Mormonism and the Sufficiency of Grace
One of the most popular BYU speeches in recent years was a speech on July 12, 2011, by Brad Wilcox entitled “His Grace Is Sufficient.” Wilcox is a professor of Teacher Education at BYU, the author of children’s and parenting books written for LDS families, and a member of the LDS Church’s Sunday School General Board. Wilcox’s speech is engaging, at times humorous and at other times moving; it is thoughtful and peppered with memorable analogies and turns of phrase. His closing comments, in which he issues an impassioned appeal to Mormon young people not to give up on their faith, are especially touching. While a transcript of the speech may be read, the video (which also appears on YouTube) more fully reveals Wilcox’s geniality and feeling. The popularity of the speech and the comments that people have made online about it show that it is touching many Mormons and addressing their need for spiritual comfort.
Following the popular reception of Wilcox’s speech, a shortened, edited version has appeared in article form in at least two official LDS Church publications, the August 2012 New Era and September 2013 Ensign magazines. (The text of the article is the same in both publications.) The speech reflected the view of grace and salvation presented in Wilcox’s earlier book The Continuous Atonement (Deseret, 2009) and now in the book The Continuous Conversion (Deseret, 2013).
In an earlier article, originally written in July 2012, I examined and critiqued Wilcox’s speech. In view of the edited version of the speech that has been published by the LDS Church in its flagship magazine Ensign, that earlier critique has been revised here to take into consideration the similarities and differences between the original speech and the Ensign article.
Nothing said here should be understood as denying the emotional power of Wilcox’s speech or questioning the sincerity of his point of view. The questions to be pursued here are the following. (1) How does what Wilcox says in his speech and in the Ensign article compare with what the LDS Church has been teaching elsewhere about salvation, grace, and works? Specifically, does Wilcox’s message represent a significant change in Mormon teaching on these subjects? (2) What are the differences between what Wilcox teaches and what the Bible (specifically, as understood by evangelical Christians) teaches about salvation, grace, and works?
It may seem strange to ask how the doctrine of a popular speech given by a BYU professor and member of the Sunday School General Board compares with other teachings of the LDS Church. However, as a statement by LDS Church spokesman Michael Purdy reminds us, “BYU faculty members do not speak for the church.” The question, then, is not necessarily illegitimate. On the other hand, the publication of Wilcox’s speech in Ensign indicates that it is representative of Mormon doctrine—at least in the version published there. That qualification turns out to be at least potentially significant, since the Ensign article omits elements of the speech that appear to have been out of sync with the LDS Church’s general teaching over the years. The significance of such omissions must be considered with some caution, since omissions may have been simply the result of producing a shorter, more concise article for publication in the popular-level church-wide magazine. Nevertheless, the excisions of material appear to have been strategically performed to bring the article into line with the standard Mormon doctrinal paradigm concerning salvation and grace. The reader is encouraged to consider the evidence presented here and reach his or her own conclusion.
Does Jesus Make Up the Difference?
Early in his speech Wilcox reports a conversation he had with a BYU student about grace. She had said to him, “I know I need to do my best and then Jesus does the rest, but I can’t even do my best.” The Ensign article does include part of their exchange as found in the speech, but omits the following part:
She continued, “I know that I have to do my part and then Jesus makes up the difference and fills the gap that stands between my part and perfection. But who fills the gap that stands between where I am now and my part?” She then went on to tell me all the things that she shouldn’t be doing because she’s a Mormon, but she was doing them anyway. Finally I said, “Jesus doesn’t make up the difference. Jesus makes all the difference. Grace is not about filling gaps. It is about filling us.”
Wilcox reports here that the student affirmed that we need to do “our part” and then Jesus “does the rest” and “makes up the difference.” However, according to Wilcox, this student misunderstood grace. “Jesus doesn’t make up the difference. Jesus makes all the difference.” This is a memorable and stirring statement, but it does not comport well with standard Mormon doctrine, which may explain why this statement by Wilcox was omitted. What Wilcox says here has not always been the position taken even at BYU. For example, BYU scholar Michael Parker, writing in the 1992 LDS-produced Encyclopedia of Mormonism, asserted:
“‘It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do’ (2 Ne. 25:23). No mortal’s obedience to law will ever be perfect. By law alone, no one will be saved. The grace of God makes up the deficit” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism 2:812).
