Faith in Christ and the Mormon Gospel
“We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Article of Faith 4).
Chapter 18 of Gospel Principles makes some statements about faith with which the Bible-believing Christian can and should fully and enthusiastically agree. Two statements stand out:
“Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the first principle of the gospel. It is a spiritual gift, and it is necessary to our salvation” (101).
“We must center our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ” (103).
Unfortunately, these statements mean something very different in the LDS doctrinal system than they do in the Bible. In this study, we will focus on answering the following two questions:
- According to LDS doctrine, is faith in Christ necessary for salvation? The answer is that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation to life in the higher heavenly kingdoms, but it is not necessary for salvation from eternal condemnation or for immortality in a glorious heavenly kingdom.
- What does LDS doctrine mean by faith in Christ? What Gospel Principles means by faith in Christ is essentially the acceptance of his instructions to do good works, whereas in the Bible faith in Christ means trusting in the work of salvation that Christ did for us.
A. Is Faith in Christ Necessary for Salvation?
It turns out that the statement that faith in Christ “is necessary for our salvation” does not adequately represent LDS doctrine. The matter is complicated by the fact that LDS theology distinguishes two types of salvation and three different heavenly kingdoms in which people may live forever. An explanation of these distinctions is therefore in order.
1. LDS doctrine distinguishes between general salvation, for which no faith is necessary, and individual salvation, for which faith is necessary.
Historically, LDS doctrine distinguishes between general salvation and individual salvation. General salvation comes to all human beings on the basis of the Atonement, whether they believe in Christ or not and whether they live moral lives or not. In other words, this salvation is unconditional—it comes to all people with no conditions of any kind. This general salvation consists of resurrection from the dead to immortality in some heavenly kingdom. Since every human being automatically receives this salvation, the only people who will miss out on immortality will be those members of the LDS Church who deliberately, knowingly reject it (referred to in LDS parlance as the sons of perdition). Individual salvation in its fullness consists of eternal life (which in LDS usage is something more than immortality) in the highest of the heavenly kingdoms, known as the celestial kingdom. This eternal life is also commonly called exaltation. Not everyone gets this individual salvation. To obtain eternal life or entrance into the celestial kingdom, people must believe in Christ, live morally exemplary lives, be baptized and confirmed in the LDS Church, be supportive of the LDS prophets, perform various rites in LDS temples, and keep all of the commandments and “covenants” expected of them (such as tithing to the LDS Church). Thus, this salvation is decidedly conditional—it comes only to some people and on the basis of specific conditions that those people must meet.
|Table 1. Two Kinds of Salvation in LDS Doctrine|
|everyone (except sons of perdition)||faithful Mormons|
|neither faith nor works required||both faith and works required|
2. The LDS doctrine of three heavenly kingdoms severely qualifies the LDS Church’s claim to teach that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation.
So far from this description one might suppose that LDS doctrine conceives of two heavenly kingdoms, one for faithful Mormons and one for everyone else. As mentioned earlier, however, in LDS doctrine there are actually three heavenly kingdoms. The celestial kingdom is the realm where Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ live; it is where we came from and where we are supposed to return after passing the tests of mortal life here on earth. As just explained, faithful Mormons will go there. This celestial kingdom has three “degrees” or levels, the highest of which consists of exaltation, or becoming gods (with a divine nature like that of Heavenly Father). In addition, people who never heard the LDS gospel in this life but who accept it in the spirit world after they die may go to the celestial kingdom and receive eternal life and exaltation there. To make this possible, Mormons perform baptisms for the dead and other proxy rites in their temples. Most of the people who will end up in the celestial kingdom will not put their faith in Christ or accept the LDS gospel in this life, but instead will do so in the afterlife.
