Mormonism and Christianity/Grace and works/Impossible Gospel

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Evangelicals use quotes from Mormon sources to try and paint a picture of an "impossible gospel"

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Question: Do Mormon scriptures portray an "impossible gospel" in which nobody can be saved?

A recent approach that Evangelicals have taken in preaching to Mormons is to use quotes from LDS sources to try and paint a picture of an "impossible gospel" that doesn't save anyone from their sins

A recent popular approach that Evangelicals have taken in preaching to Mormons is to use quotes from LDS sources to try and paint a picture of an "impossible gospel" that doesn't save anyone from their sins. They argue that various passages in LDS scriptures and comments from LDS leaders indicate that salvation is only attainable if we keep all of the commandments and forsake all sin. Since nobody does that, the argument goes, Mormonism is a gospel in which nobody can logically be saved.

Latter-day Saint leaders make it clear that we cannot achieve perfection in this life

Neal A. Maxwell:

In a kingdom where perfection is an eventual expectation, our feelings of anxiety and inadequacy should not surprise us. Just as earlier disciples were anxious and even "astonished" as Jesus taught certain demanding doctrines (Mark 10:28), so today there is really no way present prophets can describe where we must yet go without creating a sense of distance. We are not merely journeying next door or even across town. - Neal A. Maxwell, Notwithstanding My Weakness (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 1

Neal A. Maxwell:

Some may still say, "I know I am not doing all I could, so how could what I am doing be enough?" Ah, but that is not the real question. The real question is, "Why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?" (Alma 29:6.) That is the question—for a mother, son, home teacher, Young Woman's leader, elders quorum president, or neighbor. The task is, therefore, to perform in one's callings. On that score each of us should seek to do more. But it is not another task we should seek! [ Neal A. Maxwell, We Will Prove Them Herewith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1982), 53.


Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb: Joseph Smith does not reject the efficacy or necessity of grace

Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:[1]

Two corrections of common misrepresentations of Smith’s theology need to be made at this point. First, Mormons are often charged with denying the efficacy of grace and thus making salvation dependent upon the exercise of the individual’s free will. All theologians use the language of effort, reform, and growth, so this is not a fair charge.... In any case, Smith describes the process of sanctification as being “from grace to grace.” Rather than replicating Pelagianism, Smith is siding with that aspect of the Christian tradition best represented by Thomas Aquinas, which says we can and must cooperate with divine grace in order to permit it to actualize our potential for divinization. [2]:96–97


Question: Is it impossible to receive the grace of Jesus Christ so long as we are sinning?

We can be cleansed of our sins through Jesus Christ, and thereby be capable of being saved

Critics interpret Alma 11:37 to mean that we cannot receive the grace of Jesus Christ so long as we are sinning. Since we are all sinners, according to their argument, this would mean that nobody can receive the grace of Jesus Christ.

Critics misuse this text by misinterpreting the word "saved" to mean something it does not. Amulek taught that we cannot be saved (enter into God's kingdom) in our sins. He then taught that we can be cleansed of our sins through Jesus Christ, and thereby be capable of being saved (entering into God's kingdom).

This passage comes in the context of a debate that Amulek, a Nephite minister and companion of Alma, is having with a lawyer named Zeezrom. Zeezrom first tempts Amulek with money if Amulek will deny the existence of a "Supreme Being". Amulek refuses, and Zeezrom continues with various questions about God and his purpose with mankind.

At one point in their discussion Zeezrom asks the following question to Alma (Alma 11:34):

34 And Zeezrom said again: Shall he save his people in their sins? And Amulek answered and said unto him: I say unto you he shall not, for it is impossible for him to deny his word.

Later, in verse 37 Amulek makes it clear that he interprets Zeezrom's question to be whether a person can enter into heaven if they still are burdened down by sin. Amulek equates "saved" with "inherit the kingdom of heaven" in this passage. So, a person cannot be "saved", or, enter into God's kingdom, if they have not somehow been cleansed from their sins.

Alma 11:37 reads:

37 And I say unto you again that he cannot save them in their sins; for I cannot deny his word, and he hath said that no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore, how can ye be saved, except ye inherit the kingdom of heaven? Therefore, ye cannot be saved in your sins.

Critics misinterpret the word "saved" in this passage by reading it through their fundamentalistic Protestant lenses. They assume that "saved" refers to the cleansing act of Christ's atonement. Thus, when they read this passage they interpret it to mean that a person cannot be cleansed by Christ's atonement so long as they are committing sin.

