First, a personal testimony. I grew up in a family that placed strong emphasis, not only on the message that Jones and Waggoner preached, but in the history that surrounds their presentation of it. Thankfully, these underlying and beautiful principles were not only taught by my parents, but, more importantly, lived by them as well.
With that being said, it wasn't until I was about 17 or 18 years old that I ever truly grappled with the concepts. I remember the very day I, for the first time, wrestled with this theology. I was working for a landscaping company in the summer, mowing and aerating lawns. On this particular day, I was doing the latter at a soccer field on a hot day. Sadly, the aerator I was using only had one speed - fast - and I found myself pretty much running behind it for about two hours. But the speed did not prevent me from doing what I often like to do: think. And so I spent much of that time working through the implications of this theology that I had been raised on.
At the end of the day, after working through the theories by often attaching them to illustrations that could ground the concepts in reality, I realized that it all made sense. And it was beautiful news.
From that point on, I started to fully submerse myself in the wonderful message that finally clicked with me. I read prolifically on the subject, becoming increasingly excited about just how awesome God's grace and love is. Sadly, not everyone shared my joy. In fact, one event that stands out in my memory happened during my senior year of college. I had just interviewed with a few of the surrounding conferences when the chair of my religion department took me aside. He said to me, "Shawn, one of the conferences would be very interested in hiring you but they are concerned about your connections with the 1888 Message Study Committee." Needless to say, though up until that point my connection with this apparently dangerous committee was completely indirect (the closest I had ever come was ordering books from their website and setting foot in their store to buy more), I did not get hired by the conference.
Though this was a bit puzzling, I was not bitter or upset at all. In fact, I reacted then, as I do now, with more sadness and perplexity than anything. To this day, I can't quite comprehend how a message that brings such hope and good news is so misunderstood or responded to with disdain.
Of course, I was hired soon after graduating as an undergrad and I continued to appreciate this most precious message. For one reason or another, however, somewhere between my first year of pastoring and then my subsequent time in seminary, I kind of got away from a full emphasis on these wonderful truths. It wasn't until my time in seminary drew to a close that I once again saw the importance and relevance of the 1888 message (in all honesty, I do not believe there was any causal link between my seminary experience and instruction, and my lukewarmness of fully emphasizing the message).
When I returned to pastoring after seminary, I returned with a renewed fervor and joy for the 1888 message. But one event stands out in my mind that has kind of served as a catalyst of sorts as it relates directly to the particular topic at hand. One of my former members, whom I love and respect dearly, and with whom I have enjoyed great Christian fellowship, started chipping away at my thinking about corporate justification. In many ways this member and I were kindred spirits and we agreed upon many important elements of the gospel. But he seems to be a pretty committed opponent of the "corporate justification" idea - a rejection that I fully respect, seeing as I firmly believe he has been prayerful about his convictions.
Little by little, he would plant ideas in my mind that started to make sense - ideas like embracing "corporate justification" leads to the rejection of the "investigative judgment." He shared articles with me from various "conservative" Adventist publications that were aiming their guns at this allegedly heretical - and anti-Adventist - concept.
Thus, over the course of the last two or three years, there have been moments where I have been fully committed to saying that the idea of "corporate justification" cannot be supported by the Bible, Ellen White, or Jones and Waggoner. I have felt like Agrippa, who, to paraphrase it into my context, infamously said to Paul, "Almost thou persuadest me to reject 'corporate justification' " (Acts 26:28).
Yet no matter how much I was nearly and almost completely persuaded, I kept coming back - not to the testimony of Ellen White, not to the testimony of Jones or Waggoner - to the clear testimony of the Bible itself. For when one studies scripture (and allows scripture to interpret Ellen White, rather than vice-versa), there is no way that the truth behind "corporate justification" can be denied.
Who Interprets Whom?
One of the main arguments I have heard, and even used before myself when discussing the issue, is that nowhere does Ellen White explicitly endorse the idea that Christ justified the world at the cross. In fact, I just heard this argument yesterday. And for a while, it troubled me. "After all," one will say, "if it is such an important topic - especially in these last days - why wouldn't God's end-time prophet explicitly say that everyone was forgiven at the cross?" Then the argument will usually continue, "But not only does she not explicitly endorse such an idea, she actually contradicts it." Then an example from her writings is given like the following, "It is only through faith in His blood that Jesus can justify the believer" (The Signs of the Times, May 19, 1898).
