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Showing posts with label salvation by grace. Show all posts
Showing posts with label salvation by grace. Show all posts

Friday, May 22, 2015

Is It Fair for God to Judge Those Who Never Heard?

Christianity teaches that all people are born sinners. They have a natural desire to rebel against the things of God, to be selfish and immoral. But God does not abandon them here. The good news of the Gospel is that God sent his only son Jesus to become a man and redeem us from our sins. Once we put our trust in Jesus and his act of redemption, we are reconciled to God and we can commune with him forever.

In the Christian story, both the judgment of men and the reconciliation of them are acts of God. But some cry foul at this story, claiming God is unfair for judging those who may have never heard about Jesus or their need for redemption. Is God truly unfair to those who were isolated by geography or history from the Gospel? The Apostle Paul argues they aren't, and offers a couple of reasons why.

1. God Revels Himself to All Men

In Paul's day, most of the world wasn't familiar with Christianity or even the Jewish ideas from which it sprang. When writing to the Romans, Paul realizes that the church in Rome would include people from many different backgrounds and locations across the known world. He tells the Christians there that while God had revealed himself and his holy standard to the Jews through the writings of Moses and the prophets, the Romans didn't. However Paul contends the Romans should still realize there is a God to whom they are accountable. In Romans 1:20 he writes, "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."

Imagine those who were first settling the country. Immigrants didn't speak the same language. They came from places with different laws and different customs. One family travels west and finds a picturesque spot with a stream and a meadow. However, there's a fence that encloses the land. Though the immigrant understands little of the law, he would assume that the fence is an indicator that someone had claimed this land. He would realize the fence doesn't simply appear. Even if he comes from a culture that had never used fences to mark property boundaries, through a quick examination he could easily conclude its purpose and meaning.

Similarly, no matter how isolated any culture is from the Gospel, every human being can recognize that there is design in our world. In fact, every culture has recognized that they didn't appear from nothing and there is an order to nature, to survival, and to reproduction. That's why all cultures adhere to some kind of religious practice. It demonstrates how all cultures have recognized there is something higher than themselves to whom they are beholden. In other words, mankind is never the final authority. One must look beyond himself to discover the deepest truths about his design and purpose in the world.

2. People Don't Even Measure up to Their Own Standards

The second point Paul makes is while different cultures have varying standards of morality, no one can claim innocence before God. Of course, no one can measure up to God's requirement of perfection, especially if they don't know all of what God's perfection entails. Yet, Paul states the Romans have within their own consciences enough of God's law to be accountable for that much. He writes:
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares (Rom 2:14-16, NASB).
Here, Paul simply claims that commandments like "Do not lie, do not murder, do not commit adultery" are universal. There would be many societies who had never heard of the Ten Commandments, yet would recognize the wrongness of such actions. While in some cultures a man may have only one wife and in others a man may have four wives, there is no culture where it is OK to take another man's wife.

The hook is all people fail not only at achieving God's standards, but even at holding their own. Think about two men who work at an office. One is coming in three to four minutes late and sometimes stretches his lunch hour to an hour and a half. The other is strictly prompt, but from time to time will use the work printer to make flyers for a birthday party or take a highlighter and some pens home to use there. The first man may justify his actions, thinking "I may be a few minutes late, but at least I don't steal like that guy!" while the second is thinking "I may use a few extra office supplies, but at least I care enough about my job to be on time!" The fact is both men are guilty and their attempts at self-justification prove it.

Driving on the Freeway

The clearest example I can give on how all people fail to measure up to their own law is by simply asking you to think about your experiences on the freeway. In what ways do you criticize others? If your driving was judged by the same standard as you judge everyone else, do you think you would have no strikes against yourself? I know I would!

If God did nothing more than judge each person on their own standard of conduct they held for others, each one of us would be found completely guilty before him. So, how can anyone accuse God of not being fair? It certainly isn't in his judgment of them. Perhaps they are complaining that he hasn't made redemption sufficiently clear. We can address that topic in another post.

Image courtesy Andrew Mitchell and licensed by the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) License

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Jesus Redeems Us from the Monsters

As we approach Easter Sunday, I think it's important for Christians to reflect on various aspects of our salvation. It's too easy to think of being saved as a promise for a happy life in heaven. There's so much more to the redemption than our happiness and I think we can appreciate Easter more fully if we thought a little harder on some of the less comfortable implications of salvation.

