Chapter 18: Living by Every Word that Proceeds from the Mouth of God
Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, (2013), 228–39
During 2014, LDS members will be studying the latest manual published by their church, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith. We will evaluate this book regularly, chapter by chapter, by showing interesting quotes and providing an Evangelical Christian take on this manual. The text that is underlined is from the manual, with our comments following.
“The supreme act of worship is to keep the commandments, to follow in the footsteps of the Son of God, to do ever those things that please him.”
From the Life of Joseph Fielding Smith
“I am seeking after my salvation,” President Joseph Fielding Smith declared, “and I know that I can find it only in obedience to the laws of the Lord in keeping the commandments, in performing works of righteousness, following in the footsteps of our file leader, Jesus, the exemplar and the head of all.”
Commandment-keeping is crucial in Mormonism. Without doing everything Mormonism says a person must do (i.e. repent, be baptised, get married in the temple, keep commandments, etc.), it is impossible to have any assurance of salvation.
One’s efforts are required if there is to be any hope to attain godhood in the celestial kingdom. Doctrine and Covenants 25:15 says, “Keep my commandments continually, and a crown of righteousness thou shalt receive. And except thou do this, where I am you cannot come.” As Henry B. Eyring, a member of the First Presidency, put it,
“To receive the gift of living with Him forever in families in the celestial kingdom, we must be able to live the laws of that kingdom (see D&C 88:22). He has given us commandments in this life to help us develop that capacity.” (Ensign (June 2011): 4.)
Over and over again, LDS Church leaders have stated that, by itself, God’s grace—though vital for the “atonement—cannot fully “save” people from their sins. An unattributed article in the Ensign magazine stated,
“What do Latter-day Saints believe about grace? We believe that God’s grace is what ultimately saves us; yet it does not save us without our doing all that we can to live God’s commandments and follow Jesus Christ’s teachings. We do not believe salvation comes by simply confessing belief in Christ as our Savior. Faith, works, ordinances, and grace are all necessary.” (Ensign (March 2013): 21.)
There are implications in making covenants with God. In a straightforward address given in the Ensign magazine titled “Understanding our Covenants with God,” the leaders stated:
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. (Ensign (July 2012): 22.)
Who can do it? As I will attempt to show in this review, the answer is “no one” except Jesus Himself.
In addition to seeking his own salvation, President Smith worked diligently to help others do the same. Elder Francis M. Gibbons, who served as a secretary to the First Presidency, observed that President Smith “saw it as his duty to raise a warning voice when the people began to drift away from the path marked by the scriptures. And he had no intention to abandon that duty, regardless of what anyone said. That speaking out made him unpopular in some circles seems not to have had any deterring effect upon him; his purpose was not to become popular or famous in the eyes of the people. Instead, he saw his role as that of a watchman on the tower whose duty it was to sound the warning call to those below who could not see the approaching danger.”
Twice a year at General Conference, the LDS leadership gives traditional pep talks that can be described as “do good and then do better than that.” The prophet, apostles, and other general authorities don’t hide what is required. I have rarely, if ever, heard autobiographical admissions even hinting that these leaders struggle with sin the way the followers feel they do. For me, it’s frustrating to hear these leaders “sound the warning call” without admitting to their own shortcomings. No wonder so many Latter-day Saints struggle with a feeling of inadequacy, that somehow there must be something wrong with them because they don’t have it all together the way the leadership portrays itself. This is quite a shame. A little more honesty would go a long way.
Teachings of Joseph Fielding Smith
God governs the universe by law, and we are subject to that law.
It should be conceded by all people that since the Almighty governs the entire universe by immutable law, man, who is the greatest of all his creations, must himself be subject to such law. The Lord has stated this truth tersely and convincingly in a revelation to the Church:
“All kingdoms have a law given;
“And there are many kingdoms; for there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space, either a greater or a lesser kingdom.
“And unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions.
“All beings who abide not in those conditions are not justified.” (D&C 88:36–39.)
This truth is self-evident. Thus, it is only reasonable that we should expect the kingdom of God to be governed by law and all who desire to enter there to be subject to the law. “Behold, mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion.” (D&C 132:8.)
The Lord has given to man a code of laws that we call the gospel of Jesus Christ. Due to lack of inspiration and spiritual guidance, men may differ in relation to these laws and their application, but there can hardly be a dispute in regard to the fact that such laws do exist, and that all who seek entrance into that kingdom are subject to them.
We have every truth, every doctrine, every law and requirement, every performance and ordinance needed to save and exalt us in the highest heaven of the celestial world.
The “law” being talked about has been called “celestial law.” Naturally, the goal of a faithful Latter-day Saint is to achieve eternal life in the celestial kingdom. President Thomas S. Monson stated that 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.” (“An Invitation to Exaltation,” Ensign, May 1988, 53).
