The Mormon president, Russell M Nelson, in his Christmas devotional, offers us a Christmas gift, the Mormon to-do list. His list highlights four things, which he describes as gifts from the Saviour, although I am sure his to-do list is longer than four items. Indeed, by the end of this piece that list is infinitely longer. To see how long see here.
The article is one of those things people might read unthinkingly, nodding approval, unreflectively saying, ‘Yes, that’s only right.’ It readily appeals to the popular conception of Christianity as a religion, of a God with a to-do list to test us by, of mortality as a test.
Indeed he refers to our ‘mortal probation,’ describing the gifts Jesus brings as helping us achieve our goal, ‘to live with Heavenly Father and with your family forever and live as He lives.’
The Mormon To-Do List
- Love: The first gift on his to-do list is the gift of love. Emphasis is put on loving the unlovable, even loving our enemies. ‘Well that’s only right,’ people cry. ‘Doesn’t the Bible speak of loving our enemies? Didn’t Jesus love the outcast, the leper, the unlovely, his enemies?’ (Lk.6:35; 7:22)
- Forgiveness: The second gift Jesus gives us is the ability to forgive. ‘Well that’s only right,’ the cry goes up, ‘for doesn’t Jesus teach us to pray, ‘forgive us our debts as we forgive others.’ (Mt.6:12)
- Repentance: The third gift is repentance, which he describes as ‘a resplendent gift…a gift for us to receive with joy and to use—even embrace—day after day as we seek to become more like our Saviour.’ ‘Well, that’s only right,’ we chorus, ‘for didn’t the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, preach repentance? Didn’t the Saviour himself say, ‘repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ (Mt.4:17)
But we have seen only three gifts, heard only a part of the story, a sketchy part at that. Perhaps we have been too ready to recognise Christianity in this man’s words. Are we, anyway, judging against an incomplete understanding of love, forgiveness, and repentance, a less than adequate understanding of the Bible?
A cardinal rule in witnessing to Mormons is to define your terms. When we define these gifts in their proper biblical context it is not possible to be so sanguine as we might have originally thought. It is a common mistake to assume my definition of these things is the definition, a shared definition.
What does the Bible say about love, forgiveness, and repentance? Have I understood these things biblically?
When we speak of love in English it can prove rather awkward and confusing. We love a good meal, we love visiting certain places, we love our families, but are these all the same love, or are all these different loves? CS Lewis writes about The Four Loves in a book of the same name, loves for which the language of the Bible has different names, but for which English has only one.
- There is the love of empathy, storgé in Greek, an example of which would be the love of a parent for a child.
- Then there is philios, brotherly love, the love of friendship (Think Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love).
- Eros is romantic love, the deep affection we feel for a husband or a wife.
- Finally, there is Agapé, the unconditional love of God. It is a love that doesn’t change with circumstances, that gives without any hope or expectation of return, a selfless love.
Agapé is supremely expressed in the sacrifice of Christ for the sins of a world that rejected him. When the Bible tells us, ‘God is love,’ it is stating more than the fact that God loves, it is telling us it is in the nature of God to love. This is the love with which God expects us to love, loving without limit.
Have you noticed how forgiveness comes more easily in some circumstances than in others? We more readily forgive those we love than we would a stranger, or perhaps for you it’s the other way around. We are more prepared to forgive a mistake than we are a pattern of bad behaviour. We hear people ‘forgive’ with the words, ‘I can forgive but I can never forget.’
When Jesus taught about forgiveness in Matthew 18 Peter asked, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.’ (Mt.18:21-22) Aren’t we all like Peter, looking for a way out? Jesus won’t allow this.
This forgiveness without any apparent limit mirrors God’s own forgiveness of us. The weight of our sin/debt to God is so great we can never hope to repay, but the Agapé love of God sees God forgive that debt because of Jesus. When the Bible speaks of forgiveness it means this level of commitment to the principle; nothing short of forgiving to the uttermost.
We are all sorry when we get caught, but this is not repentance. Repentance translates the Greek metanoia which means a change of heart leading to a change of direction. When the Bible speaks of the heart it doesn’t carry the sentimental meaning we give that word today.
Heart, in Scripture, means the motivating force, the ruling centre of our lives, the way we think, our mind. The terms ‘mind’ ‘intellect’ ‘character’ ‘personality’ are modern terms that approximate what the Bible calls the heart.
The Bible describes repentance as a radical change in who we effectively are such that we turn away from sin. Peter said, ‘Repent, therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out.’ (Acts 3:19)
Jeremiah gives us a vivid picture of repentance, ‘After I strayed, I repented; after I came to understand, I beat my breast. I was ashamed and humiliated because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’ (Jer.31:19)
Repentance is more than remorse in having been caught, much more than turning over a new leaf. Repentance is a radical change in who we are, a complete rejection of who we have been until now, a change in thinking, character, and conduct such that there is a total change in direction.