The same point has been made by LDS general authorities and other Mormon leaders, sometimes in the context of speaking in General Conference. Here are some particularly explicit examples:
“You know that it is one peculiarity of our faith and religion never to ask the Lord to do a thing without being willing to help him all that we are able; and then the Lord will do the rest.”—Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses 5:293, quoted in Franklin D. Richards, “The Importance of Prayer,” Ensign, July 1972; Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (1997), 46.
“Even though we often feel inadequate, unworthy, or scared, if we will do all that we can, the Lord will do the rest to make us successful in what he has asked of us.”—“Elder Joseph Anderson Eulogized,” Ensign, May 1992.
“He is our Savior, and when we have done all that we can, he will make up the difference, in his own way and in his own time. Of that I testify in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”—Dallin H. Oaks, “The Great Plan of Happiness,” Ensign, Nov. 1993.
“Contrary to the distorted doctrine of being saved solely through grace and by predestination, the Book of Mormon teaches us that we must strive to keep the commandments and repent of our sins, and then the Savior makes up the difference.”—Spencer J. Condie, “The Fall and Infinite Atonement,” Ensign, Jan. 1996.
“I have a new appreciation for the concept of mercy and recognize the need for an Atonement. I have a deep appreciation for my Savior, who makes up the difference in price I cannot pay for myself.”—“The Journey to Healing” (anonymous), Ensign, Sept. 1997.
“All it takes is desire, obedience, dedication, and endurance. The Lord will do the rest!”—Stephen B. Oveson, “Our Legacy,” Ensign, Nov. 1999.
“I realized that like the altar cloth, I am not perfect, but the Savior accepts my sincere efforts, and He would accept my gift for His house. He makes up the difference when I fall short. His grace is sufficient for me.”—Candace Bailey Munoa, “Tatting for the Temple,” Ensign, June 2002.
“He expects us to do all we can do. He does the rest. Nephi said, ‘For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.’”—Dennis E. Simmons, “But If Not…,” Ensign (conference report), May 2004, 73.
“Such a weakness teaches us, in a very personal way, that after all we can do we must rely on the grace of Christ to make up the difference.”—Anne C. Pingree, “Making Weak Things Become Strong,” Ensign, Dec. 2004.
“Likewise, we must repent of our sins and do our very best to keep the commandments. The Savior does the rest.”—Tom Roulstone, “Rescue,” Liahona, March 2005.
“Always give your best to the Lord, and He will make up the difference (see 2 Nephi 25:23).”—“Q&A: Questions and Answers,” New Era, Sept. 2007.
“I know that He lives, and after we do all we can, He will make up the difference. I so testify in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”—Walter F. Gonzaléz, “Today Is the Time,” General Conference, Oct. 2007.
“It was comforting to know that if I would do all I could for myself, the Savior would do the rest.”—Wong Yong Ko, “Setting Priorities,” Liahona, Jan. 2008.
“He works with us seven days a week, 24 hours a day. He doesn’t sleep. After we have done our part, He does the rest.”—Don R. Clarke, “Becoming What You Want to Be,” New Era, Jan. 2011.
“We do all we can, we do everything that is humanly possible, and He does the rest.”—Ed Payne, quoted in “A Backstage Look at the Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert,” Church News & Events, 21 Dec. 2011.
Over and over again, these Mormons, speaking in General Conferences and in articles in the LDS Church’s official publications, affirm that they must do all they can, must do their part, and then Jesus “does the rest” and “makes up the difference.” Yet Wilcox says in his speech that Jesus does not “make up the difference” and that such a statement expresses a misunderstanding of grace!
Near the end of his speech, Wilcox confesses that he once held to the view of grace that he now regards as a misunderstanding:
In the past I had a picture in my mind of what the final judgment would be like, and it went something like this: Jesus standing there with a clipboard and Brad standing on the other side of the room nervously looking at Jesus. Jesus checks His clipboard and says, “Oh, shoot, Brad. You missed it by two points.” Brad begs Jesus, “Please, check the essay question one more time! There have to be two points you can squeeze out of that essay.” That’s how I always saw it.
