Brad Wilcox is a religion professor at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University and also serves on the Sunday School board. He gave a devotional address on July 12, 2011 that has been widely circulated on the Internet. The talk, called “His Grace is Sufficient: How does God’s Grace really work?”, tries to make sense of biblical grace in the light of Latter-day Saint teaching. In the September 2013 issue of the monthly church periodical Ensign, a good portion of the speech was included on pages 35-37. The speech was changed in a number of areas, mostly due to space considerations (it appears). The following is the speech, sans the opening comments, from the BYU Speeches website. The underlined portion is the original speech; my comments—many of which originated with Bill McKeever on the radio series—follow:
Listen to an 8-part Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast series on this topic, originally airing in August 2012, by clicking on the following links:
According to his bio at bradwilcox.com, Brad Wilcox “served his mission in Chile and later returned to that country to serve as a mission president. He is a professor at Brigham Young University [Department of Teacher Education] and has served as a member of the Sunday School General Board.” Mr. Wilcox gave a devotional address at BYU on July 12, 2011 that has been widely circulated on the Internet. The talk, called “His Grace is Sufficient: How does God’s Grace really work?”, tries to make sense of biblical grace in the light of Latter-day Saint teaching. An edited version of the speech was provided in the September 2013 issue of the monthly church periodical Ensign on pages 35-37. The following is the speech, sans the opening comments, from the BYU Speeches website. The underlined portion is the original speech; my comments—many originated with Bill McKeever on the radio series—follow:
A BYU student once came to me and asked if we could talk. I said, “Of course. How can I help you?”
She said, “I just don’t get grace.”
I responded, “What is it that you don’t understand?”
She said, “I know I need to do my best and then Jesus does the rest, but I can’t even do my best.”
She then went on to tell me all the things she should be doing because she’s a Mormon that she wasn’t doing.
She continued, “I know that I have to do my part and then Jesus makes up the difference and fills the gap that stands between my part and perfection. But who fills the gap that stands between where I am now and my part?”
She then went on to tell me all the things that she shouldn’t be doing because she’s a Mormon, but she was doing them anyway.
In Romans 7:14-20, Paul talks about this very issue. He said:
14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
For those who have awareness of their imperfections–what the Bible defines as sin— we struggle with knowing what we ought to do but failing to do it. The Mormon people are told what they are supposed to do and are warned about the great consequences if they are not successful in accomplishing what has been laid out before them. Church manuals make this very clear through the words of the general authorities:
6th President Joseph F. Smith: “You must not only believe, but you must obey and do the things that [God] commands. You must not only do that, but you must give your heart, your affection and your whole soul with a willing mind to God. You must give up your will to the will of the Father, and you must do all things that He requires at your hands, if you will be saved and exalted in His presence” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, p. 244).
8th President George Albert Smith: “Being a member of the Church and holding the Priesthood will not get us anywhere unless we are worthy. The Lord has said that every blessing that we desire is predicated upon obedience to His commandments. We may deceive our neighbors, and we may deceive ourselves with the idea that we are going through all right, but unless we keep the commandments of our Heavenly Father, unless we bear worthily this holy Priesthood that is so precious, we will not find our place in the celestial kingdom” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith, p. 53).
11th President Harold B. Lee: “He has given us in another revelation the formula by which we can prepare ourselves as the years pass. ‘Verily, thus saith the Lord: It shall come to pass that every soul who forsaketh his sins and cometh unto me, and calleth on my name, and obeyeth my voice, and keepeth my commandments, shall see my face and know that I am’ (D&C 93:1). Simple, isn’t it? But listen again. All you have to do is to forsake your sins, come unto Him, call on His name, obey His voice, and keep His commandments, and then you shall see His face and shall know that He is” (The Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, p. 34).
12th President Spencer W. Kimball: “There are . . . many members of the Church who are lax and careless and who continually procrastinate. They live the gospel casually but not devoutly. They have complied with some requirements but are not valiant. They do no major crime but merely fail to do the things required—things like paying tithing, living the Word of Wisdom, having family prayers, fasting, attending meetings, serving.” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, p. 8. Ellipsis in original.).
16th President Thomas S. Monson: “Don’t put your eternal life at risk. Keep the commandments of God” (Thomas S. Monson, “Preparation Brings Blessings,” Ensign, May 2010, p. 66).
Seventy Bruce Hafen: “If we must give all that we have, then our giving only almost everything is not enough. If we almost keep the commandments, we almost receive the blessings” (Seventy Bruce C. Hafen, “The Atonement: All for All,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2004, p. 98. Italics in original).
