By Eric Johnson
This is one of a series of reviews from a Christian perspective on the weekly lessons found in the Come, Follow Me (New Testament, 2023) for Individuals and Families published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To find the index of these reviews, visit here.
Bold face type in this article comes from the Church’s curriculum. (Note: Not every sentence is being reviewed.)
Normally we cover more than just one part of a lesson in the Come, Follow Me series. However, the following section grabbed my attention and so I have decided to spend this week’s lesson providing a longer review on one particular verse, Matthew 5:48.
February 13-19, 2023
Matthew 5; Luke 6
Does Heavenly Father really expect me to be perfect?
President Russell M. Nelson taught:
“The term perfect was translated from the Greek teleios, which means ‘complete.’ … The infinitive form of the verb is teleiono, which means ‘to reach a distant end, to be fully developed, to consummate, or to finish.’ Please note that the word does not imply ‘freedom from error’; it implies ‘achieving a distant objective.’ …
“… The Lord taught, ‘Ye are not able to abide the presence of God now … ; wherefore, continue in patience until ye are perfected’ [Doctrine and Covenants 67:13].
“We need not be dismayed if our earnest efforts toward perfection now seem so arduous and endless. Perfection is pending. It can come in full only after the Resurrection and only through the Lord. It awaits all who love him and keep his commandments” (“Perfection Pending,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 86, 88).
First, it should be pointed out that Matthew 5:48 has been cited many times over the years on a variety of occasions to me by well-meaning Latter-day Saints. A common conversation will go something like this:
Me: “The Bible teaches that we are saved by grace through faith. It is not based on our works, but based on the gift of God that allows us to be justified before God.”
LDS: “Don’t you believe in James 2:20? After all, it says that faith without works is dead. Don’t you believe in good works.”
Me: “Yes, of course I do, but the work of God is not accomplished through what we do but on what Christ did. And what we do (good works) is a result of who we are (i.e., new creations in Christ, 2 Cor. 5:21). I agree with both James and Paul, because in Ephesians 2:10 (right after the verses cited above), it says that we are God’s workmanship and we were created to do good works. Our works are what we do as a result of receiving justification by faith alone.”
LDS: “So what do you do with Mathew 5:48? It says that we must be perfect just as God is perfect?”
Stop the tape! Do you see what happened? I tried to explain that justification (salvation) only comes through grace and is not the result of our good works. The Latter-day Saint stopped me in order to trot out the James 2 and Matthew 5 cards. If good works are not necessary in the Christian’s life (for the record, I never did say that), then why do these verses teach what they do?
Yet here in Come, Follow Me–a manual many thousands of Latter-day Saints are studying this year–the reader is told that “perfection is pending” and it’s is insinuated that this is not something that should be expected to be accomplished until after this life. Such a teaching does not only contradict LDS scripture but so many other general authorities as well.
As far as LDS scripture is concerned, D&C 1:31-32 seem to be straightforward for what is required to enter God’s presence:
31 For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance; 32 Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven;
If God “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance,” then what must a person do to get forgiveness of sins? We are given the answer in verse 32, which says a person must a) repent; b) keep God’s commandments. The question is, what does it mean to repent? LDS scripture lays it out clearly in D&C 58:42-43:
42 Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more. 43 By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.
What happens if you repeat the sin? D&C 82:7 explains the consequences:
7 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.
It sounds pretty dire to have one’s “former sins return” if the same sin is committed. So what, then, is the solution?
What have LDS Church leaders taught about Matthew 5:48.? Actually, they generally have been quite consistent. Let’s consider what they have said.
12th President Spencer W. Kimball
Spencer W. Kimball did not mince words when it came to Matthew 5:48. He explained:
“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. In his Sermon on the Mount he made the command to all men: ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ (Matt. 5:48.).”The Miracle of Forgiveness, 208-209
Kimball then went on to teach how a person could live up to Matthew 5:48:
“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.”
To reiterate, Kimball claimed that the way to become perfect is “to triumph over sin.” He taught that God doesn’t require anything that is beyond what a person can possibly do. He’s correct in his assessment according to traditional LDS teaching. Listen to how he explained Matthew 5:48 on page 286 of The Miracle of Forgiveness:
“In the context of the spirit of forgiveness, one good brother asked me, ‘Yes, that is what ought to be done, but how do you do it? Doesn’t that take a superman?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but we are commanded to be supermen. Said the Lord, ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ (Matt. 5:48.) We are gods in embryo, and the Lord demands perfection of us’”
Kimball was clear about what was required to take place in a person’s life during this lifetime. He cited Alma 34:32 on page 1 –the title of the chapter is “This Life is the Time.” It says, “For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.”
In a section titled “Repent in Mortality,” Kimball taught on pages 313-314:
“I have referred previously to the significance of this life in the application of repentance but will emphasize it here in relation to the eventual judgment. One cannot delay repentance until the next life, the spirit world, and there prepare properly for the day of judgment while the ordinance work is done for him vicariously on earth. It must be remembered that vicarious work for the dead is for those who could not do the work for themselves. Men and women who live in mortality and who have heard the gospel here have had their day, their seventy years to put their lives in harmony, to perform the ordinances, to repent and to perfect their lives.”
