The controversy in modern and postmodern Adventism over whether sinless obedience (character perfection) is possible in earthly lives through God’s power, is no mere abstract argument. It is an intensely practical one. More than any other reason, this accounts for the staying power of this discussion during the past half century and more of Adventist history.
The practical bottom line of the perfection controversy is really very simple. Is merely being good most of the time good enough so far as God’s expectation of Christian conduct is concerned?
Truth be told, the great majority in our world—Christian and otherwise—are good most of the time. The most grievous and hurtful wrongs people commit are generally done only occasionally. Most murderers, embezzlers, adulterers, those committing racial injustice, people who indulge impatience or a quick temper, don’t do these things every day of the week. How is the Christian faith to make a truly practical difference in the lives of its adherents if even the most consecrated and sanctified among them can only perform their frail best, little if at all better than the remainder of the human family?
Many Christians, even among the most conservative, think they have the answer. And it’s summarized on a bumper sticker, which makes me cringe every time I see it: “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”
I cringe because, while Christians may derive great comfort from these words, I doubt anyone else does! For indeed, the past two millennia have witnessed a steady, heart-sickening parade of Christian imperfection.
Racism. Slavery. Inquisition. Industrial brutality. Ethnic cleansing. Monks beaming while heretics burn. Business tycoons declaring it their Christian right to let workers starve. Men in bedsheets setting fire to two sticks of wood, claiming to glorify Jesus. Churchmen turning a blind eye as trainloads of a despised race chug endlessly toward the Final Solution. A mass murderer identifying himself with “Christian Europeans” as he prepares to slaughter innocent Muslims in two New Zealand mosques (1).
Moving perhaps closer to home, what of the church elder whose pious words and generous offerings hide the fact that he beats his wife and molests his children? Or the church official who can’t seem to account for funds missing under suspicious circumstances? Or the pastor who so busies himself with “God’s work” that he neglects his family?
The list goes on. The record of Christian history both past and present gives painful meaning to Mahatma Gandhi’s statement, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ” (2).
In a graduate-level class I attended some years ago, a professor observed that in our postmodern age, people expect authenticity from Christians, but not perfection. In the often artificial environment of a classroom, statements like this may sound reasonably satisfying. That is, until one stops to ponder the actual meaning of such a statement—in plain, nitty-gritty, rubber-meets-road, practical terms.
Think about it:
Which sins can I, as a Christian, be caught committing, even once in a while, which would not fundamentally compromise my authenticity as a witness for Christ and Christianity?
If a Christian parent is harsh and needlessly severe with a child?
If a Christian spouse is abusive or unfaithful?
If a Christian business executive is less than fair in the treatment of associates or subordinates?
If a Christian displays racial insensitivity or prejudice?
If a Christian demonstrates a callous, unfeeling spirit toward the poor and downtrodden?
If a Christian indulges impatience or the loss of temper?
What would the result of such behavior be for the Christian witness of such a person, irrespective of how often or rarely it is indulged? Can we really anticipate that if unbelievers find a Christian doing any of these things, even once in a while, that they will benignly write it off as just another example of unavoidable imperfection?
Whether the world admits it or not, they hold Christians to a higher standard than they hold others, because our profession of faith—by its very nature—demands that they do so. After all, we claim to serve a supernatural God, with supernatural power over evil. We talk about being born again. We talk about changed lives. It certainly isn’t unreasonable for the world to assume that when they look at our actions, they should be able to see evidence of something more than just doing the best anyone might do.
The trouble is, for most of the past two thousand years, the world has seen precious little difference between the moral conduct of professed Christians and those of other faiths or of none. And sadly, too many Christians have encouraged the watching world to believe this is normal. Consider the following statement, from a bestselling Christian author:
It is our human destiny on earth to remain imperfect, incomplete, weak, and mortal, and only by accepting that destiny can we escape the force of gravity and receive grace (3).
Accordingly millions of sincere Christians, including many contemporary Adventists, believe imperfection of character is all their earthly lives can hope for. Yes, they believe in the importance and necessity of holiness in the Christian life. But they insist it will never be perfect this side of heaven.
I often wonder whether those who hold this doctrine have truly considered its implications. One wishes to honor their integrity and good faith when they insist they believe as strongly as anyone that godly living and obedience to the divine requirements are essential to the Christian experience. The problem arises when one ponders what less-than-perfect obedience is supposed to look like. The timeworn mantra of “tolerance” heard so often these days—that everyone’s spirituality is unique and that Christians should simply stop “judging” each other—is no help here. Christians might conceivably learn to stop criticizing or judging one another, but that won’t stop the world from criticizing and judging Christians! What moral credibility can Christians possibly maintain before the world if the sins they so glibly condemn—whether in the church or society—are held by the same Christians to be inevitable, even for the most sanctified believers?
