Perfectionism in Adventist History

The question of one’s assurance of salvation confronts most, if not all, sincere Christians at one time or another.[1] It is an issue that faces Christians because it is the content that fills one’s spiritual vacuum, and also bears eternal weight. This has caused a series of complex historical and theological questions within the Seventh-day Adventist Church for more than six decades.[2]


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/11113

Reading this account, one might think it a complete mystery why the church hasn’t been able to settle this issue and root out perfectionistic legalism. A more frank analysis of Ellen White’s role should clear up this mystery. Here’s just a few quotes compiled in an article from one of our most prolific contemporary proponents of perfection theology.: (Assurance of Salvation at the Time of the End — ADvindicate

The work of gaining salvation is one of copartnership, a joint operation. There is to be co-operation between God and the repentant sinner. This is necessary for the formation of right principles in the character. Man is to make earnest efforts to overcome that which hinders him from attaining to perfection. (Acts of the Apostles pp. 482, 1911.)

****We are saved by climbing round after round of the ladder, looking to Christ, clinging to Christ, mounting step by step to the height of Christ, so that He is made unto us wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption..” (Testimonies Vol. 6, 1901.)

We cannot have the assurance and perfect confiding trust in Christ as our Saviour until we acknowledge Him as our King and are obedient to His commandments. (Manuscript 36, 1890)

Obedience to the laws of God develops in man a beautiful character that is in harmony with all that is pure and holy and undefiled. In the life of such a man the message of the gospel of Christ is made clear. Accepting the mercy of Christ and His healing from the power of sin, he is brought into right relation with God. His life, cleansed from vanity and selfishness, is filled with the love of God. His daily obedience to the law of God obtains for him a character that assures him eternal life in the kingdom of God. (MS. 49, 1907)

Now, while our great High Priest is making the atonement for us, we should seek to become perfect in Christ…This is the condition in which those must be found who shall stand in the time of trouble.(GC 623, 1911)

As this is getting tedious, I’ll stop there. Note these all come from after 1888. With a “prophet” making such statements, it should be clear why we cannot move past perfection theology. This article’s portrait of EGW being squarely in the anti-perfection righteousness by faith alone camp since 1888 is simply not tenable.

But the evangelical wing of Adventism takes the strategy of telling members that when EGW says salvation is obtained by striving for perfection with the help of God, she doesn’t mean that salvation is obtained by striving for perfection with the help of God. It’s hard to not see this as a form a spiritual gaslighting. Instead of reconsidering the role of Ellen White in the church’s theology, we blame members for deriving a legalistic theology from her writings by reading her to mean what she actually wrote. Mind you, for the most part, I don’t think it’s intentional gaslighting but the effect is the same.

A microcosm of what we put conscientious members through with these games can be seen in the story of Fanny Bolton. On the one hand, she was deeply moved by the beautiful messages of God’s tender love and great grace that one side of Ellen White kept advocating. On the other hand, whenever Fanny couldn’t keep her mouth shut about how the books were being made, White would claim to receive revelation from God showing that Fanny was lost. Reading Fanny’s letters is an absolutely heart-wrenching glimpse into these conflicting views of God and salvation played out in one person’s mind. The most heart-wrenching letter was perhaps one from Oct. 1892:

In all the darkness that the Lord has revealed to you concerning me, has He not shown you anything of the pleadings I have presented, that I might die to self?.. But is my idea of Jesus right? I have thought of Him as you have presented Him, and during the last few weeks have especially rejoiced in the thought that He did love even me, unworthy as I am, and was personally working for my salvation. I have thought His kindness was manifested to me in allowing me to have the precious Bible lessons that we have had, and I still think so. I will not sink in despair over the thought of depths of darkness in my nature you may still have to present before me that I may know myself…You may well be pained that I have come so far short of what a Christian should be. Do not imagine that there has been a day when [7] I have looked upon myself with satisfaction. Whatever you may know of me, you must know that I have felt my poverty, if not to the full extent of it, then to an agonizing degree. Night after night I have in torture of spirit reviewed my failures in life, and rise next morning with a feeling of despair almost, in facing a new day. But as for my feelings of rebellion against God, would you call it rebellion when I was in misery? (“Fannie Bolton to E. G. White, October, 1892,” pp. XX-XXII found in The Fannie Bolton Story: A Collection of Source Documents, pp. XX-XXIII)
How many others have experienced this “misery,” from a “spirit of prophecy” that with one hand gives assurance of grace and love, and with another hand takes it all away?

