Sacrificing Everything for the Mormon Religion
A note for teachers at the beginning of chapter 26 of Gospel Principles states, “You do not need to teach everything in each chapter” (149). Nor is it necessary for us to comment on everything in each chapter, especially since in some chapters, such as the three we will consider here, we agree with most that is said. Chapters 26-28 of Gospel Principles make a number of statements with which we can and should agree:
- People who are truly devoted to God will be willing to sacrifice anything and everything.
- Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for sins.
- Jesus’ sacrificial atonement brought an end to animal sacrifices.
- God expects us to humble ourselves and repent of our sins.
- Work is a good thing and something God expects us to do.
- Idleness and irresponsibility are sin.
- Parents are responsible to care for their children.
- Any honest work can and should be done as service to God.
- God expects all people to be active in serving one another.
- Helping other people is a way to serve God.
- Jesus was the perfect example of service.
These affirmations reflect considerable agreement between LDS teaching and values and those of Bible-believing, evangelical Christians, and we should not gloss over these common beliefs and values. There are, however, two points that deserve to be noted with regard to the teaching of Gospel Principles in these chapters:
- Gospel Principles equates willingness to sacrifice everything for the Lord with willingness to sacrifice “everything we have for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (151).
- Gospel Principles teaches that sacrifice, work, and service, though not required for salvation to one of the heavenly kingdoms, is required for “eternal life” in the presence of God the Father (151, 153, 159-60).
We will comment on each of these two points.
A. Sacrificing—for the Church?
According to Gospel Principles, “If we are to be a living sacrifice, we must be willing to give everything we have for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—to build the kingdom of God on the earth and labor to bring forth Zion” (151). The manual goes on to give examples of Mormons sacrificially giving for the church by paying tithes and offerings, working in the Relief Society, traveling to LDS Church conferences, selling their car or home to contribute to temple building funds or to have enough money to go to a temple, and serving as missionaries (153-54).
There is a fine line here. On the one hand, commitment to one’s religious faith can be admirable, and Christians ought to be serious about their role in the church. On the other hand, there is no biblical precedent or basis for teaching people to be willing to sacrifice everything for the church—whatever the true church may be. And Gospel Principles is very specific that this sacrifice is for the institution of “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” exhibited especially in financial giving and most especially in relation to its temples. Christians should be willing to sacrifice anything and everything for the Lord—on the principle that we ourselves, and everything we have, already belong to him—but (in contrast to the LDS position) this sacrifice is not for the sake of any church institution but for the glory of God:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).
“Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:15).
“You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).
There is a danger in making any human institution, no matter how noble in its intentions, the beneficiary of a person’s absolute commitment or sacrificial giving. It becomes too easy to equate the advancement of the institution with the advancement of the kingdom of God (as the above-quoted statement from Gospel Principles itself seems to do). Membership increases, expanding building programs, and other quantifiable measures of growth may or may not have anything to do with the growth of the presence of the kingdom of God. And when a religious institution claims, as the LDS Church claims, to be the only true church on the earth today, there arises a significant potential for confusing loyalty to the institution with loyalty to God. It is all too easy for sincere people to have their loyalty to Jesus Christ misdirected into loyalty to a fallible institution and presumptuous human leaders that claim to speak for Jesus Christ.
Thus, President Gordon B. Hinckley urged young Mormon men to commit themselves to “total loyalty to the Church”:
“I could wish for you nothing better than to see in your lives total loyalty to the Church, total faith in its divine mission, total love for the work of the Lord with a desire to move it forward, and total dedication in performing your duties as members of the Aaronic Priesthood” (“Some Thoughts on Temples, Retention of Converts, and Missionary Service,” Ensign [conference report], Nov. 1997, 49).
Victor Ludlow’s statement, while not an official LDS Church pronouncement, seems representative of LDS belief:
“Gospel commitment to the Church and the commandments. Effective LDS families are committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and they are active in the Church as demonstrated by three key barometers: attendance at Church meetings, full payment of tithing, and willingness to accept Church positions” (Principles and Practices of the Restored Gospel [Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1992], 481, emphasis in original).
The expectation of such “total loyalty” to the organization leads to the demand for absolute obedience to its leader, “the living prophet,” whom Mormons regard as the instrument of God’s commandments. In a General Conference address, R. Conrad Schultz argued that Mormons properly should “trust” the prophet and give “unquestioning obedience” to God’s commandments as the prophet directs, though he distinguished this from “blind obedience”:
“One of the sneaky ploys of the adversary is to have us believe that unquestioning obedience to the principles and commandments of God is blind obedience. His goal is to have us believe that we should be following our own worldly ways and selfish ambitions. This he does by persuading us that ‘blindly’ following the prophets and obeying the commandments is not thinking for ourselves…. The question is simple: Do we trust our Heavenly Father? Do we trust our prophets?” (“Faith Obedience,” Ensign, May 2002).
