Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Christian Response to the LDS View on Grace

Recently, myself and two friends had the honor of speaking about grace with a pair of Latter-day Saint (LDS) sister missionaries. What quickly became obvious was that we held to two radically different understandings of grace. Our conversation was focused on this question: How can sinners who are guilty of breaking God's Law have a right relationship with a just and holy God?

As our exchange came to a close, we each made book recommendations for the other. My friend, Steven, recommended All of Grace by Charles Spurgeon, and Sister Brady recommended Amazed by Grace by Sheri Dew. I have since finished Dew's book and hope to provide a Christian response to the LDS understanding of grace that she presents.

But first, I believe a few comments are needed to express my motivation for writing this response. You see, I am a Christian who believes that the Latter-day Saints have been misled to believe a false gospel, and in false gods. I say this hard statement, not because I hate the Mormon people; on the contrary, I have deep love for them. I am commanded by the Lord Jesus to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:39), and it is out of love for Latter-day Saints (LDS) that I must warn my misled neighbors. I am convinced that only the true Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to save sinners and to provide lasting peace with God. Consider this text from Paul's letter to the Galatians:

I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! (Galatians 1:6-9)

What was the amazing error of the church at Galatia? Simply, that they were "deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another..." One thing is clear from Paul's statement: abandoning the true gospel for a "different gospel" leaves one under the curse of God. I firmly believe that the gospel taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a "different gospel," and therefore cannot deliver you from your sins. I have real concern for the souls of my LDS friends, and this is why I've taken the time to read this book and put together a brief response.

As I worked my way through Amazed by Grace I recognized that we share much of the same vocabulary, but we mean profoundly different things by the same words. There is a language barrier between us. Terms such as "grace," "gospel," "atonement," "salvation," "redemption," "eternal life," "exaltation," and most importantly, "God," ... all these terms mean something entirely different to LDS than how I understand them.

Here are a few excerpts from Dew:

Grace is the power that flows from the atonement. (Dew, 11)
Grace is an enabling power. (Dew, 11)
When we talk about the grace of Jesus Christ, we are talking about His power - power that enables us to do things we simply could not do on our own. (Dew, 13)
Thus, grace is divine power that enables us to handle things we can't figure out, can't do, can't overcome, or can't manage on our own. We have access to this power because Jesus Christ, who was already a God, condescended to endure the bitterness of a fallen world and experience all physical and spiritual pain. (Dew, 15) 
Because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and His grace, you don't have to confront fear, grief, insecurity, or an addiction alone. Because of Him, every one of us has the hope of a glorious future. Because of Him, we can have clean slates, second chances, new beginnings. Because of Him, everything is possible. Because of Him, we will never die. (Dew, 22)
If we keep trying to suppress envy or anger that rises up at the worst moments, if we feel as though nothing ever changes in our lives and we can't seem to get over unfairness or hurt, if we feel unworthy of the Lord's help, we don't understand grace. If the temple endowment remains a mystery and the power there has escaped us, if we don't know how to open the heavens and receive revelation, we don't understand grace. (Dew, 24-25)
Elder Bruce R. McConkie said that "if it were not for the grace of God, there would be nothing - no creation, no fall, no mortal probation, no atonement, no redemption, no immortality, no eternal life. It is God's grace that underlies all things [and]...that makes all things possible. Without it there would be nothing; with it there is everything." (Dew, 31)
Jesus Christ endured and completed His eternal, infinite Atonement so that you and I could change. (Dew, 44)

She describes grace as a power that "flows from the atonement" and is an "enabling power" to "do things we simply could not do on our own ... so that you and I could change." Here is my question: What does this grace enable us to do? What might we change into? Bruce R. McConkie answered part of this question in the aforementioned quote, but these statements still need some unpacking. I turn now to McConkie's well known Mormon Doctrine to provide a more full understanding of the LDS perspective on grace:

Grace is granted to men proportionately as they conform to the standards of personal righteousness that are part of the gospel plan. Thus the saints are commanded to "grow in grace" (D & C 50:40), until they are sanctified and justified, "through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." (D & C 20:30-32). Grace is an attribute of perfection possessed by Deity (D & C 66:12; 84:102), and Christ himself "received grace for grace" until finally he gained the fullness of the Father. The same path to perfection is offered to man. "If you keep my commandments," the Lord says, "you shall receive of his fullness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace." (D & C 93:6-20). (McConkie, 339).

