Chapter Fourteen

Encountering Mormon Salvation Theology

"I want you to know that I’m finally free from Mormonism after more than a year of searching. Thank God.
"I feel totally and absolutely free from the bonds of Mormonism. My prayers were answered! I’ve finally come to know the Lord Jesus Christ, in a new and exciting way. For the first time I’ve felt the love of Christ and have been freed from the constant feelings of condemnation. I’m a sinner, but I’m forgiven! Something I as a Mormon never knew existed.
"I am now free to love Him instead of just fear Him."—Pam

A young "Jesus freak," a converted druggie, arrived in our town on a bus from the Midwest. He had spent two days arguing religion with a Jehovah’s Witness. After a thousand miles the JW got off the bus. When it started up again, a little old lady, seated in a row behind my friend leaned forward and said quietly, "Son, they can’t understand the Bible until they’re born again."

I think many evangelicals who encounter Mormons fail to understand this simple Pauline precept: "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing." This becomes especially apparent as we attempt to talk about salvation to Mormons. They use many of the same terms we do, but they assign different meanings to them, so any discussion is loaded with semantic problems.

An example is the atonement, the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross to buy eternal life for all who accept that sacrifice for their sins. To a Mormon the atoning work of Christ pays for no personal sins. It merely buys physical resurrection for all people – regardless of their faith.

"Hell" in Mormon theology is not the abode of all those who fail to accept Christ. Virtually no one spends eternity in hell – only "sons of perdition."

"Heaven" as a Mormon would understand it is reserved for Mormons who fully obey the laws and ordinances of the Mormon gospel. Mormon heaven actually includes three heavens with the highest partitioned into three more levels. The "exalted ones" in the highest level will become gods and create and people their own worlds.

Because of these semantic problems I avoid discussing salvation with a Mormon as long as I can.

I do so because I find salvation discussion bogs down to an exchange of salvos of Bible verses. For every verse you show a Mormon emphasizing, for example, salvation as a free gift from God, he will show you one emphasizing man’s responsibility in obedience. Obedience is the one single most important word in Mormon salvation theology; grace is the one single most important word in Christian salvation theology.

Another reason I postpone the discussion of salvation is that for a Christian a man is not saved by knowledge, or profession of doctrinal truth. Many born-again Christians have difficulty articulating their salvation – that doesn’t mean they aren’t saved. Some could not write a coherent statement about the holy Trinity – but they’re still born again. Man is not saved by doctrine, but by relationship –meeting Christ and accepting His atonement. Doctrinal clarification comes on the heels of relationship: It doesn’t produce it.

Salvation is a heart change. When the rich young ruler came to Christ and asked, "What must I do to be saved?" Jesus didn’t tell him. He said, rather, give up your riches, then you may begin your journey toward God (see Matthew 19:16-26). When Nicodemus came to Jesus to have a religious conversation, Jesus said, in effect, "You need a radical spiritual change, not a doctrinal discussion" (see John 3:1-21).

I strongly recommend that early conversations with Mormons avoid arguing about whether or not the Mormon is saved, but rather focus on introducing him to the nature of God, the nature of revelation, and the Book of Mormon.

These discussions will be more likely to lead a Mormon to Christ. Discussing what Jesus or the Bible says about salvation presupposes he knows Jesus and the Bible. But in fact, he does not. He knows a different Jesus. He knows a different Bible. He is blinded and has received "a different Jesus, a different gospel, and a different spirit."

We must first bring him to see the real God. Then show him the way God really speaks (through Scripture). Then show him the real Scripture. Then and only then, I believe, are you prepared to talk about how one is saved.

Bringing up salvation too early in the conversation may unduly discourage your Latter-day Saint friend. Telling him he is not a Christian may anger him and you may lose him. So ask him to explain Mormon polytheism to you instead. If you can get him to see that polytheism is unbiblical, you are well on your way to destroying the religious barriers that keep him from salvation. As long as the Mormon is clutching the idols of Mormonism – plurality of gods, Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, the Mormon social institution – he does not feel a need for salvation.

