I am part of a team put together by Bobby Gilpin over at Mormonism Investigated to comment on Mormon General Conference. This is my contribution to what is becoming a useful bi-annual project covering the whole of both Mormon conferences. It originally appeared on Bobby’s website.
The Mormon Hope?
The stand out talk in this session of the Mormon General Conference was delivered by Paul V Johnson of the Seventy, a man being strong in the face of great adversity. Surely, everyone would have been moved as he spoke passionately about the resurrection in the context of the death from cancer, a little under a year earlier, of his daughter.
Last year at Easter time, a little over a month before she passed away, Alisa wrote: “Easter is a reminder of all that I hope for myself. That someday I will be healed and someday I will be whole. Someday I won’t have any metal or plastic inside of me. Someday my heart will be free of fear and my mind free of anxieties. I am not praying that this happens soon, but I am so glad I truly believe in a beautiful afterlife.”
It is a reminder that, whatever we believe, the sometimes crushing trials of life are the common lot. It also challenges us about how we view judgement, the question of what is the ultimate fate of people who don’t believe as we believe. Jesus said, ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’ (Mt.7:1-2)
Jesus is not speaking here about the evaluations we must make in the course of our every day lives. He is speaking about putting ourselves in the place of God to issue ultimate judgement. My prayer is, as always, that God’s generosity and mercy for me will be likewise tasted by those with whom I profoundly disagree. But I am still called upon to give a clear message and warning to those whose trust is misplaced, whose understanding is mistaken, whose hope is misguided. Paul Johnson goes on to say:
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ ensures the very things Alisa hoped for and instills in each of us “a reason [for] the hope that is in [us].” President Gordon B. Hinckley referred to the Resurrection as “the greatest of all events in the history of mankind.”
The Resurrection is brought to pass by the Atonement of Jesus Christ and is pivotal to the great plan of salvation.
Blink and you will miss the significance of what he said. ‘The resurrection is brought to pass by the Atonement of Jesus Christ.’ The atonement, in other words, brings resurrection. Well, of course, it does but John Taylor, 3rd LDS president, explained:
‘Transgression of the law brought death upon all the posterity of Adam, the restoration through the atonement restored all the human family to life…so that all men…may be placed upon the same footing, and all men may have the same privilege…of accepting the conditions of the great plan of redemption provided by the Father.’ (Meditation and Atonement, pp 178,181)
What are the conditions of the great plan of salvation? Any Mormon will tell you, ‘We believe that through the Atonement of Jesus Christ all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.’ (3rd Article of Faith) Saved – by – Obedience.
LDS apostle James Talmage wrote:
‘Some degree of salvation will come to all who have not forfeited their right to it; exaltation is given to those only who by active labors (sic) have won a claim to God’s merciful liberality by which it is bestowed.’ (The Articles of Faith, 1977, p.91)
When Mormonism speaks of salvation they mean resurrection, salvation from death. Immortality is the lot of everyone who hasn’t openly rebelled. What Christians call salvation, being lifted up to be with God for eternity, Mormons call exaltation. This is earned by faithfulobedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.
Mormon ‘salvation’ is a form of Universalism. All are saved inasmuch as all are resurrected. But Paul wrote, ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith.’ (Eph.2:8) It is where you put your trust that determines salvation and, while all will be resurrected (1 Cor.15:22) some will be raised to life (Rev.20:6) and others to condemnation (Rev.20:15)
What does the Mormon view look like?
The Mormon Catch
Dallin H Oaks answers our question with a three point sermon. As a Baptist, this warmed my heart.
His first point is: The purpose of mortal life for the children of God is to provide the experiences needed “to progress toward perfection and ultimately realize their divine destiny as heirs of eternal life.”
This life is a testing ground so we may prove ourselves worthy of that exaltation we spoke of. The Book of Mormon teaches:
“It must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, … righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad” (2 Nephi 2:11; see also verse 15).
Dallin Oaks goes on to explain:
‘Opposition was necessary in the Garden of Eden. If Adam and Eve had not made the choice that introduced mortality, Lehi taught, “they would have remained in a state of innocence, … doing no good, for they knew no sin”’ (2 Nephi 2:23).
His second point is:
‘Opposition in the form of difficult circumstances we face in mortality is also part of the plan that furthers our growth in mortality.’ In other words, opposition helps us, sin tests us, and passing the test exalts us.
