Note: The following was originally printed in the January/February 2022 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
Bradley R. Wilcox is a popular speaker with Latter-day Saints. According to the counter on YouTube, his June 12, 2011 devotional talk titled “His Grace is Sufficient” at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University has topped 1 million views.
Although Wilcox is not a general authority in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he is the Second Counselor in the Young Men General Presidency. According to the church’s website, “the Young Men organization promotes faith, growth, and development in young men through Sunday instruction, weekday service and activities, and annual camps and conferences.”
On October 2, 2021, Wilcox spoke at general conference’s evening session in a message titled “Worthiness is not Flawlessness.” The title alone would seem to resonate with a membership that is constantly being prodded to do better at improving their lives. The fact that talks like this are given at all may indicate that the church is experiencing an increase in a membership who has given up trying to “do better than they can,” to take a phrase from 12th President Spencer W. Kimball.
Four times in his talk Wilcox used the phrase “some mistakenly receive the message.” Clearly, he feels that some members have been mistaken when it comes to the church’s doctrines of repentance and worthiness.
First of all, how exactly has repentance and worthiness been defined and understood by authoritative leaders in the LDS Church? Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon movement, said, “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” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 148).
The 2004 correlated manual titled Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff cites the fourth LDS president as saying:
And what is repentance? The forsaking of sin. 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 (71-72).
In the 1998 church manual titled Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, Mormonism’s sixth president stated that true repentance involves more than mere sorrow for sins. He said there must be “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” (61).
Spencer W. Kimball wrote in his book The Miracle of Forgiveness that, in the LDS understanding of repentance, “all transgressions must be cleansed, all weaknesses must be overcome, before a person can attain perfection and godhood” (16).
Notice carefully how the word all is used in each of the above citations.
In his talk, Wilcox cited a late apostle to make his point:
Worthiness is being honest and trying. We must be honest with God, priesthood leaders, and others who love us, and we must strive to keep God’s commandments and never give up just because we slip up. Elder Bruce C. Hafen said that developing a Christlike character “requires patience and persistence more than it requires flawlessness.” The Lord has said the gifts of the Spirit are “given for the benefit of those who love me and keep all my commandments, and him that seeketh so to do” (Italics in original)
There is irony in citing Hafen, for this same general authority wrote an article titled “Beauty for Ashes: The Atonement of Jesus Christ” published in the April 1997 issue of the Ensign magazine. On page 41 he stated:
Some of us make repentance too easy, and others make it too hard. Those who make it too easy don’t see any big sins in their lives, or they believe that breezy apologies alone are enough. These people should read President Spencer W. Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness, which reviews many sins of both commission and omission. And while forgiveness is a miracle, it is not won without penitent and strenuous effort.
Since Kimball’s book is mentioned, it would seem that Hafen did not think Kimball made repentance too hard. Yet it was Kimball who wrote the following: “Trying Is Not Sufficient. Nor is repentance complete when one merely tries to abandon sin. . . 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” (164-165. Ellipsis and italics mine).
This same Kimball also said, “God cannot forgive unless the transgressor shows a true repentance which spreads to all areas of his life” (203). Notice, again, the word all.
It becomes apparent that worthiness according to Mormonism is closely related to obedience and personal purity. As fourth President Wilford Woodruff noted,
It is impossible, however, for the Saints of God to inherit a celestial kingdom without their being tried as to whether they will abide in the covenants of the Lord or not. Any man who undertakes to serve God has to round up his shoulders and meet it, and any man who will not trust in God and abide in his cause even unto death is not worthy of a place in the celestial kingdom (The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 263).
Speaking in general conference, tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith stated,
I believe that our Father has prepared a place for every man according to his works and worthiness, but only through obedience to his laws in their fulness will men come back into the presence of the Father and the Son to receive an exaltation as sons and joint heirs with Jesus Christ (Conference Reports, April 1930, 89).
Sixteenth President Thomas S. Monson taught:
In order to have the Holy Ghost as our constant companion, we must be worthy. Brothers and sisters, purity will bring us peace of mind and qualify us to receive the Savior’s promises (“Be an Example and a Light,” Ensign, November 2015, 87).
A correlated church manual used by church missionaries explains that
Jesus did not eliminate our personal responsibility. He forgives our sins when we accept Him, repent, and obey His commandments. Through the Atonement and living the gospel we become worthy to enter the presence of our Heavenly Father permanently (Preach My Gospel, 61).
Most LDS members have a good understanding of what personal worthiness entails, explaining why many members are unsure if they are worthy to qualify for exaltation.
Wilcox then proceeded to tell the story of “Damon,” a young man who struggles with an addiction to pornography. According to Wilcox, Damon “harshly judged himself to be unworthy of any kind of grace, forgiveness, or additional chances from God” because he would often “relapse.” Said Damon, “I’ll never be good enough, so what’s the use of even trying?” One can only empathize with Damon’s struggle.