The middle heavenly realm, called the terrestrial kingdom, will be the eternal home of two categories of human beings. Mormons who accepted the LDS gospel in their mortal lifetimes but who did not live faithfully enough will go there. People who were deceived into rejecting the LDS gospel in this life will get another chance in the spirit world, and if they accept it there they will also go to the terrestrial kingdom. Thus, to make it into the terrestrial kingdom, one must believe in Christ, but the decision to believe in Christ can be made in the afterlife. Indeed, the clear implication of LDS doctrine is that the vast majority of those who will live in the terrestrial kingdom will not believe in Christ until after they die.
The lowest heavenly realm is called the telestial kingdom. It is the destination of the multitudes of wicked people who reject the LDS gospel both in mortality and in their afterlife in the spirit world. Before anyone goes to the telestial kingdom, they are sent to “hell,” where they suffer for their sins and then are released after the end of the Millennium. The people who go to the telestial kingdom, then, are those who failed to believe in Christ in this life and who refused to believe in Christ even in the spirit world after they died. Yet even they are “saved” in the sense that they will live forever as immortal beings in a glorious heavenly kingdom.
Table 2 summarizes the points made above concerning the relevance of faith in Christ to the two kinds of salvation and the three different heavenly kingdoms. Again, everyone is granted general salvation whether they have faith in Christ or not. To obtain individual salvation, one need not have faith in Christ in this life; as long as one does not reject Christ in this life, one may put faith in Christ in the afterlife and still have an opportunity to receive eternal life in the celestial kingdom. Those who fail to obtain individual salvation will still be saved to immortal life in either the telestial or terrestrial kingdom, depending on whether they put faith in Christ and accept the LDS gospel in the afterlife.
|Table 2. Three Heavenly Kingdoms|
|General (unconditional) salvation||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Individual (conditional) salvation||No||No||Yes|
|Must not reject faith in Christ in this life||No||No||Yes|
|Must have faith in Christ||No||Yes||Yes|
|Must have faith in Christ in this life||No||No||No|
3. In LDS doctrine, even people who reject Christ will be saved in either the second or third kingdom.
It is one thing to think—as many orthodox Christians do—that God may have a way by which he can save some people from eternal condemnation who have never heard of Jesus Christ. It is quite another to teach, as the LDS Church does, that virtually everyone will be saved to live in some glorious heavenly kingdom, including even the most godless and immoral people. It is also shocking to realize that in LDS doctrine nearly all of the people who reject Jesus Christ in their mortal lifetimes will nevertheless still be saved to live forever in immortality in some glorious heavenly kingdom. According to LDS doctrine, no one needs to have faith in Christ in this life in order to be saved. Since the vast majority of people in earth history have not heard the LDS gospel during their earthly lifetime, it follows that the vast majority of those who will end up in the celestial and terrestrial kingdoms will not come to faith in Christ as understood in LDS doctrine until they die and go to the spirit world. Again, many if not most of the people who will live in the terrestrial kingdom will do so despite having rejected Christ in this life. And the LDS Church actually teaches that the most stubbornly and perversely wicked people who even choose to reject Christ in the afterlife will suffer for their sins—evidently because they refused Christ’s atonement on their behalf—and thereby gain immortal life in a glorious, albeit less glorious, heavenly kingdom.
If the LDS Church practiced truth in advertising, it would make clear that in its theology no one needs to believe in Christ in this life or the next in order to enjoy immortal heavenly life. Faith in Christ is “necessary for salvation” only in the sense that faith in Christ (in this life or the next) is necessary for exaltation to the highest heaven and the possibility of becoming gods.
