By Eric Johnson
Posted September 2021
A Utah area seventy interviewed two LDS teenagers one day in August 2021 on the issue of LDS repentance. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel spoke at a stake leadership meeting at the Herriman Utah Rose Canyon Stake and told the two students–a male and a female–to be “honest and authentic.” The video published on August 13, 2021 is five minutes long and can be seen here.
The boy (his name did not come out clearly in the video) says that his friends would not like to go to the bishop to repent. “It definitely would be (considered) a negative thing,” he said in a nervous voice.
Jill said, “There are steps to follow to get a certain thing that I want and there’s really not, like, step 1, you talk to God, step 2 you apologize to…” She stopped for a moment, nervously struggling with her words, before adding,
You have to figure it out for yourself how you personally can repent and come to God and ask for change. Part of me feels like I haven’t figured that out yet. Sometimes sacrament meetings can be really hard for me because I feel bad about myself because I feel I’m not doing enough. And it’s not like I’m doing anything bad, but I don’t know, strive for perfectionism.
Holzapfel repeated the word “perfectionism,” which became the theme for the final two minutes of the video. Jill said, “If we could talk about it more, I think that would really help a lot of people,” she said.
It is difficult to listen to Jill and not feel great compassion for her, as this young woman really seems to be trying her best to do all that her religion requires. Even though she says she didn’t feel like a bad person, she did not know how to repent in a way that would leave her feeling good about herself.
Even more painful, though, was Holzapfel’s response. He tells the awkward story of Elizabeth Smart and how she had been kidnapped in 2002 while being raped numerous times by her captor. Although she felt like a “old piece of chewed gum,” he said, “she did not realize that that man could not take her virtue.”
Holzapfel went on to say,
She wasn’t like a piece of wood that the nail was in it, and repentance was to remove the nail but the hole is still there. Some phrases that we’ve used in seminary and young men and young women and Sunday School for decades in this church have hurt the rising generation. We’ve got to get this clear about what repentance is.
He recommended the words of President Russell M. Nelson and recommended a February 2021 Liahona article as well as a book written Apostle Neil Andersen (see the review of this book at The Divine Gift of Forgiveness), though he couldn’t remember the name of Andersen’s book. He then makes this incredible statement: “We should accept the prophetic teachings of today.” In context, he meant that the teachings of deceased leaders should have secondary importance.
He then proceeds to throw Spencer W. Kimball under the proverbial bus. “We don’t want to go back to The Miracle of Forgiveness by President Kimball,” he said. The book he referenced was authored by the then-apostle and is one of the most-read books since it was written in 1969. Holzapfel discounts Kimball’s book by claiming that the 12th president wrote in his personal diary how he wished he could have rewritten his book, even though it took Kimball a decade to write! With gusto, Holzapfel adds, “Let’s drop the dead prophets and embrace the living!”
Should deceased leaders like Kimball be ignored by today’s Mormon?
There are flaws in his rationale. For one, even if Kimball said he regretted that he wanted to fine-tune his book, there is no indication that Kimball was ever in the process of doing so–and he lived more than a decade and a half after the book was published! I have not seen Kimball’s diary entry, but I heard that his main regret is that he may have been “rough” with his words. However, there is no indication he believed he was wrong in the way he interpreted the unique standard works passages on salvation.
This book was recognized as being authoritative by a number of leaders in the LDS community. For instance, sixteenth President Thomas S. Monson wrote the year Kimball passed away:
President Spencer W. Kimball has always been a prolific worker. He spent several summers working on a book which he later entitled The Miracle of Forgiveness. As one reads the book, particularly the first portion, one wonders if anyone will make it to the Celestial Kingdom. However, in reading the final portion, it is apparent that, with effort, all can qualify” (Thomas S. Monson, On the Lord’s Errand: The Memoirs of Thomas S. Monson, 1985, p. 342).
Consider these other leaders who also publicly praised the book:
Apostle Richard L. Evans (the year after its publication): “Many of you would be familiar with President Spencer Kimball’s wonderful work on the miracle of forgiveness. I witness to you that God is a loving Father who will forgive and help us find peace and self-respect as we repent and show our sincerity by the lives we live. And there is nothing he asks of us that we cannot do; there is no requirement we cannot keep-if we are willing, if we want to. Repentance is a miracle, if it is sincere” (Conference Reports, April 1970, p. 16).
