Perfection, pt. 2: His Grace is Sufficient

Because perfection is a matter of being, our focus ought to be in becoming more rather than doing more. Once we take care of the becoming, the doing will naturally follow.

The only hope we have of becoming heavenly is through the grace of Christ. His grace is sufficient to transform us—to turn our weakness into strength. As He Himself declared to Moroni, “my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27; cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9). And as Moroni declared to us: “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God” (Moroni 10:32).

His grace is the enabling, sanctifying power that is sufficient to save us from our fallen natures. This is how we are saved from our sins. This is how we experience a mighty change of heart. This is how we are “born again,” changed from our carnal and fallen state to a state of righteousness. This is what it truly means to have faith in Christ; not that He’ll just come through for you on judgment day, but that He can and will save you here and now—as quickly as you’ll let Him in.

There is an actual process to this, and I hope that after we examine its parts in this and the following posts it will seem less vague and mysterious, and more within reach.

The Process

Like we’ve said, Christ’s grace is the central key to this transformational process. Salvation is the result of allowing His grace to work within you to bring about a mighty change. By nature, we resist His light. We put up blinders, we draw the shades, we close our eyes or look the other direction. The first step in allowing Christ to do His work is to put down your weapons of rebellion and surrender to Him. The natural man does not want to surrender, or submit, or yield. This is why faith is required.

Alma uses the analogy of a seed. Before you can have a tree, you must give place for a seed to be planted. This planting will take place as you make room in your heart for the word of God. Once the seed has been planted, you diligently nourish it so that it takes root in your heart, and by and by “it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life,” whose fruit is “sweet above all that is sweet, and… white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure” (Alma 32:41-42).

Nephi uses the analogy of a rod of iron. You must take hold and cling to the word of God, pushing forward along its path until you at last come to tree of life, which Lehi described as being “most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted,” and “white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen” (1 Nephi 8:11). As Nephi learned, this fruit represents “the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things” (1 Nephi 11:22).

In both analogies, it is the word of God which leads to the love of God. There is only one process being described. As we yield to the word of God, which is the light and Spirit of God, then we are infused with the love of God (the mature fruit of the word of God). “But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected [or fully matured]: hereby know we that we are in him” (1 John 2:5).

This is also the same process Christ described when He said, “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:13). There is a beginning, middle, and end.

Strait GateNarrow WayLife
Taking Hold of the RodPressing ForwardTree of Life
Planting the SeedNourishing the SeedTree of Life

Once you realize that this is the pattern, you’ll begin recognizing it all over the scriptures: turn to God’s light, receive it, and then persist in it until your whole body is full of light. When you are full of light you will be like the Savior, having His image engraven in your countenance; “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13, NIV; emphasis added).

The Lord declared: “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day. And again, verily I say unto you, and I say it that you may know the truth, that you may chase darkness from among you” (D&C 50:24-25). Also, “And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things” (D&C 88:67).

This was also what was noted in the case of king Lamoni: “Now, this was what Ammon desired, for he knew that king Lamoni was under the power of God; he knew that the dark veil of unbelief was being cast away from his mind, and the light which did light up his mind, which was the light of the glory of God, which was a marvelous light of his goodness—yea, this light had infused such joy into his soul, the cloud of darkness having been dispelled, and that the light of everlasting life was lit up in his soul” (Alma 19:6).

Christ intends to heal us of our weakness by the gift and power of His Spirit. Rather than beat our fallen bodies into submission, the gospel is designed to elevate, purify, and sanctify our flesh by dispelling all darkness and infusing it with light. When all darkness has been dispelled and we are full of light, the process is complete—which is what it means to “endure to the end.” We are enduring to the end of a process or path: “they came and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press their way forward, continually holding fast to the rod of iron, until they came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree” (1 Nephi 8:30 cf. Alma 32:40-42).

“O then, my beloved brethren, repent ye, and enter in at the strait gate, and continue in the way which is narrow, until ye shall obtain eternal life” (Jacob 6:11)

As a matter of fact, the word “end” in the New Testament phrase “endure to the end” (Matthew 24:13) comes from the Greek word τέλος, which has the same root as “perfect,” fully mature, completed, etc. “End” in this context refers to the principal aim or purpose. You are enduring to the purpose—persisting in the process until you become what He intends to make of you.

