In this third installment of our series on alleged contradictions in the writings of Ellen White, we will examine the popular claim of recent decades that Ellen White’s salvation theology evolved from a predominantly law-focused, even legalistic emphasis in her early years, to a more Christ-centered, grace-oriented message in her later ministry, particularly in the aftermath of the Minneapolis General Conference in 1888 and its emphasis on righteousness by faith. Some have described this as a “Sinai to Golgotha” trajectory in Ellen White’s alleged theological development.
No one denies, of course, that as Ellen White’s ministry advanced, the expression of Biblical truth in her writings offered deeper insights and greater spiritual enrichment. A good example of these broader, deeper insights can be seen in the contrast between the depiction of end-time events in the book Early Writings and the later depiction of these events in The Great Controversy. But we must beware of reading Ellen White’s theological statements—or the Bible’s, for that matter—through the lenses of theological theories which often fail to consider the totality of the Biblical message on a given subject. This problem is especially acute when theological constructs from outside the Seventh-day Adventist Church are permitted to inform Seventh-day Adventist convictions regarding the meaning of inspired writings.
When reading Ellen White’s statements—pre- or post-1888—on salvation and righteousness by faith, on what basis is the accuracy or maturity of her insights determined? Are we permitting the self-explanatory, self-interpreting pronouncements of Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy writings to define such terms as grace, legalism, justification, sanctification, or any number of others? Do we measure Ellen White’s salvation statements by a Biblical standard fully informed by the salvation theology present throughout the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments? Or do we measure her statements by a theological standard informed by but a few Bible passages, heavily flavored by the assumptions and sentiments of uninspired theologians (Adventist and otherwise), and often blended with an experience-driven quest for spiritual comfort?
The totality of Scripture, in both Testaments, must ever form the foundation of all the Christian’s doctrinal conclusions. We cannot forget that the Berean Christians in New Testament times were commended by the apostles for testing the teachings of Paul and his associates by the Old Testament Scriptures (Acts 17:11)—the only Scriptures available at the time to these believers by which they could test what they heard. Indeed, it was the Old Testament upon which Paul based his doctrine of justification by faith (see Psalm 32:1-2; Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17; 4:6-8). No wonder he would later write to Timothy that “from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make these wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (II Tim. 3:15). Again, the only Scriptures available to Timothy during his childhood would have been those of the Old Testament. Paul was obviously under no illusion that his doctrine of righteousness by faith was some New Testament novelty.
Again we note a signature passage in the writings of Ellen White, one which should never be lost sight of in discussions such as these:
The testimonies themselves will be the key that will explain the messages given, as scripture is explained by scripture (1SM 42).
The notion that any substantive change occurred in Ellen White’s theology as a result of the righteousness by faith emphasis of certain ones during the 1888 era, is difficult to harmonize with Ellen White’s own assessment of her theology on this subject during this very period. In the following statement, written in 1890, she writes:
The point that has been urged upon my mind for years is the imputed righteousness of Christ. I have wondered that this matter was not made the subject of discourse in our churches throughout the land, when the matter has been kept so constantly urged upon me, and I have made it the subject of nearly every discourse and talk that I have given to the people.
In examining my writings fifteen and twenty years old [I find that they] present the truth in this same light—that those who enter upon the solemn, sacred work of the ministry should first be given a preparation in lessons upon the teachings of Christ and the apostles in living principles of practical godliness (FW 18).
Reflecting on the Minneapolis meeting, Ellen White wrote elsewhere:
At this meeting I bore testimony that the most precious light had been shining forth from the Scriptures in the presentation of the great subject of the righteousness of Christ connected with the law, which should be constantly kept before the sinner as his only hope of salvation. This was not new light to me, for it had come to me from a higher authority for the last forty-four years, and I had presented it to our people by pen and voice in the testimonies of His Spirit (3SM 168, italics supplied).
According to the above statements, the righteousness by faith message of 1888 was not, therefore, new light. Ellen White had been preaching it for years. Which means that those who read her pre-1888 writings and don’t think they see a clear teaching of salvation by grace through faith, may need to bring their preconceived ideas on this topic to the inspired writings for correction.
Ellen White’s pre-1888 statements on the gospel and salvation are just as clear as her post-1888 statements that only through God’s forgiving and empowering grace are the sins of believers pardoned and the obedience required by the law made possible. Such samples as the following from Ellen White’s pre-1888 observations on this subject make this point clear:
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 (1T 705).
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 (2T 81).
In the strength of God alone can you bring yourself where you can be a recipient of His grace, an instrument of righteousness. Not only does God require you to control your thoughts, but also your passions and affections. Your salvation depends upon your governing yourself in these things (2T 561).
