September 2013 Ensign Review – A Christian Mask, by Stephen Livings

When perusing the titles of this month’s Ensign, I was struck by how many articles appear to deal with themes that are often explored by critics of Mormonism.  Here are some titles to illustrate this: The Justice and Mercy of God, Christlike Mercy, His Grace is Sufficient and What does Jesus mean to us today?  The Mormon understanding of the person of Jesus, God’s grace and the role of God’s justice and mercy in our salvation are all key areas that come in for scrutiny by people who question whether or not Mormons are right to claim the title ‘Christian’.  Therefore, the articles listed above will by those on which I focus in my review.

I will start with The Justice and Mercy of God  by Jeffrey Holland, one of the twelve LDS apostles.  Holland rightly claims that ‘one of God’s attributes is justice’ and also points out, using Mormon scripture, that God is also merciful towards those who are penitent.  However, in his article, Holland fails to point out what would seem to be the key element in God’s interaction with his creation, namely that both justice and mercy are perfectly exemplified in the act of Christ’s suffering and dying on the cross and his subsequent resurrection.  Rather, we read that ‘we are saved in proportion to what we have learned’.  This notion is referenced in the article to ‘Teachings of presidents of the church: Joseph Smith’, which states:

“I cannot believe in any of the creeds of the different denominations, because they all have some things in them I cannot subscribe to, though all of them have some truth. I want to come up into the presence of God, and learn all things; but the creeds set up stakes [limits], and say, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further’ [Job 38:11]; which I cannot subscribe to.  I say to all those who are disposed to set up stakes for the Almighty, You will come short of the glory of God. To become a joint heir of the heirship of the Son, one must put away all his false traditions.”

So here we have Smith claiming that people will not come into the glory of God by adhering to the creeds.  Clearly, we see a division between Mormonism and traditional Christianity established here by Joseph Smith.  But is he right?  Smith is implying that the creeds are there to limit God, but this is not the case.  The creeds are based on what the Bible tells us about the nature of God, which is why they play such a key role in the faith of many Christians.  To dismiss them as limiting our understanding of who God is is to misunderstand their role.  It also gives licence to Smith to say whatever he may choose about God under the claim that the description of God in the creeds is not the full picture.  Clearly, written words in the creed cannot sum up an infinite God, but when a description of God is in contradiction with that which is found in the Bible, we know that such a description must be questioned.

Let us return to Jeffrey Holland’s article.  One of the themes Holland uses to demonstrate both justice and mercy is to use the image of being imprisoned, of having one’s freedom taken away.  Holland refers to scriptural examples of people in prison: Peter and Paul in the Bible, and Alma and Amulek in the Book of Mormon.  Then he refers also to Joseph Smith’s imprisonment.  It seems rather misjudged to group Joseph Smith’s imprisonment alongside those of Peter and Paul, since the latter were imprisoned for preaching Christ, whilst the former was imprisoned for co-ordinating the ransacking of a printing press which had produced a publication exposing his dishonesty surrounding the practice of polygamy!

Elsewhere in Holland’s article, he quotes C.S. Lewis as follows: “Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop’ into good.”  This quote is used as Holland develops the Mormon teaching that our works can make reparation for evil, that we can ‘undo and make a new beginning’.  Yet we know from the Bible that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23)  So evil can certainly not be undone by us, but, as that verse continues: “but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  It is interesting to me that Holland is promoting the view that evil cannot ‘develop’ into good, yet that is exactly what LDS teaching tells us about the fall of Adam.  “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy”.  (2 Nephi 2:25)  In this teaching, Adam and Eve clearly disobeyed God, yet good ‘developed’ from it.

At the start of Holland’s article, he recounts an anecdote where the LDS church sponsored a year’s Bible study course in Utah state prison.  At the culmination of this year, a service was held for the inmates’ graduation.  Holland quotes the inmate who conducted the service as saying: “This is the most auspicious occasion of our year… because we’re enlightened and that’s as close as we come to being free.”  This is an impressive statement and the Bible study clearly had a positive effect on the inmates, yet as I read this anecdote, I recalled a song that I became acquainted with during the period when I left the Mormon faith to become a Christian.  The song is by Steven Curtis Chapman and is entitled ‘Free’.  In this song, the singer is recounting a visit he made to a prison.  During the visit he encounters an inmate who has been born again.  Chapman tells of this encounter as follows:

“I met a man whose face seemed so strangely out of place
A blinding light of hope was shining in his eyes
And with repentance in his voice he told me of his tragic choice
That led him to this place where he must pay the price
But then his voice grew strong as he began to tell
About the One he said had rescued him from hell, he said…

I’m free, I have been forgiven
God’s love has taken off my chains and given me these wings
And I’m free, and the freedom I’ve been given
Is something that not even death can take away from me
Because I’m free
Jesus set me free”

After reading Holland’s experience visiting the State prison and the words of the prisoner he quotes, I wonder if any of the prisoners following the LDS church’s Bible study course came to a position of faith where they could say that they were already free through Jesus’ sacrifice, as did the man in Chapman’s song.  In that song he knew he was already free in the most important and real sense.

