By Eric Johnson
President Russell M. Nelson and Dallin H. Oaks, the first counselor in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, emphasized covenants, repentance, and good works during two different messages on the final day of the April General Conference. Let’s take a closer look at what these top church leaders had to say.
The Art of Making Covenants
In his talk titled “Come, Follow Me” (recorded in the May Ensign, pages 88-91), Nelson spoke about how “Jesus Christ invites us to take the covenant back home to our Heavenly Parents and be with those we love.” During the first half of the talk, Nelson spoke on a variety of issues, including a description of a visit he and his wife made to Paradise, CA after the tragic fall 2018 wildfires that decimated the city. He also mourned the loss of his daughter Wendy before moving to the topic of how “Jesus the Christ has offered His mighty arm to help all who choose to follow Him. Repeatedly, scriptures record that despite all kinds of sins from all kinds of people, His arms are stretched still” (p. 89). In the next paragraph, he made a very interesting statement:
The spirit in each of us naturally yearns for family love to last forever. Love songs perpetuate a false hope that love is all you need if you want to be together forever. And some erroneously believe that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ provides a promise that all people will be with their loved ones after death.
He then went on to say:
In truth, the Savior Himself has made it abundantly clear that while His Resurrection assures that every person who ever lived will indeed be resurrected and live forever, much more is required if we want to have the high privilege of exaltation. Salvation is an individual matter, but exaltation is a family matter (p. 89, emphasis mine).
In Mormonism, it must be understood that exaltation means becoming glorified as gods in the highest level of the celestial kingdom and living forever in the family unit. Nelson then cited D&C 132:7 where Jesus supposedly said this to Joseph Smith:
All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations, that are not made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise . . . are of no efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead; for all contracts that are not made unto this end have an end when men are dead (p. 89. Ellipsis his).
As Nelson put it in the next paragraph, “we qualify for that privilege by making covenants with God, keeping those covenants, and receiving essential ordinances. . . . All these are required if we want to be exalted with our families and with God forever” (pp. 89-90. Italics in original).
Toward the end of his talk, Nelson emphasized how only “covenant-keeping women and men can receive a ‘fulness of joy’” where “families will be reunited and be given the privilege to live and progress forever. That is not the kingdom where they will experience the fulness of joy—of never-ending progression and happiness.” In essence, the celestial kingdom is the only place where “those consummate blessings can come only by living in an exalted celestial realm with God, our Eternal Father; His Son, Jesus Christ; and our wonderful, worthy, and qualified family members” (p. 90). (For more on this, click here.)
For Nelson, making covenants that, quite honestly, can never be kept is the answer to reaching celestial glory. He also stated,
The Savior said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” However, as you choose not to make covenants with God, you are settling for a most meager roof over your head throughout all eternity. . . . If you truly love your family and if you desire to be exalted with them through eternity, pay the price now—through serious study and fervent prayer—to know these eternal truths and then to abide by them ” (p. 90).
It appears these words were intentionally used to create fear. After all, which Mormon doesn’t want to be with his or her family for eternity? If this is the case, then the person must be willing to “pay the price now” and listen to church leaders. In the second-to-last paragraph of the article, Nelson concluded his thought:
Do the spiritual work to find out for yourselves, and please do it now. Time is running out (p. 91).
Covenant making and not covenant breaking
According to Mormonism, just making covenants with God is not enough to please Him. At a general conference two years before, Nelson stated how important it was to both “make sacred covenants and keep those covenants with precision.” He explained,
Our covenants bind us to Him and give us godly power. . . . Covenant-keeping men and women seek for ways to keep themselves unspotted from the world so there will be nothing blocking their access to the Savior’s power (“Drawing the Power of Jesus Christ into our Lives,” Ensign, May 2017 (Conference Edition), p. 41. Ellipsis mine).
Several of Nelson’s predecessors also emphasized how the covenant maker must not become a covenant breaker. Tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith explained the meaning of covenants that are made at the weekly sacrament meeting:
Renew covenants in sacrament meeting. We have been called upon to commemorate this great event and to keep it in mind constantly. For this purpose we are called together once each week to partake of these emblems, witnessing that we do remember our Lord, that we are willing to take upon us his name, and that we will keep his commandments. This covenant we are called upon to renew each week, and we cannot retain the Spirit of the Lord if we do not consistently comply with this commandment (Selections of Doctrines of Salvation, p. 146. Bold and italics in original).
However, Smith bemoaned the fact that many members are not keeping the covenants that they make:
I wish we could get the members of the Church to understand more clearly the covenants they make when they partake of the sacrament at our sacrament meetings (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, 2013, p. 100).
