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Review of Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow, Chapter 6: Becoming Perfect before the Lord: “A Little Better Day by Day”

During 2013, LDS members will be studying the latest manual published by their church, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow. 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.

He often reminded the Saints of the Lord’s command to be perfect, and he assured them that through their own diligence and with the Lord’s help, they could obey that command. He taught, “We ought to feel in our hearts that God is our Father, and that while we make mistakes and are weak yet if we live as nearly perfect as we can all will be well with us.”

After quoting a lengthy story about how difficult it was for him to speak before an audience, Snow is quoted as saying that “if we live as nearly perfect as we can all will be well with us.”

The word “nearly” is quite bothersome because it seems to suggest that Mormonism somehow teaches that getting close to perfection is good enough. The problem is that other leaders have taught how perfection is an “achievable goal,” an issue I’ll deal with a little later.

Teachings of Lorenzo Snow

With diligence, patience, and divine aid, we can obey the Lord’s command to be perfect.

Latter-day Saint, are you obeying this command? Do you know anyone who is?

“And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me and be thou perfect.” [Genesis 17:1.] In connection with this I will quote part of the words of the Savior in his sermon on the Mount, as contained in the last verse of the 5th chapter of Matthew.

“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” [Matthew 5:48.] …

We learn that the Lord appeared to Abraham and made him very great promises, and that before he was prepared to receive them a certain requirement was made of him, that he [Abraham] should become perfect before the Lord. And the same requirement was made by the Savior of his Disciples, that they should become perfect, even as He and His Father in Heaven were perfect. This I conceive to be a subject that concerns the Latter-day Saints; and I wish to offer a few remarks by way of suggestion, for the reflection of those whom it concerns.

The danger with using the King James Version—a fine Bible for its time but outdated in contemporary language—is that it can give false impressions to unsuspecting readers. It uses outdated words, as the meanings from the 17th century (when the King James Version was originally written) can often differ from what a 20th or 21st century reader would typically understand. This is why the word “blameless” is substituted for “perfect” in the New King James Version.

Was Abraham perfect after receiving this command to “be thou perfect”? Hardly. Yet God continued to keep His covenant with Abraham, through thick and thin.

Using the word “telios” (which can also mean “mature” or “complete”), Matthew 5:48 is quoted in a way never intended by Jesus. The context is talking about “love for enemies.” Jesus contrasted how easy it is to love those who love us versus those who are not easy to love. Write two commentators:

“(Jesus’) message demonstrated God’s righteous standard, for God Himself truly is the ‘standard’ of righteousness. If these individuals are to be righteous, they must be as God is, ‘perfect,’ that is, mature (teleioi) or holy. Murder, lust, hate, deception, and retaliation obviously do not characterize God. He did not lower His standard to accommodate humans; instead He set forth His absolute holiness as the standard. Though this standard can never be perfectly met by man himself, a person who by faith trusts in God enjoys His righteousness being reproduced in his life.” (John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, p. 32)

The Lord proposes to confer the highest blessings upon the Latter-day Saints; but, like Abraham, we must prepare ourselves for them, and to do this the same law that was given to him of the Lord has been given to us for our observance. We also are required to arrive at a state of perfection before the Lord; and the Lord in this case, the same as in every other, has not made a requirement that cannot be complied with, but on the other hand, He has placed for the use of the Latter-day Saints the means by which they can conform to His holy order. When the Lord made this requirement of Abraham, He gave him the means by which he could become qualified to obey that law and come up fully to the requirement. He had the privilege of the Holy Spirit, as we are told the gospel was preached to Abraham, and through that gospel he could obtain that divine aid which would enable him to understand the things of God, and without it no man could do so; without it no man could arrive at a state of perfection before the Lord.

So in reference to the Latter-day Saints; they could not possibly come up to such a moral and spiritual standard except through supernatural [heavenly] aid and assistance. Neither do we expect that the Latter-day Saints, at once will or can conform to this law under all circumstances. It requires time; it requires much patience and discipline of the mind and heart in order to obey this commandment. And although we may fail at first in our attempts, yet this should not discourage the Latter-day Saints from endeavoring to exercise a determination to comply with the great requirement. Abraham, although he might have had faith to walk before the Lord according to this divine law, yet there were times when his faith was sorely tried, but still he was not discouraged because he exercised a determination to comply with the will of God.

