|The Greek word for 'sin' in the New Testament means "to miss the mark"|
A recent article written by Gerrit W. Gong, an elder of the First Quorum of the Seventy of the LDS church, addresses "unrealistic expectations of what perfection is." His article1 published this July, is entitled, "Becoming Perfect in Christ." My first question is why exactly this would need to be addressed at all. LDS elder Gong writes:
The word perfection, however, is sometimes misunderstood to mean never making a mistake. Perhaps you or someone you know is trying hard to be perfect in this way. Because such perfection always seems out of reach, even our best efforts can leave us anxious, discouraged, or exhausted. We unsuccessfully try to control our circumstances and the people around us. We fret over weaknesses and mistakes. In fact, the harder we try, the further we may feel from the perfection we seek.Although I agree with his view, the notion of perfection he describes is different from the traditional LDS teachings on perfection. And as I continue to review the LDS gospel, it stuck out to me that perfection is critical because of its role in salvation. Salvation first requires perfection. This is the teaching found directly within the scriptures and from LDS leadership on the matter; it is not unrealistic, incorrect or self-imposed. It is traditionally-taught LDS doctrine. That is why perfectionism is such an inherent force within the LDS community. That being said, I feel this raises a few questions. For answers, I look to Christ's words and the words of the Apostles. To begin:
How then, is perfection a prerequisite for salvation in the LDS gospel?
This depends on what it means to be saved, so take the next natural question in line:
How am I saved?
You are saved by grace after all you can do (2 Nephi 25:23).
What do we do?
We do not sin, because if we sin, there is no grace (Moroni 10:32). We cannot be saved in our sins (Alma 11:37). God cannot allow any sin (D&C 1:31).
But, humans are imperfect. Don't we still sin in that imperfection?
God wouldn't command us if it were impossible (1 Nephi 3:7), so it must be possible to not sin. And if we have sinned, we must repent.
What does repentance do?
Repentance is not a gift since it merits something: forgiveness.2 We cannot commit the same sin again, we must forsake it (D&C 58:42-43) or it is not at all true repentance.3
But what happens if the sin is performed again? Can't we just do our best?
If sin is not forsaken, the sins will return to us again (D&C 82:7). Again, the forsaking must be permanent.4 Moreover, it is not sufficient simply that repented sins are forsaken, but the urge to sin in general must be out of our life.5 If we haven't truly repented, then the devil has power over us after death (Alma 34:35). So it specifically is in this life, not the next, that we are to prepare for God (Alma 34:32). Having a desire not to sin or sincerely trying our best is not good enough in this continual progression, either.6We must live a sinless life, absent of all ungodliness – in both action and urge – unto the rest of our lives in order for grace to save us. In essence, we must be perfect. Only then, will we be saved.7
But isn't the LDS gospel what Jesus and the apostles taught?
Paul gives a detailed explanation of this in Romans, but also makes similarly clear and decisive statements as in Galatians 2:16, "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified." The LDS gospel does not exactly give the same message that is given in the gospel of the New Testament: "One of the most fallacious doctrines originated by Satan and propounded by man is that man is saved alone by the grace of God; that belief in Jesus Christ alone is all that is needed for salvation." (Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 206-207). Unfortunately, the overwhelming manuscript evidence to the contrary refutes that notion - not just in 1 gospel account or epistle, but all over the correctly translated New Testament.
What about righteous works?
"Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." (Romans 3:28). That means that there is nothing a person can do, even in the Law, to be justified. It is by faith alone that people are justified. Continuing into chapter 4, Paul talks about faith (and not works) counting as righteousness: "Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness." This directly contrasts the verse prior, where Paul says that, "if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God." So although Abraham may have done righteous works, these account for naught. And this makes sense, because even in the Old Testament, Isaiah speaks for God that "all our righteousness is as filthy rags…"
Paul continues to explain what he means by a work. He says "to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt." A paycheck is not grace. A person earns a paycheck. Grace is not something that is earned, but given. Even Abraham received righteousness in his faith prior to circumcision. The covenant of circumcision came after Abraham was already justified in the righteousness of his faith. That was the blessing of promise God gave Abraham in Genesis 12:2: that righteousness comes by faith (Romans 4:13). If those are heirs of the world because of the law, then "faith is made void," and the promise is made of "none effect," that is, the promise is nullified. Even further, Paul repeats the distinction of grace and works in chapter 11:6 "And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work." So salvation cannot by both grace and works – Paul explains that they are mutually exclusive. That is, they cannot be mixed. Salvation is either by works or by grace, but not a combination of both. To be "saved by grace after all we can do" is in direct conflict with the gospel message Paul preaches us. If there were plain and precious truths that Paul left out regarding salvation, then Joseph Smith must have restored this when he restored the gospel.
