Article ID: JAF1910EJ | By: Eric Johnson
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Sharing one’s Christian faith with a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, Mormon) can be very difficult. After all, Latter-day Saints use the same terminology as orthodox Christians — including “God,” “Jesus,” and “Scripture.” Adherents of the two religions can end up talking past each other by assuming their theological meanings are the same. When terms are defined, clarity can be given to both parties. This is especially true with the issue of salvation. After all, having the wrong view of salvation could be the difference between holding a true or a false gospel, as described by Galatians 1:8–9.
Mormonism and Christianity differ greatly on the requirements for the forgiveness of sins. To get to the heart of the matter with Latter-day Saints, I have utilized a book written fifty years ago by a top LDS leader that has revolutionized my evangelism, allowing me to get past the surface similarities to show just how different our two views really are.
The Miracle of Forgiveness
In 1969, Spencer W. Kimball — at that time a senior apostle in the LDS Church — published a book that has proven to be a classic, selling more than two million copies. In 1973, Kimball became the twelfth president of his church, a position he held until he passed away in 1985. He spent a decade working on The Miracle of Forgiveness1 that has been positively reviewed several times at the biannual general conference by other leaders of the church.
Just six months after the book had been published, fellow apostle Richard L. Evans gave his endorsement and stated how “there is nothing he [God] asks of us that we cannot do; there is no requirement we cannot keep — if we are willing, if we want to. Repentance is a miracle, if it is sincere.”2
At a general conference in 1995, Richard G. Scott gushed, “In The Miracle of Forgiveness, Spencer W. Kimball gives a superb guide to forgiveness through repentance.”3 Five years later Scott gave an even heartier recommendation: “I suggest that you read President Spencer W. Kimball’s inspired book The Miracle of Forgiveness. It continues to help the faithful avoid the pitfalls of serious transgression. It likewise is an excellent handbook for those who have committed serious errors and want to find their way back. Read the last two chapters first to appreciate the full miracle of forgiveness before reading anything else.”4
The church produced a series of annual manuals over a seventeen-year period dedicated to the teachings of the first fifteen presidents of the church. In 2006, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball was published and then studied by church-going Latter-day Saints two Sundays each month throughout 2007. Chapter 4 is titled “The Miracle of Forgiveness” with twenty-two references to the book.5
A leather-cover souvenir Christmas edition of The Miracle of Forgiveness was given away to employees of the church by the top leaders in 1998. In a letter included with the gift were these words: “We are pleased to present to you this classic edition of President Spencer W. Kimball’s book The Miracle of Forgiveness. President Kimball’s enlightening teachings on the Atonement of Jesus Christ are a precious treasure for all who would follow the Savior.”
Finally, there are displays of all the church presidents on the second floor of the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City. Each president’s area features his portrait along with a display case containing items to remember him. Included in Kimball’s case is a first edition copy of The Miracle of Forgiveness, another ringing endorsement of the book.
A Mormon who may not like the difficult teachings of The Miracle of Forgiveness might argue it is not one of the four official “Standard Words”: the Bible (King James Version), the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. While Kimball’s book is not Scripture, he did utilize his church’s Scriptures throughout to support his teaching. His position in the church is greater than anyone who would dare criticize his views.
My experience is that the vast majority of adult Latter-day Saints own the book or, at the very least, have read it. This is why I am able to attend LDS public events and offer free used copies of the book for those willing to read it. While I estimate that I have given away more than 500 copies of the book since 2014, most Latter-day Saints won’t take my copies because they already own it. Of course, they are curious why I would be willing to give away one of their leaders’ books, which helps get me into evangelistic conversations. While I disagree with Kimball’s conclusions, I explain that he did an excellent job exegeting the passages on salvation utilizing the unique LDS Scriptures, although I do admit he butchered the interpretation of several biblical texts.
Despite that it has not been published in hard copy form since 2015, The Miracle of Forgiveness is still available in electronic form.6 Hundreds of hard copies of the book can still be easily obtained through online book sellers for just a few dollars, making the book accessible to everyone. I recommend getting a copy of the book and reading it. 7 Then ask your Latter-day Saint friends if they have read the book. If so, you could ask, “Could we maybe go to lunch and talk about it?” Since this is not an “anti-Mormon” book filled with opposition to LDS teaching, many Latter-day Saints have accepted this invitation and allowed me to ask questions about the important issue of what is required to get the forgiveness of sins.
The Message of Kimball’s Book
There are four points covered by The Miracle of Forgiveness that differentiate Mormonism’s doctrine from biblical Christianity.
- Keeping God’s Commandments Is Possible Now
Chapter 1 is titled “This Life is the Time.” On page 10 Kimball cites from Alma 34:21–34 in the Book of Mormon, a powerful passage describing how “the day of this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God.” He emphasized the possibility for humans to attain exaltation (godhood) when he wrote on page 2, “It thus becomes the overall responsibility of man to cooperate 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.” On page 10 he explained that “the time to act is now, in this mortal life. One cannot with impunity delay his compliance with God’s commandments” (emphasis in original).
Many Latter-day Saints have argued that there will be time available after death since the commandments of Mormonism are impossible to keep in this life. In a section titled “Repent in Mortality,” Kimball disagreed with this view by explaining how the vicarious work for the dead completed in the dozens of LDS temples located around the world cannot be efficacious for those who understood Mormonism’s requirements. He wrote on pages 313 and 314, “One cannot delay repentance until the next life, the spirit world, and there prepare properly for the day of judgment while the ordinance work is done for him vicariously on earth. It must be remembered that vicarious work for the dead is for those who could not do the work for themselves. Men and women who live in mortality and who have heard the gospel here have had their day, their seventy years to put their lives in harmony, to perform the ordinances, to repent and to perfect their lives.”