In what appears to be a confusing maneuver of semantics, Brigham Young University professors Joseph Fielding McConkie (the son of Apostle Bruce R. McConkie) and Robert L. Millet claim that “people do not earn eternal life—there is no scriptural reference whatsoever to anyone earning the right to go where Gods and angels are. Rather, according to the words of the prophets—it is so attested in the scriptures almost a hundred times—people inherit eternal life.” Proceeding to describe this “inheritance” by using a language of works, they write,
“After we have done all that we can do, after we have denied ourselves of ungodliness and worldly lusts, then is the grace of God sufficient for us; then we are sanctified in Christ and eventually made perfect in Christ (see 2 Nephi 25:23; Moroni 10:32).” (Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 2:258)
To do “all that we can do” and to deny “ourselves of ungodliness and worldly lusts” (see Matt. 16:26 in the Inspired Version) certainly sets an incredibly high bar for a Latter-day Saint to reach. In a later work, Millet attempted to tone down the perfectionist language found in his earlier commentary:
This does not mean that we must do everything we can do before Christ can assist us. This is not about chronology. Further, who do you know who has or will ever do all they can do? Grace is not just that final boost into heaven that God provides at the end of a well-lived life, although we obviously will need all the help we can get. Rather, the Almighty assists us all along the way, every second of every minute of every hour of every day, all through our lives. It does not mean that we will carry the bulk of the load to salvation and Jesus will fill in the gaps; he is not the God of the gaps. Our contribution to glory hereafter, when compared to his, is infinitesimal and miniscule. If I might be permitted a paraphrase of what the passage stated, “We are saved by grace, above and beyond all we can do, notwithstanding all we can do, in spite of all we can do.” (Millet and McDermott, Claiming Christ, 188)
Millet’s explanation of the Book of Mormon passage misses the mark. The context is not about when Christ offers His assistance or what percentage of the load is the responsibility of the individual, even if that contribution is “miniscule” compared to what Christ does. It is about what is required of Latter-day Saints should they hope to attain sufficient grace in order to achieve exaltation. In Mormonism,
“the application of grace to personal sins is conditional because it is available only when an individual repents, which can be a demanding form of works. . . . God bestows these additional, perfecting expressions of grace conditionally, as he does the grace that allows forgiveness of sin. They are given ‘after all we can do’ (2 Ne. 25:23)—that is, in addition to our best efforts.” (Bruce C. Hafen, “Grace,” in Ludlow, The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 2:562)
Church leaders and correlated manuals have not supported the “in spite of all we can do” interpretation. The following examples would hardly make an exhaustive list:
• “The Lord will bless us to the degree to which we keep His commandments. Nephi put this principle in a tremendous orbit when he said: ‘For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do’ (2 Nephi 25:23). The Savior’s blood, His atonement, will save us, but only after we have done all we can to save ourselves by keeping His commandments.” (Lee, Stand Ye in Holy Places, 246. See also Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, 24)
• “Because of what He accomplished by His atoning sacrifice, Jesus Christ has the power to prescribe the conditions we must fulfill to qualify for the blessings of His Atonement. That is why we have commandments and ordinances. That is why we make covenants. That is how we qualify for the promised blessings. They all come through the mercy and grace of the Holy One of Israel, ‘after all we can do’ (2 Nephi 25:23).” (Dallin H. Oaks, “Two Lines of Communication,” Ensign, November 2010, 84)
• “This 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. Divine grace is needed by every soul in consequence of the fall of Adam and also because of man’s weaknesses and shortcomings. However, grace cannot suffice without total effort on the part of the recipient. Hence the explanation, ‘It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do’ (2 Nephi 25:23).” (Found under the word “grace” on page 697 of the 1986 version of the “Bible Dictionary” appendix located in the back of the LDS Church-produced King James Version Bible)
• “Our sins make us unclean and unfit to dwell in God’s presence, and we need His grace to purify and perfect us ‘after all we can do’ (2 Nephi 25:23). The phrase ‘after all we can do’ teaches that effort is required on our part to receive the fullness of the Lord’s grace and be made worthy to dwell with him.” (True to the Faith, 77)
• “We are saved by the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. We must, however, come unto Christ on His terms in order to obtain all the blessings that He freely offers us. We come unto Christ by doing ‘all we can do’ to remember Him, keep our covenants with Him, and obey His commandments (see D&C 20:77, 79; see also Abraham 3:25).” (Book of Mormon Seminary Student Study Guide, 53)
As it can be seen and what Smith confirms in this chapter, doing all a person can do (and more) is required to please God. The problem, again, is that nobody can accomplish this. I love what Romans 3:28 says: “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”
It is justification by faith that is able to justify the believer, as we see in the story of the Philippian jailer in Acts 16. Paul and Silas were incarcerated in Philippi when a miraculous earthquake opened their jail cell door. When the jailer saw that all of the prison cells were open as well, he prepared to commit suicide only to be stopped by Paul, who told him not to fear because no one had escaped.
