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Talking Past Each Other: Avoiding Miscommunication with Mormons

By Jennifer Pinch

For many modern Mormons, particularly in a time where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is wanting to be accepted as a Christian church, the term “Mormon” is offensive. They prefer to be called members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS. They will complain that “Mormon” was used to mock the early LDS believers.[1] This is rather ironic, since the term “Christian,” an umbrella they want to be invited under, was a derogatory term for the early followers of Jesus Christ.[2] Words have weight. As Christians who desire to engage in real and meaningful conversations with those from other faith traditions, we must be prepared by understanding their language. Not only does it matter what we say, but so does the meaning the listener ascribes to our words.

Have you ever had a conversation with a Mormon where you go away thinking you seem to believe all the same things? That’s a good sign that you do not know their language. Evangelical Christianity and Mormonism are worlds apart. Former Mormons are often better able to explain biblical Christianity to Mormons than an evangelical Christian who lacks intensive study of Mormon doctrine. I lent a new book[3] by former Mormon John B. Wallace to one of my Mormon friends. After reading it, he said it was “really the first time I understood why some might not consider Mormons to be Christian. I also understood that we totally miss the point when we try to argue that we are Christian.” That is a sensitive issue to navigate, and the communication breakthrough was encouraging to hear.

To clarify the significance of terms and definitions, let’s begin with the most basic of Christian terms: God. When Christians say “God,” they are talking about one God: no gods before Him and none after Him.[4] They are talking about the all-knowing, all-powerful, omnipresent spiritual being: the Triune Creator of all created things, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When Mormons say “God,” they will often agree there is one God, however they mean “one God for us.” Mormonism teaches that Heavenly Father is an exalted man who became a god, but is not eternally God. He is not an omnipresent spirit, but made of flesh and bone.[5] He lives on a distant planet near a star called Kolob.[6] He is a contingent being who has not always been God, nor is He the only god. He is one god in an eternal progression of gods.

What do Mormons mean when they say gospel? They mean all the doctrines, principles, laws, ordinances, and covenants necessary for us to be exalted in the celestial kingdom.[7] It is something one must accept and continuously act upon within the LDS religion. They believe that they must faithfully live the gospel. Then and only then will they stand guiltless before the Father at the Final Judgment.[8] In Christianity, the gospel is the good news of salvation for all who repent and believe on Christ. The gospel is complete forgiveness granted to us through his death, burial, and resurrection as atonement for our sins. We believe that we are saved apart from our works as it says in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”[9]

A Mormon will insist that they too believe we have salvation by grace because of Jesus Christ’s atonement. Again, you need to scale the language barrier. Mormonism equates salvation with universal resurrection and immortality. In the afterlife, each person earns his place in Heaven through works. So, in Mormonism virtually everyone is saved by grace. Another essential LDS doctrine is called the Plan of Salvation. This is the belief that humans pre-existed with God as spirit children, came to earth to indwell mortal bodies and be tested, and will eventually return to be in one of several levels of Heaven depending on their choices in their mortal life. This law of eternal progression is the same plan Heavenly Father went through to get to the place He now is. The ultimate goal is to become like Christ, our spirit brother: to attain exaltation. When Mormons speak of eternal life, they mean exaltation, becoming a god. In fact, they look down on evangelical Christians for being satisfied with such elementary goals as salvation. They believe that we too are followers of Christ, or Christians, but we have a small and limited understanding. To quote a prominent Mormon apologist and author: “Only the Latter-day Saints understand the purpose of God’s grace is to take us all the way to himself and make us—quite literally—what he is. Now that is grace indeed!”[10]

When Christians speak of Heaven, they refer to the place where believers will be eternally in the presence of God.[11] For a Christian, being with God is the end goal. For a Mormon, the end goal is to become a god themselves.[12] This ought to strike us as a dangerous pursuit, since Satan himself was cast from Heaven for seeking his own glory. That being said, Mormons will always deny that they are seeking God’s glory, because they believe in a continuous hierarchy of gods. They will never be greater than Heavenly Father. Mormons think of Heaven as a place where virtually every human being will go. They refer to three degrees of glory within the kingdom of Heaven: the lowest Telestial level is for wicked people, the middle Terrestrial level is for basically morally good people, and the highest Celestial level is reserved for faithful Latter-day Saints who have lived the gospel and are on the path to exaltation. Hell or Outer Darkness is reserved for Satan, his angels, and the sons of perdition which include anyone who officially leaves the LDS church.[13] For a true believing Mormon, to leave the Latter-day Saints and become an evangelical Christian means they have rejected the one true church authorized by God to give the Holy Ghost and have committed the unpardonable sin.[14] This ought to give us a sense of the emotional pain and fear that LDS people endure when transitioning out of Mormonism. In biblical Christianity, Hell is similarly a place prepared for Satan, his angels, and those who willfully reject Christ. Christians however, believe that they receive the Holy Ghost at the moment of salvation.[15] It is not something given by any church organization.[16]

