Christians should rest secure in the love of God and be assured of their acceptance, in Christ, by the Father.
“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” (1 Thess. 5:23, KJV).1
When the concept of sanctification is discussed among Seventh-day Adventists, one brief statement of Ellen G. White usually comes in fairly quickly. As early as 1875, and repeated numerous times in other writings afterward, she stated, “Sanctification is not a work of a day or a year, but of a lifetime.”2
The Seventh-day Adventist understanding of sanctification is briefly mentioned in the last half of the church’s Fundamental Belief No. 10, “The Experience of Salvation”: “In infinite love and mercy God made Christ, who knew no sin, to be sin for us, so that in Him we might be made the righteousness of God. Led by the Holy Spirit we sense our need, acknowledge our sinfulness, repent of our transgressions, and exercise faith in Jesus as Saviour and Lord, Substitute and Example. This saving faith comes through the divine power of the Word and is the gift of God’s grace. Through Christ we are justified, adopted as God’s sons and daughters, and delivered from the lordship of sin. Through the Spirit we are born again and sanctified; the Spirit renews our minds, writes God’s law of love in our hearts, and we are given the power to live a holy life. Abiding in Him we become partakers of the divine nature and have the assurance of salvation now and in the judgment.”3
The statement enumerates a number of key concepts linked together in one’s personal experience of salvation, concepts that are important to understand the theological context of the Adventist view of sanctification. The experience of salvation originates first in the love and mercy of God, who in Christ graciously saves humanity. The Holy Spirit initiates the first steps of salvation by bringing about a conviction of sin, then a response of repentance and faith—all of these are the gifts of God’s grace and not by any means meritorious human works. The next concepts refer to the experience of salvation: Repentant sinners are justified, adopted into God’s family, delivered from the power of sin, born again, sanctified, and renewed in the Spirit.
Although Fundamental Belief No. 10 may lack precision and clarity in this respect, sanctification can be understood as subsequent to justification and adoption. With the experience of the new birth, one begins the lifelong process of sanctification, which includes the spiritual renewing of our minds, the writing of God’s law of love in our hearts, the reception of a spiritual power to live a holy life, and the process of becoming partakers of Christ’s divine nature. The statement is silent about perfection.
Although this statement appears to be simple and clear, there is often confusion in understanding the importance and place of sanctification in one’s salvation; and like many in other denominations, Adventists often misunderstand the relationship between salvation, justification, sanctification, and perfection. Some Adventists are closer to a Lutheran understanding; others are Wesleyan, and some are very close to a Catholic expression of the relationship between justification and sanctification.
Admittedly, much of the confusion stems also from an emphasis on keeping the commandments as a demonstration of one’s love for God (John 14:15). One end-time scenario clearly states that the seal of God (Rev. 7:3, 4) is given only to those who keep the Sabbath and all of God’s commandments. Hence, is obedience a requisite for one’s salvation? Are we saved by faith and obedience? What level of “goodness” must such obedience attain to qualify as a condition for salvation? How “perfect” and faultless must one’s obedience and sanctification be for a person to be saved? Much confusion about obedience, sanctification, and perfection arises from a perspective that is called Last Generation Theology (LGT).
