The "Impossible Gospel" Presentation and Its Continued Relevance for Modern Mormonism

By Aaron Shafovaloff

“Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin’?” – Proverbs 20:9

“Our prayers have stains in them, our faith is mixed with unbelief, our repentance is not so tender as it should be, our communion is distant and interrupted. We cannot pray without sinning, and there is filth even in our tears.” – Charles Spurgeon

For those who have been meaningfully exposed to the Mormon gospel, the deadline for completing the six steps of repentance is the end of this “mortal probation”, which ends at physical death. Failing to take available opportunities to complete the six steps of repentance and cease the need for further repentance is “procrastinating one’s repentance.”The “impossible gospel” is an evangelistic presentation that attempts to remove the complacency and lack of urgency that Mormons have toward their plight before God and their own religion’s teachings on the gospel. As part of the biblical model of “law before gospel”—helping someone understand their sin and deserved penalty before expressing to them the simplicity of the gospel of grace—it challenges them with the highest standards set forth by the Book of Mormon and other authoritative Mormon sources. These high standards can be summarized as follows: God has enabled us to do our best, and our best is not simply to try hard, but is to keep all of the commandments all of the time. This is perfection, and is the culmination of completing the six steps of repentance, all of which are prerequisites for receiving the forgiveness of sins. Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks reminds Mormons that the assurance of forgiveness “comes when a person has completed all the steps of repentance” (BYU devotional address, 1981).

According to the Book of Mormon, those who procrastinate their repentance are forever sealed to Satan and will have no post mortal opportunity to perform the labors of repentance. They are forever kept under his power (Alma 34:35). All of this amounts to a daunting message that is anything but good news, but it is nevertheless supported by other Book of Mormon sources. 1 Nephi 3:7 teaches that God doesn’t give commandments that he doesn’t enable the Mormon to successfully keep (including the commandments to be holy and perfect). Alma 11:37 teaches that Mormons “cannot be saved in [their] sins.” Moroni 10:32, a passage that Mormon authorities have often linked with the “after all we can do” language of 2 Nephi 25:23, teaches that God’s grace becomes sufficient for Mormons after they have perfected themselves by denying themselves of all ungodliness and loving God with all their might, mind, and strength.

As the currently used church manual Gospel Principles makes clear by quoting 12th President Spencer W. Kimball, forgiveness is available only to those who accomplish a perfect repentance:

“Elder Kimball warns: ‘Even though forgiveness is so abundantly promised, there is no promise nor indication of forgiveness to any soul who does not totally repent. . . . We can hardly be too forceful in reminding people that they cannot sin and be forgiven and then sin again and again and expect forgiveness’ (The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 353, 360). Those who receive forgiveness and then repeat the sin are held accountable for their former sins (see D&C 82:7; Ether 2:15)” (Gospel Principles, pp. 252- 253).

Another position in Mormonism regarding repentance and forgiveness is so popular among members that it can be called an established “folk doctrine.” Some BYU professors have promoted this kind of doctrine in a more sophisticated way with an extraordinary use of evangelical language. Some call it Mormon “neo-orthodoxy”. The standard assumption by its adherents recognizes that perfection is impossible to achieve in this life and therefore is not necessary for receiving the forgiveness of sins. As it is popularly put, “If I try my best, Christ will do the rest.” In this position, to “try our best” means to give an effort in keeping the commandments much of the time, but not necessarily all of the time. And that is all that God realistically expects of a person. However, Spencer Kimball taught that “Trying is not sufficient. Nor is repentance complete when one merely tries to abandon sin” (Miracle of Forgiveness, p.164). But in popular Mormon folk doctrine and neo-orthodoxy, this kind of thinking is quietly dismissed.

Some Christians have interpreted the neo-orthodoxy of some BYU professors, and the effect it has had on some Mormons, as cause for extraordinary optimism. They perceive Mormonism as making a quiet move to a sufficiently biblical view of salvation, thus lessoning the need for urgency and grave warning in evangelism to Mormons. Indeed, some of these people suggest that continuing to seriously challenge Mormons on these issues will discourage the kind of interfaith dialog that supposedly is a catalyst for the quiet, wholesale movement to evangelicalism. This naiveté is not only destructive to evangelism, it also fails to take into account the larger, integrated system of doctrine and interplay of regulative influences within Mormonism.

British author Douglas Davies (a non-Mormon), in his book The Mormon Culture of Salvation (p.58), remarks on the neo-orthodox movement within Mormonism and the “checks and balances” that keep it from having a thorough-going impact:

“What may be happening in these affirmations of grace by authors such as Mangum, Yorgason, Millett, and Robinson is a twofold development in turn of the century and millennium LDS life. The one answers the needs of devoted Saints, labouring under apparently impossible goals of achievement, the other displays the preparedness of a Church that now need not fear its distinct identity to accept wider Christians theological terms. It is as though modern Mormonism feels free to draw on the discourse of grace… Amongst [‘the currents running within the current Mormon culture of salvation’] we find various checks and balances underlying undue movements in doctrine, with one example relating to a debate between Millett and some Baptist theologians on the issue of grace. This led to Boyd K. Packer, one of the most senior of the Twelve Apostles, addressing himself to the topic in a major satellite broadcast to church members in February 1998. Amongst other doctrines, he emphasized Latter-day Saints ‘belief in the saving power of works in conjunction with Christ’s sacrifice, rather than salvation by grace alone.’”

“Checks and balances” abound, as the wider Mormon worldview and religious experience continue to foster a view of God and salvation that keep members at a tragic, damnable distance from the simplicity of the biblical gospel of salvation by grace through faith apart from works. This also includes the nature of God being fundamentally of the human species, the purpose of life being to prove ourselves morally worthy unto exaltation and godhood, the focus on ordinances and submission to leadership controlled by the “priesthood authority,” temple recommend interviews, and exclusion of those that don’t live up to the Mormon external standard of righteousness. All affect a Mormon’s view of repentance and forgiveness.

Church-published literature that promotes elements of the “impossible gospel” are actively used as curriculum, and aren’t going away anytime soon. All things considered, not much has changed the Mormon view on repentance and forgiveness.

Both mentioned positions are used by individual Mormons to cope with one’s sin and seek forgiveness. Mormon friends in Utah have confided in me that while they may use the more rigid “impossible gospel” standard for a sin like stealing or not paying one’s tithing, they use the folk standard (of simply trying hard) when confronted with deeper heart-issues like pride and lust. The end result is that many Mormons, already having found a way to mentally cope with personal guilt, direct focus on achieving temple worthiness in the Mormon community, not justification of the ungodly by faith before a Holy God. So, as much as some would like to begin singing John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” with Mormons in celebratory, optimistic fashion, we should instead still be praying for the salvation of Mormons and challenging them with the soul-searching questions over their “impossible gospel.”


For more on the topic of salvation, click here.