Rich Men, Camels, and the Heart of Man
A young man asked Jesus, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ Jesus replied, ‘If you would enter life, keep the commandments.’ With the full confidence of youth, the young man said, ‘All these I have kept. What do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me.’ When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.’ (Mt.19:16-22)
The presenting problem here is wealth, but the underlying problem is an unwillingness to let go of self, of all that, in and of this world, defines sinful, broken me. For different individuals it will be different things but whatever it is it speaks of a heart in rebellion against God.
Just as Jesus put his finger on exactly the stumbling block for this young man, so the Spirit identifies those things in my life and yours that see us holding out on Jesus instead of holding onto him.
‘And Jesus said to his disciples,’Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Theirs was a world in which people believed prosperity was a sign of God’s favour and blessing. The disciples were astonished at Jesus’ words, imagining it was therefore impossible for anyone to be saved if even the blessed of God couldn’t be.
But, of course, the rich may be saved just as we all might be, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The challenge for all of us, the rich included, is that word ‘alone.’ It means relinquishing everything that makes us self-sufficient and submitting to Christ.
When Peter exclaimed, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus replied, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ (Mt.19:23-26) Having identified the impossible, Jesus points them to the One who alone makes the impossible possible.
But I Keep Doing Evil
Having defined and understood love, forgiveness, and repentance, having faced the challenge of the rich young man, failed to push that camel through the eye of the needle, we come to realise we can’t do what is required to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Paul sums it up when, identifying with our own experience, he agrees with the law, ‘that it is good’ (v16) effectively saying, ‘Well, that’s only right!’ but goes on to say, ‘I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I I do not want is what I keep on doing.’ (Ro.7:16-19) Why!
Paul identifies the problem as, ‘sin that dwells within me.’ (v20) He cries, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’ (v24) Now we come to it, for sin has such a hold on me that I am a slave to it and dead as far as righteousness is concerned. This to-do list is a burden and not the help Russell M Nelson would have us believe. We understand why when we consider the fourth gift.
The fourth gift is everlasting life. Well, that’s only right.’ someone cries. But this is where, biblically speaking, this man comes unstuck, revealing the fundamental and devastating error of the Mormon faith. The previous three gifts are biblical enough, urgently needed in a fallen world.
The premise on which he has built those gifts is flawed, mistaken, unbiblical, because we have strayed so far from our Maker, become self-sufficient. Like the rich young man, we are unable to relinquish the thing that owns us and holds us prisoner. We don’t need a list, we need a Saviour.
The Mormon To-Do List Closely Examined
To his credit, this unreconstructed, old school Mormon leader seems determined to get back to an earlier, more authentic Mormonism. He is not the least shy in explaining the true and official Mormon world view without any of the mealy-mouthed prevarication of some of his predecessors.
He unpacks a story that is familiar to the students of James E Talmage, LeGrand Richards, and Bruce R McConkie. As an old former Mormon myself I find this, at last, familiar territory. Let’s take a closer look at the fourth gift in the Mormon to-do list.
A Pantheon of Gods
‘These four unique gifts…were made possible because Jehovah condescended to come to earth as the baby Jesus. He was born of an immortal Father and a mortal mother’ So the message of this Mormon prophet goes, and so Mormonism has taught from its earliest days.
In the Mormon faith there are three distinct gods, Jehovah being Jesus, the Spirit being another God, and the Father they identify as Elohim. Jehovah became Jesus, not by a miraculous conception effected by the work of the Holy Spirit (Lk.1:35; Mt.1:20) but by sexual congress between the Mormon Elohim and his premortal daughter Mary. Bruce McConkie wrote:
“…our Lord is the only Son of the Father in the flesh. Each of the words is to be understood literally. Only means only, begotten means begotten, and Son means son. Christ was begotten by an Immortal Father in He same way that mortal men are begotten by mortal fathers… There is no need to spiritualize away the plain meaning of the scriptures. There is nothing figurative or hidden or beyond comprehension in our Lord’s coming into mortality. He is the Son of God in the same sense and way that we are the sons of mortal fathers. It is just that simple” (Mormon Doctrine)
Many Mormon leaders, from Brigham Young to James Talmage and Ezra Taft Benson, have agreed with this, some even going so far as to insist, ‘Jesus Christ was not begotten of the Holy Ghost.’ See more here. It is what you might expect on Mount Olympus, a pantheon of gods and celestial incest.
