Mormonism teaches that righteousness can be attained through human effort. Many will perhaps be aware of their “scripture” which states that “by grace we are saved, after all we can do” (BOM 2 Nephi 25:23). The implication of this text is more fully understood against the background of their third article of faith:
“We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.”
Put simply, the Christian gospel teaches obedience through salvation, while the Mormon gospel teaches salvation through obedience. Whilst our obedience is seen as the fruit of salvation (John 15), their salvation is the fruit of obedience. We both believe in obedience but disagree over where it fits into the scheme of things.
The consequence of the traditional Christian view is confidence. If we are saved by grace, through faith, then we have assurance. We repent of our sins and seek to serve God faithfully in light of what he has done for us, and of what Christ has accomplished for us on the Cross. We are troubled by our continuing sinfulness and take our troubles and our sins to the cross, confident that we have one who intercedes for us at the throne, and assured that what we are experiencing is the process of sanctification. We are saved! We cannot be unsaved. Even in our frailty – “we have this treasure in jars of clay” (2 Cor.4:7) – we know that we are “going on with God”.
The consequence of the Mormon view is insecurity. If we are saved by grace “after all we can do”, then we must ask, “How much must I do?” As we consider our sins they can sometimes seem like an insurmountable barrier. We can repent but often harbour doubts about whether God has really forgiven us. After all, if we haven’t made our best efforts, given it our best shot, how do we know that he will be faithful to forgive? Perhaps we should have done better, and we know it, and God knows it, therefore why should he forgive? If we are “saved by obedience” then we know we are lost, because we know what we are really like. We are rebellious, weak and disobedient and, although we might get a “lift” from a meeting, or go through a period when we feel we are getting somewhere, the truth is that we often feel that we are not “going on with God” so much as getting away with something. This only makes us feel even more guilt.
The Mormon needs outward trappings to “prove” his faithfulness, his worthiness and his relationship with God. If obedience is the key, then we must be seen to be obedient. This is why “callings” are so important in Mormonism. To be called to teach, lead, minister in a myriad ways is an opportunity to prove worthy. The temple recommend is one of the most important, and perhaps the most significant “proofs”, both to others, and to ourselves that we are “worthy”. It allows a Mormon to attend the temple and get as close to heaven in this world as it is possible to get.
Now it is a fact that only about 20% – 30% of Mormons ever hold a temple recommend. If a Mormon is in the 70% – 80% who don’t they can still serve in certain capacities in the church, and have an active role. There will be some things, of course, that they cannot do. They cannot hold “high office” such as become bishop, or elder’s quorum president, or Relief Society president. These are offices held by “temple-recommend holders”. There are, however, many things that such a person can do in teaching and serving in the church.
However, if someone has once held a temple recommend but lost it that is most serious. It usually means that there is sin in their lives that disqualifies them from temple attendance. Perhaps they don’t keep the Word of Wisdom, the Mormon dietary law. Maybe it is more serious and can sometimes mean being disfellowshiped, which will disqualify them from any active role in the church. This means that they are welcome to attend all the meetings but denied “sacrament” (communion), barred from holding any office, and even forbidden to pray in public. This is a type of penance, although the Mormon would not call it that. It would be seen as the repentance process. Sometimes, if the sin is serious enough, it can mean excommunication, which means the complete loss of membership. This is much more serious but the repentance process still applies, albeit more rigorously.
No matter how apparently “minor” the offence, or how relatively mild the punishment, to lose one’s temple recommend is a loss of face and a potential loss of salvation in the highest, or celestial kingdom of God. Only “worthy temple-recommend holders” have a chance to qualify for godhood and glory. Such a person will feel very exposed, especially if it is something that “everyone will know”. There will be interviews with the bishop, a lot of soul searching, a feeling of having let everyone down, of being a burden. There is also the impact on the family.
The road back can be very hard indeed. Whereas our faith in Christ affirms us as we read his sure promises in the Bible, the Mormon’s faith can provoke self-doubt and a preoccupation with their own unworthiness. Leaders may be very encouraging (some are, some aren’t), but they will only reinforce his feelings of worthlessness as they demand of him high standards to “prove” himself, and cause him to feel that he is being watched.
A Mormon needs to know that he is indeed worthless before a holy and righteous God, but that he can be of priceless value through simple faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ. He needs to see that there is “a righteousness (worthiness?) from God that comes through faith in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:21-22). He needs a Christian friend who is patient, gentle and kind but confident, holding out a hope for acceptance with God that the Mormons cannot offer. This acceptance is often best being modelled in action rather than taught in words. Understanding all this is the first step to showing real empathy, which in turn is the first step to modelling Christ-like love.