Friday, 29 October 2010

Faith Must Look Like Something

“True holiness does not consist merely of believing and feeling, but of doing and bearing, and a practical exhibition of active and passive grace. Our tongues, our tempers, our natural passions and inclinations - our conduct as parents and children, masters and servants, husbands and wives, rulers , and subjects - our dress, our employment of time, our behaviour in business, our demeanour in sickness and health, in riches and poverty - all, all these are matters which are fully treated by inspired writers.” (JC Ryle)

To a Mormon the life of faith is best characterised by words and phrases like duty, preparedness, striving, pressing on. A popular Mormon hymn urges:

“Put your shoulder to the wheel; push along.

Do your duty with a heart full of song.

We all have work; let no one shirk.

Put your shoulder to the wheel.”

Leafing through the November 2009 Conference issue of the Mormon Ensign magazine I find sermons entitled “What Have I Done for Someone Today”, “Stewardship – a Sacred Trust”, and “Moral Discipline”; admirable themes such as personal improvement, service, holiness, discipline and obedience. A Mormon would insist that faith must look like something and this is what it looks like.

When we say that “we are justified freely by his grace” (Ro.3:23-24) and express an assurance about eternity, to a Mormon this doesn’t look like anything so much as hubristic easy-believism. A Mormon would understand us to mean that “you don’t have to do anything” once you accept Jesus, say the sinner’s prayer. While the Mormon life is characterised by striving and duty the Mormon perceives the Christian life as lazy and irresponsible. Mormons will, no doubt, recognise that Christians are “good people” but will be alarmed that we are apparently unconcerned about striving to be worthy; worthiness is a touchstone of Mormonism. Mormons believe we have taken the easy option, entertained false hope. Is it any wonder when Mormon leaders encourage this thinking?

"Our critics' belief, based on the Bible, holds that man is saved by grace alone. Theirs is by far the easier way. Our position, also based on the Bible, but strengthened by other scriptures, holds that we are saved by grace 'after all we can do’ and we are responsible by conduct and by covenants to live the standards of the gospel." (Boyd K Packer, Mormon apostle, Peaceable Followers of Christ, April 1998 Ensign)

Is ours ‘by far the easier way’? Do Christians regard themselves free from moral obligations? Paul preached the message of grace so powerfully that the same charge was raised against him and he flatly denied it (Ro.3:8) What does the Christian life look like? How do Christians live, think, do things, conduct our lives on our journey of faith?

Spiritual Fruit

The Christian life is not marked by moral turpitude or by duty-bound strivings but spiritual fruitfulness. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal.5:22-23) But aren’t these the virtues Mormons teach and strive for? Wouldn’t you find these words in a Mormon’s vocabulary? So what’s the difference?

In John’s gospel Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, ESV) To abide means to remain in, continue with, stay in relationship with. A Mormon might insist that this is exactly what he is striving to do, to keep the commandments and merit that relationship. However, we have seen that we enter that relationship “freely by his grace” (Ro.3:23-24); we have explained grace to Mormons.

But the Mormon understanding of the relationship between grace and law, mercy and justice is most peculiar and logically unsustainable. In a sermon entitled Love and Law, Mormon apostle Dallin Oaks insisted:

“Some seem to value God’s love because of their hope that his love is so great and so unconditional that it will mercifully excuse them from obeying His laws...Mercy cannot rob justice, and those who obtain mercy are ‘they who have kept the covenant and observed the commandment’ [D&C 54:6]” (Dallin H Oaks, Ensign, Nov.2009, p.26)

But if you have kept the covenant and observed the commandment why would you need mercy? Surely mercy is reserved for those who have failed to keep the commandments, who have thrown themselves on his mercy? Isn’t that what we mean when we repent, ask for forgiveness? Surely the Scripture is clear, “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor.15:3) and not for our acts of righteousness? A Mormon might insist that our righteous acts count towards our justification but we have addressed the relationship between grace and works and seen that “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” (Ro.3:20) It is by confessing and trusting in Christ’s completed work on the cross that we enter into that relationship in which we are to abide.

Now think of a fruit tree in your garden. You don’t go to bed with the tree bare and wake the next day to find branches groaning under the weight of fully ripe fruit. There is a natural process from first flowering, through early fruit to fully ripe. The Christian grows in the fruit of the Spirit over time, from the first flowering of new birth through to full maturity. Paul’s letter to Christians in Ephesus helps put this into perspective, as he expands our horizons with a magnificent vision of God’s plan and purposes for the church, and then brings us back down to the reality of every-day living as he explains what should be our response in light of God’s eternal purposes.

Every Spiritual Blessing in Christ (Eph.1-3)

“Christ is a jewel more worth than a thousand worlds, as all know who have Him. Get Him, and get all; miss Him and miss all.” (Thomas Brooks)

The letter can be divided in two, with chapters one to three explaining what God has done “in Christ” and his purposes for the church, and chapters four to six explaining what we are to do, how we are to live, in light of this.

Eph.1:4 We may not have been chosen to be an Abraham to found a nation, a David to establish a dynasty, or a Paul to evangelise the Gentiles; nevertheless there is purpose in his choosing you and me. We were chosen to be holy and blameless in his sight. Not to be a super race of spiritual savants but to be a holy people, a new human race.

Eph.1:10 There is a plan “to bring all things in heaven and earth together under one head, even Christ.” We followed the way of the world, pleasing ourselves, and look where it has got us. That way we became objects of wrath and dead in our sin (Eph.2:3b-5a)

“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms, in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Eph.2:4-7)

We were made alive in Christ / in order to demonstrate the riches of God’s grace. It is a worthwhile exercise to go through these chapters and count the number of times “in Christ Jesus” appears in one form or another. It is about him and we are living evidence of God’s grace and kindness “in Christ”.

Eph.2:15 Gentiles were once separated from God (2:12) but now God’s purpose is that, “in Christ”, the two, Jew and Gentile, should be made one new man; that is the church. (1:10; cf Col.1:18) This plan embraces much more than your particular church or denomination, it transcends cultures and generations, is vast in its scope and ambition and includes all who put their trust in God and submit to his purposes.

Eph.2:19 God makes of us a new society, and me a citizen with God’s people and a member of God’s household. You are included, not simply in a job lot, but as an individual, but we are saved into community, the community of the saved; the church.

Eph.3: 8-9 God’s eternal wisdom and purpose are demonstrated through the church. We are living proof of what God intends and will do. That might seem a daunting task but the one that chose us, saved us, made us alive in Christ and continues to work in and through us to achieve his sovereign purpose; we are God’s workmanship (Eph.3:10) A Christian is God’s “work of art”, a demonstration of his love, the evidence of his purposes and proof of his grace.

Therefore Live Like This (Eph.4-6)

“Have you ever noticed the difference in the Christian life between work and fruit? A machine can do work; only life can bear fruit.” (Andrew Murray)

Eph.4:1-3 “I therefore, a prisoner of the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (ESV)

“I therefore, a prisoner of the Lord, entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called” (NASB)

“Therefore”: In light of all that has been said thus far, what God has done, this is what we are to do, how we are to live.

Eph.4:15 We are to “grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ”. The body of the “one new man” and all its constituent parts should match in maturity the Head. Immature faith results in an unstable Christian who can be “blown about by every wind of doctrine” (Js.1:6-7, cf Eph.4:14). The writer to the Hebrews complains that people still need elementary teachings explained while he wishes to take them further (Heb.6:1-2)

Eph.4:23 There is a call to live intelligently. In Eph.3:17-19 Paul’s prayer is that Christians should be able “to grasp (apprehend, comprehend) how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know (be sure of, understand) this love that surpasses knowledge” How can we know something that surpasses knowledge? We are “to be made new in the attitude of [our] minds, and put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:23)

Faith Has to Look Like Something

When people look at Christians they see faith lived out and working and, according to Paul, they should see a people, not perfect, but growing in stature and maturing in character. Honest, because we are all members of one body and my integrity is everyone’s business (Eph.4:25); living a life of love, because we are God’s “dearly loved children” and imitators of him (Eph.5:1); walking in light, because we are “children of light” and bear “the fruit of light, [which] is all goodness, righteousness and truth” (Eph.5:8), and wise “making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph.5:15).

