“When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 69). “Those who are living upon the earth, when the intercession of Christ shall cease in the sanctuary above, are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a Mediator” (Great Controversy, p. 425). These two sentences are perhaps two of the most challenging and misunderstood ideas in all of the writings of Ellen White. They evoke a last day perfection image that scares many sincere Christians as they seek to prepare for a time called Jacob’s trouble. Then, it is thought, that they must live an absolutely perfect sinless life.
How well I remember my early experience of discovering surety in Christ. In my third year of college I understood grace for the first time in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace have you been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God and not of works, lest any man should boast.” For several months I basked in the joy of believing I could go to heaven.
However, my exuberance was short lived. The university pastor at the time had a sermon that rocked my surety to the core. He spoke of a time in the future when we must perfectly reflect the character of Christ and live without a Mediator in the sight of a Holy God. I knew I was deeply flawed and being that perfect was impossible. I was distraught.
Like many, I understood from his sermon that we must somehow become absolutely sinless (without any human mistakes or shortcomings) or we could not make it through the time of trouble. There are those who believe that this last generation finally becomes so victorious that they are absolutely perfect and worthy of translation. They must be better than any other generation or they cannot be saved. One Adventist presenter friend told me that if we would surrender like Jesus did that we would become as good as Jesus was. After all, it is supposed, that since Jesus was just like us in every way, we can become just like Him in every way if we allow the Holy Spirit to perfectly work in us. Some have concluded that since we do not have a Mediator during this time that we do not need forgiveness. Others have even advocated that through the power of the indwelling Spirit the righteous will have become so perfect during that period that without help from the Father they will conquer sin just like Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Rather than give up my faith that day, I decided to go back to my dorm room to study the chapters in Great Controversy from which I thought these ideas came. I particularly poured over the chapter “The Time of Jacob’s Trouble” which occurs after the close of probation when every decision has been made for or against Christ. This is the time when there is no Mediator. That afternoon I discovered that God’s people are the apple of His eye. Tucked away in one significant paragraph I found hope that provided great encouragement. It is that section that I want to unpack in this article. Because some of these notions are not readily apparent in scripture, for now I have chosen to limit our investigation to a study of this passage from Ellen White. In my opinion her writings have been misunderstood. Therefore, it is my purpose to show from a wider context that some of our conclusions have been somewhat distorted. It is my hope that you will find hope and encouragement.
Some questions I want to address as we approach this paragraph are:
1. Will Jesus hear our prayers during the time when there is no Mediator?
2. What does it mean to perfectly reflect Jesus? Does that mean that we become as good as He was?
3. Will grace be available to us during this time?
4. Is it necessary for us to be absolutely sinless in order for us to make it through the time of Jacob’s trouble? If so, is this not a different requirement for salvation than any other in history? For instance, are the righteous at that time more perfect than Enoch or Jacob or the martyrs?
5. What does it mean to live in the sight of a Holy God without a Mediator?
6. If last generation people are the only ones to become perfect, has not God failed every other generation?
7. Are we the only individuals that will appear blameless before God? Are we the only ones to experience perfection in Christ?
Let’s look at the beginning of chapter 39 in Great Controversy to discover the context.
“When the third angel's message closes, mercy no longer pleads for the guilty inhabitants of the earth. The people of God have accomplished their work. They have received the latter rain ‘the refreshing from the presence of the Lord,’ and they are prepared for the trying hour before them. Angels are hastening to and fro in heaven. An angel returning from the earth announces that his work is done; the final test has been brought upon the world, and all who have proved themselves loyal to the divine precepts have received ‘the seal of the living God.’ Then Jesus ceases His intercession in the sanctuary above… Every case has been decided for life or death. Christ has made the atonement for His people and blotted out their sins. The number of His subjects is made up; ‘the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven,’ is about to be given to the heirs of salvation, and Jesus is to reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. When He leaves the sanctuary, darkness covers the inhabitants of the earth. In that fearful time the righteous must live in the sight of a holy God without an intercessor” (Great Controversy, pp. 613-614).
Clearly the setting of this chapter is after probation has closed. Now let’s look at the paragraph that brought me so much encouragement.
“Jacob's history is also an assurance that God will not cast off those who have been deceived and tempted and betrayed into sin, but who have returned unto Him with true repentance. While Satan seeks to destroy this class, God will send His angels to comfort and protect them in the time of peril. The assaults of Satan are fierce and determined, his delusions are terrible; but the Lord's eye is upon His people, and His ear listens to their cries. Their affliction is great, the flames of the furnace seem about to consume them; but the Refiner will bring them forth as gold tried in the fire. God's love for His children during the period of their severest trial is as strong and tender as in the days of their sunniest prosperity; but it is needful for them to be placed in the furnace of fire; their earthliness must be consumed, that the image of Christ may be perfectly reflected” (Great Controversy p. 621).
As I read this paragraph, several ideas jumped out at me:
1. This is addressed to those who have been deceived and betrayed into sin. It is for those who have not been squeaky clean, who have failed in their walk with Jesus. And yet these failing ones are not cast off or forsaken. God knows the big picture and He recognizes their sincere repentance. Perhaps you have been struggling in your walk. Take hope, this passage is for you.
2. Angels come to help them during this time of stress. I had understood that during this time we would be left to make it on our own. We would have to wait for help until after this troublesome period was finished. But NO, the angels are immediately available to help us in our desperate need.
