Born Again Mormon: Moving Toward Christian Authenticity
Shawn McCraney was born and raised in a Mormon family, served his two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (i.e., LDS Church), and was married in a Mormon temple. However, things changed in 1997 when he heard an evangelical preacher on the radio, and asked Jesus to forgive him of his sins, and to help him become a genuine child of God3 (59). McCraney indicates this spiritual change by now identifying himself as a born-again Mormon. He early on states his reasons for writing Born-Again Mormon.
Born-Again Mormon first seeks to introduce all Latter-day Saints to the God-given gift of undeniable spiritual rebirth that comes through true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ…. Second, Born-Again Mormon hopes to serve as a support for those born-again Saints who choose to remain active in the [LDS] Church while working to bring other members of the [LDS] Church to the Lord. Finally, Born-Again Mormon hopes to help initiate the ultimate integration of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into the existing body of Christ. (13)
McCraney has been pursuing a Masters degree in theology from Calvary Chapel Graduate School of Ministry4 Apparently, his born-again Mormon theological perspective has been influenced through his graduate studies for the Director of the Calvary Chapel School, Carl Westerlund,5 gave the following endorsement of Born-Again Mormon.
Born-Again Mormon is perhaps the best book a Christian could give to an (sic) LDS friend today. Shawn McCraney passionately and fairly contrasts his forty years as an active Latter-day Saint with the life-altering truth that Jesus is the only means of salvation. A great read for any Christian; must read for every Latter-day Saint.6
This review will examine each of the McCraney’s above objectives. Due to the brevity of the review, I will explore only a few of the concerns I have with McCraney’s born-again Mormon theology.
Saving Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ
Born-Again Mormon first seeks to introduce all Latter-day Saints to the God-given gift of undeniable spiritual rebirth that comes through true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. (13)
Our Relationship with God
McCraney’s desire to bring Latter-day Saints to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ will likely give most Mormons pause. Doesn’t McCraney know the LDS Church teaches that the first principle of the gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? I think so. I think McCraney is asking Mormons to reject the last clause of 2 Nephi 25:23b “…for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (emphasis mine) because it is antithetical to Ephesians 2:8-10, “8For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9Not of works, lest any man should boast. 10For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” McCraney is saying the works Mormons seek to do for their individual salvation — in addition to their faith in Jesus Christ — is actually a “hindrance to true spiritual rebirth.” (25).
As an evangelical Christian, I applaud McCraney’s desire to bring Latter-day Saints to authentic faith in Jesus Christ. McCraney hints that the “LDS idea of Jesus” (27) is unbiblical, yet he indicates several times that he thinks it is possible for a Mormon to be saved through holding the LDS view of Jesus, (198, 205, and 206). Since McCraney has so many family members and friends in the LDS Church who profess Jesus as Lord, it is understandable that he wants to think they are saved. I can sympathize with him. However, I have to ask whether he is correct in thinking that a person can be saved by placing their faith in the Jesus Christ presented by the Mormon Church.
Admittedly, part of the LDS view of Jesus Christ’s earthly life is biblical. For example, his incarnation was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, he lived a sinless life in Palestine during the first century, performed many miracles, died on a cross, was buried in a tome, and was resurrected on the third day.
Both Mormons and orthodox Christians call Jesus Christ their Lord. They both do works in the name of the Lord. But is that the end of the matter? Jesus himself warned in Matthew 7:21-23 that there are people who have called him Lord and have even done many wonderful works in his name, yet Jesus Christ never knew them. Why? They didn’t have an authentic relationship with him.
21Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. 22Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? 23And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
Evidently, just calling Jesus Christ Lord and doing wonderful works in his name does not enable a person to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Much of what Mormons believe about Jesus Christ comes from Latter-day revelations, not the Bible. For example, Mormon latter-day revelations content that as a spirit (before being physically conceived on earth) Jesus progressed to become a God by his good works7 and the blood of Jesus Christ will not atone for “certain grievous sins”8 such as murder, and Satan is a “spirit son of God” and the “spirit-brother of Jesus”9 This is why evangelicals like myself do not recognize this as the real Jesus. Even President Gordon B. Hinckley publicly acknowledged that he does not believe in the Jesus whom orthodox Christians believe in.