What does it mean that Christ was a propitiation? (Romans 3:23-26)
"For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus." A propitiation is an atoning sacrifice. But Christ's sacrifice imparts righteousness to those that have faith in his atoning blood. It is not about what we can do. He did it all for us on the cross. Christ speaks his last: "When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost." (John 19:30). "It is finished" is not a difficult translation of Greek/Aramaic phrase. It means exactly that: it is finished. There is nothing else for us to do or earn, but to accept his free gift.
What about James' talk about showing faith by his works?
Because Christ has saved us, we love to do good works not to earn any righteousness (Paul already taught us that trying to earn righteousness before God is a worthless endeavor) but to bring glory to God because we love Him. James cites the same example that Paul does of Abraham (James 2:23), that faith brings righteousness, then goes on to say that a person is justified by works and faith. So is this a contradiction? No. James is correcting a distortion of Paul's teaching. James, in his very first verse, is specifically directing his letter to the Jews, and even more specifically, the Diaspora "The 12 tribes scattered abroad…" He is commanding them to be doers of the word, not simply hearers, because "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans10:17). They need to do, to put their faith into action. Just as much as the love of a spouse to the other makes them want to do things for the other, so too is the faith of a person in Christ. Their love for Him cultivates a spirit of action. That is what the apostle John is talking about in the beginning of his gospel account in chapter 15; abiding in Christ to bear fruit, which brings glory to God as well as makes one a disciple. And so, James continues to correct the behavior of the recipients of his letter. He gives them examples to continue to properly live out their faith, which has already saved them, and to continue to abide in the love of Christ. This love and the commandment, given by Christ to love one another, continues in John 15.
What about "be perfect, as our father is perfect?"
The Gospel is the euangelion (literally, "good news", where we get the root for terms like evangelical). Being perfect is not exactly good news. Here, knowledge of the language of the New Testament, Koine Greek (or "Common Greek") can shed light on such a passage. Thankfully, because we have an over-abundant plethora of manuscripts for the Bible, this task is possible. Take Matthew 5:48, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." The word for perfect is 'telayois' (τέλειος: complete – as in being fully grown; i.e. maturity, perfect, whole). This is the same type of perfection that occurs in James 2:22, "Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?" This perfection and idea of works is not talking about leading to salvation. This is talking about coming to a mature faith. And not just a maturity, but an ideal, a wholeness of faith. Again, notice what James does not say, that faith does not bring salvation. James is continuing the same idea of perfection as Matthew writes about, which is a maturity of faith that is ripened by loving works, which have themselves been borne out of saving faith in Christ.
Conclusion: Faith, Salvation, and Seeing God
Although striving to do God's will and earnestly seeking to glorify Him through good works is a worthy cause, it does nothing to change our state of salvation and where we wind up after death. Our trust in Christ accepts the gift of salvation. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-10, "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." And as John writes in his gospel account aDismisst 11:40, "Jesus saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?" Truly, this is the good news of the gospel - it's not at all about anything we can do - but that his loving atoning sacrifice completed it all for us. "Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent."(John 6:28-29)
2. Spencer Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness. Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1969. p. 354. "…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"
3. Ibid., p. 37.
4. Spencer Kimball, "President Kimball Speaks Out on Morality," Ensign, (November 1980). Exact page number unavailable at time of viewing; article only available as a webpage, not a re-print or PDF. Former LDS President Kimball explains that repentance "seems to fall into five steps." In step 2, "Abandonment of sin," (Italics in text) Kimball states of sin, "The discontinuance must be a permanent one. True repentance does not permit repetition. The Lord revealed this to the Prophet Joseph Smith concerning repentance: 'By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them' (D&C 58:43)." And also: "Elder Kimball warns: 'Even though forgiveness is so abundantly promised, there is no promise nor indication of forgiveness to any soul who does not totally repent. . . . We can hardly be too forceful in reminding people that they cannot sin and be forgiven and then sin again and again and expect forgiveness' (The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 353, 360). Those who receive forgiveness and then repeat the sin are held accountable for their former sins (see D&C 82:7; Ether 2:15)" (Gospel Principles, pp. 252- 253). Kimball held this view as an LDS elder and as LDS president.
5. Spencer Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness. p. 355. This reference is merely the continuation of the quote starting on page 354. 6. Ibid., p. 163, pp. 164-165. 'There is one crucial test of repentance. This is abandonment of the sin. Desire is not sufficient. In other words, it is not real repentance until one has abandoned the error of his ways and started on a new path… the saving power does not extend to him who merely wants to change his life. Trying is not sufficient, nor is repentance complete when one merely tries to abandon sin;' 'It is normal for children to try. They fall and get up numerous times before they can be certain of their footing. But adults who have gone through these learning periods must determine what they will do, then proceed to do it. To try is weak. To 'do the best I can' is not strong. We must always do better than we can'
7. Ibid., p. 163. In reality, this particular chapter is probably the most critical on the concept of simply trying one's best. It makes statement after statement affirming perfection in this life first.