The Lord told Joseph Smith, "And, if you keep my commandments and endure to the end you shall have eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God" (D&C 14:7).
This word from the Lord was given in response to David Whitmer and his three sons wanting to know what God wanted them to do. The Lord made this statement on June 29, 1829, almost a year before Joseph Smith organized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and before the Book of Mormon had even been completely translated. It was certainly given long before many of the doctrines of the church had been revealed and taught to the public yet is contains the key to some of the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven that God revealed years later.
Although this revelation may seem fairly elementary in its principle and even bland in its message, it nonetheless has a deep and profound implication for members of the LDS church. To understand why, we first need to understand the meaning of two phrases.
The first phrase is "endure to the end." Although we often hear that phrase used in sermons and teachings, most people don't give a lot of thought to understanding exactly what it means. And the same is true of the word "endure." What does it mean to endure and what are we to endure? And then there is the word "end." Where is the end to which we are to endure?
According to the revelation just quoted, we are to endure in keeping the commandments of God, but what exactly does that mean? For example, the Lord has given us so many commandments that no one knows the exact number of them. Does enduring mean keeping all the commandments all the time? If that is the case then it is doubtful that anyone would qualify for salvation.
It's been said that those who do the best they can with what talent they have will still receive the same reward as those who have accomplished more. Does "endure" mean merely striving to keep what commandments we can and what commandments we don't keep doesn't matter? Let's say there are one hundred commandments and some people keep just twenty of them, some keep fifty and some keep eighty, will they all received the same reward of eternal life as long as each of them were striving to do the best they could?
We've also been told that it doesn't matter how fast or how slow we advance in our progression but what is important is if we are on the straight and narrow path that leads to God. Does that mean it doesn't matter how much or how little effort we put forth because on the last day we will all receive the same reward? Yet that idea is at odds with the scripture that says we will each be rewarded according to our works (Matthew 16:27).
And to what "end" must we endure? Does the test of our endurance end at the time we lay our mortal bodies in the grave and pass through the veil of death? If that is true, then what about those who accept the gospel in the spirit world? Do they not also have to endure to the end in keeping the commandments of God? If not, then they are going to be judged by a much easier standard than those who accepted the gospel while in mortality.
However, the scriptures tell us that the gospel was preached "also to them that are dead that they might be judged according to men in the flesh" (1 Peter 4:6), meaning that those who are dead will be judged by the same standard as those who live in the flesh. If those who accept the gospel while living in mortality must endure to the end in order to receive eternal life, then the same standard must apply to those who accept the gospel while living in the spirit world.
In the Church we talk a lot about our spiritual progression. If those who accept the gospel in this life are progressing in their spiritual journey towards eternal life then the same must be true of those who accept the gospel on the other side of the veil. Since the idea of spiritually progressing is essential to us enduring to the end then when does our spiritual progression stop? Is it at death or does it continue even in the next world?
And if we do continue to progress in the spirit world, then when does our progression come to an end? Must we endure keeping the commandments of God until the last day when the resurrection occurs? Is that when the "end" comes? And what about after the resurrection? Does our spiritual progression stop once we make it into the celestial kingdom? Most Latter-day Saints are of the opinion that we will still continue progressing even then. If that's the case then at what point does our enduring "end"?
The Lord has said that those who endure to the end "shall have eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God," so the second phrase we need to better understand is "eternal life." Latter-day Saints understand this term to mean more than just living in heaven. It means to inherit all that God has and to sit with Him on His throne, to rule and reign with Him on the earth (see Revelation 3:21; 5:10). We refer to this condition as becoming exalted.
But God doesn't just live in heaven. He lives in the highest degree of heaven and to become exalted means to live with God where He lives because it is only there that we can enjoy all the rights, privileges, authority, and glory that He possesses. In short, to live with God means that we become like God or, in other words, we become gods ourselves.
Jesus said, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). Nearly all Christians agree that it is nearly impossible for us to become perfect in this life. Then the question can be asked: When do we become perfected and, more importantly, how do we become perfect as God is perfect?
