By Eric Johnson
The word perfection has been emphasized in several different ways by LDS leaders over the years. Today, imperatives like “strive” and “do your best” are often used in response to a word that, in this church’s history, has historically been associated with successfully accomplishing the task (i.e. commandment) at hand.
Perfection was the focus of attention in the church’s official adult magazine, Ensign, in the September 2019 issue. There were not just one or even two articles addressed this topic to “young adults,” but rather there were three in a row. It is a topic that must be causing many young Mormon folks in the Millennial and Gen Z generations (if not the Silent, Baby Boomer, and Gen X crowds as well) much consternation. The articles make it appear that too many Mormons have been misunderstanding God’s command in Matthew 5:48. To the rescue are three young Millennial Latter-day Saint writers who are called in to minimize the perceived problem while letting the younger generation know that they are good enough, as long as they believe and keep God’s commandments to the best of their effort.
It almost seems as if the church is trying to empower their young people to detour them from the depression that so often comes when the demands of Mormonism are fully understood. The lyrics from a song (“I believe”) in the Disney movie A Wrinkle in Time (2018) seem to fit:
Today, I saw a rainbow in the rain
It told me I can do anything
If I believe, I believe, I believe in me
I believe, I believe, I believe in me
I got the light, inside of me
And I’ve got no choice, but to let it breathe
As long as there is love, I can make it anywhere I go
If I follow my dreams, I’ll end up building a yellow brick road
Yet, despite the attempt of this one-two-three series of punches and letting the young people who read the article think that they’ll be fine as long as they “believe” and do their best falls short of the biblical standard. In addition, these writers also are missing what their church’s scriptures have been proclaiming–and interpreted by many important LDS leaders– for close to two centuries.
Perfection according to the Mormon Leadership
Before going any further, let’s consider the teachings of some important church leaders over the years who set the standard for Mormonism’s belief on perfection.
19th through the first half of the 20th century
Early leaders talked about perfection in a variety of ways, generally teaching how this state was fully attainable to the faithful Latter-day Saint in this lifetime. For example, second President 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).
Citing Matthew 5:48, George Q. Cannon, a member of the church’s First Presidency, explained,
Be perfect here? Yes, it is man’s privilege, the Latter-day Saints believe, to be as perfect in his sphere as God our eternal Father is in his sphere, or as Jesus in his sphere, or as the angels in their spheres. Said Jesus to his disciples —”Be ye perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Perfection, then, is to a certain extent possible on earth for those who will live, lives that are agreeable to the mind and will of God (October 8, 1874, Journal of Discourses 17:231).
Fifth President Lorenzo Snow was cited in a 2012 church manual as saying “with diligence, patience, and divine aid, we can obey the Lord’s command to be perfect” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow, p. 95). Snow also said that, even though perfection “requires time,” it can be done because otherwise God would not have commanded it:
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 a determination to comply with the will of God. 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 (Ibid., pp. 96-97).
Heber J. Grant, who later became the church’s seventh president, stated, “Every principle of the gospel has been revealed to us for our individual advancement and for our individual perfection, but it is the business of the devil to blind men’s eyes to these facts” (March 17, 1904, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 66:168). Citing Matthew 5:48, Apostle James Talmage told a general conference audience in 1915:
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).
Seventy Rulon S. Wells stated at the April 1933 General Conference,
Do we suppose that we are already prepared for the celestial glory? I hope we are all making progress toward that perfection that God will require when we enter into his celestial kingdom. If we are to become members of that kingdom we shall have to sanctify ourselves from all unrighteousness (Conference Reports, April 1933, p. 60).
As hard as I looked, I could find no General Authority who wanted to minimize the “be ye perfect” command or treat it as figurative language, not literal. Rather, they all made it certain that perfection is a goal that should be made for this lifetime.
In 1954, Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith (who later became the tenth president of the church) wrote a three-volume set of books titled Doctrines of Salvation. He talked about a “road to perfection” that included obedience to the commandments of God. He stated,
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 (Doctrines of Salvation 2:18-19. See also The Life and Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles manual, 1979, p. 292).
Perfection continued to be emphasized in the 1960s. For example, eleventh president Harold B. Lee was cited in a 2000 church manual as saying,
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, p. 33).
Perhaps nobody spoke on this topic more often than Spencer W. Kimball, who served as the 12th church president from 1973 to 1985. In fact, he gave much space in his classic 1969 work The Miracle of Forgiveness to this issue. Certainly some Latter-day Saints have disparaged the book because Kimball was quite forward and blunt in his assessment of perfection and how many Latter-day Saints were falling short. For example, he said in the first chapter,
It is true that many Latter-day Saints, having been baptized and confirmed members of the Church, and some even having received their endowments and having been married and sealed in the holy temple, have felt that they were thus guaranteed the blessings of exaltation and eternal life. But this is not so. There are two basic requirements every soul must fulfill or he cannot attain to the great blessings offered. He must receive the ordinances and he must be faithful, overcoming his weaknesses. Hence, not all who claim to be Latter-day Saints will be exalted. (p. 9. This is also quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, p. 9).