Wilcox praised Damon’s honesty about his failures while citing Apostle Richard G. Scott who said, “When the Lord speaks of weaknesses, it is always with mercy.” But how would Damon receive such mercy? Again, a definition is in order. Scott explained how mercy is secured for the Latter-day Saint:
The demands of justice for broken law can be satisfied through mercy, earned by your continual repentance and obedience to the laws of God. Such repentance and obedience are absolutely essential for the Atonement to work its complete miracle in your life (“The Atonement Can Secure Your Peace and Happiness,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2006, 42).
Two obvious questions arise. One, does a person like Damon earn mercy from God when he relapses into looking at pornography? Two, would these relapses be categorized as “continual repentance and obedience to the laws of God”?
Wilcox tried to paint a happy face on the young man’s condition, stating that Damon “realized God was not up there saying, ‘Damon blew it again.’ Instead, He was probably saying, ‘Look how far Damon has come.’” He quoted Damon who allegedly said,
The only time I had turned to God in the past was to ask for forgiveness, but now I also asked for grace—His “enabling power.” I had never done that before. These days I spend a lot less time hating myself for what I have done and a lot more time loving Jesus for what He has done.
In a New Testament context, I’d say, “Good for Damon!” But notice carefully how the word grace is being used in the above paragraph. Damon isn’t talking about the grace that forgives his sin. Instead, the grace he speaks of is defined in Mormonism as an enabling power—the power given to members that will hopefully lead to forsaking all one’s sins, resulting in complete obedience to all of God’s commandments.
In the written transcript of this talk, it reads in brackets, “[Bible Dictionary, “Grace”].” What does this LDS dictionary say about the grace Damon was referencing?
This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts. Divine grace is needed by every soul in consequence of the fall of Adam and also because of man’s weaknesses and shortcomings. However, grace cannot suffice without total effort on the part of the recipient. Hence the explanation, “It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23) (LDS Bible Dictionary, 697).
Wilcox insists that this type of grace is “not just a prize for the worthy. It is the ‘divine assistance’ He gives that helps us become worthy. It is not just a reward for the righteous. It is the ‘endowment of strength’ He gives that helps us become righteous.”
Notice that God still expects personal worthiness and righteous; it remains the responsibility of each member to accomplish this goal. After all, 1 Nephi 3:7 in the Book of Mormon says “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.” Would Damon think he is “doing all he can do” when he relapses into his sin?
Can Mormonism save Damon if he were to die before completely overcoming his addiction to porn? Wilcox stated that, in Damon’s situation, “arbitrarily setting some standard of abstinence to be considered worthy” would be unrealistic.
What did Wilcox mean by this? Was he implying that watching less porn today than yesterday still meets the LDS conditions of exaltation? If that is how he is being interpreted, and if Mormonism is true, the comforting words of Brad Wilcox become eternally perilous, for they most certainly do not override the warning given in Doctrine and Covenants 82:6-7:
And the anger of God kindleth against the inhabitants of the earth; and none doeth good, for all have gone out of the way. And now, verily I say unto you, I, the Lord, will not lay any sin to your charge; go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God.
Should the above statement be true, anything less than complete victory over his sin will rob Damon’s hope of forgiveness and exaltation. How can D&C 82:7 offer any assurance to fallen humanity?
Wilcox made references to Doctrine and Covenants 46:9a twice in his message. It says, “For verily I say unto you, they are given for the benefit of those who love me and keep all my commandments and him that seeketh so to do.” Using this verse, he gives the impression that keeping all of the commandments and merely desiring to do so are two separate alternatives. However, eighth President George Albert Smith saw desire as one thing that must lead to the other:
Being a member of the Church and holding the Priesthood will not get us anywhere unless we are worthy. The Lord has said that every blessing that we desire is predicated upon obedience to His commandments . . . unless we keep the commandments of our Heavenly Father, unless we bear worthily this holy Priesthood that is so precious, we will not find our place in the celestial kingdom” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith, 2011, 53. Ellipsis mine).
Wilcox wrapped it up this way:
When you feel like you have failed too many times to keep trying, remember Christ’s Atonement and the grace it makes possible are real. “[His] arm of mercy is extended towards you.” You are loved—today, in 20 years, and forever. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Again, context is important. Grace as an enabling power makes it possible, but only success in keeping commandments makes forgiveness a reality. The Jesus of Mormonism may have his arms extended, but to be embraced by the Savior, the requirements of Doctrine and Covenants 1:31-32 and 58:43 must be met:
31 For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance; 32 Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven.
42 Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more. 43 By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.
If Brad Wilcox is offering comfort to his listeners, passages such as these must be either ignored or explained away. Biblically, assurance can never be gained by trusting in inconsistent, sin-tainted works. Only when complete trust is placed in the finished and perfect work of Christ can weary souls find the spiritual rest they long for.