In bearing testimony of Jesus Christ, President Hinckley spoke of those outside the [LDS] Church who say Latter-day Saints do not believe in the traditional Christ. “No, I don't. The traditional Christ of whom they speak is not the Christ of whom I speak. For the Christ of whom I speak has been revealed in this the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times. He, together with His Father, appeared to the boy Joseph Smith in the year 1820, and when Joseph left the grove that day, he knew more of the nature of God than all the learned ministers of the gospel of the ages.” [emphasis mine] (Church News, week ending June 20, 1998, page 7)
If I’m a person who wants to be certain I’m right with God…that my sins are forgiven…that I’m ready to stand before him when I die…that I will dwell with him forever in heaven…if these are my concerns, and if Jesus is the only way to God (as he said in John 14:6), is what I believe about Jesus important? Don’t I need to decide whether Mormon teachings about Jesus are right or wrong? As I see it, McCraney glosses over these crucial questions. McCraney hasn’t yet convinced me that the Jesus Christ presented by the LDS Church can save anyone.
What About Baptism?
McCraney accepts water baptism into the LDS Church as an authentic Christian baptism. “A Born-Again Mormon will accept baptism through the [LDS] Church as an outward indication of his or her new spiritual life in Jesus.” (195). However, the LDS Church does not accept any orthodox church’s water baptisms as valid, and orthodox churches do not accept LDS water baptisms as valid (See our article: Is Mormonism Christian?). McCraney doesn’t explain why his view toward water baptism differs with the LDS Church and orthodox Christian churches.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Persons or Parts?
There can be no more profound topic for us as mere mortals than the nature of our Creator. He is the infinitely powerful Creator God who rules the vastness of the universe. Heaven’s mightiest angels fall down and worship in his presence. How does the almighty God reveal himself in the Bible? Three things seem absolutely certain. There is only one God.10 God exists in three distinct (not separate) Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit11 Each Person is fully God12 From very early, Christians realized that this means God is Three-in-One: One God in three Persons. God is a Trinity.
McCraney agrees that there is only one God, but he views the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as “separate parts” of God (181, cp. 31). He believes the Trinity is, “one God composed of three separate parts” (181), and that “just as God is one God represented by three parts, a human being is one individual composed of three distinct parts—body, soul, and spirit.” (182). Also, McCraney rejects the theological term, Trinity. He offers the common objection, “I don’t read the word trinity in the Bible … so we can eliminate that Christian colloquialism from our conversation right from the start.” (31-32). Is McCraney right?
Logically, his view of God’s nature implies the Father is only part of God, the Son is only part of God, and the Holy Spirit is only part of God. Down through the centuries, Christians have viewed the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Persons, for the Bible describes them in personal terms. Each Person engages in personal relationships and activities. The Bible reveals each Person of the Trinitarian Godhead as always being fully God.
Although the term “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible, the idea represented by the word is taught in many places. McCraney’s jettisoning of the term Trinity reflects his inadequate appreciation for how Christians down through the centuries have understood how God has revealed himself in Scripture. The word Trinity is used to summarize the biblical teaching that God is three Persons in one God. As finite beings we cannot fully express in mere words the nature of the infinite Creator God.
Spiritual Rebirth: A Progressive Work?
McCraney contends there are “stages of rebirth.” (72). It is his opinion that, “This life-long phase of spiritual rebirth is greatly misunderstood by most Latter-day Saints and, quite frankly, by far too many Christians as well” (73). He says, “Spiritual rebirth is not always instantaneous” (78) and “Spiritual rebirth is nondenominational. Hard as it might be to believe, a person doesn’t even need to be a Christian for it to begin.” (79). But is that right?
The apostle John says Jesus Christ gives the power to become sons of God to those who receive him (John 1:12). John says that children of God “were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:13). He is teaching that children of God are those who are born of God. Our human will does not bring about this kind of spiritual birth. The apostle Paul specifies that it is God who “quickened us [made us alive] together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5; cf. Col. 2:13). Spiritual rebirth (i.e., regeneration) is a work of God within us in which he gives us new life. At one moment we are spiritually dead, and then at the next moment we have new spiritual life from God.
The moment of spiritual rebirth initiates the sanctification process. The apostle Paul described being saved as “the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” (Titus 3:5b). Paul said that Christians are to progressively grow in sanctification throughout their lives, “…even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.”(Rom. 6:19b). Sanctification will not be entirely completed until the Lord returns and we receive new resurrection bodies. We await the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ from heaven, and he “shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21). It is “at his coming” (1 Cor. 15:23) that we will be made alive with a resurrection body and then we shall fully “bear the image of the heavenly.” (1 Cor. 15:49). Isn’t McCraney confusing a believer’s spiritual rebirth with their progressive work of sanctification?
