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Grace to Mormons

A Review of Robert Millet’s The Atoning One

Robert L. Millet is an unusual Mormon scholar. Born and raised in Louisiana, he studied psychology at BYU and religious studies at Florida State University. Since 1983 he has taught courses on scripture at BYU. His upbringing in the South especially prepared him to become the leading LDS figure in dialogues (mostly behind closed doors) between LDS and evangelical scholars during the past twenty years.

In his most recent book, The Atoning One, Millet sets forth and defends the LDS view of the Atonement with an eye especially on responding to objections from evangelical Christians. That focus is evident from the opening paragraph of the preface, in which he recounts visiting a tent revival meeting with his Baptist friend as a preteen (ix).1 The opening pages of the first chapter express concern about the “inaccurate” and even “vicious” criticisms of “certain conservative groups” that he says arose especially in the 1970s and 1980s. These groups “decided to intensify their anti-Mormon thrust, to dust off the presses, roll the cameras, and produce scores of pamphlets, books, and video presentations seeking to ‘expose’ the Mormons for who and what they ‘really’ are” (2).

As Millet knows, much of the criticism of Mormonism coming from evangelicals has focused on their view of salvation. In The Atoning One, Millet engages in what may be called theological apologetics, defending the LDS theology or doctrine of salvation.

Millet’s Sources

Of possibly considerable interest in The Atoning One are the sources that Millet cites in the book. Citations from all of the “standard works” of the LDS Church’s expanded canon of scripture appear on almost every page, especially from the New Testament and the Book of Mormon, which have roughly the same number of citations (averaging one every other page or so). Somewhat surprisingly, there are quite a few citations of the short Book of Moses (on some 18 pages), a reminder of how thoroughly Joseph Smith had reworked the early chapters of Genesis to imbue them with the Christian gospel as he then understood it. Although Millet cites quite heavily from the New Testament, his theology is governed by the latter-day scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon. Thus, Millet quotes Robert J. Matthews as saying, “In speaking of the Fall and the Atonement, the Bible tells us what happened. But it is to the Book of Mormon and modern revelation that we turn to learn why it happened” (60). The “why,” of course, is the theological explanation of the meaning of the Fall and the Atonement.

Millet also cites from all but three of the seventeen LDS Church Presidents (Woodruff, Grant, and George Albert Smith are the exceptions). After Joseph Smith, from whom Millet naturally cites more than any of the others, the most citations from the Presidents come from Brigham Young (18, 22, 24–25, 27–28, 29–30, 65–66, 127). Non-Mormons will find the frequent citations from Young interesting given the fact that Mormons routinely object if a non-Mormon cites Young in regards to LDS doctrine.

Even more surprising, though, are the frequent citations of Bruce R. McConkie, whom Millet cites about as often as he does Joseph Smith and Brigham Young combined. Millet informs us that he had a close relationship with the McConkie family, having worked alongside Bruce’s son Joseph at BYU. Here again, Christian critics of Mormonism are routinely castigated for citing Bruce McConkie as representative of Mormon doctrine (even though McConkie had a book entitled Mormon Doctrine in print by the LDS Church-owned Deseret Press for about half a century!), yet Millet unabashedly quotes repeatedly and in some places extensively from McConkie’s works.

Despite citing dozens of different conference talks, articles, and books by over forty different LDS authors, there is one book quite noticeable by the lack of any citations or mentions of it in The Atoning One. That book is Spencer W. Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness, a rather notorious book that laid down extremely stringent conditions for obtaining forgiveness for one’s sins.2 There is no doubt that Millet’s own interpretation of the Atonement, grace, and salvation is significantly different than Kimball’s was. Millet’s omission of any reference to Kimball’s book is almost certainly deliberate, as he never criticizes any LDS teacher or author by name. Instead, throughout the book Millet makes vague references to what some or many Mormons have mistakenly thought or tells anecdotes about anonymous Mormons who expressed views he gently criticizes.

Finally, Millet cites various non-Mormon authors in his book, most notably C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright. Perhaps it is not an accident that Millet is more comfortable with the thought of Anglican theologians than with American Protestant evangelicals.

