The Heartbeat of Adventism: The Great Controversy Theme in the Writings of Ellen White, Herbert Douglass - compiler (Pacific Press,
Herbert Douglass’s The Heartbeat of Adventism outlines the Great Controversy Theme that is prominent in the theology of Ellen G. White, prophetess of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. (Douglass’s book capitalizes Great Controversy Theme, so we will follow that convention in this review). Ellen White’s most complete exposition of the Great Controversy Theme is her Conflict of the Ages Series, which culminates in her book The Great Controversy. The controversy theme unites all elements of White’s theology. Her prophetic visions reveal a controversy over the character of God that originated in heaven when the mighty angel Lucifer (Satan) rebelled against God, misrepresenting God as arbitrary and severe, and claiming that God’s law was an unnecessary restriction on the freedom of the angels. Adventists understand the creation of the world, the seventh-day Sabbath, all the actions of God in history, the death of Christ, and Christ’s ongoing atonement in the heavenly sanctuary (called the Investigative Judgment) as God’s answer to Satan’s charges against God’s character, which is the foundation of His government of the universe. The people of God have a major role to play in the Great Controversy as envisioned by Ellen White. Because Satan has charged that God’s law cannot be kept, the people of God must keep the law perfectly, vindicating God’s character (5T 746). Ellen White taught, “The gospel of Christ is the law exemplified in character” (17MR 10). When God’s remnant keep His law and perfectly reflect His character, Jesus will return to earth to claim His people and end the nightmare of sin in the universe (COL 69).
The Heartbeat of Adventism is a collection of Ellen White quotes organized into outline form by Douglass. The compiler’s personal views are restricted to the outline headings—and, of course, to the discretionary task of quote selection. Because Douglass is a conservative Adventist, his quote selections may not please all factions within Adventism. Some Adventists would prefer a more radical reappraisal of the Great Controversy; others would avoid including Ellen White quotes emphasizing controversial points such as perfection and the investigative judgment. However, Douglass presents a balanced treatment of the Great Controversy Theme in the writings of Ellen White, and he is to be commended for his honest, thorough approach. Numerous and effusive endorsements by leading Adventists attest to the authoritative standing of The Heartbeat of Adventism among both conservative and mainstream Seventh-day Adventists. Sabbatismos highly recommends Douglass’s book for anyone who would like to understand the essence of the Adventist message. In particular, this book should be very helpful for many Adventists who may not understand the foundational teachings of Adventism.
Although we endorse The Heartbeat of Adventism as an authoritative expression of Ellen White’s Great Controversy Theme, a few general comments should be considered. First, the book is based on the writings of Ellen White. Therefore, one should not expect to find the Great Controversy fully explained on the basis of Scripture. The book is only meaningful for those who already believe that Ellen White’s writings are authoritative and prophetic. Second, the reader may at times be frustrated by the massive number of quotations included in the book. Many sections repeat ideas already clearly expressed, and several quotes are employed in multiple locations. A more streamlined presentation of the Great Controversy Theme would improve the flow of the overall work. On the positive side, Douglass’s book covers virtually every angle of the Great Controversy, and it includes a helpful subject index to enhance user access to the concepts included.
The Heartbeat of Adventism is an authoritative and reasonably comprehensive exposition of Adventist doctrine, but we cannot recommend it as a work of Christian theology because its key points—taken from the writings of a false prophetess—are out of harmony with the gospel of Scripture. In a short review, it is impossible to unmask all the error in this book, so we will limit ourselves to a few key points.
