Tenth LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith stated:
Of course there are people who are not worthy to go to the temple, and therefore should not go to the temple. No one should go to the temple except those who are worthy…. (Doctrines of Salvation 2:61)
A similar thought is found on page 48 in the full-color LDS Church publication entitled Temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It says that “no unclean person has the right to enter God’s house.” These quotes illustrate an important facet of the Mormon religion: while temple participation is important, it is not intended for those who do not live up to the standards of the LDS Church.
The road to worthiness involves adherence to a list of requirements ranging from regular attendance of meetings and paying a full tithe, to not drinking coffee or tea. A temple recommend is an identification card which entitles the bearer to enter a Mormon temple. It is issued only to Mormons who have met these and other conditions.
While the LDS Church demands its followers to be “worthy” in order to participate in its temples, the Bible gives a clear picture that a sense of unworthiness was much more preferred by God rather than a false feeling of virtue. For example, the Gospel of Luke tells the story of two men who went to the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, the other a publican (or tax collector). The Pharisee prayed:
God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess (Luke 18:11,12).
The Pharisee’s attitude is not uncommon among many sincere people who erroneously think that their “good works” impress an all-holy God. The publican’s demeanor was entirely different. Knowing that he was sinful and undeserving of God’s notice, he approached God in the temple by praying, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). His attitude, not the attitude of the Pharisee, caused our Lord to comment, “This man went down to his house justified rather than the other” (Luke 18:14).
Tax collectors in ancient Israel were known to have unscrupulous business practices and were despised by the Jewish population. According to Dr. Donald A. Hagner of Fuller Theological Seminary:
In this system one usually became a tax collector by bidding against others to guarantee the highest amount of money to the tax-farmers (the true publicani), who were directly responsible to the Roman government. This arrangement obviously provided the opportunity at several levels for considerable personal gain through the unrestricted inflation of taxes and tolls, a portion of which conveniently went into the pockets of the middlemen” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia 4:742).
Dr. Hagner points out that tax collectors were rendered ceremoniously unclean because of their regular contact with Gentiles and were commonly linked with “sinners” (See Matthew 11:19; Mark 2:15 and Luke 15:1). Certainly, if temple “recommends” were required in biblical times, this publican would not have qualified under today’s Mormon guidelines. If worthiness has always been a requirement to enter a temple, how did the publican of Luke 18 get in?
Evidence that temple Mormonism has nothing in common with the temple worship in Jerusalem comes from the fact that the temple’s entire purpose was to meet the needs of unworthy sinners. The penitent Jew would come to the temple to offer sacrifice for his sins and the sins of his family. The sacrifice would be given to the priest who would stand in the gap between the sinner and God.
On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would first offer a sacrifice for himself. Christian scholar Alfred Edersheim states that the High Priest would lay his hands on the bullock and pray as follows:
Ah, Jehovah! I have committed iniquity; I have transgressed; I have sinned – I and my house. Oh, then, Jehovah, I entreat Thee, cover over the iniquities, the transgressions, and the sins which I have committed, transgressed, and sinned before Thee (The Temple, pg. 310).
Does the prayer of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement sound like the prayer of a man who feels he is worthy?
Later, a similar prayer would be repeated by the High Priest on behalf of the people.
The concept of temple worthiness has been blamed for causing many hard feelings between non-Mormon parents and their Mormon children. Faithful Latter-day Saints are encouraged to be married in Mormon temples; however, because worthiness is a requirement for entrance, non-Mormon parents are not allowed to be a part of one of the most blessed events in the lives of their children.
Many Mormons fail to realize that the temple and its priesthood was a foreshadowing of the coming Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. Upon His death, the temple veil was ripped in two. This symbolizes the fact that believers can now directly approach the throne of God (Luke 23:45). Apart from the righteousness of Christ, all our “righteous acts” are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Faith in His unspotted righteousness, not our personal merit, makes all believers worthy in the sight of God.