This is a wonderfully whimsical and humorous analogy. At the same time, it is painful to realize that this is precisely how many Mormons view the Final Judgment. Even Wilcox, obviously a well-informed Mormon, admits that this is how he “always saw it.” Yet now Wilcox says this was a misunderstanding of grace and judgment. Where did he get this view? Where did the Mormon student at BYU who approached him with her spiritual anxiety get her understanding of grace? There can really be only one answer: they got it from the LDS Church. This explains why this part of the speech also did not make it into the Ensign. The view of salvation that Wilcox is saying was a misunderstanding on his part is the view that has held sway for decades in official Mormon curriculum manuals and that has been taught in General Conference year after year. In recent years, clearly, some Mormons have become uncomfortable with this way of thinking about salvation. Wilcox’s speech offers a stirring alternative, one that has answered a deep-felt need among many within the LDS faith. Yet when the LDS Church publishes the speech in their official publications, they remove precisely those elements of the speech that challenged the conventional “do your best and Jesus will do the rest” view of salvation.
Jesus “Paid It All”?
One statement that the Ensign article includes in this context with little change seems very “evangelical”:
The truth is, Jesus paid our debt in full. He didn’t pay it all except for a few coins. He paid it all. It is finished.
Statements like this one have led some evangelicals to conclude that Mormonism also affirms salvation by grace alone. That Jesus “paid it all” is a familiar part of evangelical idiom with regard to salvation. And in a sense, Mormonism does teach a kind of “salvation by grace alone,” but its doctrine at this point introduces some innovative revisions of the Bible’s teaching. In Mormon theology, everyone will receive “salvation” in the sense of resurrection with immortal physical bodies, but only some people will receive “salvation” in the sense of eternal life in the presence of God in his celestial kingdom.
Wilcox alluded to this distinction between resurrection and eternal life in the comments following the one quoted above. In his original speech, Wilcox put it this way:
We will all be resurrected. We will all go back to God’s presence. What is left to be determined by our obedience is what kind of body we plan on being resurrected with and how comfortable we plan to be in God’s presence and how long we plan to stay there.
The statement that “we will all go back to God’s presence” is technically consistent with LDS doctrine, insofar as it does hold that all people will go to God’s presence to face judgment. Wilcox’s qualification “and how long we plan to stay there” is a softer way of saying that those who fail to measure up to the requirements for the celestial kingdom will not be “staying there” at all. The following statement from President Monson is representative of LDS teaching:
“Mortality is a period of testing, a time to prove ourselves worthy to return to the presence of our Heavenly Father.” Thomas S. Monson, “On Being Spiritually Prepared,” Liahona, Feb. 2010.
It is interesting to note that the Ensign article includes Wilcox’s paragraph quoted above, but with heavy editing (note the changes):
We will all be resurrected. We will all go back to God’s presence to be judged. What is left to be determined by our obedience is what kind of body we plan on being resurrected with and how comfortable we plan to be in God’s presence and how long we plan to stay there what degree of glory we plan on receiving.
Notice the added words “to be judged,” clarifying Wilcox’s statement to avoid the implication that everyone will go back to God’s presence and be able to stay as long as they want (implied by Wilcox’s words “and how long we plan to stay there,” which have been omitted). The reference to “what degree of glory we plan on receiving” points to the LDS doctrine that human beings will go to three different heavenly kingdoms depending on their faithfulness (as well as the idea that in the celestial kingdom there are still further distinctions of differing degrees of glory).
The point is that the idea that Jesus “paid it all” means something different in Mormon doctrine than it does in evangelical doctrine. For evangelicals this means that Jesus obtained for us eternal life in the presence of God as a free gift that we accept by faith alone. For Mormons it means that Jesus obtained for all people resurrection in immortal physical bodies; where we live forever and what sort of life we have there, however, is still dependent on what we do.
Justice, Obedience, and Salvation
In Wilcox’s speech and in his Ensign article, he states:
Christ asks us to show faith in Him, repent, make and keep covenants, receive the Holy Ghost, and endure to the end. By complying, we are not paying the demands of justice—not even the smallest part. Instead, we are showing appreciation for what Jesus Christ did by using it to live a life like His. Justice requires immediate perfection or a punishment when we fall short. Because Jesus took that punishment, He can offer us the chance for ultimate perfection (see Matthew 5:48; 3 Nephi 12:48) and help us reach that goal. He can forgive what justice never could, and He can turn to us now with His own set of requirements (see 3 Nephi 28:35).