But that is not what the term "saved" means in Alma 11:37, as Amulek makes clear. Amulek has in mind the entering into God's kingdom. Nobody can enter into God's kingdom if they are burdened by the effects of sin. Something must be done in order to remove that taint. Amulek explains how in verse 40 (Alma 11:40):

40 And he shall come into the world to redeem his people; and he shall take upon him the transgressions of those who believe on his name; and these are they that shall have eternal life, and salvation cometh to none else.

To enter into God's kingdom, or "eternal life", one must first be cleansed of transgression by believing on the name of Jesus Christ. That is the gospel of the LDS Church.


Question: Is it impossible to receive salvation because the conditions we must meet are too high for any man to obtain?

When critics twist Moroni 10:32 to make it mean that salvation is logically unavailable for man they are giving it a spin that Moroni himself would have been horrified at

Critics interpret Moroni 10:32 to suggest that the conditions we must meet in order to receive salvation are too high for any man to obtain (perfect righteousness), and therefore salvation is impossible.

When critics twist Moroni 10:32 to make it mean that salvation is logically unavailable for man they are giving it a spin that Moroni himself would have been horrified at. It is quite obvious to even the casual reader that Moroni believes that the grace of Christ is logically available for man. Latter-day Saints have a number of approaches they can take in interpreting this text, including recognizing that "deny yourselves of all ungodliness" mean to deny that ungodliness is a justifiable presence in one's life, that "all ungodliness" may refer to only a majority or great portion of ungodliness, and that the passage may be considered as aspirational and not a formal recipe for salvation.

Moroni 10:32 reads:

32 Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.

The critics twist this passage to mean something that Moroni would have been horrified at. Their argument can be summed up with the following syllogism:

(1) We must deny all ungodliness before we can receive grace (Moroni 10:32)
(2) To sin is to fail to deny all ungodliness
(3) We all sin
(4) Therefore, we can't receive grace.

The conclusion that critics draw is that Moroni teaches a gospel in which no man can be saved. However, even a casual reading of Moroni makes it quite obvious that Moroni believes just the opposite. Moroni instructs us to become “perfect in Christ”, an instruction that would make no sense if Moroni actually believed that it were impossible. So, no matter how hard critics may try to show otherwise, it is extremely obvious that Moroni believes that it is possible for men to receive the grace of Christ. That is the message all throughout the Book of Mormon. It is horrible exegesis to remove this passage from that wider context.

There are a variety of ways that Latter-day Saints can approach this passage:

Denying the validity, power, and appropriateness of ungodliness

If this passage is read as a formal recipe for receiving grace, then Latter-day Saints take issue with point #2 in the critic's syllogism above. The phrase "deny yourselves all ungodliness" does not mean to completely stop sinning. This becomes clear as we look at the meaning of "deny", which appears both at the beginning and the end of the verse.

At the end of the verse Moroni states that once we have been perfected in Christ, "ye can in nowise deny the power of God". It is as if prior to this perfection we were unsure about the validity of God's power, but after receiving Christ's perfecting grace we now are convinced of it. We no longer deny that God's power is efficacious. Webster's 1828 dictionary (from the time of the translation of the Book of Mormon) defines the word "deny" this way:

1. To contradict; to gainsay; to declare a statement or position not to be true.

And a modern dictionary defines "deny" like this:

to state that (something declared or believed to be true) is not true

These definitions match precisely what Moroni has in mind at the end of the verse when he states that we can no longer "deny the power of God" once we have experienced it. We are obliged to accept God's power as valid and efficacious.

This use of the word "deny" may be the key to interpreting the same word, "deny", that appears at the beginning of the verse. It isn't likely that Moroni changed the sense of the word "deny" midway through the verse. Moroni asks us to "deny yourselves all ungodliness." To "deny" ungodliness therefore means to reject it as a valid, efficacious, or true lifestyle. It is to mentally acknowledge and recognize that ungodliness is inappropriate. It is clearly possible to recognize that ungodliness is not appropriate, or efficacious, while still engaging in ungodly thought and action. But that recognition is the first step in repentance.

Another way of stating this is to recognize, after you've sinned, that you have sinned and to not try to justify that sin or rationalize it as appropriate. When we sin we are tempted to excuse or justify our sin (e.g., "Everyone does it" or "It isn't so bad."). To deny all ungodliness means that, even though you still sin, you do not approve of any sin. You wish you were not sinning.