On page 321, Kimball said that the work needed to be done before the “judgment arrives”:
Fortunately, we have time to pay off our debts before that awesome day of judgment arrives. By repenting now, in this life, and living a life of righteousness thereafter, we can appear before God clean and holy.
There is no doubt that Kimball supported his view very well with the unique standard works of the church. The question then becomes, is he (and the LDS scriptures) telling the truth? Or should he be considered a false prophet?
What Have Other LDS leaders taught?
Other leaders have echoed the words of Kimball. For instance, George Q. Cannon–a member of the First Presidency–taught the following on October 8, 1874:
“Be perfect here? Yes, it is man’s privilege, the Latter-day Saints believe, to be as perfect in his sphere as God our eternal Father is in his sphere, or as Jesus in his sphere, or as the angels in their spheres. Said Jesus to his disciples —‘Be ye perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect.’ Perfection, then, is to a certain extent possible on earth for those who will live, lives that are agreeable to the mind and will of God.”Journal of Discourses 17:231
Apostle James E. Talmage told a general conference audience:
“We believe in the more than imperial status of the human race. We believe that our spirits are the offspring of Deity, and we hold that when Christ said to His apostles, ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,’ He was not talking of a merely idealistic yet impossible achievement; but that on the contrary He meant that it was possible for men to advance until they shall become like unto the Gods in their powers and in their attainments, through righteousness.”Conference Reports, April 1915, 123.
Saying it is “very difficult” but not impossible, one LDS Church manual lays out the course for what must take place to obey Matthew 5:48:
“Jesus said, ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48). 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, 2000, 122
First Nephi 3:7 in the Book of Mormon teaches that keeping God’s commandments are do-able based on one’s desire. It reads,
“. . . for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.”
If it is possible to keep God’s commandments, then the question for a Latter-day Saint is, how are you doing at that? Consider the teaching of fifth President Lorenzo Snow:
“The Lord will not require the impossible. The Lord never has, nor will he require things of his children which it is impossible for them to perform. (Deseret News, June 4, 1879, 274.)”The Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, 46. Bold in original
He also said,
“It is our duty to be perfect. It certainly is possible to advance ourselves toward the perfections of the Almighty to a very considerable extent, to say the least. In fact, we are commanded to be perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect. . . . We ought to improve ourselves and move faster toward the point of perfection. It is said we cannot be perfect. Jesus has commanded us to be perfect even as God, the Father, is perfect. It is our duty to try to be perfect, and it is our duty to improve each day, and look upon our course last week and do things better this week; do things better today than we did them yesterday, and go on and on from one degree of righteousness to another. (In Conference Report, Apr. 1898, 13.)”The Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, 48. Ellipsis mine.
Eleventh President Harold B. Lee taught:
“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.”Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, 2000, 33.
Sixteenth President Thomas S. Monson talked much on this subject. In 1967, he said,
“‘Be ye therefore perfect’ counseled the only perfect man. Such perfection is not achieved simply by wishing or hoping for it to come. It is approached as we establish specific goals in our lives and strive for their successful accomplishments.”“Constant Truths in Changing Times,” BYU commencement, May 26, 1967. Cited in Teachings of Thomas S. Monson, 124.
In a general conference talk, Monson explained:
“God our Father, and Jesus Christ, our Lord, have marked the way to perfection. They beckon us to follow eternal verities and to become perfect, as they are perfect (see Matthew 5:48; 3 Nephi 12:48).”“An Invitation to Exaltation,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 1988, 54.
Later in that talk, Monson explained the way to the celestial kingdom:
It is the celestial glory which we seek. It is in the presence of God we desire to dwell. It is a forever family in which we want membership. Such blessings must be earned.
Over and over again, leaders have indeed taught that keeping all of God’s commandments are necessary for a person to be qualified to reach the celestial kingdom. In recent years, leaders appear to hedge their bets and have backed off from using Matthew 5:48 as a requirement to having to keep them all. It appears it has become, “as long as you are trying and doing your best, that’s all you need to do.” Or, as long as you are a little bit better today than yesterday.
It is possible to prove that Latter-day Saints have no assurance that they are headed in the right direction. Ask, “If you were to die today, would you end up in the celestial kingdom?” The reaction is normally a “deer-in-the-headlights look” Often, there is hesitation before excuses are made (“I’m trying,” “I’m doing my best,” or even, “Nobody’s perfect”). On the last response, what is most interesting is I don’t bring up the word “perfect,” they do! How did they ever come to such a conclusion?
If the church is going to teach that perfection could be “pending” until after this life, there are two things the leaders need to do:
1) Explain the verses that have been consistently used to teach how these commandments (all of them) must be kept continually;
2) Deny the teachings previously given by other general authorities, some of whom are mentioned above, especially those given by Spencer W. Kimball.
Until these things are done, I will believe that the teachings that appear to minimize perfection are more for show than conviction.
For another look at this topic, click here.