License to Sin

Lately whenever I’ve visited out in SLC I’ve had a meetup with my evangelical Christian buddy, Aaron — the one who is known for standing out on Temple Square with a sign on Thursday evenings. Every time I return from an evening of bandying scripture about, I am prone to much reflection on the nature of salvation. And because I’m more disposed to connection than disassociation, I like to ponder the points of contact between traditional Christianity and modern Mormonism.

The fathers of the early Christian church and their successors believed that salvation began at one’s baptism. When someone was baptized the sins which s/he had committed until that point in life (plus his or her share of original sin) were forgiven. But since everyone continues to be plagued with sin after baptism (1 John 1:8, 10), a plan whereby post-baptismal sins could be atoned for was necessary.

Would you say I was simplifying wildly to suggest that until the Reformation only one view of salvific repentance was dominant? [1] This held that at baptism prior sins were forgiven and that subsequent sins could only be forgiven by confessing one’s sins to a priest and then carefully carrying out the acts of penance which this spiritual counselor prescribed.

The Reformation introduced two new views. Calvin taught that Christ’s death completely atoned for all the sins that one had in the past or would in the future commit. At conversion all sins were forgiven, and confessing to a priest and performing acts of penance to maintain salvation were not needed. Luther held an intermediate position between that of Calvin and the Roman Catholic Church. While he rejected acts of confession and penance formally, he continued to believe that one could fail to obtain final salvation by choosing to indulge in a life of sin.

The student of religion may recognize that a Calvinistic approach is more likely to give the believer a license to sin. Since the Reformation six Protestant views have emerged, each approaching the problem a bit differently.

  1. turn from sins and keep on doing so to obtain and keep a salvation which can be lost (example)
  2. turn from sins to obtain an eternally secure salvation (example)
  3. be willing to turn from sins and then, after conversion, actually turn from sins as a manner of life to gain and keep one’s salvation (example)
  4. be willing to turn from sins to obtain an eternally secure salvation (example)
  5. change your mind about yourself and Christ to gain initial salvation and then turn from your sins with the help of Christ to keep that salvation (example)
  6. change your mind about yourself and Christ to gain an inviolable salvation (example) [2]

Despite protestations to the contrary, many Christian groups place at least some works-based conditions on salvation. I would say that the Mormon view of salvation is most often like #1 (if we are talking about exaltation, which we are) (Bruce R. McConkie). We sometimes find it explained in terms that sound like #3 (Blake Ostler, sort of), or #5 (Stephen E. Robinson). Yeah, I know they don’t exactly line up… but I think we favor these views over the secure salvation of #2, #4, and #6 because we are deathly afraid of giving people a license to sin.

The general Mormon reaction to a couple of scriptural texts will illustrate this. First, in the story of the Prodigal Son, Mormons have a great deal of difficulty relating to the younger son. He is the one who has thrown away his inheritance and is forgiven by his father. Latter-day Saints are always wanting to identify with the older son. In fact, there is a great deal of exegesis in LDS thought to the point that the younger son may be welcomed back with a party, but will never regain his portion in the estate. This will go to the older son who was faithful. We just can’t seem to let that younger son have a license to sin.

Next, there is the problem of King David, of Old Testament fame. I do not know of any of the other Christian churches who believe that David was not completely forgiven for the grave sins he committed of adultery and murder. D&C 132:39, however, states that David has fallen from his exaltation. The LDS Bible Dictionary explains that because of his transgressions, he “paid, and is paying, a heavy price for his disobedience to the commandments of God.” Though his soul will not be left in hell, he will not receive unmitigated forgiveness.

Let’s hear from some of you on your views of inviolable salvation. I’d actually love to just give myself over to it. I like the idea of pure grace and handing all of the hard work over to Jesus, whose yoke is easy and burden is light. Or do I just want a license to sin?


[1] “Dominant” is the salient word here. At first the early fathers debated whether major post-baptismal sins could be forgiven at all. It was generally decided that even “mortal” sins could be forgiven, but there was some disagreement as to how many times a person could repent and be forgiven. A few leaders, such as Hermas (Book of Mandates, Ch 3), held that there could be only one opportunity for repentance after baptism. That view did not prevail. Agreement was reached that one could repent and be forgiven on several occasions. At first it was not specified exactly how many times someone could repent for fear of giving penitents an implicit license to sin. Unsurprisingly, this led people to put off repentance until their deathbeds. By the fifth century Christian churches uniformly began to teach that a person might repent and be forgiven an unlimited number of times. (see Augustine, On the Creed 15-16)

[2] I want to find online examples of all of these approaches. I’ll be linking to them as I find them. If you know of any, provide a link in the comments!