Last Generation Theology teaches that perfect obedience is necessary to ensure one’s salvation and that salvation is forfeited without this kind of obedience: “Obedience is both a condition for salvation and an ongoing requirement of salvation.”4 The role of human free will is crucial in this scheme and dominates the narrative, but it is an understanding of free will seemingly unbridled and untainted by the sinful nature, or at least so robust that one can will oneself to overcome sinfulness. LGT teaches that just as Jesus was able to make all the right decisions in His life, a truly repentant sinner can also make all the right decisions and perfectly obey God’s will. While “we cannot possibly keep the commandments of God without the regenerating grace of Christ,”5 a true Christian “must be obedient in order to be saved, but my obedience is not in itself sufficient to save me. Jesus died for me on the cross, and He made a sacrifice of sufficient value to save me, but I must actively embrace His sacrifice. The question of salvation is not alone about the sufficiency of the sacrifice but also about my willingness to embrace it.”6
Notice carefully the subtleties in this argumentation. The sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross is not sufficient to save a person unless he or she fully embraces it by living a life of perfect obedience. The sacrifice of Jesus is said to be of “sufficient value to save me,” but it is not said to be of complete sufficiency and merit. In subtle ways, LGT affirms the insufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice and the added value of one’s obedience to the experience of salvation. Such obedience is unmistakably meritorious. In no uncertain terms, LGT denies the complete sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice to save humanity and effectively win the Great Controversy. This view teaches that human beings must do something, even though it is claimed to be by God’s grace and by faith, to be saved and for the universe finally to be redeemed from sin. In fact, as the title of Herbert Douglass’s book God at Risk suggests, humans are saving God from failure; Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is not sufficient to declare victory over the forces of evil.
The LGT perspective is clear about the role of obedience, sanctification, and perfection in one’s salvation: Without perfect obedience, there can be no salvation. Sanctification and obedience are not so much the fruit of justification and salvation as they are the cause of salvation—as much as is God’s forgiveness of sin. This view leads directly to a legalism that, in time in one’s spiritual journey, destroys all hope and assurance of salvation.
But there is a more balanced and coherent understanding of sanctification and perfection in the context of other key doctrines, such as the human condition, justification by grace through faith, and the role of obedience in sanctification and perfection.
God’s Love and the Human Condition
The Christian doctrine of salvation begins with the concept of God’s love. A well-known passage of John’s Gospel, during the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, has given the context of humanity’s salvation: “‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life’” (John 3:16). God’s primary disposition of love in Christ is to save humanity, and all who believe will be saved by grace through faith.
Yet things are not simple. The human condition since the fall of Adam and Eve has complicated things, and human beings cannot save themselves. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans portrays a grim picture of humanity’s predicament in its natural state: “‘There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.’ . . . For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:10–12, 23).
Ellen G. White wrote that at creation, humanity “was originally endowed with noble powers and a well-balanced mind. He was perfect in his being, and in harmony with God. His thoughts were pure, his aims holy. But through disobedience, his powers were perverted, and selfishness took the place of love. His nature became so weakened through transgression that it was impossible for him, in his own strength, to resist the power of evil.”7 What was said of Adam immediately after the Fall became much more dire for his descendants. “It is impossible for us, of ourselves, to escape from the pit of sin in which we are sunken. Our hearts are evil, and we cannot change them.”8
Consequently, only God’s grace can intervene and make salvation possible. Adventists refer to God’s intervention in human life in ways similar to Wesley’s concept of prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is God’s universal work of grace upon all human beings to draw or call them to Him (John 1:9; 12:32). It is God who, taking the first step in humanity’s salvation, yearns over lost humanity and desires to bring people back to Him. As Ellen G. White stated in a similar way, God’s “grace alone can quicken the lifeless faculties of the soul, and attract it to God, to holiness.”9 The Adventist theology of original sin, or sinful nature, is similar to that of Wesley and other Arminian theologians who affirm a universal total depravity of human nature inherited since the fall of Adam and Eve and the total inability to save oneself. The sinful nature, with its inherent power of sin, alienates and separates human beings from God—all human beings are born lost and in need of a Savior. God’s initial step of prevenient grace is given to all human beings to restore in them a measure of free will, enough to respond to God’s invitation to salvation (Jer. 31:3; John 1:9).
Justification by Grace Through Faith
As in the areas of God’s primary disposition of love, the human sinful condition, and the concept of prevenient grace, Adventist thought on salvation also reflects a Wesleyan-Arminian perspective when it comes to justification and sanctification. Adventists understand justification to be God’s forgiveness of the penalty for sins because Christ’s sacrifice paid this penalty and changes the sinner’s status from sinner to righteous on account of Christ’s righteousness being imputed to the forgiven sinner when he or she believes this promise of God. This is Paul’s thought in Romans 3:21 to 4:8, where he explicitly connected the concepts of justification, faith, forgiveness, and the imputation (or crediting) of Christ’s righteousness.
