A recent article in an independent Adventist magazine has drawn attention to the continuing struggle over the scope and the meaning of the Biblical gospel in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (1).
The article defines this struggle over the gospel in contemporary Adventism as taking place between what it calls the “gospel of grace” taught by Martin Luther and classic Protestantism, and what it calls the “gospel of character development,” which in the article’s view is a “variation of the Roman Catholic tenet of salvation by works” (2). The article uses both Scripture and the writings of Ellen White to articulate its stance.
The author of this article and the present writer are in full accord regarding the reality of conflict and divisiveness in the church between these two understandings of the gospel. We differ quite dramatically, however, with regard to what the inspired writings teach concerning the true meaning of the gospel of divine grace. It is the present writer’s prayer that the self-interpretive clarity of the inspired writings on this subject will demonstrate which of us has rightly considered the evidence, and which of us has not.
The Gospel of Grace
The article in question bases its belief regarding grace and salvation on the following well-known passage:
For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.
Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:8-10).
On the basis of these verses, the article insists that “we are not saved by faith or works. We are saved by grace” (3). The article’s understanding of grace is that “when it comes to salvation we can only be receivers, not achievers!” (4), that “the true gospel of grace is all about what God has done FOR YOU, and not about what you do FOR GOD” (5).
Unfortunately, however, the article fails to consider both the content of the above passage from Ephesians and the meaning of divine grace as explained throughout the New Testament. For starters, the phrase “not of works” in Ephesians 2:9 is parallel to the phrase “not of yourselves” in verse 8, offering clear evidence that self-generated works—not the Spirit-empowered works made possible through conversion—are what the apostle is subtracting from the saving process. The reference to boasting in verse 9 makes this point even clearer, as the apostle associates boasting elsewhere in his writings with unregenerate, surface piety of the pharisaic stripe (Rom. 2:17-23), as distinct from the fruits of the Spirit in the sanctified life which include meekness (Gal. 5:23), the opposite of boasting.
It is true that verse 10 of Ephesians 2 is in fact speaking of sanctified works. But the language of the previous two verses clearly disallows a similar conclusion regarding the works mentioned in verse 9. Boastful piety and sanctification represent contrary and hostile forces so far as Biblical salvation theology and the Christian life are concerned.
Regarding grace, the Bible notes this divine attribute not only as the means of our forgiveness (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7), but also as power for holy living. Such verses as the following come to mind in this regard:
For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me (II Cor. 12:8-9).
Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus (II Tim. 2:1).
For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men. Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world (Titus 2:11).
Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear (Heb. 12:28).
In each of these passages, grace is depicted as divine guidance and strength for the achievement of practical godliness. Certainly God’s grace is also the means of our being forgiven for past sins (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7), for which we can praise the Lord! But if the above verses mean what they say, such grace is also the means for the expulsion of sin from the Christian life.
Biblical salvation, after all, means to be saved from sin. That’s what the angel Gabriel said to Joseph when he declared, “Thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Putting all these passages together, it becomes clear that when Paul writes that “by grace are ye saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8), he is speaking of more than just forgiveness. He is also speaking of power for godly, victorious living.
Elsewhere Paul clarifies further that the internal, transformative righteousness of regeneration and sanctification form a part of the actual process of salvation, and are not merely the fruits of being saved:
God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth (II Thess. 2:13).
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost (Titus 3:5).
Here again, as in Ephesians, we see Paul drawing a contrast between divinely-empowered and self-empowered salvation. But this verse is even clearer that the exclusion of “works” from the saving process is not the exclusion of what God accomplishes in and through the believer in the way of practical holiness. Rather, it is the works “which we have done,” apart from divine empowerment, which can have no part in fulfilling the Biblical requirements for salvation. What God makes possible through conversion and sanctification is quite another matter. Hence the following statement from Ellen White:
He who is trying to reach heaven by his own works in keeping the law, is attempting an impossibility. Man cannot be saved without obedience, but his works should not be of himself; Christ should work in him to will and to do of His good pleasure. If man could save himself by his own works, he might have something in himself in which to rejoice. The effort that man makes in his own strength to obtain salvation, is represented by the offering of Cain. All that man can do without Christ is polluted with selfishness and sin, but that which is wrought through faith is acceptable to God (6).