Like I said, these types of arguments overwhelmed me for a while. After all, I fully subscribe to - and embrace - the idea that Ellen White was a prophet of God. And thus, in some ways, since I couldn't deny her very explicit statements that seemed to contradict my understanding, I was confronted with a dilemma as it related to this subject that seemed irreconcilable. It was very clear to me (as I hope to demonstrate below) that the Bible very clearly teaches the idea that the world was justified at the cross. Thus, I was faced with the possibility that Ellen White was wrong or my interpretation of scripture was wrong.
Of course, it is very plain to see that there is another option: it could very well have been that my interpretation of Ellen White was wrong. And thus, out of that realization came some important reflections that relate, not only to this topic, but hermeneutics in general. Some of these are quite obvious, but others are very important:
1. I must not interpret the Bible through Ellen White, but vice-versa.
2. I cannot isolate portions of inspiration and claim that this is the entirety of any particular topic. For example, when studying the subject of justification, I am not sure that there are too many people - even avowed legalists - who would be eager to base their entire understanding of the subject on Romans 2:13, "Not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified."
Do you hear many people walking around, even in the Adventist church, saying that the only way a person can be justified is by keeping the law?
This speaks to a point that most of us learned in basic Bible Study 101: we must examine all of scripture to determine what the Bible's view on a subject is, rather than building a whole theology out of one or two verses.
3. I cannot single out any single author, book, or portion of inspiration and require him/her/it to answer any question explicitly and then claim that such an answer is the whole picture. For example, if, after reading through Paul's epistles, I become convinced that justification is by grace through faith, is it appropriate for you to respond by saying, "Yeah, but prove it from James"?
Or, if, after reading Leviticus 11 I realize that God is inviting me to give up eating lobster, does it make sense for you to say, "Well, can you demonstrate that from the Song of Solomon?"
This is, perhaps, one of the most important realizations I came to. If we maintain that Ellen White is of the same quality of inspiration as the biblical writers, why do we require of her that which we do not require of the other writers? Does Ellen White contain all the truth of inspiration and does she mention it all explicitly? Might Paul say something about the gospel that Ellen White does not mention or emphasize? Might the Old Testament say something about the Sabbath that the New Testament does not?
This last example is very relevant because requiring Ellen White to explicitly spell out corporate justification would be like requiring the New Testament to explicitly spell out the importance of the Sabbath. Furthering the analogy, in the same way that I could present quotes from Ellen White that seem to contradict the idea of corporate justification, so, too, could I present quotes from the New Testament that seem to contradict the idea - and reverse the Old Testament admonition - that God's followers should keep the Sabbath.
Furthermore, as a committed Adventist, I fully maintain that the book of Revelation indicates that the Sabbath will be a - or perhaps "the" - end-time test. Yet I would never claim - nor require - that this book explicitly maintains its last-day significance. The closest we can come is a partial quote of the fourth commandment (mentioning nothing of the "Sabbath" explicitly) in Revelation 14:7.
The truth is, we very rarely require inspiration to explicitly and systematically spell out theological truth. Quite often, we place everything inspiration dwells upon alongside one another, take a step back, and make sense of the overall picture inspiration gives.
4. As it specifically relates to corporate justification, I believe there are a few "explicit" quotes from Ellen White that are pretty convincing after all. But even beyond that, I think there are plenty of quotes from Ellen White that at least get us in the ballpark. And then, where Ellen White gets us in the ballpark, the Bible hits a home run.
5. The last realization I have come to is a little tricky and it is one I am still working on. To a large degree, it seems to fly in the face of our western rules of logic in general and, more specifically, the law of non-contradiction (that two contradictory ideas can be true at the same time). While I am not trying to advocate some type of eastern mystic understanding of God, theology, and the Bible, we do have to remember that the philosophical foundation of the Bible is essentially "eastern." The Hebraic paradigm, upon which both the Old Testament and New Testament rest, allows for a larger range of philosophical possibilities than our western/Hellenistic encourages.
As I said, I have not spent a lot of time working this one out, nor following all the implications, but could it be that, as we study inspiration, two ideas that are seemingly contradictory are, in fact, both true at the same time? Thus, could it be, for example, that we are both "forgiven" and "not forgiven" at the same time, or "justified" and "not justified" at the same time, or "pardoned" and "not pardoned" at the same time?
I would propose that, by virtue of the fact that we embrace the Protestant Reformation, we already allow for such seemingly contradictory concepts to be simultaneously true. For one of Martin Luther's most well-known phrases was, "Simul justus et peccator" - "righteous and at the same time a sinner."
Closer to home, Ellen White brings out this idea herself in Steps to Christ when she states that as "sinful as your life may have been . . . you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned" (p. 62).
These realizations have been very important in my own journey as I have grappled with the concept of corporate justification, which deserves an entire post of its own!