Note: The following was originally printed in the January/February 2017 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
By Eric Johnson
The title for this article is the actual title for Seventy J. Devn Cornish’s October 2016 General Conference talk, which is found on pages 32-34 in the November 2016 Ensign magazine. His subtitle is even more telling: “If you will really try and will not rationalize or rebel—repenting often and pleading for grace—you positively are going to be ‘good enough.’” The unbiblical notion of being “good enough” goes against the very fiber of the gospel message.
Cornish, who was a doctor before becoming a general authority, is not a biblical theologian. With the exception of utilizing John 3:16 in a generic fashion, Cornish doesn’t reference the Bible, instead building his case on several Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants passages along with quotes from three general authorities. Instead of clarifying Mormonism, however, his talk will only confuse Latter-day Saints into falsely thinking that Mormon doctrine is in line with the biblical teaching of grace and faith.
At the April 2016 general conference, Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland conveyed a similar though confusing message. His memorable line in that talk—which Mormons have used on me in several conversations this past year—was this: “With the gift of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the strength of heaven to help us, we can improve, and the great thing about the gospel is we get credit for trying, even if we don’t always succeed.” (For MRM’s response on this talk, go here.)
Cornish admits that many Latter-day Saints are troubled by not successfully keeping commandments, even though they promise to do so each week at sacrament. He said, “As with my own experience, our members often ask, ‘Am I good enough as a person’ or ‘Will I really make it to the celestial kingdom?’… None of us could ever ‘earn’ or ‘deserve’ our salvation, but it is normal to wonder if we are acceptable before the Lord. . .” To answer the questions raised in his title, he explained, “‘Yes! You are going to be good enough’ and ‘Yes, you are going to make it as long as you keep repenting and do not rationalize or rebel.” Although he references “grace” more than once, notice the conditional words “as long as you keep…”
To support his case, Cornish cites fifteenth President Gordon B. Hinckley who said, “Brothers and sisters, all the Lord expects of us is to try, but you have to really try!” He said that “really trying” “means doing the best we can, recognizing where we need to improve, and then trying again. By repeatedly doing this, we come closer and closer to the Lord, we feel His Spirit more and more, and we receive more of His grace, or help.” Quoting from the LDS Bible Dictionary, Cornish says grace is nothing more than an “enabling power” providing “strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to [do].” This is much different than how Paul describes grace in Ephesians 2:8-9, as he says this (and this alone) is what allows a person to be justified, or made right with God—it is “not by works”!
In the middle of his talk, Cornish said, “The great news is that if we have sincerely repented, our former sins will not keep us from being exalted.” He quoted from D&C 1:31, which says, “For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.” To give the whole meaning, he should have included the next verse, which says, “Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven.” In other words, forgiveness is not available unless repentance is followed by successful abandonment of the sin.
Instead of clarifying the issue, Cornish only confuses it! If nothing else, his teaching contradicts many other LDS leaders, including twelfth President Spencer W. Kimball who said, “Trying Is Not Sufficient. Nor is repentance complete when one merely tries to abandon sin” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 164). Kimball also taught, “To ‘try’ is weak. To ‘do the best I can’ is not strong. We must always do better than we can” (Ibid., p. 165, italics in original).
In addition, church manuals don’t support Cornish’s take on this issue. For example,
- “10. We repent by no longer sinning” (Uniform System for Teaching Investigators, 1961, p. 55).
- “How can repentance help us progress? (When we repent, we abandon our sins, which keep us from improving and progressing.)” (Preparing for Exaltation Teacher’s Manual, 1998, p. 124).
- “Our Father in heaven does not sin, and He does not allow people who sin to live with Him. To live with Him, we must repent of our sins. To repent means to feel sorry for our sins and stop doing them” (Gospel Fundamentals, 2002, p. 67).
- “Put up the wordstrip, ‘Abandon our sins.’ Ask the young men what it means to abandon our sins. Help the young men understand that a truly repentant person will not repeat his sin” (Aaronic Priesthood Manual 1, 2002, p. 83).
Cornish’s teaching also contradicts Mormonism’s standard works. For example, D&C 58:42-43 says, “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more. By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.” Several church manuals cite this passage and explain what this means in real life:
- “Repentance, however, requires that we forsake and turn completely from our sins and confess them” (Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual Religion 324 and 325, 2001, p. 120).
- “Our sincere sorrow should lead us to forsake (stop) our sins.” (Gospel Principles, 2009, p. 110. Parentheses in original).
Instead of merely “trying,” in a Mormon context, it appears that true repentance involves a complete forsaking of sin. Cornish doesn’t include D&C 82:7 in his talk, which says, “And now, verily I say unto you, 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.” Commenting on this verse, a church tract states, “The forsaking of sin must be a permanent one. True repentance does not permit making the same mistake again…” (Repentance Brings Forgiveness, an unnumbered tract).
Cornish—a respected general authority who delivered his message at an official general conference—concludes his talk this way: “I witness to you that if you will really try and will not rationalize or rebel—repenting often and pleading for the grace, or help, of Christ—you positively are going to be ‘good enough,’ that is, acceptable before the Lord; you are going to make it to the celestial kingdom, being perfect in Christ; and you are going to receive the blessings and glory and joy that God desires for each of His precious children—including specifically you and me.”
To promise the “celestial kingdom”—Mormonism’s highest kingdom of glory—to those who try to be “good enough” while failing is not in line with D&C 88:22, which says, “For he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory.” Apostle Orson Whitney explained: “And what is celestial law? It does not mean any one thing; it means all things. It is the fullness of obedience: it is living by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. If today, you are keeping those commandments that are now in force, you are living a celestial law, and your chances are good for celestial glory” (Orson F. Whitney, Conference Reports, October 1910, p. 53. Italics in original).
Is an all-holy God somehow pleased with the efforts of the Mormon people, despite the fact that they continually fail to do what they promise (i.e., keep commandments)? Yet this is how many Mormons are apparently interpreting leaders such as Holland and Cornish. They are being led to believe that that the demands of justice can be satisfied through failure in keeping commandments as long as their efforts are sincere.
Perhaps there will be Latter-day Saints who will want to put on this attitude at their next temple recommend interviews with an ecclesiastical leader. For instance, when a layperson is asked if the law of tithing is being kept, perhaps the reply could be, “Dog gone it, Bishop, but no, not exactly. But that’s OK, right, because ‘none of us could ever ‘earn’ or ‘deserve’ our salvation.’ ‘I keep repenting and do not rationalize or rebel,’ and ‘I’m ‘really trying,’ which means I’m ‘doing the best I can.’ Through all of this, I’m coming ‘closer to the Lord’ and therefore will ‘receive more of His grace.’ Since I’m doing my best, I deserve to get/keep my temple recommend, right?” (The quotations inside this paragraph were given in Cornish’s talk!)
Perhaps the “best” this person could do was “tithe” one percent of the gross income, with the promise that a two percent “tithe” could come as early as a couple of years. Is the bishop really able to judge a person’s motives or intent? Yet what is the bishop’s almost certain verdict in this scenario? No matter how much effort is given, not coming close to the ten percent tithe will be insufficient to get the recommend. If this is truly the case, it appears there is more leeway in qualifying for the celestial kingdom than there is becoming eligible to enter an LDS temple. How confusing will this be for the faithful Latter-day Saint?