I find this at http://christianity.net.au/questions/how_do_i_talk_to_mormons_about_jesus “Salvation, for a Mormon, is by works…. Any part of the Bible that speaks of salvation by grace through faith would be good to have in mind. (e.g. 2tim 3:15, Eph 2:8-9, Heb 11.)” That charge, that Latter-day Saints do not believe that salvation comes by the grace of God through the Atonement of Jesus Christ and therefore are not Christians, is so common that it seems best to address it early in this series and explain why it simply does not fly with this Latter-day Saint. Regrettably, some LDS themselves misunderstand the teachings of the latter-day revelations on this matter and attempt to defend a doctrine that is indefensible, and others are imprecise in their language and so open themselves to criticism; but this LDS believes what the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Bible actually say about the absolutely core doctrine of my faith. The following is somewhat lengthy, but if you want to address what I believe, you will need to read it. I stand by this: “We are saved—that is, we are justified and sanctified and make our calling and election sure—by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Now let’s talk about what ‘faith’ means.” In order to elaborate on that statement, I present below the actual language of the scriptures of the Restoration. First, here is a passage from section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants. This passage constitutes what might be called a creedal statement given in connection with the formal organization of the Church under the laws of the State of New York in 1830: “17By these things we know that there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth, and all things which are in them; 18And that he created man, male and female, after his own image and in his own likeness, created he them; 19and gave unto them commandments that they should love and serve him, the only living and true God, and that he should be the only being whom they should worship. 20But by the transgression of these holy laws man became sensual and devilish, and became fallen man. 21Wherefore, the Almighty God gave his Only Begotten Son, as it is written in those scriptures which have been given of him. 22He suffered temptations but gave no heed unto them. 23He was crucified, died, and rose again the third day; 24And ascended into heaven, to sit down on the right hand of the Father, to reign with almighty power according to the will of the Father; 25That as many as would believe and be baptized in his holy name, and endure in faith to the end, should be saved—26Not only those who believed after he came in the meridian of time, in the flesh, but all those from the beginning, even as many as were before he came, who believed in the words of the holy prophets, who spake as they were inspired by the gift of the Holy Ghost, who truly testified of him in all things, should have eternal life, 27As well as those who should come after, who should believe in the gifts and callings of God by the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of the Father and of the Son; 28Which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end. Amen. “29And we know that all men must repent and believe on the name of Jesus Christ, and worship the Father in his name, and endure in faith on his name to the end, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God. 30And we know that justification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true; 31And we know also, that sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true, to all those who love and serve God with all their mights, minds, and strength. 32But there is a possibility that man may fall from grace and depart from the living God; 33Therefore let the church take heed and pray always, lest they fall into temptation; 34Yea, and even let those who are sanctified take heed also.” There in the second paragraph are the doctrines of justification and sanctification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ unto the end of life. The following (2 Nephi 2:4 – 9) is from the first doctrinal discourse in the Book of Mormon: “4…The way is prepared from the fall of man, and salvation is free. 5And men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil. And the law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever. 6Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth. 7Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered. 8Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise. 9Wherefore, he is the firstfruits unto God, inasmuch as he shall make intercession for all the children of men; and they that believe in him shall be saved.” That was revealed chronologically before Doctrine and Covenants 20 and may be considered the doctrinal “thesis statement” of the Restoration, and it teaches justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It might be well at this point to pause to define the terms justification, sanctification, and calling and election made sure. None of those terms is explicitly defined in LDS scripture (including the Bible), but their meaning is evident by context and the historical setting of the Restoration. Justification in this context means “being declared innocent by a judge.” Sanctification means “being made pure and holy.” Making one’s calling and election sure” means “obtaining the final promise of eternal life.” In order to obtain eternal life, or any blessing from God, for that matter, in Book of Mormon and other LDS scriptural teaching, a person must be declared “not guilty” of sin by God. The problem for every person, however, is that we are all guilty (“man became sensual and devilish…fallen man” [D&C 20:20]; “by the law no flesh is justified” [2 Nephi 2:5].) Having disobeyed the law of God, man cannot by his own subsequent obedience obtain a verdict of “not guilty” of having previously disobeyed it. There is no question of “earning” eternal life by any amount of obedience, by any amount of works: “Since man had fallen he could not merit anything of himself” (Alma 22:14). “And now I ask, can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you, Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him who created you” (Mosiah 2:25). “I say unto you, my brethren, that if you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another—I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants (Mosiah 2:20 – 21). God loves his children, however, and does not design to condemn them; “wherefore” (returning to a passage quoted above) “redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth. Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit.” Thus, by the grace of God purchased by the suffering of Christ, men can be justified through faith in Christ. When a person placed his faith in Jesus Christ, confessing him before the world and shouldering his cross, Christ places his own name upon that person, and, as he stands at the judgment bar before God (as we all do at every moment of our life), it is as if God sees, not the man who has fallen short, but Christ, who has not. Justification does not complete the process of salvation, however; but justification opens the way to sanctification, by righting the relationship between a man and God, so that God can proceed to bless the man with sanctification. Without sanctification, justification remains a mere legal fiction. The process of sanctification is described here: “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19). A person is sanctified, in Book of Mormon usage, by the ministration of the Holy Ghost, as is indicated by the passage just quoted and also this: “Now they, after being sanctified by the Holy Ghost, having their garments made white, being pure and spotless before God, could not look upon sin save it were with abhorrence” (Alma 13:12). The faith in Jesus Christ that obtains justification and sanctification is manifested in repentance from sin. “Saving faith” (not a Latter-day Saint term, but, I think, an apt one) is inseparable from obedience and service to Christ: “He shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance. And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption. Therefore may God grant unto you, my brethren, that ye may begin to exercise your faith unto repentance, that ye begin to call upon his holy name, that he would have mercy upon you” (Alma 34:15 – 17). Note that faith is not a passive belief; rather, it is exercised unto repentance, and how can there be repentance except obedience replace disobedience? Therefore, how can there be faith where there is no obedience? As a missionary, I would ask, “If someone says he has faith in Jesus Christ but does nothing to obey and serve him, how much faith does he really have?” and the answer invariably, and obviously, was “none.” Faith unto repentance issues in baptism for the remission of (that is, cancellation of the penalty for) sins: “And the first fruits of repentance is baptism; and baptism cometh by faith unto the fulfilling the commandments; and the fulfilling the commandments bringeth remission of sins” (Moroni 8:25). With faith unto repentance, and repentance unto baptism, and baptism unto the remission of sins comes the sanctifying gift of the Holy Ghost: “The remission of sins bringeth meekness, and lowliness of heart; and because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost, which Comforter filleth with hope and perfect love, which love endureth by diligence unto prayer, until the end shall come, when all the saints shall dwell with God” (Moroni 8:26). It is from those Book of Mormon teachings (which, I hold, are Bible teachings) that Joseph Smith derived the LDS Fourth Article of Faith: “We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.” After an individual has committed himself to Christ, as manifested by repentance and baptism, and has received the sanctifying gift of the Holy Ghost, is the process of his salvation (and I will defend, if necessary, the proposition that salvation comes by a process) done? The Book of Mormon answers that question: “The voice of the Son came unto me, saying: He that is baptized in my name, to him will the Father give the Holy Ghost, like unto me; wherefore, follow me, and do the things which ye have seen me do. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism—yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, according to his word, behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels, and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel. But, behold, my beloved brethren, thus came the voice of the Son unto me, saying: After ye have repented of your sins, and witnessed unto the Father that ye are willing to keep my commandments, by the baptism of water, and have received the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost, and can speak with a new tongue, yea, even with the tongue of angels, and after this should deny me, it would have been better for you that ye had not known me. And I heard a voice from the Father, saying: Yea, the words of my Beloved are true and faithful. He that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved. And now, my beloved brethren, I know by this that unless a man shall endure to the end, in following the example of the Son of the living God, he cannot be saved. Wherefore, do the things which I have told you I have seen that your Lord and your Redeemer should do; for, for this cause have they been shown unto me, that ye might know the gate by which ye should enter. For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost. And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life; yea, ye have entered in by the gate; ye have done according to the commandments of the Father and the Son; and ye have received the Holy Ghost, which witnesses of the Father and the Son, unto the fulfilling of the promise which he hath made, that if ye entered in by the way ye should receive. And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save. Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life” (2 Nephi 31:12 – 20). That final promise, “Ye shall have eternal life,” is “calling and election made sure.” Does all that mean that a person must continue in anxiety, wondering through his entire life whether he is really “saved”? Not at all. By the means set forth above, a person may obtain “a hope in Christ” (Jacob 2:19), and I have that Spirit-given hope—the assurance that, as I continue along this path on which I have set out, I will remain in a state of justification, and the Holy Ghost’s work of sanctification will continue, until I am taken home to my Father. I do not hope to “earn” anything from God. I believe what the scripture says, that I can merit nothing of myself, and I have seen that confirmed by many years of experience with myself. An “ex-Mormon” evangelical once asked me, “When you arrive at the judgment bar, what will you say that you have done to merit salvation?” My answer was, and is, “Nothing at all. I will turn my case over to my Advocate and let him speak for me as he pleases. I will rely wholly upon him.” I pray for the grace to live “by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save” (2 Nephi 31:19), and relying wholly upon Christ’s merits means relying not the least bit on mine, for I of myself merit nothing. Work? Yes, I do, but because my Lord directs me to do certain work, and I love and seek to serve him—if I refuse to obey him, what kind of faith can I have? Besides, his work is my work, and I have no other, and I love it, so you need not pity me for the load I bear, for the cross I have taken up. That is what I believe. Whether it accords with Biblical teaching is another question, to be taken up in another posting. From what I have read of “traditional Christian” theology, however, virtually every point of it has been espoused at some time and place by “traditional Christians” (and bitterly disputed among them), and at least part of it seems to be in harmony with Martin Luther’s understanding of the Bible: “It is impossible, indeed, to separate works from faith, just as it is impossible to separate heat and light from fire. Beware, therefore of wrong conceptions of your own….” (in “Preface to Romans”). I do not think Luther would have quarreled strenuously with Brigham Young’s common-sense approach to the relationship between faith and works: “When faith springs up in the heart, good works will follow, and good works will increase that pure faith within them” (in Discourses of Brigham Young). Now, as I said at the first, you will find some regrettable things said by Latter-day Saints, such as “resurrection is a free gift, but exaltation must be earned”; “salvation is by faith and works, grace and works.” Possibly the most misunderstood and misused—by Latter-day Saints—passage in all scripture is 2 Nephi 25:24, “It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” That is frequently interpreted by Latter-day Saints to mean that grace takes effect chronologically after we have done all we can toward our own salvation. In the full context of the Book of Mormon, that is nonsense. The statement clearly means something more like, “Do all you can, and you will find that it is still grace that saves you, because after all you have done you have still merited nothing of yourself!” Nonetheless, I can forgive the theological imprecision of some Latter-day Saints, because I know what is behind some statements—a suspicion of the “cheap grace” of which the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks at length in The Cost of Discipleship, “the word of which has been the ruin of more Christians than any commandment of works” (p. 59). I do concede, however, that some Latter-day Saints might find greater peace by understanding and taking to heart what the Book of Mormon and other scriptures of the Restoration really teach. But I also wish “traditional Christians” would do the good work of finding out what those books I accept as scripture really teach before telling me (and others) what I believe and then consigning me to hell for it.
As I peruse the save-the-Mormons (STM henceforth) websites, I note objections to our notions of “testimony.” One writer observes: “When faced with mounting evidence against the truth of Mormonism, their fall-back is consistently their existential experience—an ‘evidence’ that is not only subjective, but which conveniently cannot be objectively verified by independent investigators. By framing their worldview in this untestable—non-falsifiable—manner, they essentially remove it from the intellectual chopping block” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyathiest/2013/01/01/when-mormons-knock-on-a-christians-door-hilarity-ensues/). (I confess I am uncertain whether the author calls himself an atheist or a Christian, but his criticism is nonetheless representative of some things I find on the clearly Christian STM sites.) Another STM writer advises: “What we must understand is that Latter-day Saints (LDS) believe these things for the same reason that people everywhere believe the things they do: they want to believe them. Very few Mormon converts become convinced by rational arguments of the prophetic office of Joseph Smith. Indeed, Mormon missionaries don’t ask one to do so; instead relying on a ‘burning in the bosom’ that the claims of Smith are true.” (http://www.russellmoore.com/2012/09/11/how-christians-should-engage-latter-day-saints/). Mr. Moore then goes on to describe and explain the “true” “burning in the bosom”:
“When Jesus was walking with the dejected disciples to Emmaus, he took them through all of the Scriptures, showing them how the Christ was the focus of them all. After he left them, they said to one another: ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’ (Luke 24:32).
“This was not, and is not, the anti-propositional relativism of postmodern epistemology, nor is it the irrational mysticism of New Age occultism. It is the human heart created in the image of God, freed by the Spirit, resonating with the truth. This is what the apostle John means when he writes that we know the spirit of truth from the spirit of error because the one who is from God ‘listens to us,’ the prophetic-apostolic instruments of divine revelation (1 John 4:6).”
Well—when I consider the proposition “Jesus Christ is the Son of God,” my heart resonates; an experience that is best described as a “well of living water” rises within me, gently and quietly, that assures me that that proposition is true. That experience is not “anti-propositional”; it is prepropositional—it is real, it is self-validating, and it gives me confidence to base my life on the proposition that Jesus Christ is the Son of God—perhaps I should say “bet” my life, because that is what I am doing, with complete satisfaction with the “odds.” On that basis I testify—I “have a testimony”—that Jesus Christ is the Son of God; I am a witness; and I am willing to believe that Mr. Moore “knows” it in the same way. On what else can faith in Jesus Christ ultimately be based? As C. S. Lewis says to this effect somewhere, “God is not a proposition to be proved, but a person to be known.” To seek physical evidence of some kind, as the “friendly athiest” seems to want me to do, to wait for the historians and the archaeologists to come to agreement that Jesus was what he said he was, is to seek a sign, and in any case is to wait forever, and life and salvation will not wait forever. I submit that I know that Jesus is the Savior in precisely the same way that the disciples on the road to Emmaus knew it, and that Peter knew it when the Savior said to him, “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto me, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 16:16 – 17). Faith must be based ultimately on “existential experience,” for there is no place else to start. My testimony of the prophetic office of Joseph Smith is based on that kind of experience, as I have recounted in some detail in the previous post, “Livesbythestream Tells His Own Story.”
Actually, it is unlikely that I as an LDS missionary would tell an investigator to expect a “burning in the bosom”; that language occurs once, in the Doctrine and Covenants (see 9:8), in a very particular situation, and LDS themselves find themselves pondering and discussing exactly what it means and how the principle given there is to be applied. I have been an LDS missionary, and I know the moment when the quiet assurance that we call “testimony” comes to an investigator, when he “knows” that the message is true, and I know that he knows, and he knows that I know he knows. I would call the investigator’s attention to the fact that he is having that experience, because that is the beginning of learning to recognize and follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost, but I would not describe it as “a burning in the bosom.” I would be more likely to call his attention to Alma 32:28 – 39, in the Book of Mormon.
As for “wanting to believe,” I am going to risk impoliteness to submit that there is something that the authors of STM websites want to believe, and that is that Joseph Smith was, in fact, a liar or a lunatic or both. I ask you to examine yourself: that light that tells you that Jesus is the Savior—has that same light whispered to you that Joseph Smith was, in fact, a prophet of the God of Abraham, Moses, and Peter, and that possibility frightens you? I wonder if you have obtained some light and now lock yourself in a box to keep God out, crying “No more! No more! The price is too high!” He will not force himself in; if you insist on denying him entry, he will comply. But only you know what witness has been given you; I am not in a position to judge; and the best reason I can think of for not accepting the prophetic office of Joseph Smith is that one does not experience a spiritual witness of it.
I was born a war baby in 1944. My mother had received her first religious instruction in the Church of God, in Texas and Oklahoma. My father had received no particular religious instruction, but when he became a father he felt it important that his children receive some, and evidently he had himself become concerned about eternity, and he was baptized in the Church of Christ when I was about four years old. We attended church there as a family, and in that Sunday School I learned the Bible stories on a flannel board and memorized my first Bible verses: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”; “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God”; “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (every one of which I now believe). Neither of my parents was what could be called an enthusiast, but my mother always had on a wall of our house a placard with the Ten Commandments and another with “Love one another as I have loved you,” and there was always a tattered Bible in sight. We moved about a bit, but I enjoyed going to church and always sought a place to attend, without much regard to denominations. In one place it was Methodist, in another the United Missionary Church, and my mother sent me once to a Pentecostal vacation Bible school; back in our home town it was always the Church of Christ.
As a child, I of course believed what I was taught, but my childhood faith began to erode, soon to collapse, as I turned twelve. About that time, I first noticed that the different churches I was attending and reading about (I was a precocious reader) subscribed to different doctrines and codes of conduct, though they all claimed to believe the same Bible. It occurred to me that they could not all be right, but how was I to know which one was right? It also occurred to me that I was brought up Protestant because I lived in America and had Protestant parents. If I had grown up in Italy, I would probably be Roman Catholic; if I had grown up in India, I would be a Hindu or a Buddhist; in Arabia, I would be a Muslim; and how was I to know for myself which, if any, of the religions was right? Furthermore, when I was twelve and thirteen, my father taught me the rudiments of logical reasoning. I grasped immediately that conclusions came from premises and data, and it was important to examine both. I had been taught to base some of my reasoning on the premise that the Bible was true, the word of God; but did I—did I—know that that was so? How could I—how could I—know? I recognized that I did not know and did not know how to know. I tried to read the Bible, but it was mostly just dead words, most of which made little sense to me. Nothing happened when I read the Bible; belief did not happen in me. During that time, I actually “went forward” at an evangelical type of meeting for young people, hoping that something would happen inside me, but nothing happened. An emptiness had begun to open in me, and nothing filled it.
As I was approaching fourteen, I was moving steadily into an abyss of unbelief, wanting to believe but finding that belief was not in me. At that age, I attended for a time at a Methodist church that had an active youth ministry. At first I enjoyed going. I was not believing, but the questions that were being addressed were important to me. I was given a small book titled something like Why I Believe or What I Believe, that set forth basics of Protestant faith. I read it, and again nothing happened. I was willing to believe, I tried to believe, but I found that I was trying to lift myself by my bootstraps, and I could not, and I was too honest to pretend that I could. Then the youth ministry began to direct our minds more to world peace and social justice than to Christ and the questions that troubled me, and I finally lost interest and stopped attending.
I turned fourteen in May of 1958, and we moved literally into the woods. My father had always wanted to homestead on property that had come into his possession, forty acres of fir, cedar, and alder trees bordering a small lake. We lived in primitive circumstances, first in a tent, then in a shack, then in a bigger shack. During the four years that we were there, with short stays in rental houses when the winter weather became unendurable, I walked a mile to a school bus stop to attend high school in town, then returned home to the woods. It was a good place for an adolescent boy to contemplate the mysteries of existence and seek God.
I turned fifteen in May of 1959, and during the next eighteen months I descended to the bottom of my abyss and rose out of it. I had continued to be a constant reader. I was reading much science fiction, which encouraged skepticism. Then, during that summer, I discovered the bohemian life that was being lived by the Beats of San Francisco, Venice West, and Seattle, and the world of art and literature that was associated with it, and I immediately identified with the Beat movement. I discovered Arthur Rimbaud and the Surrealists, and I was overwhelmed by them. I think that I found in Surrealist painting and poetry a sense of a mysterious reality beyond the surface of experience, something infinite and marvelous, which I craved. I determined to be a Surrealist poet.
On the surface, I was doing pretty well. I was getting good grades, and I was outwardly compliant with authority, with no inclination to do harm to anyone. Within, however, I was collapsing. I was obsessed by the problem of finding something to know and a way to know. My grandmother, whom I loved, died during that summer, deepening what I later learned to call existential dread. I was keenly, mercilessly, aware that if there were no life after death, then nothing that we do really matters, and if nothing matters then “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing,” and then consciousness ends. To live without value or meaning was becoming an unbearable prospect. Through my father’s college textbooks and what I found in the school and city libraries, I surveyed pretty much every answer for the great questions of life and death that human beings have entertained for six thousand years, and none of them gave me a sense of truth. I remember vividly coming upon a picture of Méret Oppenheim’s furred tea set and the horror that it evoked in me, as if it were a revelation of a horror that lay beneath the surface, quite the opposite of the sense of the marvelous that I found in other Surrealist works. The most positive thing I remember about the end of 1959 was reading Crime and Punishment. I identified with the protagonist, Raskolnikov, and I found a meager hope in his discovery of a reality of right and wrong—but it was a small hope that did not abide.
As the problem formulated itself in my mind, what I was seeking was the experience of something that was self-validating as true and real, something that came not as the conclusion of a chain of reasoning, but as the beginning of all reasoning, something that was experienced as infinite and eternal, that, in an image that persisted in my imagination, was a rock into which the first link of every chain of evidence and logic was anchored. This rock had no bottom; it was impossible to get under—or around or over—it. Along a vertical edge notches were carved, representing the measure of all truth and right. It represented something that I would simply recognize when I saw it.
Christmas of 1959 was the most miserable Christmas of my life. All the old symbols were meaningless to me. I had no belief in anything they represented. I had found no sense of liberation in my unbelief, just a black, unceasing despair. It came to the point that I hated going to sleep, because I knew I would awake to face again the awful emptiness. One night in January of 1960, I knew I had reached an end. I had no thought of suicide, but I could not bear to face another morning and wished I could curl up and close my eyes and sink into oblivion. I went outside the shack into a light drizzle of rain beneath a dark, low-clouded sky, and I dropped to my knees and prayed with utter sincerity the “agnostic’s prayer”: “If there is a God and there is some plan for this life, please tell me somehow, because I can’t go on like this.”
What happened next astonished me. The instant the words of the prayer were out, I experienced what I could describe only as something like an electric shock within my breast. I immediately thought that it was as if the invisible finger of God had just touched me, and I immediately accepted it as an answer to my prayer. I knew how the experience could be rationalized away, but I also knew that it was real and that no rationalizations would argue me out of that. As I stood up and considered my feelings, I felt surrounding me the presence of benevolent beings who wanted to help me on my way; and I realized that I had been feeling as though the parts of my very self were separating, that I was disintegrating; but I felt now that the parts had all just shifted back toward a center, and I felt a floor of hope beneath my feet. I felt assured that somewhere that “rock of eternity,” as I called it, remembering a phrase I had heard at church somewhere, really existed. I walked in the dark for a few minutes, continuing to ponder what had just happened, and then I stopped and looked up into the clouds and said, again with utter sincerity, “I don’t know what the truth is yet, but I know now that there is a truth, and I will look for it until I find it, and when I find it I will do anything it requires of me.”
I resumed my search through the philosophies and faiths of the world, but now with a touchstone for recognizing ultimate truth. The next step forward came a month or two later when I went with my parents to visit a couple with whom they were friendly. The husband had attended college with my father, and he also had college textbooks on his shelves. I pulled out an anthology of writings for an English composition course and sat by myself at their kitchen table to look through it. I came upon a selection that I learned years later was the first chapter of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity (I was not yet scholar enough to note the source and search it out). I followed his argument that if we ever feel and say that something is “fair” or “unfair” we are acknowledging the existence of a moral law to which we are all subject, and that that acknowledgment has implications. It rang true to me; it felt right; and I went home that night with a new level of hope in my quest for truth and meaning and a way of knowing. (I did not at the time catch Lewis’s next point, that I had not obeyed what I knew of the moral law and that something needed to be done about that.)
The third step came during the subsequent August. I was sitting on a beach on a fine, blue-sky morning with two friends, one a college sophomore and the other college bound the coming fall, discussing the “great questions” as precocious high schoolers and college sophomores do. One of my friends, who was a regular attender at a Methodist church, said, “I believe. I don’t know why I believe, I just do.” I thought that I wished I could believe something in that way. Then the other picked up a rock and threw it toward the water and said, “I know it’s trite, but isn’t nature beautiful? And hasn’t man made a mess of it?” The rhetorical questions sent my mind down a certain path. I framed in my mind the real question, “Is there something we are supposed to do with it?” As soon as the question was framed, another wholly unexpected experience came to me. Looking up into the sky over the water, I had a brief vision of a large group of people dressed in white clothing approaching a kind of “jumping-off” point, and the word probation was impressed upon my mind. I grasped in the moment that I was seeing the spirits of human beings in a premortal existence about to be born into an earthly life during which they would undergo a “probation.” The friend who had thrown the rock and spoken of nature said to me, “Don’t look so strange. I didn’t say anything so remarkable.” I said, “I think I’ve just had a revelation.” They did not ask me to explain, and I did not tell them about it.
By the end of that summer, I had formulated the rudiments of a philosophy, a belief system. I had little empirical or rational basis for it, but it formed in my mind and stayed, and it was coherent, and I found comfort in it. We humans have existed before this life, I thought, and we will continue to exist in a life after this one. We have the potential of becoming something greater than what we are, and what we do in this life will have some bearing on what we go on to in the next. While we are here, we are responsible to seek truth and right and live by it as best we can, and, when we learn we have made a mistake or done a wrong, we must do what we can to correct it and change our conduct—we must repent, I thought, for want of a better word. It wasn’t a great deal, but it was the closest I had been able to come to a coherent view of existence, and it gave me enough to continue on for awhile. There was no Fall in my little philosophy, and no Savior, but I do remember attending another evangelical event for young people with a friend who was becoming more actively involved in a Baptist church. I was not even close to being ready to answer the call to go forward and “make a decision for Christ,” but during the proceedings I looked at a picture on the wall representing Christ, and I thought, “I don’t know who you really are, but you are somehow important, and I think I will somehow have to come to terms with you.”
Despite the experiences and insights that had come to me, I still was intent on leading a bohemian life, on finishing high school (I was now a junior) and going to Venice West to write Surrealist poetry, hang out in coffee houses, take peyote, and consort with like-minded women. But I continued the quest. That was where things stood in September of 1960. Meanwhile, as I learned later, my mother, troubled by the direction my life was taking, was praying for my salvation. I think that at the same time she and my father had become dissatisfied with their own religious connection and were seeking something more, something they hoped they could give me. In September of 1960, they were riding in a car with a neighbor couple who were “Mormons.” One of the couple asked them what in that day LDS people called “The Golden Questions”: “How much do you know about the Mormon Church? Would you like to know more?” To their great surprise, my parents said “not much” and “yes, we would.”
I had had some small exposure to the LDS Church and people before that time. In 1954, when I was ten, we made a road trip from Washington to Oklahoma to visit my mother’s relatives. On the way through Utah, we drove through Brigham City and past the Brigham City Tabernacle, a lovely old LDS building. My father was always ready to look into something new, and on an impulse he drove into the parking lot. It happened that the building was open to the public, with hosts. A kindly, sweet-tempered old gentleman met us at the entrance and showed us the assembly hall and told us something of the history of the building. I felt good in that place; it felt clean and peaceful; and there was a kind of light in the face of our host. In the foyer was an easel displaying a poster that said something about “eternal family” and something called “sealing.” That struck me with some force; for a long time after that I wondered how a family could get that eternal “sealing” together. My father took away a pamphlet called “Joseph Smith Tells His Own Story,” which I read in the car. I was impressed and wanted my parents to read about this boy and what he said he had seen. My mother dismissed it, however, saying that “you need to be careful with anything that isn’t in the Bible.” Then, when I was twelve and thirteen, we lived for a while near a “Mormon” family, a daughter of which was in my school class. We learned that her father had some chronic illness for which he needed costly medication, and his church was helping to pay for it. I was impressed that there was a church of people who cared for each other like that.
It was November before we were able to keep an appointment with the LDS missionaries. I knew my parents were trying to connect with them, and I was curious. I was always willing to hear what people believed, because I was still casting a wide net. I remember vividly the first time I met them. We were living out of town in a house that consisted of an apartment over a garage where our car was parked. A doorway led through the back of the garage and up a short stairway into the apartment. That day I got off the school bus and went through the door to find my father standing with two young men in suits and overcoats, holding hats. I paused, and my father said, “These are the Mormon missionaries. They will be coming back to tell us about their church.” I shook hands with them, and as I did I felt an energy emanating from them that I found unsettling. I turned away quickly and went up the stairs, thinking, “There is something about them that I am going to have to deal with.”
When they came a few evenings later, they presented their first message (as they did the five subsequent ones) with the help of illustrations on a flannel board. One of them began by asking what church the family was most closely associated with, then observing that there certainly were a great many different churches and posing the question, why is that so? Then he told the story of Joseph Smith’s first vision and explained, with help from the flannel board and a few Bible verses, that when the Savior was on earth he organized a church, the Church of Christ. A person became a member of his church by being baptized by immersion. The foundation of the organization was built on the foundation of the Twelve Apostles. When the Apostles were killed (except for John, who vanished from history, my father pointed out), the foundation was gone, and without the foundation the church collapsed in apostasy, divine authority was withdrawn, and many churches grew up in the place of the Church of Christ. They went on to explain how the Church of Christ was restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith, with visitations from John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John to restore the divine authority called “priesthood.” Before they left, they set a baptismal date for the family. I was deeply impressed by the story of Joseph Smith’s first vision, and I recognized the pamphlet they gave us as the one I had read when I was ten. I read it again, and I easily identified with a fourteen-year-old boy who wanted to find the truth and went to the woods to pray and had a revelatory experience, and the brief story of the Savior, his church, and the Great Apostasy made great sense to me.
In subsequent meetings, they introduced us to the Book of Mormon, and then to what they called the “first principles and ordinances of the gospel.” They explained that we suffer physical death, the separation of the body from the spirit, because of the transgression of Adam, and we suffer spiritual death, or separation from God, because of our own sins. Jesus Christ came to save us from both deaths, the physical and the spiritual. All men would be resurrected, and we can overcome the spiritual death through faith in Jesus Christ, which led to repentance from sin, baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, and we could thereby become members of the restored Church of Jesus Christ.
The presentation that most deeply impressed me was the fifth, about “the plan of salvation.” They explained that we had lived before this life as spirit children of God; that we had come to earth for a period probation; that a “veil of forgetfulness” had been drawn over our minds to hide our memory of the premortal life; that we would die and go to a place called the spirit world to await the resurrection; that we would be judged and then take our place for eternity in one of three kingdoms, depending on our faithfulness on earth—essentially on how much light and truth we accepted. I was astounded, because I recognized a greater fullness of what I had seen in my own vision and come to understand further through the previous few months—a fullness that included Christ.
Another experience during that time made a great impression on me. I was standing outside the high school at lunch time with my four closest friends, one a Baptist, one a Lutheran (who became an ordained minister), one a professed agnostic, and one that I must call a cheerful hedonist. They were standing in front of me in a little semicircle, and I told them a little of what I was hearing from those “Mormon” missionaries. Each one of them, for their very different reasons, told me that it couldn’t be true and that I ought not to get involved with it. As I stood there, I felt something well up inside me that told me “no, they are wrong; that boy was telling the truth.” It felt clean and clear and gentle, and I thought, “This is the well of living water that I have heard about at church.” I attended an LDS Church meeting once before the scheduled baptismal date. I arrived late, going directly from an episode of willful violation of the commandments of God which I will not tell in any detail, and sitting in the back I felt the same power in the room that I had felt from the missionaries. I knew this was all something I could not dismiss lightly.