And one more helpful addition from McConkie:

Immortality comes as a free gift, by the grace of God alone, without works of righteousness. Eternal life is the reward for "obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel." (McConkie, 62).

According to LDS teaching - from McConkie and other Mormon leaders - Christ's atonement "saves" everyone, which basically means that everyone will be resurrected and possess immortality. So in one sense, faithful Mormons can say they are "saved" by grace, because it is the result of the work of Christ that they will be resurrected. However, Latter-day Saints also believe that what Christ accomplished opens the possibility to merit eternal life, which is exaltation. It is important to note that exaltation includes the possibility of attaining to the status of godhood. Lorenzo Snow's famous couplet comes to mind: "As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become."

At this point, we're beginning to see some striking differences from the Biblical perspective on grace, the gospel, and even about God. The purpose of Christ's atonement wasn't simply to ensure a resurrection, even though the Bible is clear that all will be resurrected on the last day - the righteous and the unrighteous. In fact, the unrighteous will have resurrected bodies not connected to the atonement of Jesus Christ. It is true that believers will receive an exaltation, but the Bible does not mean what the Mormon faith means regarding exaltation.

So then, if Christ's death didn't simply guarantee a bodily resurrection (immortality), and didn't also allow for us to merit various degrees of exaltation (eternal life - even to godhood), why did Christ die? The answer to this question is found in what is lacking in Dew's book.  What is lacking is a recognition of the bad news about our sin - that we are guilty sinners who have broken God's Law. And as a result of this guilt we deserve to be judged by God on the Last Day, to be declared guilty of our sins, and sent to Hell forever to justly pay for our sins.

Think with me for a few moments. If God is holy and just, then He must punish sinners for their sin. How do we fit into this picture? Scripture tells us that we are conceived in sin (Psalm 51:5) and bear the guilt of Adam's sin (Romans 5:12). We break the Law of God every day, and thus store up additional wrath for the coming judgment (Romans 2:5-6). Unlike today's society, who believes that man is basically good, here is how the Bible describes mankind:

as it is written,
"There is none righteous, not even one;
There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one."
"Their throat is an open grave,
With their tongues they keep deceiving,"
"The poison of asps is under their lips";
"Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness";
"Their feet are swift to shed blood,
Destruction and misery are in their paths,
And the path of peace they have not known."
"There is no fear of God before their eyes." (Romans 3:10-18)

Paul writes elsewhere that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), and that what we merit for ourselves is death (Romans 6:23). Even the good works that we do are described as filthy rags in God's sight (Isaiah 64:6), for surely we don't do them with proper motives to please God. In fact, we are told that "without faith it is impossible to please Him" (Hebrews 11:6).

While this may sound rather harsh and negative, I believe that if you pause and reflect on your life, you will know that the above verses describe you to a tee. And you know what? It describes me too.

I've noticed a natural tendency for people to try to minimize the offensiveness of their sin, and this can be done in creative ways. One of the most common attempts at this is to compare yourself against others. The idea is: if you compare yourself with another person who sins worse than you, perhaps you won't look as bad. This is the "at least I'm not Hitler" idea. The problem with this is that you won't be judged on the Last Day by comparison with others. Instead, God's judgment of you will be based on His perfect moral Law. The 10 Commandments are an excellent summary expression of God's standards.

As a matter of fact, the Lord has written His moral Law onto your heart, and has also clearly revealed Himself through all of creation. Paul the Apostle wrote this to the church at Rome:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (Romans 1:18-21)

The result of God's revelation to us is that no one has an excuse before God. The knowledge of His existence and of His requirements - which we have so plainly sinned against - can only condemn us before Him.

