I don’t believe there has ever been a quote by a Latter-Day Saint leader that I’ve spent more time pondering than the following from Elder McConkie.
Here it is.
“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.” (“The Probationary Test of Mortality,” Address given at Univ. of Utah, Jan. 1982, p. II; See JD 1:6)
This quote has challenged me on so many levels. On a fundamental level, all I’ve ever really wanted to know if it is true or not. The implication of this quote for the Latter-Day Saints has drastic effects – it’s suggestion will frame what members of the Church will seek and how they will approach the gospel in the most fundamental ways.
In other words, it is extremely important to understand what Elder McConkie is saying, and if whether or not he is right.
Our probationary state is the time allotted to each of us to come to God and to receive his covenant. It is a time we covenanted to with our Father personally to seek him out in a state of probation that would give us the optimal opportunity to ascend into a sphere closer to him and to be prepared to be in his presence – whatever degree we can be conditioned to endure and enjoy.
This period of time is what we call “the day of our repentance”. It is both a period of time that includes both having a body and not having a body. But the day of our repentance does not cease after the death of our body. What a body does for us is accelerate the advancement of our spirits by subjecting it to fallen matter.
The subdual of a fallen physical body will prepare our spirits faster than any other experience to be a possessor of all of the laws, keys, and knowledge to enter into an exaltation.
The spirit outside of a body, after death, can still progress and repent and perform sacrifices preparatory to receiving an exaltation.
The challenge is, in order for one to receive an exaltation, a person needs to be called of the Lord (an ordination of priesthood or by the calling of his name as a creator), they become the elect of God (they receive the covenant and sanctifying power of the covenant), and then they are sealed into that covenant after fulfilling their probation – making their calling and election sure.
When one is called and elect they become the possessors of the New and Everlasting Covenant (NEC). What this means, in the most fundamental way is that they experience the total transformation of the Holy Ghost. They become born again. They are a new creature in Christ. They receive the mighty change of heart. They are baptized by fire and the Holy Ghost.
At this point they are on the strait and narrow path. This path is the state of being of possessing the nature and transformation of the New and Everlasting Covenant.
If you lose your born again condition, or state of being, you are no longer on the strait and narrow path. This is why it is both strait and narrow. It takes full time attention, commitment, and desire to retain this condition. It requires clinging to the word of God – living by every word that proceeds from his mouth.
Many find this condition and then are separated from it. All of us will experience being transformed into the NEC and then reverting to our old ways. This is a natural part of the process. After we obtain the path, what we have to then do is learn how to stay on it.
This process of becoming born again, reverting to our old natures, and then learning how to get back into a condition of being born again is the process of learning how to “endure to the end.”
Enduring to the end is learning how to endure in a state of being born again. It is enduring as a new creature in Christ.
Paying tithing, going to church, fulfilling a calling, serving others, keeping the Word of Wisdom, and being able to answer all of the questions truthfully to receive a temple recommend can be a fruit of being actually born again.
But you can also achieve all of those things and not be born again. You can do all of those works, which have the form of righteousness, but actually deny the power thereof.
In other words, you can do a lot of things that you think are going to exalt you, but unless you are transformed and have received the actual signs, gifts, and power of the New and Everlasting Covenant, you have yet to make that covenant.
Unless you are born again, have received the mighty change of heart, and have been baptized by fire, you are not in the New and Everlasting Covenant.
You may have made the covenant in the sense that you are baptized by water. But this has no effect or power unless you’ve received the baptism by the spirit. Just as Joseph Smith taught, “You might as well baptize a bag of sand as a man, if not done in view of the remission of sins and getting of the Holy Ghost. Baptism by water is but half a baptism, and is good for nothing without the other half—that is, the baptism of the Holy Ghost. The Savior says, ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
The baptism of the Holy Ghost is the complete and full transformation into a new creature in Christ.
We then must learn to endure in that state. Retain it. Continuing on the strait and narrow path preparatory to entering into the presence of the Lord.
This is what King Benjamin meant when he taught:
“And again I say unto you as I have said before, that as ye have come to the knowledge of the glory of God, or if ye have known of his goodness and have tasted of his love, and have received a remission of your sins, which causeth such exceedingly great joy in your souls, even so I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come, which was spoken by the mouth of the angel.
And behold, I say unto you that if ye do this ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; and ye shall grow in the knowledge of the glory of him that created you, or in the knowledge of that which is just and true” (Mosiah 4: 11-12).
If we don’t achieve this state of being in this life we lose an opportunity to subdue the flesh to the New and Everlasting Covenant. Can repentance happen in the next life? We know it can. And we know it can be complete. Much of that is a mystery and we have been given a few insights from Latter-Day prophets that it is possible, but that it takes much, much longer to do in the spirit in a probationary state than what can be done in the physical body. This is a principe to be explored at a different time.