Seeing this to be true, the frightened jailer asked Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” (v. 30). If Paul had been a good Mormon living in modern times, his response might have been, “Believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that the Book of Mormon is the Word of God. Join the true church, don’t drink coffee or tea, pay a full tithe, receive the Melchizedek priesthood, be baptized for your dead relatives, perform your endowments, and make sure you are married for time and eternity. Do these, along with following the whole law, and thou shalt be saved.”
Instead, Paul and Silas merely answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (v. 31). It is important to note that Paul made no reference to following any set of rules or rigid standards. Rather, his message was simply, “Believe . . . and thou shalt be saved.” As a result of their saving faith, the new believers were immediately baptized.
The word salvation has two different meanings according to LDS theology. “Salvation by grace,” known as unconditional or general salvation, is a free gift provided by Christ to everyone on this earth. This salvation allows each person the ability to be resurrected. On the other hand, conditional or individual salvation (exaltation) is the right to go to the highest level within the celestial kingdom.
So to which salvation was Paul referring when he spoke to the Philippian jailer? He certainly could not have been speaking of general salvation (“Believe and thou wilt be resurrected”), since everyone receives this regardless of belief. On the other hand, Paul could not have been referring to individual exaltation (“Believe and thou wilt be exalted”), since perpetual good works and strict adherence to celestial law are the only ways to achieve this, according to Mormonism.
The New Testament contains many examples of how belief alone, not one’s works, justifies a person before God. For instance, Jesus said in John 5:24, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life.” He also said in John 6:47, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life.”
Paul clearly communicated this truth in Ephesians 2:8–9 when he said faith, not works, justifies a person before God. He also declared in Titus 3:5–6 that Christians are saved, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (ESV)
Christian theologian F. F. Bruce expounded on the idea that faith, not one’s personal works, brings redemption:
If there is to be any salvation for either Jews or Gentiles, then, it must be based not on ethical achievement but on the grace of God. What Jews and Gentiles need alike, in fact, is to have their records blotted out by an act of divine amnesty and to have the assurance of acceptance by God for no merit of their own but by his spontaneous mercy. For this need God has made provision in Christ. Thanks to his redemptive work, men may find themselves “in the clear” before God. . . . The benefits of the atonement thus procured may be appropriated by faith—and only by faith. (Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 328. Ellipsis mine.)
Keeping the commandments is an expression of our love for the Lord.
If this particular subtitle in this chapter truly was the definition of what “keeping the commandments” means, I have no problem with it. In fact, Christians believe in good works, despite the straw man argument many make in saying that the Evangelical Christian belief based on “sola fides” (faith alone) is bound to be corrupt.
Let me say, though, that “keeping the commandments,” according to Mormonism, is not just an expression of love for God. Rather, it’s what a person does in order to attain salvation. While justification—salvation that took place in an instantaneous moment and is good forevermore—is a past event in the Christian’s life, sanctification has its roots in conversion and will continue to blossom throughout the rest of the believer’s life. Sanctification is synonymous with holiness and means to be set apart for God.
First Corinthians 6:11 says,
“And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” Hebrews 10:10 says, “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
Verse 14 adds,
“For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (ESV)
On profession of faith, believers are immediately qualified to dwell with the Father. This does not say that believers will always do what is right. They are still human beings fraught with human frailties and defects. However, because God has begun a new work in them, their desires and outlook will be different. Because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life, the fruit of the Spirit as described in Galatians 5:22–23 should become more evident while the “works of the flesh” as described in the previous three verses diminish.
The Christian needs to realize that the sanctification process is what Paul was describing in Philippians 2:12 when he implored the believers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Although Paul declared in Ephesians 2:10 that the believer was created unto good works, he was very clear to also point out in the previous two verses that it is faith and faith alone, not works, that justifies the believer. According to Romans 3:28, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” Paul says almost the exact same thing in Galatians 2:16 and 21:
Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. . . . I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.
Many Mormons are quick to point to James 2:14–26 in an attempt to show how works are more important than faith. If it’s just faith that’s needed for “salvation,” the argument goes, then it would seem reasonable that Christians could do whatever they wished (i.e., murder, commit adultery, steal) and still call themselves Christians. Referring to how he, as a missionary, had conversations with Bible-believing Christians, E. Richard Packham wrote an article in a church magazine titled “My Maturing Views of Grace” using a somewhat sarcastic tone:
One verse they commonly used was the Apostle Paul’s statement, “For 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). They reasoned with me that grace is a gift of God that freely comes when we accept Christ. For the first time in my life, I realized how easily we can become confused about any doctrine if we focus on a single verse and don’t take into account the whole of gospel teachings. I also formed the opinion that people gravitated to the doctrine of unconditional grace because it was so easy to accept. After all, life can appear a whole lot simpler when all one has to do for salvation is “accept Christ.” (Ensign (August 2005): 22.)