This is not a message of works salvation but describes the walk of the saved. It is not a question of becoming a better person in order to get into God’s good books but of being saved by grace for a purpose. A life at last lived as it should be, lived in the power of God as part of the new community of believers called the church. That power is demonstrated by the evidence of new hearts, renewed minds and new lives that conform increasingly to the image of Christ.

The well-known final section in chapter six, the armour of God, is an account of God’s equipping the Christian for such a life. If we are strong we are strong in the Lord (6:10), we don the armour when we’re baptised into Christ “for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal.3:27, cf Ro.13:14); our protection is Christ.

Belt of truth Eph.6:14 Jesus is the truth (John 14:6)

Gospel of peace Eph.6:15 Jesus is our peace (Ro.5:1)

Shield of faith Eph.6:16 Faith is in Jesus (John 5:24)

Helmet of salvation Eph.6:17 Salvation is in Jesus (Acts 4:12)

Sword of the Spirit Eph.6:17 The Spirit is Jesus’ Spirit (John 14:16; John 14:26)

Our equipping is complete when we are “in Christ” and our purpose fulfilled when we reflect his character and demonstrate his grace and purpose in our lives. We grow in doing this by abiding in him. This is God’s plan and our journey “in Christ”; not marked by shirking our moral duties or by fretting over them but by growing in them; this is what our faith looks like, not fretful but increasingly fruitful.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Works Without Faith are Dead

“For God is not gracious and merciful to sinners to the end that they might not keep his Law, nor that they should remain as they were before they received grace and mercy; but...for the sake of Christ, who has fulfilled the whole Law in order thereby to make the heart sweet...” (Martin Luther)

Last time we discovered that Paul doesn’t contradict James that grace is costly and that faith works. That we are “justified freely by his grace” (Ro.3:23-24) but that faith that saves alone doesn’t come alone, that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20) It is important to understand that, while a Christian knows and celebrates this understanding of faith and works, to the Mormon it is a puzzle. I want to unpack this a little more and look at two key biblical ideas a Mormon doesn’t understand.

Sin brings death

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro.6:23)

While Paul recognises the natural man’s ability without law to follow his conscience and obey the law after a fashion (Ro.2:14), nevertheless he goes on to write that “No one is righteous, no, not one” (Ro.3:10-18). Clearly, obeying a list of rules is not the same thing as being righteous or, as a Mormon might say “worthy”. What is it that makes the difference?

The psalmist tells us that “the righteous...rejoice in the LORD” (Ps.64:10) Sin pays wages and the wages of sin is death, not simply physical death but death to God. The sinner cannot rejoice in God because s/he is dead in sin, dead to the things of God (Eph.2:1)

To give a person a law to live by is like giving a corpse a “To Do” list. But the Bible is perceived by many as being full of such lists, commandments and duties. What are they for if not to give us things to do to please God and gain glory? Paul wrote, “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Ro.3:20); we gain nothing by the law except conviction of sin.

At every turn the law is there, in the Bible, in society, in our conscience, reminding us that we have failed, declaring, “This is God’s standard and you have failed to meet it.” It does nothing to help but simply draws our attention to our failure. As if to anticipate the Mormon objection that Paul is writing about the Old Testament law Paul writes:

“If a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe” (Gal.3:21-22)

We don’t exchange the Law of Moses for the Mormon “Law of the Gospel”. Man is “dead in transgressions and sins”, so it is the lifeless condition of man that is to blame for his inability to serve God as he should, not the absence of a better law. The law was powerless to give life, not because of any inadequacy in God’s law but because, “the law was weakened by the sinful nature” (Ro.8:3) Man doesn’t need a new list, he needs new life!

In his letter to Titus Paul wrote:

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:1-7)

On one hand you have a damning picture of man as fallen, sinful by nature, dead in sin and incapable of pleasing God. On the other hand you have God apparently dishing out good stuff like Santa in a sweet shop; salvation, justification, regeneration etc.; but what about all the commandments? What about when Paul in this same passage counsels Christian to “be subject to rulers, and authorities, be obedient, be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility towards all men”? Is all this redundant now?

Grace brings life

I spoke to a Mormon (now a former Mormon) who asked the obvious question; if we are saved by grace alone what incentive is there to obey? If we have assurance of heaven (Eph.1:14; Jn.5:24) why should we work? If there is no carrot and no visible sign of a stick then why should the donkey move? This, of course, misses the point because the donkey is no longer a donkey! Listen to Paul:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live...But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph.2:1-10)

1. We were dead in sins - a dead person can't save himself
2. God raised us up - God gave us life
3. We are seated with Christ in heavenly places, put there by God
4. He did this in order to demonstrate his grace towards us
5. It is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast

The works we do, we do because God made us alive and equipped us to do them; we don’t do them in order that we might be made alive. The Mormon starting point is to claim that we are lost but still capable of obedience that makes us “worthy”. The Christian starting point is that we are dead and incapable of God-honouring obedience. The Mormon solution is that we realise our need to obey and work. The Christian solution is that we trust in God, who alone can give us life.

Jesus was asked, "What must we do to do the works God requires?"

He answered: "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent" (John 6:28-29)

There is no mention here of the Mormon Plan of Salvation, just the requirement to "believe". In the Bible to believe is not just intellectual assent but to put your full trust in. The believer has put his/her full trust in Jesus for salvation. Every work, however defined or described, follows this simple requirement to believe. Every act of obedience in response to God’s requirements is the fruit of new life, not the root.

 

Just as we were ‘created’ like Adam and were born ‘in Adam’ so we are, through rebirth, created with Christ and are reborn ‘in Christ’ (1 Cor.15:22), God’s workmanship. We do good works because it is now natural for us to do them and to grow in doing them. Just as, like Paul, we can’t do the good we want because of sin (Ro.7:15-24), now, ‘in Christ’, we can grow in doing the good God requires as we are sanctified ‘in him.’ “Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 John 5:4)

Our standing before God is such that “in Christ” we are seated in heavenly places. Christ has paid for our sins and we can now walk with confidence (not arrogance) in this life “in him” knowing that we have eternal life, a life that has been won for us by him and that we appropriate by trusting “in him.” Jesus makes this very clear in John’s gospel where he declares:

“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my words and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24)

Nothing could be clearer or more unequivocal: Hear, believe, and receive eternal life. Of course works follow, but they follow, they don't lead to salvation. The person whose works have worth is the saved person. The unsaved may work and work but to no avail because they have not trusted. They have refused the gift by the very act of trying to prove worthy of it! If the gift is offered freely but appropriated by some sort of quid pro quo then, no matter the intention of the giver, it is no longer a gift.

You see, sin pays wages and I can’t emphasise this enough. If you want to earn something knock yourself out sinning because sin pays wages. Eternal life, on the other hand, is a free gift "in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Ro.6:23); what does that mean, "In Christ Jesus our Lord"? It means that those are in him who put their trust in him.

If you put any trust at all in anything you can do by way of works then you are, by definition, not in him but in yourself; because that is what you have trusted in. For this very reason, when a Mormon declares, “Well, in that case I must be saved too because I believe in Jesus”, this can’t be the case because he is trusting in himself and his own ability to be faithful.

A Walking Miracle

The Mormon will think of his church’s “Plan of Salvation”, a process in which you take successive steps to gain heaven; faith, repentance, baptism, receiving the Spirit and the priesthood, going to the temple, eternal marriage, etc. But when the Bible speaks of salvation, justification, sanctification and glorification it is not possible to identify a strict ordo salutis (order of salvation) because it is organic, simultaneous in process and development. Think of the very helpful example of fire, light and heat. If you strike a match all three come into being at once. Another example would be flipping a light switch and flooding the room with light. They are separate operations and yet simultaneous in effect and inevitable in outcome.