Here again, it is possible to misunderstand Wilcox as teaching something like the evangelical view of salvation by grace alone. His statement that faith, keeping covenants, and enduring to the end are done not to meet the demands of justice but out of appreciation for what Christ did strike a natural chord with evangelicals. In evangelical doctrine, good works are done not to qualify for salvation but out of gratitude for the free gift of salvation we have received. This is not quite what Wilcox means, as his statements later in the same paragraph suggest. The “punishment” that “Jesus took” for us according to Mormon doctrine was the punishment of physical death; by his suffering and death, Jesus freed all people from that punishment, guaranteeing everyone resurrection from the dead in physical bodies that will never die. What sort of life we attain, however, still depends on our faith, repentance, covenants, endurance, and so forth. The salvation that Jesus provided by his suffering and death gives us, according to Wilcox, “the chance for ultimate perfection,” a goal that he can “help us reach.” But whether we reach it or not depends on whether we cooperate with him by submitting ourselves to “His own set of requirements.” In this sense individual salvation—meaning eternal life in God’s kingdom—remains a matter of justice, as various LDS authorities have stated explicitly:
“Many of the world think that eventually the Lord will be merciful and give to them unearned blessings. Mercy cannot rob justice. College professors will not give you a doctorate degree for a few weeks of cursory work in the university, nor can the Lord be merciful at the sacrifice of justice. In this program, which is infinitely greater, we will each receive what we merit.” Spencer W. Kimball, “The Importance of Celestial Marriage,” Ensign, Oct. 1979.
“If we do not repent, we must suffer even as the Lord did to satisfy the demands of justice (see D&C 19:15–17). If we refuse to repent and thereby must satisfy justice by suffering for our own sins, we will remain unprepared to enter the celestial kingdom.” Bruce C. Hafen, “Beauty for Ashes: The Atonement of Jesus Christ,” Liahona, April 1997.
“If an eternal law is broken, the punishment affixed to that law must be suffered. Some of this can be satisfied by the Savior’s Atonement, but the merciful cleansing of a soiled sinner comes only after repentance (see Alma 42:22–25), which for some sins is a prolonged and painful process.” Dallin H. Oaks, “Be Not Deceived,” General Conference, Oct. 2004.
“The demands of justice for broken law can be satisfied through mercy, earned by your continual repentance and obedience to the laws of God. Such repentance and obedience are absolutely essential for the Atonement to work its complete miracle in your life. The Redeemer can settle your individual account with justice and grant forgiveness through the merciful path of your repentance. Through the Atonement you can live in a world where justice assures that you will retain what you earn by obedience.” Richard G. Scott, “The Atonement Can Secure Your Peace and Happiness,” General Conference, Oct. 2006.
The point is also apparent from a close reading of what is probably Wilcox’s most memorable analogy—his story of the mother paying for piano lessons for her child:
Christ’s arrangement with us is similar to a mom providing music lessons for her child. Mom pays the piano teacher. How many know what I am talking about? Because Mom pays the debt in full, she can turn to her child and ask for something. What is it? Practice! Does the child’s practice pay the piano teacher? No. Does the child’s practice repay Mom for paying the piano teacher? No. Practicing is how the child shows appreciation for Mom’s incredible gift.
As sweet as this illustration is, in some respects it is a bit confusing. In the analogy, the payment of the piano teacher is analogous to the Atonement, while the child’s practicing of the piano is analogous to doing all of the things required in LDS religion: repenting, believing, obeying the commandments, going to the temple, and so on. The problem is that the failure to obey the commandments is the reason the Atonement is needed in the first place (this is as true in Mormon theology as it is in evangelical theology). This would mean that in the illustration the mother pays the piano teacher because the child failed to practice, not so that the child would be able to learn to play the piano. That is, the payment should be analogous to paying a debt owed because of the child’s failure.
What Wilcox appears to mean by this analogy is that Christ’s payment of the “debt” of sin provides each human being with an opportunity to make whatever spiritual progress he or she chooses. The point is that how far one gets spiritually still depends on how one lives—on the extent to which one “practices” what has been taught. In more traditional Mormon theological terms, the point is that Christ’s atonement assures everyone of resurrection from the dead, but the kingdom in which one will live and the kind of life one will have there still depends on one’s own works.
Learning, Not Earning, Heaven
In his speech, Wilcox said:
I have born-again Christian friends who say to me, “You Mormons are trying to earn your way to heaven.” I say, “No, we are not earning heaven. We are learning heaven. We are preparing for it (see D&C 78:7). We are practicing for it.”
