“We have to be clean”: Does Mormonism offer a biblical solution?

By Eric Johnson

Check out a 4-part Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast on this article that originally aired May 21-24, 2019  Part 1   Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  

Seventy Allen D. Haynie gave a talk at the October 2015 General Conference titled “Remembering in Whom We have Trusted.” It was originally published in the November 2015 Ensign on pages 121-23.

Apparently his church’s leaders thought highly of this talk because it was condensed into one page and then published on page 80 of the April 2019 Ensign magazine in a column titled “Until We Meet Again.” Bill McKeever and I put together a four-part Viewpoint on Mormonism series on this article, but I thought it would be good to take a look at the entire article (in bold face/underline) with my responses that are mainly original from the podcast series.

When I was nine years old, my white-haired, four-foot-eleven-inch (1.5 m) maternal grandmother came to spend a few weeks at our home. One afternoon while she was there, my brothers and I decided to dig a hole in a field across the street.

We got a little dirty but nothing that would get us into too much trouble. Then other boys started to help, and we all got dirtier together. The ground was hard, so we dragged a garden hose over and put a little water into the hole. We got some mud on us as we dug, but the hole did get deeper. Then someone decided we should turn our hole into a swimming pool, so we filled it with water. I was persuaded to jump in and try it out. Now I was really dirty!

As a boy, I remember the times I made backyard “mud puddles” for oceans and rivers for my plastic army men set. War was always more spectacular with dirt and mud as my friends and I loved to create a great mess! (Haynie is just a couple years older than I, so we can relate on this issue.) Of course, the mud here is symbolic of sin and the things that cause humans to get dirty (i.e. Rom. 3:23; 6:23a).

When it started to get cold, I crossed the street, intending to walk into my house. My grandmother met me at the door and refused to let me in. I was wet, muddy, and cold. Finally, I asked her what I had to do to come into the house. I stood in the backyard while she sprayed me off with a hose.

In this parable, Haynie portrays the sinner trying to get into the clean house, which is the abode of grandmother and symbolic of the presence of God. Because he did not meet the requirements to gain entrance, she denied his desire to go inside (i.e. the celestial kingdom).

The Book of Mormon teaches in Alma 11:37, “And I say unto you again that he cannot save them in their sins; for I cannot deny his word, and he hath said that no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore, how can ye be saved, except ye inherit the kingdom of heaven? Therefore, ye cannot be saved in your sins.” This is a verse often cited by church leaders to show that sin, any sin, can keep a person out of an exalted state and godhood. As tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith put it, “To enter the celestial and obtain exaltation it is necessary that the whole law be kept” (The Way to Perfection, p. 206. Emphasis mine). Seventy Milton R. Hunter explained,

Many Latter-day Saints will not attain the celestial glory because they did not abide by the commandments of God; therefore, they will be very unhappy because they did not gain celestial life which could have been theirs” (Conference Reports, October 1949, p. 74. Emphasis mine).

Some might think that they are fine in God’s sight because they have not committed murder or adultery. Twelfth President Spencer W. Kimball ended that speculation when he wrote,

And let us not suppose that in calling people to repentance the prophets are concerned only with the more grievous sins such as murder, adultery, stealing, and so on, nor only with those persons who have not accepted the gospel ordinances. All transgressions must be cleansed, all weaknesses must be overcome, before a person can attain perfection and godhood” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 16). Emphasis mine.

Uncleanliness, whether it’s a “speck” on our shirt or we are completely caked in mud, as the young Haynie was, prohibits a person from going into God’s presence. Kimball stated,

To the prophets the term unclean in this context means what it means to God. To man the word may be relative in meaning one minute specks of dirt does not make a white shirt or dress unclean, for example. But to God who is perfection, cleanliness means moral and personal cleanliness. Less than that is, in one degree or another, uncleanliness and hence cannot dwell with God” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 19. Also see the official church manual Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, p. 36. Emphasis mine).

After what seemed like an eternity, she pronounced me clean and let me come into the house, where I was able to warm up and put on dry, clean clothes. With that real-life parable of sorts in mind, please consider the following words of Jesus Christ: “No unclean thing can enter into his kingdom” (3 Nephi 27:19).