Arian Christology at the Root of the Great Controversy
An important weakness of this book is that it uncritically includes Ellen White’s early Arian Christology as an explanation for the origin of the Great Controversy. Ellen White was raised in the Methodist Church, so we can assume that she was Trinitarian in her early years. However, James White (her husband) and Joseph Bates, the other members of Adventism’s founding triumvirate, were Arians, and Ellen acceded to their views. From the beginning of her ministry in late 1844 until the publication of The Desire of Ages in 1898, Ellen White never specified that Christ is God from all eternity, or that the Holy Spirit is God. Instead, she saw in vision that God the Father elevated Christ to a position of equal authority, and that Satan (or Lucifer) rebelled because Satan sought this honor for himself. Here is Ellen White’s visionary account of Christ’s elevation to a status equal to God (this quote is not included in Heartbeat, but it is the first-hand account upon which quotes included in Heartbeat are based):
“The great Creator assembled the heavenly host, that he might in the presence of all the angels confer special honor upon his Son. The Son was seated on the throne with the Father, and the heavenly throng of holy angels was gathered around them. The Father then made known that it was ordained by himself that Christ, his Son, should be equal with himself; so that wherever was the presence of his Son, it was as his own presence. The word of the Son was to be obeyed as readily as the word of the Father. His Son he had invested with authority to command the heavenly host. . . . His Son would carry out his will and his purposes, but would do nothing of himself alone. . . .
“[Satan] left the immediate presence of the Father, dissatisfied, and filled with envy against Jesus Christ. Concealing his real purposes, he assembled the angelic host. . . . As one aggrieved, he related the preference God had given Jesus to the neglect of himself. He told them that henceforth all the sweet liberty the angels had enjoyed was at an end. For had not a ruler been appointed over them, to whom they from henceforth must yield servile honor? . . . . Satan and his sympathizers were striving to reform the government of God. They were discontented and unhappy because they could not look into his unsearchable wisdom and ascertain his purposes in exalting his Son Jesus, and endowing him with such unlimited power and command. They rebelled against the authority of the Son” (1SP 17-19).
According to this vision, God the Father conferred honor upon Christ, ordained the Son’s equality, invested Christ with authority, appointed Jesus to command the heavenly hosts, exalted the Son to His new position, and endowed Jesus with omnipotent power. The elevation of Christ shown in this vision definitely contradicts the pillar of Christian theology which recognizes that Christ is the same substance as God, and that He was God from all eternity. If this vision is correct, then Lucifer (Satan) and the other rebellious angels instigated the Great Controversy because they didn’t know that Jesus is the eternal God. Of course, it’s rather silly to believe that the angels didn’t know and worship the Trinity. They knew; the prophetess did not. The Heartbeat of Adventism doesn’t include this blatantly Arian vision, but it does contain several statements that are based on this vision, containing the crucial idea that Satan and the other angels rebelled against God because Satan was jealous of the Son’s elevated authority:
“And coveting the glory with which the infinite Father had invested His Son, this prince of angels [Lucifer/Satan] aspired to power that was the prerogative of Christ alone” (PP 35).
“Lucifer allowed his jealousy of Christ to prevail, and became the more determined. To dispute the supremacy of the Son of God, thus impeaching the wisdom and love of the Creator, had become the purpose of this prince of angels” (PP36).
“The exaltation of the Son of God as equal with the Father was represented as an injustice to Lucifer, who, it was claimed, was also entitled to reverence and honor” (PP 37).
Ellen White finally became a Trinitarian when she published The Desire of Ages in 1898. She never explained why the Great Controversy supposedly started because Satan and the angels didn’t know that Christ was God, possessing full power and authority for all eternity. Because the SDA Church will not deny the validity of Ellen White’s early Arian vision, they must persist with the notion that the Great Controversy, to which they relate most of their theology, originated because the heavenly angels rejected the deity of Christ. Unfortunately, The Heartbeat of Adventism sheds no light on this conundrum.
Gospel Confusion and Character Perfection
At the center of the Great Controversy is a conflict over the true gospel of Jesus Christ. The Heartbeat of Adventism includes hundreds of Ellen White quotes revealing a vast difference between the Adventist gospel and the gospel as understood by Protestant Christianity. According to the Reformers, the true salvation experience is determined by imputed justification, or God’s declaration of a sinner’s right standing before Him (John Piper, When the Darkness will not Lift, pp. 14-15). Justification is bestowed “by grace alone (not mixed with our merit), through faith alone (not mixed with our works), on the basis of Christ alone (not mingling his righteousness with ours), to the glory of God alone (not ours)” (Piper, p. 16). Sanctification is both a gift of God (1 Cor. 6:11; Heb. 10:10, 14) and a progressive work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who are already saved (Rom. 6:19-22). Sanctification comes as a result of justification, but it must never be seen as an additional requirement for salvation. As Piper warns, “Confusing [justification and sanctification] will, in the end, undermine the gospel, and turn justification by faith into justification by performance” (p. 18).
