By Robert Millet
Reviewed by Bill McKeever
Several books by LDS authors have been written in recent years to alleviate what is apparently an epidemic of frustration and despair among many LDS members regarding the assurance of salvation, or lack thereof.
It is certainly understandable why a member of the LDS Church can be faced with defeat since the standards for achieving exaltation in the celestial kingdom are anything but easy. In fact, they are downright impossible. Several prophets of Mormonism stressed that if exaltation is to be gained, a strict and complete compliance to all of the laws and ordinances of God must be followed. Joseph Fielding Smith, the tenth president of the Mormon Church, proclaimed:
“Therefore each who enters the kingdom must of his own free will accept all of the laws and be obedient to them, finding himself in complete accord with all. Anything short of this would cause confusion. Therefore the words of James are true. Unless a man can abide strictly in complete accord, he cannot enter there, and in the words of James, he is guilty of all. In other words if there is one divine law that he does not keep he is barred from participating in the kingdom, and figuratively guilty of all, since he is denied all” (Answers to Gospel Questions, Vol. 3, p.26).
Smith’s analogy is certainly correct within the context of law. The law showed no mercy to the individual who transgressed its strict commands. To break the law in one area was just as condemning as if the offender had offended in all points. However, the New Testament Christian is free from the condemning effects of the law. He is not under the law but under grace. This does not mean that the Christian should ignore the law’s ability to guide his moral character. No Christian has a license to live immorally. This freedom means that he is not judged guilty or innocent based on his ability to live up to the law’s strict standards. Should the believer break its commands, he is not condemned.
Because the leaders of the LDS Church have chosen to place its members under the burden of law, they have, in effect, placed each member in a hopeless situation – a situation that can only be rectified if the member can live a life of strict compliance. This explains why 12th President Spencer W. Kimball taught that the assurance of forgiveness can only be achieved if the Mormon is “living all of the commandments” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 208). As expected, this principle can, and does, cause many Latter-day Saints to bear the brunt of guilt, for they know all too well that living up the standards of the law can be a heavy burden to bear.
When confronted with the biblical teachings of salvation by grace alone, Mormons are often quick to point out that God will not save a person in his sins; he can only save him from his sins. According to Alma 11:37:
“And I say unto you again that he [God] cannot save them in their sins; for I cannot deny his word, and he hath said that no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore, how can ye be saved, except ye inherit the kingdom of heaven? Therefore, ye cannot be saved in your sins.”
This expression actually has some truth to it. The question is, how does a Mormon, or any person for that matter, shed himself from the burden of sin when everyone struggles with sin on a daily basis? If the responsibility is left up to the individual, how can that person know if he has ever truly accomplished this goal?
While addressing this dilemma, Kimball taught, “Even Christ cannot forgive one in sin.” He insisted that it was erroneous to assume Jesus went so far as to forgive the adulterous woman in John 8:1-11. Kimball argued that Christ merely directed “the sinful woman to go her way, abandon her evil life, commit no more sin, [and] transform her life” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball p. 89). On the next page, Kimball stated that it is a “mistaken idea” to think that the thief on the cross was forgiven since “his few words did not nullify a life of sin” (Teachings, p. 90).
Statements such as these must weigh heavy on the sincere Latter-day Saint who truly wants to find favor with his God. He concedes that his God cannot save a person in his sins, yet at the same time he readily admits that he has not fully overcome sin’s temptations. This makes for an awful predicament.
The Bible has the answer to such a quandary. It is called imputation. Paul declared in Romans 4:5 that “to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” It cannot be stressed enough how Paul makes it very clear that such an acceptance was not based on works but rather on faith. Paul used the illustration of the patriarch Abraham who, because He believed God, was declared righteous. God Himself imputed, or added to, Abraham’s account that status of righteousness necessary for God to accept him.