If you were planting and nourishing a seed, the end (τέλος) of that endeavor would be to have a fully mature tree bearing fruit. The purpose of Christ’s gospel is to make you holy, without spot—bearing fruit that is “pure above all that is pure” and “most joyous to the soul.” In short, He intends to make you perfect by filling you with His love, which is the hallmark of completion. “And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness” (Colossians 3:14).

This is the essence of the doctrine of Christ; we make room in our hearts to receive His word/Spirit, and let it work in us until we become fully mature in Him. Put another way, Christ said, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). He is the life force of all creation; as we abide in Him, He will fill us with His Spirit until we bring forth fruit—then we are made perfect in Him.

Grace, Charity, and Perfection

His grace is sufficient; sufficient to make weak things strong; sufficient to save us from our sins; sufficient to turn us into the kinds of beings who can keep the whole law; sufficient to perfect us.

When you think of perfection, think of a tree bearing fruit. When you think of perfection in Christ, think of the fruit you would bring forth by grafting yourself into Him, and allowing His Spirit to flow into you; or think of the fruit you would bring forth by planting His word in your heart, and letting it grow to perfection. It is the fruit of the tree of life, which is the love of God. We are made perfect in love (1 John 4:18).

“By his grace, ye may be perfect in Christ” (Moroni 10:32). This is why Moroni pleaded with the Lord that He would give the Gentiles “grace, that they might have charity” (Ether 12:36). It is the only way our weakness can be made strong.

This is what we must become in order to inherit the kingdom of God in the resurrection: “And except ye have charity ye can in nowise be saved in the kingdom of God” (Moroni 10:21; cf. Ether 12:34). “But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him” (Moroni 7:47).

How do we receive Christ’s grace that we might bear this fruit in our lives? Stay tuned.

Perfection: Being vs. Doing

When Jesus said, “Be ye therefore perfect” (Matthew 5:48), the word perfect is translated from the Greek τέλειοι meaning mature (like a tree bearing fruit), full grown, having reached its end, complete, etc. This is a much different idea than our Greek/Western conception of perfect, which has more to do with giving a flawless performance (like a musician on stage not making a single mistake).

Perfection, as Jesus is speaking about it here, is a state of being. A fully developed tree will bear fruit as a natural consequence of what it is. Conversely, if a tree has not reached a condition of maturity, it will not be able to do the things a mature tree can do. A young sapling cannot produce fruit, no matter how hard it tries.

Jesus’s injunction was to be perfect, not to do perfect. There is a major difference.

The fruits of a perfect person will naturally follow as a consequence of who they are. On the other hand, if a person has not first developed a perfect heart it does not matter how hard they try to be good; they will fail. They are wrestling with the fallen nature of their own flesh and will inevitably give way to it.

“For behold, a bitter fountain cannot bring forth good water; neither can a good fountain bring forth bitter water; wherefore, a man being a servant of the devil cannot follow Christ; and if he follow Christ he cannot be a servant of the devil” (Moroni 7:11)

The natural man is carnal, sensual, and devilish. It is a bitter fountain, and cannot bring forth good water. Any attempt to do so will be in vain because it goes contrary to its own nature.

If a bitter fountain wants to bring forth good water, no amount of grit and willpower will make it so. It must first become a good fountain, and then good water will flow naturally. Because we are always subject to our nature, it is our nature that must change. When our nature is fallen and corrupt, sin will naturally follow; when our nature is godly, godliness will naturally follow.

Doing Perfect

The way we’ve come to talk about perfection culturally misses the being aspect. Perhaps this a consequence of reading the scriptures with Greek eyes; the philosophies of men mingled with scripture.

Growing up in the south, I encountered Southern Baptist pamphlets and handouts from time to time. The narrative usually went something like this: “Have you ever wondered where you’ll go when you die? Here’s a quick way to figure it out: Have you ever sinned? Even one time? God’s standard is absolute perfection, and if you’ve sinned even once, you’ve already disqualified yourself from heaven when you die. If you’ve sinned, you’re a sinner, and sinners go to hell—it doesn’t matter how many other good things you try to do. As a matter of fact, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). We deserve nothing less than hell. BUT! There’s good news. God sent His Son Jesus as a perfect sacrifice for our sins so we can be forgiven, and live with Him again. And because He was perfect, all we have to do is believe in Him, and His perfect life will cover us. So if you want to be saved, confess your belief in Jesus in this prayer…”

This is what I call, “Straw-man Salvation.”

