By Eric Johnson and Bill McKeever
Emblazoned on the east wall of the Salt Lake City Temple (and other LDS temples as well) are the words “Holiness to the Lord.” This passage, taken from Exodus 28:36, portrays the Latter-day Saints as a people who strive to live a moral code above that of others in the world today. While such a goal is truly commendable, the idea of righteous living can easily become distorted when its purpose is skewed and the requirements become unrealistic.
This was the case in ancient Israel. During the time of Christ, it was the religious leaders, specifically the Pharisees, who believed in a very strict moral code. Few dared to fault the spirituality of the Pharisee except, of course, the Lord Jesus. Unlike mortal men who often judge according to the outer appearance, Jesus had (and has) the ability to judge the heart. Because of this, He was not easily swayed by the flawed pharisaical view of piety.
In their zeal to appease a God whom they knew was holy, the Pharisees attempted to make their own set of rules as to how God could be pleased. Unfortunately this legalism surpassed the bounds of God’s expectations for His creation and, in turn, robbed the people of the comfort and assurance their faith was supposed to give. Jesus accused them of laying burdens upon the shoulders of the people which they could not bear (Matthew 23:4). Mormonism is very similar to the Phariseeism of ancient Israel. Salvation according to Mormonism is marred with requirements above and beyond those found within the pages of the Bible. While Jesus spoke of salvation as entering in by a narrow gate, the requirements added by the Mormon Church virtually close that gate shut.
Keeping the Whole Law
Although many Mormons may understand that the “whole law” must be kept to reach this state of splendor, they may not realize how impossible this task is according to certain LDS leaders. This task is so difficult that even LDS leaders concede that many within the ranks of Mormonism, despite their sincere efforts, are probably going to fail. Noting that few Mormons can expect to become exalted to godhood, Joseph Fielding Smith, the tenth LDS president, plainly stated:
We are not going to be saved in the kingdom of God just because our names are on the records of the Church…. There will not be such an overwhelming number of the Latter-day Saints who will get there…. If we save one-half of the Latter-day Saints, that is, with an exaltation in the celestial kingdom of God, we will be doing well (Doctrines of Salvation 2:14—15).
According to Mormonism, heaven is made up of three levels: the celestial, terrestrial, and telestial kingdoms. Within the celestial kingdom are three levels (Mormon Doctrine, p. 116). Only those Mormons who reach the very top level will be able to become gods and goddesses. Eternal life is obtained by reaching the top level in the celestial kingdom. Whereas the Bible declares that it is Jesus Christ Himself who is the author and finisher of the Christian’s faith, Mormonism makes man responsible for his own destiny. Consider these two quotes from Joseph Fielding Smith:
To enter the celestial and obtain exaltation it is necessary that the whole law be kept…. (The Way to Perfection, p. 206, (italics his)).
But to be exalted one must keep the whole law…. Very gladly would the Lord give to everyone eternal life, but since that blessing can come only on merit–through the faithful performance of duty–only those who are worthy shall receive it (Doctrines of Salvation 2:6).
Reaching this state is tough for the Latter-day Saint since, according to Apostle George Q. Cannon, Mormons
will be held to stricter accountability than any other people on the face of the earth…. We must be a pure people or we will be scourged; we must be a holy people or God’s anger will be kindled against us (Gospel Truth, p. 74).
Cannon also taught that men are more accountable than women, putting a double burden on Mormon males (Ibid., p. 435).
There are a number of requirements that must be obeyed in Mormonism for a person to become perfect and thus earn the right to exaltation. First, water baptism must be performed by proper (Mormon) administrators, and a succeeding baptism of the Holy Ghost. Mormon Apostle David A. Bednar told a general conference audience, “The saving ordinance of baptism must be administered by one who has proper authority from God” ( “That We May Always Have His Spirit to Be with Us,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2006, p. 29). The church manual Gospel Principles states,
We Must Be Baptized to Enter the Celestial Kingdom. Jesus said, ‘Whoso believeth in me, and is baptized … shall inherit the kingdom of God. And whoso believeth not in me, and is not baptized, shall be damned’ (3 Nephi 11:33–34). Baptism is the gateway through which we enter the path to the celestial kingdom (see 2 Nephi 31:17–18) (p. 116).