The same attitude is promoted by N. Eldon Tanner’s statement that “when the prophet speaks the debate is over” (“The Debate Is Over,” Liahona, June 1980, 1).
The biblical prophets, though they boldly proclaimed that what they said was the word of God, never asked people to trust them. No mere prophet ever said, as Jesus did, “You believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1). We should accept the teachings of true prophets of God, which we in fact find preserved in the Bible. Our trust, however, should be in God, not in the prophets.
Elder Schultz, in his conference address quoted above, cites Joseph Smith in support of the principle of “unquestioning obedience” to the prophet.
“The Prophet Joseph Smith, in teaching obedience, said that whatever God requires is right, though we may not know the reason until much later (see Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith,sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 256)” (Schultz, “Faith Obedience”).
What Schultz did not mention, and perhaps did not know, is that Joseph taught this principle in the context of his practice of plural marriage. Prior to 1841, Joseph Smith had taken only a few wives in addition to his lawful wife Emma—perhaps as many as three. However, from 1841 through 1843, Joseph took some thirty or so additional wives, including about eight already married women (the exact numbers are disputed but not important here). It was in the midst of that increasingly controversial practice that Joseph offered the following comments on August 27, 1842:
“Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God. But we cannot keep all the commandments without first knowing them, and we cannot expect to know all, or more than we now know, unless we comply with or keep those we have already received. That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill’; at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1938], 255-56).
By such distortions of Scripture a man claiming to be a prophet of God can rationalize such egregious abuses as marrying other men’s wives—as Joseph Smith actually did.
B. Sacrificing—to Become Worthy of Eternal Life?
As we have discussed at length in earlier chapters of this study, Gospel Principles maintains the LDS doctrinal position that distinguishes between resurrection, which is explained to mean salvation “from physical death,” and eternal life, which is defined as meaning salvation from sin to receive entrance into the presence of God (149, 153). Virtually all humanity automatically receives resurrection and immortality in one of three heavenly kingdoms; no faith or good works in this life are required. To be saved from our sins, however, Mormons believe they must prove themselves worthy by demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice whatever is required.
“Only through sacrifice can we become worthy to live in the presence of God. Only through sacrifice can we enjoy eternal life. Many who have lived before us have sacrificed all they had. We must be willing to do the same if we would earn the rich reward they enjoy. We may not be asked to sacrifice all things. But like Abraham, we should be willing to sacrifice everything to become worthy to live in the presence of the Lord” (Gospel Principles, 153).
Notice the language here: we are to “become worthy” and “earn” the “reward” of eternal life “through sacrifice,” that is, through our own demonstrations of willingness “to sacrifice everything” if required. Likewise, Gospel Principles states in its chapter on service, “We must serve others to gain eternal life” (164). These statements make salvation conditional on our performance; we must earn eternal life in God’s presence as the reward for our works of sacrifice and service.
Here again, it is very important that we observe what may seem like a very fine line. Christians ought to live sacrificially, do good works, and serve God and other people, with the goal of living in a way that is worthy of the eternal life that God promises us. For example, Jesus taught that whoever loves his natural family more than him or does not take up his cross and follow Jesus is “not worthy” of him (Matthew 10:37-38). Paul urged Christians in the churches he had founded to “walk worthy” of the Lord and his calling (Ephesians 4:1; Colossians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:5, 12). But notice the order: God calls us into a relationship with him; we then pursue a life worthy of our relationship with the Lord to which God has graciously called us. Thus, these efforts are not prerequisites to eternal life but are responses of gratitude and faithfulness to God for his mercy to undeserving, unworthy sinners.
The model believer is one who comes to God and humbly confesses that he is “not worthy” of life in his Father’s home (Luke 15:19, 21). According to Jesus, no matter how much we may do in service to God, we should say of ourselves, “We are unworthy servants” (Luke 17:10). Worthiness is the standard to which we should aspire, but thankfully not the standard by which we will be judged. Instead, our eternal life is a gift from God (Romans 6:23) procured by Jesus Christ, the Worthy One, the Lamb who died to redeem unworthy people (Revelation 5:9, 12). God the Father mercifully offers us the “worthiness” of his Son Jesus Christ, who took the punishment for our “unworthiness” when he died for our sins on the cross. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:3). “For our sake he made him [Jesus Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
For Further Study
Salvation God’s Way. Resources on salvation, including brief studies contrasting LDS teaching about salvation with the biblical teaching.