A church manual teaches,
“Have class members find and read Moroni 10:32. According to this verse, what must we do to ‘come unto Christ, and be perfected in him’? (‘Deny [ourselves] of all ungodliness, and love God with all [our] might, mind and strength.’) Explain that ‘deny yourselves of all ungodliness’ means ‘give up your sins.’ We must strive to give up our sins and demonstrated that we love God with all our might, mind, and strength. If we do this throughout our lives, then Jesus Christ, through his Atonement, will help us become perfect” (Preparing for Exaltation Teacher’s Manual, p. 123).
So often, the idea of “perfection” is stressed by the LDS leadership. Consider what one member of the Seventy said at a General Conference talk:
“Even when, from a purely human perspective, perfection can appear an impossible challenge to achieve, I testify that our Father and our Savior have made known to us that it is possible to achieve the impossible. Yes, it is possible to achieve eternal life. Yes, it is possible to be happy now and forever” (Seventy Jorge F. Zeballos, “Attempting the Impossible,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2009, p. 35).
Twelfth President Spencer Kimball explained,
“The gospel is a program of action—of doing things. Man’s immortality and eternal life are God’s goals (Moses 1:39). Immortality has been accomplished by the Savior’s sacrifice. Eternal life hangs in the balance awaiting the works of men. This progress toward eternal life is a matter of achieving perfection. Living all the commandments guarantees total forgiveness of sins and assures one of exaltation through that perfection which comes by complying with the formula the Lord gave us” (Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 208-209).
Quoting Matthew 5:48, Kimball went on to say,
“Being perfect means to triumph over sin. This is a mandate from the Lord. He is just and wise and kind. He would never require anything from his children which was not for their benefit and which was not attainable. Perfection therefore is an achievable goal” (p. 209).
No wonder why this student was so concerned about her failures! From what has been provided, she does not sound like a student who was looking for loopholes in the Mormon lawbook; instead, she appears to be very sincere. While she probably didn’t consider herself a bad person, she probably had read Kimball’s words that she “merely fail(ed) to do the things required—things like paying tithing, living the Word of Wisdom, having family prayers, fasting, attending meetings, serving.” Maybe her penchant for stopping by Starbucks or only paying five percent for her tithe made her realize that she didn’t meet the obligation placed upon her by her church. What a heavy burden to bear!
Finally I said, “Jesus doesn’t make up the difference. Jesus makes all the difference. Grace is not about filling gaps. It is about filling us.”
Seeing that she was still confused, I took a piece of paper and drew two dots—one at the top representing God and one at the bottom representing us. I then said, “Go ahead. Draw the line. How much is our part? How much is Christ’s part?”
She went right to the center of the page and began to draw a line. Then, considering what we had been speaking about, she went to the bottom of the page and drew a line just above the bottom dot.
I said, “Wrong.”
She said, “I knew it was higher. I should have just drawn it, because I knew it.”
I said, “No. The truth is, there is no line. Jesus filled the whole space. He paid our debt in full. He didn’t pay it all except for a few coins. He paid it all. It is finished.”
The girl came in confused, and Wilcox recognizes this fact. Yet even after his explanation, she still doesn’t get it. And why should she? Wilcox gives a mixed message when he tells the young woman that the line she drew on the page was “wrong.” In one regard, He is biblically correct when he says that Jesus paid it all (if this means one’s sins). However, based on the quotes provided above, she understands that there is a big role the individual must play. A church manual written for women says,
“Because it is very difficult to become perfect, our Father helps us. He has established the Church; called leaders; and given us commandments, principles, and ordinances. In our Church meetings we receive instructions concerning these things. We must obey and live according to God’s laws to become perfect.” (The Latter-day Saint Woman Part A, p. 122).
In a 2001 general conference talk, James Faust, who was a member of the First Presidency, contradicts Wilcox when he declared,
”Our salvation depends on believing in and accepting the Atonement (Mosiah 4:6-7). Such acceptance requires a continual effort to understand it more fully. The Atonement advances our mortal course of learning by making it possible for our natures to become perfect. All of us have sinned and need to repent to fully pay our part of the debt. When we sincerely repent, the Savior’s magnificent Atonement pays the rest of that debt” (James E. Faust, “The Atonement: Our Greatest Hope,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2001, p. 18. Italics in original).
She said, “Right! Like I don’t have to do anything?”
