Scripture, the Writings of Ellen White, and the Nature of Sin
In the first installment of this series, we reviewed the unique twist given to the classic Adventist understanding of Last Generation Theology by the teachings of one Robert Brinsmead, during the so-called Awakening movement he led during the 1960s. We noted that this twist was based on Brinsmead’s attempt to unite this classic Adventist teaching with what is known in Christian theology as the doctrine of original sin. This doctrine, as we also noted, teaches that the sinful nature human beings inherit at birth is the same as sin itself—that human beings, in other words, are born sinners.
We saw how, because of this teaching, Brinsmead came to the conclusion that in order for the saints to be perfect in time for the close of probation, something had to happen to their sinful natures. In his words:
Because of imparted and imputed righteousness God performs a miracle and erases all sinful thoughts and emotions within us (1).
This theory was very comparable, as one historian has noted, to the Holy Flesh teaching some sixty years before (2). According to Brinsmead, this purging of sinful thoughts and feelings from the innermost natures of end-time Christians would take place at the time of the sealing and latter rain, thus preparing them for the close of probation and the second coming of Christ (3).
Our first installment cited the research of Anglican scholar Geoffrey Paxton, a close friend and theological ally of Brinsmead during the 1970s, conducted after the latter had completely repudiated any belief in the possibility of sinless obedience this side of heaven. Paxton noted, as we saw, Brinsmead’s fascination with the doctrine of original sin very early in his experience, and how he found little help from Adventist literature on the subject because of the absence of this teaching from the church’s doctrinal heritage (4).
Paxton writes, regarding Adventist theological history, that “the doctrine of original sin has been conspicuous by its absence” (5). Because of this, Paxton says, “Brinsmead therefore turned to the Reformers for guidance” (6).
But not only was the doctrine of original sin a stranger to Adventism at the time Brinsmead began his studies (the 1950s); it had also been a stranger to Christendom until the time of Saint Augustine during the fourth century A.D (7). Just as Brinsmead’s understanding of sin arose from his embrace of non-Adventist theological premises, so Augustine’s view of sin arose from his background in pagan philosophy. Historian Will Durant writes of him: “He was so fascinated by Plato that he called him a ‘demigod,’ and did not cease to be a Platonist when he became a Christian. His pagan training in logic and philosophy prepared him to be the most subtle theologian of the Church” (8). These Greek philosophical underpinnings became to Augustine, in Durant’s words, “the vestibule to Christianity” (9).
Equally decisive in Augustine’s theological development was his personal experience—never a wise determiner of doctrinal convictions. Sexual immorality was the driving force in Augustine’s life and thought, both before and after his acceptance of the Christian message (10). This factor, together with his immersion in Greek philosophy, formed the basis of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin (11).
The Doctrine of Sin in Scripture and the Writings of Ellen White
As we have noted already, the doctrine of original sin teaches that inheriting a fallen human nature at birth is the same as inheriting sin itself. All babies born since the Fall, so the theory goes—with the exception of Christ—have thus been born sinners.
The Bible disagrees. Ezekiel declares: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son” (Eze. 18:20). This could hardly be true if, as the doctrine of original sin teaches, all humans at birth bear the iniquity of their father Adam. The apostle James likewise affirms the chosen nature of human sin when he writes: “Every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then lust, when it hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin” (James 1:14-15). Ellen White agrees:
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 (12).
Romans chapter 5, often used to support the original sin doctrine, actually argues against it, when the apostle Paul states that “by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12). In other words, death has passed upon all humanity because all have followed Adam’s example in sin, not merely because Adam sinned. (Death in this context is eternal, not temporal, as is clear from the reference to life in verse 17, which refers to eternal life rather than our present existence.)
The following Ellen White statements are clear that human sin is a matter of deliberate choice, not an involuntary condition:
It is not in the power of Satan to force anyone to sin. Sin is the sinner’s individual act. Before sin exists in the heart, the consent of the will must be given, and as soon as it is given, sin is triumphant, and hell rejoices (13).
Satan knows that he cannot overcome man unless he can control his will. He can do this by deceiving man so that he will cooperate with him in transgressing the laws of nature in eating and drinking, which is transgression of the law of God (14).
The light of life is freely proffered to all. Every one who will may be guided by the bright beams of the Sun of Righteousness. Christ is the great remedy for sin. None can plead their circumstances, their education, or their temperament as an excuse for living in rebellion against God. Sinners are such by their own deliberate choice (15).
The following statement is clear that the reason we know humanity is not “by nature totally and wholly depraved” is because Jesus came to earth in the same nature we have, and lived the life we must live by following His example:
As we see the condition of mankind today, the question arises in the minds of some, “Is man by nature totally and wholly depraved?” Is he hopelessly ruined? No, he is not. The Lord Jesus left the royal courts and, taking our human nature, lived such a life as everyone may live in humanity, through following His example. We may perfect a life in this world which is an example of righteousness, and overcome as Christ has given us an example in His life, revealing that humanity may conquer as He, the great Pattern conquered (16).
Some have cited as proof for the doctrine of original sin the passage where David writes, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). But we have to note carefully what David does and does not say here. First, he doesn’t say, “as a sinner did my mother conceive me,” but rather, “in sin.” All since Adam have been born into a sinful world. But that isn’t the same as being born a sinner.