In 1890, Ellen G. White stated, “Justification is wholly of grace and not procured by any works that fallen man can do,”10 and added a year later, “As the penitent sinner, contrite before God, discerns Christ's atonement in his behalf and accepts this atonement as his only hope in this life and the future life, his sins are pardoned. This is justification by faith.”11 With words reminiscent of Wesley’s thought in one of his sermons, Ellen White also declared, “Pardon and justification are one and the same thing. Through faith, the believer passes from the position of a rebel, a child of sin and Satan, to the position of a loyal subject of Christ Jesus, not because of an inherent goodness, but because Christ receives him as His child by adoption. The sinner receives the forgiveness of his sins, because these sins are borne by his Substitute and Surety. . . . Thus man, pardoned, and clothed with the beautiful garments of Christ’s righteousness, stands faultless before God.”12 She believed that “justification is the opposite of condemnation,”13 and “However sinful has been his life, if [the sinner] believes in Jesus as his personal Saviour, he stands before God in the spotless robes of Christ’s imputed righteousness.”14 Ellen White had no hesitation about accepting the forensic nature of justification by faith and the imputation of Christ’s merits to the repentant sinner: “Christ’s character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned.”15 Furthermore, she categorically affirmed the all-sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, to which nothing can be added to save a human being.
Sanctification by Grace Through Faith
With these preliminary concepts in mind, we can now discuss sanctification. While justification is a divine declaration of forgiveness, graciously given to repentant sinners on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, sanctification is the work of God’s grace in repentant sinners to restore in them the image of God. This work of sanctification is not instantaneous; it is “the work of a lifetime.”16 In The Acts of the Apostles, Ellen White also stated: “Sanctification is not the work of a moment, an hour, a day, but of a lifetime. It is not gained by a happy flight of feeling, but is the result of constantly dying to sin, and constantly living for Christ. Wrongs cannot be righted nor reformations wrought in the character by feeble, intermittent efforts. It is only by long, persevering effort, sore discipline, and stern conflict, that we shall overcome. We know not one day how strong will be our conflict the next. So long as Satan reigns, we shall have self to subdue, besetting sins to overcome; so long as life shall last, there will be no stopping place, no point which we can reach and say, I have fully attained. Sanctification is the result of lifelong obedience.”17
The distinction and link between justification and sanctification are important: One is either justified or not, while one is being progressively sanctified. Wesley explains that at the time a person is justified, “in that very moment, sanctification begins. . . . From the time of our being ‘born again’ the gradual work of sanctification takes place.”18 Justification and sanctification are thus considered in relation to the righteousness of Christ and one’s readiness for heaven; justification is imputed righteousness and entitles one to heaven; while sanctification is imparted righteousness and prepares one for heaven.
The English words saint, sanctification, sanctify, holy, and holiness come from the same root words in Hebrew and Greek. The basic biblical meaning is “to set apart,” “to be separate,” and “belonging to God.” Thus, in this sense, the Old Testament speaks of a “holy day” (Isa. 58:13), “holy bread” (l Sam. 21:4, NKJV), and God’s “holy mountain” (Eze. 20:40). The primary reference point is God, who is holy and from whom other things are given their holiness.
When applied to God’s people, sanctification is the continuing work of God in the life of the believer, making the person actually holy, separated from the world, more and more dedicated and consecrated to the service of God. First Peter 2:9 speaks of the believer’s separation from the world: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (NIV). In John 17:17, Jesus alluded to growth in knowledge and obedience to God’s word as the work of sanctification: “‘Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth’” (NKJV). Entire consecration to God and spiritual growth are the intent of Paul’s words to the Thessalonians: “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” (1 Thess. 5:23, KJV). And in the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul reminded his readers of their lifelong commitment to growth: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. . . . If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16, 25). Sanctification is thus a process by which one’s life is brought into conformity with his or her legal status before God. It is a continuation of what began at the new birth (or regeneration)—at the moment of justification when one’s sins were forgiven.