Repentance is not possible without faith and yet one cannot believe without repenting (if one believes aright). It is not possible to receive Christ for justification without at the same time receiving him for sanctification. If anything comes first it has to be regeneration, since we are spiritually dead and cannot believe unless we are spiritually alive. Then come conversion (including faith and repentance), justification, sanctification, perseverance. But even then this is not an order but a description and no element can be a part of a person’s life without the others.

A regenerate person is bound to repent and exercise faith because in his re-born state that is natural, and then he must be justified. Regeneration has causal priority but, as I have said, we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, but faith doesn’t come alone. This is the answer to the text in James that causes Mormons to puzzle over evangelical expressions of grace alone.

But the Mormon needn’t think that the evangelical believer is somehow blind to what God requires of those he has saved. As I have already said, if the Mormon wants to say, “Show me your faith without works and I will show you my faith by what I do” (James 2:18), then perhaps the Mormon should consider what the Christian does with the grace that saves through faith.

Faith without works is dead indeed, but works are the product of salvation, shoots not roots, evidence of life in the believer, life that is a free gift from God (Ro.6:23) Works without faith are dead because the person who does such works is dead.

“A genuine Christian should be a walking mystery because he is surely a walking miracle. Through the leading and the power of the Holy Spirit, the Christian is involved in a daily life and habit that cannot be explained.” (AW Tozer)

Next: Faith has to look like something

Monday, 25 October 2010

Monday Mormon – Mormon Women

Another Monday Mormon and at the beginning of another week women around the world face again the challenge of getting a quart into a pint pot as they juggle family budgets, child-care, health-care, school-runs, parent’s evenings, jobs etc. they might give a thought to the fact that, in the Mormon kingdom, women get to heaven only at their husband’s behest.

In this, the latest of our 21 Questions, we look at women. Many have observed that Mormonism shares many characteristics with Islam, an angel, a book, a prophet, but here we see a remarkable parallel with the Islamic view of women. If you think some previous answers have been curt take a look at this for an answer:

“No!”

No equivocation there then. First they want to tell you all about Mormonism – then they don’t. You don’t think this is another “bury it with John D Lee” moment, do you?

Q: Does the Mormon Church believe that women can only gain access to heaven with a special pass or code words?

A: No.

Qu.In the divine economy, as in nature, the man "is the head of the woman," and it is written that "he is the savior of the body." But "the man is not without the woman" any more than the woman is without the man, in the Lord. Adam was first formed, then Eve. In the resurrection, they stand side by side and hold dominion together. Every man who overcomes all things and is thereby entitled to inherit all things, receives power to bring up his wife to join him in the possession and enjoyment thereof.

In the case of a man marrying a wife in the everlasting covenant who dies while he continues in the flesh and marries another by the same divine law, each wife will come forth in her order and enter with him into his glory.” ("Mormon" Doctrine Plain and Simple, or Leaves from the Tree of Life, Mormon apostle Charles W. Penrose, p.66, 1897, Salt Lake City)

Qu.Do the women, when they pray, remember their husbands?... Do you uphold your husband before God as your lord? "What!—my husband to be my lord?" I ask, Can you get into the celestial kingdom without him? Have any of you been there? You will remember that you never got into the celestial kingdom [during the temple ceremony] without the aid of your husband. If you did, it was because your husband was away, and someone had to act proxy for him. No woman will get into the celestial kingdom, except her husband receives her, if she is worthy to have a husband; and if not, somebody will receive her as a servant.” (Mormon apostle Erasmus Snow, Journal of Discourses, vol. 5, p. 291)

C. When Mormons attend the temple for their “endowments” they go through a ceremony in which they are brought to “the veil”, a representation of the veil between this world and the next. Someone stands on the other side of the veil representing God and there is a rehearsal of what is expected to happen when we pass from this life.

The Mormon candidate repeats certain words and signs to gain entry “through the veil.” When Mormons get married in the temple this part of the endowment ceremony is rehearsed as part of the marriage ceremony with the husband taking the place of God “behind the veil” who leads his wife through the veil. Hence Erasmus Snow’s teaching that “No woman will get into the celestial kingdom, except her husband receives her.”

Not only do Mormon women need to have passwords but they need the permission of their husband to access heaven.

Q: Does the Mormon Church believe that women must serve men on both Earth and in heaven?

A: Absolutely not. Mormons believe that women and men are complete equals before God and in relation to the blessings available in the Church.

Qu. "But if we have a heavenly Mother as well as a heavenly Father, is it not right that we should worship the Mother of our spirits as well as the Father? No; for the Father of our spirits is at the head of His household, and his wives and children are required to yield the most perfect obedience to their great Head. It is lawful for the children to worship the King of Heaven, but not the 'Queen of heaven.'... we are nowhere taught that Jesus prayed to His heavenly Mother..." (Mormon apostle Orson Pratt, The Seer, page 159)

Mormon men expect to atttain to the role described here as the role of “the Father” or God. Mormon women, then, take the role of “heavenly Mother”, yielding “the most perfect obedience to their great Head.” Think on that as you come home from the school run to tackle that ironing basket.

Friday, 22 October 2010

The Mormon Conundrum: Does Paul Contradict James?

Last time we discussed the problem of sin, the predicament of the lawbreaker and the scandal of the Cross. When we share the scandalous message of grace with Mormons they cite James who insists, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20) In this second post on explaining grace to Mormons we ask whether Paul is contradicting James when he writes:

“For there is no difference, 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 has set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood...” (Ro.3:23-24)

Grace or Works?

Because all have sinned and because none can keep the law salvation comes “freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”. Now the 3rd Mormon Article of Faith would have us believe that “through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel” But Paul writes that we are “saved through faith in his blood”. Further, he makes clear in his letter to the Galatians that no law has been given, nor can be by which we may be saved (Gal.3:21) Our salvation is obtained through a simple confession of faith in the blood of Jesus spilled on the Cross to atone for our sins.

If we are “saved, by obedience” then the Cross becomes redundant; if we are “saved, by obedience” then Paul was deluded or lying when he wrote to the saints in Rome (Ro.3:22-28); if we are “saved, by obedience” then James has completely misunderstood the way God looks on sin (James 2:10-11). If, on the other hand, we are saved by grace, through faith in Christ then we can say with Paul:

“Where is the boasting? It is excluded. Through what law? Of works? No, but through the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the works of the Law

Paul or James?

Mormons ask, isn’t James contradicting Paul when he writes, “faith without works is dead”? Not at all, since they are addressing two different issues altogether. Paul is setting out a carefully reasoned argument in Romans in which he shows that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace”. James is addressing the conduct of Christians in their meetings (Js.2:2) and carefully arguing that the faith of a Christian issues in correct conduct; “faith without works is dead”.

Paul is writing about faith that saves, James is writing about faith that works but they are both writing about faith. The saving faith of Paul issues in the practical outworking of James; saving faith isn’t indolent, it works in the lives of the saved. Paul is writing as an evangelist about how we are saved and James is writing as a pastor about how a saved people live.

Mormons speak as though Christians can get saved and then live as they please because they have their ticket to heaven. It is as though Christians are blind to all the texts in the Bible that demand obedience; this is not so. Christians are acutely aware of their duties and obligations towards God and take them very seriously.

If anyone doubts this you need only think of the countless acts of charity, great and small, performed by Christians every day: churches, missions, charities, financial giving, acts of service, sacrifices of time and resources, etc. But how can God expect us to be good when we are already saved?

A Costly Grace

“Saved by grace” doesn’t mean that God overlooks our sins and says, “Oh, alright, I will let you into my heaven anyway.” The Bible makes clear two very important things:

1. Our sins are not overlooked but atoned for.

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly...While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Ro.5:6-8)

The apostle John wrote that, “the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

Some 700 years before Christ this was prophesied:

“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” (Isaiah 53:5)

Jesus, on the Cross, has settled accounts with God and paid for our sins. This is a costly grace that comes to us freely, through faith, but cost him everything. But there is more to it than that.