He also said on page 246 that “numerous” members of his church would be “disappointed” because they failed to live “worthy lives”:
Exaltation is available only to righteous members of the Church of Jesus Christ; only to those who accept the gospel; only to those who have their endowments in holy temples of God and have been sealed for eternity and who then continue to live righteously throughout their lives. Numerous members of the Church will be disappointed. All will fail of these blessing who fail to live worthy lives, even though the temple ordinances have been done for them.
Others, including secular critics, have detested the book because they felt it was unfair to the homosexual community. It is true that Kimball considered the practice of homosexuality to be a sexual sin, but isn’t this still the standard of the church? For example, a practicing homosexual is not supposed to eligible to receive his temple recommend and would be considered in moral failure for this practice.
Yet, for those naysayers, it should be considered that Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness was mentioned several times at General Conference sessions as one that every Latter-day Saint ought to read. To this day the book continues to be featured under Kimball’s portrait on the second floor of the Church History Museum in Temple Square in Salt Lake City. The church’s First Presidency even produced a special leather edition of the book in 1998 as a Christmas gift given to church employees. A card that came with the book signed by the First Presidency said, in part, that the book was a “precious treasure for all who would follow the Savior.” (For more on this pedigree of the book, click here.)
While I disagree with the doctrinal conclusions made by Kimball in The Miracle of Forgiveness, I do admit that he did do a good job of explaining Latter-day Saint teaching by properly exegeting (interpreting) the unique parts of the LDS canon—that is, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. For instance, he said Latter-day Saints should be able to keep the commandments of God when he taught:
“. . . There cannot any unclean thing enter into the kingdom of God. …” (1 Ne. 15:34.) And again, “… no unclean thing can dwell with God. . . . ” (1 Ne. 10:21.) To the prophets the term unclean in this context means what it means to God. To man the word may be relative in meaning—one minute speck of dirt does not make a white shirt or dress unclean, for example. But to God who is perfection, cleanliness means moral and personal cleanliness. Less than that is, in one degree or another, uncleanliness and hence cannot dwell with God (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 19. Also see Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, p. 36. Ellipses in original).
Referencing Matthew 5:48 in the Sermon on the Mount, Kimball referenced 1 Nephi 3:7 in a church manual, which quotes the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi as saying “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.” Kimball said,
Perfection is a word that causes different reactions from many people. Some people say, “Perfection? Why, that is impossible!” Others say, “Perfection? I get discouraged just thinking about it!” Yet, would the Lord give us a commandment that was impossible for us to keep? And when He gives a commandment, doesn’t he, as Nephi said, prepare a way for us to accomplish what he commands? The Sermon on the Mount is the Lord’s blueprint for perfection (The Life and Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles, 1979, p. 57).
Later in The Miracle of Forgiveness, Kimball reiterated,
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 (p. 210).
He also said
that the teachings of Christ (to) 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).
Since God wouldn’t give commandments that were not “do-able,” Kimball quoted Matthew 5:48 once again and taught that forgiveness of sins and future exaltation comes through “living all the commandments”:
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. . . . 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, ellipsis and boldface mine. See also the 1979 church manual The Life and Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles, p. 386).
Kimball never shied away from using Matthew 5:48 Instead, his attitude was “buckle up” and just put on the Superman cape:
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).
Accomplishing this command is found in keeping “laws and commandments,” according to Kimball, as he wrote,
Ordinances are basic to the gospel. Now, what is the gospel of which we speak? It is the power of God unto salvation; it is the code of laws and commandments which help us to become perfect, and the ordinances which constitute the entrance requirements (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 502).
The church put Kimball’s words into a 21st century church manual:
The Lord Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and Savior, has given us our map—a code of laws and commandments whereby we might attain perfection and, eventually godhood. This set of laws and ordinances is known as the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it is the only plan which will exalt mankind. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the sole repository of this priceless program in its fulness, which is made available to those who accept it. The Lord restored his kingdom in these days, with all its gifts and powers and blessings. Any church that you know of may possibly be able to take you for a long ride, and bring you some degree of peace and happiness and blessing, and they can carry you to the veil and there they drop you. The Church of Jesus Christ picks you up on this side of the veil and, if you live its commandments, carries you right through the veil as though it weren’t there and on through the eternities to exaltation (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, p. 5).
Many might think that only “big” sins are counted against them, but Kimball made it clear that even the smallest of transgressions was an offense to God. He wrote,
And let us not suppose that in calling people to repentance the prophets are concerned only with the more grievous sins such as murder, adultery, stealing, and so on, nor only with those persons who have not accepted the gospel ordinances. All transgressions must be cleansed, all weaknesses must be overcome, before a person can attain perfection and godhood (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 16).
On page 25 of The Miracle of Forgiveness, Kimball took the effort to list more than eighty different sins, including “irreverence, boasting, arrogance, pride. . . slothfulness, impatience, lack of understanding. . . .” Then, in case anyone mistakenly thought his list was meant to be complete, he added at the end, “Let no one rationalize his sins on the excuse that a particular sin of his is not mentioned nor forbidden in scripture.”