As far as James 2:14–26 is concerned, it is important to understand the context of this passage. Written by the half-brother of Jesus to explain how good works are important, James never taught that Christians receive salvation through their works. Rather, his point was to show how good works should accompany a valid salvation. Like a butterfly that has shed its chrysalis, so, too, do believers begin to be “transformed by the renewing of (their) mind” and display good fruit because of the dramatic life change (Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 5:17). Concerning this good fruit, F. F. Bruce wrote,
“As an apple-tree does not produce apples by Act of Parliament, but because it is its nature so to do, so the character of Christ cannot be produced in his people by rules and regulations; it must be the fruit of his Spirit within them.” (F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 461.)
Although it is true that a doctrine can be misapplied, it is a dreadful mistake to suppose that it is false merely because it can be abused. Should good works be minimized merely because groups like the Pharisees took them to a legalistic extreme? Obviously not! Jesus reserved His harshest words for those who felt their good works made them righteous in God’s sight, calling the legalistic Pharisees vipers, whitewashed tombs, and hypocrites (Matt. 23:27, 33). These rebukes, however, were not meant to take away the importance of righteous actions. When we accept the love of God as offered through belief in His Son, our response is to obey our Creator and Sustainer. The more we learn about God’s love for us, the more we want to reciprocate by demonstrating our love for Him through service. Christian preacher Vance Havner summarized the role works play in the believer’s life when he said,
“We hear these days about ‘cheap grace.’ It doesn’t mean much to be a Christian. But salvation is the costliest item on earth. It cost our Lord everything to provide it and it costs us everything to possess it.” (Dennis J. Hester, comp., The Vance Havner Quote Book (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), 105.
For more information on sanctification, see chapter 19 (“Doesn’t the Book of James say that ‘faith without works is dead’?”) in our book Answering Mormons’ Questions (Kregel, 2013).)
Our responsibility in the Church is to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth, and this we are seeking to do with all our heart, might, and mind. Jesus said: “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” (Matt. 4:10.)
I agree with John 4:24, the verse quoted in the first sentence. To worship a false God is problematic; thus, it behooves every person to study the scripture and determine just who He is.
We believe that worship is far more than prayer and preaching and gospel performance. The supreme act of worship is to keep the commandments, to follow in the footsteps of the Son of God, to do ever those things that please him. It is one thing to give lip service to the Lord; it is quite another to respect and honor his will by following the example he has set for us. … I rejoice in the privilege of following in his footsteps. I am grateful for the words of eternal life which I have received, I am very glad to say, in this world, and for the hope of eternal life which is mine in the world to come if I will remain faithful and true to the end.
Catch that last sentence, with the words “if,” “remain faithful,” and “true to the end.” These are tough words.
“If”: It’s either done or not done.
“Remain faithful”: Keeping the commandments
“True to the end”: Never failing.
When I hear language like this, I automatically think about President Spencer W. Kimball’s classic book The Miracle of Forgiveness. While this is not an official church publication, it has been treated as important by the LDS leadership. For example, Apostle Richard G. Scott spoke at a general conference where he said, “In The Miracle of Forgiveness, Spencer W. Kimball gives a superb guide to forgiveness through repentance. It has helped many find their way back.” (Ensign (May 1995): 76.) And one teacher’s manual states,
“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 (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2005), 172.)
With that as a background, consider this quote from Kimball:
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. Someone once said: “A fellow who is planning to reform is one step behind. He ought to quit planning and get on with the job. Today is the day.” (page 210, italics mine).
He also said:
Because men are prone to postpone action and ignore directions, the Lord has repeatedly given strict injunctions and issued solemn warnings. Again and again in different phraseology and throughout the centuries the Lord has reminded man so that he could never have excuse. And the burden of the prophetic warning has been that the time to act is now, in this mortal life. One cannot with impunity delay his compliance with God’s commandments. (pages 9-10, italics in original)
My friend Bill once asked a group of Latter-day Saints if they knew they had forgiveness. One young woman piped up, saying she did. “That’s wonderful,” he said. “How do you know you have it?” She responded, “I asked for it.” To this, Bill replied in a disappointed voice how Kimball taught such a gift was not available “merely for the asking.” Kimball wrote:
“Your Heavenly Father has promised forgiveness upon total repentance and meeting all the requirements, but that forgiveness is not granted merely for the asking. There must be works—many works—and an all-out, total surrender, with a great humility and a ‘broken heart and a contrite spirit.’ It depends upon you whether or not you are forgiven, and when.” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 324-25)
Latter-day Saint, how are you doing at keeping “all the commandments continually” (D&C 25:15)? And how do you know you will do so “to the end”?