For these reasons, I call the discussion of salvation theology an Advanced Encounter. I do not mean that the average Christian cannot handle the discussion. With proper training, after the foundations have been laid, after the polish has been knocked off the Mormon testimony, and after the Mormon comes to see that the Bible Jesus is not the Mormon Jesus, there will come a time when he will be anxious to hear the old, old story.

 

Understanding Mormon Salvation Theology

The essence of Mormon salvation is the belief that salvation is a "process." A process of obedience to "laws and ordinances." The Third Article of Faith says:

We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.

That means that only part of the process of salvation is Jesus coming to die. The other part depends on man’s continuing obedience.

The Fourth Article of Faith spells out what some of those laws and ordinances are:

We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are (1) Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; (2) Repentance; (3) Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; (4) Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.

Note how many steps there are to salvation added to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The atoning work of the Cross is undone because it is only one step in a process. These steps, we are told, put us on the path to "exaltation" in the Celestial Kingdom. That path is long and demanding. Mormon Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, in his encyclopedic Mormon Doctrine, a widely accepted work in the Mormon Church for forty years, says:

An inheritance in [the celestial] kingdom is gained by complete obedience to gospel or celestial law (Doctrine and Covenants 88:16-32). By entering the gate of repentance and baptism candidates find themselves on the strait and narrow path leading to the celestial kingdom. By devotion and faithfulness, by enduring to the end in righteousness and obedience, it is then possible to merit a celestial reward. (1)

I can vouch personally for how wearisome and frightening is the burden of salvation through obedience. I remember speaking with an elderly Mormon stake president, a man "born under the covenant," who was one of the stalwarts of my Ward in St. Anthony, Idaho.

"President," I said, "I’ve been a Mormon for ten years and I don’t feel much closer to the celestial kingdom than when I first joined. I’m faithful in attendance and in tithing and I’m morally clean. But I’m getting nowhere. How do I know I’m going to make it to the celestial kingdom? I mean, what about you? Are you going to the celestial kingdom?"

I’ll never forget the moment that followed. I looked into the wizened face of this old patriarch and in his dark eyes I saw only fatigue, without a trace of hope.

"Jim," was his reply, "you know I can’t answer that. No one can. All I can say is that I’m trying."

 

Unconditional and Conditional Salvation

McConkie tells us of two salvations:

1. Unconditional salvation or general salvation, that which comes from grace alone without obedience to gospel law, consists in the mere fact of being resurrected…. This in not the salvation which the saints [Mormons] seek. Those who gain only this … salvation will … be damned; their eternal progression cut short. In eternity [they] will be ministering spirits to more worthy persons.

2. Conditional or individual salvation, that which comes by grace coupled with gospel obedience … follows faith, repentance, baptism, receipt of the Holy Ghost, and continued righteousness to the end of one’s mortal probation. (2)

There are at least six different estates to which men will be assigned, based upon their conduct in this and the next life. These states are: perdition, the telestial kingdom, the terrestrial kingdom, and three degrees of the celestial kingdom.

Mormonism teaches that when men die they go to a "spirit world," divided into two sections, "spirit prison" and "paradise," to await assignment to one of the heavenly kingdoms. During this time, prior to the resurrection, those in spirit prison may be evangelized by Mormon spirits from paradise.

In the Doctrine and Covenants (Mormon scripture) is a report of Joseph Smith’s vision of hell. Satan is called "Perdition," an angel who rebelled against God. Those who "know [God’s] power, and have been made partakers thereof … [and who] deny the truth and defy my power…are sons of perdition" (Section 76, vs. 31-32).

These sons of perdition are doomed to the lake of fire in "outer darkness." Apparently ignoring the images of the "lake of fire" and "outer darkness" Joseph Smith wasn’t too worried about the sufferings of the damned. He said, "Hell is by no means the place this world of fools supposes it to be, but on the contrary, it is quite an agreeable place." (3)

McConkie says these sons of perdition are:

Those in this life who gain a perfect knowledge of the divinity of the gospel cause, a knowledge that comes only by revelation from the Holy Ghost, and who then link themselves with Lucifer and come out in open rebellion. (4)

Joseph Smith calls this "the sin against the Holy Ghost." (5) It is interesting to note that Section 76 says there are the

… only ones on whom the second death shall have any power… the only ones who shall not be redeemed in due time of the Lord, after the sufferings of his wrath. (6)

Except for these sons of perdition, "all the rest" shall be saved!