So, given this context, is Elder McConkie right?
It seems to me that when he says, “if you’re on that path and pressing forward, and you die, you’ll never get off the path,” and he means that you’e been fully born again, and you are persisting in that condition when you die, then he is completely correct. You will continue in that way in the next life.
But will you get off the path in the next life? Here is the next question we have to reconcile.
How does Elder McConkie’s teaching reconcile to this teaching of Joseph Smith?
“It is in vain for persons to fancy to themselves that they are heirs with those, or can be heirs with them, who have offered their all in sacrifice, and by this means obtained faith in God and favor with him so as to obtain eternal life, unless they in like manner offer unto him the same sacrifice, and through that offering obtain the knowledge that they are accepted of him…
Those, then, who make the sacrifice will have the testimony that their course is pleasing in the sight of God, and those who have this testimony will have faith to lay hold on eternal life, and will be enabled, through faith, to endure unto the end, and receive the crown that is laid up for them that love the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ. But those who do not make the sacrifice cannot enjoy this faith, because men are dependent upon this sacrifice in order to obtain this faith; therefore, they cannot lay hold upon eternal life, because the revelations of God do not guarantee unto them the authority so to do; and without this guarantee faith could not exist.
All the saints of whom we have account in all the revelations of God which are extant, obtained the knowledge which they had of their acceptance in his sight, through the sacrifice which they offered unto him: and through the knowledge thus obtained, their faith became sufficiently strong to lay hold upon the promise of eternal life, and to endure us seeing him who is invisible; and were enabled, through faith, to combat the powers of darkness, contend against the wiles of the adversary, overcome the world, and obtain the end of their faith, even the salvation of their souls.
But those who have not made this sacrifice to God, do not know that the course which they pursue is well pleasing in his sight; for whatever may be their belief or their opinion, it is a matter of doubt and uncertainty in their mind; and where doubt and uncertainty is, there faith is not, nor can it be. For doubt and faith do not exist in the same person at the same time. So that persons whose minds are under doubts and fears cannot have unshaken confidence, and where unshaken confidence is not, there faith is weak, and where faith is weak, the persons will not be able to contend against all the opposition, tribulations and afflictions which they will have to encounter in order to be heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ Jesus; and they will grow weary in their minds, and the adversary will have power over them and destroy them.” (Lectures on Faith, Lecture 6).
In other words, after one is born again by entering into the New and Everlasting Covenant, they must be sufficiently tested to see if they will sacrifice all things in order to receive the faith required to the receive the promise of eternal life. This is the calling and election made sure.
The terms of making one’s calling and election made sure apply the same in this life and in the next.
If we don’t make the sufficient sacrifices here they must be made on the other side in a continuance of the probationary state.
If Elder McConkie believes that we will continue to make the sacrifices on the other side of the veil if they are not completed here then he may be right. I do not, however, believe this is a forgone conclusion. If the probationary state continues in the next life to lay hold on exaltation then there must be a continuance of the possibility of shrinking from those sacrifices.
The veil is not lifted at death. It will continue until we or God elects to end our probationary state. Elder Maxwell eluded to this when he taught:
“The veil of forgetfulness of the first estate apparently will not be suddenly, automatically, and totally removed at the time of our temporal death. This veil, a condition of our entire second estate, is associated with and is part of our time of mortal trial, testing, proving, and overcoming by faith— and thus will continue in some key respects into the spirit world” (The Promise of Discipleship, ch. 9, pp. 105).
Perfect in Christ
A second point that must be addressed in order to process this teaching of Elder McConkie.
The Adversary has proposed a doctrine to the minds of those that desire to follow God that perfection is a state of being achieved by the efforts, discipline, and behavior of an individual.
The Adversary has been very successful in imbeding this teaching in the minds of the Latter-Day Saints.
It is the temptation to frame the entire gospel plan in context of this false teaching – that somehow we reach perfection when we act perfectly.
The truth of the matter is a radical departure from this gospel paradigm. It seems that Elder McConkie begins this quote with an attempt to dispel this false teaching. He warns us that we will never achieve perfection in this way and that what we have to focus on is getting on the straight and narrow path. In which I believe he is absolutely correct.
The concern, however, is understanding how exactly do we obtain this path?
As the Book of Mormon teaches, we are never perfect in ourselves, we are “perfect in Christ” (Moroni 10:32). This state of perfection in Christ is achieved when we are baptized by fire and the Holy Ghost.
This is an extraordinarily difficult doctrine and distinction for the Latter-Day Saints to digest and believe. It is so difficult to divorce ourselves from the doctrine that we must learn to behave perfectly in order to qualify for exaltation.
