Bear with us for some context before we get to the point of this post…
In our last post, we talked about repentance (as witnessed by confessing and forsaking one’s sins) as an immediate turn towards God that gains forgiveness immediately (if His offer is still on the table; compare Helaman 13:38). There are two important quotes: one from Joseph Smith, and one from Matthew in the Bible, that often confuse people about repentance and show the tension there is between those who think repentance is immediate and those who think forsaking sins as a part of repentance is a long process that requires complete abandonment of the sinful behavior (see here where we explain another meaning of “forsake” that may be more applicable).
First, the Joseph Smith quote:
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, p.148).
This quote tends to lead people to believe that we ought to “forsake” sins by completely abandoning them, so as not to displease the Lord with repetitive repenting.
Now, the quote from Matthew about an interchange between Peter and the Lord:
Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:21-22).
This quote seems to contradict Joseph’s statement, and prove that God is willing to forgive daily transgression and daily repentance, assuming that the Lord would not command Peter to do something He wouldn’t do Himself.
Which statement is right? Do they present an actual contradiction, or something that only seems like a contradiction?
We believe that Joseph Smith’s statement can be seen in a better light with the definition of “forsake” that we gave earlier, that of having a change of heart and hating the sin as opposed to completely abandoning the sinful behavior in question. Once you recognize the sin, and can confess how and why it is wrong, then all that is left is to forsake it in your heart. The example of someone who steals is still a good illustration of this concept: the thief can readily admit that what they are doing is wrong, but as we see in many movies, they may revel in the thrill of it, and love stealing. Of course, if they get caught frequently, and put into jail, they might just as easily begin to hate what they have done. But, if they are sorry only because they got caught (see Mormon 2:13), you can see how as soon as they are released they will probably turn to a life of crime again, and dig up the old ways and make their former sins return (D&C 82:7). The LDS are in the habit of saying that such a person has not truly repented. Maybe that is true enough, because God sees the end from the beginning. But, for sake of argument, let’s assume a more limited definition of repentance and say that the thief in prison who turns to God out of the distress of their circumstances has technically, and for all intents and purposes, repented. Then, it can be seen how Joseph Smith’s comment makes perfect sense. Someone who repents by hating their crimes, only to change their hearts back and start loving the behavior again, then to hate it when they get in trouble, then love doing it when all is well again, is not pleasing in the sight of God. However, if someone hates what they do, are ignorant of how to reform, and make mistakes but do not love it, then they have a chance at redemption much more than the double-minded thief in our example (see James 1:8 and James 4:8).
If you re-read Matthew’s quote more carefully, you’ll notice that neither Peter nor the Lord mentioned whether or not the subject “my brother” did any repenting. The Lord commanded Peter (and by extension those of us in Peter’s situation likewise), to always forgive. There is a reason for this related to Peter’s and our own repentance that we won’t go into here, but suffice it to say, that is the extent of the implications of the quote if you limit your interpretation to what is written in those two verses alone. That is enough to debunk the thought of any contradiction between Matthew’s quote and Joseph Smith’s, because Matthew is talking about instructions for us sinful mortals and how we are to forgive others, while Joseph is talking about the Lord’s willingness and right to forgive, or, in the example he used, about God’s right to be displeased with us under certain specific circumstances.
And that brings us to the real question raised by Joseph Smith, which is, under what conditions will God recognize our repentance, or be displeased with us? Let us propose that with the definition of repentance that we’ve given as the right context for Joseph’s quote, that God is displeased with repetitive repentance where the sinner returns to their sins in their heart, then turns back to God, and then goes back to loving their sins again, and so on in an endless cycle. And for the reverse idea, let us also propose that, as the scriptures say, God is merciful and gracious, and hence very apt to forgive seventy times seven as well for the person who has repented and hates the sin consistently, but who might also continually make the same mistake over and over as they slowly struggle to overcome the sinful behavior. In short, we think that LDS tradition merges the concept of “enduring to the end” into the definition of repentance, when repentance ought to be viewed as a separate, simple, immediate action with no delay or long process. If “enduring to the end” is viewed as a separate concept, all confusion seems to dissipate as the two thoughts take their proper place in the simple framework of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Although this has been a round-about way to get to the point of this post, it is easier to answer the question by proving what “enduring to the end” really is by slicing off the part of the traditional LDS definition of “repentance” that really belongs as the true definition of the former term. “Enduring to the end” is the long process of learning a godly nature and character by overcoming sinful behavior. It takes fortitude like an ox to continue hating the sin so “repentance” for that particular sin doesn’t need to re-occur. Someone can learn of new sins they were ignorant of and repent for those new sins and turn even closer to God, but they ought not to have to decide to hate the sins they already know about over and over again. We can decide to have an everlasting hatred for sin here and now (see Alma 37:32), and be willing to give them up, even if we are unable to actually do so for many years.