The result for those not reaching this reachable goal, he said, would not be the celestial kingdom. Rather, “those who have been decent and upright and who have lived respectable and good lives will go to a terrestrial kingdom whose glory is as the moon” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, p. 8). He also taught,
Lukewarm Saints get terrestrial glory. The terrestrial kingdom will not be enjoyed by the very wicked, for they shall obtain only the telestial. Neither will the terrestrial be given to the valiant, the faithful, the perfected, for they will go into the celestial kingdom prepared for those who live the celestial laws. But into the terrestrial will go those who do not measure up to the celestial. Speaking of one category of terrestrial people, the Lord says: “These are they who are not valiant in the testimony of Jesus; wherefore, they obtain not the crown over the kingdom of our God.” (D&C 76:79.) The “unvaliant” Latter-day Saint will find himself there (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 48. See also The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 315.).
Why have I spent so much time citing this one leader? Here is a man who, for more than a decade in the modern era, served as president of this church, supposedly having direct connection to God. (He is, for instance, the one who rescinded the 1978 priesthood ban on those with African heritage.) While some current leaders might try to minimize the standards presented by God, Kimball never backed away from his position. Probably nobody has exegeted the unique Standard Works on the issue of commandment-keeping and the requirements demanded by God any better than Kimball did. For those who would disagree with his analysis, perhaps they can show any other way to interpret passages such as D&C 1:31-32, D&C 58:43, D&C 82:6 and others.
The stress on keeping commandments was still being stressed by the church in the latter part of the 20th century. An example of this can be seen in this citation from a manual directed toward women:
Jesus said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Because it is very difficult to become perfect, our Father helps us. He has established the Church; called leaders; and given us commandments, principles, and ordinances. In our Church meetings we receive instructions concerning these things. We must obey and live according to God’s laws to become perfect (The Latter-day Saint Woman Part A, 2000, p. 122).
However, the impossibility of keeping all the commandments seemed to have caused some consternation for Stephen E. Robinson, a professor at church-owned BYU at that time. He explained in a popular 1992 book written for LDS laypeople that God relents and so doing one’s best is all that God requires:
This is not a doctrine of “easy” grace. There is no virtue one might have possessed before entering the covenant that one may then discard or renounce upon entering the covenant—without violating the covenant. The gospel covenant is not an excuse to work beneath our abilities. The covenant requires more than merely wishing we were better; we’ve got to actually do what is within our power. Although personal perfection is not required of us right now, our best attempt at it is. The good news is that God will not require of us more than the best we can do, but the bad news is he will not accept less than that either (Believing Christ: The Parable of the Bicycle and Other Good News, p. 88).
Of course, it could be debated just what “best attempt” and “the best we can do” really means. (A Latter-day Saint may say three pull-ups is his “best,” but wasn’t it possible to extend the effort by just one more pull-up?) A few years later at the October 1995 General Conference, Russell M. Nelson—at that time an apostle who later became the church’s prophet in 2018—gave a talk titled “Perfection Pending.” Citing Matthew 5:48, he said,
Keeping this commandment can be a concern because each of us is far from perfect, both spiritually and temporally. Reminders come repeatedly. . . . When comparing one’s personal performance with the supreme standard of the Lord’s expectation, the reality of imperfection can at times be depressing. My heart goes out to conscientious Saints who, because of their shortcomings, allow feelings of depression to rob them of happiness in life. Source
He broke down the two types of perfection into “mortal” and “immortal.” For mortal perfection, Nelson claimed that trying and doing one’s best is good enough. He said,
Mortal perfection can be achieved as we try to perform every duty, keep every law, and strive to be as perfect in our sphere as our Heavenly Father is in his. If we do the best we can, the Lord will bless us according to our deeds and the desires of our hearts.
Nelson did an original Greek analysis of the word for “perfect” in Matthew 5:48 and correctly said that the word means “complete,” not freedom from error. A few years later, Apostle Joseph B. Wirthlin made a similar reference to this word when he said,
In both His Old and New World ministries, the Savior commanded, “Be ye therefore perfect.” A footnote explains that the Greek word translated as perfect means “complete, finished, fully developed.” Our Heavenly Father wants us to use this mortal probation to “fully develop” ourselves, to make the most of our talents and abilities. If we do so, when final judgment comes we will experience the joy of standing before our Father in Heaven as “complete” and ‘finished’ sons and daughters, polished by obedience and worthy of the inheritance that He has promised to the faithful” (“The Time to Prepare,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 1998, p. 14).
While these two leaders do explain the background of “telios” correctly, one must wonder why the church’s leaders and its members have, for so many years, utilized Matthew 5:48 as support for good works as a requirement for exaltation.
The 21st Century
Over the past two decades, much continues to be written on this issue of perfection in support of the word’s traditional teaching. For instance, Seventy Robert C. Oaks, the first cousin to Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the First Presidency, wrote the following in a church magazine referring to Jesus:
His example of unhesitating, unswerving obedience sets a very high bar, but when we accept His admonition to “be perfect even as I, or your Father is perfect” (3 Nephi 12:48) as a key element of the plan of eternal progression, we begin to understand what the Lord expects us to be. As we seek to determine what kind of Saints we really are, we must honestly grade ourselves on our willingness to obey God (“Stand and Be Judged for What We Really Are,” Ensign, April 2003, p. 65).