The manual later says,
We read in Acts 10 that the Roman soldier Cornelius received inspiration from the Holy Ghost so that he knew the gospel of Jesus Christ was true. But Cornelius did not receive the gift of the Holy Ghost until after he was baptized. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that if Cornelius had not received baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost would have left him (see Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 97)” (p. 122).
As baptism opens the door to the celestial kingdom, so is marriage in a Mormon temple. Apostle Dallin H. Oaks said,
Under the great plan of the living Creator, the mission of His Church is to help us achieve exaltation in the celestial kingdom, and that can be accomplished only through an eternal marriage between a man and a woman (see D&C 131:1-3) (“Fundamental to Our Faith,” Ensign, January 2011, pp. 25-26).
Explaining the importance of temple marriage, Joseph Fielding Smith was quoted in a church manual as saying,
Unless young people who marry outside the temple speedily repent, they cut themselves off from exaltation in the celestial kingdom of God. If they should prove themselves worthy, notwithstanding that great error, to enter into the celestial kingdom, they go in that kingdom as servants. What does that mean? The revelation tells us they go into that kingdom to be servants to those who are worthy of a more highly exalted position—something with greater glory. They are servants to them. They are not joint heirs with Jesus Christ. They do not obtain the kingdom that is, the crown and the glory of the kingdom of God. When they come forth in the resurrection, they have no claim upon each other, or their children upon them, and there will be weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth (Joseph Fielding Smith, Selections from Answers to Gospel Questions: A Course of Study for the Melchizedek Priesthood Quorum 1972-73, p. 265).
Twelfth President Spencer Kimball stated,
Delayed marriage . . . is not fully acceptable. All normal people should plan their lives to include a proper temple marriage in their early life and to multiply and have their families in the years of their early maturity (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, p. 195. Ellipses in original)
And Russell M. Nelson, the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, told a general conference audience:
To qualify for eternal life, we must make an eternal and everlasting covenant with our Heavenly Father. This means that a temple marriage is not only between husband and wife; it embraces a partnership with God (“Celestial Marriage,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2008, p. 93).
In that same talk he also said,
Celestial marriage is a pivotal part of preparation for eternal life. It requires one to be married to the right person, in the right place, by the right authority, and to obey that sacred covenant faithfully. Then one may be assured of exaltation in the celestial kingdom of God (Ibid., p. 94).
Getting married in the temple is not a cure-all. Rather, commandments still need to be kept, as dictated by Gospel Principles:
Families can be together forever. To enjoy this blessing we must be married in the temple. When people are married outside the temple, the marriage ends when one of the partners dies. When we are married in the temple by the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood, we are married for time and eternity. If we keep our covenants with the Lord, our families will be united eternally as husband, wife, and children. Death cannot separate us (p. 209).
It must be recognized, however, that eternal marriage was not an original teaching of the Mormon Church, as recognized by BYU professor Charles R. Harrell:
. . . the concept of eternal marriage isn’t found anywhere in the Book of Mormon or other Latter-day scripture prior to 1843. It was in Nauvoo, in the summer of 1843, that Joseph Smith formally introduced the ‘new and everlasting covenant of marriage’ (D&C 132), which initially entailed plural marriage (‘This is my Doctrine’: The Development of Mormon Theology, p. 318).
In addition to celestial marriage, procreation is an essential requirement to Mormonism’s highest level of the celestial heaven. This fact is supported by church manuals, including this one:
The ordinance of temple marriage is also necessary for us to become like our Father in Heaven. Temple marriage makes it possible for us to have eternal families. When we receive this ordinance worthily and keep the covenants we make, our families will be blessed to live together throughout eternity (Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood: Basic Manual for Priesthood Holders, Part B, p. 33).