“If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). This is the law to members of the Church, in the words of the Savior: “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me. …” (John 14:21.) Again, the Savior said: “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15.) …
This is so true in light of sanctification. But keeping the commandments have nothing to do with justification. Keeping commandments takes place after, which again is what we call sanctification.
The Savior never committed any sin nor carried any troubled conscience. He was not under the necessity of repenting as you and I are; but in some way that I cannot understand, he carried the weight of my transgressions and yours. … He came and offered himself as a sacrifice to pay the debt for each of us who is willing to repent of his sins and return to him and keep his commandments. Think of it, if you can. The Savior carried that burden in some way beyond our comprehension. I know that, because I accept his word. He tells us of the torment he went through; the torment was so great that he pled with his Father that if it were possible he might not drink the bitter cup and shrink: “… nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” (Luke 22:42.) The answer he got from his Father was, “You have to drink it.”
Can I help loving him? No, I cannot. Do you love him? Then keep his commandments.
Following Christ is vital. But God’s forgiveness is not something we earn, as a wage an employee earns from an employer.
An illustration I like to give seems appropriate here. A young man was celebrating his birthday with his family and friends. As he opened up his presents, he came upon a card from his grandfather who was sitting in the corner. The young man picked it up and read the words aloud: “Grandson, I love you so much. I have put 10 into your bank account. Enjoy! Love, Grandpa.” The young man swallowed hard, looked up, and waved to his grandfather. “Thanks,” he said, though he really didn’t mean it. He considered it as nothing more than a cheap gift from someone who he thought had the means to be more generous.
A few weeks later, the boy needed gas for his car and didn’t have any money. Then he realized that he could go to the bank and collect his $10, good for at least another 100 miles on his car. He handed his passbook to the teller, who looked at her computer screen, wrote into the passbook, and handed him a crisp new $10 bill.
As the boy walked out of the bank, he glanced at the page. All of a sudden, he became livid. Running back inside, he bumped the customer standing where his tell had just given him the money. “What’s the meaning of this!” he exclaimed. “Is this a cruel joke?”
The teller looked at him and asked, “What’s wrong?” The boy replied, “Why did you write “$9,999,990” into my book?” “Well,” she answered, “you had $10 million, but you took out $10, so that’s what’s left.”
All of a sudden, the boy understood something that he didn’t before. He had received a gift he could never earn on his own. While entertainment stars and sports figures can make this figure in a single year, it would require the average person to make $250,000 for 40 years, an impossible sum for most of us!
What do you think the reaction of the boy will be? Will he go to his Grandpa’s house and throw lye in the grass, spray paint graffiti on the garage door, and kick the man’s dog? I doubt it. At the very least, I bet he will send a thank you card. But $10 million is a pretty sizable gift. No, I think he will go over to Grandpa’s house and thank him in person.
After hugging his Grandfather and thanking him, he looks at the yard and realizes that the grass needs mowing. “Why is your grass so long?” the boy wondered. Grandpa replied, “Well, I pretty much gave you everything I had, so I don’t have the funds to pay the gardener any more.”
The grandson had an idea. Why, he could mow the grass! He took his grandfather’s mower out and, two hours later, completed the job. It made him feel good to do something for someone who has done something as nice as a $10 million gift.
In fact, it made him feel so good that he decided to come back for the next 51 weeks, mowing the grass each week. What a nice gesture! But wait. What if, at the end of the year, the boy went up to his grandfather and said, “I’m all paid up.” What do you think Grandpa’s reaction would be? No doubt he would be confused. After all, what he gave his grandson was a gift, something that was not meant to be paid back. Imagine if you gave someone a birthday present and the person took out his wallet, asking how much the gift had cost so you could be repaid. This isn’t the protocol! A gift is received, not paid for.
Yes, it’s natural to want to do nice things for someone who has blessed you so much, but it would be a mistake to think that somehow the gift is being paid back. In the grandson’s case, he apparently thought he was “earning” approximately $200,000 every time he mowed the grass. That’s not what the grandfather intended.
In the same way, good works are what we do in response to what God has first done for us. To think we are even paying a portion back is silly. How can you measure the cost of eternal life? And what could a person ever do to ever “earn” a portion of it back? This is the mistake in Mormon soteriology. To think we are paying anything for our salvation—even 67 cents for a bicycle and the father pays the rest, according to Stephen E. Robinson’s famous analogy—is faulty logic. As the hymn goes, Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe. A Christian’s good works is the mowing of the grass in gratitude for what has been given.
If we turn from the Lord’s commandments, we cannot expect to receive His blessings.
When we turn from the commandments the Lord has given unto us for our guidance then we do not have a claim upon his blessings.
