The April 2017 first presidency message by Dieter Uchtdorf, second counsellor in the Mormon presidency, is based on Romans 1:17, ‘The just shall live by faith.’ (KJV). He begins with the familiar enough story of the Rabbi and the soap maker that concludes, just as soap must be put to use to make you clean, so faith must be put to work to ‘transform lives.’ This transformation is familiar enough to Christians, who call it sanctification, the process whereby we become progressively more Christlike and holy.
A Mormon reading this message will typically make the comparison between Mormonism’s practical application of faith and what Mormons perceive as the Evangelical doctrine of salvation by passive faith, faith alone. Uchtdorf’s message does nothing to disabuse Mormons of this judgement as he addresses the question, ‘how shall we live?’
Every time he urges Mormons to action the Mormon mind will make that unspoken but fundamental comparison with what they see as Evangelical presumption on God’s good grace. He makes stark comparisons between, ‘a religion that is frail and ineffectual and one that has the power to transform lives.’ This is a classic example of Mormonism’s ‘dog-whistle theology,’ and Mormons know who he is talking about.
‘Faith is more than belief. It is complete trust in God accompanied by action,’ he insists. ‘It is more than wishing. It is more than merely sitting back, nodding our heads, and saying we agree. When we say “the just shall live by faith,” we mean we are guided and directed by our faith. We act in a manner that is consistent with our faith—not out of a sense of thoughtless obedience but out of a confident and sincere love for our God and for the priceless wisdom He has revealed to His children.’
‘Faith must be accompanied by action,’ comes the familiar assertion, ‘else it has no life (see James 2:17). It is not faith at all. It doesn’t have the power to change a single individual, let alone the world.’
‘Men and women of faith,’ he reminds his listeners, ‘earnestly walk the path of discipleship and strive to follow the example of their beloved Savior, Jesus Christ. Faith motivates and, indeed, inspires us to incline our hearts to heaven and to actively reach out, lift up, and bless our fellow men.’
‘The restored gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of action. The Church of Jesus Christ teaches true religion as a message of hope, faith, and charity, including helping our fellow men in spiritual and temporal ways.’
The faith he describes is very familiar to every Christian, though Mormons congratulate themselves that faith inspiring action is a peculiar aspect of the ‘Restored gospel of Jesus Christ’ (Mormonism). But, even in Utah, in Salt Lake City, there are Evangelical congregations. Indeed, from Catholics, to Presbyterians, to Evangelical Free churches Mormonism has worked alongside believers on community projects, been co-belligerents in worthy causes, and taken every opportunity to publicise the fact.
Here is a newsroom story about ‘Mormons and Catholics standing together on key issues.’ Another story reported on the LDS Newsroom site tells of, ‘Mormons [joining] with Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians and other Christians to hold a concert to raise money so food could be purchased for needy families in their city.’
Surely, Mormons see Evangelical believers moved to action by their faith? Yet they seem blind to the sacrifices and works of others. Like a subtle form of misdirection, the Mormon message convinces Mormons that those ‘other Christians,’ in other churches have a frail and ineffectual faith, while Mormons exercise a faith that changes lives and moves them to action. A puzzle, isn’t it? I imagine the following conversation between an Evangelical Christian and a Mormon.
Christian: Where do you get the idea that “Christians don’t believe in works”?
Mormon: Every Evangelical I speak to tells me that they are saved by grace alone. But James 1:5 says that “faith without works is dead”.
Christian: Do you count any Evangelicals among your friends and neighbours?
Mormon: Yes, I do and they all say the same thing – “grace alone, faith alone”.
Christian: These Evangelical friends, do they go to church?
Mormon: Yes, we see them setting off Sunday mornings about the same time as us.
Christian: And do they have a nice building in which to meet?
Mormon: Yes, it’s a nice building.
Christian: And they have a pastor?
Mormon: Yes, they have a paid minister.
Christian: And do your Evangelical friends get involved in the community?
Mormon: Yes, they seem to have open houses just like we do and they run a soup kitchen, help with shelter for the homeless.
Christian: How do you think the building, its upkeep, the pastor, etc. are paid for?
Mormon: I suppose they take up a collection or something.
Christian: So, these Christian friends, who don’t believe in works, attend church regularly and seem to pay for their own building, pastor and running expenses by what I suppose you would call tithes and offerings. They busy themselves with charity work, invite the neighbours in for refreshments, and make every effort to tell the gospel. Quite busy then; for people who don’t believe in works?