He was also frustrated at how many Latter-day Saints break the Sabbath commandment of refraining from entertainment soon after they made their covenants,
Violation of covenant of sacrament. Again, I have wondered how members of the Church can go to the sacrament service and partake of these emblems, and make these solemn covenants, and then immediately after the close of the meeting go out to some place of amusement, to attend a picture show, a baseball game, or some resort, or to gather at some home to play cards (Selections of Doctrines of Salvation, p. 150. Bold in original).
Eleventh president Harold B. Lee said the promises given to the Latter-day Saint are for naught unless there is obedience:
By the laying on of hands we get the promise of power and authority, but it will not be ours–worlds without end–unless we keep our part of the covenant (Stand Ye in Holy Places: Selected Sermons and Writings of President Harold B. Lee, p. 52).
Twelfth President Spencer W. Kimball was bothered by the fact that many temple-qualified members fall short of the promises they make at the sacrament service and in the temple. He wrote,
Akin to many of the other sins is that of the covenant-breaker. The person baptized promises to keep all the laws and commandments of God. He has partaken of the sacrament and re-pledged his allegiance and his fidelity, promising and covenanting that he will keep all God’s laws. Numerous folks have gone to the temples and have re-covenanted that they would live all the commandments of God, keep their lives clean, devoted, worthy, and serviceable. Yet many there are who forget their covenants and break the commandments, sometimes deliberately tempting the faithful away with them (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 57).
Thirteenth President Ezra Taft Benson said God’s mercy can only be “merited” upon the successful keeping of the covenants that are made:
We go to our chapels each week to worship the Lord and renew our covenants by partaking of the sacrament. We thereby promise to take His name upon us, to always remember Him, and keep all His commandments. Our agreement to keep all the commandments is our covenant with God. Only as we do this may we deserve His blessings and merit His mercy (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 442)
In words very similar to Nelson, Henry B. Eyring, the second counselor of the First Presidency, explained,
The greatest of all the blessings of God, eternal life, will come to us only as we make covenants offered in the true Church of Jesus Christ by His authorized servants. Because of the Fall, we all need the cleansing effects of baptism and the laying on of hands to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. These ordinances must be performed by those who possess the proper priesthood authority. Then, with the help of the Light of Christ and the Holy Ghost, we can keep all the covenants we make with God, especially those offered in His temples. Only in that way, and with that help, can anyone claim his or her rightful inheritance as a child of God in a family forever. To some listening to me, that may seem a nearly hopeless dream (“A Priceless Heritage of Hope,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2014, p. 24. Emphasis mine).
Why does Eyring refer to those who believe keeping covenants as “a nearly hopeless dream”? Perhaps it’s because the average person understands the impossibility of doing everything that was promised. In essence, aren’t the LDS leaders making liars of their people by emphasizing the importance of keeping covenants that are impossible to keep?
Cleansed by Repentance
In the first Sunday afternoon session, Dallin H. Oaks—the First Counselor in the First Presidency—gave the first talk titled “Cleansed by Repentance” (Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2019, pp. 91-94). He specifically wanted to address “those who have lost their membership in the Church by excommunication or name removal.” In the talk, Oaks partially cited from Doctrines and Covenants 58:43, saying,
To be cleansed by repentance, we must forsake our sins and confess them to the Lord and to His mortal judge where required (see Doctrine and Covenants 58:43) (p. 92).
He then provided a partial citation from Moroni 10:32-33:
As we “deny” [ourselves] of all ungodliness, and love God with all [our] might, mind and strength,” then we may “be perfect in Christ” and be “sanctified” through the shedding of His blood, to “become holy without spot” (Moroni 10:32-33). What a promise! What a miracle! What a blessing! (p. 92)
A partial citation causes much of the meaning to be missed. This is what Moroni 10:32 says in full:
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.
He left out the part that said “if” a person would deny himself of “all ungodliness,” then is God’s “grace sufficient for you.” Instead, he said “as we” in lieu of the “if.” There is no”miracle” or “blessing” with Mormonism’s version of repentance. Instead, the requirement is that person must keep all the commandments to be eligible to receive God’s grace. It is, plain and simple, a works-based faith, something that is contrary to the teaching of the Bible.