Born-Again Mormon hopes to serve as a support for those born-again Saints who choose to remain active in the [LDS] Church while working to bring other members of the [LDS] Church to the Lord. (13)
This part of McCraney’s Born-Again Mormon theological perspective has some similarities to a missions strategy discussed in the March 24, 2000 Charisma News Service report. This report stated Youth With A Mission (YWAM) and other international missions organizations are converting Muslims to “Messianic Muslims” who continue to “hold on to many of their traditional religious beliefs and practices" and “continue to read the Koran, visit the mosque and say their daily prayers, but accept Christ as their Savior.” These Messianic Muslims “continue a life of following the Islamic requirements, including mosque attendance, fasting and Koranic reading, besides getting together as a fellowship of Muslims who acknowledge Christ as the source of God's mercy for them." Can this type of religious syncretism13 result in a genuine Christian lifestyle and testimony?
Similarly, McCraney advocates that “a Born-Again Mormon would submit himself or herself in the flesh to all LDS ordinances, practices, assignments, rituals, callings, cultural expectations, [and] social invitations with the hope of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ through whatever means the Lord directs.” (196). Both Mormons and orthodox Christians agree that there are irreconcilable difference between their faith and practices.
If I, as a evangelical Christian, were to follow McCraney’s above advice, I would have to give up my freedom to fully live out my Christian faith. The LDS Church would not allow me to preach or teach the whole biblical truth in any LDS ward. Doesn’t this aspect of McCraney’s Born-Again Mormon theology violate the apostles Paul’s commandment to not be yoked together with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14; cp. 2 John 10-11; Luke 9:50)? Is there any biblical support for the practice of former Mormons remaining active in the LDS Church? For a Christian to actively attend the LDS Church under the pretense of witnessing to Mormons is not a valid contemporary application of the apostle Paul’s practice of observing the rituals of Judaism in order to win Jews to Christ (1 Cor. 9:19-23; cf. 2 Kings 5:18). The apostle Paul never yoked himself to the faith and practices of unbelievers.
How Should Christians View the Book of Mormon?
It should not be surprising that McCraney’s love for the LDS Church overflows into his attachment to the Book of Mormon. For the following reasons, I think McCraney’s Born-Again Mormon theological view of the Book of Mormon will only further confuse Mormons who are questioning their Mormon faith.
McCraney believes the Book of Mormon “seeks to exalt Jesus as the author of human salvation. So where’s the rub?” (124). When I read the Book of Mormon I get the impression that it teaches individuals to co-author their own salvation with the help of Jesus.14 For example, in 2 Nephi 25:23 we read, “we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” (cp. Eph. 2:8-10). The so-called “rub” of McCraney’s attachment to the Book of Mormon is the chafing on his Born-Again Mormon converts caused by them being yoked to the works based salvation taught in the Book of Mormon.
McCraney reveals his inadequate knowledge of Protestant theology when he states, “Setting the visitations of the angel Moroni and the historicity of the Book of Mormon aside with only a few agreeable exceptions, the Book of Mormon is doctrinally nothing more than a presentation of Protestant theology as told through an epic, often dramatic, story of adventure, war, sermons, and heavenly visitation.” (120). Just one of many examples contrary to McCraney’s assertion is Martin Luther’s foundational doctrinal principle, “sola scriptura” (Latin, “by scripture alone”), which is still a definitive principle of Protestants today. However, the Book of Mormon mocks sola scriptura, “Thou fool, that shall say: A Bible, we have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible. Have ye obtained a Bible save it were by the Jews?” (2 Nephi 29:6; cf. 1 Nephi 13:26-28).
McCraney believes Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon in order to “restore to an argumentative, bifurcated Christianity equilibrium by providing insightful answers to many theological, cultural, and political problems of the day.” (123). As an evangelical I was left wondering how any theological, cultural, and/or political answer one might imagine the Book of Mormon providing could give any sense of “equilibrium” to the Christian faith. For example, theologically, the Book of Mormon teaches Christianity experienced a complete apostasy on earth for about 1,700 years (Mormon 8:28-41). Does this square with McCraney’s assertion that the Book of Mormon is not really “threatening to Christianity” (123)? Culturally, the Book of Mormon teaches that black skin is a curse from God (2 Nephi 5:21; 30:6 3 Nephi 2:15-16). On this point, the Book of Mormon merely reinforces 19th century American racism, and is a cause of embarrassment to the LDS Church — not something uplifting. Concerning Joseph Smith authoring the Book of Mormon, McCraney writes, “I am convinced of the author’s good intentions in originally writing it.” Even if Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon with good intentions, I don’t see where McCraney has shown how Joseph Smith constructively addressed any of the theological, cultural, and/or political problems of his day?