4. The Bible clearly teaches that those who reject Christ in this life are eternally lost.
The following statements (quoted from the NIV) leave no room for doubt that those who reject Jesus Christ in this life will suffer eternal condemnation:
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:46)
“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:35-38; also Luke 9:24-26)
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:18)
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” (John 3:36)
“I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins.” (John 8:24)
“There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day.” (John 12:48)
God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power…." (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9
But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death. (Revelation 21:8, emphasis added)
Whatever one may say about those who have never heard the gospel, those who have heard it and who reject it are eternally condemned. Furthermore, what the New Testament does say about the human race as a whole characterizes those outside the church as generally lost and without hope. The gospel is a message of “forgiveness of sins…to all the nations” (Luke 24:47). It brings Gentiles who have “no hope and are without God” from darkness to light, from the domain of Satan to the kingdom of God (Acts 26:18; Ephesians 2:12; Colossians 1:12-13). The gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). Far from teaching that virtually all people will be saved to some glorious heavenly kingdom, Jesus warned that a great many people—including even many who profess to follow him—are on the path to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14, 21-23).
B. What Is Faith in Christ?
1. In LDS doctrine, faith in Christ means believing that if we do whatever the LDS Church tells us that Christ commands us to do we will attain entrance into the celestial kingdom.
Mormons can argue that whatever their doctrine may imply concerning the necessity of faith in Christ, they do in fact have faith in Christ and emphasize this principle as central to their religion. What, though, does it mean according to LDS doctrine to have faith in Christ?
Toward the very beginning of its chapter on faith in Christ, Gospel Principles defines faith as follows: “Faith is a principle of action and power that motivates our day-to-day activities” (101). It explains that faith means doing work in the hope or expectation that it will pay off in the end:
Would we study and learn if we did not believe we could obtain wisdom and knowledge? Would we work each day if we did not hope that by doing so we could accomplish something? Would a farmer plant if he did not expect to harvest? Each day we act upon things we hope for when we cannot see the end result. This is faith. (101)
Gospel Principles concludes its explanation of the meaning of the term faith by saying, “As we carefully study the scriptures, we learn that faith is a strong belief of truth within our souls that motivates us to do good” (103). So far, these statements focus entirely on the idea of faith as a motivation to do good things. This perspective continues as the chapter discusses more specifically what it means to have faith in Christ:
To have faith in Jesus Christ means to have such trust in Him that we obey whatever He commands. (103)
In other words, according to Gospel Principles, faith in Christ means that we believe that what he says is true so strongly that we are motivated to do good works in obedience to his commands. In practical terms, this means that faith in Christ is the belief that if we obey his commands we will attain the expected benefits. Hence, Gospel Principles explains in what way faith in Christ is necessary for salvation:
As we place our faith in Jesus Christ, becoming His obedient disciples, Heavenly Father will forgive our sins and prepare us to return to Him…. Through faith in the Savior and through repentance, we make His Atonement fully effective in our lives. (103)
We saw earlier that in LDS doctrine the Atonement guarantees everyone salvation to some glorious heavenly kingdom, even those who reject Christ. Thus, what it means to make the Atonement “fully effective in our lives” is to secure a place in the highest of those realms, the celestial kingdom. We do that by “becoming His obedient disciples,” that is, by obeying everything that the LDS Church teaches are the commands of Jesus Christ.
The qualification “that the LDS Church teaches” is an important one, because Mormons do not limit Christ’s commands to those found in the New Testament. To obey Jesus Christ, according to LDS belief, one must do what Christ instructs his people to do in all of the LDS scriptures and through his appointed prophets. Hence, Gospel Principles states, “We hear the word of the Lord at our Church meetings. We can study His word in the scriptures” (105). To have faith in Christ, one must have faith in both Heavenly Father and in Jesus Christ, and “faith that the Holy Ghost, whom They send, will teach us all truth and will comfort us” (103). Mormons believe that the Holy Ghost does this teaching and comforting through the living prophets that lead the LDS Church.
In short, faith in Christ, according to Gospel Principles, is the belief that if we do what the LDS Church teaches that Christ tells us to do we will attain entrance into the celestial kingdom.