Millet on the Fall

In the first two chapters of The Atoning One, Millet expounds and defends the LDS doctrine that the Fall was an act of obedience to a more important command over a lesser command. The greater command was to multiply and replenish the earth, while the lesser command was to refrain from eating of the tree of knowledge (10–15). Millet illustrates the principle involved with an anecdote of a woman convert who had to choose to be married in the temple over honoring her parents (11–12). This example may make sense to Millet’s LDS readers but if anything hurts his case with non-LDS readers, who recognize no command to be married in the temple or even the concept of ritual marriage for eternity. Moreover, the example is not especially apt since in the case of the Fall the conflict between the two commands is entirely the result of the conditions established in Eden by God (according to the LDS account). In the case of the young woman in Millet’s story, her dilemma arose due to the unbelief of her parents.

Millet’s second chapter focuses on critiquing the classical Christian view of the Fall as expressed especially in the broadly Augustinian tradition. Millet characterizes that tradition as teaching that human beings “do not even have the power to choose good over evil” (18). This isn’t accurate: the orthodox position is that fallen human beings freely choose to do evil and are not able to free themselves completely from that predisposition. Nevertheless, all orthodox Christians agree that fallen people can and often do choose to do good things.

Millet goes on to characterize traditional Christianity as teaching “that we are helpless, hopeless, or hapless creatures filled to the brim with corruption and bound and determined to be damned” (19). Millet is probably thinking here specifically of the Calvinist or Reformed tradition, but even Calvinism does not hold to this caricatured view of fallen humanity. The Reformed view is not that people are as evil as possible but that they are incorrigibly alienated from God and would remain so apart from God’s redeeming grace. Millet seems to agree (though we will have to recognize a serious caveat): he affirms that people in their natural, fallen condition “are unable or unwilling to perceive spiritual realities” (22) and “fiercely independent” of God (23). This assessment is rather close to the Augustinian view of the spiritual effects of the Fall. The caveat is that Millet assigns the blame for this condition entirely to the body. Quoting Brigham Young, he explains that the spirit of a human being is good and even “pure” but that the body is fallen and can bring the spirit under the devil’s dominion if the spirit yields to the body (27–28). Although Mormonism is not a form of Gnosticism, it must be said that this view of the spirit as pure and the body as evil is quite reminiscent of the Gnostic view of human nature.

A key point that Millet emphasizes more than once is that in LDS thought little children are exempt from condemnation because they cannot be held accountable for their actions. Millet doesn’t mention that in LDS doctrine there is a fixed age of accountability, namely, the age of eight (D&C 68:27; cf. 20:71). He alludes to this idea, however, when he mentions knowing about a seven-year-old boy who murdered his brother in anger. According to Millet, the boy won’t be held accountable for his act of murder because “little children are saved without any preconditions” (28-29). Evidently, if the boy had committed this murder no more than a year later, he would have been condemned for it. Something is wrong with this idea. My own view is that persons who die in the womb, infancy, or young childhood before maturing to a point of understanding good and evil will not be condemned because they were not capable of knowingly committing sinful acts (Rom. 9:11; cf. 2:6).3 However, the Bible specifies no age of accountability, no doubt because human beings mature intellectually and morally at different rates. Some seven-year-old children are morally quite self-aware, while some seventeen-year-old youths, due to developmental delays or other issues, are not. Moreover, those who commit heinous acts as a child definitely need to confess and express sincere regret for those actions once they develop the capacity to understand that what they had done was wrong.4

Millet on the Atonement

The heart of The Atoning One is a series of five chapters (chaps. 5–9), nearly half of the book, on the subject of the Atonement. Millet unabashedly co-opts some evangelical language in describing the meaning of Christ’s atoning work, such as calling it “the great exchange” of our sin for his righteousness (67) or endorsing the common evangelical observation that Christ’s cry from the cross “It is finished” (John 19:30) carried the meaning “paid in full” (78).5 Discerning just how such statements function in Millet’s LDS theology requires reading the whole of his treatment with some background knowledge of LDS terminology and the Mormon worldview.