Critics wish to force a different definition, one in which denying ungodliness means to totally stop all ungodliness in one's life. They argue that since in practice this is impossible, nobody can qualify for Christ's grace. But, read in context, denying ungodliness means rather to reject ungodliness as an efficacious power (in contrast to God's power). This accords with Moroni's obvious belief that grace is within the reach of man, and that salvation is possible. This recognition is the first step towards repentance, and the first step to accepting the grace of Christ in our lives.

"All" as a majority, or a significant portion

Critics suggest that "deny yourselves of all ungodliness" means that we must totally eradicate all forms of ungodliness from our lives before we can receive Christ's grace. However, Webster's 1828 dictionary (from the time of the translation of the Book of Mormon) provides this as one definition for "all":

"This word, not only in popular language, but in the scriptures, often signifies, indefinitely, a large portion or number, or a great part. Thus, all the cattle in Egypt died; all Judea and all the region round about Jordan; all men held John as a prophet; are not to be understood in a literal sense, but as including a large part or very great numbers."

Thus the phrase "deny yourselves of all ungodliness" could refer to denying "a large portion or number, or a great part" of ungodliness. It doesn't mean you have to be totally without sin in order to receive grace. That would of course negate the need for grace.

As an "aspirational" instruction

Moroni 10:32 and similar passages in the Bible can also be read as aspirational, with a mark one aims to; not a statement of soteriology (theology of salvation). Jesus' words to love God with all one's heart, mind, and strength and other-like passages in the Bible are of the same character; God does not literally expect perfect obedience to the law (whether the Universal law or the Law of Moses [moral and/or ceremonial divisions]), but expects us to aspire to such in this life.

In the Bible, Christ says "follow me", "be ye therefore perfect", “sell all and give”, and "keep my commandments". Like Moroni 10:32,these commands seem quite absolute, but they are just as easily understood to be aspirational in nature.

Evangelical Christian scholar Millard Erickson says something similar;

"Certain difficulties attach to assuming [we can achieve freedom from sin], however. One is that it seems contradictory to repeatedly exhort Christians to a victorious spotless life unless it is a real possibility. But does this necessarily follow? We may have a standard, an ideal, toward which we press, but which we do not expect to reach within a finite period of time. It has been observed that no one has ever reached the North Star by sailing or flying toward it. That does not change the fact that it is still the mark toward which we press, our measure of “northerliness.” Similarly, although we may never be perfectly sanctified within this life, we shall be in eternity beyond and hence should presently aim to arrive as close to complete sanctification as we can." --- Christian Theology, 2nd Edition, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, p. 986

Moroni 10:32 in the Book of Mormon can be read similar to biblical admonishments. They reflect God’s standard/requirement. Consider that when God admonishes us, He really can’t make any allowance for sin (Alma 45:16, Doctrine and Covenants 1:31). So He tells us to be perfect. While it is theoretically possible for us to keep every commandment all of the time, in practice it is impossible. God has set a goal for us, and the goal is perfection. We aspire to reach it so that we can become what we are meant to become.


Question: Is it impossible to receive salvation because no one can keep the commandments continually?

God does not remember our sins after we repent, and therefore to insist that Doctrine and Covenants 25:15 shuts everyone who has ever sinned out of God's presence is to deny the power of Christ to completely redeem us from our sins

Proponents of the argument that the LDS scriptures teach an "Impossible Gospel" point to Doctrine and Covenants 25:15-16 as an example of a requirement for salvation that cannot be fulfilled by humans.

God does not remember our sins after we repent, and therefore to insist that Doctrine and Covenants 25:15 shuts everyone who has ever sinned out of God's presence is to deny the power of Christ to completely redeem us from our sins. Mormons do not do so, and critics are either woefully ignorant of our and teaching or extremely deceptive if they suggest that we do.

These verses read:

"15 Keep my commandments continually, and a crown of righteousness thou shalt receive. And except thou do this, where I am you cannot come.

"16 And verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my voice unto all. Amen."

[Verse 16 is relevant because it extends the prescription in verse 15 beyond Emma Smith, to whom the revelation is addressed, to everyone.]

Critics contend that because no one can keep the commandments continually, no one can return to God according to these verses. This is a misunderstanding, not only of Mormon doctrine and soteriology, but even of related Biblical teaching.