Later in that talk, Oaks made it appear that “striving” for the perfection goal was adequate:
The admonition to be perfect will be daunting unless we realize that our Father in Heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ, love us immeasurably and will help us. They have designed a plan whereby we can return to Their presence if we strive to obey Their laws and follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost” (Robert C. Oaks, “Stand and Be judged for What We Really Are,” Ensign, April 2003, p. 67. Emphasis mine).
A few years after this, Seventy Jorge F. Zeballos made it appear that the “impossible” could be possible when he told a General Conference audience,
The fulfillment of the divine promise to have eternal life, to achieve perfection, and to be happy forevermore in the family unit is subject to the sincere demonstration of our faith in Jesus Christ, obedience to the commandments, perseverance, and diligence throughout our lives. . . . Even when, from a purely human perspective, perfection can appear an impossible challenge to achieve, I testify that our Father and our Savior have made known to us that it is possible to achieve the impossible. Yes, it is possible to achieve eternal life. Yes, it is possible to be happy now and forever (“Attempting the Impossible,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2009, p. 34. Ellipsis mine).
Dallin H. Oaks stated at the April 2013 General Conference,
As part of His great Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The purpose of this teaching and the purpose of following our Savior is to come to the Father, whom our Savior referred to as “my Father, and your Father, and . . . my God, and your God” (John 20:17). From modern revelation, unique to the restored gospel, we know that the commandment to seek perfection is part of God the Father’s plan for the salvation of His children (“Followers of Christ,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2013, p. 98. Ellipsis in original).
However, other leaders have minimized these types of “perfection” teachings, including Seventy Kim B. Clark who, like Robert C. Oaks above, used the word “strive” while still saying that Latter-day Saint must “keep His commandments” and “always remember Him”:
We do not have to be perfect, but we need to be good and getting better. We need to strive to live the plain and simple truths of the gospel. If we take upon us the name of Christ, act with faith in Him to repent of our sins, keep His commandments, and always remember Him, we will receive the companionship of the Holy Ghost through the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ (“Eyes to See and Ears to Hear,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2015, p. 125).
In the next General Conference, Apostle David A. Bednar flat out said that perfection is an impossible goal in this lifetime:
Although none of us can achieve perfection is this life, we can become increasingly worthy and spotless as we are “cleansed by the blood of the Lamb” (“Always Retain a Remission of Your Sins,” Ensign, May 2016 (Conference Edition), p. 62).
In June 2019, the Ensign magazine had an article in its “What We Believe” section titled “We Believe in Being Perfect—In Christ” where it cited three different general authorities. An excellent review of this article can be found here written by Sharon Lindbloom: “Mormonism Affirms Its Doctrine of ‘Being Perfect in Christ.” What this does show, though, is that this “be ye perfect” issue is being dealt with very seriously in 2019, with four articles in four months of the Ensign focused on it.
With this history as a background, let’s consider the three articles included in the September 2019 Ensign magazine.
Article 1: “I’m Not Perfect. . . Yet” by Joelle Spijkerman, Ensign, September 2019, pp. 70-71
According to her bio at the end of the article, Spijkerman is a Latter-day Saint who lives in the Netherlands. “She loves the gospel, kids, and music, and she is currently studying to become a primary schoolteacher.” At the beginning of her article, she cites 3 Nephi 12:48, which is the Matthew 5:48 of the Book of Mormon, although it reads just a little differently: “Therefore I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect.” She then writes, “This scripture always hit me hard because I have struggled with perfectionism for my entire life.”
Saying she asked too much of herself, “I often fell short because I tried to accomplish so many things at once to prove that I was good enough.” She admitted,
I know I’m not the only person who struggles with perfectionism. So many of us are trying our best every day and feeling discouraged when we don’t accomplish everything perfectly. But despite our efforts, none of us will ever be completely perfect here on the earth. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles shares an answer: “Be ye therefore perfect–eventually” (Note: Bill McKeever and I spent a week covering Holland’s October 2017 general conference talk on our Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast from October 16-20, 2017—listen to those episodes here: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5).
While Holland’s 17-minute talk is often referenced by some Mormons who may be motivated to justify their lack of keeping all the commandments of God all the time, as they promise to do each week at the sacrament service, these words do nothing to change what previous leaders have taught. Yet in his talk Holland admitted that the many well-meaning Latter-day Saints struggle just as Spijkerman does:
Around the Church I hear many who struggle with this issue: “I am just not good enough.” “I fall so far short.” “I will never measure up.” I hear this from teenagers. I hear it from missionaries. I hear it from new converts. I hear it from lifelong members. One insightful Latter-day Saint, Sister Darla Isackson, has observed that Satan has somehow managed to make covenants and commandments seem like curses and condemnations. For some he has turned the ideals and inspiration of the gospel into self-loathing and misery-making. . . . With a willingness to repent and a desire for increased righteousness always in our hearts, I would hope we could pursue personal improvement in a way that doesn’t include getting ulcers or anorexia, feeling depressed or demolishing our self-esteem. That is not what the Lord wants for Primary children or anyone else who honestly sings, “I’m trying to be like Jesus.”