“Oh no,” I said, “you have plenty to do, but it is not to fill that gap. We will all be resurrected. We will all go back to God’s presence. What is left to be determined by our obedience is what kind of body we plan on being resurrected with and how comfortable we plan to be in God’s presence and how long we plan to stay there.”
The motive provided by Wilcox for why the right things ought to be done is based purely on selfish motivation. Getting a resurrected body and having comfort in an eternal future seems to be more important than glorifying God Himself.
Christ asks us to show faith in Him, repent, make and keep covenants, receive the Holy Ghost, and endure to the end. By complying, we are not paying the demands of justice—not even the smallest part. Instead, we are showing appreciation for what Jesus Christ did by using it to live a life like His. Justice requires immediate perfection or a punishment when we fall short. Because Jesus took that punishment, He can offer us the chance for ultimate perfection (see Matthew 5:48, 3 Nephi 12:48) and help us reach that goal. He can forgive what justice never could, and He can turn to us now with His own set of requirements (see 3 Nephi 28:35).
Let’s go back to the genesis of this woman’s original concern. According to the Ensign magazine,
“A covenant is a two-way promise, the conditions of which are set by God. When we enter into a covenant with God, we promise to keep those conditions. He promises us certain blessings in return. When we receive these saving ordinances and keep the associated covenants, the Atonement of Jesus Christ becomes effective in our lives, and we can receive the great blessing God can give us—eternal life (see D&C 14:7). Because keeping our covenants is essential to our happiness now and to eventually receiving eternal life, it is important to understand what we have promised our Heavenly Father” (“Understanding our Covenants with God,” Ensign, July 2012, p. 22).
Elaine Dalton explained,
“When you renew your covenants each week by partaking of the sacrament, you covenant that you will always remember the Savior and keep His commandments” (“At All Times, in All Things, and in All Places,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2008, p. 117).
A popular church manual explains,
“Within the gospel, a covenant means a sacred agreement or mutual promise between God and a person or a group of people. In making a covenant, God promises a blessing for obedience to particular commandments. He sets the terms of His covenants, and He reveals these terms to His prophets. If we choose to obey the terms of the covenant, we receive promised blessings. If we choose not to obey, He withholds the blessings, and in some instances a penalty also is given” (Gospel Principles, 2009, p. 81).
Consider another church manual:
“Receiving ordinances and keeping covenants are essential to Heavenly Father’s plan. The scriptures often refer to His people as a ‘covenant people.’ The Lord’s blessings exceed our mortal expectations. To live in the presence of our Heavenly Father, we must receive all of the necessary ordinances and keep all of the required covenants” (The Gospel and the Productive Life Student Manual Religion 150, p. 98).
For the Latter-day Saint, keeping just “some” of the required covenants is not stressed; rather, the word “all” is used. The teachings of these authoritative sources serve to only contradict the message that Wilcox seems to be conveying. Only when a Latter-day Saint keeps “those conditions” of the covenants can there be “happiness now and to eventually receiving eternal life.”
“So what’s the difference?” the girl asked. “Whether our efforts are required by justice or by Jesus, they are still required.”
“True,” I said, “but they are required for a different purpose. Fulfilling Christ’s requirements is like paying a mortgage instead of rent or like making deposits in a savings account instead of paying off debt. You still have to hand it over every month, but it is for a totally different reason.”
We must understand that a mortgage is still a debt. When someone asks if I own my own home, I may say “yes” even though, technically, the mortgage company controls the paperwork. If I stop paying the mortgage for the next six months, I will lose my home, as I do not “own” it. Whether a person pays rent or mortgage, a debt is still owed.
But what if somebody paid for the mortgage for you to have. Ahh, now we have what is called a “gift.” If I receive a valuable home, with no strings attached, I will be very grateful. When a person receives such a gift, gratitude is a natural response. We will take care of this home, sans mortgage payment and all. This is like justification by faith alone, as we receive salvation as a gift, and when we understand the price that was paid for it, we will treasure it and not desire to demean the benefactor.
Christ’s Grace Is Sufficient to Transform Us
Christ’s arrangement with us is similar to a mom providing music lessons for her child. Mom pays the piano teacher. How many know what I am talking about? Because Mom pays the debt in full, she can turn to her child and ask for something. What is it? Practice! Does the child’s practice pay the piano teacher? No. Does the child’s practice repay Mom for paying the piano teacher? No. Practicing is how the child shows appreciation for Mom’s incredible gift. It is how he takes advantage of the amazing opportunity Mom is giving him to live his life at a higher level. Mom’s joy is found not in getting repaid but in seeing her gift used—seeing her child improve. And so she continues to call for practice, practice, practice.