2. Christ is our righteousness.

Paul describes Christians in this way:

“It is because of [God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’” (1 Cor.1:30-31) So:

Christ has paid the price for our sins but he has also become our righteousness. A transaction has taken place in which he takes on himself our sinfulness and we receive his righteousness. Paul describes it like this:

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor.5:21)

Jesus spoke in John’s gospel of being “born again”, or “born from above” (John 3:5-6). This is what he was talking about, i.e. the work of the Spirit who gives new life to the believer. It is the atonement of Jesus that cleanses us from sin and the righteousness of Jesus that qualifies us for glory, and the new life we have in him that equips us to do the works that God requires (Eph.2:10)

Of course it is impossible for the sinner to do the works of God, as Paul clearly teaches in Romans, and it is impossible for Mormons to understand how God can expect us to “make the effort” if God has just let us “get away with it”. But the deal is not that we “get away with it” but that our debt to God is paid in full by Jesus and we receive a new life that equips and motivates us to obey gladly, not simply from gratitude but because that is what God has made us.

It is the miracle that makes us good in God’s eyes and fits us daily for good works and glory. It is in this way that we receive the gift of salvation, justifying us before God, and of sanctification, that daily brings us closer to our glorification in his kingdom.

“What we will be has not yet appeared: but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” (1 Jn.3:2-3)

Next: But faith without works is dead, isn’t it?

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Explaining Grace to Mormons

Does grace mean I can do what I like and still go to heaven?

How does God expect us to be good if we are already saved?

Where’s the incentive to be worthy?

The great advantage to being here, beyond the Zion curtain, is that, largely unencumbered by the historical and socio-political issues that prevail in Utah, we can get down to the fundamentals. Nothing is more fundamental than the message of grace.

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures...” (1 Cor.15:3)

Mormons struggle with grace. They don’t think so, indeed, they think Christians don’t understand grace at all. Mormons ascribe to us an “easy-believism” that demands nothing of us except utterance of the “sinner’s prayer” and a blind faith that, no matter how I live now, I have my ticket to heaven. It is important to understand how Mormons teach grace, how they think we understand it and how to explain what the Bible teaches. Let’s look at two familiar statements that demonstrate the Mormon understanding.

“We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.” (3rd Article of Faith)

“For we know that it is by grace we are saved, after all we can do”. (2 Nephi 25:23)

Note the emphasis, “saved, by obedience” and “saved, after all we can do”. Mormons have complained when I have emphasised these words like this but they are there in the text and I have yet to speak to a Mormon who can rationally place the emphasis anywhere else. Mormonism teaches that salvation is gained by a combination of grace and works. They will often appeal to James 2:20: “But will you know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?”

a Scandal

A Christian might appeal to Paul in his letter to Rome:

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it--

the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Rom.3:22-28; note again the emphasis)

The Mormon response is to insist, “Isn’t this unfair since we haven’t done anything to earn it and to prove our worthiness?” Yes! It is scandalous!

a Problem

But you see the problem is that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” and are incapable of earning or proving worthy of God’s favour. Mormons tend to view this idea of falling short of the glory of God as representing a shortfall in our performance and therefore we need a mixture of grace and works, i.e. we do what we can and “after all we can do” Jesus makes up the shortfall.

Ironically, in the same chapter of James that Mormons love to quote James addresses directly what Paul means and the shocking news is much worse than a simple shortfall in performance. Just ten verses previously James describes how God views sin:

‘For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.’ (James 2:10-11)

Mormons subscribe to the popular but erroneous idea that our good deeds count while our bad deeds need to be sorted out. It is clear from James that God doesn’t look at it that way. It is not which laws or how many laws you break; if you break one law then you are a lawbreaker and that disqualifies you. It is not what you do but what you are that God looks at. It is not a question of keeping seven commandments out of ten but of being a lawbreaker.

Coming short of the glory of God is not disappointing, it is devastating! Paul describes the futility of our efforts to merit anything from God:

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.

So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.

Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.

For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom.7:15-24)

a saviour

Note he writes that he “delights in the law of God in [his] inner being” but finds himself incapable of obeying it. Have you noticed that even among unbelievers most people mean well and often do well? People have consciences and act on them. Paul writes about the uncircumcised, those who don’t have the law, who still keep the law to some degree anyway. (Ro.2:26)

People care about things like the environment, their neighbour, justice and charity. They engage with issues through politics, local action groups, etc. and sacrifice themselves for the greater good.  Paul declares it rare that someone would die for a good person (Ro.5:7) but recognises that, even so, someone might. In all this people are driven by a higher calling to live well. They seek to know the best way to live. Because of this Mormons produce this equation that includes the good that men do but…

Paul describes each of us when he explains, “If I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin dwelling in me”. With the best of intentions and after many works of sacrifice Paul is troubled that he cannot keep the royal law (James 2:8, cf v10) He is not excusing sin but explaining its hold on the sinner, the lawbreaker. Like Paul, we have the best of intentions and are certainly capable of doing individual good acts but, as James points out and as Paul affirms, we cannot do the good that we want and that God requires.

This is why “a righteousness from God [must] be revealed” (Ro.3:22) because we have none of our own. Paul, in another letter, observed:

“For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law” (Gal.3:21)

God’s solution to this problem is not more rules but a Saviour.

Next: Isn’t Paul contradicting James?

Then: But faith without works is dead; isn’t it?

Monday, 18 October 2010

Monday Mormon – Jesus in America?

I hope you had a good weekend. Yes, mine went by too fast too and here we are again with another Monday Mormon. Two more of our 21 questions; one answer – again. Are you getting the picture? You are certainly not getting the answers you expected! As before, we will look at the questions (Q) and answers (A) with comments (C) and quotes (Qu.)

Q: Does the Mormon Church believe Jesus appeared in North America after his crucifixion and resurrection?

A: The appearance of Jesus in the Western Hemisphere shortly after his resurrection is described in the Book of Mormon. Mormons believe that when Christ told his disciples in the Bible He had other 'sheep' who should receive his message he was referring to those people in the Western Hemisphere.

Q: If so, when did this happen? And under what circumstances?

A: The appearance of Jesus in the Western Hemisphere shortly after his resurrection is described in the Book of Mormon. Mormons believe that when Christ told his disciples in the Bible He had other 'sheep' who should receive his message he was referring to those people in the Western Hemisphere.

C: Jesus declared:

“And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd (Jn.10:16)

Of course, the sheep to which Jesus had come were the people of Israel (Mt.15:24) and the “other sheep” to whom he referred and to whom he sent his apostles (Mk.16:15) are Gentiles. If he had meant the “lost sheep” of the Book of Mormon they would have been included in Israel and not the “othersheep” since they are purported to be Jews. There are two folds in Scripture, Jews and Gentiles, and Paul echoed Jesus’ words when he wrote to Gentiles believers in Ephesus:

“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called "the uncircumcision" by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands-- remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph.2:11-19)

The both that are made one are Gentiles who are “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise” and those of “the covenant”, those who are “far off” – Gentiles – and those who “were near” – Jews.

There is an important lesson here. Mormons like to present their “answers” as thought the questions they address are somehow controversial, as though until Mormonism came along Christians were scratching their heads wondering what it all means. There is no controversy in Jesus’ reference to “other sheep” and Mormonism doesn’t bring an answer where there was none, but an alternative answer to what is already well established and has always been known and understood.

Another important insight is gained when we realise that people leave “footprints” in history. If we depended solely on evidence from the Americas there would no reason at all to believe that Jesus existed since there is no evidence of his having ever appeared in the Americas or that the continent and cultures described in the Book of Mormon existed.

In other words, once again, we have only the unsubstantiated claims of the Mormon Church to guide us. Jesus’ life in the old world, its cultural, religious and geographical context, on the other hand, is not in dispute. There we see him coming to the lost sheep of Israel and sending his disciples out to the “other sheep” among the Gentiles.

Prefacing your answers to these questions with the words, “Mormons believe that…” is an abuse of the privilege of believing. Believing doesn’t make it so, seeing that it is so leads us to believe (Acts 17:31 cf) Our faith doesn’t rest entirely on empirical evidence but its complete absence should trouble people looking at the Mormon Church.