Another essential issue of definitions is the person and nature of Jesus Christ. When Christians speak of Jesus, they mean the second person of the Trinity. He is fully God, not a subordinate deity. He is the eternal, uncreated Creator of all things. Jesus willingly chose to enter our world through the incarnation, to become both fully God and fully man. In Mormonism, Jesus is literally our elder brother, born to Heavenly Father and one of His goddess wives in the pre-existence. According to several past prophets of the LDS church, Jesus is the literal, physical son of Heavenly Father and Mary.[17]

There is one last term I would like to examine: the Fall. In the historic Christian faith, we believe that the Fall was a curse. It is the first key event in understanding the relationship between God and mankind. By rebelling against God and choosing to sin, mankind was separated from God. Shame and death became a reality. Our fallen state is one of selfishness, depravity, a continual desire to hide from God, and spiritual deadness. What was lost at the Fall was healed by Jesus’ work on our behalf at the cross. He conquered death once for all,[18] and we are reconciled to a right relationship with God. In Mormonism, the fall was a blessing. Essentially, Mormons believe that God gave Adam conflicting commands and intended him to fall. The temptation was a divine set-up. Adam was commanded to have children, but could not do so in his pre-mortal state. Adam and Eve could have lived forever in the garden paradise but would have been alone. The only way to become mortal was to disobey God’s command and eat of the fruit. They were given mortality which is both necessary to have mortal children to populate the earth and to progress to exaltation in the plan of salvation. To keep the first commandment of having children, they had to break the commandment to not eat the fruit.[19] What a confusing God to follow.

As Paul poured out his heart for the early followers of Christ, we need to have the same urgency to share the truth with LDS people. For “there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:7b-8 ESV). While we have only touched the surface of the conflicting definitions of common terms,[20] it is my hope that Christians with a heart for practical apologetics and evangelism will understand that ideas have consequences. In everyday conversations with Mormons these terms must be defined at the outset to allow for meaningful dialogue. A conversation between the average Christian and his Mormon friend without careful choice of language will be just two sincere people talking past each other. We must desire to avoid these critical misunderstandings and get to the heart of the matter.

[1] Bill McKeever, “Why do some Latter-day Saints Dislike Being Called Mormon?”, Mormonism Research Ministry, accessed January 7, 2015, http://www.mrm.org/mormon.

[2] Acts 11:26.

[3] Wallace, John B., Starting at the Finish Line: The Gospel of Grace for Mormons (Long Beach, CA:Pomona House, 2014).

[4] Isaiah 43:10.

[5] Doctrine & Covenants 130:2.

[6] Book of Abraham 3:2-3.

[7] “Gospel,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, last modified February 21, 2012, accessed January 7, 2015, https://www.lds.org/topics/gospel?lang=eng.

[8] Book of Mormon, 3 Nephi 27:16.

[9] Unless otherwise indicated, Bible quotations are from the King James Version (KJV).

[10] Robinson, Stephen E., Following Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1995), 69.

[11] 1 Thessalonians 4:17; 2 Corinthians 5.

[12] Journal of Discourses 3:93.

[13] Doctrine & Covenants 76; see also Doctrines of the Gospel Student Manual (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2000), chapter 33.

[14] Hebrews 6:4-6.

[15] Romans 8:9.

[16] Ephesians 1:13-14.

[17] McConkie, Bruce R., Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958). This is problematic, since Mary is the spirit daughter of Heavenly Father, making their physical relationship incestuous.

[18] 2 Timothy 1:10.

[19] Jess L. Christensen, “The Choice that Began Mortality,” Liahona, August 2002, accessed January 7, 2015, https://www.lds.org/liahona/2002/08/the-choice-that-began-mortality?lang=eng.

[20] Sandra Tanner, “Terminology Differences,” Utah Lighthouse Ministry, accessed January 7, 2015, http://www.utlm.org/onlineresources/terminologymain.htm.

  • Karla

    Thanks for this Jen. Very informative, and understandable!

  • Nate

    excellent research, use of valid sources, and most importantly dead on. I appreciate you taking the time to clarify definitions used and how each group perceived doctrines and principles that are same on the surface, but very different contextually.