In the longest chapter of the book, Millet admits that his own understanding of salvation for a long time was one of works righteousness. In an amusing story, he says that his Mormon father told him that they “don’t believe in being saved by grace” because the Baptists did! Although everyone is saved with or without faith or works in the sense that they will be resurrected to immortal life, in order to be saved in the full sense, Millet says, “we had to work, work hard and long, work until the day we died” (99). During his mission, he admits that he found Ephesians 2:8-9, which “anti-Mormons” quoted to him often, unsettling. His response was to make a “list of ‘works’ scriptures” in defense of his “well-intentioned refusal to grasp the significance of the grace of the Lord.” Miller confesses that his works-oriented focus continued for several years even after studying Paul during his mission and that he continued to hold “tenaciously” to a “grace-works dichotomy” throughout his bachelor’s and master’s programs at BYU (100). Throughout this account, Millet acknowledges that his views were fairly typical of Mormons.

It must be observed that Millet has here confirmed that one of the most common criticisms that evangelicals make of Mormonism—that it teaches a form of works righteousness—was on target, at least during the 1960s and 1970s. Millet makes no attempt to show that this prevailing view was contrary to the official teaching of LDS leaders during that period (which was the period of the publication of Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness, for example). Instead he talks about the teaching of various individuals (including himself) beginning in the mid-1970s and especially in the 1980s and 1990s that he characterizes as “a grace awakening” (the title of chapter 8). The question naturally arises as to why “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth,” which claims to be the custodian of “the fulness” of the “gospel” of Jesus Christ, (D&C 1:23, 30) should need to have such an “awakening”?

Millet’s story is not an isolated case. In 2005 Ensign published a similar account by E. Richard Packham entitled “My Maturing Views of Grace.” Packham also was confronted with Ephesians 2 when trying to evangelize evangelical Christians. Packham also found biblical proof texts to use in countering the evangelical view of grace. He held to the “common understanding of grace embraced by many Church members at the time, that the grace of Christ brought to pass the Resurrection of all mankind, but that salvation from sin and exaltation in the celestial kingdom of God came primarily through good works and obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.” This was the view that Millet said his father had taught him. Over a period of years, Packham says that his understanding of grace matured.

I have thought many times of how I answered the people on my mission who claimed to have already been saved by grace. My answer today would be quite different from what I said 50 years ago. If asked, “Do you believe we are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ?” I would answer with a resounding yes…. I have concluded that while works, such as obedience to gospel principles and ordinances, play a key role in accessing the full benefits of the Atonement, it is by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that we are saved.6

Clearly, Packham and Millet both believe that their own views about grace have changed for the better, and they acknowledge that their current views represent a significant departure from a works righteousness doctrine that held sway at least in the past. Yet neither of them admits that the LDS Church taught that doctrine at the highest levels throughout most of their lifetimes. Both of them give the impression that the works gospel they left behind was merely a popular misunderstanding, a kind of folk gospel, rather than the teaching of the LDS Church’s prophets and apostles.

It is also unclear to what extent, if any, the LDS Church’s public or “official” doctrine has changed. The terminology or rhetoric clearly has changed, but the basic doctrinal distinction that both Millet and Packham mentioned between resurrection to immortality as a sheer gift of grace alone and eternal life in God’s presence as dependent on works remains. Certainly, the LDS Church never taught that people obtain salvation in the latter sense by their works alone. Mormonism has always acknowledged that eternal life depends on God’s grace and the atonement as its essential foundation or precondition. At the same time, Mormonism today still teaches that eternal life is also dependent on works. The LDS Bible Dictionary, a current resource on the LDS.org website, states in its entry on grace:

This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts. Divine grace is needed by every soul in consequence of the Fall of Adam and also because of man’s weaknesses and shortcomings. However, grace cannot suffice without total effort on the part of the recipient. Hence the explanation, “It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23).7

Several of the LDS thinkers whom Millet cites as teaching a more grace-focused understanding of salvation in actuality supported the works righteousness doctrine he claims to have left behind. He credits Robert Matthews with having first shown him the error of his earlier thinking. Matthews taught Millet during a summer graduate course that “works of righteousness are a necessary but insufficient condition for salvation” and “that the ever-present debate on whether we are saved by grace or by works is foolish, short-sighted, and distracting” (102). That is no doubt an accurate description of what Matthews taught. He clearly taught that salvation was dependent on both God’s grace and our works: “God does for human beings only what they cannot do for themselves. Man must do all he can for himself. The doctrine is that we are saved by grace, ‘after all we can do’ (2 Nephi 25:23).”8