The Adversary has been remarkably and devastatingly successful in spreading his doctrine of self-perfection.
Elder McConkie is careful to draw this distinction at first, but I feel that he falls into a variant of the teaching in the conclusion of his argument. It is true that a born again Latter-Day Saint will seek wholeheartedly to be obedient, but this obedience is an outcome or a fruit of being born again.
Elder McConkie is correct that those that die while on the path will continue in their probation, but it is not axiomatic that they will fulfill all of the sacrificial requirements of exaltation.
But we have to be clear what it means to be on the path. McConkie teaches, “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.”
This is true only if we understand what it means to be on the path – if we are in a born again state. Being in the mainstream of the church may or may not be a fruit of someone who is born again. You can be in the mainstream of the church and not be born again. So this is not a sufficient, or even a helpful measure.
You can live upright and be a decent person and still not be born again. It, too, is not a helpful measure.
You can ostensibly keep the commandments and not be born again. (This is an irony, but is a belief held by a majority of the Latter-Day Saints. If you were really keeping the commandments you would be born again.)
It is commonly said that so-and-so is righteous, or a “worthy” member because they are able to keep the basic commandments and requirements of a temple recommend. You can be a temple recommend holder / “worthy” priesthood holder / “worthy” member of the church and not be born again. It is not an external measure of righteousness – it is only a fruit of righteousness, and it can be counterfeited. This is what the Lord was pointing to when he said:
“Many will say to me in that day: Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name have cast out devils, and in thy name done many wonderful works?And then will I profess unto them: I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (3 Nephi 14: 22-23).
Can you pay your tithing and not be born again? Yes.
Can you serve in the organization of the church and not be born again? Of course.
Can you profess a love of the Lord and live the form or a “righteous” Latter-Day Saint and not be born again? Absolutely.
And then he equates all of this to being on the strait and narrow path.
And this is a very dangerous point not to clarify.
The reason is many, if not most, active members of the church can be deluded into thinking they qualify on all of those accounts. That if they keep up their activity in the church they are on the strait and narrow. And this is an enormous deception.
They are confused into thinking they are worthy candidates of exaltation because they replicate the forms of righteousness, without fulfilling the law and receiving the power.
Much of this deception is derivative of the false belief that if someone has received the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost that they have been born again and actually possess the Holy Ghost.
And so these that believe because they’ve had the physical ordinance they have satisfied the command to be baptized by spirit. This is not the case, and if they don’t fully repent they will encounter a day of dread to learn that their works have been in vain, having not sought to actually know the Lord.
Why Is This A Problem?
If a Latter-Day Saint is taught that mainstream activity in the Church, together with possessing a “worthy” recommend, is sufficient to make their calling and election made sure the moment they die, they will cease seeking the further light and truth needed to converse with the Lord through the veil.
If their current path and focus is sufficient for an exaltation, why stretch themselves into territory that is not required of them? As Elder McConkie (perhaps erringly) warned, they avoid being zealous, or truer than true. They pace themselves with the mainstream members of the church. Which is the worse thing they can do given the warning by the prophet Joseph Smith that many are called, but few are chosen.
When the question was put to the Prophet, he ominously remarked:
“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 (Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, pp. 317–19 and History of the Church, 6:183–85).
The general working assumption of the saints is that the gospel program, as lived by the general body of active Latter-Day Saints is sufficient to exalt someone at the time of death.
I believe this teaching and assumption has darkened the minds of the Saints causing them to rest in a deluded state of belief that they have entered into a saved condition.
But to be clear – if a Latter-Day Saint has become born again, is seeking to retain the nature of a new creature in Christ, is hungering and thirsting after righteousness, is doing everything they can to hear the word of the Lord and is living by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God – and seeks to sacrifice all things to know God and enter into his presence, and dies before their calling and election is made sure by revelation, then I believe they will have the opportunity in the next life to continue to fulfill the requirements of exaltation and be tested in all things to receive this, the greatest gift from God.
In this sense, Elder McConkie’s teaching is absolutely true. I am just not confident that this is what he meant. And if he did, the way it has been broadly interpreted is not aligned with the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and the scriptures he revealed to the Saints.
So, the final analysis is that this quote come close to the mark, but does not meet it. It conflates attendance and activity with being on the strait and narrow path. And it also fails to declare the conditions of exaltation so clearly taught by Joseph Smith.
Is it possible that I am parsing Elder McConkie’s words unfairly, or even making him an offender for a word? Yes, it is possible.
But I feel that if you are going to hold yourself up as an authority and require others to accept your word, you must speak with precision and the spirit so that your words will not lead others into deceptive roads and into a state of damnation. Which is exactly what I think this quote has done to more than one generation of Saints.