The Theological Issues:
Nearly 125 years ago Ellen White offered a courageously orienting declaration of Adventism’s true calling. Writing in 1890, she boldly proclaimed, “One interest will prevail, one subject will swallow up every other—Christ our righteousness.”1
This was Ellen White’s singular focus.
For much of her ministry, however, both before and after the 1888 General Conference session, sadness overwhelmed her heart as she realized that this subject was scarcely acknowledged. This is why, when she heard that same message proclaimed by two young upstart preachers, Alonzo T. Jones and Ellet J. Waggoner, she recounted that “every fiber of my heart said, Amen.”2 What they heralded she called a “most precious message.” It was to go to every church and “given to the world.”3 In fact, she proposed, it was the “loud cry” of Revelation 18 that was to “lighten the whole earth with its glory.”4
But what made it “most precious”—to the point that Ellen White eagerly traveled with the two young men, heralding its beauty?
Perhaps the most succinct explanation is her summary from 1895: “This message,” she wrote, “was to bring more prominently before the world the uplifted Savior, the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. It presented justification through faith in the Surety; it invited people to receive the righteousness of Christ, which is made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God. Many had lost sight of Jesus. They needed to have their eyes directed to His divine person, His merits, and His changeless love for the human family.”5
An Uplifted Savior
Jones’ and Waggoner’s “most precious message” flowed from their emphasis on the centrality of Jesus. Prior to this, Adventists were guilty of preaching “the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa.”6
But the two lifted up Jesus—both His divinity and humanity. Concerning the former, they sought to herald His full divinity, maintaining, contrary to the prevailing Adventist sentiment, that Christ was not created but was eternal. For, Waggoner proposed, “no one who holds this view [that Christ was created] can possibly have any just conception of the exalted position which Christ really occupies.”7
This was held in tension with Christ’s humanity. One could be appreciated only in light of the other. Thus, Waggoner declared that one of the “most encouraging things in the Bible” was to realize that “Christ took on Him the nature of man” in its sinful condition, and that “His ancestors according to the flesh were sinners.”8 This remained a central part of their proclamation throughout their ministries.
A Universal Savior
In Ellen White’s 1895 summary she mentioned that a core component of the message was Christ dying as “the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.”
This teaching stemmed from a unique understanding of Christ’s attitude toward humanity; an attitude of faith and confidence in what His grace could accomplish in the lives of sinners. “His practiced eye saw in you great possibilities,” Waggoner wrote in 1890, “and He bought you, not for what you were then or are now worth, but for what He could make of you.”9
Waggoner’s logical conclusion of this idea was that Christ must have therefore justified the existence of all humankind at Calvary. “As the condemnation came upon all, so the justification comes upon all,” he wrote.10 Indeed, “the judgment will reveal the fact that full and complete salvation was given to every man, and that the lost have deliberately thrown away their birthright possession.”11 Thus, Christ’s death actually accomplished something for everyone—even if that accomplishment does not end in every person enjoying eternity.
Ellen White echoes this concept in affirming that “for every human being, Christ has paid the election price. No one need be lost. All have been redeemed.”12
An Effective Savior
Writing in 1890, Ellen White passionately highlighted a critical component of this message: “There is not a point that needs to be dwelt upon more earnestly, repeated more frequently, or established more firmly in the minds of all, than the impossibility of fallen man meriting anything by his own best good works.”13
This was the crux of the problem. Many were trying to save themselves by their own good works. These feeble attempts, however, were not only manifested in trying to earn God’s forgiveness through obedience, but also by trying to produce obedience in one’s life after conversion. Both were futile.
At the root of Jones’ and Waggoner’s understanding was their unique insight into the covenants. The old and new covenants didn’t necessarily speak of time periods, they proposed, but the experiences of those living in any age. “The first [old] covenant,” Jones submitted, “rested upon the promises of the people, and depended solely upon the efforts of the people. The second [new] covenant consists solely of the promise of God, and depends upon the power and work of God.”14
It was within this context that souls were invited to receive by faith Christ’s righteousness—both its imputed and imparted aspects.
A Complete Savior
Perhaps the greatest achievement of their message was its balance between the law and gospel—which, according to Ellen White, must always go “hand in hand.”15 It avoided the ditch of legalism by giving the assurance of forgiveness; and it avoided the ditch of “cheap grace” by showing that a faith-filled life results in complete obedience. As Ellen White wrote in 1895, receiving Christ’s righteousness is “made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God.”
This is because White, Jones, and Waggoner appreciated the ability of the gospel, when fully understood and embraced, to change one’s heart and save him or her from sin—not in sin. This is all accomplished through “an appreciation of the cost of salvation.”16
This was, after all, the goal of the gospel and the ultimate goal of Jones’ and Waggoner’s ministry. “The Lord has raised up Brother Jones and Brother Waggoner,” Ellen White declared in 1893, “to proclaim a message to the world to prepare a people to stand in the day of God.”17 This was in the context of the cleansing of the sanctuary and the third angel’s message.
Waggoner and Jones both grasped this, with the former writing in 1890, “And so we find when Christ covers us with the robe of His own righteousness, He does not furnish a cloak for sin but takes the sin away. And this shows that the forgiveness of sins is something more than a mere form, something more than a mere entry in the books of record in heaven. . . . And if [a person] is cleared from guilt, is justified, made righteous, he has certainly undergone a radical change.” Indeed, “the new heart is a heart that loves righteousness and hates sin.”18
He was simply echoing what he had written after the 1888 General Conference session: “When the Lord comes there will be a company who will be found ‘complete in him.’. . . To perfect this work in the hearts of individuals . . . is the work of the third angel’s message.”19
Like Ellen White and her contemporaries, we have had our hearts strangely warmed by this message. We recognize there is a beautiful uniqueness to what Jones and Waggoner—along with Ellen White—proclaimed. Their message—explaining the depth of Christ and His sacrifice, and showing what God will accomplish in the lives of those who embrace His love—was a much fuller explanation of the gospel than existed both within and without Adventism.
This message has still not been given the fullest expression it deserves. Recognizing our own need, we appeal to all to proclaim this powerful message that has been ordained to “lighten the whole earth with its glory.”20
- Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, Dec. 23, 1890.
- Ellen G. White, The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials (Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1987), p. 349.
- Ibid., pp. 1336, 1337.
- Ibid., p. 1575.
- Ibid., p. 1336.
- Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, Mar. 11, 1890.
- Ellet J. Waggoner, Christ and His Righteousness (Oakland: Pacific Press Pub. Co., 1890), p. 20.
- Ibid., p. 61.
- Ibid., p. 72. Compare with Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), p. 118.
- Ellet J. Waggoner, in Present Truth, Oct. 18, 1894.
- Ellet J. Waggoner, The Glad Tidings (Oakland: Pacific Press Pub. Co., 1900), pp. 22, 23. They saw their growing views on what some label as “universal justification” as the logical outworking of their understanding of Christ’s faith in humanity.
- The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, vol. 7, p. 944.
- E. G. White, 1888 Materials, p. 811.
- Alonzo T. Jones, in Review and Herald, July 24, 1900.
- Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, Sept. 3, 1889.
- Ibid., July 24, 1888.
- E. G. White, 1888 Materials, p. 1814.
- E. J. Waggoner, Christ and His Righteousness, pp. 65, 66.
- Ellet J. Waggoner, in Signs of the Times, Dec. 28, 1888.
- E. G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 228.