According to Wilcox’s illustration, personal effort is required for salvation. Using the piano illustration, the child who doesnt’ practice will not receive the benefit, which is playing at a higher level. In essence, the debt must be paid, which is not really a gift at all.
If the child sees Mom’s requirement of practice as being too overbearing (“Gosh, Mom, why do I need to practice? None of the other kids have to practice! I’m just going to be a professional baseball player anyway!”), perhaps it is because he doesn’t yet see with mom’s eyes. He doesn’t see how much better his life could be if he would choose to live on a higher plane.
According to the LDS leadership, how does a person get to the Celestial Kingdom? It is by keeping celestial law, which is described in D&C 88. Wilcox says that the person’s life could be so much better if only he or she chose “to live on a higher plane.” But this philosophy totally misses the point emphasized in the Bible, as the true believer is justified by faith alone (Rom. 3:28; Eph. 2:8-10). There are only two types of individuals: forgiven or unforgiven. Those who are forgiven can know that their sins are washed away and they have eternal life because of their faith in Jesus (1 John 5:13). Those who are unforgiven have not received this free gift. It has nothing to do with living on higher planes.
In the same way, because Jesus has paid justice, He can now turn to us and say, “Follow me” (Matthew 4:19), “Keep my commandments” (John 14:15). If we see His requirements as being way too much to ask (“Gosh! None of the other Christians have to pay tithing! None of the other Christians have to go on missions, serve in callings, and do temple work!”), maybe it is because we do not yet see through Christ’s eyes. We have not yet comprehended what He is trying to make of us.
Elder Bruce C. Hafen has written, “The great Mediator asks for our repentance not because we must ‘repay’ him in exchange for his paying our debt to justice, but because repentance initiates a developmental process that, with the Savior’s help, leads us along the path to a saintly character” (The Broken Heart [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989], 149; emphasis in original).
At a General Conference in 2004, this same Apostle Bruce C. Hafen taught,
“We grow in two ways—removing negative weeds and cultivating positive flowers. The Savior’s grace blesses both parts—if we do our part. First and repeatedly we must uproot the weeds of sin and bad choices. It isn’t enough just to mow the weeds. Yank them out by the roots, repenting fully to satisfy the conditions of mercy. But being forgiven is only part of our growth. We are not just paying a debt. Our purpose is to become celestial beings. So once we’ve cleared our heartland, we must continually plant, weed, and nourish the seeds of divine qualities” (“The Atonement: All for All,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2004, p. 97).
Notice some important points to these words. “If we do our part,” he says, then the grace of God can bless the person. This is done by “uprooting the weeds of sin and bad choices,” “yanking them out by the roots.” It is up to the individual to “clear the heartland” and “continually plant, weed, and nourish the seeds of divine qualities.” But earlier, wasn’t Wilcox telling the girl that Jesus paid it all? Wilcox’s message, while pithy, does not clarify and instead merely confuses.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks has said, referring to President Spencer W. Kimball’s explanation, “The repenting sinner must suffer for his sins, but this suffering has a different purpose than punishment or payment. Its purpose is change” (The Lord’s Way [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991], 223; emphasis in original). Let’s put that in terms of our analogy: The child must practice the piano, but this practice has a different purpose than punishment or payment. Its purpose is change.
Suppose a young boy does his chores because he wants to get his allowance. When the mother gives the allowance to him, she says, “I want you to know, I am paying this only because I want to, not because you’ve done anything for it.” The young boy looks confused. Wait a minute, he thinks to himself. If you’ve done everything, why did I have to work so hard? Without saying anything to his mother, I bet that young man won’t work so hard the next time around.
In Mormonism, it is a cause-effect scenario when it comes to obedience. If a person does his chores, he gets payment (a wage), just like the person who puts in hours at a job and receives a check. If the allowance and paycheck are provided merely because the boss has already “paid it all,” then many would fail to do their work. Only in Christianity does the analogy of the piano student work. This is because a person who has received justification (all sins—past, present, and future—are paid, or forgiven) is able to do good works with the proper motivation. These deeds are done not in hopes of earning a check (wage) but rather are accomplished in view of what has been given (salvation and eternal life). Wilcox cannot have his cake and eat it too. Either good works are not required for justification before God…or they are. If they are, as numerous leaders have attested in official settings, then it cannot be true that “Jesus paid everything.”