Do you hear the doing perfect language embedded into this story? “If you make one mistake, if there’s one error on your spiritual report card, you’re through.” “If you don’t walk up on stage and give an absolutely flawless performance, then God will reject you when you come to Him.”

So this is “the problem” as Christianity puts it. The “solution” is that we need to turn in a perfect report card, and Christ will let us turn in His.

The restored gospel tells a fundamentally different story, but because we’re surrounded by a culture that still toils under the darkness of apostasy, we’ve unconsciously inherited many of its traditions and assumptions. Consequently, not seeking to understand the fulness of the gospel on its own terms results in our being pulled back into the current of mainstream Christianity. Very frequently we teach restored doctrine with a protestant twist, or protestant doctrine with a Mormon twist.

For example, many of us still hold onto the notion that “getting into heaven” is a matter of giving a flawless performance, and that if we’ve made a single mistake we’ve disqualified ourselves and therefore need a Savior. But instead of saying “heaven” we say “the Celestial Kingdom.”

Because we tend to accept these premises, approaching the how of salvation is a bit awkward. What do we have to do to make sure we have it good in the next life? We know ordinances by correct authority fit somewhere in the mix, and also “enduring to the end.” The commandments seem important, but most of us believe that we can’t keep them all which is why we needed a Savior in the first place. The temple fits somewhere in the mix… but at the end of the day we don’t really find out how well we did on everything until judgment day… right? On the other side of all this, people usually come out with a few different conclusions.

One position that’s become popular in the last 30 years is that once we’ve made the covenant to follow Christ through baptism, we’re “in” the kingdom, and will be “in” the kingdom unless we decide to leave. This idea posits that once we’ve made the covenant, and just have the desire to follow Christ, He makes up for all of our imperfections and can let us into heaven. It’s compared to a child who wants to buy a bicycle, who then works and saves every penny for a few weeks only to find out she has nowhere near what it will actually cost. Her father then tells her that if she’ll give him everything she’s saved with a hug and a kiss, he’ll take care of the rest. This is virtually the same as the protestant position, but just swaps “confession of belief” for “ordinances.” Its contingent concern is still in the doing.

There are other variations of this that are a bit more nebulous and conditional. Some people will say you have to do your best before Christ’s mercy kicks in. If you only give half the effort you could have, for example, you won’t have done enough on your part to inherit Celestial glory. Others will say “if you’re worthy of a temple recommend, you’re worthy of the Celestial Kingdom.” Or, “you just need to be heading in the right direction when you die,” or “stay in the mainstream of the Church and die in full fellowship.”

These all miss the point, and leave people feeling a little uncertain. Many are unsure about their standing with God, and question whether or not they’re doing enough to be saved. They question whether all of their sacrifices, time, and effort are enough to meet God’s demands.

A comment made frequently in Sunday school is: “The Lord doesn’t ask us to be perfect, He just wants us to try our best.” This is generally met with an enthusiastic nod of agreement from everyone in the room, because everyone who has tried beating their flesh into submission knows it doesn’t work. They conclude, “we can’t be perfect, and the Lord doesn’t expect us to do anything out of our control… and besides, isn’t that what a Savior is for? If we could be perfect, we wouldn’t need a Savior. We just need to do our best, and He’ll make up the difference.”

There’s a major problem with this line of thinking though, and that is that “do your best” is not a principle of the gospel. This is to fundamentally miss this point of what this life and the atonement are all about.

To go back to our fountain analogy, it’s as though most people are saying: Did the fountain ever produce any bad water? If it did, it can’t go to heaven. However, if it accepts Jesus (either by confession or ordinance) then it can be forgiven for producing bad water and can be a fountain in heaven. Or, if it accepts Jesus and then tries its best to produce good water, He’ll make up for the bad water it produces so that it can be a fountain in heaven.

When people view salvation this way, their main concern is forgiveness of past sins. However, what the fountain needs is not merely to be forgiven (although that’s an important first step), but to be fundamentally changed. If a bad fountain is forgiven but not changed, it will continue to produce bad water. Put another way, sin is just a symptom of a deeper issue. If the deeper issue is never treated, bandaids won’t fix it.