The emphasis throughout the chapter is on what Mormons are expected to do motivated by such faith:
Faith involves doing all we can to bring about the things we hope and pray for. (105)
This statement indicates that Mormons are expected to do all they can to bring about their own individual salvation (since this is something for which they hope and pray), while implying that they cannot make it happen all on their own. Here again, LDS doctrine gives a role to the Atonement, specifically providing forgiveness where we fall short. Nevertheless, we must “do all we can,” motivated by faith, and thus “we make His Atonement fully effective in our lives.”
2. In the Bible, faith in Christ means trusting in Christ alone to save us on the basis of what he did for us in his death and resurrection.
The belief that if we are good enough or obedient enough God will kindly forgive us for our shortcomings and grant us entrance into the celestial kingdom is a far cry from what the Bible means by faith in Christ. To have faith in Christ means to trust in him alone for our salvation. It means depending on Christ alone.
Jesus Christ performed miracles of healing and even resurrection as physical signs or tokens of the eternal salvation he came to provide. Those who received healings contributed nothing except their infirmities, throwing themselves on Jesus’ mercy. A classic example is the case of a paralyzed man whose friends brought him to Jesus for healing. Jesus responded first by telling the man, “Your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2). When the scribes questioned Jesus’ authority to forgive the man’s sins, Jesus demonstrated his authority by telling the man, “Rise, take up your bed, and go home” (9:6). The man’s physical healing was a sign of the spiritual healing that Jesus did for him. Of course, the man did nothing to bring about either his physical or his spiritual healing except to come to Jesus. He was not required to “do all he can” or to obey a list of commands in order to position himself to receive these healings. Indeed, it was his failure to obey God’s commandments that necessitated the spiritual healing of forgiveness. Jesus described himself as a “physician” for the spiritually “sick”—for sinners who need mercy (Matthew 9:12-13).
Later in the same chapter, Matthew tells about Jesus healing two blind men who approached Jesus saying, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” (9:27). The question that Jesus asked them is the one crucial question: “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” (9:28). They answered yes, and Jesus healed them of their blindness (9:29). Once again, faith did not mean believing that if they followed Jesus’ instructions long enough and faithfully enough that he would reward them by removing their blindness. It meant their complete reliance and trust in Jesus to heal them, nothing more.
Obviously, when Jesus raised people from the dead they could do nothing to prepare themselves for that blessing. Jesus performed such resurrections to encourage people to trust in him for eternal life. So, just before he raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus told Lazarus’s sister Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). Jesus’ statement here anticipates the fact that he was soon going to die and rise from the dead to secure our future resurrection to immortal, eternal life. When Jesus then went to the tomb and summoned Lazarus with the words, “Lazarus, come out!” (11:43), it was Jesus alone who made Lazarus live. Lazarus did all he could, all right—which was nothing! True, he did what Jesus commanded: he came out of the tomb, but only after Jesus had made him alive. This is the order in which we need to understand salvation. Christ gives us life; we then gratefully respond by living as Christ commands. Reversing this order makes no sense and makes salvation dependent on us rather than solely dependent on what Christ does for us.
Jesus’ apostles taught the same message, which the New Testament calls the gospel. Paul and Silas summed up the gospel in one sentence: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (Acts 16:31). Paul explained to the Romans that “in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last” (Romans 1:17). This righteousness is a gift that we receive on the basis of Christ’s atoning death and his resurrection on our behalf. “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe…justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24). “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Faith in Christ means nothing more nor less than accepting this gift of eternal life on the basis of what Christ alone has done for us. Precisely because it is a free gift, we can do nothing to earn it, merit it, deserve it, or be worthy to receive it. We receive it, not based even in part on our works, but on the basis of God’s grace alone: “And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6).
