by Sharon Lindbloom
8 July 2019
The June issue of Ensign magazine (2019), published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, contains an article in its “What We Believe” section titled, “We Believe in Being Perfect—in Christ” (30-31, emphasis in the original). The LDS doctrine related to being perfect has been examined and discussed several times at Mormonism Research Ministry because of the ambiguity with which LDS leaders interpret it, as well as the unbiblical nature of the teaching. For this article I don’t intend to focus as much on the history of the doctrine as on the June Ensign’s presentation of it.
The Ensign article starts off noting that in Matthew 5:48 Jesus commanded His followers to be perfect, then asks,
“how does God expect us to keep this commandment? By gaining a correct understanding of God’s expectations for us, we can come to know what the prophet Moroni meant when he said we can become ‘perfect in Christ’ (see Moroni 10:32-33).”
Moroni 10:32-33 is an oft-quoted Book of Mormon text that explains how, according to Mormonism, one becomes “perfect in Christ.” It reads,
“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. And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins that ye become holy, without spot.”
It’s clear from this passage that being “perfect in Christ” requires God’s grace; that is stated no fewer than three times. But what does it mean to be “perfect in Christ”? The Ensign article tells its readers that the key to understanding what it means is in having a “correct understanding” of God’s expectations.
Falling under the sub-headline, “What Does it Mean to Be Perfect?” three LDS apostles are quoted (one of whom is also the current church president). These quotes comprise the entire text that is meant to answer the question of what it means to be perfect. The interesting thing is that each included quote discusses Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus indeed says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (see a Christian explanation of Jesus’ statement here), but He does not say you must be “perfect in Christ.” These words, the foundation of the LDS doctrine being presented in this Ensign, come from a Book of Mormon passage that the LDS leaders do not address in the article.
So, what does it mean in Mormonism to be “perfect in Christ”? The article’s quotes do not make that clear. However, the reader may find the answer in an inset box on the facing page. Titled, “What God Expects,” the box includes a list of five expectations God has of every person. Remember it has already been stated that by gaining a correct understanding of God’s expectations we can know what Moroni meant when he said we can become “perfect in Christ.”
The first item on the list is a partial quote of Moroni 10:32: “Deny yourselves of all ungodliness…and love God with all your might, mind and strength.” This, according to Moroni, must be accomplished before receiving grace from God, the grace that he says is sufficient to make a person “perfect in Christ.”
The second item on the list says, “With faith in Jesus Christ, repent when we fall short.” Note that the need to repent indicates that a person has not yet complied with the first “expectation” on the list–that of denying oneself of all ungodliness. Past LDS president Spencer W. Kimball explained, “Repentance is for every soul who has not yet reached perfection” (Spencer W. Kimball, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, 2006, 37). Once we reach perfection, once we deny ourselves of all ungodliness, repentance is no longer necessary.
Expectation number three is, “Keep the covenants, or promises, we have made with God.” If we are shown to be covenant-breakers, we are shown to be sinners, far short of God’s expectations. Again Spencer W. Kimball explains, “Of those who break covenants and promises made in sacred places and in solemn manner, we can apply the Lord’s words as follows: ‘… a wicked man, who has set at naught the counsels of God, and has broken the most sacred promises which were made before God, and has depended upon his own judgment and boasted in his own wisdom’ (D&C 3:12-13).” (Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, 57)
The fourth expectation is much like the third: “Do our best to keep the commandments throughout our lives.” This is an interesting way to phrase this expectation in that it seems like it’s saying that it doesn’t matter whether commandments are kept, only whether we tried to keep them. Can this really be correct? That God commands that we keep the commandments but doesn’t actually expect us to keep them? Brigham Young taught,
“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)
Add to that 11th LDS president Harold B. Lee’s admonition,
“Any member of the Church who is learning to live perfectly each of the laws that are in the kingdom is learning the way to become perfect. There is no member of this Church who cannot live the law, every law of the gospel perfectly.” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, 2000, 33)
It’s pretty clear that, like keeping covenants, actually keeping the commandments is also expected. After all, one of the covenants Mormons make with God at baptism is a promise to “keep His commandments.” This emphasis on doing rather than merely trying also fits well with what LDS apostle D. Todd Christofferson taught:
“To be classed among the truly penitent, random acts of obedience will not be adequate. We must properly enter into the covenants and persist in keeping them…It is not simply the promise of obedience in our contracts with Deity that brings grace, but the performance of our promises.” (“Justification and Sanctification,” Ensign, June 2001, 24)
The fifth and final expectation on the list quotes the LDS scripture Doctrine & Covenants 67:13: “Continue in patience until ye are perfected.” In other words, God’s expectation is that we keep trying until we succeed.
This fifth point seems to lead into the other inset box on that page of the Ensign that lists “What God Doesn’t Expect.” This list is one of attitudes, suggesting the ways Mormons might (but shouldn’t) think about the perfection that is required of them: Don’t think you must be perfect now; don’t labor under an attitude of perfectionism; don’t think you must work all the time; don’t be self-critical over failure to progress in becoming perfect; don’t think of heaven as something you must try to “earn.” None of this thought-adjustment mitigates the LDS church’s list of God’s expectations.
Once a person has a correct understanding of what God expects, says the LDS church, that person will know what it means to be “perfect—in Christ.” Recognizing God’s expectations as provided in this article, it is clear that “What [the LDS church] believes” about this is just what one would expect: we must achieve perfection or, in the words of LDS president Russell Nelson (quoted in the article), “errorless performance” (and “much more”). God expects a denial of all ungodliness, complete and total devotion to and love for Him, true repentance (i.e., never sinning again), perfect covenant-keeping, absolute commandment-keeping, and a commitment to keep on trying until the goal is reached. As Spencer W. Kimball taught,
“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.” (Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, 208-209)
This “achievable goal” must be reached before God’s grace will be applied; that is, God’s expectations leading to perfection must be accomplished by a person’s own strength and determination. LDS apostle Henry D. Moyle explained,
“Our Church is founded upon the premise that spiritual growth and exaltation must be earned by the efforts of the individual.” (Henry D. Moyle, Improvement Era, December 1937, 787).
The LDS church says that, “We Believe in Being Perfect—in Christ,” but it is wholly unclear to me where Christ enters in to this perfection process. The Book of Mormon says it requires the grace of God to become “perfect in Christ,” but God’s expectations, as laid out in the Ensign article, require what amounts to self-achieved perfection before that grace is made available to any individual.
The Ensign article seems to gloss over the heavy burden the LDS doctrine of perfection places on Mormons. Employing a vague approach in explaining the doctrine, it appears to lower the bar regarding the meaning of “being perfect—in Christ.” While the article, on the face of it, might give hope to struggling Latter-day Saints, actually achieving what is required—that is, God’s stated “expectations”—is entirely hopeless. Though the article quotes LDS apostle Gerrit Gong saying, “Understanding the Savior’s freely given atoning love can free us from self-imposed, incorrect, and unrealistic expectations of what perfection is,” for anyone who reads between the lines, what the LDS church presents in this “What We Believe” article is its same old impossible gospel.
Mormonism’s “restored gospel” is nothing like the biblical gospel–that Jesus is perfect for us. The Bible tells us that it is the holiness, perfection, and righteousness of Christ that makes us acceptable to the Father. Rather than an impossible gospel that requires individual, self-achieved perfection, the gift of “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22) is a beautiful gospel. And it is very, very Good News for all who have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
For more information listen to Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson discuss Gerrit Gong’s 2014 Ensign article, “Becoming Perfect in Christ” during a 5-part Viewpoint on Mormonism: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5