One cannot help but like Wilcox’s contrast between earning heaven and learning heaven. However, is this LDS doctrine? Actually, no—which explains why this comment was omitted from the Ensign article. LDS General Authorities have frequently made statements that directly contradict what Wilcox said. Here are just a few examples:
“The Lord himself has said that we must keep his commandments: ‘There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated.’ (D&C 130:20.) The gospel of Jesus Christ is to teach us how to earn that blessing…. How careful we as Latter-day Saints ought to be to live every day of our lives that we may be influenced by the power of the Lord, and that we may be able to turn aside from those things that have a tendency to break down our power to earn the celestial kingdom.”—Teachings of Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith (2010), chapter 18.
“They are Church members who are steeped in lethargy. They neither drink nor commit the sexual sins. They do not gamble nor rob nor kill. They are good citizens and splendid neighbors, but spiritually speaking they seem to be in a long, deep sleep. They are doing nothing seriously wrong except in their failures to do the right things to earn their exaltation.”—Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969), 211-12.
“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.)”—Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Volume II: Acts—Philippians (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971), 535.
“Agency is one of the great gifts of God to His children. It allows all men and women the right to choose for themselves and to earn their own individual salvation.”—L. Tom Perry, “The Articles of Faith,” Ensign (conference report), May 1998, 22.
“Brothers and sisters, we are all looking forward to the day when we can return home to our Heavenly Father. In order to qualify for exaltation in the celestial kingdom, we must gain the trust of the Lord here on earth. We gain the trust of the Lord through earning it, and that is accomplished through our actual performance in living His gospel and keeping our covenants. In other words, we earn the trust of the Lord by doing His will.”—Richard J. Maynes, “Keeping Our Covenants,” Ensign (Conference Report), Nov. 2004, 92.
“Jesus administers the balance between justice and mercy conditioned upon our obedience to His gospel. He is the light for all mankind. He is the fountain of all truth. He fulfills all of His promises. All who obey His commandments will earn the most glorious blessings imaginable.”—Richard G. Scott, “He Lives! All Glory to His Name!” Ensign (Conference Report), May 2010, 76.
“Grace Cannot Suffice”
In review, while much of what Wilcox says is (of course) conventional Mormon belief, on two key points his speech directly contradicts what LDS leaders have repeatedly taught over the years. (1) Contrary to what Wilcox says, in LDS doctrine the grace of Jesus Christ is about “making up the difference” between our best and perfection; it is about us doing our best and Jesus “doing the rest.” (2) Wilcox’s position that Mormons are not trying to “earn” their way into heaven (i.e., into the celestial kingdom) but are instead merely learning how to live comfortably in it is contradicted by numerous statements by LDS general authorities that one must “earn” entrance into the celestial kingdom. It does not seem accidental that these two claims were both omitted in the article that appeared in the New Era and Ensign magazines.
The official LDS doctrine concerning grace is summarized rather clearly in the article on “Grace” in the online Bible Dictionary on the LDS Church’s official website (lds.org). According to that article, grace is necessary and indispensable, but it is not sufficient apart from human effort. Grace assures that all human beings “will be raised in immortality,” and it “makes salvation possible” by giving everyone the opportunity to gain full, individual salvation. However, salvation still depends on human effort:
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…. 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, emphasis added).
Grace, in Mormon doctrine, may be “sufficient” in the sense of being a sufficient source of “enabling power” or strength, but it is not “sufficient” in the sense that grace is not enough to assure that anyone is saved. In the end, salvation in the Mormon gospel still depends on the “best efforts” and “total effort” of the individual. Again, it does not seem accidental that the elements of Wilcox’s speech that conflicted with this understanding were omitted in the version that appeared in official LDS publications.
One may legitimately ask why the LDS Church would publish Wilcox’s speech if it disagreed with their standard doctrine on the points mentioned here. Although the question calls for speculation, the likely answer is that the speech has been so popular that the LDS Church authorities felt something needed to be done with it. They could not openly criticize it, because the speech has been so well-received by Mormons generally and has actually been comforting and encouraging to many members troubled by their inability to “do their best.” The Church authorities may genuinely have wanted to endorse the spiritual encouragement the speech expresses, but they could not endorse the speech without qualification. Apparently, the LDS Church authorities decided to co-opt the speech by publishing an edited version with the parts deemed doctrinally unacceptable removed. Ironically, in so doing the LDS Church removed the most touching, encouraging, and helpful elements of the speech.
Wilcox and Biblical, Evangelical Doctrine
One key element of Wilcox’s speech not yet discussed is his characterization of what “born-again Christians” think about salvation:
They ask me, “Have you been saved by grace?”
