In 1969 Spencer W. Kimball published a book entitled "The Miracle of Forgiveness". This book became a classic within the Mormon Church. At the time he was an apostle, one of the Council of the Twelve, second only in authority within the Church to the First Presidency. In 1973 he became President of the Mormon Church, until his death in 1985. This man spoke with authority, and his book has become the definitive work on sin and forgiveness for Mormons. However it is not by any means the encouraging book its title might suggest.
Perhaps the reason is because of statements like the following:
No matter how brilliant was the service rendered by the bishop or stake president or other person, if he falters later in his life and fails to live righteously "to the end" the good works he did all stand in jeopardy. (p.121)
… for who can tell when one might slip across the line? (p.122)
In a religion founded on a message of works and merit even a person’s good works, it seems, are not enough. A life spent in good works can still be lost if we do not keep it up "to the end". This is a great burden indeed and the Christian reader might wonder where is the Bible message of grace. You might be relieved to find that the message of the book is that there is forgiveness for those who sin and are repentant. After spelling out the details of sin and its consequences, Kimball gives assurance that there is a way out:
There must be works - many works - and an all-out, total surrender, with a great humility and "a broken heart and a contrite spirit."
It depends on you whether or not you are forgiven, and when. It could be weeks, it could be years, it could be centuries before that happy day when you have the positive assurance that the Lord has forgiven you. That depends on your humility, your sincerity, your works, your attitudes. (p.325)
Oh, dear! Jesus paid the price it seems, made it possible for you to be forgiven, but whether you are forgiven depends entirely on you. More works are required, this time to prove to God how repentant you are, and assurance can be a very long time in coming. It seems that some people may never know for sure that they are forgiven.
There is also no room for weakness or error, especially if you commit the same sin again. If you succeed in being forgiven, receiving that assurance that you are once more right with God, you have to go back on your guard again, because those who repeat a sin are in very deep trouble:
"… Unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God." (D&C 82: 7).
Would this mean that the person who has returned to the sins he has professedly abandoned must start the process of repentance again from the beginning? that one cannot return to sin and then start repentance from where he left off?
To return to sin is most destructive to the morale of the individual and gives Satan another hand-hold on his victim. Those who feel that they can sin and be forgiven and then return to their sin and be forgiven again and again must straighten out their thinking. Each previously forgiven sin is added to the new one and the whole gets to be a heavy load. (p.170)
The load that Mormons have to bear is a heavy one indeed with past sins coming back to add weight to the burden of today’s failings. This book, which outlines so graphically the extent of sin and the way to forgiveness, makes it clear that forgiveness is not a miracle at all, the miracle is that anyone gets forgiven!
The Mormon Church teaches that we are saved by grace "after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25: 23). This means that the grace of God only comes into effect after you have done everything you could and should have done. There is the idea that we spend our entire lives accumulating good and bad deeds which will be weighed at the judgement bar to see if we have done enough to merit heaven.
Even the murderer is justified in repenting and mending his ways and building up a credit balance in his favour. (p.131)
The child born in the Church goes to Primary and Sunday School; later attends MIA and seminary and institute; works in scouting and exploring; later participates in Relief Society and much other specialized works, besides serving and attending and participating in other meetings and conferences, and all this in addition to the study of the gospel and many hours on his knees in prayer. The adult convert can make up much of this training by intensive study and pondering and prayer. (p.203)
Oh, The Plan!
The Mormon God's 'Plan of Salvation' is to make an earth for his children to live on
And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; and they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; … and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever. (Abraham 3: 25,26)
The first estate was life with God before we were born, the second estate is life on earth, and the glory to come is eternal life. This life is a school for godhood, where we prove ourselves.
While we lack recollection of our pre-mortal life, before coming to this earth all of us understood definitely the purpose of our being here. We would be expected to gain knowledge, educate ourselves, train ourselves. We were to control our urges and desires, master and control our passions, and overcome our weaknesses, small and large. We were to eliminate sins of omission and of commission, and to follow the laws and commandments given us by our Father. (p.5)
We are to spend our lives working to add to our credit balance, and working to prove our repentance in order to decrease our debit balance. This is the message of this book. The miracle of forgiveness is that we can repent of the bad deeds and have them taken off the scale, and even transform our lives so that no more bad deeds need ever be added.