3. The Lord’s eye is upon his people. His love is as strong and tender at this juncture as it was in times when prosperity shined on us. Jesus will still be with us till the end.
4. Even though mediation has ceased for the world, God hears the heart cries of His people. He not only hears, he answers. This is not a time without grace. “Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). As I read the comforting words in this paragraph, a ray of light pierced the darkness and I began to weep. Whatever no Mediator meant, it did not mean there was no help. It did not mean there was no grace or need for forgiveness. It did not mean that God would not be listening. It did not mean He would abandon us. NO, He has left the sanctuary and is on His way to take us to be with Him forever. I came to realize that it was those in the world who have rejected God’s grace that have no help. Mediation to resolve a conflict between us and God is not necessary for those who have become His friends. Jesus is coming now as our “King of kings and Lord of lords.” Besides, even now we live in the sight of a Holy God. As I came to understand the love of God better and how it relates to the no mediator concept, I was encouraged.
5. However, it was the last part of the paragraph that more fully answered my questions about perfectly reflecting God’s character. The paragraph concludes “…but it is needful for them to be placed in the furnace of fire; their earthliness must be consumed, that the image of Christ may be perfectly reflected.” Wow! A purification process after the close of probation is necessary? Why! Because they do not YET perfectly reflect Jesus’ character! That will only take place when this mortal shall put on immortality. I am reminded of another statement by Ellen White: “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” (The Acts of the Apostles, 559-561).
That day, long ago, I pondered, “What does earthliness after probation closes mean?” The context indicates that whatever it is, it needs to be consumed. It dulls the image of Christ! They do not YET perfectly reflect Jesus’ character. Therefore, a purification process is needed. In other words, we have not yet arrived at absolute sinless perfection even after the close of probation. There is wiggle room for God’s people to grow, even then.
Upon further contemplation of perfectly reflecting the character of Christ, I came to realize that we can never duplicate Christ’s perfect righteousness, even if the Holy Spirit dwells within us. Not only is it impossible and somewhat blasphemous to believe we can and must equal Him, there is none Good but God. Furthermore, it does not square with the larger picture that Ellen White had of perfection. She taught: “We cannot equal the pattern; but we shall not be approved of God if we do not copy it and, according to the ability which God has given, resemble it.” No one will ever duplicate the righteousness of Jesus. This was a one-time, forever, finished accomplishment.
So is obedience important? Absolutely! John is clear that a person who says he knows God but disobeys his commandments is a liar! (1 John 2:4). This has always been true for God’s true followers, not just last generation individuals. By God’s grace we will be victorious conquerors. No one will be willfully sinning. We would rather die than sin. Neither should we be committing known sin now. Yet sin is not merely an act. We all struggle with a sinful nature. That is why Paul says, “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10). We all fall short of God’s ideal. John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
Note Ellen White’s view of our righteousness even as true believers:
“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.... All incense from earthly tabernacles must be moist with the cleansing drops of the blood of Christ. He holds before the Father the censer of His own merits, in which there is no taint of earthly corruption. He gathers into this censer the prayers, the praise, and the confessions of His people, and with these He puts His own spotless righteousness. Then, perfumed with the merits of Christ's propitiation, the incense comes up before God wholly and entirely acceptable....O, that all may see that everything in obedience, in penitence, in praise and thanksgiving must be placed upon the glowing fire of the righteousness of Christ” (God’s Amazing Grace by Ellen White, pg. 154).
This is true now and will be true even after probation closes. Our title to heaven will never be how completely we are sanctified through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. It will always be the doing and dying of Jesus.
Finally, we need to understand that a reflection is never as bright as the reality. While it may be said that corporately we perfectly reflect His character, like the moon lacks the brilliance of the sun, so individually we will always be dim demonstrations of the perfection of Jesus. Thank God that we are not required to be as good as Jesus. He accomplished that for us once and for all. After reading the New Testament more carefully, I have discovered that individuals in this generation are not the only ones who perfectly reflect Jesus. Those who were raised from the dead at the time of Jesus’ resurrection were perfect reflections of Jesus. Enoch, Moses, and Elijah are perfect reflections. If not, how can they be allowed to enter heaven, but we be denied? Are they not examples of what we will be after the close of probation?
I love the encouraging news in Ephesians that helps us know that we will all be blameless before Jesus in love. “For he chose us (speaking of the Ephesians) in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight in love” (Ephesians 1:4). Blameless in Christ is not merely a last day experience. In fact, every person who is saved will be there not because they have achieved a kind of personal perfection, but because of the perfect righteousness of the One who died to exchange our sin for His perfect righteousness. “This robe, woven in the loom of heaven, has in it not one thread of human devising. Christ in His humanity wrought out a perfect character, and this character He offers to impart to us. ‘All our righteousness is as filthy rags.’ Isaiah 64:6” (Christ Object Lessons p. 311). “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Dr. David Bissell is a retired pastor in Collegedale, TN. He received his BA, M.Div, and D.Min from Andrews University. He has been married to Jeanette nearly 54 years, and is the father of three sons and eight grandchildren. He has served for 40 years in the Adventist Church as a pastor, Bible teacher, university professor, and college president. From 2001 to 2011 he was senior pastor of the Cedar Rapids Adventist Church in Iowa. In retirement he was the interim pastor of the Ooltewah Adventist Church in Tennessee. He and Jeanette live close to their boys and grandchildren now.
Photo by Jonathan Hoxmark on Unsplash
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