I answer, “Yes. Absolutely, totally, completely, thankfully—yes!”
Then I ask them a question that perhaps they have not fully considered: “Have you been changed by grace?” They are so excited about being saved that maybe they are not thinking enough about what comes next. They are so happy the debt is paid that they may not have considered why the debt existed in the first place. Latter-day Saints know not only what Jesus has saved us from but also what He has saved us for.
The implication of that last statement, of course, is that evangelical Christians generally don’t know “what He has saved us for.” Wilcox’s comments here reflect the usual Mormon perception that evangelicals don’t think God’s grace changes them. There may be some evangelicals who are confused on this point, but then there are people in every religious community who don’t grasp basic tenets of their religion. The fact is that evangelical theology clearly teaches that the grace of God changes people spiritually and morally. The very term “born-again Christians” ought to be enough to make this clear. Evangelicals do not think that God simply saves us from punishment for our sins and leaves us spiritually dead; they believe that God makes us spiritually alive by causing us to be born again by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit (John 3:3-8). This doctrine is known in theology as regeneration, and it is basic to evangelical belief. God’s saving grace, according to evangelical theology, does not merely excuse us from eternal punishment. God, by his saving grace, does all of the following things in and for us:
- brings us spiritually from death to life (regeneration)
- changes our attitude from resistance and unbelief to repentance and faith (conversion)
- pardons us of all our sins, giving us Christ’s righteousness in exchange for his taking our sins on the cross, and thereby puts us right with God (justification)
- ends our alienation from God and brings us into a friendship relationship with God (reconciliation)
- entitles us to relate to God the Father as our loving Father (adoption)
- unites us to Jesus Christ as our corporate Head in the church, the body of Christ (incorporation)
- indwells us with the Holy Spirit (indwelling)
- begins us on a path of growing in holy and loving character (sanctification)
- keeps us secure in God’s love and in trusting him to the end of our lives (perseverance)
- assures us of eternal life in immortal, resurrected bodies in God’s eternal kingdom (glorification)
For evangelicals, this is what it means to be “saved.” Wilcox suggests that evangelicals are so excited about being saved that they fail to think enough “about what comes next.” But there is no “next”; salvation includes all of these things. Wilcox apparently labors under the misperception that evangelicals, having “been saved,” go on their merry way doing just what they were doing before they were saved. Really? Then why do evangelicals go to church? Why do they give millions of dollars to their churches, parachurch ministries, missions agencies, and other charities? Why do so many of them go on missions themselves? Why do they read the Bible and Christian books, listen to Christian programming, and attend Christian seminars? Why do they pray? Wilcox expresses concerns about evangelicals misunderstanding the LDS view of salvation, yet their common view that Mormons are trying to earn their way to heaven has support from Mormon leaders much further up the authority chain than Wilcox. Ironically, he then repeats a common Mormon misrepresentation of the evangelical view of salvation.
All of Wilcox’s comments about born-again Christians are omitted from the Ensign article. However, a passing and implicit reference to evangelicals is made in the conclusion in both versions:
The grace of Christ is sufficient—sufficient to cover our debt, sufficient to transform us, and sufficient to help us as long as that transformation process takes. The Book of Mormon teaches us to rely solely on “the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:8). As we do, we do not discover—as some Christians believe—that Christ requires nothing of us. Rather, we discover the reason He requires so much and the strength to do all He asks (see Philippians 4:13).
Here again, Wilcox characterizes “some Christians”—by which he means evangelical Christians—as thinking “that Christ requires nothing of us.” That is incorrect. We do believe that Christ requires nothing of us for our salvation. That is, Christ commands us to love one another, to obey him, to make disciples of others, and so on, but these commands are not conditions for our salvation. We are to obey these commands because we love Christ, not because they are the means to our becoming qualified to receive eternal life in God’s presence.
While we may happily acknowledge that in some ways Wilcox’s way of explaining grace in his unedited sermon sounds, and probably is, closer to the biblical and evangelical view, it is still fundamentally Mormon in its understanding of salvation. The following three points are especially worthy of mention.