What good does it do for us to petition the Lord, if we have no intention of keeping His commandments? Such praying is hollow mockery and an insult before the throne of grace. How dare we presume to expect a favorable answer if such is the case? “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” So said Isaiah (Isaiah 55:6–7). But is not the Lord always near when we petition Him? Verily no! He has said, “They were slow to hearken unto the voice of the Lord their God; therefore, the Lord their God is slow to hearken unto their prayers, to answer them in the day of their trouble. In the day of their peace they esteemed lightly my counsel; but, in the day of their trouble, of necessity they feel after me” [D&C 101:7–8]. If we draw near unto Him, He will draw near unto us, and we will not be forsaken; but if we do not draw near to Him, we have no promise that He will answer us in our rebellion.
Let’s go back to the grandfather/grandson analogy. Imagine that the boy never mows the grass. Perhaps he doesn’t even write a thank you card. Does that mean the gift can be taken back? The giver who expected payment in return was not truly giving a gift.
Or how about the birthday present you received last year? Suppose you never wrote a card or reciprocated on your friend’s birthday. Was this gift owed? Not at all. While saying “thank you” is part of good manners, a gift is not a debt. There is not even an obligation for you to give your friend a gift on her next birthday.
In Mormonism, it’s possible to lose your “salvation.” A person must “endure to the end.” Yet nobody has anything of value to offer back to God. As Isaiah 64:6 puts it, all of our good works are filthy rags in God’s sight. The Old Testament prophet Hosea said in Hosea 6:6, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice. And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” Micah 6:8 says, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you. But to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
The straw man argument is that anyone who thinks salvation comes by grace must believe it’s OK to live like hell. This is a false caricature of Christianity. A few weeks ago a Mormon berated me on the streets of Ogden, saying that I believed in “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow I die.” I told him that’s not what I believed, but he continued to insist that anyone in my shoes had to adopt such a philosophy. However, the apostle Paul addressed this situation in Romans 6:
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.
8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.13 Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. 14 For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.
According to Paul, we are no longer “slaves to sin.” Instead, we are freed from the debt’s obligation. Why would I want to kick Grandpa’s dog and throw lye in the grass when I have the ability to mow his grass? And why would I want to go “eat, drink, and be merry” in a wicked state when God has such better things in store for me? At the same time, Jesus came to give us life, and most abundantly at that (John 10:10b). So, there is enjoyment in mowing the grass and so much more!
We cannot pray to the Lord and say: “Listen to our cause, bring victory to us, do what we want you to do, but don’t ask us to do what you want us to do.”
A changed heart comes through a correct understanding of God’s gift. Remember that boy in the story told above. He treated the gift with disdain because he didn’t get it. When the Christian comprehends the price paid for his sins, there will be an awe of what was received. I suggest watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ sometime soon. If this doesn’t help you understand the price paid for the Christian’s sins, nothing will!
It is necessary for us to walk in the full light of the truth, not in part of the truth only. I haven’t the privilege of discarding some of the principles of the gospel and believing others, and then feel that I am entitled to the full blessings of salvation and exaltation in the kingdom of God. If we want exaltation, if we want the place which the Lord has prepared for those who are just and true, then we must be willing to walk in the full light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and keep all the commandments. We cannot say that some of them are small and insignificant and therefore the Lord will not care if we violate them. We are commanded to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God [see Deuteronomy 8:3; D&C 98:11]. “Why call ye me Lord, Lord,” he says, “and do not the things that I say?” [See Luke 6:46.]
And so, Latter-day Saint, I ask, How are you doing at this?
According to Smith, it’s black and white. Just keep the commandments and you can have your forgiveness. But who has the ability to do everything that needs to be done? This is truly an impossible gospel.
Parents can help their children “walk in the full light of the truth.”
When we are keeping the commandments of the Lord, we are on the road to perfection.
The Mormon can never arrive at this state in this lifetime. Kimball wrote,
“It could be weeks, it could be years, it could be centuries before that happy day when you have the positive assurances that the Lord has forgiven you. That depends on your humility, your sincerity, your works, your attitudes.” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 325)
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have centuries or even many years left before I will meet my Maker. The Bible assures the believer in 1 John 5:13:
“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
Ask a Latter-day Saint if he or she “knows” that eternal life is possessed, and you will likely hear, “I hope so” or “I trying” and even “I’m doing the best I can.” But abundant living isn’t so unsure. Rather, it is possible to be assured that eternal life is a done deal, accomplished and paid in full on the cross. Jesus said, “It is finished.” This isn’t an after-school project where the completion day is unknown.
The Lord expects us to believe in him, to accept his everlasting gospel, and to live in harmony with his terms and conditions. It is not our province to select and obey those gospel principles which appeal to us and forget the rest. It is not our prerogative to decide that some principles no longer apply to our social and cultural circumstances.
