In Christianity, and especially remnant Mormonism, there is a small but growing segment of people who believe they can achieve a life of perfection, or sinlessness as it is referred to. This group is getting more vocal and increasing in size. However, this of course doesn’t make what they teach true.
The idea of achieving a state of sinlessness is actually not new. The first written account we have is from Justin the Martyr who wrote in the year 150 AD:
But there is no other [way] than this: to become acquainted with this Christ, to be washed in the fountain spoken of by Isaiah for the remission of sins; and for the rest, to live sinless livesJustin – Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 44
Many have used this statement from Justin and other early church leaders in an attempt to not only establish that sinlessness is a possibility, but that it is a commandment. However, if we look at the other writings of Justin then we can see that he wasn’t describing that at all. He was merely repeating what Christ said when he said “go and sin no more”.
Another early Christian teacher by the name of Clement of Alexandria, who lived during the same time as Justin, taught Christian converts:
As far, however, as we can, let us try to sin as little as possible. For nothing is so urgent in the first place as deliverance from passions and disorders, and then the checking of our liability to fall into sins that have become habitual. It is best, therefore, not to sin at all in any way, which we assert to be the prerogative of God alone; next to keep clear of voluntary transgressions, which is characteristic of the wise man; thirdly, not to fall into many involuntary offenses, which is peculiar to those who have been excellently trained. Not to continue long in sins, let that be ranked last. But this also is salutary to those who are called back to repentance, to renew the contestClement of Alexandria – The Instructor, Bk. II, ch. 1
There is of course, no shortage of statements like this. There are also many scriptures which we will consider as well on this subject. Justin and Clement fully understood our position relative to God and how ascending to God was a process and not an event. The only way to actually establish a justification for a belief in sinlessness today is to willfully misunderstand the gospel.
Dangers of Sinlessness
In order to frame the discussion about sinlessness then we can quickly define what it means and how it is used today. Sinlessness is the idea that you live 100% to the best of your abilities at all times. If you think God would do something, then you do it. If you think God wouldn’t, then you don’t. You then continue this process at all moments of your life and make modifications as you learn more. For instance, if you are living a sinless life then, according to the definition, you are living exactly as Christ would be in your place.
This frankly sounds amazing and ideal. It hopefully is what we are all striving for. I personally want my life to be pleasing to God and would hope he would understand the reasoning and justifications for every one of my actions.
If, however, we flip things around and assume someone, or our self, is sinless then that means every one of their actions are what God would do in their place. This may sound exactly like the previous scenario however there is a subtle difference in perspective. The difference is that none of their actions can be questioned because by definition they are sinless. If the action was wrong, then they did it because they thought it was right and so the action can’t be questioned. If you do question it, then you must not understand because you are not at their level, or your understanding is clouded in sin. This inequality in understanding can very quickly grow to establish unhealthy power dynamics in a group.
Today, in remnant Mormonism, there are loud voices, and self-proclaimed prophets, that base most of their teachings on this concept of being sinless. They use this self-proclaimed status of sinlessness to assert, in sometimes not very subtle ways, that they are better than everyone else and we must adhere to their teachings so we can be special also. However, in unhealthy relationships like this, then you can never actually be like the teacher. Regardless of what you do or say, the teacher is always more sinless than you and will always be one step ahead of the group thereby further cementing the power dynamics and their place in the hierarchy.
Just a couple of years ago, I personally was very much caught up in one of these groups for a period of time and certainly can understand the appeal. Thinking back on my own actions then I can see that I willfully left the iron rod in order to follow the pleasing word of man. These teachings were not “eat, drink, and be merry” that Nephi warned about, but more like the teachings of Korihor when he taught that “whatsoever a man did was no crime”. This false teaching of sinlessness, in your own eyes, was wrapped in a thin religious veneer to make it look godly.
Of course, it is pleasing to think that there is some kind of super-secret shortcut to God and that once this is understood then you can coast in the goodness of God for the rest of your life. This idea though is totally misunderstanding what God is and our place in relationship to him. Frankly in my mind, it is an act of hubris that is impossible to comprehend. It is elevating yourself to the level of God and equating yourself to his grandeur and majesty. It is, to some degree, riding on his accomplishments and taking them as your own. If you have overcome all things in mortality, then you are a god among us.
As was mentioned earlier, the scriptures are very clear about this idea and how completely false it is. Among, the scriptures used to justify this belief is Genesis 6 which describes the great prophet Noah:
And thus Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD; for Noah was a just man, and perfect in his generation; and he walked with God,Genesis 6:8-9
Some claim that because Noah was perfect then we can be perfect also. However, this is not what it says at all. If we look at BibleHub for that verse, then we can see that the Hebrew word used, tamim, actually means complete, full, blameless, or entire. Therefore, we could rewrite that verse to accurately describe Noah as being a just man, who was full of faith and blameless, in his generation. In fact most translations use the word blameless instead of the word perfect that the KJV does.
