The Biblical story of Joshua and the Angel, found in the third chapter of Zechariah and elaborated upon a number of times in the writings of Ellen White, has through the years been a favorite narrative among those Seventh-day Adventists who insist that God’s people at the end of time will still be committing occasional sin, while presumably not losing their salvation.
The story in question speaks of Joshua, high priest of Israel following the return of the Hebrew exiles from Babylon, standing before the Angel of the Lord:
And He showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the Angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him.And the Lord said unto Satan, The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan; even the Lord that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee: is this not a brand plucked out of the fire?
Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and stood before the angel.
And He answered and spake unto those that stood before him, saying, Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him He said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment.
And I said, Let them set a fair mitre upon his head. So they set a fair mitre upon his head, and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord stood by (Zech. 3:1-5).
The writings of Ellen White apply this experience from the post-exilic history of Israel to the antitypical experience of God’s saints in the final moments of the end-time investigative judgment, just before the close of probation (1). The Angel of the Lord before whom Joshua stands is identified by Ellen White as Jesus Christ, who mediates for His people before His Father’s throne (2).
The claim of those who believe this narrative proves that the people of God at the very end of probation will still at times be falling into sin, is based on such statements as the following from Ellen White’s recounting of this story and commentary concerning it. But the reader will carefully notice that every reference to the sins of God’s people in the following passages are in the past tense. Note the phrases in italics, supplied by the present writer:
"Are these,” he [Satan] asks, “the people who are to take my place in heaven, and the place of the angels who united with me? . . . Look at the sins which have marked their lives. Behold their selfishness, their malice, their hatred toward one another.” The people of God have been in many respects very faulty. Satan has an accurate knowledge of the sins which he has tempted them to commit (3).
Elsewhere we read:
Now he [Satan] points to the record of their lives, to the defects of character, the unlikeness to Christ, which has dishonored their Redeemer, to all the sins which he has tempted them to commit (4).
Joshua's victory and that of his people are described as follows:
Israel was clothed in “change of raiment,”—the righteousness of Christ imputed to them. The mitre placed upon Joshua's head was such as was worn by the priests, and bore the inscription, “Holiness to the Lord,” signifying that notwithstanding his former transgressions, he was now qualified to minister before God in His sanctuary (5).
In other words, Ellen White is clear in the above statements that Satan’s accusations, while correct with regard to the past, are correct no longer. She goes on to say, in this same context:
But while the followers of Christ have sinned, they have not given themselves to the control of evil. They have put away their sins, and have sought the Lord in humility and contrition, and the Divine Advocate pleads in their behalf (6).
Another recounting of this story by Ellen White makes it plain that the taking away of the filthy garments of God’s people is conditional on their obedience to the requirements of God:
The Lord does not deny the charge of Joshua’s unworthiness, but He demonstrates that He has bought him with a price. He clothes him with His garments of righteousness, not putting these garments over the filthy garments of disobedience and transgression, but saying first, “Take away the filthy garments from him.” Then He said to Joshua, “Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment.” “Let them set a fair miter upon his head. So they set a fair miter upon his head,” and on this miter was written, “Holiness to the Lord.”
This change is made on condition of obedience. “Thus saith the Lord of hosts, If thou wilt walk in My ways, and if thou wilt keep My charge, then thou shalt also judge My house, and shalt also keep My courts, and I will give thee places to walk among these that stand by.”
When God’s people repent of their sin in departing from plain Bible truth, they will bring forth fruit meet for repentance. Jesus will hear their prayers. They will work the works of righteousness. If those who have departed from the Lord will take warning, if they will change their course of action, they will be received into favor, and their transgressions will be pardoned (7).
Not only is this pardon of sin promised solely on condition of obedience and a turning away from sin; it is equally clear in this statement that the garments of Christ’s righteousness are not placed over the filthy garments of sin, but rather, in place of them. The filthy garments are removed; the sins they represent are in the past. No forensic covering for continuous, presumably unavoidable disobedience is described here.
An even stronger statement, also commenting on the story of Joshua and the Angel, makes it clear that those who haven’t stopped sinning are not a part of the group from whom the filthy garments are removed:
“And He showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him. And the Lord said unto Satan, The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan, even the Lord that hast chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee; is not this a brand plucked out of the fire? Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments and stood before the angel” (Zech. 3:1-3). Joshua here represents the people of God; and Satan pointing to their filthy garments claims them as his property over which he has a right to exercise his cruel power. But these very ones have improved the hours of probation to confess their sins with contrition of soul and put them away, and Jesus has written pardon against their names.
Those who have not ceased to sin and who have not repented and sought pardon for their transgressions are not represented in this company (8).
In other words, Ellen White is unmistakably clear that those represented by Joshua in this narrative, whose filthy garments are removed and replaced with a change of raiment, are no longer committing sin.