We have in Mormonism, then, a theology known as Universal Salvation, in which mankind is universally saved. Mormonism’s Universal Salvation is wrapped up in a complex theology in which the saved ones are relegated to five levels of "glory," depending upon their works. (Oddly, although it is clearly Universalist, the Book of Mormon soundly condemns Universalism.)

Not only do we find Universalism in Mormonism, but we find a concept akin to purgatory. Some, "in due time," will even come out of perdition. McConkie says that those who will be assigned to the telestial kingdom will have first "suffered the wrath of God in hell until the last resurrection." However, ultimately it is their destiny to "inherit telestial glory." (7)

 

 

The Three Kingdoms of Heaven

"It [is] self-evident," Joseph Smith said, "that if God rewarded every one according to the deeds done in the body, the term Heaven … must include more kingdoms than one." (8) here is how these kingdoms are described:

Celestial Kingdom. Section 76, as we have seen, begins with the sons of perdition. Then it describes those who inhabit the celestial kingdom. They are those who: (1) believe in Christ; (2) are properly baptized and confirmed by someone holding the appropriate priesthood authority; and (3) are cleansed from sin by keeping the commandments. (9)

These people are:

Priests and Kings…. They are gods…. These shall dwell in the presence of God and his Christ… these are they whose bodies are celestial. (10)

While he does not specify the exact catalog of celestial law, McConkie speaks of the "law of consecration" and "making one’s calling and election sure" by "undeviating and perfect devotion to the cause of righteousness." (11)

This undeviating obedience is required even after one reaches the celestial kingdom, for not all will go on to the very highest levels of exaltation. Those who miss the mark in the celestial kingdom will be ministering servants to

Minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory. (12)

Terrestrial Kingdom. The terrestrial kingdom will be the domain of "honorable men of the earth" who either did not hear the Mormon gospel or rejected it on earth, but received it in the spirit world before the resurrection. This also will be the domain of the lukewarm Mormons. (13)

Those who inhabit the terrestrial kingdom "receive the Presence of the Son, but not the Father," and never get to marry and continue in exaltation.

Telestial Kingdom. At the end of the millennium, the second resurrection takes place. All those who are not assigned to outer darkness inherit the telestial kingdom. Most people who ever live on the earth go to this kingdom, McConkie says. This kingdom is for endless hosts who have been carnal, sensual and devilish, liars and thieves, sorcerers and adulterers, blasphemers and murders. Those who are unclean and immoral, who are proud and rebellious, who walk in paths of wickedness, who are carnal and sensual, who do not maintain standards of decency, uprightness and integrity. (14)

And yet, even so, this is not a bad place to live:

The glory of the telestial … surpasses all understanding…. [And the inhabitants of this kingdom are] judged according to their works … [and each receive] his own dominion, in the mansions which are prepared … [and they are] servants of the Most High; but where God and Christ dwell they cannot come. (15)

 

An Incredible Gulf

An incredible gulf separates Mormon salvation from that of the Bible. Evangelicals understand that salvation comes through the merits of the shed blood of Christ. Man is hopelessly lost in sin, unable to raise himself from the mire of his fallen nature, "dead in transgressions and sins" (Ephesians 2:1). We gratefully acknowledge that we are saved by grace alone (see Ephesians 2:8-9).

But a Mormon not only has to earn his acceptability in God’s sight, but he has to earn his way up a ladder that stretches into the infinities on the way to godhood:

Jesus treads in the tracks of his Father and inherits what God did before…. When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom and ascend step by step … you must begin at the first and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But … it is not all comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave. (16)

The Mormon is committed to this process. It "makes sense" to him. That is because the natural minds rebels at the suggestion that we are sinners, that we are bad – separated from God. The natural mind says, "We’re not too bad and with a little fix-up we’ll be really good."

So, the most "natural" thing in the world is that we begin a program of self-improvement that culminates in our full acceptability to God.

