bit on sanctification and perfection. However, her clearest statement on what perfection is demonstrates that her use of the term was consistent with Methodism.
“When we reflect Christ’s image, we shall love one another as He has loved us. We shall not love as we love our neighbor, but as Christ loved us….This is the perfection of Christian character. When we can say, “My will is wholly submerged in God’s will,” then peace and rest comes in. We must have that love, else we cannot be perfect before God.” (13LtMs, Lt 121, 1898, par. 18-19)
In another place she wrote:
“Christian perfection consists in the complete harmony of our will with the will of our Creator. The inhabitants of Heaven find, in obeying the will of God, their joy and blessedness.” (ST May 25, 1882, par. 8)
As Wesley taught, Ellen White also indicated that a Christian who was experiencing perfection was still, in one sense, imperfect. In other words, Christian Perfection in her view was a qualified perfection that had as much to do with justification as it did with sanctification.
“… while we cannot claim perfection of the flesh, we may have Christian perfection of the soul. Through the sacrifice made in our behalf, sins may be perfectly forgiven. 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.” (2SM 32.3)
In other words, according to Ellen White, Christian Perfection is nothing more than full surrender that results in loving God and loving our neighbor.
Unlike Wesley, Ellen White doesn’t seem to have continued believing in, or teaching, the concept of a “second blessing” or “instantaneous sanctification.” Instead, she emphasized the continuity of progress and movement in which both the movement itself and the goal are styled “perfection.”
Elaborating on the role that surrender has within the framework of perfection she wrote:
“If you will surrender to Him, his grace will make of you a vessel unto honor, and will carry you forward step by step in the progress of Christian perfection, until you shall see the King in His beauty. Day by day He will work great changes in you. He who hath begun a good work in you will through His grace perform it unto the day of Christ’s appearing.” (12LtMs, Lt 85, 1897, par. 9)
Clearly, to Ellen White, Christian Perfection wasn’t a doctrine of sterile sinlessness that was attained through hard effort (although both Ellen White and Wesley are clear that effort is necessary) but a dynamic experience of growth gifted to the Christian by the Holy Spirit on the condition of full surrender. In her view it was, to be put simply, all about being made perfect in love. The result, Ellen White insisted, would be a church fully unified and ready for Jesus. Commenting on Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians 1:10 to be of the same mind and judgment she stated, “Paul would not have appealed to them to do that which was impossible. Unity is the sure result of Christian perfection.” (SL 85.1)
Ultimately, for Ellen White, surrender was everything. It was the key to perfection, and thus, the key to obedience. “The first step in the path of obedience is to surrender the will to God.” (BEcho April 6, 1903, par. 1) It had to be so because, for Ellen White, Christ made all of those things possible. “By the sacrifice of Christ, every provision has been made for believers to receive all things that pertain to life and godliness. The perfection of His character makes it possible for us to gain perfection.” (PUR February 9, 1905, par. 10)
Yes, there are many quotes from Ellen White’s writings that elaborate on obedience, effort, perfection, and sanctification. But when her words are taken in the context of her Methodist roots and her own Christian experience, it is evident that those terms are all to be considered within a framework of surrender and grace.