In light of this, such statements as those of the article in question that “when it comes to salvation we can only be receivers, not achievers!” (7), or that “the true gospel of grace is all about what God has done FOR YOU, and not about what you do FOR GOD” (8), are enormously misleading. If the article were speaking of attempted spiritual achievement, doing things purportedly “for God,” in one’s own strength, we could agree. But the article’s overall message is clear that character development through divine-human cooperation is very much what the author seeks to exclude from the gospel, as we shall see.
The “Gospel of Character Development”
The article in question continues with a blunt and bold attack on what it calls the “false gospel of character development” (9). The article states regarding this allegedly “false” gospel: “It only takes two quotes from the writings of Ellen White to expose it for the false gospel it is” (10).
Here is the first of these statements cited by the article:
The character of Christ is an infinitely perfect character, and He must be lifted up, He must be brought prominently into view, for He is the power, the might, the sanctification and righteousness of all who believe in Him (11).
The article then urges the reader to “contrast this with [Mrs. White’s] declaration about the character of even the best among us” (12):
The divine beauty of the character of Christ, of whom the NOBLEST and most gentle among men are but a FAINT reflection, of whom Solomon by the spirit of Inspiration wrote, He is “the chiefest among ten thousand, . . . yea, He is altogether lovely” (Song of Solomon 5:10-16); of whom David, seeing Him in prophetic vision, said, “Thou art fairer than the children of men” (Psalm 45:2); Jesus, the express image of the Father’s person, the effulgence of His glory, the self-denying Redeemer; throughout His pilgrimage of love on earth, was a living representation of the character of the law of God. In His life it is made manifest that heaven-born love, Christlike principles, underlie the laws of eternal rectitude (13).
The article in question then states:
If only Christ’s infinitely perfect character can atone for our sins, and even the noblest of men are but a faint reflection of that character, teaching people that unless they achieve a perfect character they can’t be saved is a satanic lie. This statement about character includes the 12 apostles, all the prophets, and the 144,000. None of them can achieve sinless perfection; they all have flawed characters that are but a faint reflection of Christ’s character. You are only saved by Christ’s perfection, and no one else ever has been (except Adam and Eve until they sinned) or will be perfect or sinless until Jesus comes (14).
But the claims of this article fall woefully short of both the collective evidence of Scripture and the writings of Ellen White, as well as simple logic. While it is true, as the first of the above Ellen White statements declares, that the source of the Christian’s righteousness is in fact the infinite righteousness of Jesus, it is quite false to assert that only an infinite righteousness can meet the demands of God’s law. After all, the sinless angels in heaven are not infinite beings, nor do they possess infinite righteousness. Many of them even failed to understand the principles of Satan’s rebellion till the events of the cross opened their eyes:
By shedding the blood of the Son of God, he (Satan) had uprooted himself from the sympathies of the heavenly beings. . . . The last link of sympathy between Satan and the heavenly world was broken (15).
In the latter act (murder), Satan uprooted himself from the affection of the loyal universe. In the death of the Son of God the deceiver was unmasked (16).
And yet Ellen White states elsewhere that these same sinless beings, who have at times suffered from a less-than-perfect understanding of things, do not need God’s grace:
God loves the sinless angels, who do His service and are obedient to all His commands, but He does not give them grace. These heavenly beings know nought of grace; they have never needed it, for they have never sinned (17).
Thus, while only God possesses absolute, infinite righteousness, as only He is an infinite Being, it is not correct to say that God alone possesses absolute sinlessness. The angels and other unfallen inhabitants of the universe are totally free from sin, rendering perfect obedience to the divine law each moment of their existence. Yet nowhere do the inspired writings depict these being as possessing “infinite righteousness.”
It is quite wrong, therefore, to insist that only infinite righteousness can satisfy God’s law, and that anything short of this infinite righteousness constitutes sin. If that were true, the unfallen, perfectly sinless beings of the universe would all be guilty of breaking the divine law.