The keeping of these (ten) commandments comprises the whole duty of man, and presents the conditions of eternal life. Now the question is, Will man comply with the requirements? Will he love God supremely and his neighbor as himself? There is no possible way for man to do this in his own strength. The divine power of Christ must be added to the effort of humanity (ST Nov. 24, 1887).
And as the following examples demonstrate, Ellen White’s post-1888 statements are just as clear as those prior to 1888 that this Spirit-empowered obedience to the divine law remains the unalterable condition of human salvation:
The work of gaining salvation is one of copartnership, a joint operation. . . . Human effort of itself is not sufficient. Without the aid of divine power it avails nothing. God works and man works (AA 482).
Those who enlist in the army of Christ must in all things submit to His authority and consult His will. Implicit obedience is the condition of salvation. God’s law must be obeyed in every particular. It is our salvation to make His law our rule, His life our pattern, His glory our chief aim (ST Nov. 15, 1899).
The gospel that is to be preached to all nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples presents the truth in clear lines, showing that obedience is the condition of gaining eternal life. Christ imparts His righteousness to all who consent to let Him take away their sins (7BC 972).
When the lawyer came to Christ, saying, 'Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?", the Saviour did not say, Believe, only believe, and you will be saved. 'What is written in the law?' He said, 'how readest thou?' . . . Here the false doctrine that man has nothing to do but believe is swept away. Eternal life is given to us on the condition that we obey the commandments of God (RH June 26, 1900).
Ironically, one of the best critiques I have seen of this “Sinai to Golgotha” theory of alleged “development” on the part of Ellen White’s salvation theology, was published in an ex-Adventist magazine back in 2009. Titled, “Did Ellen White change as she aged?” (Proclamation! January-February 2009, pp. 14-16), the article lists some of the clearest statements available from Ellen White’s later writings which uphold sanctified obedience as a condition of salvation and the possibility of sinless obedience this side of heaven. Among the Ellen White statements included in this article, affirming this point, are the following:
His (Jesus’) example declares that our only hope of eternal life is through bringing the appetites and passions into subjection to the will of God (DA 122).
But in the struggle for immortality we have a part to act. . . . We can never be saved in inactivity and idleness. We might as well look for a harvest from seed which we have not sown, and for knowledge where we have not studied, as to expect salvation without making an effort. It is our part to wrestle against the evil tendencies of the natural heart (YI March 5, 1903).
He came to this world and lived a sinless life, that in His power His people might also lead lives of sinlessness (Atlantic Union Gleaner, Jan. 17, 1906; see also RH April 1, 1902; March 15, 1906).
Man is no passive being, to be saved in indolence. Let no one think that men and women are going to be taken to heaven without engaging in the struggle here below. We have a battle to fight, a victory to gain. God says to us, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” How?—“For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” Man works, and God works. Man is called upon to strain every muscle, and to exercise every faculty, in the struggle for immortality; but it is God who supplies the efficiency (RH April 28, 1910).
The great crisis is before us, and every one is to act as if his own soul was at stake. The most important question of all is, How shall I save my soul, for which Christ died? How shall I be holy as He is holy? (RH May 15, 1913).
While the author and the magazine in question obviously overlook the many New Testament verses which teach as clearly as Ellen White that regeneration, sanctification, and Spirit-empowered obedience to the divine law form part of the process and conditions of salvation (e.g. Matt. 7:21; 12:36-37; 19:16-26; 25:31-46; Luke 10:25-28; Rom. 2:6-10; 8:13; II Thess. 2:13; Titus 3:5; Heb. 5:9; James 2:10-12), they are quite correct in noting the clarity of Ellen White’s later writings in upholding sanctification and character perfection as part of the means of Biblical salvation. What these former Adventists fail to consider, of course, is that the greatest threat to their theology and the false assurance it proffers is not in fact Ellen White, but the Bible itself.
This same article, in yet another irony, correctly debunks the theory that an inspired prophet’s teaching can at any time promote error as truth, even if the error in question is later abandoned:
One problem with this rationalization is that “progressive revelation” is understood as the process of Ellen White’s moving from error toward truth. In fact, however, true progressive revelation never begins in error. If a person is inspired by God, He never gives that person “error.” God cannot lie, and His revelations are always truth, even if they are not revealed in detail (Colleen Tinker, “Did Ellen White change as she aged?” Proclamation! January-February 2009, p. 14).
There is a difference, of course, between an inspired writer moving from error to truth in one’s private convictions and conduct, and such a one teaching such error as part of a public prophetic ministry. John the Baptist, for example, believed wrongly regarding the nature of the Messiah’s kingdom, yet no inspired evidence exists that he taught this error at any time in his public prophetic labors. Ellen White kept Sunday and ate pork during the early years of her ministry, yet she never taught the rightness of these practices in her instruction to the fledgling church.
We will address additional claims of contradiction on Ellen White’s part as the present series proceeds.