The ultimate goal in Mormonism is godhood. For example, Apostle James E. Talmage explained,

“We believe in the more than imperial status of the human race. We believe that our spirits are the offspring of Deity, and we hold that when Christ said to His apostles, ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,’ He was not talking of a merely idealistic yet impossible achievement; but that on the contrary He meant that it was possible for men to advance until they shall become like unto the Gods in their powers and in their attainments, through righteousness” (Conference Reports, April 1915, p. 123).

According to Snow, Mormons are “required to arrive at a state of perfection before the Lord” if they hope to attain this glorified state. This idea of perfection was a favorite topic of President Spencer Kimball. He explained:

“This progress toward eternal life is a matter of achieving perfection. Living all the commandments guarantees total forgiveness of sins and assures one of exaltation through that perfection which comes by complying with the formula the Lord gave us. In his Sermon on the Mount he made the command to all men: ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ (Matt. 5:48.) 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” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 208-209).

Notice how Kimball said that a person must “live” all the commandments if he or she hopes to have guaranteed “total forgiveness of sins.” In the same book he taught,

“In the context of the spirit of forgiveness, one good brother asked me, ‘Yes, that is what ought to be done, but how do you do it? Doesn’t that take a superman?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but we are commanded to be supermen. Said the Lord, ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ (Matt. 5:48.) We are gods in embryo, and the Lord demands perfection of us’” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 286).

While Snow is quoted as saying that being “nearly” perfect was somehow good enough. Kimball was adament when he said,

“I would emphasize that the teachings of Christ that we should become perfect were not mere rhetoric. He meant literally that it is the right of mankind to become like the Father and like the Son, having overcome human weaknesses and developed attributes of divinity” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 26).

President Brigham Young appears to agree with Kimball, explaining,

“There is not one requirement of the Lord that is non-essential; every requirement that He has made of us is essential to our perfection and sanctification, to prepare us to enjoy celestial glory” (November 6, 1863, Journal of Discourses 10:284).

These leaders’ teachings coincide with Moroni 10:32 in the Book of Mormon, which says,

“Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.”

If we are supposed to accept the Book of Mormon as God’s Word, then it seems to be saying that we must become perfected (not “nearly” perfected) before God’s grace can become sufficient. This is a classic “if/then” statement. As mentioned, it is taught throughout LDS history that achieving the commandments is vital for a person who hopes to someday attain the Celestial Kingdom and godhood. Perhaps this is why almost every Latter-day Saint with whom we converse on this topic will say “I don’t know” or “I hope so” when asked if they are assured of ending up in the Celestial Kingdom. Because they are not perfect, Latter-day Saints are told it is presumptuous to know if they have been forgiven from their sins and therefore possess “eternal life,” even though 1 John 5:13 says that it is possible to know if you have been cleansed. The Book of Mormon seems to indicate that keeping the commandments ought to be possible. After all, 1 Nephi 3:7 explains, “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.”

The Bible, however, makes it clear that perfection only comes through Christ. The book of Hebrews explains this concept in detail. Beginning in Hebrews 7:11 in a passage titled “Jesus Like Melchizedek” (NIV), the author explains:

If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood—and indeed the law given to the people established that priesthood—why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also. He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. For it is declared:

“You are a priest forever,  in the order of Melchizedek.”

The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God. And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath, but he became a priest with an oath when God said to him:

“The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind:  ‘You are a priest forever.’”  

Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant.

Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.

Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.

Notice the important points made in this passage:

1)            Perfection could never come through the Levitical priesthood

2)            Jesus was not a priest based on his heritage; rather, it’s based on His indestructible life

3)            The law could never make anyone perfect, so humanity needed someone to become                              the perfect sacrifice

4)            The “better hope” is through Jesus, who is “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners,                        exalted about the heavens”

5)            Unlike the Levitical priests, Jesus is a priest forever

6)            Jesus is the “guarantor of a better covenant”

7)            Only Jesus is “able to save completely those who come to God through him”

According to Hebrews, it is a waste of time for people to spin their wheels trying to attain perfection. Instead, what is necessary is placing personal faith in the One who is already perfect and who can cleanse human beings from their sin condition.

Meanwhile, Paul explains how nobody is righteous when standing spiritually naked before an all-holy God. For example, he says in Romans 3:9-19:

9 What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. 10 As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one; 11  there is no one who understands;  there is no one who seeks God.