Thus, according to Millard Erickson, there are four significant contrasts between justification and sanctification: (l) justification is an instantaneous occurrence, complete in a moment, whereas sanctification is a process requiring an entire lifetime for completion; (2) one is either justified or not, whereas one is progressively sanctified; (3) justification is a forensic declaration of forgiveness and imputation of Christ’s righteousness, whereas sanctification is an actual lifelong transformation of the character of the person through the impartation of Christ’s righteousness and character; and (4) justification is an objective work affecting our standing before God, whereas sanctification is a subjective work affecting our inner person.19
The Lingering Presence of Sin
In order to prevent an unhealthy focus on obedience and legalism, the Christian doctrine of sanctification must be articulated in the context of a crucial aspect of the human condition: the lingering presence of inherited sin and its power inhabiting the human heart and mind—that is, the self or the ontological nature of human beings. Luther had a well-known statement for this concept, translated “at once justified and sinner.” The inclination to sin we have inherited, and with which we struggle, remains in the human nature of believers; and the regenerated Christian continues to live with a sinful nature that can cause, and is the source of, temptations until Christ changes the human nature at the moment of glorification (1 Cor. 15:50–57). The new birth, however, provides a spiritual power that enables us to no longer be controlled by this sinful power.
A number of passages in Paul’s Epistles explain this relationship between justification in Christ and regeneration, between still being sinful human beings and yet not being controlled by the old self. The Holy Spirit is given to renew our minds and bodies to live according to our new status in Christ, but the struggles with the old nature remain, and one can never speak of total sinlessness or of being without sin (1 John 1:8). In Ellen G. White’s words, “We cannot say, ‘I am sinless,’ till this vile body is changed and fashioned like unto His glorious body.”20
Paul admonished the Philippians to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3, NRSV). Selfishness, the basic element of sinful human nature, is still present in a Christian’s life but need not control or direct the person’s life. In the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul stated: “I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. . . . If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16, 25). The implication of Paul’s understanding of human nature is clear: The inner sinful desires of human nature are still present in the believer and are battling for supremacy.
Three other passages similar to Galatians 5 confirm that our human self is still affected by a sinful, selfish, and perverted nature that battles against the things of God, but that the regeneration of the Holy Spirit brings a transformation and new disposition. In Colossians, Paul wrote: “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. For it is on account of these things that the wrath of God will come, and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth” (Col. 3:5–8). A similar thought is expressed in Ephesians 4: “In reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (vss. 22–24).
In Romans 8 as well, we read of the lingering presence of sin in the believer’s nature: “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. And if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who indwells you. So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (vss. 9–13).
It is explicit in these statements that, this side of heaven, our human nature remains ontologically sinful and depraved. A proper understanding of the human condition prevents the adoption of teachings that encourage human obedience as a necessary condition for one’s salvation. Nothing that we do is holy or perfect enough to merit our salvation. Everything that human beings do, however good and righteous it may be, is tainted by selfishness and sin, and therefore stands before God “as filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6, KJV).
But Paul mentioned in a number of his letters that believers are not left on their own to struggle with the lingering presence of sin. The Holy Spirit renews our minds and gives us the power to live holy lives.
