Mormons to Study Paul, but Will They “Get” Grace?

By Shafer Parker

I know we’ve said a lot about Mormonism in recent podcasts and blogs, but right now the Mormon world is a boiling soup in which new changes in the religion founded by Joseph Smith bubble to the surface almost faster than they can be recorded. Take the following headline: 3 reasons Mormons don’t know what to do with the Apostle Paul. Mormons believe that families and individuals should study all their holy books, including the Bible, and to that end last year they put forward a new curriculum for adults entitled Come, Follow Me. The problem is, for the first time Paul’s writings will be given more than a passing glance. Over the next three months (August, September, October), the curriculum asks faithful Mormons to follow their leaders through each of Paul’s epistles (Romans through Philemon), and that means they will have to confront Paul’s un-Mormon-like eccentricities, as well as his emphasis on salvation by grace, an aspect of the Christian faith that earlier Mormon leaders have denounced in no uncertain terms.

The 3 reasons article by Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess is a good indicator that while Mormons may approach the New Testament as Scripture, they don’t read it closely enough to understand it. Riess, herself a Mormon, notes that Paul’s ascension to the position of apostle was entirely outside the church’s (read her church’s) usual channels. In other words, he wasn’t part of any form of apostolic succession, and could at first glance seem to be self-appointed. Or as Riess puts it, “Step One: Have a vision of Jesus. Step Two: Stop persecuting Christians and become one. Step Three: Put yourself in charge of the movement you just joined five minutes ago.”

It’s that third step where Riess goes wrong. If you read the first two chapters of Galatians and the book of Acts, you will see that Paul’s rise to prominence in the church took decades, and it did not happen without the support of the most important Christian leaders of the first century, including Barnabas, Peter, James and John. Thanks to these four leaders Paul was explicitly recognized as the one “entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised” (Gentiles), just as Peter was entrusted with the gospel for the Jews (Gal. 2:7). In that same passage Paul mentions something else Mormons don’t understand, that the apostolic call was always dependent upon the energizing authority of the Holy Spirit, recognized by the other apostles as working the same way in both Peter and Paul (Gal. 2:8).  And, lest you think it awfully convenient of Paul to argue this way in his own epistle, don’t forget that in Peter’s second epistle he openly acknowledges Paul’s writings as Scripture (II Peter 3:16). 

For the first time Mormons will give Paul’s writings more than a passing glance. … and that means they will have to confront his un-Mormon-like eccentricities, as well as his emphasis on salvation by grace, an aspect of the Christian faith that earlier Mormon leaders have denounced in no uncertain terms.

Riess also believes Mormons will have a problem with Paul because “he had a knock-down fight with Peter and then wrote about it.” Peter had slipped into an old Jewish habit of separating from Gentile Christians at meals, but Paul saw his behaviour as an open repudiation of the oneness in Christ brought about by the gospel (Gal. 2:14). That’s why Paul rebuked him publicly, and in Mormonism that just isn’t done. Mormon leaders place an extraordinarily high premium on public respect for church leaders, especially at the level of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency. Respect for these men is a necessity, considering that each of them is individually accepted as a "prophet, seer, and revelator" for the church. From time to time these men receive new revelations that carry the force of Scripture, the very word of God. Like the law of the Medes and the Persians, because these revelations supposedly come from God “no edict or ordinance can be changed” (Dan. 6:15). But because Mormon scripture is a man-made thing, it would be devastating to the well being of the church for a Mormon leader to be publicly charged with being wrong about fundamentals of the faith and practice. From the Mormon perspective it is unthinkable that one apostle would publicly rebuke another.

But Christianity is different from Mormonism, and Paul and Peter were nothing like Mormon leaders. In the “faith that was delivered to the saints once for all” (Jude 1:3), Christ alone is Lord of the church, and His Word alone is infallible and unchanging. Peter and Paul may have been empowered from time to time to serve as Christ’s secretaries to put Scripture in manuscript form, but it was never their word. It was always His. That’s why once the New Testament was completed, no further word has been added. Why not? Because no further word will ever be needed.  The Bible is already perfect. Mormonism is exactly the opposite. Because their scriptures (Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants) are the creations of men almost every generation has had to come up with a new “revelation” to deal with issues Joseph Smith and succeeding generations of prophets failed to foresee. Instead of seeing themselves as gods-in-the-making as Mormons do, Peter and Paul saw themselves as servants of Christ in the most literal sense possible, and were quite prepared to be corrected, publicly or privately, like any other sinner who is saved only by grace.

Speaking of grace, that’s the third thing about Paul that Mormons will find difficult to digest. As Spiess puts it, Paul “was really adamant about the grace thing.” But Mormons are all about salvation by works. In a sermon preached in 1984 Apostle Bruce McConkie declared that salvation is essentially all works. It begins, he said, with faith and repentance, but these two human acts (graces in Christian theology) only “prepare” a person for spiritual rebirth. Mormon salvation is dependent upon continuing with such necessary works as “baptism under the hands of a legal administrator who has power to bind on earth and seal in heaven” followed by “Enduring to the end in righteousness, keeping the commandments, and living by every word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God.” McConkie’s grand finale is a quote from the Mormon Scripture known as the Doctrine and Covenants (59:23): “He who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.” Lest you think doing “the works of righteousness” is anything like Jesus’ definition—“Believe in the one [the Father] has sent (John 6:29)”—here are two further quotes from the same sermon by McConkie. Once read, it should be evident that Mormon salvation is really and truly by works and not by faith. First this: “Grace is granted to men proportionately as they conform to the standards of personal righteousness that are part of the gospel plan.” And now this: “The blood of Christ was shed as a free gift of wondrous grace, but the Saints are cleansed by the blood after they keep the commandments.” (Italics added for emphasis)

Even Spiess recognizes that, “This conditional approach to grace runs headlong into Paul.” And then she suggests that perhaps modern Mormonism has moved away from McConkie’s full-on works approach. But her last quote from the new curriculum gives the game away. “Through faithful obedience to the commandments we help to open our hearts to receive grace as ‘an enabling power.’” Did you catch the order in which Mormon salvation is accomplished? First comes “faithful obedience” (works) that will “open our hearts” (self-opened hearts through faithful obedience) to—finally—receive grace as “an enabling power.” The question begs to be asked, “An enabling power for what? The work of faithful obedience has already been done!

Compare this with Paul’s description of grace in Ephesians 2:4-9. “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. (Ask yourself, how would a spiritually dead person accomplish “faithful obedience” or “open” their hearts?) You are saved by grace! . . . . For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift—not from works, so that no one can boast.” (Italics added for emphasis) 

Please join me in praying that as today’s followers of Joseph Smith study Paul’s epistles over these next three months, God will grant them the power to see that Mormon doctrine contradicts Bible doctrine. Pray that God will cause many to be born again into a living faith.