The teaching that salvation hinges upon perfect works (produced via sanctification) destroys salvation by faith alone, leaving sinners focused on their own behavior rather than upon the finished work of Christ on their behalf. Faith plus works isn’t salvation by faith. It is a “gospel” that leads to spiritual death. Unfortunately, Ellen White’s gospel is faith-plus-works legalism, often with a greater emphasis on works than on faith: “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” (7SDABC 972).
Ellen White’s gospel was directly and unabashedly a gospel of obedience, or works. If believers fail to achieve obedience, then they will not qualify for eternal life, according to the prophetess. What level of obedience is required in order for a person to be saved? “By perfect obedience to the requirements of the law, man is justified. Only through faith in Christ is such obedience possible” (ST 7/23/1902).
In contrast to Ellen White’s gospel of perfect obedience to the law of God, the Bible states that true belief (genuine faith) is the only requirement for salvation: “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39). Some might argue that the phrase “set free from every sin” requires that the believer perform perfect works in the power of Christ, but the context clearly focuses on the forgiveness available only in Christ (vs. 38). Believers are set free because they are forgiven for every past, present, and future violation of God’s law. The Bible repeatedly states that belief is the only requirement for salvation (e.g. Acts 16:31), and no text in the Bible states that believers must become perfect in order to be saved. Even the oft-quoted “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:47) is not an actual teaching of literal perfection. It must be understood in the context of Christ’s righteousness. When we stand by faith in the imputed righteousness of Christ, we are credited with perfect righteousness. Wearing the robe of Christ’s righteousness is the only way believers can be considered as perfect as God Himself!
Ellen White goes on to deny the Bible gospel regarding the total depravity of humanity. Because human beings are totally depraved, they can never perform any works that are acceptable to God. Therefore, perfectionists such as Ellen White must deny the true depths of the sin problem:
“As we see the condition of mankind today, the question arises in the minds of some, ‘Is man by nature totally and wholly depraved?’ Is he hopelessly ruined? No, he is not. The Lord Jesus left the royal courts and, taking our human nature, lived such a life as everyone may live in humanity, through following His example. We may perfect a life in this world [which] is an example of righteousness, and overcome as Christ has given us an example in His life, revealing that humanity may conquer as He, the great Pattern, [conquered]” (9MR 238).
In opposition to Ellen White’s teaching that human beings must conquer sin in the power of Christ’s example, the Bible is clear about the inherently hopeless condition of humanity as we stand before a holy God. We are completely dead in sin, unable to raise ourselves from this condition: “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ” (Col. 2:13; see also Eph. 2: 1-10).
In addition to the fact that all human beings are dead in our sins, we stand guilty before God before we are even born. The sin of Adam is imputed (charged, or negatively credited) to us, and it can only be removed by imputation of the Second Adam’s righteousness:
“Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:18-19).
The doctrine of imputation means that we literally stand guilty and condemned in Adam’s fall, for which we had no personal responsibility. That’s the bad news. The good news is that true believers died with Christ and were raised with Him (Rom. 6:3-4), meaning that His righteous life, death, and resurrection are all imputed (credited) to believers even though believers have no personal responsibility for the grace they receive. Imputed guilt condemns us—completely apart from our works—but imputed righteousness saves us—also apart from our works. That’s the good news of the true gospel of righteousness by faith!
The Adventist gospel involves achieving righteousness by having enough faith. As Ellen White states, “Through faith in Christ obedience to every principle of the law is made possible” (8MR 98). The doctrine of achieving literal righteousness by having enough faith turns faith into a work: “When we lay hold of Christ by faith, our work has just begun. Every man has corrupt and sinful habits that must be overcome by vigorous warfare. Every soul is required to fight the fight of faith” (6SDABC 1111). Thank God we have a perfect Substitute who won the fight on our behalf! Christ kept the law on behalf of all believers, and all who try to duplicate His victory over sin (even under the guise of faith) actually place themselves under a curse: “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse” (Gal. 3:10).