What It Means to Be Human

ISIS has been capturing headlines consistently in the news media and across social channels for nearly two years now. There's hardly a soul alive who doesn't know about the Islamic State's terror campaign across areas of the Middle East, with gruesome YouTube posts showing the savage beheadings of those they consider enemies, those of different faiths, or those with whom they simply disagree. The pillage of towns like Mosul where ISIS warriors brought back a version of the Nazi yellow badge to mark Christians and drove them from the place they called home for nearly 2,000 years. I think all sane people agree that those in ISIS demonstrate the worst in humanity.

But, the ISIS terrorists are not the exception when one asks what it means to be human. Their actions are neither new nor novel when we survey the annals of history. In fact, as Dr. Clay Jones put it, labeling ISIS as "monsters" or "inhuman" is our attempt to separate them from ourselves and perhaps provide a bit of comfort to our consciences. Yet, as Jones states, "these horrors are precisely human. They indict all of humankind in a particular way."1 Every single one of us has the capacity to become ISIS-enabled, holocaust-enabled, or 9/11 enabled. Being human means being broken to the point of the monstrous.

This isn't just my view. Just survey the wars of history. Whether it's the burning or beheading of children as a sacrifice like the ancients did or the brutal rape and machete-hacking dismemberment of the victims in Sierra Leone's civil war, history is replete with the carnage that humans continually accomplish. In his article written for the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Jones compiles statements from historians and psychologists as well as holocaust survivors like Elie Wesel who all say that evil is standard fare for humans. Even Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was imprisoned and tortured in a Soviet Gulag confirmed this when he wrote:
Where did this wolf-tribe appear from among our people? Does it really stem from our own roots? Our own blood?

It is our own.

And just so we don't go around flaunting too proudly the white mantle of the just, let everyone ask himself: "If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become just such an executioner?"

It is a dreadful question if one answers it honestly.
The capacity for unspeakable evil lies within every beating heart.

We Need Redemption from Our Own Nature

In Christian theology, this idea is nothing new. When Paul was writing to Titus, he said the natural man was "detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work" (Titus 1:16, ESV). Paul didn't even exclude himself from such a judgment, claiming "I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh" (Rom 7:18, ESV). As natural human beings, we are completely saturated with sin and rebellion, and there is no way for us to escape our own corruption.

But Jesus.

While it is impossible for us to escape the corruption of sin that would make us monsters, it is possible for God himself to provide a way of escape. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross makes it possible for us to move from the evil darkness of our lost state to one where we can actually be something different. Just after he states that there is nothing good residing within his flesh, Paul writes:
God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 8:3-4, ESV)
This is why believers are told that they are "a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Cor. 5:17, ESV). We are remade in the Spirit and we await the day when we will be remade in our bodies. We are not saved merely from hell. Monsters deserve hell and given that all human beings are monster-enabled. But Jesus does to redeem us from our evil nature. He provides for us a new nature and he provides a way of escape. That's something to be thankful for this Easter.


1. Jones, Clay. "9/11: Are We All Moral Monsters?" Biola News. Biola University, 2 Sept. 2001. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Mormonism, Hell, and God's Holiness

This year, I took a group of students to Manti, Utah where they had the chance to talk with many people who were raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, otherwise known as Mormons. Most of these folks didn't even understand orthodox Christian doctrine. Part of the problem is that Mormons will use Christian terms but pour different meaning into them, such as the concept of salvation.

For a Christian, salvation means a person has recognized his sinfulness, knows that there is no way he can justify his sinful actions to a holy God, and places his trust in Christ's sacrifice on the cross as atonement for those actions. In this way, Christians are seen as righteous in the sight of God and they may dwell with Him eternally. However, Mormon doctrine is very different. The LDS church teaches that "salvation is synonymous with immortality" 1 and all are saved except for those that apostatize against Mormonism. Thus, almost everyone will live in a heavenly terrestrial kingdom but only Mormons in good standing will live in the higher celestial kingdom.2

The Mormon view of salvation is attractive to many people because hell isn't necessarily an eternal punishment. Like a lot of others who are uncomfortable with the idea of "nice" people going to hell, this seems to be a more comfortable solution. However, while the idea may seem uncomfortable, part of our discomfort is in our fallen state we tend to diminish the heinousness of sin and misunderstand what holiness really is.