Perhaps Holland ought to ask, “Just why do so many around the church struggle with this issue?” Could it be that the membership understands the traditional teaching of Matthew 5:48? Holland’s solution is to “aspire” to be more Christlike. He taught,
Brothers and sisters, every one of us aspires to a more Christlike life than we often succeed in living. If we admit that honestly and are trying to improve, we are not hypocrites; we are human. May we refuse to let our own mortal follies, and the inevitable shortcomings of even the best men and women around us, make us cynical about the truths of the gospel, the truthfulness of the Church, our hope for our future, or the possibility of godliness. If we persevere, then somewhere in eternity our refinement will be finished and complete—which is the New Testament meaning of perfection.
Spijkerman cites Holland’ who had himself cited Nelson’s 1995 talk (as referenced earlier). All three used the word “strive/striving” to make their point. Let me demonstrate:
Nelson: “Mortal perfection can be achieved as we try to perform every duty, keep every law, and strive to be as perfect in our sphere as our Heavenly Father is in his. If we do the best we can, the Lord will bless us according to our deeds and the desires of our hearts.”
Holland: “My brothers and sisters, except for Jesus, there have been no flawless performances on this earthly journey we are pursuing, so while in mortality let’s strive for steady improvement without obsessing over what behavioral scientists call ‘toxic perfectionism.’”
“For such a perfect moment, I continue to strive, however clumsily.”
Spijkerman: “With Jesus Christ, we can always strive to become better, even so much that we will become perfect and complete one day because He will make up for our imperfections.”
At this point in the article, Spijkerman brings up Moroni 10:32. It 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.
We at MRM have talked often about Moroni 10:32, including here. The verse she uses–and so did Nelson and Holland in their conference talks–offers no hope whatsoever. Let’s break down the verse in its many imperatives (commands). The Mormon is supposed to
- Come unto Christ
- Be perfected in him
If the verse were to end there–perhaps even mentioning how the sinner has nothing to offer because, as Ephesians 2:1 and Colossians 2:13 put it, you are “dead in your trespasses and sins”–then we have something biblical as a foundation. Unfortunately, the verse continues, explaining that sinners must:
- Deny yourselves of all ungodliness
- Love God with all your might, mind, and strength
Then, and only then, is
- God’s grace sufficient for you
- A person able to become perfect in Christ through His grace
The Latter-day Saint does his or her part, and then the grace gets added in for a person to attain perfection. In other words, you must do your part (the “if” part of the verse’s construction) in order for the grace (the “then” part of the construction) to be validated. Clyde Williams was a BYU professor who correctly interpreted this verse when he wrote,
When we deny ourselves “of all ungodliness,” then and only “then is his grace sufficient” for us (Moroni 10:32) (“Plain and Precious Truths Restored,” Ensign, October 2006, p. 53).
D. Chad Richardson, an area seventy, cited the same verse and stated,
Moroni beautifully concludes the Book of Mormon by inviting all to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him” (Moroni 10:32). To do so, we must deny ourselves of all ungodliness, especially unchecked carnal appetites. We must love God with all our might, mind and strength, putting him above worldly approval. We will then be sanctified through the grace of Christ (“Earthly Choices, Eternal Consequences, Ensign, July 2004, p. 21.).
Yet the two LDS general authorities—Holland and Nelson—just don’t seem to understand the verse and its literal meaning. Or could they be playing semantical games to twist this scripture to say something Joseph Smith never meant it to say?
After citing parts of Moroni 10:32, Holland explained,
Our only hope for true perfection is in receiving it as a gift from heaven—we can’t “earn” it. Thus, the grace of Christ offers us not only salvation from sorrow and sin and death but also salvation from our own persistent self-criticism.
If he gets this interpretation from Moroni 10:32, then he needs to explain how this works. The verse clearly states that a person must do the “deny yourselves” and “love God” parts for any chance to make God’s grace sufficient. How could Holland miss this?
Nelson said that Moroni 10:32 “stands in any age as an antidote for depression and a prescription for joy.” Really? Does Nelson honestly believe that he’s doing everything that Moroni 10:32 states? I think the 17th president would do well to consider his church’s manuals that interprets this same verse. For instance, page 39 of the 1998 Preparing for Exaltation Teacher’s Manual teaches how keeping the commandments is the only way to “come unto Christ”:
We come unto Christ by having faith in him, repenting of our sins, being baptized, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, receiving other saving priesthood ordinances, obeying the commandments, and keeping the covenants we make with our Heavenly Father. How we live does make a difference (p. 39).
Later, in that same manual, it reads,
Have class members find and read Moroni 10:32. According to this verse, what must we do to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him”? (“Deny [ourselves] of all ungodliness, and love God with all [our] might, mind and strength.”) Explain that “deny yourselves of all ungodliness” means “give up your sins.” We must strive to give up our sins and demonstrate that we love God with all our might, mind, and strength. If we do this throughout our lives, then Jesus Christ, through his Atonement, will help us become perfect (Ibid, p. 123. Brackets in original).
