In this chapter of Lorenzo Snow we come to a favourite theme, how Mormons are to become perfect. At first it is a rather helpful and encouraging message designed to spur readers on to persevere.
The first two pages are taken up by a heart-warming account of his encouraging a group of young elders (now there’s an oxymoron) to persevere in their public speaking and other endeavours by telling of his own first nerve-jangling experiences in this area.
Telling them they had opportunities to become great he urged them to learn from his example. A good positive thinking message, one that colours every page of this chapter.
It is the application that is troubling for Christians because Snow wants readers to understand that it is by means of this striving to improve they can, indeed must become perfect. This is a deep-rooted theme in Mormon thinking.
As you might expect, the idea of self-perfection is rooted in a selective use of Scripture that is twisted from its original intent to serve a humanistic message of man becoming god. Bobby wrote about this in the previous post of this series. Snow puts it in these terms:
“Let this same mind be in you,” says the Apostle Paul, “which was also in Christ Jesus: who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” [See Philippians 2:5–6.] Now every man that has this object before him will purify himself as God is pure, and try to walk perfectly before him.
Having made Paul’s words here mean that we must aspire to godhood by striving for perfection he then decontextualizes another verse, this time from Matthew’s gospel, to insist we are commanded to make ourselves perfect:
“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” [Matthew 5:48]…
He makes it very clear that blessings are predicated on our obedience to this call to perfection:
“The Lord proposes to confer the highest blessings upon the Latter-day Saints; but, like Abraham, we must prepare ourselves for them, and to do this the same law that was given to him of the Lord has been given to us for our observance. We also are required to arrive at a state of perfection before the Lord;…”
A Christian might be forgiven for thinking he is talking here about justification and sanctification, the work of the Cross applied to the sinner and the work of the Spirit in the life of the sinner to make that person acceptable to God. This is as far from that idea as possible and we will discover that Snow’s definition of justification is quite different to how a Christian would understand it. His teaching chimes more with a Mormon text that predicates blessing on strict obedience:
“There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” [Doctrine & Covenants 130:20-21]
Snow uses the example of Abraham to teach us this principle of “perfecting ourselves.”
“And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me and be thou perfect.” [Genesis 17:1]
So the argument goes:
- Abraham was commanded to be perfect [Genesis 17:1]
- We are commanded to be perfect [Mt.5:48]
- All blessings are predicated on law, obedience being a prerequisite [D&C 130:20-21]
- The highest blessings fall on the most obedient [teachings of Lorenzo Snow]
What is made of Abraham’s example? Snow explains,
“When the Lord made this requirement of Abraham (to be perfect), He gave him the means by which he could become qualified to obey that law and come up fully to the requirement. He had the privilege of the Holy Spirit, as we are told the gospel was preached to Abraham, and through that gospel he could obtain that divine aid which would enable him to understand the things of God, and without it no man could do so; without it no man could arrive at a state of perfection before the Lord.” [pp 95/6]
For a moment it sounds like a Christian message, one in which God qualifies us for heaven. But it quickly becomes clear that what qualifies Abraham is the revelation of God’s requirements, “that divine aid which would enable him to understand the things of God, and without it no man could do so; without it no man could arrive at a state of perfection before the Lord.”
Later Snow asks where Abraham obtained a state of mind that urged him on to obedience to God. Not from his pagan parents, he insists; he acquired it from God [p.113]. It is here that Snow invents a new definition for the biblical word justification:
“And while [Abraham] was leaving his father’s house, while he was subjecting himself to this trial he was doing that which his own conscience and the Spirit of God justified him in doing, and nobody could have done better, providing he was doing no wrong when he was performing this labor.”
In other words, Abraham obtained knowledge and understanding in the things of God and thereafter set his mind to obeying what he had learned. His justification was simply the knowledge that he was doing right. In the same way:
“The Lord designs to bring us up into the celestial kingdom. He has made known through direct revelation that we are His offspring, begotten in the eternal worlds, that we have come to this earth for the special purpose of preparing ourselves to receive a fulness (sic) of our Father’s glory when we shall return into His presence. Therefore, we must seek the ability to keep this law to sanctify our motives, desires, feelings and affections that they may be pure and holy and our will in all things be subservient to the will of God, and have no will of our own except to do the will of our Father. Such a man in his sphere is perfect, and commands the blessing of God in all that he does and wherever he goes.” [p.111]
The Mormon message, therefore, is that we are literally offspring of God come to earth to perfect ourselves by obedience to the laws and requirements revealed to us so we may return to God’s presence. On learning this we, like Abraham, achieve a state of mind that urges us to obedience. It is that knowledge and striving to obey that perfects us and qualifies us for heaven.