My final point in response to Holland’s article on the justice and mercy of God is that this article does not contain the gospel!  Holland claims to be an apostle of the one and only true church on the earth, the restored church of Jesus, and this role means he is capable of revealing the true doctrine of this church to the world, yet nowhere in this article on the mercy and justice of God does Holland explain what the Bible makes abundantly clear:

“But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life”  Titus 3:4-7

And

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5)

And

“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.”  Romans 3:23-27

This last example explains so clearly that we have been shown mercy, since we are sinful, and also that those sins are remitted through the justice of God by payment being made through the blood of Christ.  How is it that Holland misses the crowning example of God acting in both love and mercy as found in the Bible?  The Mormon church is insistent in its claim to be Christian, yet in Jeffrey Holland’s article I find no evidence of the true gospel as outlined in these three Bible passages.

I would now like to take a look at Christlike Mercy by Randy L. Daybell.  Daybell claims that “Mercy is defined as compassion and includes feelings and acts of sympathy, kindness, forgiveness and love.”  I would disagree with this.  My Oxford Dictionary defines it thus: “compassion or forgiveness shown towards someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.”  So, whilst acts of sympathy, kindness, forgiveness and love are clearly Christlike behaviour traits (and Daybell goes on in his article to outline many powerful examples of Jesus acting powerfully with compassion and love), they are not the same thing as Jesus acting with mercy.  In the same way as I have outlined above in response to Jeffrey Holland’s article, the gospel message of God’s merciful treatment of us sinful beings is not dealt with in this article either.  The loving, compassionate actions of Jesus that are described in Daybell’s article most certainly do epitomise a way of treating others that all Christians should try to emulate, but this blurring of the lines between acts of compassion and acts of mercy points to a major flaw within Mormonism – namely that they don’t take seriously the notion that we are only made right with God through His mercy and not by our actions.

Let us now move on to Brad Wilcox’s article His Grace is Sufficient.  Early on in his article Wilcox says, “The truth is, Jesus paid our debt in full. He didn’t pay it all except for a few coins. He paid it all. It is finished.”  If he had stopped there I would have nothing to disagree with him about, except to wonder why his church doesn’t act like they really believe this!  Of course though, this is not the message Wilcox wants us to take away from his article at all.  He continues: “We will all be resurrected. We will all go back to God’s presence to be judged. What is left to be determined by our obedience is how comfortable we plan to be in God’s presence and what degree of glory we plan on receiving.”  We know that this is not the gospel of Jesus, since the book of John states: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”  So there are no ‘add-ons’ of how comfortable we will be if we believe in him, for if we do, we have everlasting life, and if we don’t believe we stand condemned.  The idea of having some kind of choice about how comfortable we will be with God, or what degree of glory we’ll have does not stand up to Biblical scrutiny.  Romans 8:15-17 is great at refuting that idea: “ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.”  Heirs receive their inheritance based on belonging to a family not because they have done all those extra things that demand a reward in return.

What is interesting and also a little surprising is that Wilcox uses Romans 8 as a reference for his argument.  Wilcox is saying that our actions determine “what degree of glory we plan on receiving” and that we are able to act to such ends because God’s grace “is our constant energy source”.  God’s grace is not some kind of fuel that enables us to keep taking steps along a progressive path to godhood, rather it is more like what Romans 8 actually describes it as being, a free gift:  “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?”  We do not carry out acts to get some extra glory, we are freely given it all by God because of his righteousness, not ours.

Later in the article, Brad Wilcox suggests we must change and grow over time because Jesus requires it: “if Jesus didn’t require practice, then we would never become Saints.”  I think this is a misleading comment in LDS terms because ‘practice’ doesn’t end with becoming ‘saints’, but something rather more ambitious, namely gods.  As the LDS teaching manual Gospel Principles puts it, “To be exalted, we first must place our faith in Jesus Christ and then endure in that faith to the end of our lives.”

