The Theology of Ellen G. White

Law and Gospel

Mrs. White sees the divine charter for the Advent movement in Revelation 14:12—". . . here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus." Here is the apocalyptic "third angel's message," which binds law and gospel together in a perfect whole.(1) Here are the marching orders for the Advent movement.

The clear and basic distinction between law and gospel as command and promise, demand and gift, is recognized. The law requires just what it required of Adam in his sinless state—perfect righteousness and unblemished obedience.(2) This demand is not modified or relaxed to meet man in his fallen condition.(3) God "demands now as ever perfect righteousness as the only title to heaven.(4) The gospel gives us Christ, who is the perfect righteousness that the law demands. " . . . Christ has fulfilled the law for the transgressors of law, if they receive Him by faith as a personal Saviour."(5) " . . . the Lord places the obedience of His Son to the sinner's account."(6) "By His perfect obedience He has satisfied the claims of the law, and my only hope is found in looking to Him as my substitute and surety, who obeyed the law perfectly for me. . . ."(7) ". . . righteousness without a blemish can be obtained only through the imputed righteousness of Christ."8

On this point Mrs. White's soteriology sticks very closely to the classical lines of Lutheran and Reformed theology. The demand of law always stands undiluted, even by the gospel. She does not subscribe to the Arminian and neo-nomian views (or even Wesley's view (9) that the condition of eternal life has been changed from the sinless obedience which was required of Adam to the easier requirement of faith and evangelical obedience. She affirms the Lutheran and Reformed position that the condition and ground of eternal life are still and always will be perfect righteousness. The gospel is the good news that Christ has fulfilled the conditions: "The atonement of Christ . . . was the fulfilling of every condition. . . ."10

While Mrs. White recognizes this basic distinction between law and gospel, her greatest emphasis is on the harmony of the law and gospel. The greatest harm is done when men separate and divorce the law from the gospel as if they were opposed to each other.(11) Whether consciously or unconsciously, she follows Augustine's famous dictum when she says, "The law is the gospel embodied, and the gospel is the law unfolded. The law is the root, the gospel is the fragrant blossom and fruit which it bears."(12) Both law and gospel have God as their Author. The law is the transcript of His character, and the gospel is the unfolding of it. The law enumerates the principle of love, and the gospel demonstrates it. The gospel, therefore, "was an unfolding of the principles that from eternal ages have been the foundation of God's throne."13

Ministers should present the law and the gospel together.(14) "No man can rightly present the law of God without the gospel, or the gospel without the law." (15) Interestingly, one of Mrs. White's main criticisms of some of her fellow Adventists was their tendency to present the law while failing to exalt "the great center of attraction, Christ Jesus." (16) One of her greatest objections to a lot of popular preaching was the tendency to preach the gospel without the law.(17) "Wesley declared the perfect harmony of the law and the gospel." His vigorous attack on antinomianism is cited.18

This doctrine of law and gospel is quite orthodox, agreeing well with the doctrine of the best Christian teachers in the history of the church. It is equally opposed to legalism and antinomianism.

The Three Uses of the Law

In the sixteenth century both the Lutheran and Reformed churches crystallized their teaching concerning the law into what became known as "the three uses of the law."

First Use—Social, or Political.
By this the Reformation church means that the law is used as a restraint upon society and the wicked.

Second Use—Theological, or Pedagogicus. By this they meant that the law was the schoolmaster(19) to point out sin and drive us in our need to Christ.

Third Use—Didactic, or Tertius Usus Legis. By this the Reformers meant that the law is a rule of life to the regenerate to guide them in how to live in praise of grace.

Where does Mrs. White stand in relation to these concepts of law which became a vital part of the Reformation heritage?

First Use.
"Let the restraint imposed by the divine law be wholly cast aside, and human laws would soon be disregarded. . . . The civilized world would become a horde of robbers and assassins; and peace, rest, and happiness would be banished from the earth."20

Second Use. "'The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.' In this scripture, the Holy Spirit through the apostle is speaking especially of the moral law. The law reveals sin to us, and causes us to feel our need of Christ and to flee unto Him for pardon and peace by exercising repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ."(21) "The sense of sin, urged home by the law, drives the sinner to the Saviour."(22) "As you look into the Lord's great moral looking glass, His holy law, His standard of character, do not for a moment suppose that it can cleanse you. There are no saving properties in the law."(23) "The law has no power to pardon the evildoer. Its office is to point out his defects, that he may realize his need of One who is mighty to save, his need of One who will become his substitute, his surety, his righteousness. "24