Excuse the long-winded comment. To answer your question: Is the present Church in a position to settle the issue posed by the concept of perfectionism? No, not until we’re willing to be far more honest than this account, about the role of the “spirit of prophecy” in entrenching those views. Unless, we reckon with that reality we’ll continue to experience theological groundhog day.

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There are just two ways of relating to this whole issue of “salvation”. Either it’s about systematically altering your life in obedience to a set of laws; or, adopting a new paradigm, described by Jesus as “the new birth”. This second one takes more heart; while the first one is simply behaviour modification. If that’s what Christianity is all about, anyone with a strong will can make it; but that leaves out the weak. Factored down, perfectionism is self-centered way of life; while a life based on the gospel, creates gratitude and service, if motivation matters. The only way we can obey from the heart is to be accepted unconditionally. The one makes us kin to Jesus, and always accepted and forgiven; the second is dependant perfection.

@vandieman

I posted an answer to you 16 min. too late in “How are we Saved”. This was part of it.

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In our lnational college they created a new goal by attempting “excellent perfection” - what a ridiculous pleonasm !

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lol…pleonasms do have their particular charm, don’t they :wink:

i think you’re right in a fundamental sense, no pun intended…however, this is assuming that salvation must be reduced to a fundamental core - that light must either be a particle or a wave, if you will…but if we subscribe to this approach, we will always of necessity need to minimize or even obliterate texts that emphasize the competing reality…we will never be able to accept that all scripture is equally inspired and authoritative…

for instance, many of jesus’ recorded statements to strive to enter into the narrow way, or take up our cross of self-denial, or pluck out our eye or chop off our hand if they lead us into sin, while obviously figurative on some level, don’t really square with passive unconditionality, or with the notion that sanctification has no bearing on our salvation, a la desmond ford…even some of paul’s counsel to establish the law, and be zealous of good works, falls a bit limp if the only thing on our minds is forensic justification, or imputed salvation, with utterly no contribution on our part (yes, i’ve bumped into an evangelical who didn’t know that paul tells us to establish the law in our converted state)…it’s not everyone who feels comfortable descending into the levels of cognitive dissonance associated with an approach contradicted directly by the saviour they claim to be in a love relationship with…nor is it necessary to view behaviour modification suspiciously, or insist that it is always and only law based, and never new birth derived…

a further possible perplexity to consider is whether a wrecking ball grace approach - despite the many texts that emphasize works - isn’t a camouflaged reluctance to fight the “good fight of faith”, as paul puts it…maybe its the case that individuals who insist on a salvation in which they do nothing to modify their life have something in their life that they don’t want to give up, or in any way confront…maybe it’s the case that they’ve tried before, but have grown exhausted by the effort…

it’s far better to synthesize a result that can square with all available statements, which is what the egw solution does…to say that jesus adds his perfection to our imperfect efforts, and that it is our imperfect efforts, and only our imperfect efforts, that he adds his perfection to, strikes a balance that simultaneous encourages the striving that both jesus and paul advocate without allowing things to balloon into the psychotic dimensions we see in not a few LGT individuals…in addition, there is satisfaction in knowing that there’s no need to minimize texts from one bible writer in order to promote another, nor do we need to see egw as a basket case of hopeless contradiction…

the bottom line is that a reasonable person can see that even if his best spirit-mediated efforts must be purified by christ to be acceptable, there cannot be an obsessive focus on these efforts…but at the same time, this reasonable person will also likely be able to see that if it is the case that it’s these spirit-mediated efforts that jesus is purifying, they are important, even though imperfect, and must be engaged in…

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perhaps the real solution is for our church to once and for all accede to the legitimacy and crucial importance of the doctrine of original sin, as articulated clearly and unmistakably in both the bible and egw…so many church people, and even leaders, have a problem with this doctrine…just in ordinary conversation on this subject with otherwise reasonable persons, i have seen a sense of outrage boil over to a point where meaningful dialogue becomes impossible…people have real difficulty in accepting the fact that an innocent baby is guilty, and condemned to the second death…it is not infrequently the case that god is blamed for allowing this type of injustice to exist, if this doctrine is true…

but what an acceptance of the doctrine of original sin really does is open the mind to the reality that sin exists as a condition, in addition to a set of choices…it clarifies why ignorance isn’t bliss, and why evangelism is so urgent…above all, it prevents the fantasy that perfection is possible through spirit-mediated effort…that is, it fully elucidates why justification is an ongoing phenomenon, occurring as our sanctification is occurring, and that it isn’t merely an initial gift we receive at conversion for past sinful choices…