The Holy Spirit and Regeneration to New Life
In His conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus said emphatically: “‘You must be born again’” (John 3:7). This new birth is the result of the action of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life (vss. 5–8). Regeneration, or the new birth, is the salvific strength of God made available to all who believe. It is the empowerment by the Holy Spirit to obey God’s will. This spiritual empowerment partially undoes the total inability with which we were born; it provides spiritual vigor to allow us to overcome the human selfishness and desire for supremacy that we inherited and which are at the root of all human sins. The inclination to sin we have inherited, the inner man of Romans 7 with which we struggle, remains in the hearts of believers in Christ, but its power no longer controls them. As this statement in Steps to Christ highlights, a new spiritual power is given at the new birth: “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 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.”21
We are reminded that justification does something for us. Our sins are forgiven; Christ’s righteousness is imputed (or credited) to us; we are restored to divine favor and adopted into God’s family, and we have a new status in the eyes of God. On a day-to-day basis, the justifying grace of God continues to cover us with Christ’s robe of righteousness, and we receive forgiveness of the sins we repent of as the Holy Spirit continues to convince us of sin, mistakes, and weaknesses in our lives. We continue to stand before God as if we had never sinned. On the other hand, sanctification does something in us. At the moment of justification, we begin a new life in Christ. The Holy Spirit gives an inward power to overcome temptations and the lingering presence of sin through the impartation of Christ’s righteousness. This is the beginning of the restoration of the image of God. Speaking of Wesley’s understanding of regeneration, Kenneth Collins writes that the “new birth marks the beginning not simply of an incremental change, not merely one of degree, but a qualitative change that issues in a distinct kind of life, a life that men and women cannot bring about by themselves.”22 Writing about the relationship between justification and sanctification, Adventist theologian Hans K. LaRondelle spoke of an effective justification—our justification in Christ naturally leads to the indwelling of Christ in the heart of the believer.23
The fruits of this regeneration are evidences of the work of the Holy Spirit. There is love of God and love of neighbor (Luke 10:26, 27) and obedience to the commandments of God (1 John 5:3). Regeneration is a reorientation of human nature. Though original sin orients us toward sin and rebellion, the new birth reorients us toward obedience and holiness. The new birth is an inward change, not an outward one. It is a spiritual change, not a natural one. It is not the entirety of sanctification but only its beginning.
In Steps to Christ, Ellen White presented her understanding of sanctification and how one grows in Christ after being justified. Christian growth and sanctification are comparable to the life of a plant. As God first gives life to a plant when the seed germinates, it is also God who continues to give life to the plant as it grows. Never is the plant capable of making itself grow. So it is only through the gift of God that spiritual life is formed in our lives, and thus growth results.24 In order to grow, Christians are invited to “abide in Christ,” for it is only as one is dependent on Christ that he or she receives power to resist temptation or to grow in grace. “You are just as dependent upon Christ, in order to live a holy life, as is the branch upon the parent stock for growth and fruitfulness. Apart from Him you have no life.”25
To those who misunderstand that justification is by faith but that sanctification is dependent on human obedience, Ellen White stated categorically that such an approach to spiritual growth will fail. “Many have an idea that they must do some part of the work alone. They have trusted in Christ for the forgiveness of sin, but now they seek by their own efforts to live aright. But every such effort must fail.”26 Once we remind ourselves of Jesus’ words “without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5, KJV), we understand that all aspects of Christian growth depend upon our union with Christ and, as such, are by faith. We are justified by faith, and we are sanctified by faith. “It is by communion with Him, daily, hourly,—by abiding in Him,—that we are to grow in grace. He is not only the Author, but the Finisher of our faith. It is Christ first and last and always. He is to be with us, not only at the beginning and the end of our course, but at every step of the way.”27
Such a moment-by-moment dependence on Christ for continued spiritual growth excludes the value of human effort. In fact, in harmony with her view of the depravity of human nature, which still remains a hindrance to spiritual life and growth even after conversion and justification, Ellen White remarked: “The religious services, the prayers, the praise, the penitent confession of sin ascend from true believers as incense to the heavenly sanctuary, but passing through the corrupt channels of humanity, they are so defiled that unless purified by blood, they can never be of value with God.”28
One of Ellen White’s best expressions of this spiritual regeneration to new life is from an article she wrote in 1901, shortly after arriving back in the United States after living for nine years in Australia: “There are those who listen to the truth, and . . . they repent of their transgressions. Relying upon the merits of Christ, exercising true faith in Him, they receive pardon for sin. As they cease to do evil and learn to do well, they grow in grace and in the knowledge of God. . . . The warfare is before them, . . . fighting against their natural inclinations and selfish desires, bringing the will into subjection to the will of Christ. Daily they seek the Lord for grace to obey Him, and they are strengthened and helped. This is true conversion. In humble, grateful dependence he who has been given a new heart relies upon the help of Christ. He reveals in his life the fruit of righteousness. He once loved himself. Worldly pleasure was his delight. Now his idol is dethroned, and God reigns supreme. The sins he once loved he now hates. Firmly and resolutely he follows in the path of holiness.”29
Obedience and Good Works
Though it is clear in Scripture that works, even righteous works, do not merit salvation for anyone, there is still a valid biblical teaching about obedience and good works. It is faith in the merits of Christ’s sacrifice that leads to justification, and justification must and will invariably and effectively produce good works in the life of the new person. Paul affirms this to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8–10). And in Philippians: “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12, 13).