The problem is then increased when you contemplate the depth of your depravity in light of God's perfection and Being. What I mean is that when we sin against God we are committing a crime against an infinite Being, who is infinite in holiness and justice. This should worry you because the just punishment of God is a terrible thing. Hell is the place where guilty sinners will be punished by God for all eternity. This just punishment will continue forever because of sins committed against an infinite God who has unending wrath. The Bible describes this as a place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. "It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31).

This is what you deserve. This is what I deserve. All of mankind deserves to be found guilty based on what we have done - the sins we have committed, and the guilt that is ours. We have no excuse before this holy God.

It is worth mentioning again that the entire substance about man's sinful state before God is missing from Amazed by Grace. This is why Dew's understanding of grace falls short, because she fails to recognize that our sin causes us to be deserving of God's wrath.

What hope do guilty sinners have? My prayer is that you are asking this question, because if you are, you are at the right place to understand the grace of God. Jesus Christ, who is the second Person of the Trinity, humbled Himself by entering into His own creation. He took on a second nature - a human nature - to then live a sinless life and die on the cross as a substitute for sinners. He rose again on the third day and ever lives to make intercession for His people. Jesus Christ "bore our sins in His body on the cross" (1 Peter 2:24).

In doing this marvelous work, Christ provided healing (1 Peter 2:24) and a lasting peace with God (Romans 5:1). The Christian's position has changed from being under God's wrath to being under His favor and love (Ephesians 2:3-9). What's more, Christ accomplished all of salvation for His elect, including our justification [our right-standing before God] and glorification [exaltation]. This is how Paul could rightly say: "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1). A little later in Romans 8, the Apostle declares that the one "in Christ Jesus" can be sure to receive all the benefits of salvation: "For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified" (Romans 8:29-30). Please notice that all of these actions are done by God: God is the one who foreknows; God predestines; God calls; God justifies; and God glorifies. The total package is given to Christians, but there is still the question of how one enters into this special unity with Christ? How can one be justified before God? Hear the Word of God:

1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 7 " Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, And whose sins have been covered. 8 " Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account." (Romans 4:1-8)

Paul is here addressing the question: How can sinners be justified before God, and be united to Christ? He begins with Abraham as his example - was Abraham justified by works? To answer this, he cites Genesis 15:6, demonstrating that Abraham's justification was based on faith in God, and it was on account of his faith that righteousness was credited to his account. In verses 4-5, Paul contrasts two scenarios: (1) one who works, with (2) one who does not work. The one who works is paid based on what he has done, and it is owed to him; it is not a gift. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Christ, his faith is credited as righteousness. The Apostle's second example is David who "speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 'Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, And whose sins have been covered. "Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.'"

Therefore, our right-standing before the Lord is through faith alone, whereby a great transaction takes place. The Apostle Paul said: "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ became sin for us, and paid the penalty for us as our substitute while on the cross (1 Peter 2:24). And through faith in Jesus, we become the righteousness of God in Christ. Righteousness is credited to us "apart from works" (Romans 4:6). We don't become intrinsically righteous within ourselves and thereby merit eternal life. Instead, through faith we receive an alien righteousness: the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. This is the basis for us having a right relationship with God. Paul says in Romans 5:1, "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." This is the Gospel of grace found in the Bible. This is the good news about the Lord Christ.

I'd like the reader to compare this with the LDS doctrine that says Christ's atonement provided immortality for all, and opened up the possibility for us to work toward our exaltation. This is a very unbiblical idea because it says that at least part of salvation requires our works in addition to God's grace. Two crucial verses from the Book of Mormon express this rather clearly:

For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do. (2 Nephi 25:23)
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. (Moroni 10:32)

According to these texts, when does God's grace become sufficient for you? We are told that it is (1) after all that we can do, and (2) if you deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient. My friends, this is the opposite of good news, because it is an impossible gospel which no one can perform. Paul tells us that none of us does good, not even one (Romans 3:12). Even our works are filthy rags in God's sight (Isaiah 64:6). The truth is: none of us can deny ourselves of all ungodliness, much less perfectly keep the greatest commandment.