After stating earlier (p. 39) that “how we live does make a difference,” that same manual uses the same word used by Nelson, Holland, and Spijkerman. Did you catch it?After stating the obvious (i.e. Moroni 10:32 says to “‘deny yourselves of all ungodliness’ means ‘give up your sins'”), page 123 uses the word “strive,” which is the same as “try.” Yet that is not what Moroni 10:32 or the other unique LDS passages say on this issue! Why is the Latter-day Saint community not catching this?
Is trying/striving sufficient?
After bringing up Moroni 10:32, Spijkerman writes,
Over the years I’ve realized I didn’t fully understand and comprehend what the Savior’s Atonement means for and to me. I thought I needed to have a flawless performance here on earth and that I was left alone to figure out how to fulfill this task. But now I know that we are never alone (p. 71).
Spijkerman doesn’t explain whether or not she is a convert to the church (as this paragraph seems to indicate) or someone born into the Mormon faith. Still, this is an odd thing for her to say. Just where did she get the idea that she “needed to have a flawless performance here on earth”? She must be one of the people that Holland talked about (i.e. “around the Church I hear many who struggle with this issue”)?
At the end of the article, Spijkerman stated that “although we aren’t perfect now, if we strive to follow Him, we will be one day.” This is what I don’t understand. If, as Moroni 10:32 seems to put it, maximum effort means falling short of God’s commands, then how is trying/striving admirable? If he were alive, President Kimball certainly would have asked the same question. In a chapter titled “Abandonment of Sin” from The Miracle of Forgiveness, he cited D&C 58:43, which says “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.” Thus, his conclusion seems reasonable:
Trying is Not Sufficient. Nor is repentance complete when one merely tries to abandon sin. . . . What is needed is resolute action. . . . To “try” is weak. To “do the best I can” is not strong. We must always do better than we can. This is true in every walk of life (The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 164-165, ellipses mine).
If we take the verse literally–and there’s no reason not to take it that way, as many other leaders have done–this is a much better interpretation of D&C 58:43, which says, “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.” Yet in his conference talk, Nelson said, “Meanwhile, brothers and sisters, let us do the best we can and try to improve each day. When our imperfections appear, we can keep trying to correct them.” Continuing to try to correct our sins while hoping that this is the way to appease God’s justice is like saying, How many times do I need to bang my head on the wall so I can feel better?
A Mormon cannot be “post modern” by saying both views are correct. Either President Kimball was correct in his analysis or he was wrong. If he was correct–and he does seem to be spot on with his analysis of D&C 58:43 and Moroni 10:32–then it is necessary to forsake all sins to reach the goal of forgiveness of sins. Trying / striving is an admission of failure. Neither verse uses the word “try” or “strive.” The following illustration will prove the point that “doing the best we can” or “trying to improve” will meet the LDS standards. Imagine if a Latter-day Saint told his bishop at the next temple recommend interview the following:
Bishop, I’ve really been striving to stop going to the coffee shop and having two cups of joe every day. I’ve tried to pay my tithing but I have only been able to come up with 2% this year. Isn’t that something? I was not able to succeed at either goal, but lo and behold, I did my best. And I made great improvement too! I used to drink four cups of coffee and I used to only pay a 1% tithe. As I see it, I’ve improved 100%! Hurrah for me! Now, if you don’t mind, please hand me my recommend and I’ll be on my way.
Will this “improvement” be acknowledged as admirable by the bishop?
Article 2: “Perfectionism: A Toxic Game of ‘Spot the Difference’” Ensign, September 2019, pp. 72-75
This article was written by Nathan Read, an Australian who has a college degree and works for the government. He referenced the cartoon that has two identical drawings and the reader is supposed to discover the minute differences between the two. In the same way, he says that “increasingly, we compare ourselves to each other.” Utilizing an illustration that he borrows from Nelson’s 1995 talk, Read writes,
When we find perfection overwhelming, we can take steps along the path to perfection: for example, as we pay a full tithe, we can keep the commandments of tithing completely. As we pray daily, we may find we are perfect at choosing to pray every day. Each step on the path to perfection (also known as the covenant path) is designed to bring us joy. Regular personal inventories will reaffirm to us that we are progressing and that our Father is pleased with the spiritual momentum of our life.
Then Read said this:
Righteousness and perfection are not synonymous. While perfection is an outcome, righteousness is a pattern of faith and repentance which we choose every day. If perfection is a destination, then our covenants are our passport and righteousness is the steps on the journey. If this is our perspective on perfection, we can hope in good things to come as we patiently and persistently develop righteous patterns (p. 74).