I have born-again Christian friends who say to me, “You Mormons are trying to earn your way to heaven.”
I say, “No, we are not earning heaven. We are learning heaven. We are preparing for it (see D&C 78:7). We are practicing for it.”
There are too many statements made by LDS leaders who have say that it is necessary to “earn” (not “learn”) heaven. Consider what Elray L. Christiansen said at a General Conference:
“My brothers and sisters, we should all be proud of our progenitors. Some of us forget however, that as someone rightly said no matter how tall your grandfather was, you have to do your own growing. So it is in this great Church-we all must realize that salvation is an individual matter, that none of us can be taken into the celestial kingdom on the backs of others. We must earn our own position, both here and hereafter. It is not merely an acknowledgment that God lives and that this is the Church of Jesus Christ that will save us, but the application of that knowledge in good works” (Elray L. Christiansen (Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve, Conference Reports, October 1952, pp. 53-54).
Current president Thomas S. Monson declared,
“By obedience to God’s commandments, we can qualify for that ‘house’ spoken of by Jesus when He declared: “In my Father’s house are many mansions. … I go to prepare a place for you … that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:2-3)” (Thomas S. Monson, “An Invitation to Exaltation,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 1988, p. 54. Ellipses in original).
They ask me, “Have you been saved by grace?”
I answer, “Yes. Absolutely, totally, completely, thankfully—yes!”
What does Wilcox mean by “saved by grace”? In Mormonism, “general salvation” means being
“saved from death. This type of general salvation comes to all people by the grace of God alone. General salvation comes regardless of obedience to gospel principles or laws and results solely in resurrection from the dead. In this respect, salvation is synonymous with immortality, in that the resurrected person will live forever. Resurrection comes to every person born into this world through the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ, whether one confesses Christ or not. Whether a person is wicked or righteous, each person will receive the gift of immortality through Jesus Christ” (Theodore M. Burton, “Salvation and Exaltation,” Ensign, July 1972, p. 78).
By using the phrase “saved by grace,” Mormonism is not referring to attaining the celestial kingdom, which is what Mormons call eternal life or exaltation and requires complete obedience. This is certainly not the same as what Evangelical Christians hold near and dear to their hearts when they talk about grace.
Then I ask them a question that perhaps they have not fully considered: “Have you been changed by grace?” They are so excited about being saved that maybe they are not thinking enough about what comes next. They are so happy the debt is paid that they may not have considered why the debt existed in the first place. Latter-day Saints know not only what Jesus has saved us from but also what He has saved us for. As my friend Brett Sanders puts it, “A life impacted by grace eventually begins to look like Christ’s life.” As my friend Omar Canals puts it, “While many Christians view Christ’s suffering as only a huge favor He did for us, Latter-day Saints also recognize it as a huge investment He made in us.” As Moroni puts it, grace isn’t just about being saved. It is also about becoming like the Savior (see Moroni 7:48).
Wilcox makes it appear that Christians believe that salvation by grace (justification) nullifies the need for good works. This is a straw man fallacy and makes an assumption that is not even close to being true. For instance, immediately after Paul says that the Christian believers are saved by grace, not works, in Ephesians 2, he adds that we are “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which He prepared in advance for us to do.” This does not have an antinomian feel to it! Neither does James 2:20 and 26, which says that faith without works is dead. We don’t want to give the impression that good works along with the fruit of the Spirit are not vital for the godly believer; at the same time, we must be very careful in not unneccessarily merging grace with works. Faith by itself (and no works required) equals a right standing before God. Sanctification—or living righteously in a holy manner—is a result of a changed life from the inside out.
The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can live after we die but that we can live more abundantly (see John 10:10). The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can be cleansed and consoled but that we can be transformed (see Romans 8). Scriptures make it clear that no unclean thing can dwell with God (see Alma 40:26), but, brothers and sisters, no unchanged thing will even want to.
The question is, how does a person get clean? According to Mormonism, it’s keeping the covenants through“practice, practice, practice.” For the Christian, “imputation” (having an item of value credited to one’s account) is not based on a person’s personal efforts, which is different than Mormonism. Romans 4:3-5 says,
3 What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. 5 However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.
I know a young man who just got out of prison—again. Each time two roads diverge in a yellow wood, he takes the wrong one—every time. When he was a teenager dealing with every bad habit a teenage boy can have, I said to his father, “We need to get him to EFY.” I have worked with that program since 1985. I know the good it can do.
His dad said, “I can’t afford that.”