Another commonly used scripture to establish sinlessness is from Hebrews 12, where Paul who was likely the author of Hebrews, was encouraging the early converts to have faith in Christ and trust in him. Towards the conclusion of his letter he wrote:
Ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenantHebrews 12:22-24
On an initial reading, this would seem to be describing good faithful followers that eventually became sinless and ascended to heaven. However, this suffers from the same issue as the verse we previously looked at does. In this case the Greek word translated as perfect in the KJV again means complete, fulfilled, or finished. Therefore, it would be textually accurate to describe the just men as having fulfilled their mission and not as instead being perfect or sinless.
This is why reading the scriptures with an open mind is so crucial. Many will proof-text the scriptures, or simply look for justifications for their existing beliefs. If we go about things this way, then we can use the scriptures to justify almost anything. Today this is exactly what many people do.
If we actually look at the scriptures it is very clear that we are all sinful abominations that don’t deserve God at all. There is in fact nothing that we can do to change that fact. It is only in and through the great mercy of God that we can be raised from this polluted state. This mercy is not because of our actions, but because of our faith in Christ.
Concerning the topic of sinlessness, I don’t think there is a clearer scripture than 1 John 1:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.1 John 1:8-10
The very idea of sinlessness is being without sin. Therefore, the sinless individual would, by definition, be saying they are without sin and according to John would be making God a liar. John describes how we should overcome sin by turning to Christ. He never mentions that we should overcome sin by turning to ourselves.
Paul, when writing to the Galatians, wrote about how mortality is a constant struggle against what we want to do and what God wants us to do. He wrote:
This I say then, walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other; so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.Galatians 5:16-17
We are constantly in a battle against sin, or spiritual disorder. There is never a time where we are not. This is exactly the same thing that King Benjamin mentioned in Mosiah 3:19, where he said, “the natural man is an enemy to God”. This battle against sin or spiritual entropy is the battle to overcome what is easy and natural and do what is hard and frankly unnatural. It is much easier to seek for pleasure and gain than to sacrifice for others.
In several of the letters of Paul, he describes a battle against sin, and how sin separates us from God. In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul even mentions:
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.1 Timothy 1:15
Without a doubt, Paul is very aware of his actions before Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Without this mercy of Christ, then Paul would have been lost forever. Paul is seeing his present and continually need for the mercy of Christ and not a supposed point where he no longer needs it.
One last example to consider is that of Nephi who was a very mighty man of God. After the death of his father, his brothers started complaining again, and Nephi recorded that he had to admonish them again according to the word of God. Immediately after this Nephi records what is called the Psalm of Nephi. This short section is a great insight into the mind of Nephi and the situation he was going through.
It is important to remember that prior to this point Nephi had already left everything he knew in Jerusalem, heard the voice of God, saw visions and angels, gambled his life to obtain the brass plates, built an ocean worthy vessel, and dealt with constant verbal and physical attacks from his brothers. I think it would be fair that if anyone was sinless it would be Nephi. However, from the writings of Nephi, it is clear that he still struggled to overcome his natural desires. In 2 Nephi 4, he wrote:
My heart exclaimeth, “O wretched man that I am!” Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of my iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins.2 Nephi 4:17-28
And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul?
Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin.
Nephi knew that it was only through the mercy of Christ that he had a hope of salvation. However, he was upset that his fallen nature was constantly getting in the way of his desires to do what was right. He of course did many amazing things in his life, however he struggled just like all of us. It is easy to follow our natural desires and much harder to follow God. However, this is exactly the battle that we much wage every day of our lives.
There is never a justification for sin and we must avoid every sin in our lives. The idea that sin is an inevitable part of mortality is not an excuse to be complacent. Mortality is a great opportunity for us to battle between the lusts of the flesh and the lusts of the spirit as Paul mentioned. However, we must also realize that it is only through the grace and mercy of Christ that we can do so.
Some today will say that we can overcome sin by our own merit or greatness. We can then reach a point where whatever we do is God’s will and justified. Without a doubt this is the ideal that we should be seeking. However, we must always remember, as Nephi did, that we are wretched creatures, and we are infinitively separated from God. Until we can emulate him in every thought, deed, and action then we will rely on the mercy of Christ to bridge the infinite gap between us and God. However, we can’t even begin to approach God without his grace and mercy to begin with.
It is like King Benjamin described in Mosiah 2, where he mentions that we are permanently and eternally indebted to God. There is nothing that we personally can do that will ever change that fact. We can certainly show God our appreciation by improving ourselves. However, if we say there is no sin in us, and we somehow have elevated ourselves past the bounds of the natural man, then according to John, we have deceived ourselves and the word of God is not in us.