This chimes with another key Mormon teaching from Doctrine and Covenants:
“Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.” [D&C 130:18-19]
As we saw in the article How to Read the Ensign Magazine this is a picture of salvation not by acknowledging our sin and turning to the Saviour, a theology of the cross, but of finding the right path by acknowledging our ignorance, embracing and obeying the right doctrines; salvation by knowledge (gnosis) and works. This principle of intelligence explains why Mormonism is a bookish religion. We come to know, we strive to obey, we achieve our goal.
Mormon leaders have likened the plan of salvation to educational achievement, with elementary education happening in the local church, and the temple the equivalent of a University education. The most recent Ensign magazine has a quote from Mormon apostle Boyd K Packer on the inside front cover that reinforces this idea: “We are not obedient because we are blind, we are obedient because we can see.”
Justification and Sanctification
Among Christians it is popular to think of our redemption in two phases. Justification means we are declared righteous and acceptable before God by simply trusting in the finished work of Christ on the cross. Sanctification then means a progression, a growing in the things of God as the Spirit works in our daily lives making us more like Christ. Christians might be forgiven for confusing what this Mormon prophet is saying with this idea of Sanctification as a process, but nothing could be further from the truth. (There is a really helpful article on Sanctification in the latest Briefing magazine)
In the Bible to be justified is to be brought into right relationship with a person. It can be used both of man to man, and man to God. While man might have ample opportunity to put himself right with his fellows there is nothing man can do to put himself right with God. Ps.143:2 declares, Do not bring your servant into judgement, for no-one living is righteous before you.”
To those who think by their effort and diligence they can be right before God, God says, “I will expose your righteousness and your works, and they will not benefit you.” (Is.57:12) Isaiah cries out to God, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you,” and goes on to declare, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are as filthy rags,” (Is.64:1&6)
Paul reminds us that, “no one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law, through the law we become conscious of sin.” (Ro.3:20) To those who realise their sinful plight Paul offers this hope, “through Jesus the forgiveness of sin is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.” Acts 13:39) And to the Galatians Paul wrote, “a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” (Gal.2:16)
Justification is a reconciliation between sinful man and a holy God, a putting right of that relationship, and this is an act of grace on God’s part in which we participate through faith (trust) in his Son (John 3:16) Because of this relationship a person is, “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” (Eph. 2:10)
Holiness – Now and Not Yet
To Sanctify means to be made sanctus or holy. In Scripture only God is holy (Ps.99) and if anything else is called holy it is a derived holiness, because of its relationship to God. The ark is holy (2 Chr.35:3) and the vessels (1 Kings 8:4) and those who minister those things (2 Chr.35:3) Sabbaths are holy (Ex.20:8,11) but their holiness is not intrinsic but derived. To be holy is to be set apart by God for service to him. This idea is going to be alien to a philosophy that insists man can become a god. If God is a man, as Snow teaches, his holiness must, by definition, have a derived holiness.
Man does not naturally possess the quality of holiness, we cannot work it up, nor can we achieve it, rather it is something that is conferred on those brought into right relationship with God, those who are justified.
In the New Testament the word Sanctification is used in two senses. In one sense it is already achieved, a fait accompli; in another it is yet to be achieved. But these two senses are not incompatible. Christ “loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy…” (Eph.5:26) Sanctification (holiness) has already been accomplished, imparted by Christ. Paul writes to Christians in Corinth, “you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor.6:11) In this sense the race is not yet to be run, but is already won.
On the other hand, sanctification is a goal to be achieved. The Corinthians are exhorted to “purify [themselves] from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.” (2 Cor7:1, c.f. 1 Thess.4:3; 2 Tim.2:21; Rom.6:19)
The proper understanding of sanctification, then, is that it is God alone who has un-derived holiness and all else that is holy is made holy (sanctified) by God. We do not achieve sanctification, rather, we are sanctified and are urged in Scripture to live out what we already are.
