Listen to a 5-part Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast series that originally aired July 30-August 3, 2012 by clicking on the following links: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Each week millions of faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints partake in what they call the sacrament service. Though similar to the Christian tradition of communion in that members are asked to reflect on the life of Christ and His sacrifice, the sacrament meeting does have some distinct differences. For one, despite an April 1830 command in Doctrine and Covenants 20:75 “that the church meet together often to partake of bread and wine in the remembrance of the Lord,” Mormons partake of bread and water, not wine or grape juice.
According to Doctrine and Covenants 27:1-3 Joseph Smith claimed he was told by God four months later “that it mattereth not what ye shall eat or drink when ye partake of the sacrament” as long as it was done “with an eye single to my glory.” He was also told not to buy wine or strong drink from his enemies. Mormons have maintained the tradition of using water even though three years later, God allegedly told Smith to use “pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make” when Mormons “offer up your sacraments” (D&C 89:5-6).
Prior to partaking of the bread, a short prayer taken from D&C 20:77 is offered —” O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it, that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son, and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them; that they may always have his Spirit to be with them. Amen.”
Mormon Apostle Russell M. Nelson, speaking in general conference in April 1995, explained that, “at baptism, we covenant to serve the Lord and keep his commandments. When we partake of the sacrament, we renew those covenants” (Ensign, May 1995, p.32). A similar promise is made when Mormons participate in the temple endowment ceremony. In that ceremony, the character portraying Lucifer makes the following threat to Mormon participants: “If they do not walk up to every covenant they make at these altars in this temple this day, they will be in my power!”
When I ask Mormons how successful they are at keeping their promise to obey God’s commandments, I am often told that this covenant merely means to be “willing” to keep them and that “trying” to keep God’s commandments is sufficient. In response, I like to explain that only those who fail at a task use the word try. For example, I am sure if Charles Lindbergh was asked if he really flew across the Atlantic in 1927, his answer was probably not, “I tried.” Mormons who say they try to keep the commandments are really admitting they are not consistent in meeting the desired goal.
How many commandments must a Mormon keep in order to fulfill this vow? The context doesn’t give any indication that the obligation is anything less than all. Mormon leaders have certainly made it clear that the sacrament covenant is a pledge to keep all of them.
In an April 1998 conference message titled “That we may be one,” Henry B. Eyring, now a member of the First Presidency, reminded listener “we promise as we take the sacrament to keep His commandments, all of them.” Quoting J. Reuben Clark [a former member of the LDS First Presidency], Eyring said, “When we partake of the Sacrament we covenant to obey and keep his commandments. There are no exceptions. There are no distinctions, no differences.” Eyring went on to note that Clark also taught, “just as we repent of all sin, not just a single sin, we pledge to keep all the commandments” (Ensign, May 1998, pp.67-68).
Church Patriarch Eldred G. Smith warned members that
“to be exalted in the kingdom of God, one must keep all the laws of the gospel and keep all the commandments of God. It is great to keep the Word of Wisdom and to pay your tithes and offerings and attend Sacrament meetings and fulfil all the other activities in the Church. But if you omit your family research and temple work, you fall short and at the peril of your own salvation” (Conference Reports, April 1962, p.66).
Thirteenth Mormon President Ezra Taft Benson wrote,
“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).
A Mormon who believes that words have meaning must find this dilemma horribly conflicting. Each week he is compelled to make a promise (to God no less) that he knows from experience he has no intention of keeping. Compounding this predicament is the knowledge of knowing that only by keeping all of the commandments can he be assured that God’s Spirit will be with him (D&C 20:77).
Twelfth Mormon President Spencer W. Kimball addressed this very issue when he spoke of such members as covenant-breakers. On page 57 of his book The Miracle of Forgiveness, 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 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.”
I don’t at all fault Mormons who are trying their best to keep what they believe are commandments from God. However, if Mormons are required to keep all of God’s commandments, promising each week that they will do so, is it not fair to ask how successful they are at accomplishing this? And if they are not successful, is it not also fair to ask why they continually make such vain and empty promises?
I personally am considerably convicted when songs sung in a church service give the impression that I will always trust and obey, when I know in my sinful heart that such a lofty goal will not always be realized. Still, my salvation is not based on successfully keeping all of God’s commandments, though I recognize that I have a responsibility to live a life that reflects the holy God I love and serve. Mormons, however, are told by their leaders they absolutely must live up to a standard that, in all practicality, is impossible.
Our Mormon friends need to understand that contrary to the typical stereotype believed by many Latter-day Saints, grace, as defined by New Testament Christians, is not a license to sin. As I mentioned, New Testament Christianity does teach that holiness is a part of a Christian’s walk. We believe that good works should follow saving faith. As it says in Ephesians 2:10, we are saved unto good works. We believe that Jesus paid our sin debt in full, and that this payment becomes efficacious when a sinner trusts in the fact that Jesus paid for all of his sins on the cross at Calvary — we receive His grace (justification) and then we seek to serve (sanctification). Mormonism, however, demands that followers deny themselves of all ungodliness, and then they get the grace.
According to the Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Mormons are told:
“Indeed, it is only after a person has so performed a lifetime of works and faithfulness—only after he has come to deny himself of all ungodliness and every worldly lust—that the grace of God, that spiritual increment of power, is efficacious. In the language of Moroni: ‘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’ (Moroni 10:32; italics added)” (Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet, Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon 1:295).
The above concurs with the October 2006 issue of Ensign magazine:
“Elder B.H. Roberts of the Seventy (1857-1933) explained how the unconditional nature of the Atonement in regard to Adam’s transgression and its conditional nature regarding men’s personal sins is a doctrine ‘peculiar to ‘Mormonism’…and is derived almost wholly from the teachings of the Book of Mormon. In that distinction, the beauty and glory of the Atonement, the balanced claims of justice and mercy shine forth as nowhere else, even in holy writ, — much less in the uninspired writings of men. It may be regarded as the ‘Mormon’ contribution to views of the Atonement of Christ, for it is to be found nowhere else except in Mormon literature.’ The perfect relationship between the atoning grace of Christ and the obedient efforts of mankind is powerfully stated by Nephi: ‘We know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do’ (2 Nephi 25:23). Furthermore, we are invited to ‘come unto Christ, and be perfected in him.’ When we deny ourselves ‘of all ungodliness,’ then and only ‘then is his grace sufficient’ for us (Moroni 10:32)” (BYU Professor Clyde J. Williams, “Plain and Precious Truths Restored,” Ensign, October 2006, p.53).
I’ve never met a Mormon who is doing this, and I can guarantee you that the above writers haven’t either. That being the case, how can such requirements come even close to being thought of as “good news”?