In the Old Testament, we are told that Abraham obeyed God and kept His commandments, statutes, and laws (Gen. 26:5). Even the Ten Commandments were spoken to the people of Israel in the context of God’s love and deliverance from Egypt. God first delivered His people and then gave them His commandments (Ex. 20:1, 2). This command to obey God is repeated many times in the New Testament by Jesus (John 14:15, 21; 15:10, 12; 1 John 5:3), the apostle Paul (Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14), and James (James 2:8–12). Believers are therefore certainly asked to obey God’s will for their lives as revealed in Scripture, yet such obedience is never the condition of their salvation, which rests only in the sacrifice of Jesus. But obedience is always the undeniable and evident fruit of salvation.
The most evident transformation in the life of a person is the work of the Holy Spirit. In Galatians, Paul paints a vivid contrast between life lived in the Spirit and life lived in the flesh: “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. . . . Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:17–21). The absence of the work of the Holy Spirit is manifested in the various works of the flesh (the natural human being), but by contrast, the fruit of the Spirit brings new dispositions, qualities, and character virtues (a regenerated human being): “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (vss. 22–25).
Ellen White affirmed this Protestant understanding of the relationship between faith and obedience. She stated in a sermon in Switzerland in 1885: “Faith and works go hand in hand; they act harmoniously in the work of overcoming. Works without faith are dead, and faith without works is dead. Works will never save us; it is the merit of Christ that will avail in our behalf. Through faith in Him, Christ will make all our imperfect efforts acceptable to God. The faith we are required to have is not a do-nothing faith; saving faith is that which works by love and purifies the soul.”30
Two other statements from Ellen White’s writings are worth noticing at this point. In a manuscript written at the time of a pastors’ meeting in Battle Creek in 1890, she discussed the dangers of false ideas about justification by faith. Obedience and good works will always remain important, but never enough to be necessary for our salvation. Note carefully her thoughts and how it is dangerous to even insinuate that our obedience proves anything: “Should faith and works purchase the gift of salvation for anyone, then the Creator is under obligation to the creature. Here is an opportunity for falsehood to be accepted as truth. If any man can merit salvation by anything he may do, then he is in the same position as the Catholic to do penance for his sins. Salvation, then, is partly of debt that may be earned as wages. If man cannot, by any of his good works, merit salvation, then it must be wholly of grace, received by man as a sinner because he receives and believes in Jesus. It is wholly a free gift. Justification by faith is placed beyond controversy. And all this controversy is ended, as soon as the matter is settled that the merits of fallen man in his good works can never procure eternal life for him.”31
“The Lord Jesus imparts all the powers, all the grace, all the penitence, all the inclination, all the pardon of sins, in presenting His righteousness for man to grasp by living faith―which is also the gift of God. If you would gather together everything that is good and holy and noble and lovely in man and then present the subject to the angels of God as acting a part in the salvation of the human soul or in merit, the proposition would be rejected as treason. . . . Christ for our sakes became poor, that we through His poverty might be made rich. And any works that man can render to God will be far less than nothingness. My requests are made acceptable only because they are laid upon Christ's righteousness. The idea of doing anything to merit the grace of pardon is fallacy from beginning to end. . . . Man can achieve no praiseworthy exploits that give him any glory.”32
The conclusions are clear: Obedience to God, although required of the believer, is never to be considered a condition for one’s salvation. Such an argument insinuates that human obedience adds something to Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice. All human obedience, however good and wholesome it may be, is tainted by human selfishness and merits nothing in the eyes of God.