Just a little further on in the article I think Brad Wilcox unintentionally sums up the Mormon position perfectly: “Too many are giving up on the Church because they are tired of constantly feeling like they are falling short. They have tried in the past, but they continually feel like they are just not good enough. They don’t understand grace.”  How true this is!  If they understood grace they would realise that all the trying they could ever do would never lead to them being ‘good enough’, precisely because no-one is good enough!  Galatians 3 should provide enough hope for people in that position: “no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith… Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.   But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.  For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus… if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” And also Galatians 2 “I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain” And of course Romans 11:6 too: “if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.”

The final sentence of Brad Wilcox’s article ends thus: “Seek Christ, and, as you do, you will feel the enabling power and divine help we call His amazing grace.”  My response to this is, yes, we do call grace ‘amazing’ for a very good reason, it sets us free from the bonds of sin and it is freely given.  In Amazing Grace John Newton describes this liberation:

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.”

Those who do not understand grace truly are lost and blind, that is why many Mormons feel exactly the way Brad Wilcox described, “they continually feel like they are just not good enough”.

A ‘key idea’ noted at the end of Brad Wilcox’s article states that “Our works, such as repentance and keeping the commandments, do not save us, but they are requirements set by the Savior to help transform us.”  I would respond by asking if, according to Mormonism, people can live with God when they die despite not keeping all of the requirements of the LDS church.  The answer to this is no, so this means these requirements are necessary for salvation.

Continuing the theme of wearing a ‘Christian Mask’, I would now like to look at Apostle David Haight’s article ‘What does Jesus mean to us today?’  His first sentence seems like a perfectly normal thing for a Christian to say: “The Jesus I know and believe in is Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.”  I have some questions in response to this: the son of which God?  Is it the son of Adam who is our God according to Brigham Young?  Which of the many gods in LDS scripture is he the son of?  (See Abraham ch. 4)  Is this Jesus the same one that Brigham Young believed and taught was a physical son of God the Father? “The birth of the Saviour was as natural as are the births of our children; it was the result of natural action. He partook of flesh and blood–was begotten of his Father, as we were of our fathers”  (From Journal of Discourses 8)  So we can see, even a simple statement like David Haight’s first sentence must be questioned in light of what Mormon prophets have taught about the nature of God the Father and Jesus Christ.

Later in his article, Haight quotes the first verses of the gospel according to John as an example of John’s ‘fervour and… conviction’.  Yet he fails to recognise that the teaching, “In the beginning was the Word , and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” is actually in opposition to LDS teaching.  Joseph Smith clearly knew this was the case because he rewrote this verse, thereby changing its meaning completely: “In the beginning was the gospel preached through the Son. And the gospel was the word, and the word was with the Son, and the Son was with God, and the Son was of God.” (John 1:1 JST)  So here again we have confusion as to who Jesus is for the Mormon church.

Moving on through Haight’s article, he says: “We must testify to the world of His godship”.  Yet we know that in Mormonism this ‘godship’ is not unique, there are a great many gods in existence.  Haight’s sentence continues that Mormons should also testify of “the actuality of His birth in the flesh of both divine and mortal parentage” although of course he doesn’t specify that Mormons should explain that this birth came about after a physical union between Heavenly Father and Mary.

In Haight’s final paragraph he states that “all can be placed on the pathway to eternal progression”.  Yet as we saw earlier in the words of Jesus from John 3: “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  There is no ‘pathway’, rather, believers are granted everlasting life and are saved.  In Mormonism, Jesus merely puts people on a very long path towards exaltation.  In the Bible we learn that God shares his glory with us as his children.  We don’t get our own glory by becoming gods ourselves.

It is clear that the LDS church appears to be on a drive to present themselves as very much a mainstream Christian faith with articles saturated with words such as grace, mercy, justice and by attempting to present what Jesus means to them today.  I welcome the focus on Jesus, but I hope that this post has helped to show that beneath this ‘Christian Mask’ is a very different set of beliefs, requirements and teachings, and ultimately a completely different, non-Biblical Jesus.

Finally, on a different note, this month the Ensign produced an article entitled: “How is doctrine established?”  which stated that: “When revelation is doctrine for the whole Church, it comes to only the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles”.  So I wondered about these teachings of Brigham Young:

“The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy.”

“When the Virgin Mary conceived the child Jesus, the Father had begotten him in his own likeness. He was not begotten by the Holy Ghost. And who is the Father? He is the first of the human family”

“Jesus, our elder brother, was begotten in the flesh by the same character that was in the garden of Eden, and who is our Father in Heaven.”

“It is true that the blood of the Son of God was shed for sins through the fall and those committed by men, yet men can commit sins which it can never remit”

“This is loving our neighbour as ourselves; if he needs help, help him; and if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he may be saved, spill it”

“Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.”

So when Brigham Young taught these things as a prophet, I presume he must have been sharing doctrine with his church.  If that is not the case, please explain how.

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