Another professor of mine actually made the statement that God can give people victory over “big” sins, but not “little” ones. I wasn’t the only one in the class who was appalled by this statement. A truly incredible acknowledgement, to say the least! According to this theory, God can—for example—give an alcoholic complete victory over his or her vice, so that alcoholic beverages are never touched again. The same with, shall we say, a heroin addict, a connoisseur of pornography, a wife-beater, a child molester, a racist, or any number of persons practicing similarly horrific deeds. But on what Biblical or rational grounds can one ascribe to God the power needed to expel the above evils from the life, and yet deny to Him the power to conquer impatience, a quick temper, gossiping, or the occasional unintended lapse into infidelity by otherwise “decent” marriage partners?
Neither the professor in question nor any other advocate of this “imperfectability” doctrine have ever explained how this works—which sins, in a true Christian life, are totally intolerable even once in a while, and which ones even the best Christians must simply learn to live with.
No Graded Sins
When opponents of perfection theology affirm the alleged inevitability of “occasional misdeeds”—a phrase often lifted from an Ellen White statement they take out of context, which we will consider in a moment—we can assume most of them, admittedly or not, have created a hierarchy of sins in their own minds, viewing some as totally intolerable while viewing others as bad but mild, and thus occasionally allowable. The latter offenses might include an occasional loss of temper or patience (often in private), an occasional lingering glance at a lewd picture that pops up on a computer screen without warning, the occasional telling of “white lies,” perhaps an occasional lapse of honesty in the reporting of hours worked on a job—and many more.
The problem, of course, with viewing the above shortcomings as inevitable (perhaps even as benign) is the unavoidable fact of sacred history and life itself that small sins often lead to bigger ones. What is more, what one cultural background or heritage might view as a “small” or “benign” sin might be viewed very differently by one from a different cultural setting. Racism in its various forms, for example, is viewed very differently by persons from diverse cultural backgrounds. One woman, describing her former racial biases, portrayed them as follows:
With poorly concealed bigotry I had always said, “I’m not a racist, but.” I had been brought up to think that black people were fine—in their own neighborhoods, in their own schools, and as far away as possible from me (4).
It’s likely a fair statement that much of American racism across the decades has taken the above form, even in our own time. And many, while regarding persons with the above racial outlook as harboring bad and sinful ideas, would nevertheless view the above version of racism as much less bad than, say, the Ku Klux Klan or Nazi Germany. But historian David Wyman, in his disquieting book on America and the Holocaust, describes how “subtle” and “passive” anti-Semitism led to widespread American indifference when word leaked out confirming the systematic massacre of the Jews in Europe:
Ugly and bitter though it was, the coarse, mostly overt anti-Semitism of the demagogues, the street gangs, the snide leaflets, and the poison-pen letters represented only the surface of the phenomenon. Negative attitudes toward Jews penetrated all sectors of wartime America. A more subtle social and economic discrimination against Jews was accepted and practiced by millions of respectable Americans. Many millions more were not anti-Semitic in the usual sense of the term. They would not personally have mistreated a Jew. Beneath the surface, however, were uncrystallized but negative feelings about Jews. In ordinary times, this “passive anti-Semitism” would have worked little damage. But in the Holocaust crisis it meant that a large body of decent and normally considerate people was predisposed not to care about European Jews nor to care whether the government did anything to help save them (5).
The lesson here is not only the role of cultural and historical variation so far as the definition of “big” and “small” sin is concerned, but also the fact that what some might deem a “small” sin—such as mild racial resentment—can result in what these same persons would acknowledge to be a very “big” sin, such as indifference toward the slaughter of millions of those against whom such resentments are held. No wonder Ellen White warns:
The Lord has not given us a list of graded sins, so that we may reckon some as of little consequence, and say that they will do but little harm, while others are of greater magnitude and will do much harm (6).
Perfection Theology and Purity of Faith and Practice
Those who reject perfection theology are often equally scornful of the idea of doctrinal purity. Especially do they resist the Biblical teaching that doctrinal beliefs or behavioral choices are a matter of salvation. One opponent of Last Generation Theology (i.e. perfection theology) in contemporary Adventism recently stated the following, as he connected Last Generation Theology—rightly, to be sure—with the demand for purity of faith and practice:
An insistence on doctrinal purity manifests itself in disavowing alternative interpretations of the Bible or our doctrines. Doctrinal purists in the church define our beliefs in such detail and specificity as to close all “loopholes” that allow other understandings. The 2010 re-wording of our Creation dogma in Fundamental Belief #6 is an excellent example of this approach. . . . If this restrictive imagination of beginnings causes some to feel squeezed out of the church, that only proves the LGT (Last Generation Theology) point that those leaving were not pure enough. . . . We learn from Paul that experience is the best teacher. Therefore we should not aim at purifying our doctrines. Such an exercise, like LGT sinlessness, is unattainable and keeps us in the wilderness. Paul cautions that outside of Christ’s righteous covering, all our best attempts at good-doing amount to nothing. So we should express our beliefs in ways that allow for growth and new insights as we journey on.