No one will argue against the idea that the noblest beings on earth are but a faint reflection of the character of Jesus, as Ellen White observes in the second of the above statements quoted by the article in question. This is true of the sinless angels also, even though they are fully without sin. Only Jesus has made the infinite sacrifice for a fallen world, something no angel could ever have done, as no angel has the throne of God to give up. But one is astounded that the article in question fails to consider the following statement from the very next paragraph on the page being quoted:
By His own obedience to the law, Christ testified to its immutable character, and proved that through His grace it could be perfectly obeyed by every son and daughter of Adam (18).
Thus, far from teaching that the infinity of Christ’s perfection makes perfect obedience to the law out of reach for the earthly Christian, Ellen White proceeds—in the immediate context of the very statement cited by the article in question—to teach exactly the opposite. And let no one misconstrue the above statement as teaching that Jesus’ perfect obedience merely “covers” the sons and daughters of Adam, while occasional sin continues. Nothing in the statement’s context says anything whatsoever about declarative righteousness. It is practical righteousness that is in focus, which is clear from Ellen White’s statement that Jesus’ obedience “proved” that Adam’s descendants can render the same perfect obedience He rendered, through the same divine power (grace) available to Him. Jesus proved, He demonstrated, that all of Adam’s children can do as He did. And as we have seen from the Bible, God’s grace isn’t only about forgiveness. It is about empowerment also (II Cor. 12:8-9; II Tim. 2:1; Heb. 12:28).
The article in question insists that “teaching people that unless they achieve a perfect character they can’t be saved is a satanic lie” (19). Yet Ellen White is clear that this is precisely what is required for salvation through empowering divine grace:
Christ came to this earth and lived a life of perfect obedience, that men and women, through His grace, might also live lives of perfect obedience. This is necessary to their salvation (20).
Let us be clear, of course, that human beings are only accountable for the light and truth God has shown them (Acts 17:30; James 4:17), and that the mediation of Christ in heaven covers sins of ignorance on the part of the faithful (21). But those who will stand through the time of trouble following probation’s close must stand without a Mediator (22), which means all ignorant sin will by that time have been revealed and conquered through God’s power in their lives.
The Gospel According to Scripture and the Writings of Ellen White
The passionate flourishes by the article in question against what it calls the “gospel of character development” seem oblivious to some very clear statements in the New Testament regarding the substance of the Christian gospel. The apostle Paul writes, speaking of the gospel:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth (Rom. 1:16).
And as we have seen, Biblical salvation is all about being saved from sin (Matt. 1:21), a process which the same Bible declares to include sanctified character development and internal transformation through the Holy Spirit (II Thess. 2:13; Titus 3:5).
When Jesus defined His responsibility to preach the gospel, it was in the context of spiritual healing and deliverance. Quoting from the prophet Isaiah in his discourse at Nazareth, he stated:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He hath sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised (Luke 4:18).
How is spiritual healing, deliverance, and freedom to be distinguished from divinely-empowered character development? Certainly nothing in the teachings of Christ offers evidence for such a distinction.
Consider also the first angel’s message in Revelation 14, which speaks of the “everlasting gospel” to be given to the world before Jesus returns:
And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment is come (Rev. 14:6-7).
This first of the three angels is depicted as proclaiming the everlasting gospel. And this gospel includes the command to “fear God, and give glory to Him” (verse 7). Elsewhere the Bible associates this fear with obedience to God’s commandments (Eccl. 12:13), departing from evil (Job 28:28), hating evil (Prov. 8:13), and serving the Lord “with a perfect heart” (II Chron. 19:9). All of this sounds very much like practical, divinely-enabled character development.
The phrase “give glory to Him” evokes the same meaning. Scripture identifies God’s glory as His character (Ex. 33:18-19; 34:6-7; Isa. 40:5; 60:1-2), which is why Scripture says that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). When the Bible speaks of God’s righteousness revealed in His people, it is equated with God’s glory (Rom. 8:18; II Cor. 3:18; Eph. 3:16-21; 5:26-27; Phil. 1:11). Once again, this is practical holiness being described—sanctified character development.