12 All have turned away,  they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” 

“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”

14     “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”

15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;

16     ruin and misery mark their ways,

17 and the way of peace they do not know.”

18     “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.

The clincher in this section is verse 20, which says: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” And notice what verses 21-22 say about “righteousness through faith”:

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe…

Verse 28 adds, “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” In the Joseph Smith Translation, the word “alone” in verse 28 modifies “faith.” Of course, Smith’s earlier ideas (from 1833) were not compatible with his later teaching. By prodding people to reach for the impossible goal of perfection based on their own efforts, Mormonism robs people of true grace that results in an intimate relationship with the God as described in the Bible. It is only through Jesus’ work on the cross and our faith in Him that allows a person to attain forgiveness, with absolutley nothing brought to the table by the sinful individual.

When we continue with Paul’s line of reasoning, we see that he spends time talking about the very same Abraham referred to by Snow. And what he says in Romans completely contradicts Snow’s way of thinking. In the first four verses (titled “Abraham Justified by Faith” in the NIV), Paul explains:

What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” 4 Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.

Later in that chapter, Paul teaches that Abraham was justified before his circumcision:

9 Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. 10 How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. 11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, 12 and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.

This promise was not gained through individual “perfection,” which Mormonism teaches is necessary, but rather through faith. Explaining how righteousness is “imputed” to the believer, Paul writes in Romans 4:13-25:

13 For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect, 15 because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression.

16 Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all 17 (as it is written, “I have made you a father of many nations”) in the presence of Him whom he believed—God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did; 18 who, contrary to hope, in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations, according to what was spoken, “So shall your descendants be.” 19 And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. 20 He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, 21 and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. 22 And therefore “it was accounted to him for righteousness.”

23 Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, 24 but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.

Contrary to Snow’s analysis, Abraham was justified by faith, not by personal perfection. The message cannot be any more plain!

We may think that we cannot live up to the perfect law, that the work of perfecting ourselves is too difficult. This may be true in part, but the fact still remains that it is a command of the Almighty to us and we cannot ignore it. When we experience trying moments, then is the time for us to avail ourselves of that great privilege of calling upon the Lord for strength and understanding, intelligence and grace by which we can overcome the weakness of the flesh against which we have to make a continual warfare.

No matter how hard we try or how often and sincerely we “call upon the Lord for strength and understanding,” successfully living the Mormon gospel is just an impossible endeavor. And when the commandments are not kept, former sins will return, as D&C 82:7 states “…go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, said the Lord your God. However, true peace is available, as Romans 5:1-2a explains: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” This is because the forgiven Christian understands that “as far as the east is from the west, so far as He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). When a person understands that faith in the true God is all that is necessary to obtain peace with the Creator, attitudes change. Despair turns to hope! After all, what is impossible for us is possible with God.

I find it interesting when Latter-day Saints attempt to minimize the many LDS teachings on living up to the “perfect law.” One good example can be found in the March 2013 Ensign, a montly church periodical. In an article titled “The Enabling Power of the Atonement” (p. 18ff), the author explains how the atonement is what “enables every person to be resurrected from the dead” (p. 20). This general resurrection from the dead is provided to all people  because they were valient in the pre-mortal state, allowing them to be born with physical bodies. Quoting Apostle David Bednar, the author explains:

But, Elder Bednar said, ‘I frankly do not think many of us ‘get it’ concerning [the] enabling and strengthening aspect of the Atonement, and I wonder if we mistakingly believe we must make the journey from good to better and become a saint all by ourselves through sheer grit, willpower, and discipline and with our obviously limited capacities.’

The author analyzes, 

The belief that through our own ‘sheer grit, willpower, and discipline’ we can manage just about anything seems to be widespread these days. This simply is not true. Heavenly Father and the Savior can inspire, comfort, and strengthen us in our time of need, if we remember to cast our burdens at their feet. (p. 20)

Left at this, the impression could be given that perhaps Mormons really do understand the concept of grace. Maybe the quotes given throughout this article were taken out of context. But on the next page, this same author explains grace in a way that no Evangelical Christian would understand. She writes,

When we feel troubled, unsure, afraid, or discouraged, doing the following can help us access the power of grace and the Atonement:

* Believe in the Father and in the Son and all They have promised to do for us.