Friday, 15 October 2010

How Are Mormons OK With This Stuff?

Last time we looked at witnessing to Mormons, which would inevitably involve challenging Mormon claims, without alienating our Mormon friends. We saw that this is a big hill to climb since Mormons will take offense where none is offered. We established that everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own truth; that the Bible is there to challenge and not affirm our preconceptions.

This time we ask how Mormons can be so apparently sanguine about the strange and embarrassing ideas taught by their leaders over the years. What do Mormons say to themselves to make peace with the conflicts, contradictions and controversies that litter Mormon history?

How can Mormons be OK with polygamy?

This is a classic example of Mormon prevarication. In Joseph Smith’s day people justified the practice to themselves by saying it was the order of heaven and a commandment from God. When I was a Mormon back in the Seventies we were taught that it was suspended as a practice but that it was still the order of heaven and would one day be reinstated. Today Mormons tell themselves and the world that it was a cultural phenomenon designed to meet the needs of the time but not for today (a claim easily dismissed by the historical facts). It is still a basic tenet of Mormonism however and the true position is what prevailed back in the 1970’s.

Another example of this is the temple endowment ceremony. It has changed significantly over the generations but each generation thinks that the endowment they first receive is the way it always was. Older generations who do see change see it gradually and justify it by appealing to “modern revelation” and build a new apologetic to fit their new situation, but no one looks at the whole picture critically; and why should they because “the church is true!”

Mormons are taught that a key sign of Christian apostasy is a lack of consistency between churches and from one generation to the next. Schisms and sects, even attempts at reformation are seen as evidence of institutional and generational corruption. Mormonism is presented as having a consistent message from living prophets and we are encouraged to think of it as a fixed point in a confusing world.

The examples above illustrate very well, however, that every generation joins a different Mormon Church and each generation sees a consistency within its own experience. When Mormons look at the Christian Church they compare the past with the present, this church with that. But when they look at Mormonism their view is circumscribed by prophets who warn them against comparing one prophet with another and who declare all other Mormon groups apostate. In this way changes over time and schisms that result from those changes are conjured away.

Is the Mormon “burning bosom” a fraudulent feeling from a bad spirit?  How come Mormons have such a strong good feeling about Mormonism and have a bad feeling when they drink coffee for instance?

The burning bosom experience is rather like that sense of anticipation we can get when we look forward to a special time such as birthdays or Christmas. Based on feeling good about an encounter with Mormons people conclude that “the church is true” and commit their lives and resources to it. But it is possible to make people feel good about all sorts of encounters simply by “love-bombing” them.

In the same way it is easy to make people feel guilty. Look at how worried we all are about recycling, global warming, etc. It seems that these days things designed to inform us also serve to make us feel guilty about the smallest infringement of any new regimen. In the same way, it is easy to feel guilty about drinking coffee if you are among people whose approval you have come to value and who consider drinking coffee wrong.

But in what other areas of your life do you allow how you feel about something be the sole guide to how you conduct yourself? If we are not careful we can have a good feeling that might justify all sorts of otherwise inappropriate conduct. While God speaks to us in many ways, including impressions, nevertheless the Christian’s sure guide for faith and conduct is Scripture and reason not feelings.

There is an important point to be made here about how people often live their faith according to general impressions rather than knowledge and understanding. It is not a reasoned defence to say that “it seemed right at the time”.

In their teaching on polygamy for instance Mormons insist they were following the example of the patriarchs and often cite Abraham, but Abraham was not a polygamist. When we read the story in Genesis 12-16 we find that God promised Abraham a son by Sarah (Gen.15:4) but Abraham obeyed his wife rather than God in having a son by Hagar(Gen.16:1-4). It was Sarah’s idea not God’s and Hagar was not his wife but his concubine, a surrogate mother whose son would become Sarah’s according to Sarah’s plan (Gen.16:2). Abraham’s only other wife was Keturah whom he married after Sarah’s death (Gen.25:1). Abraham did not have more than one “wife” at a time.

But because there are three women somewhere in the story Mormons are happy to settle for the “impression” that he was a polygamist and as such was being obedient to God. Of course there was polygamy in the Old Testament but never in express obedience to God. It is permitted but this might be better understood in light of Acts 17:30.

How are members aware of the 'problems' able to stay in the church and be happy do you think? Racism and the fraudulent Book of Abraham for example?

The racism question is a very good one. To a Mormon not comfortable with racism it can appear to be a test of faith to do what you believe to be wrong because your church tells you. As with most societies there will be those Mormons today who are racist, although many are not, but if you follow a “prophet” without question you may well become a racist by default.

Mormonism was established in a predominantly racist society. That is not to excuse it but to go some way to explaining it. The Mormon Church, like many others, simply put such prejudices on a pseudo-legitimate footing by sacralising it. Unlike other churches, the Mormon Church has never renounced or repented of its racist past. Today, as with polygamy, Mormons prevaricate over the question of racism and explain it as a cultural phenomenon but of course it was a fundamental tenet until very recent times; for some it still is.

Word of Wisdom

Things that seem unique to Mormonism today were often the product of a previous age. The Word of Wisdom is a good example. You might be forgiven for believing that society at large was smoking, drinking etc. and being otherwise “worldly” until Joseph Smith had a revelation called the Word of Wisdom which was uniquely adopted by Mormons. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In 1826 the American Temperance Movement was formed and within eight years had swept America with 1.5m members sworn off drink and tobacco. Tea and coffee were also abstained from as stimulants. When the Word of Wisdom was given in 1833 Smith was following an already established trend among the churches; a peculiar practice today no doubt but not in the day. Such Mormon claims to special revelation are frequently found to have been disingenuous in this way.

Did Joseph Smith plagiarise the Book of Mormon and what was his intention in including all the things he did?  Was it to instil guilt in his followers / teach specific things he felt strongly about / or just his making anything up randomly?

It might help you understand his purpose if you knew that the book was originally published as a novel with Joseph Smith identified as its author. Perhaps he wanted to make money by cashing in on the popular speculations of the time about the history of the place where he lived, making it up as he went along; he certainly had a gift for it. Others had written stories based on the same idea and it is argued that some of Smith’s ideas were influenced by these works.

It would be a mistake to assume that the Book of Mormon was the product of Joseph Smith alone. Others influenced him and much was plagiarised. Certainly Smith’s writings are shown to contain ideas from and even exact copies of other writings, from the Bible through the Westminster Confession and Shakespeare to local newspapers. Many of his more sophisticated schemes – such as the united order, priesthood, etc. – were the product of Sidney Rigdon who was better educated and had already developed many of these ideas while a Campbellite preacher before becoming a Mormon. Certainly what appears today to have been a plan was developed in hindsight.

Gethsemane and the Cross

Consider finally the following very familiar scenario. In a discussion of the Cross the Mormon will typically insist that Jesus atoned in Gethsemane, which idea will seem bizarre to Christians. If challenged that the Bible says no such thing the Mormon will claim that modern prophets have brought this knowledge and “doesn’t the Bible say that he sweat great drops of blood?” When this is further challenged the Mormon will concede that the Cross is important and that Jesus began his atonement in Gethsemane and concluded it on the Cross. By this the Mormon means that Jesus atoned in Gethsemane and died on the Cross.

Pressed again the exasperated Mormon will finally insist that “contention is of the devil” (where does the Bible say that?), that he doesn’t want to argue and, anyway, what does it matter, Cross or Garden, the main thing is that Jesus atoned for sins. To liberal ears this may sound reasonable but it is a discussion that robs the Cross if its power, the message of its truth and exposes Mormonism as a determinedly Cross-denying faith. It also demonstrates that the prevarication, equivocation and constant changing of position we saw last time in the false prophet Balaam are typical of Mormons.

Mormonism is a lie in every respect and so Mormons lie in sharing their faith. They in turn of course are lied to but that doesn’t make it any less a lie when they shake your hand and claim Christian fellowship with you at your front door when at your neighbour’s door their companions are telling the story of Joseph Smith. Of how the creeds of your church are abominable and you and your Christian friends are corrupt for believing them.