With the definition of “enduring to the end” being: that reformation of character that leads one to become like God, then it can be readily seen how attendance at Sacrament meeting or any church meeting is only tangentially related to “enduring to the end”, as opposed to a quote by Bruce R. McConkie that puts church attendance front and center.
…this is true gospel verity–that everyone in the Church who is on the straight and narrow path, who is striving and struggling and desiring to do what is right, though is far from perfect in this life; if he passes out of this life while he’s on the straight and narrow, he’s going to go on to eternal reward in his Father’s kingdom. We don’t need to get a complex or get a feeling that you have to be perfect to be saved. You don’t. There’s only been one perfect person, and that’s the Lord Jesus, but in order to be saved in the Kingdom of God and in order to pass the test of mortality, what you have to do is get on the straight and narrow path–thus charting a course leading to eternal life–and then, being on that path, pass out of this life in full fellowship. I’m not saying that you don’t have to keep the commandments. I’m saying you don’t have to be perfect to be saved. If you did, no one would be saved. The way it operates is this you get on the path that’s named the “straight and narrow.” You do it by entering the gate of repentance and baptism. The straight and narrow path leads from the gate of repentance and baptism, a very great distance, to a reward that’s called eternal life. If you’re on that path and pressing forward, and you die, you’ll never get off the path. There is no such thing as falling off the straight and narrow path in the life to come, and the reason is that this life is the time that is given to men to prepare for eternity. Now is the time and the day of your salvation, so if you’re working zealously in this life–though you haven’t fully overcome the world and you haven’t done all you hoped you might do–you’re still going to be saved. You don’t have to do what Jacob said, “Go beyond the mark.” You don’t have to live a life that’s truer than true. You don’t have to have an excessive zeal that becomes fanatical and becomes unbalancing. What you have to do is stay in the mainstream of the Church and live as upright and decent people live in the Church–keeping the commandments, paying your tithing, serving in the organizations of the Church, loving the Lord, staying on the straight and narrow path. If you’re on that path when death comes–because this is the time and the day appointed, this the probationary estate–you’ll never fall off from it, and, for all practical purposes, your calling and election is made sure. Now, that isn’t the definition of that term, but the end result will be the same. (McConkie, Bruce R., “The Probationary Test of Mortality, From an Address Delivered at the University of Utah Institute on January 10, 1982, http://www.ldslastdays.com/default.aspx?page=talk_probation.htm#earth).
Judge for yourself whether or not everything McConkie said is true; or, if he was speaking the truth, if his comments still are valid today, or if his comment is valid when meetings have lost their power. Ask yourself, that although the activities he mentions may at times assist in helping someone reform their character, is it fair to assume that those activities are what “enduring to the end” really means? If the answer to that is “no”, and if “enduring to the end” is simply the reformation of character itself, and nothing else, can any worthwhile activity, in and of itself, be assumed to be the only tool for achieving that character reformation? Or, wouldn’t any similar activity be just as good at promoting character growth? Do the LDS have a monopoly on decent church activities and service? Are even the ordinances of the Gospel themselves supposed to be what we are to endure in endlessly repeating, or do they have a goal and purpose for changing the inner man (see Moses 5:4-8)?
Hence, we believe the real heart of “enduring to the end” has nothing to do with Sacrament meetings alone, but goes much deeper to the core of one’s character, and proves that we have an obligation to not waste our time if a meeting becomes boring or vain. It is wholly proper to improve your time reading scriptures during a useless meeting that you may have obligations to attend. Other times, meetings can be uplifting, and as Hyrum Smith reacted to one particularly good meeting, he ran and got his mother to bring her back to see it.
It is obvious McConkie believed very strongly in the ability of the activities he mentioned to produce the desired result of “enduring to the end”, but it only takes another quote of McConkie’s to see where his arrow has missed the mark: “gaining a special, personal relationship with Christ… is both improper and perilous”, and he instead admonished: “the proper course for all of us is to stay in the mainstream of the Church” (Our Relationship with the Lord – BYU Speeches, Bruce R. McConkie, 2 March 1982).
Compare this to Nephi, who said:
Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life. (2 Nephi 31:20).
In scripture, the definition of “the end” is Christ himself, for He is “the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2; see also Moroni 6:4); and as Christ said, “I am the light and the life of the world. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end” (3 Nephi 9:18; see also JST Revelation 1:8). For McConkie, it can be argued that the “end” for him was the programs of the LDS Church, and the question remains, what if those programs fail to help someone endure to the end? Is it the person’s fault, or a problem with the program? This also begs the question: what happens to the effectiveness of an ordinance if it gets changed? Who’s fault is it if a person is not led by an ordinance to the proper goal of character reformation and becoming more like God? Is it the fault of the inattentive person? Or, the fault of the one who changed the ordinance, no matter how well-intentioned the change may have been? Hopefully, now, you can answer the question in the title of this post for yourselves.