In the LDS Church we talk a lot about our eternal spiritual progression. To progress spiritually means that we grow and advance in our efforts to become more spiritual. The term "eternal progression" has sometimes been understood to mean that we will be progressing eternally or, in other words, forever. However, that cannot be true because if God is perfect, then when we become perfect as He is, then it is impossible for us to become any more spiritual than perfect.
The Lord told Moses, "Behold, I am God; Man of Holiness is my name; Man of Counsel is my name; and Endless and Eternal is my name, also" (Moses 7:35). The Lord told Joseph Smith, "For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name"(D&C 19:10).
The words "eternal" and "endless" are names of God because they are descriptive of what kind of a being He is. If God is eternal and God is perfect, then to be eternal is to be perfect. Therefore, eternal progression means to continue progressing in our spirituality until we can become like the Eternal Himself - perfect. This is what Jesus meant when He told His disciples to become perfect like our Father in heaven is perfect. Therefore, it follows that we cannot become exalted and inherit all that God has unless we too have become perfect as is our Father.
This raises two questions. The first is, how do we become perfect and the second is, when do we become perfect?
Nearly all Christians are under the belief that when we get to heaven is when we will become perfect, yet they also believe that no one can become perfect in this life. Therefore, it follows that the time when we will become perfect is at the point when we enter heaven. But how will we be transformed from our imperfect state to being perfect like God? Most Christians just accept as fact that somehow some sort of a transformation will occur at the time we are resurrected or when we enter into heaven that will suddenly make us perfect in an instant.
But if that was true then why wouldn't God transform us now rather than waiting until we get to heaven? And if perfection can only come at the time when we enter heaven, then what's the use of trying to be perfect now? In other words, if everyone who is saved is going to heaven and only perfect people live in heaven, then the person who has tried all of their life to follow God's commandments will suddenly be made perfect along with the person who only kept a few of God's commandments some of the time.
But if perfection is something we achieve through developing our spirituality over time, then perfection is a process that happens gradually as we continually progress in our spirituality until we have reached the highest degree of spirituality which is perfection. If that is how we become perfect then the answer to "when" do we become perfect is up to us, not God because the more effort we put forth to improve or progress in our spiritual development the sooner we will become perfect.
However, the idea that a person must be perfect to live in heaven is not scriptural. Nowhere in any of God's word does it say that perfection is a requirement to enter heaven. Yet, even though a person doesn't need to be perfect to enter into the celestial kingdom we know that a person must be perfect in order to become exalted because the definition of exaltation is to become like God. Since God is perfect, then to be exalted requires that we be perfect as well.
Since perfection is not a requirement to enter into the celestial kingdom but it is to become exalted then it stands to reason that those who inherit the celestial kingdom will still need to continue their eternal progression until they have achieved perfection. Since the Lord has said that we must endure to the end before receiving eternal life, then it is clear that "the end" happens when we achieve or arrived at the point when we gain eternal life or, in other words, receive our exaltation. It is at that point, when we cannot progress any higher in our spirituality and therefore our spiritual progress has come to an end. But until we have reached that point we must continue to endure because if we stop progressing before then, we cannot receive eternal life.
But how will we know when we have become perfect? The answer is, the Lord will "test" us to see if we are worthy to enter into His presence.
The first step in our spiritual progression is to be taught the gospel of Jesus Christ. Then, there comes a point in that training when we are ready to move up to the next level which is to be baptized. Baptism is the door through which we must pass in order to enter into the kingdom of God because without receiving that ordinance no one can enter into the celestial kingdom. Even Christ Himself had to submit to this ordinance (Matthew 3:43). But when a person decides to be baptized it isn't something to be taken lightly because they are taking upon themselves a sacred obligation. They make a promise, or covenant between God and those who witness their baptism that they are willing to take upon themselves the name of Christ and keep His commandments which He has given them. In exchange for them being willing to make this covenant, God promises to wash away all of their past sins.
