Last Generation Theology, Part 11: Ellen White on Justification and Sanctification

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Last Generation Theology, Part 11: Ellen White on Justification and Sanctification

In the previous article, we looked at Ellen White’s conversion story and her struggles with her personal salvation. We also touched on White’s view of sin, atonement, human nature, Christ’s nature, and her early understanding of justification. In this installment, we will zoom in on her views on justification and sanctification. As the previous article, this is based on Woodrow W. Whidden’s Ellen White on Salvation.”[i]


Related Article: Where Does Our Righteousness Come From?


Justification Before Minneapolis (pp. 69-77)

Before Minneapolis, White’s key presentation on justification occurred at the General Conference in 1883, held in Battle Creek, Michigan. While in her early ministry years she focused more on sanctification, starting with 1870, and especially with the GC meetings in 1883, the focus shifted to emphasizing salvation by faith through Christ’s imputed righteousness.  Whidden notes that in her view


“all the good works of human beings are polluted with sin and need the objective, accounted merits of Jesus to make them acceptable. And this accounting of sinners as just (or righteous) through Christ’s merits was conceived of as constantly necessary all through life! Objective justification is required all the way.” (72)


Ellen White’s constant and persistent view was that salvation is from sin, not in sin. This means that, not only does Christ’s death legally acquit us, enabling us to stand before God as spotless through His merits, but as a result of being justified we are sanctified and brought more into the likeness of God. Yet while the sanctification process does involve a change of character, out best thoughts and deeds will never have merit before God. In other words, sanctification is never meritorious.


“Our acceptance with Christ is based totally on the merits of His life and death, which are legally, judicially accounted to us. It is not based on His death accounted to us for forgiveness and His life imparted to us so that we can make our own contribution to justification. It is both His life and death that justify the penitent believer.” (76-77)


Justification After Minneapolis (pp. 79-98)

Three experiences contoured White’s understanding of salvation after the 1888 General Conference (GC): Minneapolis and the aftermath, her “Life of Christ” series, and the “Receive Ye the Holy Ghost” movement.


Related Article: The Righteousness by Faith Controversy

What happened at Minneapolis? In short, two camps fought over the identification of the law in Galatians 3:19-25 and the 10th horn of the fourth beast in Daniel 7. On one hand, the leaders, including GC president G. I. Butler and the Review editor Uriah Smith, thought Galatians 3 referred to the ceremonial law, and maintained the traditional interpretation of the 10th horn as symbolizing the Huns. On the other hand, a group including E. J. Waggoner, W. C. White, and A. T. Jones said the law in Galatians was the moral law, and that the 10th horn symbolized the Alemanni. The controversy was partly heightened by personality conflicts, recently passed Sunday laws that sent some Adventists to jail, and preceding ministerial meetings where the hot debates carried over into the atmosphere of the GC meetings. Although White did not agree with everything Jones and Waggoner taught (especially after 1888 – for example the creation of Christ), she supported their view on justification and referred to Waggoner’s presentation as


“the first clear teaching on this subject from any human lips I had heard, excepting the conversations between myself and my husband.” (1888 Materials 349).


For her, justification is the imputed righteousness of Christ, whose merits “make our obedience acceptable” (p. 99) before God and “make up for our deficiencies” (p. 101) She repeatedly calls Christ’s merits “His perfection.”


“His perfect holiness atones for our shortcomings. When we do our best, He becomes our righteousness.” (1888 Materials 242).

“The sinner’s defects are covered by the perfection and fullness of the Lord our Righteousness,” and they are regarded as ‘obedient children.’” (1888 Materials 402; IHP 23).

“We make mistakes again and again [and] no one is perfect but Jesus… What if in some respects we do err, does the Lord forsake us, and forget us, and leave us to our own ways? No.” (1888 Materials 1089).


“I rest in His love, notwithstanding my imperfections. God has accepted His perfection in my behalf… if we were perfect, we would not need a Saviour, a Redeemer to rescue us from the slavery of Satan.” (letter 24, 1895, in 12 MR 35).


The religious services, the prayers, the praise, the penitent confession of sin ascend from true believers as incense to the heavenly sanctuary, but passing through the corrupt channels of humanity, they are so defiled that unless purified by blood, they can never be of value with God. They ascend not in spotless purity, and unless the Intercessor, who is at God’s right hand, presents and purifies all by His righteousness, it is not acceptable to God. All incense from earthly tabernacles must be moist with the cleansing drops of the blood of Christ. He holds before the Father the censer of His own merits, in which there is no taint of earthly corruption. He gathers into this censer the prayers, the praise, and the confessions of His people, and with these He puts His own spotless righteousness. Then, perfumed with the merits of Christ’s propitiation, the incense comes up before God wholly and entirely acceptable. Then gracious answers are returned.” (SM 1:344)


She does have a perplexing statement, however, in which she uses the word “justification” for what she would typically describe as sanctification.


