Considerable discussion has taken place among conservative Adventists regarding Ellen White’s statements across the decades of her ministry concerning the authority of the General Conference. The assumption has been promoted, based on a few passages, that while Ellen White in her early ministry saw the General Conference as the voice of God on earth, that in later years she changed this position due to departure on the part of the brethren from various aspects of divine instruction.Read More
Some years ago, the leaders of two Seventh-day Adventist self-supporting ministries participated in doctrinal discussions with leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement. At one point in the conversation, one of the self-supporting ministry leaders asked those from the Reform group, “Does your church have rampant apostasy in it? Are false doctrines being taught in your schools and pulpits? Are there false forms of worship being promoted in your churches as the new, avant garde method of reaching the lost? Are Bible and Spirit of Prophecy lifestyle standards being widely disregarded in your ranks?” The Reform leaders vigorously shook their heads. “Absolutely not!” they insisted. Whereupon the self-supporting ministry leader who had asked the question responded: “Then you can’t possibly be the true church. Because according to the Spirit of Prophecy, these are the types of conditions that will prevail within God’s true church at the close of time, prior to the shaking.”
The point raised by this self-supporting ministry leader offers an insightful introduction to our consideration of the attempt by certain ones to apply the principle of conditional prophecy to Ellen White’s statements on the end-time shaking and the survival of the church. Those conservative Adventists who have toyed with—and in some cases accepted—the notion that the denominational structure is presently beyond any realistic hope of reform, frequently cite the Old Testament promises to ancient Israel and the fact that these were conditional on obedience (1). Such persons insist that those who believe organized Adventism will eventually triumph despite an overwhelmingly disobedient majority, are advocating a form of “unconditional election,” “corporate predestination,” or “once saved, always saved” so far as the church is concerned (2). One such person writes: "Today as then, obedience to God’s law is the condition of all His promises" (3).
We will address in a later installment of this series the circumstances under which divine rejection of a particular faith community is possible. But the question we must rightfully ask is, Are all God’s promises in fact conditional? What about the promise of Christ that He will come again (John 14:3)? Is there any chance that won’t happen? Certainly the timing of the second advent is conditional, on the spiritual preparedness of the church (II Peter 3:10-14; I John 3:2-3). This is the biblical premise on which Ellen White bases her assertion, “When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own” (4). But is the fact that Jesus is coming again also conditional? I see no biblical or Spirit of Prophecy evidence to suggest that it is.
Along the same lines, God has promised to make a final end of sin, to dispense eternal rewards to the righteous and the wicked, and to restore the lost paradise of Eden on this earth. Is that promise conditional? Is there any chance it won’t happen? Is the promise of John 3:16 conditional, that “whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life”?
I think we get the picture. Many of God’s promises are certainly conditional. But one is hard pressed to make a biblical case that every one of them is.
What is particularly problematic about applying the principle of conditional prophecy to Ellen White’s prediction of Adventism’s final triumph, is the specific nature of the predictions themselves. When someone states that Ellen White’s promises of the church going through are conditional on obedience, we need to ask, Conditional on whose obedience? That of the majority within the church? How can this be if the very predictions of this triumph make clear the great majority will not be obedient?
It would be one thing if the writings of Inspiration simply predicted the ultimate triumph of the church, without giving details regarding the allegiance at that time of either the majority or minority of professing believers. Even more significant would have been a prediction on Ellen White’s part that the great majority would prove faithful in the end—a prediction which, no doubt, would be cause for widespread discouragement in the present situation. In the light of that sort of prediction, the argument for conditional prophecy would carry more weight. (It helps to remember that unlike Ellen White’s predictions regarding the end-time church and the shaking, the Old Testament never foretells the spiritual triumph of ancient Israel despite the departure of an apostate majority.) But all the inspired evidence we have seen thus far indicates that the church’s great majority will prove disobedient in the end, but that God will save His church anyway—by sifting the disobedient out.
We need to be careful here, of course. It is true that the salvation of each individual is conditional on sanctified obedience (II Thess. 2:13; Heb. 5:9). Salvation is a personal affair, not a corporate one. In Ellen White’s words: "The work of preparation is an individual work. We are not saved in groups. The purity and devotion of one will not offset the want of these qualities in another" (5).
A fundamental principle of the great controversy has been God’s respect for the free choice of His created beings. No divine action or promise can ever transcend that freedom. With this in mind, some have claimed God cannot guarantee the eventual triumph of organized Adventism because such a guarantee would overrule free choice. One such person has observed: "Others (those believing in the church’s ultimate triumph) believe that in some way God is going to force the organization to repent and reform" (6).
But the end-time purification of corporate Adventism will not require force. God’s reverence for free choice does not prevent Him from allowing or creating circumstances which would make continuing involvement in the believing community intolerable to those choosing to reject His truth, disregard His standards, and thus spurn His salvation. What we have seen thus far from the inspired pen gives every evidence that this is precisely what God will do to the Seventh-day Adventist Church when the mark of the beast is urged upon us.
No Cause for Complacency
Some conservative Adventists genuinely fear that the view expressed in this series encourages unwarranted trust in church leadership and organization, and a resulting spirit of complacency. (“The church is going through, so as long as I’m in the church, I’m going through.”) Indeed it is sad that certain ones, whether in laity or leadership, have at times quoted Ellen White’s assurances that the church is going through as a means of silencing legitimate, constructive criticism of contemporary church practices or institutional policies. If indeed—so the reasoning goes—the Adventist Church is the object of God’s supreme regard and is prophetically destined to triumph in the end, anything permitted or endorsed by any segment of the official church is presumably not to be disputed.
But such naïve assumptions are quickly demolished by the very statements which promise the church’s triumph. Anyone who quotes Ellen White’s promise that the church will not fall as justification for beliefs or activities disobedient to inspired counsel, is pronouncing his own sentence of doom. One was painfully reminded of this point some years ago, when one contemporary Adventist author wrote a book trashing a number of distinctive Adventist beliefs and standards, then devoted an entire chapter near the end to assuring our people that “the church will go through” (7).
But the same promise which declares that the church will not fall assures us that “the sinners in Zion will be sifted out” (8). Sinners in Zion can include anyone from the lowliest pew-sitter to the General Conference President. However entrenched such persons may appear within the denominational system, the final fulfillment of prophecy will create circumstances which will make their continuing presence in official Adventism intolerable to themselves as well as the faithful. Thus, as the servant of the Lord declares, they will, “under one pretext or another, go out from us” (9).
At the bottom line, those who deny our distinctive message and its practical demands, but who simultaneously assure our people that the church will go through, will—unless they repent—find themselves outside the church when it does go through. Such persons deserve a lot of prayer and godly opposition from conservative Adventists, but never should the faithful permit the presumption of such persons—in predicting the church’s ultimate triumph while facilitating and tolerating departure from inspired truth—to in any way shake their confidence in the divinely-promised victory of the corporate Seventh-day Adventist Church over apostasy.
The next installment of our series will consider Ellen White’s statements regarding the voice of God in the General Conference, and how all of her statements on this subject—despite seeming discrepancies over time—fit together in perfect harmony according to her own explanation.
1. Gwen Reeves, “An Unconditional Promise?” Historic Adventist Land Marks, April 1996, pp. 13-15; Ron Becker, “What Inspiration Says About . . . Conditional Promises,” Historic Adventist Land Marks, April 1996, pp. 23-25.
2. Reeves, “An Unconditional Promise?” Historic Adventist Land Marks, April 1996, pp. 14-15.
3. Ibid, p. 14.
4. Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 69.
5. ----The Great Controversy, p. 490.
6. John Grosboll, “Which Church Do We Take Them To?” Historic Adventist Land Marks, November 1996, p. 7.
7. Martin Weber, Adventist Hot Potatoes (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1991), pp. 114-125.
8. White, Selected Messages, vo. 2, p. 380.
9. ----Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 400.