A little more than two decades earlier at a general conference, Oaks cited 2 Nephi 25:23 (“it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do”) and said the requirements include repentance, baptism, keeping the commandments, and enduring to the end.” He then quoted Moroni 10:32, word for word, and then explained the verse this way:
We are not saved in our sins, as by being unconditionally saved through confessing Christ and then, inevitably, committing sins in our remaining lives (see Alma 11:36-37). We are saved from our sins (see Helaman 5:10) by a weekly renewal of our repentance and cleansing through the grace of God and His blessed plan of salvation (see 3 Nephi 9:20-22)” (Ensign (Conference Edition), May 1998, p. 56. Also see Book of Mormon Student Manual Religion 121-122, 2009, pp. 94-95).
Again, Oaks does not accurately report what Moroni 10:32 is saying. How is he able to turn Moroni 10:32 into not being “saved in our sins” but “from our sins”? Concerning this verse, LDS leaders have generally been very consistent. For example, Area Seventy D. Chad Richardson explained the sequence:
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. Italics in original).
The only way to successfully follow the mandate of Moroni 10:32 is to abandon sin. A church manual reports,
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 demonstrated 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 (Preparing for Exaltation Teacher’s Manual, 1998, p. 123. Brackets in original).
According to Oaks, the onus is on the back of each and every Latter-day Saint to work out full repentance of all sins. As Oaks said in the second-to-last paragraph of his talk,
From these and many other scriptural teachings, we know that our loving Savior opens His arms to receive all men and women on the loving conditions He has prescribed to enjoy the greatest blessings God has for His children (p. 94).
Notice the words Oaks used: “on the loving conditions.” This is an oxymoron. After all, if Jesus demanded full repentance of those wanting forgiveness of their sins, yet this command is impossible for fallible human beings, then how “loving” can this proscription be?
Repenting on a regular basis…but not ceasing the sin
Many Latter-day Saints claim–sometimes, it almost feels like bragging–that they repent all the time. Yet that was never the purpose of repentance from the beginning of the LDS Church, as founder Joseph Smith stated,
Repentance is a thing that cannot be trifled with every day. Daily transgression and daily repentance is not that which is pleasing in the sight of God (History of the Church 3:379. See also Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 148).
Eleventh President Harold B. Lee agreed, saying,
REPENTANCE MEANS TO TURN FROM SIN. Repentance, in one sentence, means turning from the things that have been wrong and never returning back to them. It isn’t to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then go back and do it and again say, ‘I’m sorry.’ That’s not it—it is to go about our way and sin no more. But if they sin again it is as though they haven’t been forgiven in the first instance, to use the Lord’s own language (see D&C 82:7)” (Harold B. Lee, Address at Priesthood Board Meeting, March 1, 1972. Cited in The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, p. 114).
Spencer Kimball used this same verse cited by his predecessor to explain the following:
The forsaking of sin must be a permanent one. True repentance does not permit making the same mistake again . . . The Lord said: “Go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return.” (D&C 82:7) (Repentance Brings Forgiveness, an unnumbered tract. Ellipsis his).
He made it very clear that “abandonment” was needed rather than a bandage:
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).
Fourth President Wilford Woodruff agreed, saying,
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).
Sixth President Joseph F. Smith was in this same camp:
True repentance only is acceptable to God, nothing short of it will answer the purpose. Then what is true repentance? 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 (Gospel Doctrine, 1971 ed., p. 100. Also cited by Robert L. Millet, The Power of the Word: Saving Doctrines from the Book of Mormon, p. 158).
Kimball even believed that the excuses so often used to rationalize not keeping commandments are not sufficient. He wrote,
Trying is not sufficient. Nor is repentance complete when one merely tries to abandon sin. . . . To try is weak. To do the best you can is not strong. You must always do better than you can. This is true in every walk of life. (The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 164-165. Ellipsis mine).
When it comes to keeping the commandments that a Mormon promises in covenant making, there are only two types of people:
- Those who keep covenants
- Those who do not keep covenants
For the second category, wouldn’t that include those who don’t even attempt to keep the commandments as well as those who try but fail? If only those who keep covenants are doing what they promised what they would do, then these are the only ones who must be serious about doing what God supposedly said was possible. First Nephi 3:7 cites Nephi as saying that “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.”
Either the Latter-day Saint is keeping covenants or she is not. If she is, then she is doing what God only expected. If she is not, then whether this is the result from the person trying their hardest or hardly trying at all does not matter. The proof is in the pudding.
What about the next life?
Some Mormons have deluded themselves into thinking that their work can be completed in the next life. As long as their intentions are good and they have done their best, it would seem like God should wink in approval, even though Doctrine and Covenants 1:31 says that God does not “look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.”
In his talk, Oak made it very clear that this is not the case with Mormonism’s version of God. On page 94, he writes,
To assure that we will be clean before God, we must repent before the Final Judgment (see Mormon 3:22). . . . The Atonement of Jesus Christ gives us the only way to achieve the needed cleansing through repentance, and this mortal life is the time to do it (Ellipsis mine).