The marvelous news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that God's grace is sufficient before and apart from our good works:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

No part of salvation requires our cooperation, effort, or good works. The work of redemption was accomplished solely by Christ, and we have nothing to add to His finished work. Even faith and repentance are gifts that are granted from God (Ephesians 2:8; 2 Timothy 2:25). Salvation is from the Lord (Jonah 2:9), so there is no room for boasting because it isn't based on what we have done, but on what Christ has done.

Sinners can be delivered from the wrath of God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone - to the glory of God the Father.

And yet, even if I have persuaded you that our right-standing before God is all of grace, through faith alone - I believe another roadblock stands in your way. It is what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches about God and the Eternal Law of Progression. The Mormon faith believes in a false God (and gods), and this means that the object of your faith cannot save you. Joseph Smith, in his 1844 funeral address for Elder King Follett said this:

Here, then, is eternal life-to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead, and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings, and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power.

The LDS Church teaches that God became God at some point in time. In fact, they believe He was once a man on another planet who had a God that existed before Him, who had a God before Him, and so on... Indeed, there was a never time without gods. We are told that if we are obedient "to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel" we can attain to godhood status, the same as all gods before us.

However, the God of the Bible has no similarity with the God taught by the Latter-day Saints. What I mean is that the Bible teaches that God has eternally existed as God. He didn't become God at a point in time - and I don't simply mean that God's matter or intelligence has existed eternally. I mean that God has always existed as He is now (Isaiah 44:6, Malachi 3:6). Furthermore, God is not a man, but is Spirit (Num 23:19, 1 Sam 15:29, John 4:24). The Bible teaches there is only one true God in existence. To be even more plain, I don't mean that God is the only true God for us, but that there are other worlds that exist who have their own one true God for them. No, I mean that there is exhaustively one God that exists in all of existence - whether that be another galaxy, universe, dimension, or reality. Truly, the Bible teaches monotheism: that there is only one true and living God.

"You are My witnesses," declares the Lord,
"And My servant whom I have chosen,
So that you may know and believe Me
And understand that I am He.
 Before Me there was no God formed,
And there will be none after Me. (Isaiah 43:10)

This verse is from a remarkable section of Scripture where God challenges the false gods of the nations surrounding Israel. God's argument wasn't that He was the only God for Israel, and that those other gods were real gods for the surrounding nations. On the contrary, God's argument is unmistakable: He is Israel's only God because He is the only true and living God. There were no gods before Him, and there will be none after Him. I recommend taking some time to read through Isaiah chapters 40-50 and see for yourself how God puts the false gods on trial, and demonstrates in no uncertain terms that He is the only God.

I will also clarify what I mean by the Godhead. I've discussed the concept of monotheism: that there is only one God. The Bible also teaches that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. These three persons are coequal, and coeternal with one another. This is summarized by the doctrine of the Trinity:

Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three coequal and coeternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In saying this, I've found it often helpful to state what I don't mean. I don't mean that the Father is the Son, or that the Son is the Holy Spirit, or that the Holy Spirit is the Father. I believe that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinct, divine Persons. And so, while the LDS faith teaches that these three persons are three beings and three gods, the Bible teaches these three distinct persons all share the one Being of God.

It is true that we cannot fully comprehend God, but we can apprehend and believe what He reveals about Himself in Scripture as true. God's triune and eternal existence cannot be fully understood by His finite creatures, yet this shouldn't come as a surprise to us because the Lord is infinite and incomprehensible (Psalm 145:3, 147:5). Nevertheless, it is important to believe in the correct God, because having faith isn't enough ... our object of faith must also be correct. Jesus said: "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (John 17:3). And so, if you have a false Heavenly Father, a false Jesus Christ, and a false Holy Spirit, you can't possess eternal life.

I implore you, dear reader, to repent from the false gods of the LDS faith, and turn unto the one true God found in the holy Scriptures. Repent of the notion that your works play any role in salvation, and trust fully in Jesus Christ. He alone can save you from your sins by receiving the free pardon which is by grace alone, through faith alone. Do not delay, but believe and trust in the Lord who is able to deliver you from your sins. I echo the concluding words of Charles Spurgeon from All of Grace, and say to you: meet me in heaven!

I pray this was a blessing to the reader. Thank you for reading,


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