- Unclean Things Cannot Enter God’s Presence
Emphasizing how sin is incompatible with the all-holy God, Kimball cited Moses 6:57 from the Pearl of Great Price, which says that “all men, everywhere, must repent, or they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God, for no unclean thing can dwell there, or dwell in his presence.” On page 19, he wrote, “But to God who is perfection, cleanliness means moral and personal cleanliness. Less than that is, in one degree or another, uncleanliness and hence cannot dwell with God.” Then on page 25, Kimball lists more than eighty different sins (including unthankfulness, inhospitality, boasting, pride, slothfulness, impatience, and lack of understanding). Just in case someone thinks that they have discovered a loophole in his list, he added, “Let no one rationalize his sins on the excuse that a particular sin of his is not mentioned nor forbidden in scripture.”
According to Kimball, the most serious sin for a Latter-day Saint is breaking promises made with God made at water baptism as well as during visits to the temple and each Sunday when Mormons take part in the sacrament service (similar to communion). On page 57, he wrote, “Akin to many of the other sins is that of the covenant breaker. The person baptized promises to keep all the laws and commandments of God. He has partaken of the sacrament and re-pledged his allegiance and his fidelity, promising and covenanting that he will keep all God’s laws.”
- Abandonment of Sins Is Required
Citing Doctrine and Covenants 58:43 — it says “by this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins — behold, he will confess them and forsake them” — Kimball taught on page 163 how “true repentance prods one to action.” Many Mormons realize that they are not obeying the commandments by the mere fact that they make excuses for their disobedience. Kimball taught that this was not good enough, saying, “Trying is not sufficient. Nor is repentance complete when one merely tries to abandon sin….To ‘try’ is weak. To ‘do the best I can’ is not strong. We must always do better than we can. This is true in every walk of life” (165–66).
The God of Mormonism does not completely erase repented sins but stores them for safe-keeping. Kimball taught, “Old sins return, says the Lord in his modern revelations. Many people either do not know this or they conveniently forget it. ‘Go your ways and sin no more,’ the Lord warned. And again, ‘. . . Unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God.’ (D&C 82:7)” (169–70, ellipsis in original). He concluded, “Thus when a man has made up his mind to change his life, there must be no turning back. Any reversal, even in a small degree, is greatly to his detriment.”
On page 201 Kimball referenced Doctrine and Covenants 1:31–32, which says, “I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance; Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven” (emphasis in original). On pages 206–207 he wrote, “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. Along with all the other works necessary for man’s exaltation in the kingdom of God this could rule out the need for repentance.”
In Mormonism, full responsibility to keep God’s commandments is placed upon the backs of the individual Saints. Kimball explained on page 208, “This progress toward eternal life is a matter of achieving perfection. Living all the commandments guarantees total forgiveness of sins and assures one of exaltation.” After quoting Matthew 5:48 (“Be ye therefore perfect” KJV) on page 209, he botched its meaning when he said, “This is a mandate from the Lord. He is just and wise and kind. He would never require anything from his children which was not for their benefit and which was not attainable. Perfection therefore is an achievable goal.”8
Kimball also explained on pages 324 and 325, “Your Heavenly Father has promised forgiveness upon total repentance and meeting all the requirements, but that forgiveness is not granted merely for the asking. 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 upon you whether or not you are forgiven, and when.” There is no assurance one can have in Mormonism to “know” one is justified and forgiven of all sins — past, present, and future — despite the words found in 1 John 5:13.
- Eliminate Desire to Sin
Earlier I had referenced a quote by Apostle Richard G. Scott who had suggested that a reader ought to consider first reading the book’s last two chapters. Many Latter-day Saints insist that Kimball softened his hardline stance toward the end of the book. However, the most difficult citation in the entire book is found at the end of the book on pages 354 and 355 where Kimball talked about “the repentance which merits forgiveness.” He wrote, “It is that 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.”
Even the apostle Paul taught that the temptation to sin in this life doesn’t end for the Christian who remains in the flesh on this earth. Romans 7:21–23 states that “when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of sin that dwells in my members” (ESV). Calling himself a “wretched man,” Paul realized that he could not be his own savior. “Who will deliver me from this body of death,” he asked in verse 24b. Without skipping a beat, he answered, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Utilizing the unique Scriptures of Mormonism, Spencer W. Kimball describes a gospel in The Miracle of Forgiveness that is different from the version described in the New Testament. For those who need a reality check regarding the soteriological differences between Mormonism and biblical Christianity, perhaps there is no better tool than this classic work.
Eric Johnson ministers with Mormonism Research Ministry (mrm.org) in Utah. Together with Bill McKeever he has coauthored Mormonism 101 (Baker, 2015) and Answering Mormons’ Questions (Kregel, 2013). He coedited Sharing the Good News with Mormons (Harvest House, 2018).
- Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969).
- Conference Reports, April 1970, 16.
- “Finding Forgiveness,” Ensign, May 1995, 76.
- “The Path to Peace and Joy,” Ensign, November 2000, 26.
- The manual cited Kimball’s book a total of 69 times.
- It is available as an e-book at deseretbook.com.
- I have dedicated a website to this tactic, TheMiracleOfForgiveness.com. Included on this site is a PDF file with highlights of some of the more important sections of each book.
- For a look at this verse, see Eric Johnson, “Matthew 5:48: Is Perfection an Achievable Goal,” Christian Research Journal, vol. 39, no. 06 (2016), https://www.equip.org/article/matthew-548-is-perfection-an-achievable-goal/ .