Mike, I am truly impressed (and grateful) for your commitment to having a productive dialogue. I want you to know you are welcome here and I’m glad to address some of these issues. I hope you feel respected and that you’ll have no need to “take up cudgels” in defense of your beliefs. I much prefer to continue with seeking mutual understanding and having a respectful dialogue. I certainly feel no need to defend my beliefs, nor to criticize yours. I would, however, like to address some of the things you’ve said. You wrote that “if we are saved by trusting then we had better be sure that our trust is in the right place and that we are listening to the right teachers.” I assure you, I know in Whom I have trusted. As Nephi of old said, “O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever” (2nd Nephi 4:34).
Please allow me to respond by leaning heavily on the words of my former professor and mentor Stephen E. Robinson—specifically from the book “How Wide the Divide?”.
You quoted Romans 3:23-28—a great scripture and I love every single word. As a former Mormon, I am sure you do not need to be reminded that there is not one single passage of scripture in the Bible that I, as a Mormon, disagree with. In the past, some evangelicals have quoted scripture as though it goes against what I believe; as if it proves they’re right and therefore I must be wrong. But again, I believe every single passage of the Bible! I love the Bible, and utterly reject your assertion that Mormons believe the Bible is corrupt. Mormons would be wrong to believe this. Please see my post: "Are You Telling The Truth About The Bible?" .
Now I look forward to addressing a key issue here, and something I was going to bring up on my own in the interest of full disclosure—properly understanding the third Article of Faith, and by implication, what Joseph Smith was teaching. This can easily be misunderstood, not only from informed Evangelicals such as yourself, but faithful Mormons!
First off, Joseph Smith was NOT teaching that man is saved by their works or by obedience. Anyone who stops reading after the phrase “saved by obedience”, without reading on to the Fourth Article of Faith, will end up assuming that Mormons believe in a "works based salvation"--keeping commandments like checking off a "to do" list. That is the NOT what Joseph Smith and all of our restoration scriptures clearly teach. They indeed teach that we are saved by grace, through faith in Christ. Clearly there is a need for the born again to behave AND obey—not as a condition for being born again, but as an obligation that being born again incurs. True faith includes obedience, and the true Christian obeys. So the tension you detect here, Mike, is nothing more than the differences you see between Calvinist Evangelical Christians and Arminian Evangelical Christians, the latter whom reject Calvin's TULIP doctrine and emphasize human free agency.
Nevertheless, the LDS believe the only obedience necessary to be born again is obeying the commandments to have faith in Christ, to repent, and to be baptized. These are the only “laws and principles” on which being born again is predicated. The language in Article of Faith Three that you find disturbing (“all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel”) is clarified in Article of Faith Four: “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,” To those who obey these principles God give the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:32), "fourth, laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.”
In other words, it is impossible to be born again without faith in Christ, repentance, and baptism (Acts 2:38; John 3:3-5). Most Evangelicals would agree with the first two, and some would agree with all three. But there is no quid pro quo here, no earnings being paid off; these things constitute being born again. The only “requirement” for coming to Christ is to come. Truly, there are other laws and principles after these “first” ones, but these refer to ways in which the saved can become more like Christ. They are not conditions for “being saved” initially as Evangelicals use the term.
Now two more points, in the interest of full disclosure. I understand that Baptism is a hot button issue if it is perceived as a “work” somehow contributing to our salvation. Mormons believe that baptism is a part of the good news (see Hebrews 6:1-2, where both baptism and the laying on of hands are represented as foundational principles of “the doctrine of Christ”). One is baptized into Christ (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 2:12) and both salvation and the remission of sins is connected to baptism (Acts 22:16; Ephesians 5:26; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21). The belief that baptism is necessary is not peculiar to the LDS but is also held by some Evangelicals. Neither they, nor the LDS, understand it to be a prerequisite to conversion, but rather a part of conversion (Acts 8:12-17; 19:1-6). One’s faith, repentance, and submission to the lordship of Christ are expressed by submitting to baptism. Jesus’ grand commission to his disciples was not just to teach, after all, but to teach and to baptize (Matthew 28:19). Latter-day Saints thus line up with those Evangelicals who insist that Jesus must be accepted as both Savior and Lord.
The second and final point is that some Evangelicals, like many LDS, also misinterpret 2nd Nephi 25:23, which says: “We know that it is by grace we are saved, after all we can do.” In this passage, “all we can do” is have faith in Christ. This is made clear in the following verses, particularly 25:26, “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophecy of Christ, and we write according to our prophesies that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.” Moreover, the Book of Mormon elsewhere states that “all we can do” is to repent and turn to Christ. (Alma 24:10-11).
Latter-day Saints believe in salvation by grace, although it's a less used term in LDS circles because "salvation" in LDS terminology is usually the equivalent of "sanctification" in Evangelical terminology, and sanctification requires obedience as well as God's grace. Thus, the real sticking point between LDS and Evangelicals is not whether we are saved by grace (both affirm this) but whether we are saved by grace alone, that is, without individual, personal involvement or participation. Latter-day Saints find “salvation by grace alone” to be unbiblical and, borrowing C.S. Lewis’ analogy, like cutting cloth with only half of the scissors. (For C.S. Lewis’ quote, see “Mere Christianity”. For the unbiblical claim, the term “grace alone” is not found in the Bible, and the similar term “faith alone” is found only once, in a Scripture hostile to the idea (James 2:17).
Finally, even if the rest of Mormonism—apart from our faith in Christ—is not true (though I deeply believe it is), then which is more potent, my theological “error” in believing the Book of Mormon or Christ’s saving blood as I call upon his name? Was God’s promise (Romans 10:9-13) truly unconditional, or is there an implied exception just for Mormons who might believe and confess? Are Christians saved by the grace of Christ or by “proper” theology—by the atonement or by catechism?
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