13 Replies to “License to Sin”

  1. I think the common LDS approach to the prodigal son is troublesome, especially due to the fact that I think Jesus wanted us to relate to the younger son. Like him, we all separate ourselves from our Father. Like him, we will be welcomed when we return. I also see connections here to Adam and Eve, who also separated themselves from our Father in Heaven and who sought to return to him.

    Instead, as you stated, we identify with the older son. We assume that we haven’t separated ourselves from the Father, when in fact we have.

  2. The gift of repentance and forgiveness is a great blessing in this life. But it takes time.

    We recognize and sorrow over our sins, we seek to make reparations and forsake them. But all this takes time, and we are so imperfect. By we, I mean I.

    My faith is this: we confront our weaknesses one at a time, and through the power of the atonement, we are strengthened in Christ.

    But should we die in the midst of the repentance process, with the current sin we have been struggling with unforsaken, and the remaining sins on our to-repent-of list unconfronted, then the power of the atonement will still save us.

    1 John 3:20 – “For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart”

  3. This entire debate is simply an artifact of the adoption of creatio ex nihilo (first cause/prime mover) plus determinism in classical theism starting about the 4th century BC. It is Aristotle uber alles in other words.

    Nobody can take credit for good works in a deterministic world that God created except God himself. Nor for any evil works. Everything from the creation of the universe till now is the operation of divine grace, all grace, and nothing but grace. Evil is only the localized absence of good.

    This is, in one way or another, the classical theism of Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and apparently Paul as well. It is possible that Paul was an Arminian, but his writings read like he was a proto-Calvinist or Augustinian. The Pharisees were compatibilists, and it seems pretty likely to me that Paul was well steeped in that world view, even if he made a outstanding attempt to avoid its more questionable implications, such the one suggested by Amos: “shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” (Amos 3:6)

    In general though, the whole problem here is that this is a metaphysical debate, and without a theory of the metaphysics of grace, it is difficult to make a rational statement about where grace ends and works begin, if they begin at all.

  4. It seems to me that the LDS view (or what I *think* is the LDS view), which I hold, has the emphasis more on the process of eternal progression, which repentance furthers and which sin retards. So there’s no license to sin whatsoever. Any sin slows up progression, and is therefore a bad thing. But since sin is inevitable, we’re taught to repent early and often in order to lose as little forward progress as possible. When the aim is progression, the emphasis is correctly taken off sin and put back on repentance and reconciliation with God to further our growth and learning, and speed up our attainment of the strength and goodness as well as the knowledge and power of godhood.

  5. I think it is a mistake to buy into McConkie’s insistence that exaltation is what we are talking about. It certainly wasn’t what Calvin or any other Protestants were talking about, and to try to force the square peg of exaltation into the round hole of salvation in the Protestant sense is an exercise in futility.

    For purposes of this kind of discussion, salvation should be viewed as forgiveness of sins such that we do not have to suffer for them ourselves. The prodigal son presumably availed himself of that form of salvation and we should not be shy about declaring that.

    Exaltation, though, is just a completely different animal. I don’t want to start a threadjack on how it is different, but I view it as a collective enterprise that has no counterpart in Protestant thinking.

  6. I suppose I should say a little more about what’s bothering me.. and that is I don’t consider those of us who participate in these debates dumber or less informed than the majority of people who have ever lived. And if we cannot begin to figure out or come to a consensus on how salvation works, then how is anyone going to secure a place in heaven?

    I don’t feel confident that my view of salvation is correct when I talk with those who I feel are intelligent and motivated and just as sincere as I am in an opposing belief.

    Here’s what I’ve come up with so far: what I hope was a “change of heart,” a wish for the grace of a Savior, a “just-in-case” works policy, and a sinful human nature. (I’m afraid that I’m going to end up damned no matter which system was right.)

    So I’m asking, can the general human being in need of grace find it without entering into a metaphysical debate, or understanding Aristotle or even Paul?

  7. Where is Calvinism on that list? Either I don’t see it there or I don’t understand it. Because those all presume you can do something about it, whereas in Calvinism you can’t do a blessed thing–you’re either elect from all eternity or you’re toast, and anything you *do* is completely irrelevant.

    So it’s hard to have a simple comparative list like this, because the differences in world view are so completely different.

  8. Kevin, I don’t know a lot about Calvinism but my understanding is that the elect are influenced by the Holy Spirit to believe and repent. Once they do so their salvation is secure. So several of the above listed views (2, 4, and 6) could be compatible with Calvinism.

