“No man who willfully disregards one principle of the law shall enter the kingdom of heaven.” ~ Ellen White, Desire of Ages pg. 309
This is one of the favorite quotes of Adventists who are mired in a legalistic attitude towards the law and gospel. They use this quotation to justify their attitude towards people they believe are not living up to the standards of the Christian life. Then there are critics of Ellen White who use this quotation to prove she did not understand the gospel of Jesus–that she made keeping the law a requirement for salvation.
The problem with taking a quotation from a paragraph without a full understanding of the entire chapter is that it can lead to applications that the author never intended. This is evident in that only two paragraphs prior to her making this statement Ellen White makes it plain how she personally viewed the law of God and its place in the plan of salvation.
1. Without the law there is no need for Christ or the gospel.
A full understanding of God’s law is essential to understanding the gospel. Rejecting the principles of God’s law affects how people view Christ and their need to be justified by faith in the merits of Jesus:
“When the law was proclaimed from Sinai, God made known to men the holiness of His character, that by contrast they might see the sinfulness of their own. The law was given to convict them of sin, and reveal their need of a Saviour. It would do this as its principles were applied to the heart by the Holy Spirit. This work it is still to do. In the life of Christ the principles of the law are made plain; and as the Holy Spirit of God touches the heart, as the light of Christ reveals to men their need of His cleansing blood and His justifying righteousness, the law is still an agent in bringing us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.” ~ Desire of Ages pg. 308
2. God will not save people who are willfully engaging in idolatry and false religion and who are not motivated by love for God and their fellow human beings.
There is no such thing in the universe as a Christian Hindu, a Christian Pagan, a Christian Buddhist, a Christian New-ager, or a Christian Atheist. Beyond this the major principle behind the law of God is Love. Anyone who’s heart is not motivated by love for Christ cannot be full of the Holy Spirit: “Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5, NKJV). “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Romans 8:9).
Ellen White understood the difference between different types of sins and how God reacts to sins of ignorance, sins of immaturity, and sins of imperfection. But she warns of the deliberate sins of immorality, for those who cherish immoral and ungodly behavior will ultimately slip into the unpardonable sin of idolatry and false religion. While God is patient with those who engage in immoral behavior to a point, there is a dividing line that moves us into the curse of idolatry and rebellion.
3. A person who loves God will ultimately be ashamed of their sins and attempt to move towards higher standards of righteousness and holiness of life.
People who blatantly engage in rebellious behaviors with no regard for God and who take pleasure in hurting other people cannot be motivated by the Holy Spirit who implants the spirit of God’s law of love into our hearts by faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11).
The major principle of every one of the 10 commands is love for God and our neighbors. But not one of us has perfect love, and we all fall short of God’s ideal of moral perfection. The law of God convicts us of sin and it condemns us all to eternal death. It is not only designed to teach us morality but to crush our self-righteous spirit to the point where all we can do is cry out to God for forgiveness and mercy. If we attempt to lower the standard of perfection to make it possible for humans to achieve then we remove the need for the cross of Christ and the plan of salvation.
“I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! (Galatians 2:21, NIV).
“Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24, NKJV).
Ellen White did not place conditions on salvation other than simple faith in Christ for this would be a blatant contradiction of the Holy Scriptures which clearly proclaim “know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16).
However, she did condemn, in no uncertain terms, those who attempt to remove the law from its central place as the unchangeable foundation of God’s character. She also condemned those who claim to be Christians who blatantly disregard God’s command against the worship of false Gods and those who are not motivated by love for Christ or for those He died to save.
Ellen White was a genuine believer in justification by faith and explained the true nature of the righteousness of God that is imputed to us the moment we place our simple faith in Jesus:
“Knowing himself to be a sinner, a transgressor of the holy law of God, he (the sinner) looks to the perfect obedience of Christ, to His death upon Calvary for the sins of the world; and he has the assurance that he is justified by faith in the merit and sacrifice of Christ. He realises that the law was obeyed in his behalf by the Son of God, and that the penalty of transgression cannot fall upon the believing sinner. The active obedience of Christ clothes the believing sinner with the righteousness that meets the demands of the law.” ~ Ellen White, Sons and Daughters of God pg. 240
“The condition of eternal life is now just what it always has been – just what it was in Paradise before the fall of our first parents, -perfect obedience to the law of God, perfect righteousness. If you give yourself to Him, and accept Him as your Saviour, then, sinful as your life may have been, for His sake you are accounted righteous. Christ’s character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned.” Ellen White, Steps to Christ pg. 62