Chapter Fourteen

Encountering Mormon Salvation Theology

"I want you to know that Im finally free from Mormonism after more than a year of searching. Thank God.
"I feel totally and absolutely free from the bonds of Mormonism. My prayers were answered! Ive finally come to know the Lord Jesus Christ, in a new and exciting way. For the first time Ive felt the love of Christ and have been freed from the constant feelings of condemnation. Im a sinner, but Im forgiven! Something I as a Mormon never knew existed.
"I am now free to love Him instead of just fear Him."Pam

A young "Jesus freak," a converted druggie, arrived in our town on a bus from the Midwest. He had spent two days arguing religion with a Jehovahs Witness. After a thousand miles the JW got off the bus. When it started up again, a little old lady, seated in a row behind my friend leaned forward and said quietly, "Son, they cant understand the Bible until theyre born again."

I think many evangelicals who encounter Mormons fail to understand this simple Pauline precept: "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing." This becomes especially apparent as we attempt to talk about salvation to Mormons. They use many of the same terms we do, but they assign different meanings to them, so any discussion is loaded with semantic problems.

An example is the atonement, the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross to buy eternal life for all who accept that sacrifice for their sins. To a Mormon the atoning work of Christ pays for no personal sins. It merely buys physical resurrection for all people regardless of their faith.

"Hell" in Mormon theology is not the abode of all those who fail to accept Christ. Virtually no one spends eternity in hell only "sons of perdition."

"Heaven" as a Mormon would understand it is reserved for Mormons who fully obey the laws and ordinances of the Mormon gospel. Mormon heaven actually includes three heavens with the highest partitioned into three more levels. The "exalted ones" in the highest level will become gods and create and people their own worlds.

Because of these semantic problems I avoid discussing salvation with a Mormon as long as I can.

I do so because I find salvation discussion bogs down to an exchange of salvos of Bible verses. For every verse you show a Mormon emphasizing, for example, salvation as a free gift from God, he will show you one emphasizing mans responsibility in obedience. Obedience is the one single most important word in Mormon salvation theology; grace is the one single most important word in Christian salvation theology.

Another reason I postpone the discussion of salvation is that for a Christian a man is not saved by knowledge, or profession of doctrinal truth. Many born-again Christians have difficulty articulating their salvation that doesnt mean they arent saved. Some could not write a coherent statement about the holy Trinity but theyre still born again. Man is not saved by doctrine, but by relationship meeting Christ and accepting His atonement. