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Judgment, Gospel, and Salvation in Mormonism

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Judgment, Gospel, and Salvation in Mormonism

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

One thing on which Mormons and evangelical Christians can definitely agree is that what we believe about eschatology—about death, the afterlife, resurrection, judgment, heaven, hell, and so forth—is important because it affects the way we live in this life. We should learn about these subjects not merely to satisfy our curiosity (although there is nothing wrong with being curious!) but primarily to make sure that we are “on board” with what God is doing right now. In this study, we will examine what chapter 46 of the LDS manual Gospel Principles teaches about the important subject of judgment.

A.     Worthiness and the Gospel

"What LDS doctrine ends up saying is that we prepare ourselves for the Final Judgment by purifying ourselves spiritually and morally; faith in Christ “helps” us to do this. The biblical gospel, on the other hand, is radically one of mercy and grace in which Christ is our only and our complete hope for salvation at the Final Judgment."

The biblical gospel, or “good news” (the literal meaning of the Greek word euangelion), begins with or assumes first of all some bad news: human beings are sinners and are deserving of God’s condemnation. After stating that the gospel is the message of salvation through faith (Romans 1:16-17), the apostle Paul begins his exposition of the gospel with these stern words: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18 NET). The good news presupposes the bad news that we are in trouble with God and need his mercy, forgiveness, and deliverance from sin. We begin the Christian life by frankly and humbly acknowledging our unworthiness of God’s love.

This understanding of the gospel is radically challenged by the LDS Church’s emphatic teaching that people need to make themselves worthy of salvation. Gospel Principles goes so far as to claim, “When we are baptized we are judged worthy to receive this ordinance” (269). Biblically, baptism is an ordinance meant for those who acknowledge their unworthiness, not for those who have demonstrated their worthiness. All four Gospels point out that John the Baptist himself, who baptized people for repentance and even administered the baptism of Jesus, admitted that he was not even worthy to be Christ’s menial servant (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:7; Luke 3:16; John 1:27; see also Acts 13:25). Christ’s most famous parable to illustrate true repentance was his story of the prodigal son, who considered himself unworthy to be accepted as his father’s son (Luke 15:19, 21). After strongly denouncing his fellow Jews for their complicity in the crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah, the apostle Peter told them to repent and be baptized—and three thousand people were baptized that very day (Acts 2:38-41). Obviously, those people were not required to do anything to establish their worthiness. If they simply “received his word” (Acts 2:41), they were baptized. The same irrelevance of worthiness is evident in other conversions and baptisms recorded in Acts (8:12, 36-38; 9:18; 16:30-33).

That God saves us despite our unworthiness should not be misunderstood to mean that he promises us salvation but leaves us otherwise unchanged. Let there be no mistake: God is in the process of making sinners into perfectly holy beings. That process begins with reconciling sinners to his love and acceptance, continues during this life with the Holy Spirit working in us to make us more and more like Christ, and will be completed after death when at the end of history we are raised from the dead to immortal, glorious perfection (e.g., Romans 8:29-30). In this sense, Paul could say in several of his epistles that God was working in believers so that they would live and act in a manner “worthy” of the gospel or of their calling (Ephesians 4:1; Philippians 1:27; Colossians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:5, 11). Thus, we can and should strive to live in a way that is worthy of the gospel, yet always with the clear understanding that any such measure of worthiness is not the basis on which we will be saved, but is instead our response to God’s free gift of salvation (Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8-10). 

B.     The Final Judgment and the Gospel

The problem with the LDS understanding of the gospel is again illustrated by the statement, “Faith in Jesus Christ helps us be prepared for the Final Judgment” (Gospel Principles, 270). This statement so understates the matter as to be misleading. What LDS doctrine ends up saying is that we prepare ourselves for the Final Judgment by purifying ourselves spiritually and morally; faith in Christ “helps” us to do this. The biblical gospel, on the other hand, is radically one of mercy and grace in which Christ is our only and our complete hope for salvation at the Final Judgment. Genuine, biblically sound faith in Christ trusts him not merely to help us prepare for the Final Judgment but to free us from any condemnation at that judgment:

  • “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24 ESV).
  • “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1 ESV).

True believers in Jesus Christ will appear before Christ in the Final Judgment, but for them this judgment will have no threat. Here again, the LDS Church’s understanding is based on a half-truth. God will indeed judge all people by their “thoughts, words, and actions” (269). However, for those whom God mercifully saves through the sacrificial death of his Son Jesus Christ, the judgment that determines what each person deserves will be cancelled by God’s grace. That is, the Final Judgment will determine that each and every one of us deserves eternal condemnation based on the righteous standard of judgment according to works, but that judgment will be overturned for those redeemed by Jesus Christ.

The disparity in these two understandings of judgment and salvation becomes very apparent in the way the LDS Church interprets the passage about the Final Judgment in the Book of Revelation. Here is that passage:

“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done” (Revelation 20:12 ESV).

As Gospel Principles explains (270), Joseph Smith taught that there were in effect two sets of “books.” There are books that consist of records kept here on the earth that preserve information about people’s deeds, and there is a corresponding book with similar records kept in heaven, which is what Joseph said was meant by “the book of life” (Doctrine & Covenants 128:6-8). According to Joseph, then, the book of life, no less than the other books, is a record of people’s lives by which they can be judged on the basis of their works, words, and thoughts.

As something of an aside, it is worth noting that the Bible’s references to the “book of life” and to “books” containing records of everything that people do should not be taken literally. That is, God does not maintain a publishing house that compiles books that contain records of our works. It is a symbolic picture (observe that most of the references come in the Book of Revelation) expressing the truth that God knows everything that we ever do, say, or think, and that he will judge mankind based on his absolute, perfect knowledge about us. 

The “Books” and the “Book of Life” in Revelation 20:12-15

The works of all people

“The Book of Life”
Those saved by Christ


Joseph Smith's explanation of the “book of life” is quite mistaken and extremely unfortunate. Revelation presents a sharp contrast between “the books” that record the works that people do and “the book of life,” which has a very different function. The “books” contain everyone’s name—believer and unbeliever alike—and records all of their works. On the basis of what is written in these books, everyone will deserve eternal condemnation, because everyone listed in these books is a sinner. The “book of life” is “the Lamb’s” (Christ’s) book and consists of a list of the names of only those people who are to be saved in the Final Judgment on the basis of Christ’s sacrificial death (Revelation 13:8; 21:27; see also Philippians 4:3). Everyone whose name is in the Lamb’s book of life will be saved; everyone else will be damned: “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15 ESV). The book of life is not a record of the good works of those who are saved; it is a record of those who will be saved by the good work of Jesus Christ on the cross for their forgiveness and reconciliation with the Father.