In his conference opening address the Mormon prophet, Russell M Nelson, taught a works salvation but some may have missed it:
‘The gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of repentance. Because of the Savior’s Atonement, His gospel provides an invitation to keep changing, growing, and becoming more pure. It is a gospel of hope, of healing, and of progress. Thus, the gospel is a message of joy! Our spirits rejoice with every small step forward we take.
‘Part of the gathering of Israel, and a very important part, is the charge for us as a people to be worthy and willing to help prepare the world for the Second Coming of the Lord.’
Whenever a Mormon leader sets out to tell you plainly and succinctly what the gospel is look for the sleight of hand. His remarks start out legitimately enough: it is a gospel of repentance, it does centre on the atonement. Two things need to be taken into account here:
1. What faithful Mormons hear as opposed to what Christians think they hear.
2. What he says to confirm what Mormons hear and deny what Christians thought they heard.
This doublespeak is a form of dog-whistle theology. Mormonism does not teach, and has never taught, salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, three of the famous Five Solas of the Reformation. Mormonism does teach something that looks like it; salvation by grace through faith in Christ…and works; a works salvation. That is the reason he slips in, ‘the charge for us as a people to be worthy and willing to help prepare the world for the Second Coming of the Lord.’
Mormonism’s Works Salvation
The nearest Mormonism comes to a creed is the 13 Articles of Faith produced by Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith. He sets the bar for the sleight of hand that has become the signature of Mormon apologetics. His third article reads:
3. We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.’
As you will readily see, he gives with one hand and takes away with the other. Through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved he insists, before going on to say, by obedience. Now, lift out that middle section and it reads, ‘all mankind may be saved, by obedience.’
This is the lens through which every Mormon will view salvation history, doctrine, and dialectic. On the basis of that first part a Mormon will confidently claim ‘we believe in the atonement.’ However the middle section makes clear that Mormons are ‘saved by obedience.’ Obedience to what? ‘To the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.’ This is where the fourth article comes in:
4 We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost
So, Mormonism teaches ‘all mankind may be saved,’ by exercising faith, repenting, being baptised, and receiving the Holy Ghost. Of course, there are many more laws and ordinances of the Mormon gospel, this is just the start. Mormonism teaches a works salvation. What does it mean, then, when Mormons say they believe in the atonement?
The Book of Mormon states, ‘For we know that it is by grace we are saved after all we can do.’ (2Nephi 25:23)
The Gospel Topics manual teaches:
‘As used in the scriptures, to atone is to suffer the penalty for sins, thereby removing the effects of sin from the repentant sinner and allowing him or her to be reconciled to God. Jesus Christ was the only one capable of carrying out the Atonement for all mankind. Because of His Atonement, all people will be resurrected, and those who obey His gospel will receive the gift of eternal life with God.’
Again, we have a half truth then a sleight of hand. Christ did suffer the penalty for sins, atone for sins, but watch the language carefully. The achievement of the atonement is the resurrection of all mankind, but reconciliation with God, eternal life, requires more; those who obey His gospel will receive the gift of eternal life with God.’ To confuse things further, this eternal life is described as a gift, even though it comes by obedience. A works salvation we don’t deserve? Mormon scripture says:
‘And, if you keep my commandments and endure to the end you shall have eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God.’ (D&C 14:7)
The whole of the Mormon enterprise is predicated on law-keeping
There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated. (D&C 130:20-21)
The current prophet, Russell M Nelson, fully subscribes to this idea:
The Mormon and the Evangelical
To the Evangelical mind this is alien and confusing. Is it grace or works? After all, doesn’t the Bible talk about good works, about enduring to the end? This is, of course, an issue within the Christian Church; can a Christian believer fall away, lose their salvation, or are we once saved always saved? It is important that we understand our Bibles on this issue anyway, especially so as we enter the world of Christian apologetics.
There is, furthermore, an unfortunate characteristic in the believer that too easily submits to self doubt. The Bible does tell us, ‘Examine yourselves, to see whether you’re in the faith,’ (2 Cor.13:5) although this is in a specific situation where a church (it could as easily be an individual) is in open rebellion. It doesn’t mean we are to daily doubt what we knew for sure the day before.
It is wise to revisit established gospel principles in order to strengthen our faith. How many times do Christians wonder, ‘Am I really saved?’ Having established that your faith is genuine, that you know the assurance of God’s promises, there should be no reason to question your faith when others question it. People, we need to be in our Bibles.
To a Mormon this message of faith and works makes perfect sense. Indeed, it seems the perfect way to square the circle when it comes to the relationship of grace, faith, and works. Of course God requires obedience. Of course the Bible calls us to good works. Evangelicals have simply so played up the role of grace and played down the place of works they have produced an easy believism.