As was mentioned earlier, the author whom Millet quotes the most is Bruce R. McConkie. Yet McConkie definitely held to what was the standard view of grace and works, as the following quotations will document:

No matter how righteous a man might be, no matter how great and extensive his good works, he could not save himself. Salvation is in Christ and comes through his atonement. God through Christ reconciles man to himself. But building on the atonement man must perform the works of righteousness to merit salvation, as verse 10 [Eph. 2:10] and the whole passage testify…. Salvation comes by the grace of God, in that because of his love, mercy, and condescension, he sent his Only Begotten Son to work out the infinite and eternal atonement. This atonement brings immortality to all and offers those who believe and obey an inheritance in the kingdom of God. This celestial inheritance, itself also available because of God’s grace, must be earned. It is reserved for those who live the gospel law. ‘We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.’ (Third Article of Faith.)9

Paul’s doctrine—here and everywhere recorded—is this: Salvation comes by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel! To the saints his everlasting counsel is: Obey, obey, obey; keep the commandments; earn the attributes of godliness—and then, and then only, cometh salvation!... The whole gospel system is designed to enable men to turn from evil and attain righteousness by obedience to the Lord’s law. Salvation is free only in the sense that it is freely available; every blessing, other than the fact of resurrection, must be earned by obedience…. Keeping the commandments, growing in grace, acquiring the attributes of godliness, working out your salvation; salvation must be earned; it is free only in the sense that it is freely available to all who will pay the price of righteousness.10

Another LDS author whom Millet cites in support of a more grace-focused understanding is Bruce Hafen, specifically his 1988 conference address “Beauty for Ashes.” Yet Hafen advocated the standard doctrine exemplified by Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness—which Hafen explicitly recommended in that address:

The unconditional part of the Atonement is a free gift of grace requiring no further action on our part. The conditional part, however, requires our repentance as the condition of applying mercy to our personal sins…. Some of us make repentance too easy, and others make it too hard. Those who make it too easy don’t see any big sins in their lives, or they believe that breezy apologies alone are enough. These people should read President Spencer W. Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness, which reviews many sins of both commission and omission. And while forgiveness is a miracle, it is not won without penitent and strenuous effort.11

We need not question Millet’s sincerity in trying to present the LDS gospel in a more grace-oriented fashion. What is needed, however, are some frank discussions from Millet and other LDS theologians about the teachings of LDS prophets and apostles that created the need for an “awakening” to grace in the LDS Church.

Millet on God and Christ

As the title The Atoning One reflects, Millet’s interest in the book is not only in expounding the doctrine of the atonement per se but also in the person who accomplished that atonement, Jesus Christ. And rightly so. Millet has a nice and frank discussion about the tendency of some Mormons to speak about “the Atonement” in the abstract in a way that neglects the fact that it was an act of the divine person of Christ (156-57).

Millet has written previously about the doctrine of Christ,12 and what he says on the subject represents standard LDS theology. Jesus “was God” (John 1:1) in some sense and was Jehovah, the God of Israel (43), yet did “not receive the fullness of the glory and power of the Father until after he was resurrected” (34). It remains to be explained how the claim that Jehovah lacked the fullness of glory and power during the period of the Old Testament can be reconciled with the Old or the New Testament.

According to Millet, the New Testament “clearly teaches that Jehovah or Jesus the Son is subordinate to God the Father” (135-36). Here Millet fills two pages with bullet points citing texts mostly from the New Testament in support of this statement. These texts state that the Father is greater than Christ (John 14:28), that Jesus came in his Father’s name (John 5:43) to do the Father’s will (John 6:38), that the Father raised Jesus from the dead (1 Peter 1:21), that Christ is the mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5-6), that Christ glorifies the Father (John 17:1, 4), and so on. This means that while Mormons affirm that Christ is God, “in the ultimate and final sense of the word” the Father alone is the “one true and living God” (138, quoting McConkie). Is the Son not “true” God? Is he not “living”? Jeremiah, in the Old Testament, affirmed explicitly that Jehovah was the true and living God: “But the LORD [Jehovah] is the true God, he is the living God” (Jer. 10:10 KJV). The New Testament affirms that Jesus Christ is no less than the true God:

And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life. (1 John 5:20 KJV)

In becoming a human being for our salvation and for the glory of the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ has indeed become in a functional way subordinate to God the Father. As a resurrected and glorified man, Jesus still honors the Father as his God (John 20:17; Rev. 3:12) and will do so at the end of the age (1 Cor. 15:24-28). This functional or “economic” subordination of the incarnate Son to the Father does not detract in any way from the full deity of the Son.