Gospel Principles explains:
He has revealed that one of the purposes of marriage is to provide mortal bodies for His spirit children. Parents are partners with our Heavenly Father. He wants each of His spirit children to receive a physical body and to experience earth life. When a man and a woman bring children into this world, they help our Heavenly Father carry out His plan (Gospel Principles, 2009, p. 207).
Other duties that are essential to exaltation are temple activities such as the endowment ceremony and baptism for the dead, the neglect of which Joseph Smith said could cost a person his or her salvation (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 193). If all of the above requirements for exaltation were not enough, it is taught that only complete obedience brings eternal life. Consider the following quotes given by LDS presidents, as recorded in official church manuals:
You must not only believe, but you must obey and do the things that [God] commands. You must not only do that, but you must give your heart, your affection and your whole soul with a willing mind to God. You must give up your will to the will of the Father, and you must do all things that He requires at your hands, if you will be saved and exalted in His presence (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, p. 244).
Being a member of the Church and holding the Priesthood will not get us anywhere unless we are worthy. The Lord has said that every blessing that we desire is predicated upon obedience to His commandments. We may deceive our neighbors, and we may deceive ourselves with the idea that we are going through all right, but unless we keep the commandments of our Heavenly Father, unless we bear worthily this holy Priesthood that is so precious, we will not find our place in the celestial kingdom (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith, p. 53).
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 (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, p. 237).
He has given us in another revelation the formula by which we can prepare ourselves as the years pass. “Verily, thus saith the Lord: It shall come to pass that every soul who forsaketh his sins and cometh unto me, and calleth on my name, and obeyeth my voice, and keepeth my commandments, shall see my face and know that I am” (D&C 93:1). Simple, isn’t it? But listen again. All you have to do is to forsake your sins, come unto Him, call on His name, obey His voice, and keep His commandments, and then you shall see His face and shall know that He is (The Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, p. 34).
The greatest message that one in this position could give to the membership of the Church is to keep the commandments of God, for therein lies the safety of the Church and the safety of the individual. Keep the commandments. There could be nothing that I could say that would be a more powerful or important message today (The Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, p. 35).
There are . . . many members of the Church who are lax and careless and who continually procrastinate. They live the gospel casually but not devoutly. They have complied with some requirements but are not valiant. They do no major crime but merely fail to do the things required—things like paying tithing, living the Word of Wisdom, having family prayers, fasting, attending meetings, serving (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, p. 8. Ellipses in original).
The Savior came ‘to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man’ (Moses 1:39). His birth, death, and resurrection brought about the first. But we must join our efforts with his to bring about the second, to attain eternal life (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, p. 29).
Listen to the spiritual promise: “All saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, . . . shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures.” (D&C 89:18, 19; italics added.) Some have thought this promise was contingent on just keeping the provisions of the Word of Wisdom. But you will notice we must walk in obedience to all the commandments. Then we shall receive specific spiritual promises. This means we must obey the law of tithing, keep the Sabbath day holy, keep morally clean and chaste, and obey all other commandments (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson, p. 164).
Don’t put your eternal life at risk. Keep the commandments of God (Thomas S. Monson, “Preparation Brings Blessings,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2010, p. 66).
This concept is taught over and over again. 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 (“The Blessings of Tithing,” Ensign, June 2011, p. 4).
And Apostle L. Tom Perry described which commandments must be kept:
We must not pick and choose which commandments we think are important to keep but acknowledge all of God’s commandments (L. Tom Perry, “Obedience to Law is Liberty,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2013, p. 88).
The Mormon who hopes to attain the celestial kingdom by his good works is like an Olympian swimmer who makes the attempt to swim to Hawaii from the California coast. Although he might have the best of intentions, the fact remains that swimming from California to Hawaii is an impossible task. Although this champion swimmer might be able to swim closer to Hawaii than the average person, the natural laws of currents, fatigue, sharks, and an insurmountable distance would result in his falling short of his goal. In the same way, sin causes mankind to fall short of the glory of God, leading to death, no matter how good the intentions might be.