Ellen White speaks of how Seth, the third son of Adam, was “born in sin” (17). But never does she say Seth or anyone else has been “born a sinner.” To be born into a sinful world is never equated by inspired writings with being born a sinner. Nowhere do either Scripture or the writings of Ellen White speak of sin as an involuntary condition, at birth or any other time. Both Seth and David, and all others since Adam, have been born into a sinful environment, with inborn fallen urges. But as we have seen from inspired counsel, only an act of the will can make someone a sinner.
Some will also point us to Psalm 58:2, which states: “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.” But notice carefully that this verse speaks only of the wicked, not of all humanity. This verse is simply telling us that those brought into the world without the fear of God begin their downward journey immediately. A number of Ellen White statements speak very clearly about children going astray from their earliest moments because of the misdeeds and neglect of their parents (18).
Some may ask, “If babies aren’t sinners at birth, do they need a Savior?” Absolutely. Because of our fallen natures, all need a Savior’s power to keep from yielding to that nature. But according to Scripture, only if we choose to sin do we need a Savior’s forgiveness. The apostle John writes, “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (I John 2:1). Notice that forgiveness is available if we sin, not when. But all beings who possess a fallen nature need a Savior’s power to resist that nature.
Still others have pointed to the following Ellen White statement as support for original sin:
The inheritance of children is that of sin. Sin has separated them from God. . . . As related to the first Adam, men receive from him nothing but guilt and the sentence of death (19).
By itself, this statement might well prove sin to be an involuntary condition. But no inspired statement stands by itself. And Ellen White is clear how inspired passages are to be understood when she writes: “The testimonies themselves will be the key that will explain the messages given, as scripture is explained by scripture” (20).
First of all, as with Psalm 51:5, let’s consider what the above statement says, and what it doesn’t say. It says “the inheritance of children is that of sin”—in other words, resulting from sin. It doesn’t say the inheritance of children is sin itself. Never does any inspired statement say children inherit sin merely by being born.
The statement then says that “sin has separated them from God.” But again, it doesn’t say they’ve been separated merely by being born. No inspired statement says human beings are born separated from God. Rather, the Bible says, “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you” (Isa. 59:2). In other words, Adam’s iniquity hasn’t separated us from God. Our iniquities have. Ellen White agrees:
By choosing to sin, men separate themselves from God, cut themselves off from the channel of blessing, and the sure result is ruin and death (21).
God does not separate from His people, but His people separate themselves from God by their own course of action (22).
And what of the statement, “As related to the first Adam, men receive from him nothing but guilt and the sentence of death”? Again we must look at the precise wording of this statement. How in fact are guilt and the sentence of death received? The statement doesn’t say they are received involuntarily at birth. One is reminded of the language of Romans 5:17, which speaks of those “who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness.” Adam’s guilt and eternal death sentence are received in the same way grace and the gift of righteousness are received—by choice. Using the language of Romans 5, Ellen White points this out:
We may choose God’s way and live; we may choose our own way, and know that sin has entered into the world, and death by sin (23).
According to the inspired pen, sin—like righteousness—is a choice. Neither Scripture nor Ellen White teach that sin is an involuntary state received at birth, or that our inherited fallen natures constitute sin apart from our choice to yield to them. The doctrine of original sin, as we have seen, traces its roots not to the Bible, but to the peculiar cocktail of pagan and Christian beliefs developed in the thinking and experience of Saint Augustine. Robert Brinsmead’s embrace of this teaching, and his attempt to combine it with the Bible-based, classic Adventist construct known as Last Generation Theology, formed the basis of the so-called “Awakening” heresy which he agitated in the church during the 1960s. Starting off “on the wrong foot,” as the saying goes, his journey wasn’t likely to end well.
The next installment of our series will address the issue of preparation for the end-time sealing, and how Brinsmead’s teaching led many astray regarding this question.
1. Robert D. Brinsmead, quoted by Richard W. Schwartz, Light Bearers to the Remnant (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1979), p. 458.
2. Schwartz, Light Bearers to the Remnant, p. 458.
3. Brinsmead, A Review of the Awakening Message, Part 1, p. 4; quoted by Paxton, The Shaking of Adventism, pp. 101-102; An Answer to “Conflicting Concepts of Righteousness by Faith in the Seventh-day Adventist Church” (Sydney, Australia: Wittenberg Steam Press Publishing Assn, 1976), p. 89.
4. Geoffrey J. Paxton, The Shaking of Adventism (Wilmington, DE: Zenith Publishing Co, 1977), pp. 98-100.
5. Ibid, p. 98.
6. Ibid, p. 99.
7. Louis Berkof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Erdmann’s, 1977), p. 244.
8. Will Durant, The Age of Faith (New York: MJF Books, 1950), p. 65.
9. Ibid, p. 66.
10. Ibid, pp. 64-66.
11. See Ralph Larson, The Word Was Made Flesh: One Hundred Years of Seventh-day Adventist Christology, 1850-1950 (Cherry Valley, CA: The Cherrystone Press, 1986), pp. 331-333.
12. Ellen G. White, That I May Know Him, p. 140.
13. Signs of the Times, Dec. 18, 1893.
14. Temperance, p. 16.
15. From the Heart, p. 151.
16. Manuscript Releases, vol. 9, p. 238.
17. Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, p. 53.
18. Child Guidance, p. 289; Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 150; Selected Messages, vol. 3, pp. 117-118; Review and Herald, March 28, 1893.
19. Child Guidance, p. 475.
20. Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 42.
21. Ibid, p. 235.
22. 1888 Materials, p. 1011.
23. Signs of the Times, June 27, 1900.