Third Use. Mrs. White championed the concept of the law's third use. Christ did not come at infinite cost to suffer and die to give men liberty to go on breaking God's law. As we have seen in the preceding chapter, Christ came to vindicate the honor of God's law and to show man the unrelieved heinousness of transgressing God's commandments.
    It was the righteousness of God to maintain His law by inflicting the penalty. This was the only way in which the law could be maintained, and pronounced holy, and just, and good. It was the only way by which sin could be made to appear exceeding sinful, and the honor and majesty of divine authority be maintained.

    The law of God's government was to be magnified by the death of God's only-begotten Son. Christ bore the guilt of the sins of the world. Our sufficiency is found only in the incarnation and death of the Son of God. He could suffer, because sustained by divinity. He could endure, because He was without one taint of disloyalty or sin. Christ triumphed in man's behalf in thus bearing the justice of punishment. He secured eternal life to men, while He exalted the law, and made it honorable.25

    The cross of Christ testifies to the immutability of the law of God--testifies that God so loved us that He gave His Son to die for our sins; but Christ came not to destroy but to fulfill the law. Not one jot or tittle of God's moral standard could be changed to meet man in his fallen condition. Jesus died that He might ascribe unto the repenting sinner His own righteousness, and make it possible for man to keep the law.26

Mrs. White relentlessly attacks the idea that faith releases men from the obligation to obey the moral law of God.27

    The gospel of good news was not to be interpreted as allowing men to live in continued rebellion against God by transgressing His just and holy law. Why cannot those who claim to understand the Scriptures, see that God's requirement under grace is just the same He made in Eden--perfect obedience to His law. In the judgment, God will ask those who profess to be Christians, Why did you claim to believe in My Son, and continue to transgress My law? Who required this at your hands--to trample upon My rules of righteousness?28

It should be realized that this teaching is nothing new. The historic Protestant churches consistently acknowledged the moral law as a rule of life for believers. A large part of their catechisms was taken up with an exposition of the Ten Commandments. Mrs. White's teaching on the law's being retained as a rule of life is no different from what is found in the teaching of the Puritans, the Wesleys, Spurgeon, Hodge, Strong or Berkhof.

There is some difference in emphasis between the Lutheran and Reformed doctrines of the law's three uses. The Lutheran places its greatest emphasis on the second use of the law, while it is said that Calvin sees the third use as the law's ultimate function. Mrs. White's emphasis is more Reformed than Lutheran. It agrees well with the Puritans (29) and the Systematic Theologies of Hodge, Strong and Berkhof.

Luther, being a generation ahead of Calvin, found that he had to fight mainly on the front against legalism. His commentary on Galatians—an attack on he legalism of Rome—deals mostly with the second use of the law. (Until the antinomians drew from Luther a fuller statement of law and gospel, Luther could almost sound antinomian himself.) Calvin lived to see a greater manifestation of the libertine element threatening the Protestant movement, and therefore he dealt more fully than did Luther with the Christian's duty to obey the law of God as a rule of life. For the most part, Lutheranism dealt with the law negatively, while the Reformed dealt with it more positively.

Mrs. White's approach to law has very positive overtones too. The law is the transcript and reflection of God's character and will. (30) As such, it is an expression of God's glory,31 goodness,32 righteousness,33 holiness34 and love.(35) The Decalogue is "that law of ten precepts of the greatest love that can be presented to man. . ."36

God's law is the rule of His government,(37) the standard of judgment.(38) As the unalterable and unchanging will of God, (39) it requires the same of man in all ages--perfect and entire obedience.40

Fallen man cannot possibly satisfy the claims of the law.(41) But Christ took man's place and satisfied its justice.(42) This He did in life and death. In life He fulfilled the precepts of the law for us,(43) and in death He satisfied its penalty for us.(44) All that Christ has done and suffered is imputed to the believer.(45) Therefore he is no longer in debt to the law's demands, for he stands as one who is without sin and who is fully in harmony with the law.46