Likewise our approach towards lifestyle choices, such as what we eat or wear, should not be based on purity. These things are not accretive to our salvation (7).
The above statement is breathtaking in its departure from the Biblical message. If indeed our lifestyle choices “should not be based on purity,” does this also apply to premarital chastity, the marriage vow, racial harmony, or respect for others’ material property? How does this rejection of purity comport with the apostle John’s statement that “every man that hath this hope (of Jesus’ coming) purifieth himself, even as He is pure” (I John 3:3)? What is more, where does this author get the notion that the apostle Paul depicts “Christ’s righteous covering” as the only perfect righteousness the Christian can possess? How does this author harmonize this notion with Paul’s statement that “the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4)? And what about such verses as the following, also from Paul’s writings?
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).
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).
And regarding the above author’s theory that doctrinal and behavioral choices “are not accretive to our salvation,” one wonders how he harmonizes his views with the following statements by the apostle Paul:
God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth (II Thess. 2:13).
Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine: continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee (I Tim. 4:16).
So in contrast to the teachings of the author quoted earlier, not only does Paul teach that perfect obedience is to be attained by the Christian on this earth through heaven’s power (Rom. 8:4; I Cor. 15:34; II Cor. 7:1; I Thess. 5:23); he also teaches that sanctified obedience and adherence to doctrinal truth are conditions of salvation (II Thess. 2:13; I Tim. 4:16). In this the apostle simply echoes the teachings of the Old Testament (Hosea 4:6) and of Christ Himself (Matt. 4:4; 7:21; 19:16-26; Luke 10:25-28; John 8:31).
But what the above author has clearly demonstrated is the connection between the imperfectability doctrine of those who oppose Last Generation Theology and the efforts of so-called theological “progressives” to dismiss the imperative of both doctrinal and moral purity. According to those of this mindset, not only is sin inevitable—even for the sanctified Christian—so is doctrinal error. Thus the door is opened for the acceptance of such heresies as theistic evolution, homosexual practice, and just about every other theoretical or moral aberration which happens to be culturally or intellectually popular at a given moment.
Moreover, the vilest of crimes can also be excused by the surrender to human frailty inherent in this doctrine of presumably inevitable imperfection. Recent news articles have uncovered widespread sexual abuse among clergy in the Southern Baptist Convention. One pastor found to have engaged in such conduct made the appalling acknowledgement, when interviewed regarding his behavior: “The flesh will do what the flesh will do” (8).
A theology that views human choices as invariably captive to—or tainted by—humanity’s fallen nature, can expect nothing better.
Conclusion: Perfection Theology and the Moral Imperative of Scripture
Many are fond of quoting, out of context, the following Ellen White statement:
The character is revealed, not by occasional good deeds and occasional misdeeds, but by the tendency of the habitual words and acts (9).
But when one reads the entire paragraph of which this sentence is a part, it becomes clear exactly what Ellen White is talking about:
A person may not be able to tell the exact time or place, or trace all the chain of circumstances in the process of conversion, but this does not prove him to be unconverted. . . . While the work of the Spirit is silent and imperceptible, its effects are manifest. If the heart has been renewed by the Spirit of God, the life will bear witness to the fact. While we cannot do anything to change our hearts or to bring ourselves into harmony with God; while we must not trust at all to ourselves or to our good works, our lives will reveal whether the grace of God is dwelling within us. A change will be seen in the character, the habits, the pursuits. The contrast will be clear and decided between what they have been and what they are (10).
Then we have the above sentence:
The character is revealed, not by occasional good deeds and occasional misdeeds, but by the tendency of the habitual words and acts (11).
In other words, the subject here is the reality of one's initial conversion, not what God ultimately requires of the converted believer. In other statements Ellen White is clear what the latter requirements are:
Christ has promised to make them [His people] harmonious on every point, not pleasant and agreeable and kind today, and tomorrow harsh and disagreeable and unkind, falsifying their profession of faith (12).
Are there those here who have been sinning and repenting, sinning and repenting, and will they continue to do so till Christ shall come? May God help us that we may be truly united to Christ, the living Vine, and bear fruit to the glory of God (13).
If in fact the general trend of one’s life is sufficient so far as one’s fitness for heaven is concerned, then God owes a big apology to Adam and Eve. The general trend of their lives when they transgressed God’s law was certainly moving in the right direction. But all it took was one sin to remove them from Eden. And according to the Bible, all it will take is one sin—unconfessed and unforsaken—to keep any of us from returning to Eden. Hence the following pronouncement by the apostle James:
For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. . . . So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty (James 2:10,12).