Covenants are promises made by the Latter-day Saint to keep the commandments. Either the one covenanting does what he is supposed to do, or he does not. According to the previous paragraph, it is possible to be perfect in certain things on a daily basis. When a person forgets to pay the full tithe or pray, there is a disconnect. At that point, doesn’t the grace that comes through obedience lose its saving power? If we were to play “spot the difference,” which is the name of the game of comparing two pictures, the one picture portrays what ought to be and the other portrays what really is. According to the unique LDS scriptures, isn’t the first picture the way that God intended? There are many LDS citations I could list on obedience and how keeping commandments is the only way to please God—if you’d like, check out some of these quotes here.
The Bible says that it is through Christ and His work that makes the believer perfect. Hebrews 10:14 says, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” It is through faith and faith alone that places the believe in such a position to receive his grace as a gift, as Romans 3:21-26 states:
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Notice how Paul states that “we are justified by his grace as a gift,” not by our own efforts, which is what is taught in Mormonism.
Read goes on to explain that
repentance prepares us by changing the way we see ourselves and brings us closer to God and to the Savior. We should expect to fail or make mistakes, probably daily; that shouldn’t be unexpected, nor should it lead us to despair. In fact, we should be happy when we recognize our shortcomings or mistakes as we have the opportunity to partner with Christ in changing our weaknesses into strengths (p. 74).
I’m not sure that Read could support his point with his church’s unique scriptures. In The Miracle of Forgiveness, a higher authority (President Kimball) cited D&C 1:31-32, which says, “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” (p. 201). Saying that “repentance must be wholehearted,” Kimball writes,
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 (p. 203).
In a section titled “Forgiveness Cancelled on Reversion to Sin”? Kimball explained how old sins–once thought forgiven–can actually return based on reversion to the sin. He wrote on page 170:
Old sins return, says the Lord in his modern revelations. Many people either do not know this or they conveniently forget it. “Go your ways and sin no more,” the Lord warned. And again, “. . . Unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God” (D&C 82:7). . . . Thus when a man has made has made up his mind to change his life, there must be no turning back. Any reversal, even in a small degree, is greatly to his detriment.
I see no light-hearted fare in Kimball’s words, even though Read makes it sound almost triumphant (“happy”) when a person fails, perhaps even daily. Kimball says that God doesn’t give commandments that can’t be kept, so once a person repents on an issue, that should be the end. Kimball’s version of God demands far more than the wimpy God and his flimsy standards as described by Read.
Fascinatingly enough, Read chose to end his article with a snippet from Moroni 10:32. He concluded, “Let us act in faith, repenting and looking to Christ with hope in His promise that ultimately, we can ‘be perfected in him’ (Moroni 10:32).” Of course, this promise given by Moroni is completely conditional based on one’s successful efforts. Instead of being a promising verse, it is filled with a curse because nobody is capable of successfully accomplishing what Moroni 10:32 says is required.
Here’s a way to determine if Latter-day Saints are doing everything they’re supposed to be doing. Ask your friend if she has been forgiven of her sins. Find out if she “knows” she has eternal life, which is something the Christian can “know” (1 John 5:13). Latter-day Saints generally will deny that they have assurance that they are destined for the celestial kingdom. Others may say that they “know” they have eternal life, as that verse promises, but perhaps they are interpreting this as resurrection to one of three kingdoms of glory. However, eternal life in Mormonism is life in the celestial kingdom and godhood. According to Mormonism, everyone receives resurrection, regardless of faith. Certainly 1 John 5:13 is a reference to the Christian’s knowledge that heaven is secure based solely on faith. It cannot mean anything else.
Article 3: “What it Means to Pursue Perfection,” Ensign, September 2019, pp. 76-79
The final article, subtitled “We try so hard to be perfect, when really we should just be doing the best we can,” is written by Kathryn Grover, a Utah resident who has a “cute husband” and teaches “missionaries in the Provo Missionary Training Center.” Using the first person plural pronoun in her title, Grover appears to be yet another Latter-day Saint who has “tried so hard to be perfect.” Grover cited Matthew 5:48 (surprise!) and wrote that “reading that can be super overwhelming if not properly understood. It may lead many of us to think, ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’ll never succeed.’ This phenomenon is known as perfectionism.”
In her article, Spijkerman talked about how the “word perfect originally comes from the Latin word perficere, which breaks down into per- (‘completely’) and facere (‘do’). So perfection actually means ‘complete’” (p. 71). This analysis is weak because Matthew 5:48 was written in Greek, not Latin! However, Grover does her own word study with the New Testament Greek word, which means “complete, finished, fully developed.” As was stated earlier, this is a correct assessment. Matthew 5:48 is not talking about sinless perfection but rather completeness. (For more on this, see this article along with podcasts.)
After giving the word etymology, Grover explained, “Thankfully our knowledge of the plan of salvation teaches us that we are not and cannot be fully developed in this mortal life.” She cites Nelson’s 1995 General Conference talk while providing no scripture—biblical or one of the three unique LDS scriptures—to support her case. As it has been shown throughout what I have written above, many LDS leaders have talked about perfection in this life. For example, Kimball cited Alma 34:21-3 in his book to show how repentance must take place in mortality. He wrote:
I have referred previously to the significance of this life in the application of repentance, but will emphasize it here in relation to the eventual judgment. One cannot delay repentance until the next life, the spirit world, and there prepare properly for the day of judgment while the ordinance work is done for him vicariously on earth. It must be remembered that vicarious work for the dead is for those who could not do the work for themselves. Men and women who live in mortality and who have heard the gospel here have had their day, their seventy years to put their lives in harmony, to perform the ordinances, to repent and perfect their lives (The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 313-314).