Consider this for a moment: do you believe people will continue to sin in heaven?

If the answer is yes, then what do you think will make heaven any different than the world we currently live in, or the church you currently attend?

If the answer is no, then in order to dwell in God’s presence you will need to be sinless; not just forgiven of past sins, but you must never commit any kind of sin again. That prospect on its own might create a lot of anxiety and discouragement; will we just be anxiously trying to stay in line, fearing the slightest misstep will result in our being kicked out? That sounds like a perfectionist’s hell.

Some people are under the impression that our desires will be magically changed once we’re resurrected. Alma tells us that this not the case; in the resurrection, we will in fact be restored back to exactly what we were in the life:

“Do not suppose, because it has been spoken concerning restoration [resurrection], that ye shall be restored from sin to happiness. Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness. And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; they are without God in the world, and they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness.

“And now behold, is the meaning of the word restoration to take a thing of a natural state and place it in an unnatural state, or to place it in a state opposite to its nature? O, my son, this is not the case; but the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish—good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous; just for that which is just; merciful for that which is merciful. (Alma 41:10-13).

We really have to consider the implications of this scripture. If we will be restored to exactly what we are here, desires, nature, and all—then even if salvation was all about forgiveness, it wouldn’t be too long after being admitted back into God’s presence that we would sin again. And then, like Adam and Eve, we would be cut off from His presence all over again. By its nature, a bad fountain will produce bad water.

So what is the solution? Is there any hope at all if our nature and disposition is to sin?

Now we’re getting to the heart of the problem. It’s not about bad marks on our report card—it’s about who we are.

Being Perfect

Instead of thinking about sin as a mistake, misstep, or hitting a wrong note, think of sin as a symptom. It’s a symptom that something in your heart is not right. It’s bent out of place, or facing the wrong way, or not arranged right.

What we need is not to be saved in our sins, but from our sins.

As Helaman told his sons: “And remember also the words which Amulek spake unto Zeezrom, in the city of Ammonihah; for he said unto him that the Lord surely should come to redeem his people, but that he should not come to redeem them in their sins, but to redeem them from their sins” (Helaman 5:10; emphasis added).

It’s important to really think about this. Do you believe Christ came to save us in our sins, or from our sins? Is His atonement for the purpose of saving us despite the fact that we sin, or is it about pulling us out of that lifestyle entirely? Do you believe “he will justify in committing a little sin” (2 Nephi 28:8)? Or that in the resurrection, we will be restored “from sin to happiness” (Alma 41:10)?

Consider what the Lord told Alma, “Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; and thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God” (Mosiah 27:25-26).

The purpose of the gospel is not just about being forgiven, or “making up the difference,” but being fundamentally changed. The Savior is the Master Physician, come to heal us (3 Nephi 9:13). He intends to change our nature from being bitter fountains to pure ones. If our hearts are not changed, we will have a hard time producing good fruit. When our hearts are changed, good fruit will naturally follow.

As He spoke through Ezekiel: “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezekiel 36:26-28; cf. Jeremiah 31:33-34).

We see what this looks like with the people of King Benjamin: “the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent… has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:2). Or as Alma taught, “Now they, after being sanctified by the Holy Ghost, having their garments made white, being pure and spotless before God, could not look upon sin save it were with abhorrence; and there were many, exceedingly great many, who were made pure and entered into the rest of the Lord their God” (Alma 13:12).

Consider how different your life would be if the very desire to sin was rooted out of your heart. Consider how different things would be if instead of trying to wrestle with the flesh, God’s will became your will; if His heart was your heart.

C.S. Lewis wisely observed Christ’s intention: “Give me all of you! I don’t want so much of your time, so much of your talents and money, and so much of your work. I want you! All of you! I have not come to torment or frustrate the natural man or woman, but to kill it! No half measures will do. I don’t want to only prune a branch here and a branch there; rather I want the whole tree out! Hand it over to me, the whole outfit, all of your desires, all of your wants and wishes and dreams. Turn them all over to me, give yourself to me and I will make of you a new self—in my image. Give me yourself and in exchange I will give you Myself. My will, shall become your will. My heart, shall become your heart.”