Mormon: I hadn’t thought of it that way. But if works are required then why don’t you say as much instead of continually talking about “grace alone”?
Christian: But works are not required in the way you mean.
Mormon: I don’t understand. You are making no sense.
Christian: I am making perfect sense, biblical sense. But you are right in saying you don’t understand. It is because you are so full of Mormon preconceptions about my faith that you have left no room for any other understanding. Christians do good works because we are saved not in order to be saved. Works are the fruit of salvation (John 15) and that fruit is evident in the Christian churches you see around you if you care to see it.
Mormon: But James writes, ‘faith without works is dead.’ (Js.2:17) What do you make of that?
Christian: And Paul writes, ‘It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.’ (Eph.2:8) Either James and Paul are contradicting each other, or they are talking about different things. If you believe the Bible is reliable only as far as it is translated correctly, you may presume a contradiction. I believe the Bible is completely reliable and trust this apparent contradiction can be explained.
Think about their respective roles. Paul is writing as a missionary in the field, writing to people about getting saved, James is writing as a local church leader, writing to believers about living saved. The word ‘saved’ is nowhere in the James text, indeed the issue of salvation doesn’t arise there, it is the main theme in the Paul text. It is because of God’s clear message to the lost through Paul that Evangelicals insist we are ‘saved by grace, through faith in Christ.’ It is because of God’s clear message to the church through James that Evangelicals ‘continue to work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling.’ (Paul in Philip.2:12)
There is irony in a German Mormon prophet taking the key text of the Reformation, used by the German Catholic priest Martin Luther to refute the works-based message of the Roman Church, and using it to preach the works-based message of Mormonism. While we mark 500 years since Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door, Mormonism is still busy reconstructing a gospel of works (which is no gospel at all Gal.1:6-7). Read Paul’s carefully reasoned argument in Galatians and it is very clear what he means.
Dieter Uchtdorf’s understanding of Ro.1:17 is, ‘When we say “the just shall live by faith,” we mean we are guided and directed by our faith.’ (p.4, emphasis in original) In another irony, this follows the Latin understanding, justificare, meaning to be made righteous by sacraments. A way made to become righteous.
Luther’s understanding of Ro.1:17 is that righteousness is a free gift to those who don’t have a righteousness of their own (Philip.3:9) obtained through faith in Christ. This following the original Greek dikaios, meaning to declare, or to regard as righteous now. Not something to be achieved but something achieved for us in Christ. A way made to be righteous.
This is why Paul writes of ‘a righteousness from God.’ (cf. Ro.3:26b) This why Jesus is able to confidently declare, ‘Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life,.’ (Jn.5:24)
Luther, using the wider text and context of Romans 1:17, saw right relation to God as a gift from God, through Christ, i.e. ‘In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith, from first to last.’ Uchtdorf takes just six words out of context and sees right relation to God as the product of right living. Evangelicals, agreeing with Luther, Paul, and Jesus himself, insist right living is the product of an already established right relation to God
His chosen text (Ro.1:17) is a quote from Habakkuk 2:4; ‘See, his soul is puffed up; his desires are not upright – but the righteous will live by his faith…’ The one whose soul us puffed up is Babylon, particularly the king. Babylon and its king were arrogant, relying on their own strength, but ‘the righteous will live by his faith.’
In other words, rely upon God for deliverance. Just as with national deliverance, so the Bible teaches spiritual deliverance comes the same way. The text is used frequently in the New Testament to drive home the truth that we are saved by grace, through faith (Eph.2:8-10); that no one is justified before God by the law, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’ (Gal.3:11); that, even through great struggles, affliction, and endurance, yet, ‘my righteous one shall live by faith.’ (Heb.10:38)
Yes, Luther was already here and taught us all to live by faith. An earlier giant of the Christian Church was also here and Paul the apostle to the gentiles, taught Luther all he knew.