If the everlasting gospel commands men and women to “fear God and give glory to Him” (Rev. 14:6-7), it is inconceivable that one adhering to Biblical teachings could attack—as the article in question attacks—the “gospel of character development” (23). Again, if the article were speaking of attempted character development apart from conversion and sanctification, we could agree that this is wrong and inimical to the gospel of Scripture. But no distinction is made by the article between self-generated efforts at character development and character development accomplished through divine-human cooperation. The former represents the salvation by works condemned in Scripture (Rom. 3:20,28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9). The latter, by contrast, represents the true Biblical gospel of grace, which includes both justifying and sanctifying righteousness (Eph. 1:7; II Thess. 2:13), both divine initiative and consecrated human endeavor (Phil. 2:12-13; Heb. 12:28).
In a number of Ellen White statements, the gospel is clearly identified with post-conversion character development:
Said the apostle, speaking of the gospel, “To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (24).
Teach them the first principle of the gospel, which is Christ formed within, the hope of glory (25).
The gospel of Christ is the law exemplified in character (26).
The union of Christlike work for the body and Christlike work for the soul is the true interpretation of the gospel (27).
When temperance is presented as a part of the gospel, many will see their need of reform (29).
The Lord has given instruction that the gospel is to be carried forward, and the gospel includes health reform in all its phases (29).
Notice how none of these passages speak of Christ formed within, the law exemplified in character, temperance, or health reform as “fruits” of the gospel. Rather, they are described as integral components of the gospel.
Far from excluding the possibility of perfect obedience to the divine law—perfect character development—from the gospel, the following statement says such divinely-empowered achievement is the foundation of the gospel:
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 His 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 (30).
Is Biblical Sanctification Declarative Only?
The article in question comes very close to teaching, if it doesn’t teach outright, the strange notion that both justification and sanctification are exclusively declarative in nature, not transformative. The article makes the following statement on this point:
The Bible also teaches that we are sanctified by grace in the same way that we are justified by grace. Both justification and sanctification are by faith and not by our own works. . . . We are justified by the blood of Christ, saved by HIS LIFE, and we are also sanctified by His blood offering on the cross! This is what sanctification accomplishes for us. We are declared HOLY by God, and our sanctification has already been accomplished through Christ on the cross (31).
The impartation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer seems totally absent from this article. Two verses from the book of Hebrews are especially central to the article’s defense of this position:
By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. . . . By one offering He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified (Heb. 10:10,14).
First of all, verse 10 doesn’t teach that anyone has been sanctified “once for all,” but rather, than the sacrifice of Jesus has occurred once for all. That is the whole point of this passage in Hebrews—that the sacrifice of Jesus has occurred once for all time, and that the Old Testament sacrifices have therefore ceased (Heb. 10:1). Obviously the sanctification here described is not a “once for all” transaction, as it is clear in verses 28 and 29 of this same chapter that those thus sanctified, if they should repudiate the Savior, will suffer divine punishment.as a result.
What is more, when the sanctification described in Hebrews 10:10,14 is considered alongside other verses which speak similarly of the impact of the cross event on the Christian, it is clear that what is being described is the self-surrender and sacrifice of one’s own will by the believer in oneness with the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. This is what the apostle Paul is describing when he writes elsewhere:
I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me (Gal. 2:20).
This is what the same author is describing when he speaks of the meaning of Christian baptism:
Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with Him by baptism into death: that like us Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3-4).
No external declaration is in play here. This is death to self in the similitude of Christ’s death on the cross. The collective evidence of the New Testament, together with the passage’s immediate context, give us every reason to believe Hebrews 10:10,14 is talking about the same thing when it speaks of the cross sanctifying believers.
Declarative righteousness, of course, is a very real thing in the saving process. The article in question refers to an Ellen White statement which speaks of how, for the one who accepts Jesus, “Christ’s character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned” (32). But in context, this statement is only speaking of the substitution of Christ’s life for the believer’s sinful past, not a blanket, umbrella-style substitution for the Christian’s entire life (including the results of practical sanctification), as certain ones believe. Just prior to the above-quoted sentence, Ellen White says:
If you give yourself to Him, and accept Him as your Saviour, then, sinful as your life may have been, for His sake you are accounted righteous (33).
Notice it says, “sinful as your life may have been,” not “sinful though your life is and is always destined to be.” Past sins are the subject of this context, not present or future ones. The concept of “overarching” or “umbrella” forgiveness is not taught in either Scripture or the writings of Ellen White.