When His will becomes our will, and His heart becomes our heart, Satan will have no power over us, and sinlessness will be the natural fruit that follows. Consider how this will be the condition of all living in the millennial day: “And Satan shall be bound, that he shall have no place in the hearts of the children of men… And the earth shall be given unto them for an inheritance; and they shall multiply and wax strong, and their children shall grow up without sin unto salvation” (D&C 45:55, 58).

So many of us long for a life in the millennium—that perfect day of peace when Christ will reign personally upon the earth—but what do you suppose will make it so? Why will Satan be bound? Nephi gives the answer: “because of the righteousness of his people, Satan has no power; wherefore, he cannot be loosed for the space of many years; for he hath no power over the hearts of the people, for they dwell in righteousness, and the Holy One of Israel reigneth” (1 Nephi 22:26; emphasis added).

Satan’s being bound is not an arbitrary decision made by God to suddenly remove our opposition. He will be bound because those on earth will have overcome; they will be sufficiently sanctified that they have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually. Satan will have no power over their hearts because His temptations will no longer appeal to them. This is the only way something like Zion gets established; our hearts must all be purified.

The law of Zion is the law of the Celestial kingdom (D&C 105:5). Only those who abide the law of the Celestial kingdom (Zion) can abide in a Celestial glory (D&C 88:22). As the prophet taught, “any person who is exalted to the highest mansion has to abide a celestial law, and the whole law too” (TPJS p. 331).

Because the resurrection is only a restoration of what we already are, the only ones who will be resurrected to a celestial glory are those who have already become celestial here. Those who have allowed the Lord to transform them into celestial, Zion-like individuals in this life.

“For notwithstanding they die, they also shall rise again, a spiritual body. They who are of a celestial spirit shall receive the same body which was a natural body; even ye shall receive your bodies, and your glory shall be that glory by which your bodies are quickened. Ye who are quickened by a portion of the celestial glory shall then receive of the same, even a fulness” (D&C 88:27-29).

These are the kinds of people who establish Zion on earth, or at least live a Zion-lifestyle when no such society is present: “These are they who are come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly place, the holiest of all. These are they who have come to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of Enoch, and of the Firstborn… These are they who are just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant” (see D&C 76:54-69).

Enoch’s city didn’t just happen to have more willpower than everyone else; they were fundamentally transformed by the grace of Christ. When we think of those living in the millennial day, or Celestial kingdom, who have no disposition to sin, and over whom Satan has no power—that is what we must become here and now, through the atonement of Christ.

If this is truly something we can (indeed must) become in this life, what is the process? How do we become the kinds of people who can live a Celestial law? Who bind Satan because of their righteousness? Who have no disposition to do evil, and who cannot look upon sin save it be with abhorrence?

More on this in the following post…

Challenging Traditions

In order to know God, we must be wiling to challenge our traditions.

God’s order and glory is truth, and His truth is one (Deuteronomy 6:4). Because we are born into a fallen world, cut off from His truth, we inherit false traditions, habits, assumptions, and biases. These run deeper than just religious affiliation; they affect the very way we perceive ourselves, God, and the world.

It’s likely that we’re all born with a mix of truth and error. The truthful aspects are what we find valuable, and are why we cling to our beliefs in the first place. However, “that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth… because of the tradition of their fathers” (D&C 93:39). They act as stumbling blocks that keep us from total harmony with God.

In order to exercise saving faith, we need “a correct idea of [God’s] character, perfections and attributes” (Lectures on Faith 3:4). Because we are all born into a fallen world, we all inherit lies. Consequently, gaining a correct idea of God’s character, perfections, and attributes will always involve the giving up of certain false beliefs and traditions.

Towards the end of his life, the prophet Joseph remarked: “any person who is exalted to the highest mansion has to abide a celestial law, and the whole law too. But there has been a great difficulty in getting anything into the heads of this generation. It has been like splitting hemlock knots with a corn-dodger for a wedge, and a pumpkin for a beetle. Even the Saints are slow to understand. I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions: they cannot stand the fire at all. How many will be able to abide a celestial law, and go through and receive their exaltation, I am unable to say, as many are called, but few are chosen” (TPJS p. 331).

Even the Saints are slow to understand. Being willing to acknowledge our false traditions and replace them with light is a necessary part of coming to know God. We must be dispelled of all darkness and impurity. “And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things” (D&C 88:67).