LDS Church: Restored or Reformed?
Finally, Born-Again Mormon hopes to help initiate the ultimate integration of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into the existing body of Christ. (13)
Under the leadership of its founder, Herbert W. Armstrong, the World Wide Church of God (WWCG) rejected many essential doctrines of evangelical Christianity. After the death of Armstrong, the WWCG came under new leadership who held to a more traditional evangelical position on these essential doctrines. McCraney sees these changes within the WWCG as an encouragement that his grassroots Born-Again Mormon theological perspective may initiate similar changes within the LDS Church, so that Christians will view the LDS Church as just another Christian denomination, (191). However, the catalyst for change within the WWCG came from the president of the church, and involved a rejection of its central teachings. It was not a grassroots movement. McCraney is not dialoging with the president or leadership of the LDS Church. In the LDS Church, the members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve are the only authoritative sources for the LDS Church teachings. How likely is it that as an ex-communicated member of the LDS Church, McCraney will be able to initiate change from within the LDS hierarchy?
The LDS Church was founded on the belief that it is the restoration of the apostate Christian church, and that “nothing less than a complete apostasy from the Christian religion would warrant the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints …. There was no possible excuse for the introduction of a new Christian sect” (History of the Church, 1:XL). If there was no great apostasy, the LDS Church was founded on a false belief. Does McCraney think there was a great apostasy? He doesn’t say. If the apostasy did not occur, then there is no basis for the existence of the LDS Church according to the LDS Church leaders. So why does McCraney support the LDS Church?
McCraney envisions, “Just as Baptist have their denominational peculiarities and nondenominational evangelistic churches have theirs, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will in all probability maintain a number of unique and interesting practices even after Mormonism has been accepted into the Body of Christ.” (189). It is ironic that McCraney then says he “refuses to pander to denominationalism”? (192).
Born-Again Mormon presents McCraney’s syncretism of Christianity and Mormonism. It is the view of this writer that McCraney does not give a balanced or accurate view of either Christianity or Mormonism. For many people, transitioning out of Mormonism is a painful and theologically confusing time. It is understandable why some members of the LDS Church who no longer believe in Mormonism decided to remain members. I suspect McCraney will be successful in converting many of these doubting Mormons to his Born-Again Mormon views. Unfortunately, this will likely mean they will never hear a clear presentation of the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ.
1 The Prologue ends with “Shawn McCraney August 31st 2005”. Evidently, this is the date when he actually finished writing the book.
2 Born-Again Mormon is self-published book, and has no pagination. In order to cite page numbers for the quotes used in this review, the reviewer has added pagination with page one beginning on the title page, which is the first physical page.
3 Becoming a child of God is entirely a work of God, so it is wrong to think that God merely “helps” us become a child of God. However, it is understandable that a new believer would not know that adoption is an act of God whereby he makes us members of his family.
4 Calvary Chapel Graduate School of Ministry is an extension of the undergraduate program at Calvary Chapel Bible College, which is associated with Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, CA.
5 Carl Westerlund is the Director of the Calvary Chapel School of Ministry and Calvary Chapel Bible College Graduate School in Costa Mesa, CA.
6 Westerlund’s endorsement of Born-Again Mormon is published on McCraney’s website.
7 “By obedience and devotion to the truth he [i.e., Jesus] attained that pinnacle of intelligence which ranked him as a God, as the Lord Omnipotent while yet in his pre-existent state.” Mormon Doctrine, p. 129.
8 Mormon Doctrine, Bruce R. McConkie, 1979, p. 73.
9 True to the Faith, 2004, s.v. “Satan”; The Gospel Through the Ages, 1945, p. 15.
10 “28 Biblical Passages Which Explicitly Teach There is Only One God”
11 Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14
12 The Father is God (1 Peter 1:2; Luke 11:2). The Son is God (John 1:1, 2, 14; 20:28; Hebrews 1:8). The Holy Ghost is God (Acts 5:3-4).
13 Syncretism is the combining of different forms of belief or practice.
14 Joseph Fielding Smith, (tenth President of the LDS Church) stated, “Salvation is twofold: General — that which comes to all men irrespective of a belief (in this life) in Christ — and, Individual — that which man merits through his own acts through life and by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.” (Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 1, p.134). Such teachings of general salvation and individual salvation are not biblical and are, in fact, irreconcilable with biblical teachings.