The moral imperative of Scripture is encapsulated in the above passage, the focus of which is obviously on the final judgment. The Word of God never makes excuses for occasional sin, for indeed, that would give the vast majority of indulgers—most of whom indulge their vices only once in a while—a justified entrance into paradise, whose purity they would quickly spoil. Ellen White is clear that perfect obedience is required as a condition of salvation because any lesser standard would make the universe vulnerable to another rebellion:
God, in His wisdom and mercy, tests men and women here, to see if they will obey His voice and respect His law, or rebel as Satan did. If they choose the side of Satan, putting his way above God’s, it would not be safe to admit them into heaven; for they would cause another revolt against the government of God in the heavenly courts. He who fulfills the law in every respect, demonstrates that perfect obedience is possible (14).
God will accept nothing less than unreserved surrender. Halfhearted, sinful, professing Christians would spoil heaven, were they permitted to enter. They would stir up a second rebellion there (15).
Without perfection of character no one can enter the pearly gates of the city of God, for if, with all our imperfections, we were permitted to enter that city, there would soon be in heaven a second rebellion. We must first be tried and chosen, and found faithful and true. Upon the purification of our character rests our only hope of eternal life (16).
Without Christ, it is impossible for [man] to render perfect obedience to the law of God; and heaven can never be gained by an imperfect obedience, for this would place all heaven in jeopardy and make possible a second rebellion (17).
The comprehensive, no-exceptions standard of holiness upheld throughout the Bible is articulated in other passages, such as the following:
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 (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).
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).
Nevertheless we, according to His promises, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. Wherefore, brethren, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye be found of Him in peace, without spot, and blameless (II Peter 3:13-14).
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. . . . Little children, let no man deceive you. He that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as He is righteous (I John 3:2-3,7).
And in their mouth was found no guile, for they are without fault before the throne of God (Rev. 14:5).
Yes, praise God, there is provision for those who fall. 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). But the Bible—indeed, this same author—admonishes us that this advocacy by our Lord will not last forever. The time will come when the divine pronouncement will be made:
He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still, and he that is holy, let him be holy still (Rev. 22:11).
Total obedience, total purity, was expected of our first parents. And the Bible is clear it is expected of us also. God’s power is fully sufficient to enable our achievement of this lofty goal, and that power is fully at our command. For these reasons, perfection theology is indeed the moral imperative of Holy Scripture. Echoing the above Bible passages, Ellen White declares:
God calls upon us to reach the standard of perfection and places before us the example of Christ’s character. In His humanity, perfected by a life of constant resistance of evil, the Saviour showed that through cooperation with Divinity, human beings may in this life attain to perfection of character. This is God’s assurance to us that we, too, may obtain complete victory (18).
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, and sit down at last with Him (19).
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 (20).
1. Alexander Smith, Caroline Radnofsky, Linda Givetash and Vladmir Banic, “New Zealand mosque shooting: Attacker’s apparently manifesto probed,” NBC News, March 15, 2019 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/new-zealand-mosque-terrorist-may-have-targeted-country-because-it-n983601
2. Mahatma Gandhi, quoted by Bill Wilson, Christianity in the Crosshairs (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, 2004), p. 74.
3. Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1997), p. 273.
4. Jeannie Mills, Six Years With God: Life Inside Reverend Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple (New York: A&W Publishers, Inc, 1979), p. 115 (italics original).
5. David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), p. 12.
6. Ellen G. White, Messages to Young People, p. 91.
7. Matthew Quartey, “Embedding Last Generation Theology in Sabbath School Lessons, “ Spectrum, Feb. 21, 2019 https://spectrummagazine.org/views/2019/embedding-last-generation-theology-sabbath-school-lessons
8. Robert Downen, Lise Olsen, John Tedesco, & John Shapley, “Abuse of Faith: 20 years, 700 victims: Southern Baptist sexual abuse spreads as leaders resist reform,” Houston Chronicle, Feb. 10, 2019 https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/investigations/article/Southern-Baptist-sexual-abuse-spreads-as-leaders-13588038.php
9. White, Steps to Christ, pp. 57-58.
10. Ibid, p. 57.
11. Ibid, pp. 57-58.
12. ----Review and Herald, Jan. 14, 1904.
13. Ibid, April 21, 1901.
14. ----Review and Herald, July 21, 1891.
15. ----The Upward Look, p. 197.
16. ----Sermons and Talks, vol. 2, p. 294.
17. ----Signs of the Times, Dec. 30, 1889.
18. ----Acts of the Apostles, p. 531.
19. ----Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 144.
20. ----Review and Herald, April 1, 1902.
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.