In Mormonism the fall of man is a good thing, part of the plan:
‘Some people believe that Adam and Eve committed a serious sin when they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…Because of the fall, we are blessed with physical bodies, the right to choose between good and evil, and the opportunity to gain eternal life,. None of these privileges would have been ours had Adam and Eve remained in the garden.’ (Gospel Principles, 1993, p.33)
One Mormon leader from a previous generation explained, ‘Adam fell, but he fell in the right direction. He fell toward the goal…Adam fell, but he fell upward.’ (Sterling W Sill, Deseret News, 31 July 1965, p.7) A Mormon prophet declared, It is not always a sin to transgress a law…Adam’s transgression…was in accordance with law.’ (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Vol.1 p.114) The Book of Mormon tells us, ‘Adam fell that men might be; men are that they might have joy.’ (2 Nephi 2;25)
His third point:
‘All of us experience various kinds of opposition that test us. Some of these tests are temptations to sin. Some are mortal challenges apart from personal sin. Some are very great. Some are minor. Some are continuous, and some are mere episodes. None of us is exempt. Opposition permits us to grow toward what our Heavenly Father would have us become.’
There is a famous text:
‘And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; And if they keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.’ (Abraham 3:25-26)
This ‘first estate’ is the life Mormonism teaches we had with God as spirit children before the creation. The life we now live is our second estate and our future, eternal, state will be determined, not by whom we have trusted but by how we have performed. It is a spiritual quid pro quo. Nothing demonstrates this better than this Mormon text:
‘There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven, before the foundations of this world, upon which every blessing is predicated-and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it predicated.’ (Doctrine & Covenants 130:20-21)
This is the ‘Great Plan of Happiness’ in which all Mormons put their trust. When Paul V Johnson speaks so passionately about his faith, and that of his late daughter, this is what is in view. I wonder, how do you feel about that? Perhaps you wonder how Mormons feel about it? Such a great burden on the shoulders of weak sinners.
The Mormon Compromise
LDS apostle Jeffrey R Holland throws some light on it.Summing up the conference, he congratulates warmly the attendees and others watching around the world for their faithfulness. Quoting Hebrews 10:32, he goes on to speak of ‘post-illumination affliction,’ those days when the thrill of following the Great Plan fades and reality kicks in.
‘Realizing that we all have to come down from peak experiences to deal with the regular vicissitudes of life, may I offer this encouragement as general conference concludes…With the gift of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the strength of heaven to help us, we can improve, and the great thing about the gospel is we get credit for trying,even if we don’t always succeed.’
Urging Mormons to do their best, he says, ‘We take some solace in the fact that if God were to reward only the perfectly faithful, He wouldn’t have much of a distribution list.’
‘Please remember tomorrow, and all the days after that, that the Lord blesses those whowant to improve, who accept the need for commandments and try to keep them, who cherish Christlike virtues and strive to the best of their ability to acquire them.’
It was the late Mormon prophet Spencer W Kimball who wrote in his notorious and now pulped book The Miracle of Forgiveness:
‘To “try” is weak. To “do the best you can” is not strong. We must always do better than we can.’
Mormon scripture warns, ‘…Unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God.’ (D&C 82: 7).
A plan to test mankind with sin then; blessings predicated on obedience; its not enough to do your best; every past sin ‘added upon’ the abiding sin of today. No wonder Jeffrey Holland seeks to reassure the saints to simply want to improve, try to obey, strive to nurture virtues.
This is the heart-cry of every honest Mormon. ‘I am doing my best but I will be happy simply to be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord.’ Its the cry of those who have settled, accepted their inevitable lot, seen themselves as Mormon middle management at best. Just as they never expect to rise above local bishop, or stake president in this life, so they are resigned to a lower kingdom in the next.
The Christian Gospel
The whole Mormon General Conference passed without a solution to this problem. What does the Bible say? Paul writes eloquently of the struggle Mormons experience:
‘I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do-this I keep on doing…What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God-through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Ro.7:18-25)
It is the heart-cry of everyone who comes finally to realise that they don’t need a plan of happiness, they need a Saviour; ‘Who will deliver me..?’ Where Spencer Kimball insists on the impossible, and Jeffrey Holland asks for your best, Paul writes:
‘No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law, rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
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 grace through the redemption that that came by Christ Jesus.’ (Ro.3:20-24)
Here is the hope that any family member would wish for their dying loved one, that they should have a sure hope to cling to, one that saves to the uttermost because that is where they have put their trust. And that is the promise of Jesus himself:
‘I tell you the truth, 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.’ (John 5:24)
Take each clause as it is on the page.
Q. To whom is the promise given?
A. Whoever hears and believes.
Q. What is promised?
A. Eternal life.
Q. When is this life delivered?
A. Has eternal life; it is a present possession.
Q. What of future judgement?
A. Will not be condemned; the future assured.
Q. What about my present condition?
A. Has crossed over from death to life; Standing in life from the moment you heard and believed.
It is my prayer that, at the last, all who truly trust in him, however wrongheaded their ideas, will know the assurance of eternal life. My fear is that some continue to trust in chariots (Ps.20:7)