I said, “I can’t afford it either, but you put some in, and I’ll put some in, and then we’ll go to my mom, because she is a real softy.”
We finally got the kid to EFY, but how long do you think he lasted? Not even a day. By the end of the first day he called his mother and said, “Get me out of here!” Heaven will not be heaven for those who have not chosen to be heavenly.
In the past I had a picture in my mind of what the final judgment would be like, and it went something like this: Jesus standing there with a clipboard and Brad standing on the other side of the room nervously looking at Jesus.
Jesus checks His clipboard and says, “Oh, shoot, Brad. You missed it by two points.”
Brad begs Jesus, “Please, check the essay question one more time! There have to be two points you can squeeze out of that essay.” That’s how I always saw it.
But the older I get, and the more I understand this wonderful plan of redemption, the more I realize that in the final judgment it will not be the unrepentant sinner begging Jesus, “Let me stay.” No, he will probably be saying, “Get me out of here!” Knowing Christ’s character, I believe that if anyone is going to be begging on that occasion, it would probably be Jesus begging the unrepentant sinner, “Please, choose to stay. Please, use my Atonement—not just to be cleansed but to be changed so that you want to stay.”
Contrary to the way Wilcox portrays it, the Jesus with a clipboard is really more of a portrayal of the LDS Jesus. This Jesus will disqualify those who were not good enough to get into the Celestial Kingdom. Tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith put it this way:
“SALVATION AND A CUP OF TEA. You cannot neglect little things. ‘Oh, a cup of tea is such a little thing. It is so little; surely it doesn’t amount to much; surely the Lord will forgive me if I drink a cup of tea. Yes, he will forgive you, because he is going to forgive every man who repents; but, my brethren, if you drink coffee or tea, or take tobacco, are you letting a cup of tea or a little tobacco stand in the road and bar you from the celestial kingdom of God, where you might otherwise have received a fulness of glory?” (Doctrines of Salvation 2:16).
Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote,
“Salvation comes by obedience to the whole law of the whole gospel. Joseph Smith said: ‘Any person who is exalted to the highest mansion has to abide a celestial law, and the whole law too.’ (Teachings, p. 331.) Thus, a man may be damned for a single sin” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary 3:256).
Can anyone imagine a Jesus not allowing people to attain a “fullness of glory” because they imbibed in a hot drink? Or a single sin that “damns” a human being? (What kind of God is this, anyway?!) This type of deity is certainly not what is portrayed in the talk given by Wilcox.
In addition, Jesus will not beg people into heaven. In fact, this picture of a pleading Jesus is offensive to anyone who has a proper understanding of salvation as described in the Bible.
The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can go home but that—miraculously—we can feel at home there. If Christ did not require faith and repentance, then there would be no desire to change. Think of your friends and family members who have chosen to live without faith and without repentance. They don’t want to change. They are not trying to abandon sin and become comfortable with God. Rather, they are trying to abandon God and become comfortable with sin. If Jesus did not require covenants and bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost, then there would be no way to change. We would be left forever with only willpower, with no access to His power. If Jesus did not require endurance to the end, then there would be no internalization of those changes over time. They would forever be surface and cosmetic rather than sinking inside us and becoming part of us—part of who we are. Put simply, if Jesus didn’t require practice, then we would never become pianists.
The problem is that it’s impossible to “endure to the end” or do the things that Mormon leaders say must be done. Christians who have faith in Jesus have been totally transformed. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 puts it, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” This work in a person’s life is accomplished before any good works have been performed!
Christ’s Grace Is Sufficient to Help Us
“But Brother Wilcox, don’t you realize how hard it is to practice? I’m just not very good at the piano. I hit a lot of wrong notes. It takes me forever to get it right.” Now wait. Isn’t that all part of the learning process? When a young pianist hits a wrong note, we don’t say he is not worthy to keep practicing. We don’t expect him to be flawless. We just expect him to keep trying. Perfection may be his ultimate goal, but for now we can be content with progress in the right direction. Why is this perspective so easy to see in the context of learning piano but so hard to see in the context of learning heaven?
The student’s original problem was that she wasn’t able to perform the things she needed to do, as she believed she needed to do based on the teachings she learned in church. In her current state, she knew she was not worthy to attain a celestial glory. As we have seen throughout this review, LDS leaders have made it clear that obedience is mandated. If you fail at playing a note, you must do better the next time. Yet, as this woman admitted, she was not getting better at her notes; she was constantly failing. She, not Wilcox, understood just what is at stake in the Mormon offering. No matter how much he tries to simplify and even gloss over what LDS leaders have taught, the evidence says that a Mormon cannot be merely “content with progress in the right direction.” Instead, when failure happens, a correction must take place.