The LDS doctrine that Jesus is less than the one true and living God has practical ramifications for how Mormons relate to Jesus. Millet himself insists that prayer should be addressed only to the Father, citing a battery of scriptural proof texts (141-42). One of these, John 14:13-14, actually invites believers to pray to the Father and to the Son: “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14 ESV).13 Millet also cites Hebrews 4:16, which encourages believers to “draw near to the throne of grace” (142), but in context the reason for drawing near with confidence of receiving mercy is that the one sitting on the throne of grace has experienced human life and temptation and so can sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:14-15). That person is of course “Jesus, the Son of God” (see also Heb. 1:8; 8:1; 12:2).

Robert Millet’s book The Atoning One is a warm, thoughtful exposition and defense of the LDS view of the Atonement and of the Person who enacted the Atonement. From an evangelical Christian perspective, the book underscores the profound differences that persist between biblical Christianity and the teaching of the Mormon religion.

 

NOTES


1. All parenthetical page references are citations from Robert L. Millet, The Atoning One (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2018).

2. Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969). Material from this book appears in the Kimball curriculum manual currently on the LDS.org web site, “Chapter 4: The Miracle of Forgiveness,” in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball (2006), 34–45. The main reason that the book is controversial within Mormonism is its stance on same-sex attraction and other sexual issues; see Peggy Fletcher Stack, “LDS classic ‘Miracle of Forgiveness’ fading away, and some Mormons say it’s time,” Salt Lake Tribune, July 24, 2015. Kimball’s own grandson has publicly admitted that some of the book’s statements “are harsh, punishing, misleading, and dangerous” and “simply must be disavowed”; Chris Kimball, “Rape and the Miracle of Forgiveness,” By Common Consent (blog), April 28, 2016. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, though, the book is still available as an e-book and enjoys a five-star rating on the Deseret Book website; even on Amazon.com it has a 4.3-star average rating (as of April 15, 2018). For a detailed review of the book by an evangelical see Eric Johnson, “A closer look at Spencer W. Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness,” Mormonism Research Ministry, n.d. See also the YouTube video of “The Miracle of Forgiveness: A Mormon/Evangelical Dialog” between evangelical Aaron Shafovaloff and LDS Robert Vukich at the Manti City Building on June 22, 2017.

3. See Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr., Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 128–37.

4. See further Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Baptism: For All Mormon Eight-Year-Olds?” in Gospel Principles and the Bible (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2012).

5. Brad Wilcox, in his enormously popular 2011 BYU devotional, also explained “It is finished” as meaning “Jesus paid our debt in full.” Brad Wilcox, “His Grace Is Sufficient,” Ensign, Sept. 2013. For a thorough analysis of Wilcox’s speech and the edited article in the Ensign, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Mormonism and the Sufficiency of Grace: Brad Wilcox’s Speech ‘His Grace Is Sufficient’” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2013).

6. E. Richard Packham, “My Maturing Views of Grace,” Ensign, Aug. 2005.

7. Grace,” in Study Helps: Bible Dictionary, LDS.org, 2018.

8. Robert J. Matthews, A Bible! A Bible! How Latter-day Revelation Helps Us Understand the Scriptures and the Savior (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1990), 186. This statement is quoted with approval in “Adam and Eve,” Mormon.org.

9. Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Volume II: Acts—Philippians (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971), 500, 535. The first comment (on Eph. 2:8-10) is quoted with approval in later publications, e.g., Robert E. Parsons, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, April 1986.

10. Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Volume III: Colossians—Revelation (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1973), 124-25, 427.

11. Bruce C. Hafen, “Beauty for Ashes,” Ensign, April 1990.

12. Most notably Robert L. Millet, A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints, foreword by Richard J. Mouw (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

13. On praying to Jesus in the New Testament, including a discussion of the text of John 14:14, see Robert M. Bowman Jr. and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 47–53.