You shouldn’t hate them for it but neither should you be fooled because, as with Balaam their reputation, mostly self generated, can deceive but as with Balaam God’s truth will prevail and God, because he is not a man, does not lie and keeps his promises.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

When Mormons are Offended

We have looked at the Mormon kingdom “Behind the Zion Curtain” and seen that the political, social and historical issues preoccupying Mormons there are not the key issues “Beyond the Zion Curtain.” There are, however, many issues that must be dealt with wherever we are and this is one of the more thorny ones; how do we share the truth without causing offence to our Mormon friends?

god is not a man that he should lie

Peter writes of Balaam as one who “loved the wages of wickedness” (2 Pet.2:15); Jude compares “godless men” who rush to profit with perfidious Balaam (Jude 11). You see, Balak king of Moab summoned Balaam to pronounce a curse on Israel (Numbers 22). Balaam duly sought the endorsement of a god (any god would do) to bless this enterprise but the God of Israel spoke to him, forbidding him to obey Balak (22:8-13). God permitted Balaam to go to Balak but gave strict instructions that Balaam should obey God and not the king (22:14-20).

God proved true to his promise to bless Israel and to curse her enemies but Balaam continued to know and tell the will of God while attempting to earn his fee in cursing Israel, all the time prevaricating, equivocating and changing. God’s response to all this was to demonstrate his constancy, faithfulness and immutability through the oracles of Balaam. Balak sought to curse Israel but God had promised to bless and declared, “God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man that he should change his mind” (23:19)

every man a liar

What is striking about these words is that God does not contrast his character with that of a particular man (Balak or Balaam for instance) but with “man”. It is as though he was saying that if he were a man he would be a liar but he is God so he is not. “Man” is being used as a byword for dishonesty.

Paul declares “every man a liar” (Ro.3:4) and God vindicated in punishing man’s deceit. We know this is true of us as we embellish the stories we tell each other to show ourselves in the best light and then excuse it by speaking of “gilding the Lilly”; We tell untruths to guard ourselves from certain consequences or to gain benefits and talk about “white lies”; We lie even to ourselves to justify our bad conduct or questionable decisions, to avoid taking responsibility or changing in any way; we make things up when we’re not prepared to stand down.

If Mormonism isn’t True

One of the most distasteful aspects of witnessing to Mormons is finding some way of highlighting the lies of Mormonism without alienating our Mormon friends. The Mormon testimony is so apparently heartfelt, their beliefs so ‘sincere’, it hardly seems credible that they believe lies, especially when, like Balaam, they have a certain reputation. Even as I write and you read this, it seems in some way wrong to compare them so harshly with this false prophet, to speak of false witness.

Once we begin to question the claims of Mormonism we quickly discover how easily Mormons are offended and even the most honest inquiry can be taken as a personal attack, characterised quite ridiculously as “persecution”. Coupled with our natural tendency to want to think the best of people, this “offended party” posture can make us doubt our own understanding and even our own integrity.

Some of the questions asked by people who leave the Mormon Church and look back wistfully at their Mormon friends and associates reflect this reluctance to believe of Mormons that they tell fibs. We cast about for some reasonable explanation to reconcile the fact that the Mormon Church isn’t true with a reluctance to believe our Mormon friends believe and propagate lies. In this post, and the next, I want to address some typical questions, the answers to which will help us see how easy it is for every man (and woman) to be a liar, especially to themselves.

1) Was Joseph Smith sincere but deluded, or a fraud?  Why did he do all he did if not a prophet?

This is the typical “sincerely meant” defence that releases us from thinking ill of someone because their intentions were good. Of course it is not possible altogether to know the mind of another man, especially at this distance in time but given his history, from prosecution for money digging through polygamous relationships, from leading a militia to standing for US president, there was obviously an enormous degree of personal ambition in all he did.

In considering any historic figure the person must be taken in the round and not simply celebrated for those things for which some like him best (hagiography). Not so easily achieved in this case when you consider that the noted academic and biographer Fawn Brodie (1915-1981) was excommunicated by the Mormon Church for considering the whole man in her definitive biography of Smith, No Man Knows My History. Maybe the question to ask is not, “Why did he do all he did if not a prophet?” but “Would a prophet of God do all he did?” Would an honest man behave like Joseph Smith?

2) Are Mormon leaders today sincere or simply trying to maintain an empire?

This is another “sincerely meant” question that is nearer home since we are talking about living people. Mormon leaders are often presented and perceived as “sweet old gentlemen” like the late GB Hinckley who traded on his age and charm for years as leader of the Mormon Church while never giving a straight answer to an honest question, or an honest answer to a straight one. I am often asked if the people at the top “really know”. Experience has taught me that man’s capacity for self-delusion is enormous.

The people at the bottom believe the people at the top and express that belief as a “testimony”; that much we understand. The people at the top believe the people at the bottom because they affirm them in their leadership and so it must be “true”. Keep in mind that such self-delusion comes from beginning with what you want to believe, i.e. “the way I conduct my life is justifiable”, then casting about for that justification.

This is a familiar enough phenomenon. One of the errors we can make in reading the Bible is deciding what we believe and then going to the Bible to find texts that justify our chosen course. Proof texting is a common practice in the cults. The fact that we have already decided on a course influences the way we read and how we understand what we read and we then find the meanings we want. In the same way people look at life according to preconceptions influenced by upbringing, background, family etc. and Mormons are no different – leaders included.

They look at life a certain way and cast about for reasons to continue seeing things that way. “The church must be true because we have a prophet” works for the people at the bottom; “The church must be true because millions follow the prophet” must work for those at the top.

if the truth offends you

Of course, leaders must have access to more incriminating evidence than most Mormons since they run the church. Certainly, when you have been at the centre of Mormonism for almost 100 years you cannot fail to know the prevarications, equivocations and changes so characteristic of that faith.

But they can rationalise that just as they do everything else. Do Mormon leaders know they are lying? It seems hardly credible that they shouldn’t, but unregenerate man is a liar and very comfortable with his untruths. Just because they are uttered in a religious setting makes them no less deceiving.

When we come to God’s Word in Scripture and allow it to teach and challenge us instead of insisting it affirms us we begin to see the world the way it is. That is why reading the Bible is so important, not allowing Mormon preconceptions to “interpret” it but asking: what is this passage telling me? That is why the Bible is so important in witnessing to Mormons. In the end you don’t need to call anyone a liar but simply point out the truth and leave them to draw their own conclusions.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own truth. If they choose to take offense at the truth that itself is a witness to the error of their position and a vindication of God’s righteous judgement (Ro.3:4)

Monday, 11 October 2010

Monday Mormon – God, Mary and the ‘S’ Word

Another Monday Mormon and a look at the next of our 21 Question This time its just one question but one that addresses the most basic human instinct. But is it also a basic Divine instinct? Mormonism historically has said unequivocally, Yes! As before, we will look at the questions (Q) and answers (A) with comments (C) and quotes (Qu.)


Q: Does the Mormon Church believe that God and Mary had physical sex to conceive Jesus?

A: The Church does not claim to know how Jesus was conceived but believes the Bible and Book of Mormon references to Jesus being born of the Virgin Mary.

Qu: “The Only Begotten of the Father (Moses 5:9). These name titles all signify that our Lord is the Only Son of the Father in the flesh. Each of the words is to be understood literally...Christ was begotten by an Immortal Father in the same way that mortal men are begotten by mortal fathers” (McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, pp. 546/7, c.f. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, p.81 where he writes of “celestial Sireship” and “the ordinary operation of the fundamental law of heredity”).

C: Jesus was naturally conceived and not supernaturally, and is just “the only begotten of God in the flesh”. In the spirit we are all sons of God.

Qu:Jesus Christ is not the Father of the spirits who have taken or yet shall take bodies upon this earth, for he is one of them. He is the Son, as they are the sons and daughters of Elohim.” (Joseph F Smith, Gospel Doctrine, p. 69).