  9. I would recommend giving the Westminster Confession a fair reading. It’s probably the clearest, most popular historic expression of classical Calvinism. It was carefully put together to be succinct and educational and (of course) confessional. Of particular interest here are chapters 13-18. They’re pretty short.

    In my experience, many Mormons think Calvinism goes something like this: “Because Calvinists believe God predestined nails to be hammered, they believe in putting down their hammers.” Whereas in reality it is something more like, “Because God has predestined the ends as well as the means, we pick up our hammers and get to work.” (cf. Philippians 1:6; 2:12-13) One of the things he has predestined is the increasing holiness and perseverance of his justified and forgiven saints. (Luther agreed on this as well. Indeed, he actually wrote more the yet-to-be-named-issue of Calvinism than Calvin later did, especially if one consider Luther’s book, “Bondage of the Will.”)

    But the issues concerning faith and assurance aren’t really so exclusively Calvinistic as one might assume. Evangelical Arminians and Calvinists have significant overlap on these issues and fellowship together over them. Next week I’ll be using the following evangelistic questions in Manti, questions that get to the heart of evangelical theology, crossing Arminian and Calvinist boundaries (I’m pasting here from notes prepared for a talk scheduled for the 21st):

    – Are you forgiven in order to be obedient, or are you obedient in order to be forgiven? Is obedience the fruit or the root?

    – After you sin, how should you pray? “God, forgive my sinful habits so that they can be conquered,” or, “God, help me conquer my sinful habits so that they can be forgiven”?
    Are all your sins forgiven?

    – Is God’s economy of grace more like going to a temp agency (getting gracious help so that we can earn a paycheck) or welfare office (getting an undeserved check for free)? Romans 4:4-8.

    – Luke 7:36-50. If you want to be a more loving person, you need to have your sins forgiven.

    – How can we best fulfill the command in Colossians 3:12-13? By first being forgiven.

    The basic idea is this: Free forgiveness is the only way we can become the kind of person who is truly obedient. The only way to be an obedient and holy person is to embrace forgiveness as a starting point and foundation for your life, not as a distant, end-goal.

    That’s at the heart of the gospel, with or without a solid doctrine of perseverance of the saints. When I got saved in high school, I didn’t become a Calvinist until years later!

    Grace and peace,


  10. Sorry, but if I may add a quote by J.C. Ryle:

    “The only way to make men holy, is to teach and preach free and full forgiveness through Jesus Christ. The secret of being holy ourselves, is to know and feel that Christ has pardoned our sins. Peace with God is the only root that will bear the fruit of holiness. Forever let this mighty principle abide in our memories, and sink down into our hearts. It is one of the great corner-stones of the whole Gospel. It is one of the master-keys to unlock the secrets of the kingdom of God.

    “Forgiveness must go before sanctification. We shall do nothing until we are reconciled to God. This is the first step in religion. We must work FROM life, and not FOR life. Our best works before we are justified are little better than SPLENDID SINS. We must live by faith in the Son of God, and then, and not until then, we shall walk in His ways. The heart which has experienced the pardoning love of Christ, is the heart which loves Christ, and strives to glorify Him.”

    This way of thinking really subverts the whole free-forgiveness-is-a-license-to-sin way of thinking. Rather than being a license to sin, it is the only solution to rightly war against sin and learn to love people as we have been loved. As Jesus taught, “He who is forgiven little, loves little.”

    Grace and peace,


  11. I like Aaron’s formulation that ‘because we are forgiven we desire to repent’.

    Another way to articulate it is that the only thing we have of our own to give back to Christ for the gift of his Grace is our will. Everything else we have is a gift from him too so it doesn’t count as a gift.

    Two thoughts regarding the parable of the Prodigal. First that no matter how much the father desires to through the party he cant till the guest of honor comes home. Gods grace can do us no good if we don’t allow it to flow through us to bless the lives of others.

    The second was some thing that struck me as a result of Pres. Uchdorf’s talk on living beneath our privileges. Namely that the Father’s answer to his elder son’s complaint that “I never even got a goat, why does he get the fatted calf?” is “all that I have is thine.” In other words “you could have thrown a party anytime you wanted.” Both sons have been missing out on their connection with their Father.

  12. Given that Paul was preaching in the context of a works-centered religious community it is understandable that he focused on distinctions between grace and works. He frequently used that context and metaphor to explain the work of Jesus to his audience. But 2 millennia later we should move on from that to what may be the more central message of Jesus, “Come unto me.” If we focus only on the “forgiveness” aspect of Christ’s work we may fail to see the “sanctifying” work whereby we are made holy through the grace of God by coming unto Christ and being perfected “in him.”

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