Earlier this month, Christianity Today magazine published a brief article I wrote for their Village Green feature. They asked three of us to answer the question: “What Can Christians Learn From the Surge in Mormon Youth Missionaries?” As a former Mormon, I was grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this piece. Since the May 2013 issue was released, I received an e-mail from a Mormon questioning me on the relationship between grace and works. While I want his identity and message to remain private, I thought my response could be helpful to other evangelical believers as they seek to understand Mormonism and reach out to them in love with the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
I appreciate your writing to me and look forward to an open discussion about our beliefs. At the same time, I must begin by disagreeing with your assessment that we are fellow Christians. After all, the LDS church was founded upon a supposed revelation where Joseph Smith was told about my faith that “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men’” ().
To me one of the clearest expressions of this divide was expressed by former President Gordon B. Hinckley in the LDS Church News several years ago: “In bearing testimony of Jesus Christ, President Hinckley spoke of those outside the Church who say Latter-day Saints ‘do not believe in the traditional Christ. No, I don’t. The traditional Christ of whom they speak is not the Christ of whom I speak. For the Christ of whom I speak has been revealed in this the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times’” (June 20, 1998). Hinckley stated this same division at the April 2002 General Conference (“We Walk By Faith”).
Some of the confusion over the divide between our faiths is because we often use the same words but give these words different meanings. Essentially, we often use the same language but with a different dictionary. So we mean different things when we use words such as Christ, grace, faith, salvation, eternal life, etc. These differences must not be ignored, and they deny the possibility of a common faith that unites us.
Now, to focus on the relationship between grace and works in our two faiths, we once again see a contrast of beliefs. This is why I compared with in my Christianity Today article. While you may suggest that teaches “We hold that after all we can do it is (still) by grace that we are saved,” this goes against what many LDS church leaders have said about this verse. Please see Aaron Shafovaloff’s helpful article for more information: “2 Nephi 25:23 – A Distinctive Mormon Passage on Salvation.”
The very definition of Grace that you refer to on the LDS church’s web site includes this understanding: “To receive this enabling power, we must obey the gospel of Jesus Christ, which includes having faith in Him, repenting of our sins, being baptized, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and trying to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ for the rest of our lives.” Obedience is required for grace to be sufficient.
While this LDS article may reference , it directly contradicts this passage from the Bible through its definition. In these verses, grace is explicitly opposed to our works of obedience. Grace does not require them! Grace is God’s forgiving mercy in Jesus Christ. Christ substitutes Himself for sinners by taking the wrath of God that we deserve upon Himself. When we trust in His substitutionary work for us, we are united to Christ by faith and counted righteous in Him. What a glorious exchange! Christ receives our punishment, and we receive His perfection. Believers are given eternal life as a gift through Christ’s atoning work on the cross.
How does the Wilcox speech that you mention explain grace? I admit that it is different than what I was raised hearing in the LDS church. But is this because I never really understood LDS teaching? Or is it because Wilcox is responding to the sense of failure that LDS teaching often produces? A quick study of General Conference messages, LDS manuals, and other important writings proves the later.
To give just one example from a recent speech by Elder D. Todd Christofferson at the October 2011 General Conference: “For our turning to the Lord to be complete, it must include nothing less than a covenant of obedience to Him…. Without this covenant, repentance remains incomplete and the remission of sins unattained” (emphasis mine, “The Divine Gift of Repentance”). So when we look at Wilcox’s speech, we find him trying to “soften the blow” that a person can easily feel when taught that our works are required to achieve eternal life.
The key to unlocking the meaning of Wilcox’s argument is found in his answer to the BYU student’s skeptical question “Right! Like I don’t have to do anything?” Wilcox responds: “‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘you have plenty to do, but it is not to fill that gap. We will all be resurrected. We will all go back to God’s presence. What is left to be determined by our obedience is what kind of body we plan on being resurrected with and how comfortable we plan to be in God’s presence and how long we plan to stay there.’” According to Wilcox, filling the gap refers to the resurrection, not eternal life. Achieving eternal life is determined by our obedience.
This differentiation between understanding salvation as resurrection and salvation as eternal life is exactly what Spencer W. Kimball was referring to in The Miracle of Forgiveness:
“One could multiply references almost indefinitely but enough has been said to establish the point that the repentant life, the life which constantly reaches for perfection, must rely on works as well as on faith. The gospel is a program of action—of doing things. Man’s immortality and eternal life are God’s goals. (Moses 1:39.) Immortality has been accomplished by the Savior’s sacrifice. Eternal life hangs in the balance awaiting the works of men.
“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 through that perfection which comes by complying with the formula the Lord gave us. In his Sermon on the Mount he made the command to all men: ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ (Matt. 5:48.) Being perfect means to triumph over sin. 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” (208-209).
So in this book, a former President of the LDS church states: “Immortality has been accomplished by the Savior’s sacrifice. Eternal life hangs in the balance awaiting the works of men.” As you can see, this is not merely a divide between LDS culture and LDS doctrine. Rather, the LDS culture is a result of LDS doctrine.
At the same time, this is not the grace of biblical Christianity! Again, we find the use of the same words while giving them different meanings. In the evangelical faith, the grace of God is given through Christ purchasing eternal life for us. Our works of obedience are an expression of love for the gift of eternal life which we have been freely given in Christ. Yes, this grace transforms us into the likeness of our Savior, but these works are not required to inherit eternal life in the presence of God. They are a result of our receiving eternal life.
My prayer for you is that the Holy Ghost will open your heart to the true gospel of Jesus Christ, leading you to repent of the hope you have in the false gospel of the LDS church. Consider this warning from God in Scripture: “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (). And in case we take this warning lightly, the same warning is repeated: “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (). Turn to Jesus Christ, your only hope of eternal life!
Because of His grace,
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