Man’s answer always is some ascetic program of self-improvement toward acceptability. Buddhism, for example, teaches the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to righteousness; the Unification Church teaches the concept of indemnity, that man becomes good by living in the shadow of the True Parents (Sun Myung Moon and his wife); Hinduism teaches the Law of Karma, that man is reincarnated until he is refined enough to become one with the Kosmic Mind.

Every religion on the face of the earth, outside of Bible Christianity, teaches salvation by some form of self-improvement or self-righteousness. Mormonism is not unique in that respect.

 

God’s Justice

All these self-help doctrines, in the final analysis, fail to deal with sin! Sin goes unpunished.

But God is a God of justice. He fixes penalty for sin and it must be paid. Sin without punishment makes a mockery of law. A good act cannot cancel a bad one. You cannot hate your neighbor and make up for it by loving your children; you cannot steal ten dollars from me and cancel out your debt by giving ten dollars to charity. The problem is, you still hate your neighbor and I’m still out ten dollars.

Punishment is not simply for the sake of rehabilitation. It is also for the sake of justice. It was not enough that the Nazi war criminals saw the error of their ways; the Holocaust demanded justice. God has decreed that no amount of mercy will rob His justice. He will "not leave the guilty unpunished" (see Exodus 34:5-7).

So the problem is that man is a sinner deserving punishment and no amount of good works will pay for the sin he has already committed. He universally broke God’s law and earns a sentence of death. Man always sins and God always demands justice. There is, however, a just solution to the problem of sin, which is found in the Bible concept of substitution.

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6).

No cultist is able to grasp the Christian concept that "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness: (Hebrews 9:22). All cults – and Mormonism is no exception – relegate the Atonement to a symbolic event in which Christ simply demonstrated infinite love. The concept that His blood was payment for our individual sins escapes them.

Mormonism has great trouble with the sacrifice of Jesus.

Brigham Young explicitly stated that Jesus was "not [crucified for] the actual individual transgressions of the people, but only for Original Sin." (17) A modern Mormon scholar, Keith Norman, says that Jesus never understood his death to be a vicarious atoning sacrifice." Norman says it was Paul who developed the concept that Jesus’ death was "an expiatory, atoning sacrifice to redeem others." He did this, Norman says, "to convert Hellenistic Romans to whom such a concept would make sense." (18)

The Bible says "there is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof is destruction." Mormonism has taken such a path. Whenever I give a Mormon one of my books, I write on the flyleaf this reference in which Paul writes of his beloved Jewish brothers. I think the passage applies to my Mormon brothers and sisters:

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes (Romans 10:1-4).

My theory is that it is a waste of time to talk to Mormons about salvation until they have come to doubt the ability of Mormonism to save them.

They are blind to the Gospel; the ideal of the Cross is foolishness to them.

Only when the Mormon sees that Mormonism is wrong will his false god, which blinds him to the Gospel, lose some of its authority over him. Only then will he begin to ask, "What must I do to be saved?"

 

  1. McConkie, p. 116.
  2. McConkie, p. 116.
  3. The Nauvoo Expositor, June 7,1844.
  4. McConkie, p. 746.
  5. Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 358.
  6. Doctrine and Covenants, Sec. 76, vs. 37-38.
  7. McConkie, p. 640
  8. Doctrine and Covenants, Sec. 76, Heading.
  9. Doctrine and Covenants, Sec. 76, vs. 51-53.
  10. Doctrine and Covenants, Sec. 76, vs. 56-70.
  11. McConkie, pp. 116-118.
  12. Doctrine and Covenants, Sec. 132, vs. 16-17; see also McConkie, p. 670.
  13. McConkie, p. 784, see also Doctrine and Covenants, Sec. 76, vs. 71-80.
  14. See McConkie, p. 778, and Doctrine and Covenants, Sec. 76, vs. 81-112.
  15. Doctrine and Covenants, Sec/ 76, vs. 89, 111-112.
  16. Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 348.
  17. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 13, p. 143.
  18. Sunstone, "Toward a Mormon Christology," Vol. 19, No. 4, pp. 20-21.