Paul comforts his readers with the fact that this imputation was not reserved for Abraham alone but for everyone who comes to faith in Christ (Romans 4:23, 24). This is not accomplished by a faith in our sin-tainted efforts. Rather, justification comes only by placing our total trust in the work and merit of Christ alone. This concept is relatively simple, but the fact that so many LDS prophets have chosen to ignore it disproves their claim to authenticity. When it comes to imputation, most LDS leaders refer to James 2:21-24:
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”
The Mormon responds by saying it was Abraham’ conduct, not his faith alone, that made him righteous. According to Apostle Bruce McConkie:
“Abraham had faith in Christ, repented of his sins, was baptized in water, received the gift of the Holy Ghost, held the Melchizedek Priesthood, entered into the new and everlasting covenant of marriage, kept the commandments, received revelations, saw visions, entertained angels, walked with God, and was one of the greatest prophets who ever lived. Truly, he believed God; and building on the foundation of the promised atoning sacrifice, he worked out his salvation with fear and trembling before that holy being; and of course he was justified, meaning his course of conduct was imputed unto him for righteousness” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Vol.2, p.235).
While filled with several unproveable assumptions, McConkie fails to consider two important points. First, Abraham was declared righteous for his faith in God’s promise to give him a son (Genesis 15:6), not for any deed he might have performed in the future. Bear in mind that many years would pass before he would take Isaac to Mount Moriah (Genesis 22). Second, McConkie fails to take into consideration the context of James chapter two. James is merely explaining what saving faith entails. He uses the example of Abraham to point out that saving faith is complete when it is accompanied by action. The action in and of itself does not save. Rather, the action is the result of saving faith.
In true Mormon fashion, McConkie places the emphasis on personal effort, which has the effect of burying the Latter-day Saint even deeper in guilt. How can the average Mormon ever hope to live up to the standards of the great patriarch Abraham, who, as McConkie stated, “kept all the commandments”?
Several modern LDS writers have attempted to come to the rescue of the defeated Mormon. One such person is BYU professor Robert L. Millet. In his book entitled Within Reach, Dr. Millet attempts to encourage the Mormon people by insisting that achieving celestial exaltation is, as the title implies, within reach. It is immediately seen that his book is intended to reach the many LDS members who “will yield to discouragement and conclude that they are simply not cut out for eternal glory.” (p. 5).
It was in this vein that I read Dr. Millet’s book. I tried to place myself in the position of a struggling Latter-day Saint to see if this BYU professor could help alleviate the burden felt by many modern Mormons. Unfortunately, while Millet tries hard to be comforting, he does nothing more than expound on the same issues Kimball and other LDS leaders have emphasized. Dr. Millet expresses his utmost admiration for McConkie and quotes this LDS theologian several times. I found this amazing since McConkie was probably one of the biggest culprits when it came to reminding LDS members of the importance in keeping the law and commandments. For instance, on page 14 he quotes McConkie who had said, “If we chart a course leading to eternal life… If we chart a course of becoming perfect, and step by step, phase by phase, are perfecting our souls and overcoming the world, then it is absolutely guaranteed – there is no question whatever about it – we shall gain eternal life.” McConkie talks about doing this to “the best of our ability,” but who in all of Mormonism is really doing that? Many Mormons to whom we have spoken admit they often struggle to live a life of perfection. If honesty were to prevail, I think all of us would agree that we have days like that.
Should the Mormon die on an “off day,” would that mean he has lost all hope of achieving his desired goal? If law prevails, it does! Millet tries to soften the blow by encouraging his readers to become “pure in heart.” On page 29 he points to Alma 34:16 and 42:13 and states, “Truly, ‘only unto him that his faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption.'” But Kimball insisted that if the Mormon is truly repentant, he must reach the “point of no return” where the “urge to sin is cleared out of his life” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 354-355). Which Mormon can say with a pure heart that he has done this?
According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (Vol.3, SMITH, JOSEPH), “Christ saves men from their sins, not in them. He does not impute righteousness where there is none.” Again, there is much truth to this statement, but again, we must ask, how does a Mormon rid himself of the stain of sin? Christians have long insisted that this can only be done by faith in the righteousness of Christ Himself. Since the fall of Adam, judgment has come upon the entire human race. His sin has been imputed, or added to, our account. Because of the sin of one man, sin and death has effected each one of us. The Good News is trusting in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Only this can cover the imputation of Adam’s transgression.
Because it is faith that causes the righteousness of Christ to redeem the believer, he is saved from his sins and, forensically, made righteous. He becomes righteous not by his own acts but by the actions of the sinless Christ that are imputed, or added to, the believer’s account. Because of this act of amazing grace, the believer can be at peace knowing that he is justified in the eyes of God by his faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1). Though his failures will never cease to bother him, he can rest knowing that he is not judged according to his failures.