Do Adventists actually rely on the works of the law for salvation? If they believe Ellen White, they know that salvation can be lost through lack of obedience. “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). White is so serious about her doctrine of “entire surrender” that she actually states that “[Christ’s] righteousness only is imputed to the obedient” (RH 9/21/1886). Therefore, one must become obedient before one can even be justified through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (see below). It seems that works are central to the SDA understanding of the gospel.
Under Ellen White’s gospel, what is more important—faith or works? If one must have works in order to be justified, and if one can lose justification through lack of “continual obedience,” are Adventists under faith or under works? According to Ellen White’s theology, faith is a vehicle for works, and works are essential for both justification and sanctification. This is not the experience of salvation by faith alone. Ellen White’s circular reasoning with regard to faith and works is evident from two quotes included back-to-back in The Heartbeat of Adventism, page 194:
“The righteousness by which we are justified is imputed; the righteousness by which we are sanctified is imparted. The first is our title to heaven, the second is our fitness for heaven” (RH 6/4/1895).
“Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the sanctification of the truth, the believer becomes fitted for the courts of heaven; for Christ works within us, and His righteousness is upon us. Without this no soul will be entitled to heaven” (1SM 395).
According to the first quote, justification is one’s “title to heaven” while sanctification represents one’s “fitness for heaven.” The second quote reaffirms that sanctification causes the sinner to be “fitted” for heaven, but it goes on to say that no one who lacks perfect sanctification (by which she means perfect works of the law) will be “entitled to heaven.” Wait a minute…. Isn’t justification one’s “title to heaven”? What good is a title to heaven if one can lose it so easily? Ellen White’s theology is circular, with obedience required prior to the imputation of justification by faith, and justification by faith leading to perfect, continual obedience to the law of God [sanctification]. Everything boils down to works under Ellen White’s legalistic teachings.
Fortunately, the Bible presents a different gospel—a gospel that is truly good news. The Bible gospel takes believers from their hopeless condition and imputes (credits) Christ’s righteousness to their account. His work is perfect and complete. Although they continue to struggle with sin in the flesh (Rom. 7:14-25), God’s people are made alive in the Spirit (Rom. 8:9-10). Life in the Spirit doesn’t center upon works. In fact, the only ones who receive imputed righteousness are the ones who do not work for salvation:
“Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited [imputed] as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them’” (Rom. 4:4-8).
The Bible repeatedly describes the salvation of believers as a past-tense experience:
“And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30).
“And by that will, we have been made holy [sanctified] through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10).
“But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).
Ellen White’s doctrine of perfect sanctification is not biblical because true believers have assurance of eternal life once they are justified by God’s grace. Believers should have absolute assurance because justification, sanctification, and even glorification are imputed at the moment of salvation. They immediately and irrevocably pass from death to life (John 5:24) and are seated with Christ in heaven (Eph. 2:6). As they grow in sanctification, they produce good works in the Spirit, but these works aren’t required for salvation. Works are merely the fruit of salvation that has already taken place.
Sanctification for perfection is not “the work of a lifetime,” as Ellen White so frequently said, but it is the work of one divine moment—irrevocably bestowed upon the believer, sealing him or her with the Holy Spirit (not with the seventh-day Sabbath): “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30). For true believers, everything required for salvation is in past tense.
Inadequate View of Christ’s Atonement
The most serious problem with Ellen White’s Great Controversy Theme is her inadequate view of Christ’s completed work on the cross. White teaches that the cross was only the first phase of Christ’s atonement, and she confuses His priestly role with the Old Covenant priesthood. In addition, she repeatedly emphasizes Christ as an Example we must follow in order to obtain the victory that He obtained. Finally, she compounds her errors by essentially making the completion of the plan of salvation dependent upon the perfection of the remnant. The basic problem with the Adventist atonement is that it changes the triumphant words of Christ from “It is finished!” to “It is ongoing!”