God is a Holy God

One of the differences between the Christian God and the Mormon one is that the Christian God is completely holy. He has never not been completely holy. He is eternally God, and therefore His holiness is essential to His nature as God. The God of Mormonism, however, was once a man like you and me. He didn't create us out of nothing, but we were his spirit children birthed from a heavenly mother, and if one practices proper Mormon rituals he may become a God himself.3

These competing views really affect how one understands holiness. I like to use the comparison of an old laundry detergent commercial to make this point. The camera would show one sock on a table. A second sock would fall on top of it with the voice-over narrating "Your old detergent may get your whites this clean." The sock was indeed markedly cleaner and whiter. People would perhaps buy the detergent if the commercial stopped there. But the commercial then shows a third sock falling atop both. This third sock is much whiter than even the second sock, and the narrator promised that his product can produce whites this much whiter than the competing brand.

The reason why the second sock appeared white is because the comparison was relative to only the first. In our sinful world, we have only other sinners by which to compare ourselves. Once we begin to understand true holiness, we begin to see all of humanity stained with the blackness of sin. A holy God cannot allow any sin to go unpunished. Every sin must be dealt with. Just as any amount of sewage left untreated will corrupt the purity of water, so any amount of sin left unpunished would corrupt the nature of a holy and just God, making Him something less.4

So, each person is offered a choice – you may accept the atonement Jesus provided for your sin and apply his righteousness (his "whiteness' as it were) to yourself, or you may choose to rely on your own level of righteousness. Sewage doesn't clean itself up, even after an eternity. Thus, you will forever be stained and forever be separated from God by your stain. It's what we would expect from a holy God.


1. McConkie, Bruce R. "Salvation". Mormon Doctrine. Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1966. Print. 471.
2. McConkie, "Terrestrial Kingdom", 548.
3. As Lorenzo Snow, fifth prophet of the LDS Church exclaimed, "As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be" (Ensign, February 1982, pp. 39-40). This means that every worthy male, according to the standards of Mormonism, will become a god and rule over their own planet. But what about the women? That question was answered by Joseph Fielding Smith, tenth prophet of the Church, when he spoke of man's exaltation as it is called in Mormonism:
The Father has promised us that through our faithfulness we shall be blessed with the fullness of his kingdom. In other words we will have the privilege of becoming like him. To become like him we must have all the powers of godhood; thus a man and his wife when glorified will have spirit children who eventually will go on an earth like this one we are on and pass through the same kind of experiences, being subject to mortal conditions, and if faithful, then they also will receive the fullness of exaltation and partake of the same blessings. There is no end to this development; it will go on forever. We will become gods and have jurisdiction over world, and these worlds will be peopled by our own offspring. We will have an endless eternity for this (Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 2, 48).
4. For more on this, see my article "How can a loving God NOT send people to hell?" at

Monday, July 07, 2014

Why is a Common Thread of Perfectionism Inherent in the LDS Community?

Note: All textual references within this article strictly correspond to the LDS standard works and LDS-authorized literature.
The Greek word for 'sin' in the New Testament means "to miss the mark"

A recent article written by Gerrit W. Gong, an elder of the First Quorum of the Seventy of the LDS church, addresses "unrealistic expectations of what perfection is." His article1 published this July, is entitled, "Becoming Perfect in Christ." My first question is why exactly this would need to be addressed at all. LDS elder Gong writes:
The word perfection, however, is sometimes misunderstood to mean never making a mistake. Perhaps you or someone you know is trying hard to be perfect in this way. Because such perfection always seems out of reach, even our best efforts can leave us anxious, discouraged, or exhausted. We unsuccessfully try to control our circumstances and the people around us. We fret over weaknesses and mistakes. In fact, the harder we try, the further we may feel from the perfection we seek.
Although I agree with his view, the notion of perfection he describes is different from the traditional LDS teachings on perfection. And as I continue to review the LDS gospel, it stuck out to me that perfection is critical because of its role in salvation. Salvation first requires perfection. This is the teaching found directly within the scriptures and from LDS leadership on the matter; it is not unrealistic, incorrect or self-imposed. It is traditionally-taught LDS doctrine. That is why perfectionism is such an inherent force within the LDS community. That being said, I feel this raises a few questions. For answers, I look to Christ's words and the words of the Apostles. To begin:

How then, is perfection a prerequisite for salvation in the LDS gospel?
This depends on what it means to be saved, so take the next natural question in line:

How am I saved?
You are saved by grace after all you can do (2 Nephi 25:23).