But how does the person know that they are ready to be baptized? Do we just take their word for it? In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before someone can be baptized they must be interviewed by a priesthood leader to determine their readiness to enter the Church. This priesthood leader could be the bishop of the ward or the mission president or some other person who has the authority to interview and determine whether or not the person requesting baptism is "worthy" to be baptized.
The word "worthy" can be a little misleading. Too often it is understood to mean that the person has done certain things that are required of them. For example, before being baptized a person has to demonstrate that they are willing to live the word of wisdom, attend church, and be agreeable to paying tithing. Although these prior acts are necessary before being allowed to be baptized, that is not what the person conducting the interview is looking for.
Since the ordinance of baptism requires a person to take upon themselves certain obligations that involve making solemn and sacred promises to the Lord, what the person doing the interview looks for is if the person wanting to be baptized is ready or prepared or capable of taking on these extra responsibilities. If not then it would do them more spiritual harm to make a covenant that they cannot or will not keep. It is in this sense that a person is found "worthy" to be baptized.
This is what the scriptures mean when it says that people are not to be baptized "save they brought forth fruit meet (shows that) they are worthy of it" (Moroni 6:1). And the "fruits" that a priesthood leader looks for is to see if the person wanting to be baptized has come "forth with a broken heart and a contrite spirit and witness unto the church (priesthood leader) that they truly repented of their sins" (Moroni 6:2).
Later, if the person is a male, the time will come for them to move up to the next level of their spiritual growth by taking upon themselves greater responsibilities. Specifically, they will be ordained to the priesthood. But here again, just as with baptism, before they can be ordained to even the lowest level of the priesthood (a Deacon) they are interviewed by the bishop to see if they are worthy to receive such an ordination.
In the interview the bishop looks for signs that the person being interviewed is ready, willing, prepared, and capable of taking on more responsibilities. And, just like with baptism, the bishop will look at how the person being interviewed has lived their life up to that time as an indication of their readiness to advance in their spiritual growth. Thus, it is the bishop who makes the decision of whether a person is "worthy" to receive the priesthood.
As a person grows in their spirituality they are advanced in the priesthood, from Deacon, to Teacher, to Priest, and, after turning eighteen years old, being made an Elder. At each of these levels the individual is interviewed by their bishop to determine if they are worthy, or qualified to take on more responsibilities.
When a young man or woman wants to go on a mission, they too are interviewed, not only by their bishop but by their stake president. When a person wants to go to the temple, they need to obtain a temple recommend which certifies they are living their life in accordance to yet a higher standard righteousness, but to get a temple recommend they need to be interviewed by someone in their bishopic and then by someone in their stake presidency. Even when someone is called to be a stake president they are interviewed, this time by someone who is a General Authority. And it is in these interviews that are conducted by an authorized priesthood leader that a person's worthiness is determined.
Even when someone is called to be a bishop, or stake high counselor, or other stake calling, although there is no official sit-down, face to face interview conducted before the calling is made, the person's life has nonetheless been examined by a priesthood leader who has the keys to be a judge in Israel, often through personal observation, to determine if the person being called is "worthy" of the new calling.
And the greater the calling the more worthy a person must be to receive it. Put a different way, the greater a calling is, the greater the responsibilities are that go with it. Therefore, the greater the calling a person receives, the greater their spiritual ability must be to handle that calling. If a person has not advanced in their spiritual progression enough to handle the spiritual requirements of a particular calling, they will not be called to that position.
The pattern that is followed throughout the Church is that priesthood leaders who hold the proper keys or authority to determine a person's worthiness is who decides if a person is prepared enough to advance to higher position in the Church. If this is the procedure in the Church and the Church is also the kingdom of God then there is every reason to believe that in the celestial kingdom this same procedure is used.
President Brigham Young has stated that to be exalted and thereby become as God and inherit His glory, requires a priesthood ordinance. If that is true then it seems certain that before a person can receive that particular ordination they must first be interviewed to determine if they are "worthy" or ready, prepared, qualified, and capable of assuming the duties, responsibilities, and obligations that go with that exalted office.