Mormons equate salvation with resurrection. ‘Everyone will be resurrected and experience immortality. But eternal life is so much more than a designation of time. Eternal life is the kind and quality of life that Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son live.’
In this respect they think all will be saved, whether we know Christ as Lord, or reject his offer of salvation. Mormonism offers a universal salvation, a graceless salvation, one that comes to all regardless of their response to Jesus’ question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ (Mk.8:29) However, when the jailer asked Paul and Silas, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ they answered, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.’ (Acts 16:30-31)
In his letter to Rome Paul clearly states, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (Ro.10:13) Jesus himself makes clear that eternal life comes to those who hear and trust the message of grace:
‘Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgement, but has passed from death to life.’ (Jn.5:24) Salvation is eternal life and is gained by faith in Christ.
So we arrive at Nelson’s most pressing question: ‘what, then, do weneed to do to receive these gifts offered to us so willingly by Jesus Christ? What is the key to loving as He loves, forgiving as He forgives, repenting to become more like Him, and ultimately living with Him and our Heavenly Father?’
The emphasis on ‘we’ is his own and you can see where this is going. ‘The key is to make and keep sacred covenants. We choose to live and progress on the Lord’s covenant path and to stay on it.’
Where does this covenant keeping path of ‘progress’ lead the faithful Mormon?
When the Father offers us everlasting life, He is saying in essence, ‘If you choose to follow my Son-if your desire is really to become more like Him-then in time you may live and preside over worlds and kingdoms as we do.’ Again, the emphasis is his, and this is fundamental Mormon doctrine, men become gods.
But what did the serpent say to Eve? ‘God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ (Gen:3:5)
Mormonism brings a message that originated in the mouth of the serpent in the Garden. It was a lie then and it is a lie now. This self-help, self-exalting salvation is what broke the communion man had with God in the beginning and made necessary the Cross of Christ.
The Christian To-Do List
Every Christian should have a to-do list. When we consider the gift of God in Jesus, as we marvel at the great good news that Christ came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim.1:15) to give us life (Jn.3:16) we must, surely, consider what we will do with that life, The true Christian is never indolent.
The Bible provides plenty of material to help populate a to-do list. The Ten Commandments are a good starting place, they are not redundant. Then we have Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Motivation to works is found in Hebrews, where we are urged to, ‘stir up one another to love and good works,’ (Heb.10:24) and we have James’ emphatic warning that ‘faith apart from works is useless.’ (Js.2:20)
Mormons seem incapable of understanding that we know what the Bible has to say about works and don’t need them to teach us. We know that love should define us, and love should increasingly issue in forgiveness. We fully understand that we daily walk in repentance before a holy and righteous God of grace who forgives the repentant sinner.
We are seized of the fact we are to ‘act justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God’ (Micah 6:8) But here is the rub as far as Mormonism is concerned. It is a faith that has not understood how completely devastating is the effect of sin in our lives.
New Life, New Beginnings
Paul writes, ‘We have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks are under sin, as it is written: No one is righteous; not one understands; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’ (Ro.3:9-12)
Some might protest they do seek God, have a level of understanding, strive for righteousness. Yet they find themselves in the plight described by Paul later in the same letter. He agrees with the law, ‘that it is good’ (v16) effectively saying, ‘Well, that’s only right!’ but there is no merit in recognising virtue, you must live it. Paul goes on to write:
‘I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I I do not want is what I keep on doing.’ (Ro.7:16-19)
He lays the blame where it belongs by insisting it, ‘is sin that lies within me’ that is to blame. It is such a familiar scenario, our efforts to virtue tumbled to the ground by indwelling and abiding sin. When Peter exclaimed, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus replied, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ (Mt.19:23-26)
Jesus said it, ‘What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.’ (Mt.15:19-20)
As has been said, ‘The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.’ Good works that issue from a corrupt mind, an unchanged heart, an unregenerate person, do nothing for us. Because of where they issue from, because of who we are before a holy and righteous God. We need a Saviour and one that brings more than a to-do list.
Paul makes clear that works don’t save us.
‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’ (Eph.2:10)
By God’s grace, in the blood of Christ, we are saved for works. Compelled by love (2 Cor.5:14-15), issuing from a new heart, our walk is marked by forgiveness, and lived in repentance. Those works build up the new man as, day by day, he walks more closely, more confidently with the one who saves. Every Christian can say with Paul:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ (Gal.2:20-21)
The Mormon to-do list is undoable, unbearable to the unregenerate man. Only one who can confidently make the claim, ‘ I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,’ knows the truth of the Saviour’s words in Matthew’s gospel:
‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Mt.11:28-30)