Ellen White’s doctrine of the Investigative Judgment, taken from her early visions in the mid-1840’s, forms the basis for her teaching of a post-Calvary atonement. As a teenager, Ellen was among the many disappointed Millerites who had predicted Christ’s second coming in 1844. On the basis of Daniel 8:14, William Miller had taught that Christ would cleanse the sanctuary (which he interpreted as earth) on October 22, 1844. Soon after the Great Disappointment, young Ellen began seeing visions affirming the views of O. R. L. Crosier, Hiram Edson, and F. B. Hahn regarding the reason for the disappointment. Crosier, Edson, and Hahn believed that Christ had entered the second apartment of the heavenly sanctuary on October 22, 1844, in order to cleanse it from sins confessed by Christians and symbolically transferred to the Most Holy Place in heaven to await a final decision. Ellen White’s prophecies regarding the Investigative Judgment are based on the work of the Levitical priesthood on the Day of Atonement. She taught that Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary was the final atonement, and that it was equal in importance to the cross:
“As the priest entered the most holy place once a year to cleanse the earthly sanctuary, so Jesus entered the most holy of the [heavenly] sanctuary, at the end of the 2300 days of Daniel 8, in 1844, to make a final atonement for all who could be benefitted by His mediation, and thus to cleanse the [heavenly] sanctuary” (EW 253).
“Now Christ is in the heavenly sanctuary. And what is he doing? Making atonement for us, cleansing the sanctuary from the sins of the people” (1888 Ellen G. White Materials, 127).
“The intercession of Christ in man’s behalf in the sanctuary above is as essential to the plan of salvation as was His death upon the cross. By His death He began that work which after His resurrection He ascended to complete in heaven” (GC 489).
The Bible gives no hint of an ongoing atonement:
“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:25).
“For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17).
Ellen White Makes Jesus the Priest of an Obsolete Covenant
In addition to her ongoing-atonement heresy, Ellen White undermined Christ by making Him a Levitical priest (EW 253) rather than a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. The Levites served under an imperfect covenant that was rendered “obsolete” by the New Covenant (Heb. 8:13). Melchizedek neither served under the Old Covenant nor officiated at a Day of Atonement. Therefore, Christ should never be understood as ministering according to the Jewish sanctuary service, which was ended by the shedding of His blood and the rending of the veil. Christ’s ministry according to the order of Melchizedek completely destroys the Investigative Judgment and its Levitical Day of Atonement typology:
“We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:19-20).
According to this text, Jesus didn’t wait until 1844 to enter the Most Holy Place and begin His ministration. His true ministry began at His ascension and continues to the present.
Because He is a priest after the order of Melchizedek (who ministered to Abraham), Jesus Christ is actually a priest of the Abrahamic covenant, which is superior to the Old Covenant because it is based on God’s promise rather than human promise:
“When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself . . . . Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath” (Heb. 6:13, 17).
When God entered into covenant relationship with Abraham, God did the swearing—not Abraham. That’s why the Abrahamic covenant is both perfect and permanent (Gal. 3:14-18). When Christ offered Himself as a sacrifice for sin, He inaugurated the New Covenant, which is a reinstatement of the Abrahamic. Again, God Himself swore this covenant, nailing to His cross the “handwriting of ordinances that was against us” (Col. 2:14). By doing so, He fulfilled and ended the Sinaitic covenant established on failed human promises of obedience.
“If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood—and indeed the law given to the people established that priesthood—why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also. . . . The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God. . . .” (Heb. 7:11-12 & 18-19).
The writer of Hebrews concludes that “Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant” (Heb. 7:22), transcending the Old Covenant law that Ellen White vainly tried to keep.
Does the SDA Atonement Bring Assurance of Salvation?
Ellen White was also incorrect when she stated that the sins of professed Christians are never fully cleansed until the Day of Atonement era (beginning in 1844). If true, Christians can have no assurance of salvation because their sins are still subject to divine investigation. Most Christians die before their cases are even considered in the Investigative Judgment. (Adventists teach the doctrine of soul sleep, which means that the deceased sleep unconsciously in their graves until the second coming because their souls and spirits cannot exist apart from the body.) The following quote [only part of which is included in Heartbeat] states that the Investigative Judgment (second phase of the SDA atonement) is for the confessed sins of believers:
“As the books of record are opened in the judgment, the lives of all who have believed on Jesus come in review before God. Beginning with those who first lived upon the earth, our Advocate presents the cases of each successive generation, and closes with the living. Every name is mentioned, every case closely investigated. Names are accepted, names rejected. When any have sins remaining upon the books of record, unrepented of and unforgiven, their names will be blotted out of the book of life . . . . All who have truly repented of sin, and by faith claimed the blood of Christ as their atoning sacrifice, have had pardon entered against their names in the books of heaven; as they have become partakers of the righteousness of Christ, and their characters are found to be in harmony with the law of God, their sins will be blotted out, and they themselves will be accounted worthy of eternal life” (GC 483).