How should the acquitted, justified believer now relate to the law? In the light of Calvary he sees its exalted sacredness, the terrible cost of disobedience. While being grateful for God's love given in Christ, he has "no disposition to abuse it."(47) More than that, "The law is an expression of God's idea. When we receive it in Christ, it becomes our idea."(48) The believer loves what God loves, and hates what God hates. God's will (His law) becomes his will.(49) According to the new covenant promise, the believer is not only forgiven, but the law of God is written in his heart and mind. With the Psalmist he says, "I delight to do Thy will, O my God: yea, Thy law is within my heart."(50) Obedience becomes a pleasure, duty a delight. "It is not the fear of punishment, or the hope of everlasting reward, that leads the disciples of Christ to follow Him."(51) They do right because it is right.52

Obedience to God's law is no yoke of bondage. It is the way of liberty.(53) It is also a way of happiness and health.54
    The law of ten commandments is not to be looked upon as much from the prohibitory side, as from the mercy side. Its prohibitions are the sure guarantee of happiness in obedience. As received in Christ, it works in us the purity of character that will bring joy to us through eternal ages. To the obedient it is a wall of protection. We behold in it the goodness of God, who by revealing to men the immutable principles of righteousness, seeks to shield them from the evils that result from transgression.55

Each commandment may become a promise rather than a prohibition. The "shalt not" becomes God's promise that the believer "will not." "The ten commandments, Thou shalt, and Thou shalt not, are ten promises . . . There is not a negative in that law, although it may appear thus."56

No theology is formulated or written in a vacuum. We said, for instance, that Luther found himself arrayed against the legalism of Rome. He did have something to say about the opposite error of antinomianism, but his main conflict was with legalism. Therefore he chiefly emphasizes the second use of the law. Perhaps if they found themselves in a different historical context, men today would not exaggerate the different emphases of Luther and Calvin.

Mrs. White also wrote out of a certain contemporary context. There was a growing contempt for Bible standards of Christian rectitude on every hand. The world and the Christian church were on the threshold of a moral revolution that threatened to sweep away all restraint. She saw her own nation (U.S.A.) facing the whirlwind of moral collapse, with the church often guilty of encouraging lawlessness by teaching antinomian sentiments.57

While the culminating sin of the Jewish nation was to "reject Christ while professing to honor His Father's law," the culminating deception of the Christian world would be "in professing to accept Christ while rejecting God's law."(58) This great sin in reverse would constitute the eschatological conflict--a conflict which the people of God were already beginning to enter.59

The final theological conflict, therefore, is seen to be over the authority of God's law. This is not viewed as a deflection from the central issue of the cross of Christ. Calvary is the law of God--both its unfolding and its vindication.

In the day of final judgment, every lost soul will understand the nature of his own rejection of truth. The cross will be presented, and its real bearing will be seen by every mind that has been blinded by transgression. Before the vision of Calvary with its mysterious Victim, sinners will stand condemned. Every lying excuse will be swept away. Human apostasy will appear in its heinous character. Men will see what their choice has been. Every question of truth and error in the longstanding controversy will then have been made plain.60

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1 TM 94
2 SC 62
3 6BC 1072; AA 425
4 6BC 1072
5 7BC 931
6 1SM 367
7 1SM 396
8 RH Sept. 3, 1901
9 See John Wesley's Sermons, sermon on "Perfection."
10 QD 669
11 6BC 1073, 1061; Ev 231
12 COL 128
13 DA 22
14 GW 161, 162
15 COL 128
16 GW 156 (cf. 1SM 371, 384)
17 GC 466
18 GC 263
19 Gal. 3:24
20 GC 585
21 1SM 234
22 1SM 241
23 6BC 1070
24 1SM 323
25 1SM 301, 302
26 1SM 312
27 SC 60; 25M 49; GC 466
28 6BC 1072
29 Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments; Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom.
30 GC 467, 434; CT 62
31 6BC 1096
32 6BC 1085
33 MB 54
34 DA 308
35 1SM 156
36 1BC 1105
37 1SM 239
38 GC 639
39 6BC 1097; AA 190
40 6BC 1073; 1T 416; 1SM 373
41 SC 62; 1SM 367
42 1SM 309
43 1SM 396
44 1SM 309, 322
45 1SM 367, 389, 392
46 1SM 367; SC 62; SD 240
47 1SM 312
48 1SM 235
49 COL 312
50 PP 372; Ps. 40:8
51 DA 480
52 COL 98
53 Ed 291; CG 79
54 ML 163, 164; 1BC 1105
55 1SM 235
56 1BC 1105
57 GC 582-592
58 PP 476, 477
59 GC 582
60 DA 58