when we see that our ongoing existence is a de facto statement of sinfulness, due to the homozygous sinful nature we’ve all inherited, and that even our best efforts depend on christ’s purifying them, it effectively removes any tendency towards smugness, or a feeling of superiority over others, or a willingness to exercise any harshness towards them…instead we feel a constant bubbling up of almost inexpressible gratitude - we “rejoice with joy unspeakable, and full of glory”, as peter would say - along with a settled determination to be and do our best to establish the kingdom of god within and around us, given that we can see so clearly just how much jesus has done and is doing for us…

far from descending into medieval ritualism involving the baptism of babies, and possibly pets, an intelligent apprehension of original sin fosters and nurtures the experience of righteousness by faith on a feelings level, so eloquently described in egw…it generates complete confidence and restfulness in the knowledge that we are certainly being saved…it gives us the freedom to consider the great acts and processes of god’s justice, such as IJ and the lake of fire, without even one ounce of fear…

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The chief cause of all doctrinal disputes, confusion, contradictions is…Ellen White herself! It started with her first vision (1844). Lay her aside, church would be at peace…with Bible alone.

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Let’s try again, for both - righteousness by faith AND, salvation measured by works - for both to come into play, one must produce the other, otherwise it becomes a cognitive dissonance For that to happen, righteousness has to come first, producing good works, because not all “good works” are of the same value. Works done without the “new birth” (the sense of forgiveness and acceptance through Christ) must come first for the “works” to be meaningful - an outgrowth of a relationship based on the assurance of acceptance. If it’s handled as a contract - I obey/God provides salvation, it’s merely a business deal (covenant).

For someone who’s experienced forgiveness, the works become secondary. Going hrough life focused on obedience onto perfection, is a self-centred life. It’s focus is yourself, while others you “serve” are mere props for you to practice benevolence. It’s not about your neighbour. When your focus is on the welfare of others in your life, it’s not on how well you are doing.

In a sense, our deeds do tell where our heart is - but only God sees the heart; while the church (others) only see the deeds. The system is set up so everybody looks good. When that becomes the central focus, it becomes righteousness by works, without the faith. The problem is we end up believing it too.

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You have ‘nailed it on the head.’ She was predominently a perfectionist all her life. Her quote from 1911 GC proves it.

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i don’t think anyone can have a problem with this conclusion…even LGT proponents believe works stem from a living relationship with christ through the HS…

i’m not so sure i agree with this…people aren’t stupid…a group, large and small, can generally form a collective sense on whether someone is sincere, and in a genuine relationship with christ, and when they’re just going through the motions…

but it’s true that no-one says anything unless they see some kind of transgression, usually some sexual transgression…

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We can even fool ourselves.

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that’s definitely true…

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Tee hee! Thank you, getting to laugh about pleonasms was an…“unexpected surprise.” :crazy_face:

Around here, the churches tilt very heavily toward perfectionism, and my experience agrees with this. It was especially noticeable during alleged witnessing (at least, in the Before Times). You never got the sense it was about reaching people. It was only about “doing the Lord’s work,” reinforcing loyalty to the church, and determining who was ‘with us’ or ‘a part of The World™.’ If I never see another phony, plastered-on smile with a desperate veneer of being glad, I’ll be just fine with that.

The frustrating thing is they’ll always backpedal and throw in a “but we need to remember we’re saved by Jesus!” line. And then they go right back to talking about laws and perfection, instead of asking: Wait, then why talk about perfection at all? If it’s just a product of what God’s doing in us, there’s no need to be concerned. It’d happen without our efforts, while our works are the obvious byproduct of a heart change.

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This is so right on! And no one will listen.

The theological issues and battles that were summarized in this article are the product of such distortions of the gospel, that it’s hard to know where to begin. By taking the occasional, practical theology of the NT, and trying to bend it into concepts of systematic theology, and also mixing it with the albatross of EGW and her wax nose on these concepts, a mess that has messed people up royally has been born and nurtured.

It’s no wonder younger people have left in droves. Who wants to deal with spiritually toxic beliefs that lead to navel gazing, judgmentalism, and despair, and not to the dynamic relational life of the Spirit that the gospel brings?

The kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking, but about justice, shalom, and joy in the Holy Spirit. The Adventist theological landscape has reversed this around. To everyone’s loss.

Thanks…

Frank

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Ellen White demanded that we accept Paul’s use of “the law” to mean the ten commandments. You do that successfully.

However, if you were referring to Romans 3, you should have quoted verse 28, which points out that establishing the law does not mean performing it.