Seventy Bruce C. Hafen: “Some of us make repentance too easy, and others make it too hard. Those who make it too easy don’t see any big sins in their lives, or they believe that breezy apologies alone are enough. These people should read President Spencer W. Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness, which reviews many sins of both commission and omission. And while forgiveness is a miracle, it is not won without penitent and strenuous effort” (“Beauty for Ashes: The Atonement of Jesus Christ,” Liahona, April 1997, p. 41).
Apostle Richard G. Scott: “In The Miracle of Forgiveness, Spencer W. Kimball gives a superb guide to forgiveness through repentance. It has helped many find their way back” (“Finding Forgiveness,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 1995, p. 76).
Scott also said the following in the October 2000 General Conference, “I suggest that you read President Spencer W. Kimball’s inspired book The Miracle of Forgiveness. It continues to help the faithful avoid the pitfalls of serious transgression. It likewise is an excellent handbook for those who have committed serious errors and want to find their way back. Read the last two chapters first to appreciate the full miracle of forgiveness before reading anything else” (“The Path to Peace and Joy,” Ensign, November 2000, p. 26).
Apostle Boyd K. Packer was cited in a church manual: “President Kimball himself is an experienced surgeon of sorts. Not a doctor of medicine, but a doctor of spiritual well-being. Many a moral cancer has been excised, many a blemish of character has been removed, many a spiritual illness of one kind or another has been cured through his efforts. Some on the verge of spiritual oblivion have been rescued by him. He has written a book—literally years in preparation—The Miracle of Forgiveness. Many have been protected by the counsel he has written. Countless others have been inspired to set their lives in order and have experienced that miracle” (Ensign, Mar. 1974, 5)” (Presidents of the Church Student Manual Religion 345, 2003, p. 209).
Another manual also says, “If available, hold up a copy of The Miracle of Forgiveness, and tell students that reading it has helped many people feel the merciful forgiveness of the Lord” (Presidents of the Church Teacher Manual Religion 345, 2003, p. 172).
In addition, “President Kimball taught extensively the principle of repentance. His teachings have positively influenced many. Elder Boyd K. Packer recognized this great influence and wrote the following: ‘President Kimball himself is an experienced surgeon of sorts. Not a doctor of medicine, but a doctor of spiritual well-being. Many a moral cancer has been excised, many a blemish of character has been removed, many a spiritual illness of one kind or another has been cured through his efforts. Some on the verge of spiritual oblivion have been rescued by him. He has written a book—literally years in preparation—The Miracle of Forgiveness. Many have been protected by the counsel he has written. Countless others have been inspired to set their lives in order and have experienced that miracle’ (Ensign, Mar. 1974, 5)” (Presidents of the Church Student Manual Religion 345, 2003, p. 209).
Ezra Taft Benson became the 13th president when Kimball passed away. He too was a fan of the book:
In clearing our channels and keeping them clear, we would admonish all of you to read and reread President Spencer W. Kimball’s book The Miracle of Forgiveness. The sooner you can read it, the greater blessing it will be for you (Sermons and Writings of President Ezra Taft Benson, p. 250).
Repentance was the cry of our late and great prophet, Spencer W. Kimball. This theme permeated his talks and the pages of his writings, such as his marvelous book The Miracle of Forgiveness. And it must be our cry today, both to member and to nonmember alike—repent (Sermons and Writings of President Ezra Taft Benson, p. 281).
The year before he died, the church produced a pamphlet titled Repentance Brings Forgiveness. This short piece includes concepts from his book. For example, Kimball cites D&C 58:43 (“And the Lord said: ‘By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins–behold he will . . . forsake them”–ellipsis in original) and writes, “It is best when one stops sinning because he becomes aware of the seriousness of his sin . . . The forsaking of sin much be a permanent one. True repentance does not permit making the same mistake again.” He then quotes the very difficult D&C 82:7: “The Lord said: ‘Go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return.”