Character Development and Perfection
Christian perfection is also a biblical teaching to be discussed with sanctification, but it is one that Greek philosophy has undoubtedly twisted. There is an inherent view of perfection that owes much to Aristotelian philosophy, with its objective understanding of perfection as something totally and absolutely free of errors, mistakes, mishaps, or anything short of an idealistic and faultless view of perfect behavior and attitudes. Christians often make the mistake of adopting a view of perfection that is more Aristotelian than biblical—a view which teaches that sinless behavior (free from all moral errors, faultless) and even sinless nature (an ontological human nature so sanctified by regeneration that it no longer has any traces of the lingering presence of sin) is possible and necessary for salvation.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus affirmed the concept of perfection. At the end of a forthright discussion of how a believer’s personal relationships ought to be shaped by the law of God, He concluded with a far-reaching statement: “‘Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’” (Matt. 5:48). This statement has often been interpreted within an Aristotelian framework to claim that human behavior ought to be exactly as perfect and faultless as God’s behavior. Such an interpretation is misguided and not contextual. In Matthew 5, Jesus discusses the deeper meaning and intent of the law of God and how it ought to direct people’s lives. And the last example He gives is about love for one’s neighbor (vss. 43–47). God’s love for people, whether they deserve it or not, is the example for people to follow. In this sense, Jesus invites His listeners to love others as perfectly as the Father does. How God relates to people is the ideal for Jesus’ disciples to follow, and this ideal is to be adapted to different cultures and customs.
The Greek word translated as “perfect” in most Bible translations, also means “mature,” “fulfilled,” and “complete.” This biblical meaning of perfection is far from the Aristotelian perspective; rather, it is about loving others and having human relationships that exemplify maturity and completeness within our sphere as God does in His sphere. Never are we to try to live our lives within God’s sphere or domain. That is totally unrealistic. Yet many people interpret the passage in this way and, this causes them to suffer from unrealistic expectations that lead to discouragement. We are not asked to be faultless, but we are asked to be mature in our relationships with others and to seek more maturity and completeness in ways that reflect how God relates to humanity. A focus on perfect and faultless behavior leads to an unhealthy preoccupation with oneself as well.
Paul also discusses the concept of perfection in his letter to the Philippians. Is biblical perfection a state of being to be attained in this life, or, like sanctification, is it a process of Christian growth? Is perfection about perfect and faultless behavior, or is it about mature character?
“More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained” (Phil. 3:8–16).
Note the active verbs Paul used in this passage. Clearly, he had not yet attained perfection; he was striving toward that goal in Christ Jesus. For Paul, perfection is a process just like sanctification because the concept he taught were about maturity and growth in the Christian’s life. It is about character development, which is a process that also goes on throughout one’s lifetime. Woodrow Whidden comments on this passage: “Paul’s definition is that if any believer is growing in grace, advancing in union with Christ, he or she can be declared to be perfect.”33
Since the process of sanctification is often invisible and imperceptible in one’s life, it is therefore misguided to speak of perfectionism or of the possibility of attaining a sinless life on this earth. In fact, Ellen G. White cautioned those who teach perfectionism: “The closer you come to Jesus, the more faulty you will appear in your own eyes.”34 “Christ is our pattern, the perfect and holy example that has been given us to follow. We can never equal the pattern; but we may imitate and resemble it according to our ability.”35 She also clearly declared, “We cannot say, ‘I am sinless,’ till this vile body is changed and fashioned like unto His glorious body.”36
Yet Ellen White spoke of the possibility of character perfection in one’s life, which is to be carefully distinguished from perfectionism. Commenting on the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, she wrote: “A character formed according to the divine likeness is the only treasure that we can take from this world to the next. . . . The heavenly intelligences will work with the human agent who seeks with determined faith that perfection of character which will reach out to perfection in action.”37
In fact, that perfection of character is a reflection of the loving character of God. As servants of God become more and more like Christ, they receive “the Spirit of Christ—the Spirit of unselfish love and labor for others.” As a result, she concluded, “you will grow and bring forth fruit. The graces of the Spirit will ripen in your character. Your faith will increase, your convictions deepen, your love be made perfect. More and more you will reflect the likeness of Christ in all that is pure, noble, and lovely.”38 George Knight comments that Ellen G. White thus “ties her discussion of Christian perfection to the internalization of God’s loving character in daily life.”39
Another crucial step in growth is to daily surrender to Christ’s will and to keep our eyes fixed upon Christ. In other words, we are to live daily in the presence of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Such a life brings about transformation of character and obedience. Ellen White was careful to balance the work of God’s grace in justification and sanctification with the role of human effort in the process of growth. As a result of the work of God’s grace, our characters are transformed into the likeness of Christ’s character, and obedience to God’s law and to the gospel become part of our inner redeemed nature.