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Perfection is not a standard…it is an obstacle (not my quote) but definitely describes the results of salvation by works. Coupled with the idea of the surmountable task of keeping up with all the “don’ts” the church lays out for it’s members, you can bet that on these premises nobody will make it to heaven. Realistically humans are far from perfection and if I recall correctly Isaiah 64:6 “our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags”. End of discussion.

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If one joins a baseball team, it’s expected that they play baseball and take the direction of the coach. I’m using this as a basic illustration of the call of the gospel, the response of faith, and salvation.

Salvation is belonging to Christ, his kingdom project, and his team. Faith is joining up to be part of it and him, with the understanding that we will follow him and his direction. The call of discipleship in the NT comes to mind.

This all cannot be divorced from each other. One doesn’t join the team to not play. But, one didn’t play their way onto the team either. We’re invited. Freely. Graciously. Regardless of background, fitness, etc. And, we’ll always be learning more, bringing our own abilities to contribute to the good of the whole, helping our teammates play, picking each other up when we get hurt or make mistakes or fall and fail.

Perfectionism has nothing to do with living life together with Jesus and one another in this way. The way of the gospel. It destroys it.

Thanks…

Frank

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harry, your comment is intellectually confused…Rom 3:28, which tells us that justification isn’t based on the deeds of the law (which we know anyway, given the meaning of justification), is positioned before Rom 3:31, which tells us to establish the law…this means that Rom 3:31 is modifying Rom 3:28…it’s explaining to us that the faith that leads to justification is the faith that establishes the law…

what paul is really saying is that the law, which we weren’t able to keep before, we are now in a position to keep, but through the faith that leads to justification, and therefore freedom from the condemnation that was coming from that law…

Rom 3:31 isn’t required to make paul’s argument in Rom 3 that the righteousness of god, which the law foreshadowed and witnessed to, is now freely available through faith…rather, paul is adding Rom 3:31 specifically to prevent the erroneous conclusion you’ve lapsed into, which is that the faith that justifies can somehow ignore the law…

your problem is that you’re not following paul’s argument…your eye is catching what looks like a tantalizing message in Rom 3:28, but you’re not perceiving its modifying setting, or its positioning within the larger argument paul is making, that doesn’t culminate until Rom 8…as a result, what you think paul is saying is exactly the opposite of what he’s saying…

actually, egw didn’t demand anything…what she said was that paul’s use of “the law” means both the ten commandments and the ceremonial law, which we know anyway from reading paul for ourselves…

we need to understand that many of egw’s comments were directed towards people operating under substantial intellectual deficits…in fact our pioneer church suffered a bit of a rift due to an inability to comprehend Galatians…it’s equally evident that our church didn’t, and still doesn’t, understand egw…

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To EGW it was Satan’s claim that God’s commands could not be kept by humanity, thus God’s law is at fault. This justifies Satan’s rebellion against heaven. In the end it must be proved that believers can live in full harmony with God’s laws, thus providing justification that God’s law is honorable. This is one reason why Sabbath keeping is the final test for the world. The saved and lost are divided over keeping the 4th Commandment. In the end, the redeemed (144,000) can live in the time of trouble without sin.

Thus God’s laws are justified and he is without fault in proclaiming them as a copy of his character. This is a system of salvation by complete obedience obtained by faith. Something so far is impossible to human to comply and thus God has to delay his Coming until we can be perfect.

I wonder if our church and its leadership is becoming more perfect as time marches on? I wonder how of this EGW teaching on perfect obedience to God’s law squares with Paul’s teachings that we are justified apart from the works of law?

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It doesn’t square at all. All the reasons are in this thread. A total misunderstanding of what Paul meant by law (it was not the later anachronism of moral/ceremonial split). A lack of reckoning with just how complex his arguments were concerning the law, people pick their favorite quotes, positive or negative to line up with their own positions.

A total disregard for the idea that law was viewed by Paul as a time bound covenant package with one people, and extrapolating out the Ten Commandments as eternally in heaven, as EGW did and misunderstood completely.

A total lack of understanding of the issues from a 1st c. perspective and within the context of the inclusion of Gentiles as Gentiles into the people of God in Christ, the burning, on the ground issue that drove Paul’s reassessment of the law in light of this and the Christ event.

A view of the gospel as a means to an end to commandment keeping, or perfect commandment keeping, that pushes Christ to the margins and a legal arrangement with God to the center, augmented now with toxic perfectionism.

This is just for starters. Adventist theology is a mess regarding the law, the gospel, faith, and its own holiness movement derived preoccupation with sinless perfection. Then we wonder why so many congregations are a mess, and people are confused, discouraged, judgmental, etc. EGW was a huge driver of all of this. This article, once again, doesn’t hold her accountable for any of the problems.

Frank

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