Another Ellen White statement follows the same thought pattern as those quoted above:
The law requires righteousness—a righteous life, a perfect character, and this man has not to give. He cannot meet the claims of God’s holy law. But Christ, coming to earth as man, lived a holy life, and developed a perfect character. These He offers as a free gift to all who will receive them. His life stands for the life of men. Thus they have remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God. More than this, Christ imbues me with the attributes of God. He builds up the human character after the similitude of the divine character, a goodly fabric of spiritual strength and beauty. Thus the very righteousness of the law is fulfilled in the believer in Christ (34).
Elsewhere she writes:
Christ bears the penalty of man's past transgressions; and by imparting to man his righteousness, makes it possible for man to keep God's holy law (35).
In other words, declarative righteousness covers our past sins, and sins of ignorance (36), but nowhere does the inspired pen speak of declarative righteousness as an umbrella covering the believer’s past, present, and future—including practical growth in sanctification. When Ellen White speaks of imparted righteousness—a theme which, as we have noted, seems all but absent from the article in question—she is speaking of the righteousness of sanctification (37). And in Ellen White’s writings, as in the Bible, this righteousness is practical and visible, not a mere divine declaration. The fact that the apostle Paul speaks of “salvation through sanctification of the Spirit” (II Thess. 2:13) makes it clear that the sanctification which saves the believer involves the Spirit’s internal work of changing the life and character.
The article in question states, “We cannot make ourselves holy; it is only God that can declare us holy” (38). But as we have seen, Biblical sanctification is not declarative; it is transformative and cooperative. This is how Paul can say, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God which worketh in you, but to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). This is how Ellen White can state:
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 (39).
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 those who consent to let Him take away their sins (40).
Quoting Isaiah’s statement that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6), the article in question comments: “Notice this doesn’t say, ‘All our sins are filthy rags.’ It says “All our RIGHTEOUSNESSES are sinful’” (41). As the article makes no distinction between the self-generated deeds of the unconverted heart and the imparted righteousness of Jesus that changes and empowers the Christian, one has every reason to believe that post-conversion, practical godliness falls under the author’s description of “filthy rags” in this article.
But this is not what the Bible teaches. Revelation 19:7-8 is perhaps clearest of all in this regard. Modern translations of this passage more accurately reflect the language of the text:
Let us rejoice and be glad and give Him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and His bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear. Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints (NIV).
No filthy rags here. Only fine linen. And what does it stand for? “The righteous acts of the saints.” This is not a description of the bride’s state in heaven, nor of the act of glorification at the second coming of Christ. Rather, it speaks of the bride’s preparation for heaven while still on earth. That’s why the passage says that “His bride has made herself ready.” Most brides can attest as to the strenuous effort such preparation entails! It is this preparation that is described as the fine linen she is seen as wearing at the end of history, representing righteous deeds made possible through imparted divine strength.
Living Our Lord’s Sinless Life
The article in question quotes Ellen White as saying, “No one is perfect but Jesus” (42). The implication is that Ellen White taught that nobody can be perfect here on earth except Jesus. But this statement is no different from Paul’s declaration that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Ellen White’s statement, like Paul’s, merely affirms that all who have walked this planet except Jesus have at one time or another chosen to break God’s law. But just as the apostle Paul makes it plain that this condition need not persist in the Christian’s life—declaring to the believer 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)—so Ellen White is clear that while Jesus is the only perfectly faultless One who ever lived, and thus the only One worth dwelling upon as a perfect example, the sinless life Jesus lived is very much within the reach of the striving faithful.
Ellen White’s teachings regarding sinless obedience, which we will consider in a moment, are borrowed entirely from Holy Scripture. Such verses as the following, from both Testaments, are among the plainest in this regard:
Stand in awe, and sin not; commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah (Psalm 4:4).
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).
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).
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).
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it. That He might sanctify and cleanse it through the washing of water by the Word. That He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:25-27).
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).
Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity (II Tim. 2:19).
For even hereunto were ye called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we should follow in His steps. Who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth (I Peter 2:21-22).
Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin (I Peter 4:1).
But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat; the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, in the which the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? . . . Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless (II Peter 3:10-12,14).
But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin. . . . If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:7,9).
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. . . . Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as He is righteous (I John 3:2-3,7).
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).