Paul, in his letters, faces the troubling question, how could the Jew and the Gentile, those with the Law, and those without, stand on the same level, find justification before God in the same way? Like the teachers of the Law, Mormons would have Christians (non-Mormons whom they refer to as ‘gentiles’) come under ‘the law of the gospel,’ the Mormon Plan of Salvation. Paul demonstrates the futility of this, showing the plight of both is the same:
‘What then? Are the Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks [Gentiles], are under sin, as it is written; None is righteous, no not one…’ (Ro.3:9-10 ESV)
Both need to stand righteous before God, but neither are righteous, because both have ‘sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’ (Ro.3:23) This is not a shortfall in the common understanding of not quite having enough change to pay, where Jesus steps in to make up what is lacking. This shortfall is unworthiness, being devoid of what is needed, coming late or tardily. It is disastrous!
This state is described in the parable of the wedding banquet, where a great king gave a wedding feast for his son (Mt.22:1-14). The original invitees having excused themselves from the feast, the king sent his servants out into the streets to invite all the people they could find until the hall was full.
One man caught the king’s attention because he was not wearing wedding clothes. In the ancient world a king would honour guests with clothes (Gen.45:22; Est.6:8-9), especially in this instance, perhaps, when people were not expecting to attend a wedding. Ezekiel describes God clothing his unworthy people in ‘costly garments.’ (Ezek. 16:10-14) In the same way, the New Testament describes righteousness being imputed to those who, answering the king’s invitation, believe (Ro.3:21-31; 4:22-25) This guest, it seems, was left without excuse. The king had made every provision, nothing left out, yet this man had fallen short, depended on his own resources, and was cast out.
Just as this king had made every provision to equip his guests for the wedding feast, so God has, in Christ, made every provision for the salvation of those who would believe. Unexpectedly called, they have no wedding garments of their own, yet the invitation is clear:
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ (Jn.3:116)
‘But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify, This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.’ (Ro.3:21-24)
Mormonism effectively rejects the wedding garments of the king, insisting their own garments are sufficient and acceptable. And anyone knowing about the Mormon temple will understand the significance here of that word ‘garments.’
Christians, who are justified freely because they trust God’s provision in Christ, are not blind to the Bible’s requirement that true and living faith should issue in works. (Js.2:14-26) Armchair Christians are no Christians at all! The question of salvation, however, of being put right with God, is not about how much we have done, but a question of who we have trusted, have believed. Salvation is not a question of obeying but of trusting, of abiding (Jn. 5:24;15:5).
The saved life, on the other hand, is not a question of waiting but of working. (Philip.2:12/13), ‘being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it out to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.’ (Philip.1:6)
Our faith will never fit into the scheme of Mormonism because it looks nothing like Mormonism. No temples, no “priesthood”, except that which we share as followers of Christ, (1 Cor.3:16) no “law of eternal progression” because we are a saved people getting down to work, not a working people hoping to one day prove ‘worthy enough.’. All that we need to grow more Christ-like we find in Christ.(Heb.13:20-21)
“Church” is not for us an institution we join to be saved but a natural congregating of all those who are in Christ, those who are saved, who gather to sing his praises, encourage one another and work to build his kingdom, of which we are now part, ‘For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’ (Acts 2:42-47)
The Mormon view is that what I have is a sort of Christianity-lite, while Mormonism is the real thing “Restored”, a sort of Christianity with muscle. Mormons believe their faith is a fuller expression of mine, that if I were to become a Mormon their church would add to what I have and correct some misconceptions on my part. However, the Mormon faith bears nothing but the most superficial resemblance to mine.
Of course Christians have order, structure and rules to live by. It would be impossible to function without these things. Of course we believe in obedience, charity, making sacrifices, and being accountable; what on earth do they think we are? Do they really believe we are blind to the New Testament’s call to action? Augustus Toplady said:
Faith and works are essential in the Christian faith, but these simply don’t work in any way a Mormon would understand, because my Christian faith is completely unlike the Mormon faith. In Mormonism works issue in salvation and exaltation, in my faith grace issues in salvation, through faith, and works are the fruit of saving faith, exactly the point being made by James. What gives us confidence and hope, then, is quite different.
So if Mormons are to understand they must be prepared to see through different eyes before they could possibly say whether they like what you see in Evangelical faith. Otherwise, they will simply be judging and dismissing a caricature of my faith, based on inappropriate comparisons with their faith, and on misconceptions taught by their church.
What I find tragic is that they believe that, based on sound teaching, they have accepted the Mormon message and rejected the Christian Evangelical gospel. However, their decision is based entirely on wrong information and mistaken ideas. If you are going to prefer Mormonism over what I believe at least understand properly what it is you are rejecting.