In his 1995 talk, Nelson explained how Jesus was not perfect until after He was resurrected. Grover and Nelson both used Luke 13:32, which says in the King James Version, “And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.” The New International Version better translates this, “He replied, ‘Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’”
Immediately after saying that “perfect” (“telios”) in Matthew 5:48 means “complete”—Nelson and Spijkerman both agree with that assessment—Grover uses this example to say,
If perfection is not achieved in full until after we are resurrected, it can be easy for us to think we can just give up on being perfect now and wait until the day of resurrection comes. But that shouldn’t be our approach. We can always try to do a little better (p. 79).
I can almost scream! Yes, the word “telios” is indeed used in Luke 13:32, but just like Matthew 5:48, it certainly doesn’t mean “perfect” but “complete.” When Jesus rose from the grave, His work was complete! On the cross he even cried out, “It is finished.” It’s not like Jesus wasn’t perfect before He resurrected, as Jesus was perfect before the very creation of the universe (see John 1:1,3; Col. 1:15-17).
And Grover uses that word “try,” or, if you please, “strive” as Nelson, Holland, and Spijkerman put it. Her final sentence in the article says this: “All that matters is that we try a little harder to be a little better every single day.”
No, what Mormonism has traditionally taught and what can be supported in the unique scriptures is that “the Latter-day Saint quit trying a little harder to be a little better every single day and instead just do what God commanded, which was promised in the covenants made at baptism, the temple, and the weekly sacrament service.” The unique LDS scriptures that I have quoted abundantly in this article clearly state how:
- The commands of God are do-able, as 1 Nephi 3:7 and other verses says
- There is no work that can be done after this life, as Alma 34:31-35ff say
- Trying is nothing more than falling short of what is required, as Moroni 10:32 says
Many LDS leaders, including President Kimball, attest to this. Thus, as the Nike ad puts it, the Latter-day Saint needs to quit trying and “Just do it!”
Perhaps the biggest error in Grover’s article is made due to a lack of understanding of Luke 2:52. She cites it, saying,
There is one verse in the entirety of the Bible that describes what Christ did during what might be considered his young adult years: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52). He simply increased. By following His example, we should also strive to increase in wisdom, stature, and favor with God and man. This may include studying our scriptures more, taking an extra class, going to the temple more often, or even reaching out to someone sitting alone at lunch.
I’m sure Kathryn is a wonderful young lady, but she certainly does not comprehend the biblical Gospel. Mormonism is so concerned about “doing all we can do” (see 2 Nephi 25:23) that it misses the whole idea that we’re not saved by works! As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.
Earlier Romans 3:22-26 was cited. Now how about the next two verses in that passage:
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
Like her leaders, Grover misses the forest for the trees. She does not understand the perfection provided through the work of Christ alone, with nothing the believer can add in the past, present, or future.
The idea that perfection is required in the LDS religion is thoroughly admitted in these three articles. These Latter-day Saints just redefine what perfection really means. Is it something you do? Or something you strive to do?
If Mormon youth were not falling back on the traditional interpretation of perfection as discussed in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, why would the church have taken the time to even discuss it? Save the space in this magazine for something more important. (The youth have their own magazine, New Era, so I’m still wondering why three articles aimed at the youth of the church were placed in the adult magazine in the first place.)
Despite the best efforts of President Nelson, Apostle Holland, and these three young laypeople who wrote these articles, the packaging of Mormonism is subject to scrutiny. One can certainly place a nice picture of a cupcake on the outside of the package, but if the inside is filled with cow manure, then it doesn’t matter how it was presented. I believe that many sincere Mormon people struggle with perfectionism because the interpretation of Matthew 5:48 traditionally given by LDS Church leaders has been accurately deducted when other verses from the unique Standard Works are taken into consideration.
The current leadership is willing to deny the teachings of the Bible because, quite frankly, they have no desire to propagate biblical truth. They would rather their membership remain beholden to them and their “restored” institution rather than discovering the reality of the Gospel. Indeed, for a Latter-day Saint to rationalize that it is possible to please God as long as “I try a little bit harder or do my best” is not a biblical perspective. No human can do it, save Jesus alone. Such a mindset will lead only to frustration and, yes, even depression.
If you are a Latter-day Saint, I invite you to read this well-written piece titled Mormonism and Perfection by MRM’s Sharon Lindbloom. She puts into a nutshell the problem with trying to attain God’s righteousness based on human striving, no matter how good the intentions.
I conclude by citing the words of Jesus that Sharon uses at the end of her article:
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me;
for I am meek and lowly in heart:
and ye shall find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
– Matthew 11:28-30
Unless a person surrenders to Jesus, submission to the “impossible Gospel” (perfection) will never be attainable, no matter the effort or desire.
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