What do we do?
We do not sin, because if we sin, there is no grace (Moroni 10:32). We cannot be saved in our sins (Alma 11:37). God cannot allow any sin (D&C 1:31).

But, humans are imperfect. Don't we still sin in that imperfection?
God wouldn't command us if it were impossible (1 Nephi 3:7), so it must be possible to not sin. And if we have sinned, we must repent.

What does repentance do?
Repentance is not a gift since it merits something: forgiveness.2 We cannot commit the same sin again, we must forsake it (D&C 58:42-43) or it is not at all true repentance.3

But what happens if the sin is performed again? Can't we just do our best?
If sin is not forsaken, the sins will return to us again (D&C 82:7). Again, the forsaking must be permanent.4 Moreover, it is not sufficient simply that repented sins are forsaken, but the urge to sin in general must be out of our life.5 If we haven't truly repented, then the devil has power over us after death (Alma 34:35). So it specifically is in this life, not the next, that we are to prepare for God (Alma 34:32). Having a desire not to sin or sincerely trying our best is not good enough in this continual progression, either.6We must live a sinless life, absent of all ungodliness – in both action and urge – unto the rest of our lives in order for grace to save us. In essence, we must be perfect. Only then, will we be saved.7

But isn't the LDS gospel what Jesus and the apostles taught?
Paul gives a detailed explanation of this in Romans, but also makes similarly clear and decisive statements as in Galatians 2:16, "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified." The LDS gospel does not exactly give the same message that is given in the gospel of the New Testament: "One of the most fallacious doctrines originated by Satan and propounded by man is that man is saved alone by the grace of God; that belief in Jesus Christ alone is all that is needed for salvation." (Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 206-207). Unfortunately, the overwhelming manuscript evidence to the contrary refutes that notion - not just in 1 gospel account or epistle, but all over the correctly translated New Testament.

What about righteous works?
"Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." (Romans 3:28). That means that there is nothing a person can do, even in the Law, to be justified. It is by faith alone that people are justified. Continuing into chapter 4, Paul talks about faith (and not works) counting as righteousness: "Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness." This directly contrasts the verse prior, where Paul says that, "if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God." So although Abraham may have done righteous works, these account for naught. And this makes sense, because even in the Old Testament, Isaiah speaks for God that "all our righteousness is as filthy rags…"

Paul continues to explain what he means by a work. He says "to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt." A paycheck is not grace. A person earns a paycheck. Grace is not something that is earned, but given. Even Abraham received righteousness in his faith prior to circumcision. The covenant of circumcision came after Abraham was already justified in the righteousness of his faith. That was the blessing of promise God gave Abraham in Genesis 12:2: that righteousness comes by faith (Romans 4:13). If those are heirs of the world because of the law, then "faith is made void," and the promise is made of "none effect," that is, the promise is nullified. Even further, Paul repeats the distinction of grace and works in chapter 11:6 "And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work." So salvation cannot by both grace and works – Paul explains that they are mutually exclusive. That is, they cannot be mixed. Salvation is either by works or by grace, but not a combination of both. To be "saved by grace after all we can do" is in direct conflict with the gospel message Paul preaches us. If there were plain and precious truths that Paul left out regarding salvation, then Joseph Smith must have restored this when he restored the gospel.

What does it mean that Christ was a propitiation? (Romans 3:23-26)
"For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus." A propitiation is an atoning sacrifice. But Christ's sacrifice imparts righteousness to those that have faith in his atoning blood. It is not about what we can do. He did it all for us on the cross. Christ speaks his last: "When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost." (John 19:30). "It is finished" is not a difficult translation of Greek/Aramaic phrase. It means exactly that: it is finished. There is nothing else for us to do or earn, but to accept his free gift.