During the Christmas season in 1998, the LDS Church decided to give a leather-bound copy of the book to church employees–it was never for sale, although a person could buy a copy on the second-hand market today. (Giving away an authoritative book–including Talmage’s Jesus the Christ and Articles of Faith, a two-volume set Discourses of Gordon B. Hinkley, and others–was a tradition for more than three decades), A 4×5 card was included with the book, which read in part: “President Kimball’s enlightening teachings on the Atonement of Jesus Christ are a precious treasure for all who would follow the Savior” and was signed “Sincerely your brethren, The First Presidency.”
This is thirteen years after Kimball died. Why would the First Presidency–President Gordon B. Hinckley along with the future president Thomas S. Monson and Henry B. Eyring– produce an expensive leather-bound edition of a book that, as stated by Holzapfel, is somehow giving a false impression about how a person can successfully repent? If such a book were leading the people astray, it is doubtful they would have produced such a beautiful volume!
But that’s not all. In 2006, the church printed a church manual titled Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball that was utilized in adult Sunday School classes in 2007 and cites The Miracle of Forgiveness 22 times in chapter 4 alone (titled, appropriately, “The Miracle of Forgiveness)” In the church manual’s end notes, the book is quoted 69 times, an incredible 12 percent of all the citations. Yet this official publication was printed during the lifetime of the two LDS teens that Holzapfel interviewed in August 2021! Let that sink in.
The preface to the church manual Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball reads:
In addition to numerous addresses, he [Kimball] authored the book The Miracle of Forgiveness. This book arose from Elder Kimball’s long experience as an Apostle, counseling those who had yielded to serious transgression. In the book he outlined the Lord’s expectations of us, our divine potential, and the pathway we must follow to repent and obtain the assurance of complete divine forgiveness. (xxiv)
Holzapfel conveniently waves away The Miracle of Forgiveness, but unfortunately for his poorly supported case, this won’t go away as easily as he wishes.
A Living Prophet Trumps a Dead Prophet?
A Mormon can argue that dead prophets are not as relevant as living leaders, but this makes no sense. This idea cannot be found in the Bible. For instance, did Micah write that his words ought to be accepted over, say, Isaiah? After all, Isaiah was dead before Micah was on the scene. In fact, the prophets in the Old Testament were on the same page no matter when they lived as they taught the same doctrines centuries apart from each other. Jesus cited “dead prophets” regularly and never minimized what they had written. And the apostle John was never considered more “relevant” in the New Testament because he outlived Peter, James, and John. No Christian has ever accepted John’s gospel as more authoritative merely because he outlived the other writers!
It is true that 13th president Ezra Taft Benson did give a talk called the “14 Fundamentals in Following the Prophet.” (Go here to read more.) This seems to be where Holzapfel is getting the idea that living leaders are more trustworthy than the old. But Benson is no longer living. Why should his words be trusted, then? The knife cuts both ways.
Or let’s consider the teachings of Joseph Smith. I would love to see any leader get up at a general conference and disparage Smith as Holzapfel did Spencer W. Kimball! Let’s see how quickly the power to the mike is cut while the blasphemer is escorted off stage.
Somehow, Holzapfel wanted his audience to believe that Mormonism is a kinder, gentler religion than even five decades ago. While Andersen may have written his book (referenced earlier) in a more gentle spirit, he said absolutely nothing different than what Kimball said decades before. Read the lengthy review linked above and you will see for yourself.
At the end of the clip, Holzapfel said that “the number-one problem we have is perfectionism,” especially with young women. He concludes by saying, “It’s things we say, ‘do your best.’ What’s the best? I can never do my best. We have to look at our language. . .”
Of course, Kimball talked about this aspect, saying on pages 164-165, “Trying is not sufficient. Nor is repentance complete when one merely tries to abandon sin. . . . To ‘try’ is weak. To ‘do the best I can’ is not strong. We must always do better than we can. This is true in every walk of life.” Instead of trying or doing one’s best, then, Kimball taught that this life is the time for men to perfect themselves. On pages 208-209, Kimball wrote,
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. 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.) 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.