The Lord’s laws are eternal, and we have the fullness of his everlasting gospel and are obligated to believe all of his laws and truths and then to walk in conformity with them. There is nothing more important to any individual than keeping the Lord’s commandments. He expects us to cleave unto every true principle, to put first in our lives the things of his kingdom, to press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, and to serve him with all our might, mind, and strength. In the language of the scriptures, let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” (Eccles. 12:13.)12
I often think, and I suppose you do, too, of that great and wonderful discourse—the greatest that was ever preached, so far as we know—which we call the Sermon on the Mount. … If we will only hearken to those teachings, we may come back again into the presence of God, the Father, and His Son Jesus Christ.
I often think of that which is really a summation:
“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” [Matthew 5:48.]
… I believe the Lord meant just what He said, that we should be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect. That will not come all at once, but line upon line and precept upon precept, example upon example, and even then not as long as we live in this mortal life, for we will have to go even beyond the grave before we reach that perfection and shall be like God.
But here we lay the foundation. Here is where we are taught these simple truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in this probationary state, to prepare us for that perfection. It is my duty, it is yours, to be better today than I was yesterday, and for you to be better today than you were yesterday, and better tomorrow than you were today. Why? Because we are on that road, if we are keeping the commandments of the Lord, we are on that road to perfection, and that can only come through obedience and the desire in our hearts to overcome the world. …
… If we have a failing, if we have a weakness, there is where we should concentrate, with a desire to overcome, until we master and conquer. If a man feels that it is hard for him to pay his tithing, then that is the thing he should do, until he learns to pay his tithing. If it is the Word of Wisdom, that is what he should do, until he learns to love that commandment.
I am reminded of Kimball’s words on page 209 of his book The Miracle of Forgiveness:
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 is therefore an achievable goal.
How do we do this? He adds, “Perfection really comes through overcoming.” Paul’s struggled with sin according to Romans 7:
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.
21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature[d] a slave to the law of sin.
The only person who can achieve perfection in this life is Jesus Christ. Let me explain the difference between Mormonism and Christianity. I was sitting in an LDS seminary class yesterday (yes, I was invited!) where the instructor gave an illustration to his students that I think very clearly represents the Mormon positon. Two stick person figures were drawn on the board and a block wall was drawn between them–it was explained that there was no way for them to communicate. Then a third stick person was drawn on top of the wall. The instructor said that the figure on the right represented humans while the one on the left represented God. Arrows were drawn up from the humans to the stick figure on top of the wall and then down to God. This stick person figure represented a mediator between God and humankind, someone who would help people gain a relationship with God. What is your guess as to what the instructor said the figure on top of the wall represented?
In Christianity, this person would be none other than Jesus Christ Himself. First Timothy 2:5 reads, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” A relationship with God provides a relationship with the Father. But that’s not what the LDS instructor said his figure symbolized. Instead, he said, it stood for the Mormon prophets, especially the living prophet. Why do we need a fallible human being who still must request repentance? Instead, we have access to the perfect man, Jesus Christ, who is there on our behalf. Mormons are required to be perfect, and as their mediator they have frail Thomas S. Monson. This is not a good deal, with the end result ending in disaster. Remember what Matthew 7 says:
21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
All the good works in the world cannot save the Mormon on Judgment Day.
As we keep the commandments, the Lord comforts and blesses us and strengthens us to become men and women worthy of exaltation.
To please [the Lord], we must not only worship him with thanksgiving and praise, but render willing obedience to his commandments. By so doing, he is bound to bestow his blessings; for it is upon this principle (obedience to law) that all things are predicated [see D&C 130:20–21].
I find the language audacious. In what way is God “bound” to bestow his blessings? That’s an odd word. It’s as if God somehow owes us something because of what we did. Did the grandfather in the illustration above owe $10 million to his grandson for work he had done or even would do? Absolutely not! Notice, Smith can quote from D&C to support his unbiblical premise, but he provides nothing from the Bible. Perhaps this is because God’s Word never teaches such a concept.
God has given unto us [commandments] that we might grow nearer unto Him and be built up in the faith and strengthened. No commandment, at any time, has He given us, that was not for our comfort and blessing. They are not given merely to please the Lord, but to make us better men and women, and worthy of salvation and exaltation in His kingdom.
We must remember what “exaltation” means in Mormonism, which is godhood and the ability to be with one’s family for eternity. It’s something a person earns, the right for a couple to people another planet. All glory goes to the individual man, who will be worshipped as “God” in the next life. It has nothing to do with bringing glory to God.
If we go into the temple we raise our hands and covenant that we will serve the Lord and observe his commandments and keep ourselves unspotted from the world. If we realize what we are doing then the endowment will be a protection to us all our lives—a protection which a man who does not go to the temple does not have.