It is on the basis of verses like the above that Ellen White declares the hope of sinless conduct through divine strength this side of heaven, in such statements as the following:
The tempter’s agency is not to be accounted an excuse for one wrong act. Satan is jubilant when he hears the followers of Christ making excuses for their deformity of character. It is these excuses that lead to sin. There is no excuse for sinning. A holy temper, a Christlike life, is accessible to every repenting, believing child of God (43).
In our world, we are to remember the way in which Christ worked. He made the world. He made man. Then He came in person to the world to show its inhabitants how to live sinless lives” (44).
Paul writes to the Corinthians, “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.” When you come into this position, the work of consecration will be better understood by you both. Your thoughts will be pure, chaste, and elevated, your actions pure and sinless” (45).
To everyone who surrenders fully to God is given the privilege of living without sin, in obedience to the law of heaven (46).
Christ bore the sins of the whole world. He was the second Adam. Taking upon Himself human nature, He passed over the ground where Adam stumbled and fell. Having taken humanity, He has an intense interest in human beings. He felt keenly the sinfulness, the shame, of sin. He is our Elder Brother. He came to prove that human beings can, through the power of God, live sinless lives (47).
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 (48).
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 (49).
The article in question has stated that “no one [except Jesus] has ever been (except Adam and Eve until they sinned) or will be perfect or sinless until Jesus comes” (50). Elsewhere the article states: “Never confuse sanctification with glorification. The all-encompassing perfection of sinlessness is only received in glorification, not sanctification” (51).
The above statements from both Scripture and Ellen White should be clear enough to refute these claims. But in another statement Ellen White is especially clear that the removal of sin from Christian lives is entirely to be accomplished before probation ceases, not at the second coming:
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 (52).
Adventism and the Protestant Reformation
At its beginning, the article in question makes the following claim:
The gospel of grace taught by Seventh-day Adventists is solidly in the Protestant camp. Ellen G. White in The Great Controversy agreed with Martin Luther’s message and his differences with the papal church when it comes to the gospel. The church’s official position on the gospel contained in the Twenty-Eight Fundamentals of the faith is also Lutheran, or Protestant (53).
While it is beyond the scope of this analysis to focus at length on the substance of the Reformers’ teaching in contrast with that of medieval Catholicism, it would be dangerous to assume that Ellen White gave any carte blanche endorsement to Martin Luther’s teachings on salvation, especially as Luther’s teachings included such unscriptural doctrines as predestination. Ellen White does, however, offer the following contrast between Luther’s teachings and those of the papacy regarding salvation and the gospel:
Many of his (Luther’s) own congregation had purchased certificates of pardon, and they soon began to come to their pastor, confessing their various sins, and expecting absolution, not because they were penitent and wished to reform, but on the ground of the indulgence. Luther refused them absolution, and warned them that unless they should repent and reform their lives, they must perish in their sins. . . .
Luther now entered boldly upon his work as a champion of the truth. His voice was heard from the pulpit in earnest, solemn warning. He set before the people the offensive character of sin, and taught them that it is impossible for man, by his own works, to lessen its guilt or evade its punishment. Nothing but repentance toward God and faith in Christ can save the sinner (54).
According to Ellen White, “Repentance includes sorrow for sin, and a turning away from it” (55). Notice how the problem with Catholic teachings identified by Ellen White is not that repentance and reformation of life are necessary in order to receive God’s forgiveness, but rather, that compliance with human rituals and stipulations (e.g. the purchase of indulgences) make one eligible for forgiveness. According to Ellen White’s inspired commentary, this was the issue that split Christendom in the sixteenth century. No tug-of-war between declarative righteousness and sanctified character development is stated by the inspired pen to have been the cause of this pivotal event in Christian history.
And regarding the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, nowhere do these beliefs state that salvation is accomplished for the believer by declarative righteousness only, and not at all by the Holy Spirit’s regenerating and sanctifying work in the life of the Christian.
Conclusion: Two Conflicting Gospels
In sum, the article in question is quite right about two conflicting gospels vying for the allegiance of contemporary Adventists. One of these is the classic Seventh-day Adventist view of the gospel, based on Scripture and the writings of Ellen White. This gospel teaches that the grace of God which accomplishes our salvation both forgives our past sins and enables us—through cooperative human effort—to live here on earth the same sinless life Jesus lived, through the same divine power available to Him.