Many Latter-day Saints like to point to the Atonement for the reason why they can be considered clean. However, it’s not that simple. Certainly this event can cleanse a person in Mormonism, but only with complete obedience. Doctrine and Covenants 76:52-54 states that one’s good works is what is required to become clean:

That by keeping the commandments they might be washed and cleansed from all their sins, and receive the Holy Spirit by the laying on of the hands of him who is ordained and sealed unto this power; And who overcome by faith, and are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, which the Father sheds forth upon all those who are just and true. They are they who are the church of the Firstborn. (Emphasis mine)

A church manual lays out the requirements: faith, repentance, and obedience:

Further spiritual death comes as a result of our own disobedience. Our sins make us unclean and unable to dwell in the presence of God (see Romans 3:23; Alma 12:12–16, 32; Helaman 14:18; Moses 6:57). Through the Atonement, Jesus Christ offers redemption from this spiritual death, but only when we exercise faith in Him, repent of our sins, and obey the principles and ordinances of the gospel (see Alma 13:27–30; Helaman 14:19; Articles of Faith 1:3) (True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference, 2004, p. 48. Emphasis mine).

Forgiveness is available, Kimball said, but it could only come through one’s own efforts:

Those laden with transgressions and sorrows and sin may be forgiven and cleansed and purified if they will return to their Lord, learn of him, and keep his commandments (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 368. See also Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, p. 36. Emphasis mine).

Many Latter-day Saints like to explain how this is what grace is about. Yet grace, by itself, is not enough to cleanse a person from the sins one has committed. A church manual references 2 Nephi 25:23 to say,

Through grace, made available by the Savior’s atoning sacrifice, all people will be resurrected and receive immortality (see 2 Nephi 9:6-13). But resurrection alone does not qualify us for eternal life in the presence of God. Our sins make us unclean and unfit to dwell in God’s presence, and we need His grace to purify and perfect us ‘after all we can do’ (2 Nephi 25:23)” (True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference, 2004, p. 77).

Another manual reports,

The phrase “after all we can do” teaches that effort is required on our part to receive the fulness of the Lord’s grace and be made worthy to dwell with him” (True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference, 2004, p. 77)

Apostle Bruce R. McConkie weighed in on the topic of grace by saying,

The blood of Christ was shed as a free gift of wondrous grace, but the Saints are cleansed by the blood after they keep the commandments (Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, p. 77. Emphasis mine).

McConkie also wrote,

How can men become clean and pure? How can they be sanctified? What power can burn dross and evil out of a human soul as though by fire? To be saved men must be born again; they must be sanctified by the Spirit; they must receive the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; they must become clean and spotless by obedience to law (The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary 4:383).

If you would like my take on 2 Nephi 25:23, I invite you to visit here.

Here’s the point. Christianity is not about what you do (as all world seem to ask) but who you are. Works are needed for regeneration, but they are not our works. Pastor and theologian John MacArthur talks about this and describes what is required:

It is significant that Scripture uses the imagery of being born again to describe this work of regeneration (John 3:3-8; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23; 1 John 3:9). In the physical realm, a child makes absolutely no contribution to his conception or his birth. He is nonexistent and thus is entirely dependent on the will of his parents to be brought into being. In the same way, Jesus chooses this analogy to illustrate the reality that dead and depraved sinners cannot contribute to their rebirth unto spiritual life but are entirely dependent on the sovereign will of God for regeneration . . . . Rearranging your life, modifying your behavior, or multiplying religious performances will not suffice. Something is so drastically and irreversibly wrong with mankind that we must be born all over again. When Nicodemus asks how this can happen, Jesus does not give him a list of religious duties by which he can cooperate with God’s grace. Instead, he points to the sovereign will of God and declares, “The wind blows where it wishes” (John 3:8). As John Murray observes, “The wind is not at our beck and call; neither is the regenerative operation of the Spirit.” (Biblical Doctrine, pp. 577-578).

Standing outside while being sprayed off by my grandmother was unpleasant and uncomfortable. But being denied the opportunity to return and be with our Father in Heaven because we chose to remain dirtied by a mud hole of sin would be eternally tragic. We should not deceive ourselves about what it takes to return and remain in the presence of our Father in Heaven. We have to be clean.

What must a person do to get clean? Mormonism teaches that it is all about what the person does while Christianity teaches that it’s all about what Christ has done on the cross. Citing 2 Nephi 25:23, eleventh President Harold B. Lee disagreed with this idea when he stated,

We hear much from some of limited understanding about the possibility of one’s being saved by grace alone. But it requires the explanation of another prophet to understand the true doctrine of grace as he explained in these meaningful words: “For,” said this prophet, “we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” (2 Ne. 25:23.) Truly we are redeemed by the atoning blood of the Savior of the world, but only after each has done all he can to work out his own salvation” (Conference Reports, October 1970, p. 116).

In fact, the concept gets mocked in different contexts by LDS leaders. One LDS tract stated,

Christians speak often of the blood of Christ and its cleansing power. Much that is believed and taught on this subject, however, is such utter nonsense and so palpably false that to believe it is to lose one’s salvation. Many go so far, for instance, as to pretend, at least, to believe that if we confess Christ with our lips and avow that we accept him as our personal Savior, we are thereby saved. His blood, without other act than mere belief, they say, makes us clean (What the Mormons Think of Christ, p. 31).