Some will point our attention to the following statement, also in the context of the story of Joshua and the Angel, which speaks of Jesus making up for the “unavoidable deficiencies” of His people:
Jesus is perfect. Christ's righteousness is imputed unto them [His people], and He will say, “Take away the filthy garments from him and clothe him with change of raiment.” Jesus makes up for our unavoidable deficiencies. When Christians are faithful to each other, and loyal to the Captain of the Lord's host, never betraying trusts into the enemy's hands, they will be transformed into Christ's character (9).
But we have seen already, in our review of Ellen White’s statements relative to this story, that the sins of God’s people are in the past. They are not unavoidable because our sinful natures make them inevitable even for the sanctified Christian, but rather, because the past cannot be changed. The sinful past of God’s saints can only be covered by the forgiving righteousness of Jesus. But the taking away of the record of sin which these filthy garments represent is only possible because God’s people, through God’s power, have confessed, forsaken, and conquered these transgressions.
Still others will direct our attention to a later version of the story of Joshua and the Angel in Ellen White’s writings, which presumably places the imperfections of God’s people in the present tense. Here is the statement in question:
He who has been most abused by their ingratitude, who knows their sin and also their penitence, declares, “The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan. I gave My life for these souls. They are graven upon the palms of My hands. They may have imperfections of character; they may have failed in their endeavors; but they have repented, and I have forgiven and accepted them” (10).
Notice once again, despite the claims of certain ones, that the sins of God’s people described in this statement are still depicted as in the past. Notice how the statement says Jesus “has been” abused by their ingratitude, that “they may have failed” in their endeavors. We don’t read of Jesus still being abused by the saints’ ingratitude, nor do we read of continued failings on their part. As with what we’ve found in the Ellen White statements considered earlier, the sins of God’s people here described refer to the record of their lives, not their continuing experience.
In light of the language we have found in this statement, in addition to numerous other passages in which Ellen White declares the saints approaching probation’s end to be fully free from sin through heaven’s power (11), we are constrained to understand the above statement that the saints “may have imperfections of character” to refer to the record of their past. The consistent testimony of Biblical and Spirit of Prophecy teachings regarding the Last Generation saints is that sin will be fully expunged from their lives in advance of probation’s close. Isolated statements which on the surface may appear to teach otherwise must be read in both their immediate context and in light of the inspired consensus.
In no way do either Scripture or the writings of Ellen White endorse the theory that occasional sin remains inevitable for the duration of the Christian’s earthly life. The apostle Paul admonishes believers:
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).
Elsewhere in the New Testament it is stated, in particular with regard to those awaiting Jesus’ second coming:
Wherefore, brethren, seeking that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye be found of Him in peace, without spot, and blameless (II Peter 3:14).
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 (I John 3:2-3).
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).
Ellen White echoes these Biblical teachings when she makes the following exhortations regarding the sinless obedience God expects of the final generation of Christians:
Those who receive the seal of the living God and are protected in the time of trouble must reflect the image of Jesus fully. . . .
I saw that none could share the “refreshing” (latter rain” unless they obtain the victory over every besetment, over pride, selfishness, love of the world, and over every wrong word and action (12).
Not one of us will ever receive the seal of God while our characters have one spot or stain upon them. It is left with us to remedy the defects in our characters, to cleanse the soul temple of every defilement. Then the latter rain will fall upon us, as the early rain fell upon the disciples upon the day of Pentecost (13).
The church, being endowed with the righteousness of Christ, is His depository, in which the wealth of His mercy, His love, His grace, is to appear in full and final display. . . . The gift of His Holy Spirit, rich, full, and abundant, is to be to His church as an encompassing wall of fire, which the powers of hell shall not prevail against. In their untainted purity and spotless perfection, Christ looks upon His people as the reward of all His suffering, His humiliation, and His love, and the supplement of His glory (14).
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. He desires them by practicing the principles of truth to show to the world that God’s grace has power to sanctify the heart (15).
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 (16).
1. Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 467-476; Prophets and Kings, pp. 582-592; The Great Controversy, p. 484; Review and Herald, Aug. 20, 1901; Manuscript Releases, vol. 4, pp. 249-250.
2. ----Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 467-468.
3. Ibid, p. 474.
4. ----The Great Controversy, p. 484.
5. ----Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 469.
6. Ibid, p. 474.
7. ----Review and Herald, Aug. 20, 1901 (italics supplied).
8. ----Manuscript Releases, vol. 4, pp. 249-250 (italics supplied); see also vol. 21, p. 384.
9. ----Selected Messages, vol. 3, p. 196.
10. ----Prophets and Kings, p. 589.
11. ---- See Early Writings, p. 71; The Great Controversy, pp. 425,623; Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 187,619; vol. 2, pp. 355,505; vol. 5, pp. 214,216; Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 506-507; Evangelism, p. 702; SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, pp. 1055,1118; Review and Herald, Nov. 19, 1908; From the Heart, p. 44.
12. ----Early Writings, p. 71.
13. ----Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 214.
14. ----Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 18-19.
15. ----Review and Herald, April 1, 1902.
16. ----Selected Messages, vol. 3, p. 360.
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.