Mormon leaders have stressed that assurance can only be achieved by a life of good works. The Mormon must stubbornly persevere in his efforts to adhere to all of God’s laws and ordinances. The guilt borne by many Latter-day Saints proves this does not work. As long as the Mormon must wait to personally clean up his own act and overcome his own sin, he will remain in his sins and never experience the assurance that only Christ’s righteousness can offer.
Surely Dr. Millet is aware of this struggle since he comments on it in his book The Life Beyond. On page 138, he and co-author Joseph Fielding McConkie write, “Gaining salvation and attaining perfection are processes, lengthy processes which will go on even beyond the time of death. (See D&C 93:19.) In short, there are no instant Christians, no sudden disciples.” One can only ask, When does the Mormon finally know for sure that he has achieved the status of Christian if this is, in fact, a lengthy process? Also, how can perfection be achieved beyond the time of death when Alma 34:34-35 in the Book of Mormon makes it clear that no labor can be performed following this life?
Like most Mormon theologians, Dr. Millet wants the best of both worlds. Sounding more like a Protestant than a traditional Mormon, he attempts to discuss the doctrine of imputation. On page 40 of Within Reach, he speaks of the “great exchange” whereby a person’s justification comes by faith “by trusting in Christ’s righteousness, in his merits, mercy, and grace.” He states, “Though our efforts to be righteous are necessary, they will be forevermore insufficient…[Christ] justifies us in the sense that he imputes (or credits) his goodness to our account and takes our sin. This is the great exchange” (p. 41). Because Millet still insists that “efforts to be righteous are necessary” shows he does not fully understand what this wonderful doctrine really gives to the believer.
On the next page, Millet quotes Christian pastor John MacArthur. The fact that Millet would need to explain this profound Christian teaching by quoting MacArthur is incredible. Perhaps it was because Millet’s choice of LDS theologians was rather scarce. I conducted a word search through several hundred Mormon publications to see how many LDS prophets and apostles discuss the idea of justification by faith as it relates to Christ’s imputation of righteousness. Outside of several references to the section in James, no General Authority supports what has historically been a Protestant view. Millet seems to be breaking new ground. If so, he is coming closer to the orthodox way of thinking. We are not going his way.
The problem with Millet’s book is that he really doesn’t succeed in answering how a person can know for sure if he is within reach of the celestial kingdom. The book is peppered with faith-promoting anecdotes. However, like other books of its kind, it ignores the condemning statements made by past leaders who strongly emphasized good works as a means of gaining God’s favor.
Millet himself is also guilty of this. Throughout the book he tells his readers that they can know they have the approval of God, but this is based on the condition of being “in covenant.” For instance, on page 68 he writes, “God declares us perfect in the here and now. If we remain in covenant, if we strive to be faithful to our promises throughout our lives, we will in time or eternity become fully perfect.” The phrase “in covenant” is used numerous times in Millet’s book. It is this phrase that no doubt haunts many Latter-day Saints.
This “covenant” is a verbal promise made by all LDS people. When they are baptized as members, they covenant to keep all of the commandments. When they partake of the Sacrament, they covenant to keep all of the commandments. When they attend the temple, they promise to keep all of the commandments. The problem is, they know that they will be unable to accomplish this impossible goal. But in the words of Bruce McConkie, “Those who break their covenants are condemned more severely than they would have been had they never made the initial contract with the Lord…In covenant-keeping there is salvation; in covenant-breaking, damnation” (Mormon Doctrine, p. 530). If that is the case, the Mormon cannot honestly say he is justified by Christ’s imputed righteousness. His justification is based on staying in covenant, which is the obedience of all the commandments.
What I found to especially interesting is the way Dr. Millet closes his 110-page tome. His last sentence reads,
“It is my prayer that we may respond affirmatively and actively and thereby ‘come unto Christ, and be perfected in him’ (Moroni 10:32).”
Moroni 10:32 is a passage we often use to challenge Mormons. However, Dr. Millet does not quote the whole passage, which adds these crucial words:
“…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.”
Once again the command is perfection. The Mormon must deny himself “of all ungodliness.” Only then, it says, will he receive the grace of God. We know of no Mormon who has done this.