* Obey God’s commandments and partake of the sacrament regularly to build spiritual strength.

* Pray, fast, study the scriptures, and worship in the temple to feel God’s love and know of His promises. (p. 21)

There we go, the same old, same old: obey, do this or that, and build on the “grace” God has given. The Church then conveniently placed a quarter-page sidebar at the corner of page 21 titled “Answering Questions: What do Latter-day Saints believe about grace?” In part, it explains:

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.

Notice, grace cannot stand on its own. Works and ordinances are also requirements for exaltation. Grace does allow each person to be resurrected with a “body from the grave in a condition of everlasting life.” However, the sidebar ends by saying that grace is “an enabling power” to give a person “strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means.” This, my friends, is not the grace of biblical Christianity! According to these words, grace gets you to the dance. Once you arrive, now it’s time to perform (attaining perfection?) in order to attain exaltation. As Paul explained in Romans 11:6, “And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.”

The Lord designs to bring us up into the celestial kingdom. He has made known through direct revelation that we are His offspring, begotten in the eternal worlds, that we have come to this earth for the special purpose of preparing ourselves to receive a fulness of our Father’s glory when we shall return into His presence. Therefore, we must seek the ability to keep this law to sanctify our motives, desires, feelings and affections that they may be pure and holy and our will in all things be subservient to the will of God, and have no will of our own except to do the will of our Father. Such a man in his sphere is perfect, and commands the blessing of God in all that he does and wherever he goes.

According to Snow, keeping the law is the way for humans to attain what they were created for: Godhood in the Celestial Kingdom. Yet Latter-day Saints can never have assurance that this is their final destination. This way of thinking doesn’t seem to coincide with Philippians 4:7, which declares that it is possible to obtain the “peace of God, which passeth all understanding.” Contrary to peace, a person who embraces Mormonism is left with working, worrying, and wishing. This is not the pattern of Romans 3-5, as quoted above.

But we are subject to folly, to the weakness of the flesh and we are more or less ignorant, thereby liable to err. Yes, but that is no reason why we should not feel desirous to comply with this command of God, especially seeing that he has placed within our reach the means of accomplishing this work. This I understand is the meaning of the word perfection, as expressed by our Saviour and by the Lord to Abraham.

Snow says that God “has placed within (your) reach the means of accomplishing this work.” This means Latter-day Saints have what it takes to keep God’s laws. So how are you doing at that?

A person may be perfect in regard to some things and not others. A person who obeys the word of wisdom faithfully is perfect as far as that law is concerned. When we repented of our sins and were baptized for the remission of them, we were perfect as far as that matter was concerned.

A Latter-day Saint might be successful in keeping one sphere, such as the Word of Wisdom. But if he is not keeping the next sphere, what good is it that he accomplished the first sphere? Perfection in one area but failure in the next does not equal what God’s standard is: perfection in all areas.

Rather than become discouraged when we fail, we can repent and ask God for strength to do better.

Now we are told by the Apostle John, that “we are the sons of God, but it does not appear what we shall be: but we know that when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he, Christ is pure.” [See 1 John 3:2–3.] The Latter-day Saints expect to arrive at this state of perfection; we expect to become as our Father and God, fit and worthy children to dwell in his presence; we expect that when the Son of God shall appear, we shall receive our bodies renewed and glorified, and that “these vile bodies will be changed and become like unto his glorious body.” [See Philippians 3:21.]

Earlier in this Philippians 3 passage, Paul “boasts” in his Jewish background, including how for “legalistic righteousness” he was “faultless” (v. 4-6). Notice what he says in the following verses:

7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.

Lorenzo Snow says that it requires effort on a person’s part to be able to dwell in God’s presence. To the contrary, Paul says all of his efforts are like “garbage” because it is impossible to gain “righteousness of my own that comes from the law.” Rather, his righteousness comes through faith in Christ. The goal is glorification, as Paul explains in Philippians 3:20-21:

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

The messages of Snow and Paul are radically different. The first gospel offers despair because it is impossible to attain perfection based on one’s own efforts. Yet nobody can ever do all they can do (2 Nephi 25:23). However, the latter gospel offers hope through God’s power and eschews attaining it on our own. The prize? Eternity with God. What more could anyone ask for?

