By Anthony Sweat
Reviewed by Sharon Lindbloom
In 2009, author and religious educator Anthony Sweat conducted an informal study of LDS teenagers. He asked 701 Mormon kids which kingdom of glory they thought they would end up in if they were to die and be judged that very day. Mr. Sweat was dismayed to find that almost half of the active LDS youth who participated in the study believed they were not good enough to go to the celestial kingdom (the highest of the three Mormon heavens). Believing that this dismal view of their eternal future stemmed from a misunderstanding of “what is really required of those who will inherit the celestial kingdom” (viii), with this book Mr. Sweat sets out to “clarify some of these doctrinal misunderstandings and to provide hope” (viii-ix).
I’m Not Perfect is written in an engaging style that is sure to appeal to teenagers. The setting is an ongoing conversation between eight LDS students and their gospel teacher. Each fictional student has a unique profile helpfully provided at the front of the book. Coming from varied backgrounds and levels of spiritual maturity, the students offer interesting (and sometimes funny) questions and insights as the lessons progress. Their teacher, in turn, offers encouragement and clarification on important Mormon teachings.
Mormon teens might be comforted and encouraged by what they read in this book, but only if they don’t think it all through. Like other volumes published by Deseret Book that are meant to offer hope and assurance to those struggling to shoulder the burden Mormonism places upon its members (e.g., Robert Millet, Within Reach, 1995; Alonzo L. Gaskill, Odds Are, You’re Going to Be Exalted, 2008), I’m Not Perfect does not really accomplish its goal; for in the end, Mormonism remains devoid of true grace and therefore devoid of eternal hope.
To begin, Mr. Sweat offers his readers assurances. These include:
- Though perfection (i.e., completeness) is required in order to achieve the celestial kingdom, it is not something one must accomplish on one’s own. “Jesus is the one who will perfect us” (15).
- God will save everyone in one degree of heaven or another. “All of God’s children…will receive a kingdom of glory — a kingdom of heaven” (25).
- Being saved in the celestial kingdom requires only faith, repentance, LDS baptism, reception of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands, and holding on to that faith throughout life (53-54, 56).
- Though perfection (i.e., sinlessness) is required in order to achieve the celestial kingdom, “WE don’t need to be perfect…because Jesus was perfect for us” (60).
- Salvation in the celestial kingdom is realized by grace. Citing Ephesians 2:8-9: “Paul is saying that one of the greatest gifts God has given the world is the saving grace of Jesus Christ” (78).
So far so good for the readers of I’m Not Perfect. But we’re only a little more than halfway through the book.
After dispensing such hopeful ideas about achieving the celestial kingdom, Mr. Sweat provides his readers with the classic LDS definition of grace. This somewhat diminishes his previous assurances. “Your best efforts plus Jesus’ perfect Atonement equals a perfectly purified celestial person…This is what ‘grace’ is…an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts” (78-79).
At this point in the book one fictional student remarks that she likes this definition, suggesting that God’s grace is “like an extra boost beyond what I can do on my own” (79). This dovetails well with the teacher’s subsequent quote of 2 Nephi 25:23 from the Book of Mormon: “For we know it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” The teacher summarizes, “…none of us can save ourselves, and grace requires our best efforts to qualify for it.”
Here is the heart of the teaching of the book: “Christ will save us if we come unto Him,” but “He does it only for people who qualify for His grace” (83). Is this good news for Mormon teens?
It has long been taught that gaining Mormon salvation requires “grace plus works” (see Encyclopedia of Mormonism 2:560). The prevailing belief is that grace provides for the resurrection of all men while individual works provide for eternal life or salvation. Twelfth LDS prophet Spencer W. Kimball expressed it this way: “Immortality has been accomplished by the Savior’s sacrifice. Eternal life hangs in the balance awaiting the works of men” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, 208).
The requirement to merit salvation “by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel” (Articles of Faith #4) is a heavy load for Mormons to carry and, in fact, is the reason for books like I’m Not Perfect. Can I Still Go to Heaven? Many Mormons recognize the futility of continually failing in their efforts to be perfectly obedient and successful at keeping the covenants they have made with God; they sink into despair. So as Mr. Sweat seeks to offer encouragement and hope, he obscures the LDS tenet that Mormons must “earn” their way into heaven. “Some of us might mistakenly think that our works, not Jesus’ works, will save us,” he writes (89). But the careful reader will note that all Mr. Sweat really does in his book is re-spin standard Mormon doctrine and re-position the point of the required self-qualification: “We can’t qualify ourselves for salvation–we can only qualify ourselves for Christ’s grace, and then Christ will bring us to the celestial kingdom through His grace” (90).