Spencer Kimball explained how “trying is not sufficient. Nor is repentance complete when one merely tries to abandon sin” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 164). He added,
“It is normal for children to try. They fall and get up numerous times before they can be certain of their footing. But adults, who have gone through these learning periods, must determine what they will do, then proceed to do it. To ‘try’ is weak. To ‘do the best I can’ is not strong. We must always do better than we can.”
Too many are giving up on the Church because they are tired of constantly feeling like they are falling short. They have tried in the past, but they always feel like they are just not good enough. They don’t understand grace.
There are young women who know they are daughters of a Heavenly Father who loves them, and they love Him. Then they graduate from high school, and the values they memorized are put to the test. They slip up. They let things go too far, and suddenly they think it is all over. These young women don’t understand grace.
There are young men who grow up their whole lives singing, “I hope they call me on a mission,” and then they do actually grow a foot or two and flake out completely. They get their Eagles, graduate from high school, and go away to college. Then suddenly these young men find out how easy it is to not be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, or reverent. They mess up. They say, “I’ll never do it again,” and then they do it. They say, “I’ll never do it again,” and then they do it. They say, “This is stupid. I will never do it again.” And then they do it. The guilt is almost unbearable. They don’t dare talk to a bishop. Instead, they hide. They say, “I can’t do this Mormon thing. I’ve tried, and the expectations are just way too high.” So they quit. These young men don’t understand grace.
What caused this young student described in the beginning to believe the way she did? Why is it that many Latter-day Saints do not understand “grace”? The blame lies on the doormat of the LDS leadership. Responding to who is giving the LDS the impression that expectations should be high, Bill McKeever explains on our podcast, “It’s the Mormon leaders who are nothing more than the modern-day Pharisees who are putting the burdens upon the people that they are not even living up to.”
I know returned missionaries who come home and slip back into bad habits they thought were over. They break promises made before God, angels, and witnesses, and they are convinced there is no hope for them now. They say, “Well, I’ve blown it. There is no use in even trying any more.” Seriously? These young people have spent entire missions teaching people about Jesus Christ and His Atonement, and now they think there is no hope for them? These returned missionaries don’t understand grace.
Again, where did these missionaries get their perspective? They study their church’s doctrines for up to two years. When Mormonism is looked at closely, there really is little hope in the teachings of this works-based religion.
I know young married couples who find out after the sealing ceremony is over that marriage requires adjustments. The pressures of life mount, and stress starts taking its toll financially, spiritually, and even sexually. Mistakes are made. Walls go up. And pretty soon these husbands and wives are talking with divorce lawyers rather than talking with each other. These couples don’t understand grace.
In all of these cases there should never be just two options: perfection or giving up. When learning the piano, are the only options performing at Carnegie Hall or quitting? No. Growth and development take time. Learning takes time. When we understand grace, we understand that God is long-suffering, that change is a process, and that repentance is a pattern in our lives. When we understand grace, we understand that the blessings of Christ’s Atonement are continuous and His strength is perfect in our weakness (see 2 Corinthians 12:9). When we understand grace, we can, as it says in the Doctrine and Covenants, “continue in patience until [we] are perfected” (D&C 67:13).
Eleventh President Harold B. Lee was quoted in a church manual as saying,
“Any member of the Church who is learning to live perfectly each of the laws that are in the kingdom is learning the way to become perfect. There is no member of this Church who cannot live the law, every law of the gospel perfectly” (The Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, p. 33).
The LDS scripture is not mild when God supposedly says in D&C 58:43 that “by this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.” And D&C 82:7 says that “I, the Lord, will not lay any sin to your charge; go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God.”
So which is it? Will God allow a person who drank coffee, didn’t get married in the temple, and watched sports on the Sabbath to enter the celestial kingdom? Or not?
One young man wrote me the following e-mail: “I know God has all power, and I know He will help me if I’m worthy, but I’m just never worthy enough to ask for His help. I want Christ’s grace, but I always find myself stuck in the same self-defeating and impossible position: no work, no grace.”
I wrote him back and testified with all my heart that Christ is not waiting at the finish line once we have done “all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). He is with us every step of the way.