1. Wilcox accepts the Mormon doctrine that all human beings will be resurrected with immortal bodies on the basis of the Atonement (he doesn’t mention the sons of perdition, though presumably he would acknowledge that LDS concept). In the Bible, on the other hand, immortality is given only to those who accept the grace of God which he provides in Christ (Luke 20:35-36; John 6:50-51, 58; 11:25-26; Rom. 2:7; 6:5-11; 1 Cor. 15:53-54 [note the context in vv. 50-58]; 2 Tim. 1:10). The unbelieving, unrepentant dead will be resurrected, but not with immortality; they will be raised so as to stand before God whole at the Final Judgment, when they will be cast body and soul into Hell (Matt. 10:28; John 5:29; Acts 24:15).
2. Wilcox agrees with the standard LDS doctrine that one’s eternal home will depend ultimately on how well we keep God’s requirements in this life (again, he doesn’t mention the qualifications about people being saved in the spirit world but presumably would accept those ideas). Our ability to live forever in God’s presence, according to Wilcox (in both the speech and the article), is dependent on “our obedience.” To make it into the celestial kingdom and live in the presence of Heavenly Father (not just stand briefly in his presence to be judged), one must still meet various requirements. Wilcox tries to take the pressure off this idea by comparing it to a child practicing the piano out of appreciation for his mother’s provision, but the bottom line is still the same. It is as if the child will not be allowed to remain in the mother’s home unless the child becomes at least proficient in playing the piano! Or to put it in Wilcox’s way, the child will not be “comfortable” living with Mom unless the child faithfully practices, practices, practices the piano. Mormons may still hit wrong notes, but they must at least keep at their lessons and practice or they will be so uncomfortable living with Heavenly Father that they will end up living forever away from his presence in a second-class kingdom. In the Bible, on the other hand, God does indeed command and expect love and obedience from believers, but not as conditions of acceptance in his eternal presence. Christians should be “learning heaven” but not because if they don’t become proficient or “comfortable” they will be turned away from God the Father’s presence. Christians “learn heaven” because Christ has already earned it for them. Good works are the fruit of salvation, not the means by which we attain it (Eph. 2:8-10). Not just immortality, but eternal life, is the free gift of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:23).
3. Wilcox, like Mormons generally, accepts the doctrine that only those who follow the Mormon path of salvation will be able to enjoy eternal life in the presence of the Heavenly Father. When he says, “Christ asks us to show faith in Him, repent, make and keep covenants, receive the Holy Ghost, and endure to the end,” he is saying this within the context of LDS Church religion and doctrine. One cannot make or keep covenants or receive the Holy Ghost, in the senses meant in this context, except in the LDS Church. Non-Mormon Christians have faith in Christ, repent of their sins, believe that they have become part of the new covenant community (the church), believe that they have received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and endure in their faith to the end of their lives. Yet they are still not qualified to live with Heavenly Father according to Mormon doctrine. This is because Mormonism teaches that non-Mormons are not part of the church, have not made genuine covenants with God, and have not received the Holy Spirit. Biblical (and evangelical) Christianity has a narrower view of who will be saved with immortality (genuine believers in the true God and his way of salvation, not virtually all people), but it has a broader view of who will have eternal life in God’s presence (all genuine believers, not just those who keep on the Mormon path).
In his classic little book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis commented:
If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through…. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I become a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view…. As in arithmetic—there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong; but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.
Some of Wilcox’s “answers” are “nearer being right” than the answers usually given in Mormon teaching—and as we have seen in those instances his answers were omitted from the version of his speech published in the LDS Church’s official publications. But it may also be acknowledged that Mormonism comes close to the right answers in some important ways. It affirms that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave. It teaches that human beings can only be saved through the Atonement that Jesus provided. In these and other respects, the Mormon view of salvation clearly retains significant elements of historic, biblical Christianity. In other respects, however, Mormon doctrine confuses and compromises the biblical gospel by teaching doctrines such as the following:
- that the blessings of salvation are channeled solely through the LDS Church’s priesthood authority system
- that the vast majority of human beings will receive salvation not in this life but in the spirit world
- that many if not most people will obtain immortality in a glorious heavenly kingdom even if they rejected Christ in this life
- that salvation in the sense of eternal life in God’s presence depends on an individual’s best and total efforts
- that the goal of salvation is to become Gods—beings of the same type as God the Father and Jesus Christ
For these and other reasons, Mormonism is and remains a Christian heresy—a religion with Christian roots but one that has deviated so far from the essentials of the biblical gospel and the Christian faith that it must be considered to have separated itself from true Christianity. The evangelical-sounding language that Mormons often use, as seen notably in Brad Wilcox’s speech, should not be misunderstood as challenging that assessment.