Be ye “perfect”?
In response, many Mormons may point to a passage such as Matthew 5:48, which says: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” To use this verse as interpreted by many Mormons is to only bring condemnation on oneself, unless the Mormon using the passage in this manner really feels he has reached perfection. Mormons often overlook the key word “therefore” in this passage which refers to the preceding verses. The context speaks of a consistent love for our neighbors, whether friends or enemies. As explained by Christian scholar F. F. Bruce:
God himself sets us an example in this regard. “Your Father who is in heaven… makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). He bestows his blessings without discrimination. The followers of Jesus are children of God, and they should manifest the family likeness by doing good to all, even to those who deserve the opposite. So, said Jesus, go the whole way in doing good, just as God does (The Hard Sayings of Jesus, p. 75).
Ignoring this explanation, a Mormon may attempt to explain how perfection does not necessarily happen in this lifetime but after death. Gerald N. Lund, a zone administrator in the LDS Church educational system, explains:
But perfect can also mean “having all flaws and errors re-moved.” A better question might be, “Do we have to be perfected to be exalted?” Here the scriptural answer is a resounding yes (A Sure Foundation, p. 205, (emphasis his)).
If this is the case, then a verse such as Matthew 5:48 cannot be used because it is given in the present tense (“Be ye…”). The Book of Mormon also appears to be contradicted, as Alma 34:22 states, “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.” Meanwhile, the Bible explains that the law was never meant to save anyone. Instead of a means to reach God, the law is a curse to mankind since it exposes his sin. Through His sacrifice, Christ redeems us from the curse of the law because He took upon himself the penalty for mankind’s sin (Galatians 3:13). Following the law justifies no one:
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 (Galatians 2: 16).
The apostle Paul understood that the Law was not designed to be, nor could it be, used as a set of rules that we must attempt to follow in order to gain salvation. The fact that we, as fallen sinners, have already broken God’s Law makes this an impossibility. The Law is a tool devised by a loving God to expose the sinfulness of individuals in order that they might see themselves in their helpless state and rely totally on His mercy for salvation. As Paul reiterates in Romans 7:7, its purpose was to expose our sin, not to reveal our righteousness. Paul emphasized the fact that it was Christ’s complete obedience to the Law (not an individual’s partial obedience) that makes the believer righteous. Writing to the church at Rome, he said in Romans 5:1,
For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.
Many may assume that their personal “righteousness,” combined with the atonement of Christ and grace that He provides, will qualify a person for salvation. However, notice how Paul states that it is the righteousness of one individual (Jesus Christ) that makes many righteous. Mormonism, in essence, places the responsibility of righteousness on the individual instead of recognizing Jesus who has already met the requirement of perfection. Because everyone has already disobeyed the Law, every person is worthy of condemnation. Each person has failed to be righteous and has no choice but to trust in what Christ already did for us by living a perfect life and paying the ultimate price for our sin by dying on the cross.
At this point it must be stated that the Bible never downplays holy living. God’s people should lead exemplary lives and strive to be virtuous. However, good works come about as a result of experiencing God’s saving power. Never does the Bible teach that good works are a requirement to receive salvation. No matter how many good things we think we might have done, there is always a little more we did not (and cannot) accomplish. Try as he or she may, the Mormon will never be able to satisfy the requirements of God. Just as it is impossible for the blood of sacrificed animals to take away our sins (Hebrews 10:4), so too is it impossible to become perfect here on this earth, no matter how much good a person does. Only through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross–and that alone–can the sons and daughters of God be cleansed of all sin and, therefore, become “perfected forever” in heaven. Hebrews 10:14 states,
For by one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified.
A Christian chorus sums up this concept:
He paid a debt He did not owe;
I owed a debt I could not pay;
I needed someone to wash my sin away.
And now I sing a brand new song:
“Amazing Grace,” all day long.
Christ Jesus paid the debt
That I could never pay.
Truer words have never been sung.