“Only by perfect obedience to the requirements of God’s holy law can man be justified. Let those whose natures have been perverted by sin ever keep their eyes fixed on Christ, the author and the finisher of their faith. …Those only who through faith in Christ obey all of God’s commandments will reach the condition of sinlessness in which Adam lived before his transgression. They testify to their love of Christ by obeying all His precepts.” (MS 122, 1901, in 8 MR 98, 99).


Whidden suggests that this is either a self-contradiction or a lack of precision. Given her consistent emphasis on objective justification, the case is most probably the latter.


Related Article: The Debate Over Justification by Faith


The crisis in Minneapolis opened up the discussion on salvation at a new level, and subsequent to this conference White put more emphasis in her writing on clarifying justification. In fact, almost half of her writings on this was done between 1888 and 1892—that is, within four years of her 58-year ministry (1844-1902). However, her views did not change, but remained the same as pre-1888. Interestingly, Bert Haloviak’s research concludes that Ellen White was “the unique champion of objective justification in Adventism before 1888.[ii]


In 1890, the church dealt with the “Receive Ye the Holy Ghost” perfectionism, which was influenced by the Holiness movement and originated in Jones’ revival preaching. It was presumed to be a natural result of the emphasis on righteousness by faith in Minneapolis. Other prominent leaders were A. F. Ballenger, E. J. Waggoner, and Mrs. S. M. I. Henry. The main teaching was that, as a result of accepting Christ’s righteousness, humans can stop sinning. According to Ballenger,

“we are in the time of the latter rain, but the outpouring of the Spirit is withheld because of our sins.”[iii]

Jones also pioneered the idea that perfection should involve the flesh as much as the soul, leading to a great emphasis on the health reform and an increased expectation of physical healing. Ballinger suggested that Christ also bore our illnesses on the cross, and the movement leaders often literalized the Bible verses about the indwelling of the Spirit, which eventually led to panentheism.[iv]


Related Article: Biblical Perspectives on Justification

The “Holy Flesh,” a fanatic group in Indiana promoted an emotional experience that involved a cleansing of both the mind and the body, resulting in a pre-fall condition in which humans were free from sinful tendencies and were ready for translation. White publicly rebuked the Adventist Holiness movement, particularly their teaching on the holiness of flesh. (see 2SM 32). For her,


“holiness teachings and experience must always have the following characteristics: (1) They must not be excessively emotional; (2) they must always involve an understanding of objective justification by faith alone in the grace and merits of Jesus; (3) they must always be presented and promoted in the setting of Seventh-day Adventism’s distinctive teachings; (4) they can involve perfection of “character” (though not instantaneously), but not of “flesh” or “nature” until glorification; and (5) it must always involve sober obedience to the Ten Commandments. (86)


During the “Life of Christ” project, which lasted from 1892 until 1900 and included Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, The Desire of Ages, and Christ’s Object Lessons, White’s focus shifted to sanctification and character perfection. Let’s now zoom in on her views of these concepts.

Sanctification and Perfection (pp. 119-129)

Ellen White used the word “perfection” almost synonymously with “sanctification,” yet she also

understood perfection to be the goal of sanctification. Whidden clarifies:


“In her thought justification and sanctification need to be distinguished, but not separated. The same goes for sanctification and perfection. Justification often defined perfection and always formed the foundation of the experience of sanctification. Sanctification often defined perfection, but at the same time perfection was always the goal of sanctification.” (119)


When it comes to the possibility of attaining character perfection through obedience to God’s law, White was quite optimistic, pointing to examples like Enoch, Daniel, Joseph, and above all, Jesus. God’s grace can help us overcome natural weaknesses. (see YI, November 1857). Whidden summarizes her views thus:


“It is possible for penitent sinners to overcome temptations that appeal to both inherited and cultivated tendencies to evil, and there is no excuse for indulging in transgression.” (122)


The following are characteristics of the perfection White taught:


  1. Complete surrender to Christ is what enables us to achieve character perfection.
  2. Intentional and active effort is required of us to reach character perfection.
  3. Character perfection is the fruit of ongoing sanctification.
  4. Our obedience should be holistic, that is, all the duties God calls us to should be fulfilled, instead of focusing on one while neglecting others.
  5. Obedient believers are still tempted.
  6. We cannot rely on feelings and impressions to determine our level of perfection.
  7. Perfect believers do not excuse or indulge in sin.
  8. Christian perfection engenders humility and patience and leads to unity.
  9. Character perfection is a “consciously ever-receding horizon” (p. 123) before glorification. The closer we get to Christ, the more aware we will be of our imperfection and need for further refinement.