What about James' talk about showing faith by his works?
Because Christ has saved us, we love to do good works not to earn any righteousness (Paul already taught us that trying to earn righteousness before God is a worthless endeavor) but to bring glory to God because we love Him. James cites the same example that Paul does of Abraham (James 2:23), that faith brings righteousness, then goes on to say that a person is justified by works and faith. So is this a contradiction? No. James is correcting a distortion of Paul's teaching. James, in his very first verse, is specifically directing his letter to the Jews, and even more specifically, the Diaspora "The 12 tribes scattered abroad…" He is commanding them to be doers of the word, not simply hearers, because "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans10:17). They need to do, to put their faith into action. Just as much as the love of a spouse to the other makes them want to do things for the other, so too is the faith of a person in Christ. Their love for Him cultivates a spirit of action. That is what the apostle John is talking about in the beginning of his gospel account in chapter 15; abiding in Christ to bear fruit, which brings glory to God as well as makes one a disciple. And so, James continues to correct the behavior of the recipients of his letter. He gives them examples to continue to properly live out their faith, which has already saved them, and to continue to abide in the love of Christ. This love and the commandment, given by Christ to love one another, continues in John 15.

What about "be perfect, as our father is perfect?"
The Gospel is the euangelion (literally, "good news", where we get the root for terms like evangelical). Being perfect is not exactly good news. Here, knowledge of the language of the New Testament, Koine Greek (or "Common Greek") can shed light on such a passage. Thankfully, because we have an over-abundant plethora of manuscripts for the Bible, this task is possible. Take Matthew 5:48, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." The word for perfect is 'telayois' (τέλειος: complete – as in being fully grown; i.e. maturity, perfect, whole). This is the same type of perfection that occurs in James 2:22, "Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?" This perfection and idea of works is not talking about leading to salvation. This is talking about coming to a mature faith. And not just a maturity, but an ideal, a wholeness of faith. Again, notice what James does not say, that faith does not bring salvation. James is continuing the same idea of perfection as Matthew writes about, which is a maturity of faith that is ripened by loving works, which have themselves been borne out of saving faith in Christ.

Conclusion: Faith, Salvation, and Seeing God

Although striving to do God's will and earnestly seeking to glorify Him through good works is a worthy cause, it does nothing to change our state of salvation and where we wind up after death. Our trust in Christ accepts the gift of salvation. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-10, "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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." And as John writes in his gospel account aDismisst 11:40, "Jesus saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?" Truly, this is the good news of the gospel - it's not at all about anything we can do - but that his loving atoning sacrifice completed it all for us. "Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent."(John 6:28-29)


1. Gerrit W. Gong, "Becoming Perfect in Christ," Liahona, (July 2014). 14-19. Elder Gong is a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.
2. Spencer Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness. Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1969. p. 354. "…the former transgressor must have reached a 'point of no return' to sin wherein there is not merely a renunciation but also a deep abhorrence of the sin – where the sin becomes most distasteful to him and where the desire or urge to sin is cleared out of his life"
3. Ibid., p. 37.
4. Spencer Kimball, "President Kimball Speaks Out on Morality," Ensign, (November 1980). Exact page number unavailable at time of viewing; article only available as a webpage, not a re-print or PDF. Former LDS President Kimball explains that repentance "seems to fall into five steps." In step 2, "Abandonment of sin," (Italics in text) Kimball states of sin, "The discontinuance must be a permanent one. True repentance does not permit repetition. The Lord revealed this to the Prophet Joseph Smith concerning repentance: 'By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them' (D&C 58:43)." And also: "Elder Kimball warns: 'Even though forgiveness is so abundantly promised, there is no promise nor indication of forgiveness to any soul who does not totally repent. . . . We can hardly be too forceful in reminding people that they cannot sin and be forgiven and then sin again and again and expect forgiveness' (The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 353, 360). Those who receive forgiveness and then repeat the sin are held accountable for their former sins (see D&C 82:7; Ether 2:15)" (Gospel Principles, pp. 252- 253). Kimball held this view as an LDS elder and as LDS president.
5. Spencer Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness. p. 355. This reference is merely the continuation of the quote starting on page 354. 6. Ibid., p. 163, pp. 164-165. 'There is one crucial test of repentance. This is abandonment of the sin. Desire is not sufficient. In other words, it is not real repentance until one has abandoned the error of his ways and started on a new path… the saving power does not extend to him who merely wants to change his life. Trying is not sufficient, nor is repentance complete when one merely tries to abandon sin;' 'It is normal for children to try. They fall and get up numerous times before they can be certain of their footing. But adults who have gone through these learning periods must determine what they will do, then proceed to do it. To try is weak. To 'do the best I can' is not strong. We must always do better than we can'
7. Ibid., p. 163. In reality, this particular chapter is probably the most critical on the concept of simply trying one's best. It makes statement after statement affirming perfection in this life first.
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