Thus Peter, reflecting back on Exodus 19:6, can write, “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Pet.2:9). So Paul can refer to Christians in Corinth as, “sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy…” (1 Cor.1:2) Later he was able to assure them, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ…” (1 Cor.6:11, c.f. 1:30; Heb.10:10)
That is why we say sanctification is not so much an activity as a status. A difficulty we face in refuting some Mormon ideas is we can sound as if we are refuting obedience in the Christian life. Mormons will often quote James 2, pressing the biblical principle that “faith without works is dead.”
But Christians are obedient, self evidently so. However, the obedience of those who have been justified is not an activity designed to achieve what has already been accomplished by Jesus, rather it is an exercising of, a working out of what we have already become in Christ. So Paul was able to urge Christians to, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” – not to work for your salvation. (Philip.2:12) There is a “now and not yet” quality to the Christian life.
The idea, clearly, is that once we have laid hold of sanctification through faith in Christ it will issue in works and conduct that reflect our new status. Sanctification stands at the beginning of the Christian moral life, not at its end, and characterises the continuing Christian life. If we progress, we progress in sanctification, not towards it.
Imagine someone restored from physical death to life. That person would progress and grow in health not in order to become alive but because he is alive. In the same way those born again in Christ Jesus (John 3:3) have already entered into new life and progress in the good of the life they already have because of him.
So if God does not demand we perfect ourselves what are we to make of Abraham’s example, of Jesus’ clear command in Matthew 5:48 and John’s injunction that Christians should “purify themselves” [1 John 3:2-6]
John is not asserting sinless perfection but describing the believer’s life as characterised not by sin but by doing what is right. He is building on what we have already seen the Scripture say of our working out in our lives what has already been done for us. John describes practically what this life looks like (see 1:8-10) but also recognises that in this process of working out our salvation we are not perfectly sinless (2:1) reminding us that God has made ample provision in Christ for the humble and repentant.
Let’s look again at Paul’s letter to Philippi:
“Let this same mind be in you,” says the Apostle Paul, “which was also in Christ Jesus: who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” [Philippians 2:5–6.]
Are Christians being urged here to perfection, to aspire to be gods? Are we to consider it not robbery to be equal with God? Look at the larger context:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Let this same mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus: who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” [See Philippians 2:3–7.]
It is Christ here for whom it would not be robbery to be equal to God the Father, because he is God the Son (John 1:1-5, 14) The message is not that we should strive for godhood but since Christ, who is God, became a servant for our sake, we should be prepared to serve. It is an injunction to humility not exaltation.
Abraham had already proved less than whole-hearted in his devotion to God, as we see in the story of Hagar and Ishmael. In demanding Abraham be perfect God was insisting on his trusting wholeheartedly in him, to be blameless in the sense of giving all his energies to living in light of what God had done and promised to do. James helps us understand this when he writes of trials making us mature in our faith, “that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James,1:4) There is the application of the word translated “perfect.”
Jesus’ words in Matthew’s gospel are spoken in the context of our relationship with people around us. The scribes and Pharisees found myriad ways to dodge around the law, notably when one asked Jesus, “who is my neighbour?” (Lk 10:29) His injunction to be perfect is a call to be wholehearted in our obedience to the law of love, not seeking a get out clause at every turn. Jesus certainly knew that sinless perfection was not possible in this life, teaching us to pray, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us…” (Mt.6:12)
There is a can-do thrust to what Lorenzo Snow is teaching here that is the product of his age, time and culture. The gospel – good news – is not that you can do but that you can’t, but God has, in Christ, done it for you if you come in repentance and put your trust in the one who alone saves sinners. The status of the true Christian is no better described than in Jude’s doxology at the end of his brief but inspiring letter:
“To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and evermore! Amen.”
May he keep you from falling and finally present you before the Father’s glorious presence without fault and with great joy because of your faith in him.
Mike Thomas was a Mormon for 14 years, became a Christian in 1986 and for many years worked with Reachout Trust speaking and writing about Mormonism. He still researches Mormonism and occasionally posts his thoughts on Mormon issues The Mormon Chapbook