God in Embryo
The underlying problem is the Mormon doctrine concerning the nature of man.
The scriptures point clearly to the high purpose of man's existence…that, having within him the seeds of godhood and thus being a god in embryo, man has unlimited potential for progress and attainment. (p.3)
It thus becomes the overall responsibility of man to co-operate fully with the Eternal God in accomplishing this objective. To this end God created man to live in mortality and endowed him with the potential to perpetuate the race, to subdue the earth, to perfect himself and to become as God, omniscient and omnipotent. (p.2)
Because man is told that he has godhood within him, he is tempted to believe that he really can perfect himself. The Mormon belief that man is born sinless, adds to this idea. The only problems we carry are those of our own making, and therefore we have the power to overcome them.
All transgressions must be cleansed, all weaknesses must be overcome, before a person can attain perfection and godhood. Accordingly the intent of this book is to stress the vital importance of each of us transforming his life through repentance and forgiveness. (p.16)
Kimball quotes a previous Prophet of the Church, Joseph F Smith:
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. Not only so, but to make restitution, so far as it is possible, for all the wrongs we have done, to pay our debts, and restore to God and man their rights - that which is due them from us. This is true repentance, and the exercise of the will and all the powers of body and mind is demanded, to complete this glorious work of repentance…(p.149)
Indeed, Spencer Kimball insists that it is possible not only to overcome sin, but to reach the point
…where the desire or the urge to sin is cleared out of his life.
Surely this is what is meant, in part at least, by being pure in heart! And when we read in the Sermon on the Mount that the "pure in heart" shall see God, it gives meaning to the Lord's statement, made through the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1832, that presently impure people can perfect themselves and become pure:
"Therefore, sanctify yourselves that your minds become single to God, and the days will come that you shall see him;…"(D&C 88). (p.355)
This teaching gives man at the same time both arrogance and hopelessness: I am born perfect, containing the seeds of godhood, with the potential to become a god myself one day. Yet at the same time the belief that I can perfect myself does not bear out in my daily experience. I cannot so easily overcome my faults and sins, yet the Mormon Church teaches that I can and should.
Body of Death
When we first became members of the Mormon Church, the idea that we could 'turn over a new leaf' and work hard to become acceptable to God sounded good. Most people believe that they need to be good in order to be accepted by God. But the reality is that perfection is impossible because we are all flawed. Even the great apostle Paul, who had a personal experience of Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus and spent his life serving God and preaching the Gospel, knew that he was weak and sinful:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do… For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing… What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
(Romans 7: 15, 18b, 19, 24)
The very purpose of the law in the Bible is to show us how impossible it is for us to reach God's standard on our own, and how much we need God's gift of grace made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. That is why Jesus is called the Saviour - because he saves us when there is no other way, no hope for us.
The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”
No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin
The Mormon Church, by denying the free gift of grace and insisting that members perfect themselves, is laying an impossible burden on them. Those who take their obligations seriously live in guilt, and fear that they will never be good enough. Those who believe that it will be all right in the end are simply deluded. That is why this book is so dangerous to Mormons. Many will read it with 'rose-tinted spectacles' and see the excellent exposition of what sin really means and the encouragement to 'endure to the end', and not reason it through. But many will see the import and true burden of the message and despair.
We ask all Mormons to seriously ponder what Spencer W Kimball is laying out so clearly - that the Mormon Church is asking you to do the impossible and telling you it is possible. We have seen lives wrecked on the rocks of self righteousness in trying to keep the standards and to be forgiven for abiding sins that they can never renounce and overcome by their own strength.
DO IT YOURSELF
In a nutshell, the Church program is like this:
1. The Malady: Mental and physical sin.
2. The Vehicle: The Church and its agencies and programs.
3. The Medication: The gospel of Jesus Christ with its purity, beauty, and rich promises.
4. The Cure: Proper attitudes and self-mastery through activity and good works. (p.88)
Thus Spencer Kimball sums it all up, and clarifies the problem for us all. The Malady is correct, and The Medication, but the Mormon Church insists that it is the only way, and we must do it ourselves. The message of the Bible, however, is:
But now, a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Christ, to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus…
Where then is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.