Although in this answer they claim to believe the Bible account, they avoid Mt.1:20. The answer they give here is simply dishonest and misleading since, in Mormonism, we are all spirit children of God and Jesus is marked out only by the facts that he is 1) the firstborn spirit child (our elder brother) and 2) the only one of God’s children who is literally the Son of God in the flesh. This is a well attested Mormon teaching, they know it, and to deny that knowledge is a lie.

Let me make this clear. In Mormon thinking all men and women were born to and lived with God in a premortal existence and Jesus is the eldest of that vast family. The only thing that otherwise makes Jesus different is that, while everyone else was born into this world as a result of mummy and daddy having sex, Jesus’ mummy was Mary and his daddy was God; otherwise the operation was no different.

McConkie and Talmage are giants of Mormonism in theological terms and their books formative in Mormon thinking. Note McConkie’s words, “Christ was begotten by an Immortal Father in the same way that mortal men are begotten by mortal fathers”. Note Talmage’s reference to “celestial Sireship” and “the ordinary operation of the fundamental law of heredity”. This is what Mormons believe by the term “only begotten”, i.e. only begotten in the flesh but first begotten in the spirit.

If you have ever wondered about the meaning of the term “mealy-mouthed” here you have a classic example. It is being, “hypocritically unwilling to speak plainly or directly for fear of incurring odium.” As as been observed before, this effectively means that the Mormon god had sex with his own spirit daughter in order that she should give birth to her own brother.

In summary, the Mormon god is a man with a physical body. He has a wife (or rather wives) with a physical body. Mormon men expect that one day they will be gods with physical bodies with wives who have physical bodies. These wives have children by an exalted man, which children come to an earth in order to progress to become gods and continue the process. One of those children will become the victim of some sort of celestial incest and give birth to her elder brother. You can sugar the pill as you wish but it makes no difference; this is Mormonism, it is not biblical Christianity.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Mormon Commentaries

We have talked about the much vaunted “open canon” of Mormon Scripture and found it to be a fiction, discovered that, in the absence of official leading, amateur apologists are forming Mormon thinking. Last time we saw that the typical Mormon apologetic is not so much an exposition of Mormon teaching as refutation of Mormon critics.

Now we turn to the fact that Mormonism does not produce the Scripture commentaries and study aids that Christian Bible students take for granted. The Christian has a rich heritage and tradition of Bible commentary and exposition from which to draw.

Typically, the New Bible Commentary is designed to give, “a clear and concise explanation of the meaning of every book and every passage in the Bible…in one volume.”

The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, “are designed to help the reader of the Bible understand what the text actually says and what it means.”

The Bible Speaks Today series is, “characterised by a threefold ideal: to expound the biblical text with accuracy, to relate it to contemporary life, and to be readable.”

The New International Commentary on the New Testament is, “undertaken to provide earnest students of the New Testament with an exposition that is thorough and abreast of modern scholarship and at the same time loyal to the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God.”

I am sure Bible students can add their own favourites to this list and testify to their worth in helping them grow in their faith.

It does seem odd then that a church that produces so many extra books of “scripture” and manuals in abundance wouldn’t have a commentary to help their people navigate that substantial library.

The typical Mormon Library

Of course there was a sort of commentary in the Mormon Church and it was a Mormon commentary on Mormonism. Having “modern prophets”, the Mormon Church recorded many of the sermons and talks given by early leaders, notably by Brigham Young,  and collected them into The Journal of Discourses, one of the first commentaries on Mormonism. This seems reasonable since Mormon prophets, as we have seen, are supposed to produce new scripture and we would expect them to be bound into books.

But these days this twenty-six volume work, once regarded as an official source, a “standard work of the church” and essential reading, is more an historical curiosity and contains many of the more embarrassing and long discarded teachings that have come to be identified with Mormonism.

Various leaders since have written and produced books and collections aimed at offering helpful commentary on Mormonism, from Talmage’s Jesus the Christ, the definitive Mormon life of Christ, and Articles of Faith, a commentary on Joseph Smith’s thirteen articles (both pub. early 20th century), through Doctrines of Salvation by Joseph Fielding Smith, a themed collection of sermons and writings the nearest Christian equivalent being the Bible dictionary (1954), to Mormon Doctrine by McConkie (1958/66 - 80% of which was based on Doctrines of Salvation which McConkie edited)

In recent years the Mormon Church has produced the two-volume Encyclopaedia of Mormonism, as well as a series of study manuals based on the Teachings of Presidents of the Church. There are the manuals for different ages and classes in Sunday School etc. but these do not exhaustively comment on scripture (it is alarming to see what they overlook) and they again work on an agenda of themes: marriage, Mormon history, temples etc. rather than offering a systematic Mormon theology.

You can see in this developing picture what was intended. The Journal of Discourses being a record of the sermons of prophets and regarded originally as equal to Scripture, and books from apostles like Talmage and prophets such as Joseph Fielding Smith to act as authoritative writings; a building up of a definitive library on all things Mormon.

Hyperion to a Satyr

A book once popular with Mormons is Marvellous Work and a Wonder, based on writings and sermons of another Mormon apostle Legrand Richards. Long before they were bound into one publication these writings served as a missionary aid at a time when the Mormon Church hadn’t developed the now familiar missionary discussions. People were taught Mormonism from and joined the Mormon Church on the basis of these writings. But, like other publications authoritative in previous generations, it is dismissed today.

Today Mormons look more to Mormon academia, such as it is, to help them form their ideas. Publications from BYU professors and “best selling authors”, unofficial apologetics sites, are now the first port of call for the Mormon anxious to be equipped in understanding, defending and sharing their Mormon faith.

When you consider the beginnings of Mormonism and read the authoritative, prophetic tone in early Mormon sermons and publications, then look at the writings of today’s “popular” Mormon opinion-makers, people like Stephen Robinson, Richard G Grant, Dan Peterson – not a prophet or apostle among them – well I am reminded of Hamlets’ words of scorn to his mother regarding her marriage to his uncle, “So excellent a king; that was, to this, Hyperion to a satyr.”

Systematic Mormonism?

There is no Mormon equivalent to Christian study aids such as the Bible Speaks Today series or the Wycliffe Commentary series or the New International Commentary, names we take for granted, authorities that help inform and build our faith. Not even Mormonism’s own “scriptures” are commented upon in the familiar way.

Surely a commentary would make available a systematic comparison of Mormon teachings over Mormonism’s short history. I can’t help but think this omission exists because Mormon leaders don’t want to be pinned down and held to a particular teaching in a religion that changes its teachings so often. The last thing they want is a systematic, authoritative commentary on Mormonism.

It wouldn’t do to have Mormons comparing an early 20th C commentary on the Mormon teaching on Negroes from the Book of Abraham with the post-1978 rehabilitated teaching. Nor would it serve to have Mormons bring down from their shelves a treasured commentary on the teaching of Doctrine and Covenants 132, which teaches polygamy as the order of heaven, and compare it with today’s teaching that it was always and only a social phenomenon.

And what about a commentary on those Bible verses that Mormonism seems to overlook in its teaching manuals: Hebrews 4-10; Romans 5:1-5, 8:1, Romans 9&10. Such passages are either dealt with briefly, just enough to mine the text for Mormon definitions, or overlooked altogether. It is an omission that would shock any serious Bible student.

In a recent conversation a Mormon was stunned to be told that Hebrews 4-10 was specifically about the temple and how the high priests of Israel were types of Christ our great high priest, the holy of holies a picture of the heaven Christ entered triumphantly to offer himself as the perfect sacrifice for those who trust him.

He thought the only meaningful New Testament reference to the temple was 1 Cor.15:29 (baptism for the dead) which does not mention the temple or describe a normative Christian practice, and the only mention of priesthood in Hebrews that he saw was Heb.5:1-5

A commentary would have given him the knowledge he was missing but the Mormon Church gave him Mormonism.