Spencer Kimball said going to the temple—though necessary—was not enough. He wrote on page 246 that they must “continue to live righteously throughout their lives. Numerous members of the Church will be disappointed. All will fail of these blessings who fail to live worthy lives, even though the temple ordinances have been done for them. (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 246).
I have heard my father say that in the hour of trial, in the hour of temptation, he would think of the promises, the covenants that he made in the House of the Lord, and they were a protection to him. … This protection is what these ceremonies are for, in part. They save us now and they exalt us hereafter, if we will honor them. I know that this protection is given for I, too, have realized it, as have thousands of others who have remembered their obligations.
How can the covenant made in the temple be of any help when the Mormon realizes that he’s broken those promises. Thus, he’s left with repenting once again and hoping the slate is somehow clean. D&C 1:31-32 read,
For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance; Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven.
And D&C 58:43 adds,
By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.
Thus, a Mormon needs to stop transgressing and thereby eliminate the need to repent, as doing the latter is merely admission that you’re not doing the former.
In the temple, we covenant to “serve the Lord and observe his commandments and keep ourselves unspotted from the world.”
The Lord will give us gifts. He will quicken our minds. He will give us knowledge that will clear up all difficulties and put us in harmony with the commandments that he has given us; he will give us a knowledge that will be so deeply rooted in our souls that it can never be rooted out, if we will just seek for the light and the truth and the understanding that are promised to us and that we can receive if we will only be true and faithful to every covenant and obligation pertaining to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The great promise that is made to the members of this Church who are willing to abide by the law and keep the commandments of the Lord is that they shall not only receive a place in the kingdom of God, but that they shall also have the presence of the Father and the Son; and that is not all, for the Lord has promised that all that he hath shall be given unto them [see D&C 84:33–39].18
But to receive this, a person must keep the celestial law that D&C 88:22 says is necessary: “For he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory.”
Through obedience to those commandments which are set forth in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and by continuance therein, we shall receive immortality, glory, eternal life, and dwell in the presence of God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, where we shall truly know them.
If we will walk in paths of virtue and holiness, the Lord will pour out his blessings upon us to a degree we have never supposed possible. We shall be in very deed, as Peter expressed it, “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.” (1 Pet. 2:9.) And we will be peculiar because we will not be like other people who do not live up to these standards. …
These are nice promises, but there is the big “if.” If you walk in virtue and holiness, then… Latter-day Saint, are you doing all you’re supposed to? You need to accomplish the “if” if you hope to receive the “then.”
As servants of the Lord, our purpose is to walk in the path he has charted for us. We not only desire to do and say what will please him, but we seek so to live that our lives will be like his.
He himself set the perfect example for us in all things and said to us: “Follow thou me.” Of his Nephite disciples he asked: “… what manner of men ought ye to be?” and then answered: “Verily I say unto you, even as I am.” (3 Ne. 27:27.)
Now we are engaged in the greatest work in the world. This priesthood which we possess is the power and authority of the Lord himself; and he has promised us that if we magnify our callings and walk in the light, as he is in the light, we shall have glory and honor with him forever in his Father’s kingdom.
With such a glorious hope before us, can we do less than forsake the evil ways of the world? Shall we not put first in our lives the things of God’s kingdom? Shall we not seek to live by every word that proceedeth forth from his mouth?
Sounds good. Again, Latter-day Saint, are you accomplishing this? Is it even possible to do?
I testify that the Lord has spoken in our day; that his message is one of hope and joy and salvation; and I promise you that if you will walk in the light of heaven, be true to your trust, and keep the commandments, you shall have peace and joy in this life and eternal life in the world to come.
Keep the commandments. Walk in the light. Endure to the end. Be true to every covenant and obligation, and the Lord will bless you beyond your fondest dreams.
D&C 25:15 even says, “Keep the commandments continually.” Notice, the Mormon is required to “be true to every covenant and obligation.” I think most Latter-day Saints know what it is they have to do. The question is, once more (broken record), how are they doing at it? If the Mormon is honest, the realization will set in that there will never be a time in this life where we can know we’ve done everything this religion requires.
I am so glad that Christianity’s answer contains hope. Instead of asking “what can we do for God (and hence our salvation)”—which all false religions teach—Christianity says, “What did God do for me first?” Going back to the illustration I provided, there is nothing the grandson could do to earn the $10 million. It had to be given to him as a gift for it to take effect. Upon his realization of how valualbe this gift was (and that he could never have gotten this on his own), good works followed. The grandfather didn’t take away the $10 million because of his grandson’s sour attitude. Perhaps he even knew that, upon realization of the gift’s value, this boy would be astounded.
Look at the title of this chapter once more: “Living by Every Word that Proceeds from the Mouth of God.” It can’t be done! When it comes to salvation, good works do not affect justification in anyone’s life. It only comes through a relationship with Jesus!
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To see more on commandments and salvation, check out some of the following articles here.