Thus, on one hand, she claimed we can achieve perfection and should strive for nothing short of it.


“We can overcome. Yes; fully, entirely. Jesus died to make a way of escape for us, that we might overcome every evil temper, every sin, every temptation.” (1T 144)


“The Son of God was faultless. We must aim at this perfection and overcome as He overcame.” (3T 336)


“[Human can reach] a perfection of intelligence and a purity of character but little lower than the perfection and purity of angels.” (4T 93).


“All His righteous demands must be fully met.” (RH, Aug. 23, 1881)


“Every defect of character must be overcome, or it will overcome us, and become a controlling power for evil.” (RHJune 3, 1884).


“The law demands perfect, unswerving obedience.” (TM 440)


“Satan could find nothing in the Son of God that would enable him to gain the victory. . . This is the condition in which those must be found who shall stand in the time of trouble.” (GC 623)


“Holiness of heart and purity of life was the great subject of the teachings of Christ. In His Sermon on the Mount, after specifying what must be done in order to be blessed, and what must not be done, He says: ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ Perfection, holiness, nothing short of this, would give them success in carrying out the principles He had given them.” (2T 441)


On the other, White cautioned that we should never claim to have achieved it and went as far as to say that individuals claiming “equal[ity] with Him [Christ] in perfection of character” commit “blasphemy” (RH, Mar. 15, 1887). Thus, in reference to Christ, humans can only be relatively perfect.


“you cannot equal the Pattern [Christ], but you can resemble it.” (MS 32, 1887, 2 MR 126).

“As God Himself is perfect in His exalted sphere, so should His children be perfect in the humble sphere they occupy.” (2SP 225).


“All who live have sins to wash away. They may have good intentions, and good purposes; they may have noble traits of character and live moral lives; notwithstanding, they need a Saviour.” (YI, February 1874).


While she often spoke about the “high demand” of obedience, she also made clear that this is an ever-receding horizon extending into eternity, and that Christ’s merits are still needed all the way for us to be accounted as righteous.

“When we have cultivated a spirit of charity, we may commit the keeping of our souls to God as unto a faithful Creator, not because we are sinless, but because Jesus died to save just such erring, faulty creatures as we are. … We may rest upon God, not because of our own merit, but because the righteousness of Christ will be imputed to us.” (RH, Apr. 22, 1884).


“It should be our lifework to be constantly reaching forward to the perfection of Christian character, ever striving for conformity to the will of God. The efforts begun here will continue through eternity.” (RHSeptember 20, 1881)


Commenting on Joshua’s vision of the high priest in Zechariah 3, and discussing this in the context of the investigative judgment, White said:


“We cannot answer the charges of Satan against us. Christ alone can make an effectual plea in our behalf… He is able to silence the accuser with arguments founded not upon our merits, but on His own…. Zechariah’s vision of Joshua and the Angel applies with peculiar force to the experience of God’s people in the closing up of the great day of atonement”” (5T 472).


So, can we, or can we not achieve it? Two major proposals have been put forth that seek to explain the dilemma of apparently contradictory statements. Dennis Priebe has tried to solve this dilemma with the idea that being perfect and claiming perfection are two different things. Thus, one can be perfect but not claim it. Helmut Ott’s proposal is to understand her statements on achieving perfection as describing a relative perfection. This latter view fits better with her repeated emphasis on our sinfulness despite the high calling, and her caution to not commit blasphemy. Thus, whatever she meant by the idea that humans can achieve character perfection, she qualified it by emphasizing the sinfulness of all alive, the constant need of a Savior, the difference between Christ’s perfection and our perfection, and the ever-receding horizon of human perfection.


Related Article: Wrestling with Romans


As we have seen, White held justification and sanctification in close connection. While justification is Christ’s imputed righteousness, and through His merits alone we are saved, sanctification is the necessary result of justification, and leads to perfection of a character similar to Christ’s (though not entirely like His), a perfection that is an ever-receding horizon and will continue to develop in eternity. In the next article, we will zoom in specifically on White’s views about character perfection in the last generation.

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



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

[ii] Haloviak, “From Righteousness to Holy Flesh: Judgment at Minneapolis,” cited in Whidden, 92.

[iii] Haloviak, “Pioneers,” 4, in Whidden, 83.

[iv] Panentheism is the belief that the world exists inside of God.

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About the author


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