He went on so say,
Although we are taught that some repentance can occur in the spirit world (see Doctrine and Covenants 138:31,33,58), that is not as certain. Elder Melvin J. Ballard taught: “It is much easier to overcome and serve the Lord when both flesh and spirit are combined as one. This is the time when men are more pliable and susceptible. . . . This life is the time to repent” (Ellipsis in original).
It is telling when a top general authority–next in line to the presidency–says that it is “not as certain” and then cites another leader as saying it will be harder to repent in the next life. If repenting of all sins is impossible in this life, why would anyone think it is even possible in the next? To add salt to the wound, Oaks reminded his LDS audience that sins do not only include actions but thoughts and desires:
We know from modern revelation that we will be judged for our desires as well as our actions (see Alma 41:5; Doctrine and Covenants 137:9) and the even our thoughts will condemn us (see Alma 12:14). We must not “procrastinate the day of [our] repentance” until death, Amulek taught (Alma 34:33), because the same spirit that has possessed our body in this life–whether the Lord’s or the devil’s–“will have power to possess [our] body in that eternal world” (Alma 34:33) (Italics in original).
Oaks did cite Alma 34:33, but let’s consider verse 35 as well, which says that if repentance was not completed at death,
ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked.
Spencer Kimball used this passage to agree with this assessment in classic book that many Latter-day Saints like to avoid:
This passage [Alma 13:11-12] indicates an attitude which is basic to the sanctification we should all be seeking, and thus to the repentance which merits forgiveness. It is that the former transgressor must have reached a “point of no return” to sin wherein there is not merely a renunciation but also a deep abhorrence of the sin where the sin becomes most distasteful to him and where the desire or urge to sin is cleared out of his life” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 354-355. Brackets mine. See also the Book of Mormon Student Manual Religion 121 and 122, 1989, p. 78).
Kimball also wrote:
Because men are prone to postpone action and ignore directions, the Lord has repeatedly given strict injunctions and issued solemn warnings. Again and again in different phraseology and throughout the centuries the Lord has reminded man so that he could never have excuse. And the burden of the prophetic warning has been that the time to act is now, in this mortal life. One cannot with impunity delay his compliance with God’s commandments (The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 9,10).
He explained on page 313:
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 to perfect their lives.
For those Latter-day Saints who are not convinced that full repentance must take place in Mormonism in this life, then let’s return to Nelson’s talk and consider a story that he gave on pages 90 and 91:
One such dear friend of mine had limited experiences with God. But he longed to be with his departed wife. So he asked me to help him. I encouraged him to meet with our missionaries in order to understand the doctrine of Christ and learn of gospel covenants, ordinances, and blessings.
That he did. But he felt the course they advised would require him to make too many changes in his life. He said, “Those commandments and covenants are just too difficult for me. Also, I can’t possibly pay tithing, and I don’t have time to serve in the Church.” Then he asked me, “Once I die, please do the necessary temple work for my wife and me so that we can be together again.”
Thankfully, I am not this man’s judge. But I do question the efficacy of proxy temple work for a man who had the opportunity to be baptized in this life—to be ordained to the priesthood and receive temple blessings while here in mortality—but who made the conscious decision to reject that course.
It is obvious that Nelson and Oaks delivered a 1-2 punch at the April 2019 general conference to remind Latter-day Saints that each family member is responsible to qualify for the celestial kingdom if the family is to be together. While acknowledging the LDS belief that every mortal person will be resurrected to a kingdom of glory, Nelson stated that “much more is required if we want to have the high privilege of exaltation” Hence, as Oaks explained, repentance means that a person needs to have “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.”
While many lay Latter-day Saints have inched away in their personal theology from the demands of their faith as consistently taught by the church leadership–how many Latter-day Saints with whom I have recently conversed are stressing “grace” and shying away from works more than ever before!– Mormonism continues to emphasize (as Oaks put it) “loving conditions” that must be met for a person to “enjoy the greatest blessings God has for His children.” “Loving conditions” is apparently his way to describe the impossibility of the commands given to the membership by the LDS scriptures and the church leaders. This remains what we have long called the stagnant “impossible gospel.” There is nothing wrong for a person who wants to do better, but to believe that doing better is what makes a person righteous is opposite of what is advocated in the Bible. If that is the case, Nelson and Oaks–along with their predecessors– are nothing more than false prophets and their false teachings should be rejected as heresy.
For a look at Matthew 5:48 and the meaning of perfection, click here. http://www.mrm.org/matthew-548-perfection