Mormons commonly object to this doctrine of grace thinking that it means we do not take seriously the importance of following Christ or obeying his teachings. This is simply not true. The issue rather is putting grace, faith, and works in proper perspective. We do nothing to save ourselves or to position ourselves by good works to receive eternal life, since it is a gift of God’s grace. However, the new life that we receive as a free gift begins in this life when Christ heals us spiritually as he did that paralyzed man. In our new life, we are not merely forgiven but are also changed on the inside by the Holy Spirit, who fosters within us the desire to follow Christ and obey his commands. Good works then become the result of our new relationship with God, which always rests on the foundation of his grace. Paul puts these truths all together in the following famous passage:
For 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. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
Notice the order: we are saved by the gift of God’s grace, through our faith in Christ, with the result that we do good works that God created us to do. Works are an integral part of God’s purpose in salvation, but they are the result of salvation, not the prerequisite of salvation. To use a popular and helpful analogy, good works are the fruit, not the root, of salvation.
Much more could be said on this issue, but the contrast between the LDS and biblical doctrines of faith in Christ should be clear. As Gospel Principles explains it, the LDS doctrine understands faith in Christ to be our belief that if we do all we can in obedience to what the LDS Church teaches that Christ commands, God will kindly forgive us of our shortcomings and grant us entrance into the celestial kingdom. As the New Testament explains it, faith in Christ means trusting in Christ alone to save us from our sins and give us eternal life as a free gift of God’s grace. The LDS doctrine makes faith in Christ a principle of motivation to do good works in order to qualify to receive God’s grace. The biblical doctrine is that faith in Christ is an admission of helplessness in which we turn to Christ to give us the grace for which we can never qualify ourselves. Biblically sound faith does motivate us to do good works, but out of gratitude for the free gift of God’s grace.
For Further Reflection
- According to LDS teaching everyone who has ever lived (except a small number of “sons of perdition”) will be saved in one of the three kingdoms of Mormonism. The great majority of these “saved” people will inherit the two lower kingdoms (terrestrial and telestial) and they will not have even needed to have faith in Christ in this life to get there. Given this fact, isn’t Mormon teaching on salvation nearly a form of “universalism” where everyone is eventually saved to a glorious place whether they believed in Christ or not? Does this not contradict the eternal judgment for many Jesus himself taught about and his call for people to repent in this life?
- The Bible refers repeatedly to a salvation that is by grace through faith alone (Romans 1:17; 3:22-24; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5) – where is this salvation in Mormon teaching? Mormon general salvation requires neither faith nor works, and Mormon individual salvation, eg. eternal life with God the Father, requires both faith and works.
- According to LDS teaching the atonement’s effectiveness in our lives is conditioned on doing “all we can.” If we are not doing “all we can” will the atonement be applied to our lives? Do we have any right to have the atonement of Christ pay for our sins if we are not doing all we can?
- GP chapter 18 opens with the statement from the Book of Mormon that “Salvation cometh to none … except it be through repentance and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ (Mosiah 3:12). Is it not misleading to quote this when Mormon teaching today offers salvation in the terrestrial kingdom to those who never had faith in Christ in this life, and guarantees salvation in the telestial kingdom to those who reject Christ both in this life and in the next? (As long as they haven’t joined and left the LDS Church.)
- Today, did you do all you could do to avoid sin, to live the commandments and obey the Savior? How about yesterday? What about this past year? If we are honest, have any of us ever done all we could do to live a holy life and put Christ first?
- Can you be saved without grace? [No] Will you be worthy of grace if you do not have faith? Can you truly say you have faith if you are not showing your strong trust in Christ by obeying “whatever He commands” (GP, 103)?
- Are you sure you want to be tied into a religious system that emphasizes its own unique lists of “do’s and don’ts” when the Bible invites you to trust Christ and all he has already done for you?
- Is it not just a bit strange for the LDS Church to define faith in terms of all the things we should be doing when the Bible clearly distinguishes between the two when it comes to our salvation?
Want to talk about any of these questions further? Write to us: firstname.lastname@example.org
For Further Study
For a simple, straightforward treatment the way the Bible relates faith and works see this short chapter from Evidence: Why Jesus and the Bible Can be Trusted.