Despite all those experiences, when the evening before the baptismal service came and the missionaries came to visit with us for the last time before the service, I still hesitated to commit myself. They left with us a booklet presenting evidences for the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon as a record of inhabitants of ancient America. That night before going to bed, I went outside the house to pray, aloud and kneeling. I said, “I really like what I am hearing, but I cannot say that I know it is true, and I need to know. Can you please tell me?” Nothing happened. I said, “They have told us to pray in the name of Jesus Christ. I don’t even know what that means, but I want to be fair, so I ask it in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.” I got up and went in to bed and lay reading the booklet that had been left with us. When it came time to sleep, I laid down the booklet and turned off the light, and as I fell asleep I felt at peace with a decision to be baptized after all.
The next morning I was sitting with my parents on folding chairs before a baptismal font in an LDS meetinghouse in a nearby city. The service was opened with a hymn. I do not remember with any certainty the name of the hymn (it could have been “Come, Follow Me), but as we sang a power descended upon me that was at once peaceful, clean, and incredibly intense. I was filled with what can best be described as light, or fire, and I think of Jeremiah’s words: “His word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay” (Jeremiah 20:9). With no effort whatsoever, I was wondrously filled with belief unbidden and unforced and undeniable. I was consumed by a joy almost beyond containing, and I knew that I was standing on that “rock of eternity” that I had sought. The image of it was vivid in my mind. After my baptism and confirmation, in which hands were laid on my head and it was said to me, “Receive the Holy Ghost,” I again opened the Bible, and it was a different book. What had before been dead letter now was amazingly alive.
That is how and why I became a Latter-day Saint. I am still a Latter-day Saint because that freely flowing belief, the peace that passeth understanding, which Latter-day Saints call “testimony,” has never left me, though it became more containable, and it has been reinforced by decades of experience, learning, and service in the Church. I am not unique in that “testimony”—those of us who endure to the end in this faith do it because we have that “testimony,” and when we look at each other we know we share it, and that, my friend, is the basic thing that you must address when you “talk to a Mormon about Christianity.” It makes all other issues secondary and “no big deal.”
I am a Latter-day Saint—a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a “Mormon.” (I put “Mormon” in quotation marks because it is a nickname originally given to us by enemies and detractors of the Church. I prefer the term “Latter-day Saint” or the abbreviation “LDS,” and in this venue I will either call the Church the “LDS Church” or call it by its full name.) If you consider yourself a Christian and want to talk to this Mormon about Christianity, here I am, and I will do my best to explain to you how to do it.
I must put forth a disclaimer. I represent here only myself. I am in no way appointed to act here as an official spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am not a “set-apart” missionary. I am a rank-and-file member of the Church who speaks here only of his own faith and experience. Responsibility for any fault in what I say here rests fully and solely with me, not with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or its officially appointed spokesmen. You want to save me, and this is “me” giving you an opening.
You need to know “where I’m coming from.” I believe that Jesus Christ is the Only Begotten Son of God in the flesh and that, by the grace of God obtained by him through his suffering and death, all men (by which I mean human beings, men and women) can obtain forgiveness of sin and eternal life through faith in him. When I say I “believe,” I mean “I know,” in the same way that I understand Peter to have known when he declared to Jesus, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and Jesus said to him, “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 16:16 – 17). The only way I know to exercise faith in Jesus Christ is to commit myself wholly to obeying his commandments and serving him, not because I hope so to merit anything of myself, but because his way is the way of life, and I trust him. What else can “saving faith” mean? I was baptized in the LDS Church at the age of sixteen (I am now nearing seventy) and continue to affiliate with it and serve in it because I believe—I must say I know, in the sense explained above—that my Lord has directed me to do so, and peace and joy come to me in doing what he directs. I am a witness that the LDS Church is the restored Church of Jesus Christ, with all the doctrines, authority, and spiritual gifts that were possessed by the ancient apostolic church. It is my witness that the Book of Mormon is the word of God for our time and that, therefore, Joseph Smith, through whom it was revealed, was by definition a prophet of the God of Abraham, Moses, and Peter; and for me everything else flows from there. That is my point of departure in this conversation. I propose to proceed by addressing some points of advice and some points of “information” about LDS given on websites that one gets to by searching “how to talk to a Mormon about Christianity.” I am a beginning blogger and I am from a long time ago, and my learning curve for technology is gradual (I was an English major a long time ago; that should tell you something), but watch for more to come. If someone wants to engage me in conversation at this point, welcome.