If this quote is correct, believers may have sins that have never been specifically confessed and forgiven, and in these cases, “atonement” is made by casting
the believer’s name from the Book of Life. Believers must be found “worthy” in order to obtain the benefits of the atonement. Thus, Ellen White's Great Controversy
Theme begins with Arianism and ends with legalism.
The doctrine of Investigative Judgment contradicts many Bible teachings. Most important, it nullifies the eternal security promised by Christ. Instead of following Ellen White and working to keep the law so that “their sins will be blotted out” during the Investigative Judgment, sinners must believe Christ, who declared, “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24). Jesus states that believers “will not be judged”; Ellen White says believers will be judged; therefore, Ellen White must be tragically wrong. According to John 5:24, what must one do to be saved? Believe God. When does one have eternal life? Believers have eternal life now (otherwise, the text would say “will have” instead of “has”). Will the believer be judged? No. Why? Because the believer has already “crossed over from death to life.” The salvation of believers is so certain that God has already “raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 2:6). The fact that believers are already seated with Christ underscores Christ’s declaration that believers “will not be judged.” Instead of being judged, believers will take part in the judgment of rewards by judging the wicked (I Cor. 6:2-3). If believers are in Christ, there is no law to condemn them (Rom. 10:4). They are perfect in Christ even though they are not perfect in the flesh. “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Heb. 10:14).
Substitute or Example?
In addition to her other errors that undermine the atonement, Ellen White diminishes the cross of Christ by overemphasizing Him as our Example. Essentially, Christ is our Substitute for past sins, but at some point, the believer must achieve character perfection, duplicating Christ’s victory by following His example. Ellen White states, “Christ came to pay that debt for the sinner which it was impossible for him to pay for himself. Thus, through the atoning sacrifice of Christ, sinful man was granted another trial” (FW 30). She adds, “By infinite love and mercy the plan of salvation had been devised, and a life of probation was granted” (Ed 15). For Ellen White, the plan of salvation seems to be more about giving human beings a second chance at obedience than actual salvation. The life of obedience envisioned by Ellen White involves a mixture of divine and human work, meaning that salvation isn’t unmerited favor (grace) accessed by faith alone. According to Ellen White, human beings must work in the power of Christ in order to be saved: “He came to earth to unite his divine power with our human efforts, that through the strength and moral power which he imparts, we may overcome in our own behalf” (ST 8/7/1879).
Central to the Christ-as-example thesis is that Christ, in His human nature, possessed no moral advantage based on His divinity. He could have sinned. He was born as any other child, and He overcame all temptations in the power of His Father, proving that we can also keep the law.
“Yet into the world where Satan claimed dominion God permitted His Son to come, a helpless babe, subject to the weakness of humanity. He permitted Him to meet life's peril in common with every human soul, to fight the battle as every child of humanity must fight it, at the risk of failure and eternal loss” (DA 49).
“For a period of time Christ was on probation. He took humanity on Himself, to stand the test and trial which the first Adam failed to endure. Had He failed in His test and trial, He would have been disobedient to the voice of God, and the world would have been lost. Satan has asserted that men could not keep the commandments of God. To prove that they could, Christ became a man, and lived a life of perfect obedience, an evidence to sinful human beings, to the worlds unfallen, and to the heavenly angels, that man could keep God's law through the divine power that is abundantly provided for all that believe” (ST 5/10/1899).
While Ellen White does present Christ as Substitute, her fixation on Christ as Example leads to the inevitable conclusion that human beings must overcame as He overcame. “He took our nature and overcame, that we through taking His nature might overcome” (DA 311). The result of this teaching is a legalism in which people must become as perfect as Christ in order to be saved. And, in fact, a perfect remnant is essential to the plan of redemption, according to Ellen White.