“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 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. The character is revealed, not by occasional good deeds and occasional misdeeds, but by the tendency of the habitual words and acts.”40
As one’s character is developed into the likeness of Christ’s character, obedience becomes a natural aspect of growth and of one’s faithful response to the gift of the grace of God. “Instead of releasing man from obedience, it is faith, and faith only, that makes us partakers of the grace of Christ, which enables us to render obedience. We do not earn salvation by our obedience; for salvation is the free gift of God, to be received by faith. But obedience is the fruit of faith.”41 Ellen White stated to believers in Sweden in 1886, “True sanctification will be evidenced by a conscientious regard for all the commandments of God” and “a careful improvement of every talent, by a circumspect conversation, by revealing in every act the meekness of Christ.”42
Given this understanding set forth by Ellen G. White and in the pages of Scripture, any talk of perfectionism is really a moot point if we properly understand the warnings and encouragements in 1 John. “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. . . If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:8, 10). The solution is only in Christ and not in ourselves. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (vs. 9). According to Richard Rice, “Even perfectionists agree that no one should ever claim to be sinless. In fact, a truly sinless person wouldn’t even be aware of the fact. There are good reasons, therefore, not to insist that we should expect to reach sinlessness in this life.”43 And George Knight summarizes well what biblical perfection intends to teach: “Being ‘perfect’ for Paul in Philippians and being ‘sinless’ for John in his first epistle did not mean either absolute perfection or absolute sinlessness. But it did involve being free from an attitude of rebellion toward the Father and His principles set forth in the law of love.”44
The Adventist understanding of sanctification and perfection is that by faith, we are in Christ, and He in us. Sanctification and perfection are the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, but first and foremost they are about character and the maturity of one’s relationship with God and others, not behavior (although behavior is a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in one’s life). Both are progressive and never end. We are to contemplate Jesus’ life and character because He is our example to follow, yet Jesus’ example will never completely be reproduced in our lives. The closer we get to Him, the more sinful we see ourselves. By faith and union with Christ, power to live a life of obedience is given to those who surrender their lives to God.
A biblical and balanced view of sanctification and perfection avoids some dangerous pitfalls. On the one hand, some think that Christian growth in grace and obedience to God and His will are optional, since justification forgives sins past, present, and future. This attitude can easily lead to a life lived without Christ. On the other hand, some think that obedience causes one’s salvation and that without it one will be eternally lost. Such an understanding is misleading, because it denies the lingering presence of sin in human nature and unconsciously attempts to add to Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice. This attitude easily leads to legalism and perfectionism. Both pitfalls are to be avoided.
Christians should rest secure in the love of God and be assured of their acceptance, in Christ, by the Father. In Christ, we are justified, sanctified, and perfected. In Christ, and by faith, we receive the power of the Holy Spirit to live a life to the glory of God.
Denís Fortin, PhD, is Professor of Historical Theology and former Dean at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES