Q: Is the alleged legalism in Ellen White’s writings inherent, or do people just read legalism into her writings?
A: Start reading her writings. Every Ellen White book contains legalism.
Q: What is the problem with believing that God enables believers to achieve character perfection here on earth?
A: Ellen White believes the righteous attain perfection by allowing the Holy Spirit to strengthen our self-control as we live in Christ; we are thus transformed in character through our communion with Him.
Biblical references to perfection deal with imputed righteousness, meaning that we are considered perfect because Christ accomplished perfection for us as our substitute. Basically, the substitutionary atonement covers our past, present, and future sins, and any doctrine of character perfection--even couched in the term "love"--is a denial of what Christ accomplished for us. You see, character perfectionists at the most basic level must believe that Christ died for their past sins, and that at some point, they must free their present and future from all sin. That is so sad: Christ has covered all.
Did the thief on the cross achieve character perfection before he died? Hardly! Had he been delivered from his cross, he would have sinned again. So is he safe to save? Absolutely, because God transforms the character of believers.
Q: Is God’s law ultimately the law of love, and could we understand Ellen White’s emphasis on keeping the law as an emphasis on the universal law of love?
A: We believe Ellen White says the law is a law of love. Joe used to agree with your understanding of law---he found Alden Thompson's books particularly helpful in that respect. However, we now understand that "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for all who believe." The law was a manifestation of God's love, but it is not love. Therefore, the law can cease to govern the life of the Christian because the Christian is infused with the principal of love.
God gave the law because of His love for sinful humanity who needed law as a schoolmaster to lead them to Christ. But the law itself is not love. The law is an emergency response to sin. God IS love. And no, the law is not a transcript of His eternal character, as Ellen White claims. Ellen White taught the immutability of the law—particularly the ten commandment law. I cannot accept the argument that Ellen White was referring to some eternal law of love when she repeatedly emphasizes law-keeping as essential for salvation.
Galatians 3 says being under the works of the law is a curse, and it also says "the law is not of faith." Gal. 3:19 actually says that the law was added because of transgressions (denoting the beginning of the period of law), and it existed "till the seed [Christ] should come" (denoting the end of the period of law). See Romans 4 & Romans 10 for more insights into law and the Christian life. The law is not love, and the law is not of faith. It is not a transcript of God's character. The law served its purpose for believers by leading them to Christ, who then nailed it to His cross (Col. 2:13-15).
The problem with Ellen White is that she insists that law-keeping is essential for salvation. If one substitutes love for law, one discovers that love is essential for salvation. Isn’t it still legalistic to obtain salvation through the works of love? Love is a by-product of salvation—it doesn’t get us salvation. We can never love enough to be “safe to save" (to borrow a phrase from SDA theologian Graham Maxwell), but we can choose to ask God for the faith we need to be saved. Saving faith is just as much a gift of God as is salvation itself. We could no more produce perfect love as we could produce perfect works. The only solution is acceptance of Christ's substitution of perfect love for our imperfect love.
Q: What do you do with Matthew 5:17-18, which teaches that not “one jot or one tittle shall . . . pass from the law”?
A: Christ’s statement is absolutely true: the law will remain unchanged until everything is fulfilled. While the law has clearly been set aside for believers (Rom. 10:4), it remains in effect for non-believers (Rom. 4:14-15). Therefore, it will never be changed.
Interestingly, verse 20 states that our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Why? Because New Covenant righteousness is not based on law-keeping (at which the Pharisees were experts), but on faith. The law continues to expose the sins of unbelievers with a goal of leading them to Christ, “the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Rom. 10:4).
Q: You say that works are irrelevant to our salvation, but what about James 2? The apostle teaches that “faith without works is dead,” and he even states that “by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” Doesn’t James 2 prove that Christians must perform good works in order to be saved?
A: We affirm complete agreement with everything stated in James 2—provided that it is understood in its proper sense. All scripture is God breathed, meaning that there can be no contradiction between inspired scriptures.
Your first point is that “faith without works is dead,” and we agree. If faith does not result in good works, then it is not genuine. It could be fact-based belief, or it could be pretense. When a believer is attached to Christ the Vine, he or she will naturally grow in grace. Our disagreement with Ellen White (and all other legalists) is two-fold: first, we deny that Christians can achieve character perfection on earth; second, we contend that true Christians have complete assurance of salvation based on faith alone, and that salvation cannot be lost on account of works.
Many SDAs minimize the gravity of Ellen White’s teaching on perfection, so here are two EGW quotes emphasizing the importance of works if one wishes to achieve salvation:
“God will accept only those who are determined to aim high. He places every human agent under obligation to do his best. Moral perfection is required of all. Never should we lower the standard of righteousness in order to accommodate inherited or cultivated tendencies to wrong-doing. We need to understand that imperfection of character is sin. All righteous attributes of character dwell in God as a perfect, harmonious whole, and every one who receives Christ as a personal Saviour is privileged to possess these attributes. And those who would be workers together with God must strive for perfection of every organ of the body and quality of the mind (COL 330).
“God requires the entire surrender of the heart, before justification can take place; and in order for man to retain justification, there must be continual obedience, through active, living faith that works by love and purifies the soul” (1SM 366).
According to Ellen White, Christians can actually lose their salvation if they fail to maintain “continual obedience.” If Christians must become morally perfect in order to be saved (or to retain salvation), then salvation could not be by faith alone. No one could be saved under this system.
We agree that Christians will produce good works, for God created us in Christ for good works (Eph. 2:10). However, no Bible text declares that Christians will attain perfection in the flesh. Our only perfection comes from wearing the wedding garment won by Christ on our behalf. Then we are considered perfect by God because we stand covered by the perfection of our Redeemer. “However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).
The person who has true faith is justified (saved) “apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). He or she is completely and irrevocably saved by the grace of God, and failures of the flesh can never separate the believer from God. The saved person will naturally begin producing good works as God has ordained, but he or she will remain imperfect until transformed either at death or the return of the Lord.
The second part of your question deals with our understanding of James 2:24, which states that believers are “justified by works and not by faith alone.” On first glance, it would appear that this text directly contradicts Paul’s teaching that “a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28). However, there can be no contradiction in scripture.
When properly understood, James 2 is dealing with how Christians are viewed by others—not how God views them. James says, “[S]how me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” Humans are only capable of judging on the basis of works, so James is arguing that a person of faith will demonstrate that faith to others through good works.
James 2 cites Abraham as a prime example of the importance of good works, but even in this passage, it is clear that Abraham has first been saved by faith. Abraham’s works are actually an outgrowth of that saved condition.
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected;and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
When was Abraham reckoned righteous by God? Was it after he offered Isaac—or before? Abraham was reckoned righteous in Genesis 15:6, long before he nearly sacrificed Isaac. So, what does James mean when he describes Abraham as being “justified by works”?
Clearly, Abraham was already justified before he performed the works for which James commends him (John MacArthur, The MacArthur New
Testament Commentary: James, p. 137). Therefore, Abraham’s justification by works must have been something much different from his prior justification by faith.
According to John MacArthur, the Greek word dikaioō (justified) can be understood as a legal acquittal, which is what Paul means when he says we are justified by faith alone, and not by works. However, dikaioō can also mean vindication in the eyes of others, and it is in this sense that James uses the word. Other texts that use dikaioō in the sense of vindication include Romans 3:4, I Timothy 3:16, and Luke 7:35 (MacArthur, pp. 137-38). Remember, the burden of James 2 is how we can show our faith to others—not how we show our faith to God. Therefore, true believers are vindicated before others by our works (which naturally flow from true faith), but we are declared righteous before God solely on the basis of faith, as Paul so clearly states.
Rather than teaching that believers are saved by works, James 2 is actually designed to encourage true believers to live as believers by reminding them that good works flow naturally from faith, and that works witness to others regarding the genuineness of their faith.