Elder Bruce C. Hafen has written, “The Savior’s gift of grace to us is not necessarily limited in time to ‘after’ all we can do. We may receive his grace before, during and after the time when we expend our own efforts” (The Broken Heart [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989], 155). So grace is not a booster engine that kicks in once our fuel supply is exhausted. Rather, it is our constant energy source. It is not the light at the end of the tunnel but the light that moves us through the tunnel. Grace is not achieved somewhere down the road. It is received right here and right now. It is not a finishing touch; it is the Finisher’s touch (see Hebrews 12:2).
Notice the phrase “when we expend our own efforts.” This is what caused the young woman and this young man to address Wilcox. According to BYU professor Clyde J. Williams,
“The perfect relationship between the atoning grace of Christ and the obedient efforts of mankind is powerfully stated by Nephi: ‘We know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do’ (2 Nephi 25:23). Furthermore, we are invited to ‘come unto Christ, and be perfected in him.’ When we deny ourselves ‘of all ungodliness,’ then and only ‘then is his grace sufficient’ for us (Moroni 10:32)” (“Plain and Precious Truths Restored, Ensign, October 2006, p. 53).
How did this man get the idea that it is “no work, no grace”? Once more, it comes from the leadership. According to Mormonism, how does a person receive the ability to receive the grace? By keeping the covenants!
In twelve days we celebrate Pioneer Day. The first company of Saints entered the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. Their journey was difficult and challenging; still, they sang:
Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear;
But with joy wend your way.
Though hard to you this journey may appear,
Grace shall be as your day.
[“Come, Come, Ye Saints,” Hymns, 2002, no. 30]
“Grace shall be as your day”—what an interesting phrase. We have all sung it hundreds of times, but have we stopped to consider what it means? “Grace shall be as your day”: grace shall be like a day. As dark as night may become, we can always count on the sun coming up. As dark as our trials, sins, and mistakes may appear, we can always have confidence in the grace of Jesus Christ. Do we earn a sunrise? No. Do we have to be worthy of a chance to begin again? No. We just have to accept these blessings and take advantage of them. As sure as each brand-new day, grace—the enabling power of Jesus Christ—is constant. Faithful pioneers knew they were not alone. The task ahead of them was never as great as the power behind them.
The grace of Christ is sufficient—sufficient to cover our debt, sufficient to transform us, and sufficient to help us as long as that transformation process takes. The Book of Mormon teaches us to rely solely on “the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:8). As we do, we do not discover—as some Christians believe—that Christ requires nothing of us. Rather, we discover the reason He requires so much and the strength to do all He asks (see Philippians 4:13). Grace is not the absence of God’s high expectations. Grace is the presence of God’s power (see Luke 1:37).
The proverbial straw man is trotted out once more, as if Evangelical Christians don’t believe in good works. Of course we do! We just don’t believe good works are required to bring a person into a saving relationship with God.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell once said the following:
Now may I speak . . . to those buffeted by false insecurity, who, though laboring devotedly in the Kingdom, have recurring feelings of falling forever short. . . .
. . . This feeling of inadequacy is . . . normal. There is no way the Church can honestly describe where we must yet go and what we must yet do without creating a sense of immense distance. . . .
. . . This is a gospel of grand expectations, but God’s grace is sufficient for each of us. [CR, October 1976, 14, 16; “Notwithstanding My Weakness,” Ensign, November 1976, 12, 14]
With Elder Maxwell, I testify that God’s grace is sufficient. Jesus’ grace is sufficient. It is enough. It is all we need. Oh, young people, don’t quit. Keep trying. Don’t look for escapes and excuses. Look for the Lord and His perfect strength. Don’t search for someone to blame. Search for someone to help you. Seek Christ, and, as you do, I promise you will feel the enabling power we call His amazing grace. I leave this testimony and all of my love—for I do love you. As God is my witness, I love the youth of this church. I believe in you. I’m pulling for you. And I’m not the only one. Parents are pulling for you, leaders are pulling for you, and prophets are pulling for you. And Jesus is pulling with you. I say this in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Many quotes from authoritative sources have been provided as evidence that Wilcox’s maneuvering of the LDS gospel does not coicinde with current teaching. It might go over well when Mormons take this speech to their Christian friends and insist that Evangelical Christian teaching is not far off from what is taught in Mormonism. But this is simply just not the truth. The word grace, for example, still means something quite different from the way Evangelical Christians understand it.
In conclusion, the Mormon gospel is not synonymous with the gospel as described by the New Testament. While Wilcox doctors up the teaching of Mormonism, attempting to make Mormonism’s grace looke as biblical as possible, the differences still make for a wide divide.