After citing Ephesians 2:8-9, Kimball taught,

One of the most fallacious doctrines originated by Satan and propounded by man is that man is saved alone by the grace of God; that belief in Jesus Christ alone is all that is needed for salvation. (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 206).

Kimball also said,

And however powerful the saving grace of Christ, it brings exaltation to no man who does not comply with the works of the gospel (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 207).

Saying the “greatest heresy” in Christianity is the idea that “God is a spirit,” McConkie went on to describe the second greatest heresy. He said it was the idea “that men are saved by grace alone without works, merely by confessing the Lord Jesus with their lips” (The Millennial Messiah: The Second Coming of the Son of Man, p. 77). McConkie listed the many requirements:

Man cannot be saved by grace alone; as the Lord lives, man must keep the commandments (Eccl. 12:13; Matt. 19:17; I Ne. 22:31; D&C 93:20); he must work the works of righteousness (Matt. 7:21; James 2:18-26; D&C 78:5-7); he must work out his salvation with fear and trembling before the Lord (Philip. 2:12); he must have faith like the ancients—the faith that brings with it gifts and signs and miracles” (Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, p. 76. Emphasis mine).

Although many Latter-day Saints minimize the doctrine of grace as taught by Evangelical Christians, they are only butchering the entire Gospel message as explained in the Bible. Here is another example as found in a church manual:

Some people believe that when Paul said we are saved by grace through faith he meant that nothing we do has any effect on whether or not we are saved—that it is completely a gift from God. This view is in opposition to James’ teaching that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:10–26). The revelations of the Lord to Book of Mormon prophets help clarify this important doctrine. While it is true that no one can live the law well enough to be saved by his or her own obedience (see Romans 3:20–23; 2 Nephi 2:5), that does not mean that obedience is not important. If we do not strive to keep the commandments, believing alone will not be enough (see Matthew 7:21; James 2:17–19)” (New Testament Student Study Guide, 1999, p. 135).

Ephesians 2:8-9 says that a person is saved by grace through faith and how it is not of ourselves but it’s rather the gift of God. Paul made it clear that nobody can boast that they did this or they did that in order to earn God’s favor. I don’t know how Paul could have made himself any better than saying salvation was “not by works”!

Somebody might ask, Do Christians believe they can say a prayer and then sin like hell? Paul writes in the next verse that believers are considered to be “God’s workmanship, created by Christ Jesus unto good works, which he prepared before the foundation of the world.” Works are important, but only as part of sanctification, not justification. In our book Mormonism 101, Bill McKeever and I give a lengthy description of both terms.

Because our Father in Heaven loves us, His plan included the role of a Savior—someone who could help us become clean no matter how dirty we have become. Jesus Christ suffered both body and spirit, trembled because of pain, and bled at every pore to pay for our sins. What does He ask in return? He simply pleads with us to confess our sins and repent. He invites us to become clean so that we can once again enter the presence of our Father in Heaven.

These words conclude the article. For some reason, the editors left the following out from Haynie’s original talk:

The scriptures teach that every individual must “be judged according to the holy judgment of God.” On that day there will be no opportunity to hide among a larger group or point to others as an excuse for our being unclean (“Remembering in Whom We Have Trusted,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2015, p. 123).

Certainly Mormonism teaches that “our Father in Heaven loves us” and even sent a “Savior” to help make a person clean. But getting clean in Mormonism is more than just standing there and allowing Grandma to hose you down before you can go inside. Instead, much effort is required! Seventy Jay E. Jensen described it this way:

Another prerequisite or condition to repentance is to know that no unclean thing can dwell with God (see 1 Ne. 10:21; 1 Ne. 15:34; Alma 7:21; Alma 40:26; and Hel. 8:25). You can hide sins from your bishop, you can hide them from your parents and friends, but if you continue and die with unresolved sins, you are unclean and no unclean thing can dwell with God. There are no exceptions” (“The Message: Do You Know How to Repent?” New Era, November 1999, p. 7).

While it may appear as a cute article for many, Haynie’s piece would cause me consternation if I were a faithful Latter-day Saint. After all, I know that I–like everyone–am hiding sins. Like Paul, I struggle with sin (Romans 7:21-25). In that passage, Paul asks, “Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” He answers his own question in verse 25a: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” 

Christianity offers a much more biblical and simple solution than Mormonism brings to the table.  Forgiveness of sins is available (1 John 5:13). All one has to do is receive the free gift made available by God!