Again, this is a viewpoint that the typical Mormon would not relate to and so we must help them see the value of commentaries and Bible aids to us and help them think about what they are and why their church doesn’t produce them. Sharing our faith is more than simply opening texts and battling over interpretations. It is also sharing every dimension of being a Christian and witnessing to how everything about our faith enriches our Christian walk and understanding.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Knowing more about the Bible | Mormon Coffee

 

A recent religious literacy poll done by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that Mormons know more about the Bible and general religion than Catholics, Jews, and Protestant Christians. (See “Survey: LDS know more about the Bible than other Christians,” The Salt Lake Tribune, Sept. 29, 2010, p. A4.)

Over on the Mormon Coffee blog Eric Johnson of MRM gives a very good analysis of these survey results and reminds us of the old adage, believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.

Knowing more about the Bible | Mormon Coffee

Monday, 4 October 2010

Monday Mormon – Kolob: Where God Lives?

Another Monday Mormon, another weekend slipped by too fast – I hope yours went well - and another look at our 21 Questions As before, we will look at the questions (Q) and answers (A) with comments (C) and quotes (Qu.) This time two question to deal with and, again, we find the Mormon Church giving a pro forma answer to both; answers that don’t really explain anything. The information is there in abundance, as we will see, but the gatekeepers of Mormonism seem reluctant to share it.

Q: Does the Church believe that God lives on a planet named Kolob?

A: 'Kolob' is a term found in ancient records translated by Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith did not provide a full description or explanation of Kolob nor did he assign the idea particular significance in relation to the Church’s core doctrines.

Q: Where is the planet Kolob? What significance does the planet have to Mormons?

A: 'Kolob' is a term found in ancient records translated by Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith did not provide a full description or explanation of Kolob nor did he assign the idea particular significance in relation to the Church’s core doctrines.

C: This is a classic Mormon “How can we bury this?” idea. It is found in the Book of Abraham, Pearl of Great Price, which Joseph Smith claimed was a translation of papyri he bought from a travelling exhibition. The Pearl of Great Price has long been discredited as a serious translation but some of the most controversial Mormon teachings come from this source.

Kolob is said to be the translation of a hieroglyph in the document. In Mormon cosmology the worlds move in concentric circles around a central point where lives an exalted man that Mormons call god. Time is reckoned according to the relative distance of each world to the centre and the world nearest that centre place, in Mormon cosmology, is Kolob.

Qu. "Kolob, signifying the first creation, nearest to the celestial, or the residence of God. First in government, the last pertaining to the measurement of time. The measurement according to celestial time, which celestial time signifies one day to a cubit. One day in Kolob is equal to a thousand years according to the measurement of this earth, which is called by the Egyptians Jah-oh-eh."

(Book of Abraham, Facsimile 2, Figure #1 explanation)

What is informative is that there is a reckoning of god’s days:

Qu. "...Kolob was after the manner of the Lord, according to its times and seasons in the revolutions thereof; that one revolution was a day unto the Lord, after his manner of reckoning, it being one thousand years according to the time appointed unto that whereon thou standest. This is the reckoning of the Lord's time, according to the reckoning of Kolob.

"... The planet which is the lesser light...is above or greater than that upon which thou standest in point of reckoning, for it moveth in order more slow; this is in order because it standeth above the earth upon which thou standest, therefore the reckoning of its time is not so many as to its number of days, and of months, and of years. [This is in reference to the moon: see Genesis 1:16.]

"And where these two facts exist, there shall be another fact above them, that is, there shall be another planet whose reckoning of time shall be longer still; and thus there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob, which Kolob is after the reckoning of the Lord’s time; which Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest." (Book of Abraham 3:4-9; see also Book of Abraham, Facsimile #2, explanation to Figure #2.)

Confused? Surprised? Basically, what is being claimed is that as you move away from the earth and nearer to Kolob time slows down so that on “the lesser light” (the moon) time goes more slowly. As you move further towards Kolob again so time slows down further until you come to Kolob where time is reckoned in the same way that God reckons time, i.e. a thousand years on earth is a day on Kolob. In other words, the Mormon god is subject to time.

Mormons use Ps.90:4 and 2 Pe.3:8 to show that time is relative, even to God. This doesn’t work however because the psalmist compares a thousand years with a day and with a watch in the night. A watch in the night is a part of the night during which a person is set to watch over a ship or camp, or to patrol a community before the introduction of police forces (Judges 7:19). A watch in the night is usually four hours. The Psalmist is not saying that a thousand years to us is a day to God but is demonstrating that God is not subject to time however it is measured. A day or a watch in the night, it is all the same to God.

Interestingly Mormon apostle Bruce R McConkie said that God had been presiding over our universe for almost 2,500,000,000 years (The Seven Deadly Heresies). From this we may safely infer that the reign of the Mormon god is subject to linear time. We may also infer that 2,500,000,001 years ago he did not preside over our universe.

Kolob illustrates again the idea that the Mormon god is relatively omniscient (an oxymoron), not an eternal God but an exalted man who is only eternal going forwards; going backwards he clearly decreases until that time when he did not reign. It does seem that, even for the Mormon god, tempus does fugit. A worrying thought.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

The Typical Mormon Apologetic

Last time we discovered that the much vaunted “open canon” of Mormon Scripture is a fiction. Nothing has been added to the corpus of Mormon “revelation” for almost 100 years. We have seen that, in the absence of defining and directive leadership, Mormons are increasingly looking to Para-church organisations to help them develop a Mormon apologetic.

The facility to quote the revelations of Joseph Smith leaves the Mormon with the illusion of continuing revelation but with the reality of a closed canon of Scripture. He doesn’t know how to sit under the authority of Scripture because he dismisses it as second hand, revelation for yesterday.

If you quote Paul, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching...” (2 Tim.3:16) the Mormon response is to say, “Well of course the Bible is useful, but...” In that “but” there is a world of meaning. Mormonism boasts that yesterday’s revelation was for “then” but because Mormons are “led by a prophet” they have revelation that is as fresh and relevant as this morning’s news; but their revelations are considerably staler than yesterday’s breakfast rolls.

For a Mormon the Bible is only reliable “as far as it is translated correctly” (Mormon 8th Article of Faith) so he mustn’t expect it to go very far in affirming his beliefs. Yet there is no prophetic leading except in the most general terms (be nice, keep the faith, etc) and so he can’t demonstrate in the most meaningful way that the claims of his church are true

As a consequence of this strange dichotomy the typical Mormon apologetic is almost entirely refutation rather than exposition because he doesn’t look to the Bible in the way he would look to modern prophets. But then nor does he have modern revelation to expound but increasingly implausible claims by the earliest Mormon leaders to defend.

Exposition:

To expound is to lay open the meaning of; to confirm and prove. In the context of teaching and preaching it means expounding or explaining the truth of scripture.

Refutation:

To refute is the act of refuting or denying something.

There are five steps to the Mormon apologetic:

  1. Critics of our church say...
  2. But they are anti-Mormon
  3. Consequently, there are many misconceptions about the Mormon Church
  4. If you really want to know ask a Mormon
  5. Here is the truth affirmed by Moroni’s promise

Where a Christian would begin with the truth a Mormon starts with the critic; where a Christian would continue with an appeal to biblical authority the Mormon would go on to discrediting the critic; where the Christian would present “many proofs” (Acts 1:3) the Mormon offers a series of uncorroborated assertions; where the Christian expects faith to be based on reasoning from Scripture (Acts 8:35; Luke 24:27), the Mormon appeals to blind faith based on feelings.

Since sound exposition is not in the Mormon’s tool box then a demonstration of sound exposition is important.

  • It makes their refutations look poor by comparison and the stark contrast will give them pause for thought.
  • It demonstrates the strength of Scriptural proofs, many of which will be unfamiliar to the Mormon, and models what it is to put a high value on Scripture.

Mormons will cite isolated Bible verses to “prove” their point but a careful reading around their proof texts will give context and true meaning within the wider context of God’s word and lead to a clear understanding of the truth.

A confidence in and competence with the Bible is essential in witnessing to Mormons and it is important to recognise that almost every issue you will tackle in conversation with a Mormon will have been addressed in its pages as well as in the councils and deliberations of the early Church. More reason, if any were needed, for knowing your Bible and knowing something about the history of the Christian Church.