Mr. Sweat is pleased to repeat this theme time and again to the end of the book.
- “Our good works don’t perfect us; but they do qualify us for Christ’s perfecting Atonement” (91).
- “…what our good works do is qualify us to make covenants with Christ…If we can qualify ourselves to make covenants with God, and if we are true to those covenants, then Christ will perfect us” (91).
- “…our lives should be a continual cycle of qualifying for, making, and keeping sacred covenants…thus assuring ourselves that we will be perfected in Him and qualify for the celestial kingdom…It is the key to qualifying for, making, and keeping the covenants that allows Jesus to save us in the celestial kingdom” (103).
- “…we don’t have to qualify ourselves for the celestial kingdom, but instead qualify ourselves for Christ, and He will bring us into the celestial kingdom” (135).
The remainder of I’m Not Perfect discusses the “righteous cycle” lifestyle Mormons must live; a “process we should go through each week in preparation for the sacrament” (112) which results in the person’s purification and sanctification. “This spotless and perfected state,” an LDS apostle is quoted as saying, “will result from a steady succession of covenants, ordinances, and actions” (113). This leads one fictional student in the book to share her hopeful testimony: “I know that if I can just stay actively engaged and keep making and keeping sacred covenants, that I can be saved in the celestial kingdom” (133).
So in the end the Mormon teens are right back where they started. If readers are paying attention, they learn that salvation in the celestial kingdom is only available to those who obey the commandments and keep their covenants. Mr. Sweat tries to soften these requirements by sometimes suggesting they rest on the intent of the person (“being willing to keep the commandments,” 51, 53) rather than the actual obedience of the person (“by keeping the commandments,” 51, 58), but he cannot and does not finally escape the merit-based system of Mormon salvation. If young readers do not recognize the awful truth of Mormonism’s salvific hopelessness in this book, they will come face to face with it later as they read the Mormon scriptures or listen to the LDS prophets, seers and revelators in General Conference; for this is the warp and woof of the LDS religion.
Marion G. Romney, a member of the LDS First Presidency, spoke plainly about works-based salvation when he said:
“Let us work for what we need. Let us be self-reliant and independent. Salvation can be obtained on no other principle. Salvation is an individual matter, and we must work out our own salvation, in temporal as well as in spiritual things. Paul’s statement, ‘By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast’ (Eph. 2:8-9), has been misunderstood. Some have interpreted it to mean that works are not necessary. This is an erroneous conclusion. The truth is that we are saved by grace only after all we ourselves can do. (See 2 Ne. 25:23.) There will be no government dole which can get us through the pearly gates. Nor will anybody go into the celestial kingdom who wants to go there on the works of someone else. Every man must go through on his own merits” (Marion G. Romney, “In Mine Own Way,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 1976, pp. 124-125).
If Mr. Romney, speaking in his official capacity as general authority of the LDS Church, meant what he said, Mormons cannot go to the celestial kingdom on the merits of Christ (as Mr. Sweat suggests to his readers). They must earn their own way.
Anthony Sweat probably means well in his attempt to make the celestial kingdom seem achievable to young Latter-day Saints, but all the book does is give them a tenuous and false hope in an impossible religious system. It sets them up for a lifetime of working to “qualify” for something God longs to freely give them if they but recognize themselves to be wholly undeserving of His favor.
The real-life LDS teens initially surveyed by Mr. Sweat knew that they were in spiritual trouble because, just as the Bible says, no one is truly righteous; no one is good enough. I’m Not Perfect downplays the needy depravity of man and undermines that fearsome, divinely given knowledge of the awesome holiness of God. Turning attention away from the truth that God sees the righteous deeds of natural man as nothing but filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), Anthony Sweat’s book deludes readers into believing that their corrupt righteousness, with a little “extra boost,” is beautiful enough to adorn the kingdom of heaven.