What Mormonism has done is create a situation where the sacrifice of Christ puts the believer on a better, more solid footing from which he or she can now do the works necessary to be reconciled to God. Christ pays for sins, we bring along and add faith in him, repentance, submission to baptism, and reception of the Holy Ghost. An obstacle to our progress has been removed and when we embrace the Mormon message our strivings can begin.
‘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 that all men may have the same privilege…of accepting the conditions of the great plan of redemption provided by the Father.’ (John Taylor [1808-1887] 3rd Mormon president)
The atonement, in other words, effects a general resurrection, restoring the human family to life. While recognising the sin of man and the need for a Saviour Mormonism, nevertheless, has confidence in everyone’s ability to obey the will of God:
According to Mormon leaders:
‘…it is by grace we are saved after all we can do.’ 2 Nephi 25:23
‘all mankind may be saved, by obedience.’ Joseph Smith
‘those who obey His gospel will receive the gift of eternal life with God.’ Gospel Topics Manual
‘When we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.’ (D&C 130:20-21)
The atonement means we are capable ‘of accepting the conditions of the great plan of redemption provided by the Father.’ (John Taylor]
Mormons ‘do not believe that man is incapable of doing the will of God, or is unable to merit the reward of Divine approval; that he is therefore totally estranged from God and whatever salvation comes to him must come as a free and undeserved gift.’ (Hugh B Brown)
Salvation and eternal life isn’t a gift but is obtained by obedience to laws and ordinances.
But is Works Salvation in the Bible?
In his letter to Rome, Paul describes the condition of the lost:
For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written; No one is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; none seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless…’ (Rom.3:9-12)
Why are none righteous, why don’t any understanding, why worthless? To the Mormon it is because the unrighteous are in a state of being lost, astray, bewildered, ‘turned aside.’ The remedy is someone coming to tell them about God’s wonderful plan for them and the good news that they can now pass along the highway cleared for them by Christ and prove themselves worthy by obedience to the Mormon gospel. Is that what the Bible says?
The Bible certainly does use this kind of language about being ‘under sin.’ However, it is much more than simply being lost. Later in Romans Paul writes, ‘The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Ro.6:23) Sin earns death and eternal life is a gift. The sinner is more than lost, gone astray, he or she is dead. In his letter to Ephesus Paul, writing to Christians, says:
‘And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience-among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.’
The Bible says that, because of sin, ‘All have turned aside; together they have become worthless…’ (Rom.3:9-12)
The Bible says, ‘The wages of sin is death’ (Ro. 6:23)
The Bible says, ‘you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked’ (Eph.2:1)
Fallen man is dead in sin, enslaved by sin, not sick and impaired. Fallen man is in need of life and release, not law and resuscitation. Works salvation cannot help us here.
The Bible says:
‘But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved…’
Who is the first actor in this drama of salvation? God!
What has motivated him to act? Love and mercy!
When did he act? When we were dead!
With whom are we made alive? With Christ!
What has saved us?…’by grace you have been saved…’
‘…and has raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.’
Who raised us up? God!
Where are we seated? In heavenly places!
Who seated us there? God!
By virtue of what are we seated? We are seated ‘In Christ!’ By virtue of the finished work of Christ.
What is the purpose of this saving work? To demonstrate we have a rich, gracious, and kind God!
‘…for by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.’
What has saved us? ‘…for by grace you have been saved…’
How have we made salvation ours? ‘…you have been saved through faith…’ Note closely Jesus’ own words:
‘Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life [present possession]. He does not come into judgement [future assurance], but has crossed over from death to life [past event].’ (Jn.5:24)
What part have we played? … not a result of works…’
How then do we receive it? ‘…it is the gift of God….’
What may we boast of ourselves? Nothing!
‘’’For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’ (Eph.2:4-10)
This is no works salvation. This is a truly remarkable salvation. Mormonism expects the sinner to merit Divine approval then calls it a gift. The Bible tells us we cannot merit Divine approval. It has God give us the gift of new life, prepare and equip us for works he has prepared beforehand for us to do.
Grace and Works
What is the purpose of the works if not to merit God’s approval? So that no one may boast save in the cross of Christ; ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ (1 Cor.1:31) and that we should work to the glory of God; ‘So, whether you eat or drink, whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.’ (1 Cor.10:31)
You do have to get this basic, and stick to a text, if you are going to witness to a Mormon. Going through the text as though going through a catechism, with questions and answers, is helpful in getting across the point and in sticking to the text.
Note, this Ephesians passage deals with the issue every Mormon will raise, the place of works in the Christian life. From here you can build a strong case for the works of the saved, ‘that we should walk in them,’ while destroying the idea of salvation by works. The works of the saved, not saved by works. It is in light if this that Paul writes:
‘…we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.’ (Col.1:9,10)