Since this is the greatest of all the gifts that God has to bestow on those who love Him, then it follows that to obtain such a gift a person must have the greatest worthiness to receive it, and the standard for this particular ordination is perfection. But the determination of whether a person is worthy to receive their exaltation will no doubt be made by someone who has the keys or authority to make that judgment. And in all likelihood that determination will be made through the process of an interview where the person wishing to be exalted will converse with either the Lord or someone authorized to represent Him. If they "pass" their interview then they will be admitted into the presence of the Lord thereby signifying that they have attained the glory that God has.
But what happens to a person before that time? The answer is that they will continue to progress in their spirituality until they have become perfect and are prepared, ready, and qualified to enter into the presence of the Lord. Since we are all at different levels of spiritual commitment then it is obvious that it will take some people longer to become perfect than others.
Perhaps we can illustrate this principle by looking at an example of how that works here on earth. Let's say that two friends are baptized into the Church on the same day. We'll call them Tom and Frank. They both start their spiritual journey at the same time but Tom has a word of wisdom problem that he struggles with while Frank is fully converted to the gospel and strives hard to live it to the best of his ability.
A year later, Frank is called to be the Sunday School president of his ward but because Tom hasn't been able to break his smoking habit and feels self-conscious around members of the church, he has dropped into inactivity and no longer comes to church. Two years later, Frank is called to be the Elder's Quorum president of his ward. As he and his counselors are going over the membership rolls for home teaching purposes he sees the name of his friend Tom and decides to assign himself to be Tom's home teacher.
Over the next year, Frank visits Tom every month and through his diligence is eventually able to convince Tom to come back to church. Two months later Tom is given the calling to be a greeter which he does most of the time but there are Sunday's when he doesn't show up to church. However, one day while sitting in the Gospel Doctrine class, Tom hears a lesson that motivates him to live the gospel better than he's been doing and he commits to be more regular in his church attendance.
A year later, Frank is called into the bishopric while Tom has turned down several callings but is still willing to be a greeter. However, in time, Tom accepts a calling in the Primary to teach seven year olds who are preparing to become baptized when they turn eight. As Tom prepares his lesson each week He begins to better understand the important of his own baptismal covenants and decides to be more faithful in keeping them. For the first time since joining the church Tom makes a commitment to pay his tithing on a regular basis.
Two years later Frank is called to be the bishop of the ward and Tom is still teaching in Primary but he is now attending church regularly, is living the word of wisdom and is a full tithe payer. However, despite efforts by his Elder's Quorum president, Tom doesn't want to prepare himself to go to the temple.
Three years later Frank is called to be the second counselor in the Stake Presidency and Tom has finally decided to be worthy of going to the temple. By this time it has been nine years since Tom and Frank were first baptized. Although Frank has advanced in his spiritual growth much faster than Tom, Tom is nonetheless making progress. The fact that his progress has been slow and uneven doesn't matter. What matters is that he is progressing.
If the resurrection were to happen right then, both Tom and Frank would be worthy of going to the celestial kingdom but neither of them would be perfect. Therefore, neither of them would qualify to receive their exaltation and so they would continue their spiritual journey towards perfection. It is certain that Frank will receive his exaltation long before Tom does but Tom has all of eternity to make it there if that is what he wants to do. And, just like on earth, there will be those in the celestial kingdom ready to encourage and help Tom to progress in his spirituality and assist him in reaching his full potential.
Of course, what has not been said so far is that we don't become perfect by ourselves or by our own efforts. It is through the efforts of the Holy Ghost that we become sanctified. Without His divine influence and assistance none of us could hope to become perfect. And I'm sure that influence doesn't end at death or at the time of the resurrection. But despite how essential the Holy Ghost is to our spiritual development, He cannot make us perfect without our cooperation and willingness to follow His promptings. That's why Jesus said, "if you keep my commandments and endure to the end you shall have eternal life."
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