These are our expectations. Now let all present put this question to themselves: Are our expectations well founded? In other words, are we seeking to purify ourselves? How can a Latter-day Saint feel justified in himself unless he is seeking to purify himself even as God is pure, unless he is seeking to keep his conscience void of offence before God and man every day of his life? We doubtless, many of us, walk from day to day and from week to week, and from month to month, before God, feeling under no condemnation, comporting ourselves properly and seeking earnestly and in all meekness for the Spirit of God to dictate our daily course; and yet there may be a certain time or times in our life, when we are greatly tried and perhaps overcome; even if this be so, that is no reason why we should not try again, and that too with redoubled energy and determination to accomplish our object.

The Lord wishes to show leniency towards His children on earth, but He requires of them true repentance when they transgress or fail in any duty. He expects their obedience and that they will endeavor to cast aside all sin, to purify themselves and become indeed His people, His Saints, so that they may be prepared to come into His presence, be made like unto Him in all things and reign with Him in His glory. To accomplish this they must walk in the strait and narrow way, making their lives brighter and better, being filled with faith and charity, which is the pure love of Christ, and attending faithfully to every duty in the Gospel.

If we could read in detail the life of Abraham or the lives of other great and holy men we would doubtless find that their efforts to be righteous were not always crowned with success. Hence we should not be discouraged if we should be overcome in a weak moment; but, on the contrary, straightway repent of the error or the wrong we may have committed, and as far as possible repair it, and then seek to God for renewed strength to go on and do better.

When they are asked about how they can be forgiven from their sins, Mormons often answer by saying “through repentance.” Contrary to Snow’s last sentence, however (“as far as possible repair it”), the LDS scripture, church manuals, and General Authorities all say that repentance involves much, much more. According to D&C 58:43, “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.” Consider these church manuals and their description of this issue:

  • “Forsaketh– Repents of, gives up and never does again” (Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Student Guide, 2001, p. 106. Referring to D&C 93).
  • “We repent by no longer sinning” (Uniform System for Teaching Investigators, 1961, p. 55).
  • “What do we have to do to show we have truly repented? (Confess our sins and forsake them)” (Preparing for Exaltation, p. 68).
  •  “To make our repentance complete we must keep the commandments of the Lord” (Gospel Principles, p. 125).

According to Mormonism, true repentance only comes through the complete forsaking of sins. This concept is repeated over and over again by the LDS General Authorities. Consider the following quotes by these LDS presidents:

President Wilford Woodruff: “And what is repentance? The forsaking of sin. The man who repents, if he be a swearer, swears no more; or a thief, steal no more; he turns away from all former sins and commits them no more. It is not repentance to say, I repent today, and then steal tomorrow; that is the repentance of the world, which is displeasing in the sight of God” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff, pp. 71-72).

President Joseph F. Smith: “True repentance is not only sorrow for sins, and humble penitence and contrition before God, but it involves the necessity of turning away from them, a discontinuance of all evil practices and deeds, a thorough reformation of life, a vital change from evil to good, from vice to virtue, from darkness to light. Not only so, but to make restitution, so far as it is possible, for all the wrongs we have done, to pay our debts, and restore to God and man their rights—that which is due to them from us. This is true repentance, and the exercise of the will and all the powers of body and mind is demanded, to complete this glorious work of repentance; then God will accept it” (Gospel Doctrine, 1986, pp. 100-101. See also Doctrines of the Gospel Student Manual: Religion 231 and 232, p. 40).

President Harold B. Lee: “In one sentence, repentance means turning from that which we have done wrong in the sight of the Lord and never repeating that mistake again. Then we can have the miracle of forgiveness.” (Ye Are the Light of the World: Selected Sermons and Writings of Harold B. Lee, p. 321).

President Spencer W. Kimball: “There is one crucial test of repentance. This is abandonment of the sin” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 163. See also Doctrines of the Gospel Student Manual: Religion 231 and 232, p. 40. See also Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, p. 39).

Furthermore, Kimball explained,

“Repentance must involve an all-out, total surrender to the program of the Lord. That transgressor is not fully repentant who neglects his tithing, misses his meetings, breaks the Sabbath, fails in his family prayers, does not sustain the authorities of the Church, breaks the Word of Wisdom, does not love the Lord nor his fellowmen. A reforming adulterer who drinks or curses is not repentant. The repenting burglar who has sex play is not ready for forgiveness. God cannot forgive unless the transgressor shows a true repentance which spreads to all areas of his life” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 203. See also Doctrines of the Gospel Student Manual: Religion 231 and 232, p. 41. See also Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, p. 43).