The other gospel comes to the Seventh-day Adventist Church from mainstream evangelical Christianity, and teaches a very different view of salvation. This view sees salvation as accomplished entirely through declarative righteousness, and holds that transformative righteousness—even when accomplished by the Holy Spirit through conversion—will never be complete in this life. For this gospel, sinless obedience will never be achieved by the Christian this side of heaven, not even through God’s power.
The article in question clearly embraces the second of these two gospels. It is the hope and prayer of the present writer that the inspired evidence laid out in both the article and this response, when compared together, will make clear which gospel truly represents the doctrine of salvation contained in the written counsel of God.
1. Tom Hughes, “Adventism’s Two Conflicting Gospels,” Adventist Today, March 12, 2017 http://atoday.org/adventisms-two-conflicting-gospels/
3. Ibid (italics original).
5. Ibid (capitalization original).
6. Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 364.
7. Hughes, “Adventism’s Two Conflicting Gospels,” Adventist Today, March 12, 2017 http://atoday.org/adventisms-two-conflicting-gospels/
11. White, Reflecting Christ, p. 82.
12. Hughes, “Adventism’s Two Conflicting Gospels,” Adventist Today, March 12, 2017 http://atoday.org/adventisms-two-conflicting-gospels/
13. White, Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, p. 49 (capitalization added).
14. Hughes, “Adventism’s Two Conflicting Gospels,” Adventist Today, March 12, 2017 http://atoday.org/adventisms-two-conflicting-gospels/
15. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 761.
16. ----Christ Triumphant, p. 11.
17. ----In Heavenly Places, p. 34.
18. ----Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, p. 49.
19. Hughes, “Adventism’s Two Conflicting Gospels,” Adventist Today, March 12, 2017 http://atoday.org/adventisms-two-conflicting-gospels/
20. White, Review and Herald, March 15, 1906.
21. ----Early Writings, p. 254.
22. Ibid, p. 71; The Great Controversy, pp. 425,614.
23. Hughes, “Adventism’s Two Conflicting Gospels,” Adventist Today, March 12, 2017 http://atoday.org/adventisms-two-conflicting-gospels/
24. White, Review and Herald, June 11, 1889.
25. ----Sermons and Talks, vol. 2, p. 73.
26. ----Maranatha, p. 18.
27. ----My Life Today, p. 224.
28. ----Testimonies, vol. 7, p. 75.
29. ----Medical Ministry, p. 159.
30. ----Selected Messages, vol. 1, pp. 211-212.
31. Hughes, “Adventism’s Two Conflicting Gospels,” Adventist Today, March 12, 2017 http://atoday.org/adventisms-two-conflicting-gospels/
32. White, Steps to Christ, p. 62.
34. ----The Desire of Ages, p. 762.
35. ----SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 1092.
36. ----Early Writings, p. 254.
37. ----Messages to Young People, p. 35.
38. Hughes, “Adventism’s Two Conflicting Gospels,” Adventist Today, March 12, 2017 http://atoday.org/adventisms-two-conflicting-gospels/
39. White, Acts of the Apostles, p. 482.
40. ----SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 972.
41. Hughes, “Adventism’s Two Conflicting Gospels,” Adventist Today, March 12, 2017 http://atoday.org/adventisms-two-conflicting-gospels/
42. White, That I May Know Him, p. 136.
43. ----The Desire of Ages, p. 311.
44. ----Evangelism, p. 385.
45. ----Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 83.
46. ----Review and Herald, Sept. 27, 1906.
47. ----Signs of the Times, Aug. 9, 1905.
48. ----Selected Messages, vol. 3, p. 360.
49. ----Review and Herald, April 1, 1902.
50. Hughes, “Adventism’s Two Conflicting Gospels,” Adventist Today, March 12, 2017 http://atoday.org/adventisms-two-conflicting-gospels/
52. White, Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 355 (italics supplied).
53. Hughes, “Adventism’s Two Conflicting Gospels,” Adventist Today, March 12, 2017 http://atoday.org/adventisms-two-conflicting-gospels/
54. White, The Great Controversy, pp. 128-129.
55. ----Steps to Christ, p. 23.