“Perfection,” he added on page 210, “really comes through overcoming” and “only as we overcome shall we become perfect and move toward godhood. As I have indicated previously, the time to do this is now, in mortality. The individual must act on his own accord and attain this state:
The Spirit is powerless to compel a man to move. The man himself must take the initiative. He must himself desire to repent and take the specific steps. . . . Without such effort repentance too is incomplete. And incomplete repentance never brought complete forgiveness. (p. 212)
According to this argumentation, some may argue that achieving this is impossible, a lofty ideal only available to the untouchable saints. Kimball disagree in a section he titled “It can be done,” as he likened those who can obtain forgiveness as “supermen” on page 286:
“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.” (Also quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, 96.)
But such a teaching is not unique to Kimball. Both members of the current First Presidency have also taught such a concept. For instance, Henry B. Eyring explained:
In the premortal realm, spirit sons and daughters knew and worshiped God as their Eternal Father and accepted His plan by which His children could obtain a physical body and gain earthly experience to progress toward perfection and ultimately realize his or her divine destiny as an heir of eternal life (Eternal Marriage Student Manual, p. 105).
The other member of the First Presidency, Dallin H. Oaks, said this to a general conference audience in 2013:
As part of His great Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48). The purpose of this teaching and the purpose of following our Savior is to come to the Father, whom our Savior referred to as ‘my Father, and your Father, and …my God, and your God” (John 20:17). From modern revelation, unique to the restored gospel, we know that the commandment to seek perfection is part of God the Father’s plan for the salvation of His children (“Followers of Christ,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2013, p. 98. Ellipsis in original).
To prove the point with a Latter-day Saint, ask this question: If you were to die right now, would you be in celestial glory? You will hear a lot of responses like “I hope so,” “I’m trying,” and “we will find out in the end.” But very rarely does a Mormon know if he or she has done enough to attain the celestial kingdom. Why is that? It’s because, down deep, every Mormon (including these teens) understands that eliminating all sin in this life is what God expects. It is why so many Mormons maintain a perfectionistic mindset, admitted to by the area seventy. If a Mormon does know know that past, present, and future sins are forgiven, then 1 John 5:13 apparently is not believed. It reads, “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.” Notice, it’s not “hope” or “think” but “know that ye have eternal life.” It is how a Bible-believing Christian can have a peace that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:6). Mormonism can never offer such assurance to its followers because the Latter-day Saint can never know if enough has been done. However, Jesus is enough!
This local LDS leader used the stories of these two teenagers from Herriman, Utah to bash all deceased leaders who have ever held an office in the LDS Church. This is a serious charge. And, because he disagrees, he calls the twelfth LDS president to the carpet. Yet all Kimball ever did was exegete the unique Standard Works passages in what appears to be an accurate manner–or go back to his sources and correct his interpretation.
What was Kimball’s conclusion? The titles to the chapters of Kimball’s book speak volumes:
Chapter 1: This Life is the Time (D&C 132:7; Alma 34:32)
Chapter 2: No Unclean Thing Can Enter (Moses 6:57)
Chapter 10: Repent or Perish (Luke 13:3)
Chapter 12: Abandonment of Sin (D&C 58:43)
Chapter 15: Keeping God’s Commandments Brings Forgiveness (D&C 1:32, D&C 59:21)
The two teens had difficulty understanding how it is possible to successfully repent according to the system of Mormonism. Despite their stated desire to want to learn to successfully repent (read it as, “Is there any possible way to repent and then not sin that sin again while keeping all the commandments?”), I think they do understand the teachings of their unique scriptures and leaders. In fact, it appears they understand better than their area seventy does. While Holzapfel hem hawed around, he places himself in a no-win situation. He can either reject Kimball as well as all other dead Mormon leaders leaders OR he can understand why so many followers of this religion are severely depressed knowing they can never successfully repent. Holzapfel chooses the former possibility and insinuates that many Mormons must not understand current Mormonism.
I invite the LDS general authorities to ask Mr. Holzapfel to speak at the next general conference and present these views. It will certainly provide a spark to what are normally dull presentations.
To see more on The Miracle of Forgiveness, visit TheMiracleOfForgiveness.com