When should this be done? According to Kimball, the time is now! He said, “Christ became perfect through overcoming. 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 Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 210).

The hope for a Latter-day Saint to accomplish this could involve a lengthy timeline. 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. It could he weeks, it could he years, it could be centuries before that happy day when you have the positive assurance that the Lord has forgiven you. That depends on your humility your sincerity, your works, your attitudes” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 324-325).

Someone reading this review might complain, saying, “Hey Johnson, you sure are quoting a lot from Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness.” Indeed, I am. This is because this book has been talked about as having an authority. For example, consider this quote from Apostle Richard G. Scott in a 2004 General Conference talk:

“When needed, full repentance will require action on your part. If you are not familiar with the classic steps to repentance, such as confession and abandonment of sin, restitution, obedience, and seeking forgiveness, talk to a bishop or study a source such as President Spencer W. Kimball’s masterly work The Miracle of Forgiveness” (“Peace of Conscience and Peace of Mind,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2004, p. 16).

Again, I ask the Latter-day Saint, have you truly repented of your sins? If so, you must not repeat them and don’t even struggle with them. If not, according to Mormonism’s standards, would you say that you have really “repented”?

 “Let this same mind be in you,” says the Apostle Paul, “which was also in Christ Jesus: who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” [See Philippians 2:5–6.] Now every man that has this object before him will purify himself as God is pure, and try to walk perfectly before him. We have our little follies and our weaknesses; we should try to overcome them as fast as possible, and we should inculcate this feeling in the hearts of our children, that the fear of God may grow up with them from their very youth, and that they may learn to comport themselves properly before Him under all circumstances.

While Snow says that “we should try to overcome” “our little follies and our weaknesses,” Spencer Kimball disagreed. He wrote, “Trying Is Not Sufficient. Nor is repentance complete when one merely tries to abandon sin” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 164). The word “trying’ is never used to describe a successful attempt. Instead, it denotes failure. After all, a person who climbs a mountain doesn’t say “I tried to climb a mountain.” Rather, she says, “I climbed a mountain.” As Kimball has stated, to use the word “try” along with “repentance” and “forsaking sin” is not compatible with the Mormonism taught in Salt Lake City.

If the husband can live with his wife one day without quarrelling or without treating anyone unkindly or without grieving the Spirit of God in any way, that is well so far; he is so far perfect. Then let him try to be the same the next day. But supposing he should fail in this his next day’s attempt, that is no reason why he should not succeed in doing so the third day. …

On the fourth, fifth, or sixth day, or even the hundreth and thirthieth, every person will eventually fail. Probably referring to a quote from Mormon founder Joseph Smith (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 348), Spencer Kimball explained,

“Each command we obey sends us another rung up the ladder to perfected manhood and toward godhood; and every law disobeyed is a sliding toward the bottom where man merges into the brute world. Only he who obeys law is free. Serfdom comes to him who defies law. ‘The truth shall make you free’ (John 8:32) was another of the incontrovertible truths authored by the Master. He truly is free who is master of situations, habits, passions, urges, and desires. If one must yield to appetite or passion and follow its demands, he is truly the servant of a dictator” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 153).

In explaining how trying is insufficient, Kimball also wrote,

“An army officer called a soldier to him and ordered him to take a message to another officer. The soldier saluted and said, ‘I’ll try, sir! I’ll try!’ To this the officer responded: ‘I don’t want you to try, I want you to deliver this message.’ The soldier, somewhat embarrassed, now replied: ‘I’ll do the best I can, sir.’ At this the officer, now disgusted, rejoined with some vigor: ‘I don’t want you to try and I don’t want you to “do the best you can.” I want you to deliver this message.’ Now the young soldier, straightening to his full height, approached the matter magnificently, as he thought, when he saluted again and said: ‘I’ll do it or die, sir.’ To this the now irate officer responded: ‘I don’t want you to die, and I don’t want you merely to do the best you can, and I don’t want you to try. Now, the request is a reasonable one; the message is important; the distance is not far; you are able-bodied; you can do what I have ordered. Now get out of here and accomplish your mission’” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 164).