Short Answer

The Lord asks us to "keep my commandments continually", and repentance itself is a commandment. Dozens and dozens of passages can be used to show this, but one will do:

D&C 133:16 Hearken and hear, O ye inhabitants of the earth. Listen, ye elders of my church together, and hear the voice of the Lord; for he calleth upon all men, and he commandeth all men everywhere to repent.

Keeping the commandments continually includes continual repentance. The incredible blessing of repentance is made possible by the atonement of Christ, and it makes salvation possible for man.

Longer Answer: The Broader Context of LDS Soteriology

Consider 1 Timothy 6:11-12, where Paul commanded Timothy (and apparently all followers of God) the following:

"11 But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.

"12 Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses."

Certainly a difficult and comprehensive command. But Paul didn't stop there, adding in verses 13 and 14:

"13 I give thee charge in the sight of God, who quickeneth all things, and before Christ Jesus...

"14 That thou keep this commandment without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ."

There's no indication in that passage that failure in keeping that charge is acceptable. If there isn't a consequence for breaking it, it is nonsensical to call it a commandment.

More importantly, critics of Mormon soteriology ignore that one of the most-emphasized and oft-repeated commandments by the Lord, both in the Bible and in LDS scripture, is the commandment to repent.

  • Luke 13:3--"except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish."
  • Mark 6:12--"And they went out, and preached that men should repent."
  • Matthew 3:2--"Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
  • Alma 42:4--"And thus we see, that there was a time granted unto man to repent, yea, a probationary time, a time to repent and serve God."
  • Mosiah 26:30--"Yea, and as often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me."

Repentance, in LDS doctrine, is an act of forsaking past sin, being cleansed from its effects by the power of the Holy Ghost, and being fully reconciled again with God. Repentance completely restores an individual's worthiness and relationship with God--in Doctrine and Covenants 58:42 the Lord explains that "he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more." This means that, from the Lord's perspective, as long as we are continually repenting and continually striving to keep God's commandments, we will inherit a crown of righteousness.

A specific example is the instance in which Joseph Smith sinned by showing the ongoing Book of Mormon translation project to others against the Lord's command. Joseph was thoroughly chastised by the Lord and felt very distressed at his sin. But the Lord was clear that his failure to keep the commandments was not an absolute disqualification from God's favor: "Remember, God is merciful; therefore, repent of that which thou hast done which is contrary to the commandment which I gave you, and thou art still chosen, and art again called to the work." (Doctrine and Covenants 3:10.)

LDS doctrine fully accounts for man's fallen nature in its plan for providing a way back into the presence of God; it is disingenuous of critics to pretend that it does not. The Book of Mormon teaches extensively about the fall of Adam and humankind's consequent estrangement from God's perfection and presence. Mosiah 3:19 teaches that man's nature is an enemy to God and that a pervasive change is necessary. That change, as taught in Doctrine and Covenants 20:31, will fully sanctify a repentant man or woman:

"And we know also, that sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true, to all those who love and serve God with all their mights, minds, and strength."

To sanctify means to make holy and pure, to in fact become the sort of person who can keep all commandments continually and who is "even as [Jesus Christ] [is]." (3 Nephi 28:10.) And this is done through Christ's grace, which is His power to change and save us when we choose to accept it by repenting.

Doctrine and Covenants 18:12 sums it up:

"And [Christ] hath risen again from the dead, that he might bring all men unto him, on conditions of repentance."

Therefore, taking into account the entirety of LDS doctrine, the verse in Doctrine and Covenants 25:15 commands keeping the commandments continually, which includes the commandment to repent. Humans will of course fail to keep each commandment perfectly, but can constantly desire to improve and strengthen their relationship with God. This is the spirit of repentance, which will bring the gift of Christ's grace and the power to overcome the desire to sin.


Notes

  1. "Webb is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He is a graduate of Wabash College and earned his PhD at the University of Chicago before returning to his alma mater to teach. Born in 1961 he grew up at Englewood Christian Church, an evangelical church. He joined the Disciples of Christ during He was briefly a Lutheran, and on Easter Sunday, 2007, he officially came into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church."
  2. Stephen H. Webb, "Godbodied: The Matter of the Latter-day Saints (reprint from his book Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (Oxford University Press, 2012)," Brigham Young University Studies 50 no. 3 (2011).