Essential Role of the Remnant in Ending the Great Controversy
According to Ellen White, Christ in His human nature demonstrated that the law of God could be kept by humanity. Apparently, this demonstration is only partially convincing because the successful conclusion of the Great Controversy requires that a group of people—a remnant—perfectly keep the law, showing that fallen human beings can be restored to law-keeping.
“Christ assumed fallen nature, to demonstrated to the fallen world, to Satan and his synagogue, to the universe of heaven, and to the worlds unfallen, that human nature, united to his divine nature, could become entirely obedient to the law of God, that his followers by their love and unity would give evidence that the power of redemption is sufficient to enable man to overcome” (ST 11/5/1896).
The end of the Great Controversy can only come after Christ’s followers “give evidence” that the law can be kept. “All heaven is waiting to hear us vindicate God’s law, declaring it to be holy, just, and good” (RH 4/16/1901). Evidently, Christ’s perfect life failed to fully vindicate the law of God in the sense that He had never sinned, so He couldn’t prove that sinners could be restored to full obedience. Ellen White makes it clear that the lack of a perfect remnant has put the plan of salvation on hold because God cannot return until His law is perfectly kept by the remnant:
“It is the unbelief, the worldliness, unconsecration, and strife among the Lord’s professed people that have kept us in this world of sin and sorrow so many years” (1SM 69).
“He has put it in our power, through co-operation with Him, to bring this scene of misery to an end” (Ed 264).
“The honor of Christ must stand complete in the perfection of the character of His chosen people” (ST 11/25/1897).
“When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own. It is the privilege of every Christian not only to look for but to hasten the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (COL 69).
The perfection that Ellen White envisions is not a mere figure of speech. It isn’t analogous to new parents exclaiming, “She’s so perfect!” No, actual sinlessness is required so that Christ’s people can live for a period of time without Christ as Mediator. I don’t know if the following quote is included in Heartbeat, but it demonstrates the heights of perfection demanded by Ellen White:
“Those who are living upon the earth when the intercession of Christ shall cease in the sanctuary above are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator. Their robes must be spotless, their characters must be purified from sin by the blood of sprinkling. Through the grace of God and their own diligent effort they must be conquerors in the battle with evil. While the investigative judgment is going forward in heaven, while the sins of penitent believers are being removed from the sanctuary, there is to be a special work of purification, of putting away of sin, among God's people upon earth. . . . When this work shall have been accomplished, the followers of Christ will be ready for His appearing” (GC 425).
According to the teaching of Ellen White, the plan of redemption—the solution to the Great Controversy—is on hold because God’s remnant isn’t ready to vindicate the law of God. Christ could have returned to end sin and suffering during Ellen White’s day (1SM 69), but the perfect remnant has persistently failed to materialize. If God is dependent on the righteousness of a human remnant to vindicate His law before He can bring an end to the sin problem, is the death of Christ enough? Do we have any assurance that the so-called remnant will ever play their part in answering Satan’s charges? Unfortunately, legalism always results in a human-centered salvational focus. The doctrine of remnant perfection is just an extreme example of the results of over-inflating human importance. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). When Christ said, “It is finished,” He meant that God’s atoning work was finished at that moment. The law was ended for believers and the veil torn. All our works—all our strivings for salvation—were finished in Him. It IS finished!
In The Heartbeat of Adventism, Herbert Douglass has provided Adventists and non-Adventists with a comprehensive, conservative survey of Ellen White’s Great Controversy Theme, and we highly recommend his work as a guide to the genuine teachings of Ellen White and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We cannot, however, recommend the unbiblical theology undergirding Adventism. As shown by her early Arian visions, her legalism, and her completely inadequate view of the atonement, Ellen White is a false prophetess. Jesus warns, “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:24). The apostle Peter adds, “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2 Pe. 2:1). A prophet who undermines the atonement is actually “denying the sovereign Lord who bought [us].” There is a real Great Controversy, but Ellen White was on the wrong side of it. One must either chose to be under the law or be in Christ. It is impossible to have both the law and Jesus, too. Ellen White tried to have both. Unfortunately for some, “all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse” because “the law is not based on faith” (Gal. 3:10, 12). In the Great Controversy, our only hope is to set aside our works and place our faith in Christ alone.
Joseph Rector, May 31, 2011