Instead of merely trying, the Mormon is commanded to accomplish, just as in Kimball’s parable the officer (God) commanded the soldier (human beings). Our intentions or attitude doesn’t matter. Indeed, “the request is a reasonable one…now get out of here and accomplish your mission.”

The Latter-day Saints should cultivate this ambition constantly which was so clearly set forth by the apostles in former days. We should try to walk each day so that our conscience would be void of offence before everybody. And God has placed in the Church certain means by which we can be assisted, namely, Apostles and Prophets and Evangelists, etc., “for the perfecting of the Saints,” etc. [See Ephesians 4:11–12.] And he has also conferred upon us his Holy Spirit which is an unerring guide, standing, as an angel of God, at our side, telling us what to do and affording us strength and succor when adverse circumstances arise in our way. We must not allow ourselves to be discouraged whenever we discover our weakness. We can scarcely find an instance in all the glorious examples set us by the prophets, ancient or modern, wherein they permitted the Evil One to discourage them; but on the other hand they constantly sought to overcome, to win the prize and thus prepare themselves for a fulness of glory.

The editors of Snow’s manual allowed the word “try” to enter the conversation once more. Another “trying” word, “sought,” is used as well. As explained above, trying and seeking is not what God requires, according to the LDS gospel. Instead, abandoning sin successfully is what is stressed.

With divine help, we can live above the follies and vanities of the world.

When we once get it into our minds that we really have the power within ourselves through the gospel we have received, to conquer our passions, our appetites and in all things submit our will to the will of our Heavenly Father, and, instead of being the means of generating unpleasant feeling in our family circle, and those with whom we are associated, but assisting greatly to create a little heaven upon earth, then the battle may be said to be half won. One of the chief difficulties that many suffer from is, that we are too apt to forget the great object of life, the motive of our Heavenly Father in sending us here to put on mortality, as well as the holy calling with which we have been called; and hence, instead of rising above the little transitory things of time, we too often allow ourselves to come down to the level of the world without availing ourselves of the divine help which God has instituted, which alone can enable us to overcome them. We are no better than the rest of the world if we do not cultivate the feeling to be perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect.

Is it even possible to “conquer our passions, our appetites” and “submit our will to the will of our Heavenly Father”? Even the apostle Paul—as much as his example ought to be admired—was unable to successfully accomplish this . He writes in an autobiographical sense in Romans 7:14-25:

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!

Finally, I can hear the critic, saying, “Are you suggesting that we shouldn’t try to be good? That we shouldn’t do our best to follow God’s law? Johnson, yuo seem to be saying that good works really don’t matter!” At this point, James 2:20, 26 are verses that are commonly brought into the discussion. The complaint is that such an attitude embraces antinomianism, which is the idea that freely sinning is justified. After all, since a person is saved by grace, what motivation is there to do good works?

This objection is answered by saying good works do matter, but only in the role of sanctification. When it comes to justification before an all-holy God, however, our works are like “filthy rags” (Is. 64:6). Consider Paul’s words in Romans 6:1-14, as he anticipated this argument from those who assumed good works and grace can not mesh. 

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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.

If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin–because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to live; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.

The subtitle of this chapter was “a little better day by day.” But is “a little better day by day” going to get a person to his or her goal of perfection? This is akin to somebody saying, “If only I swim 50 yards a day from San Diego, I will eventually reach Hawaii.” No, my friend, you will never reach Hawaii, no matter how hard you swim. Mathmatically, it would seem logical that 50 yards a day will allow you to end up on the shore of this tropical paradise, but did you consider the currents and other issues that make this an impossible endeavor? When it comes to having a relationship with God, this too is impossible if human effort is required. Instead of trying to accomplish the impossible task of swimming to Hawaii, it’s going to work much better if you hop aboard a jet or cruise ship and allow the pilot/captain to take you there, with no effort of your own! You don’t have to swim 500 miles or even 50 yards. You board the aircraft/vessel and enjoy the flight.

Fortunately, eternal life for the believer does not come through one’s own efforts but through Jesus Christ the Lord! We are not under law but under grace. Any other way, including the system endorsed by Mormonism, is inadequate and just won’t work.

For a two-part podcast series on the “Perils of Perfectionism,” go to Part 1 and Part 2

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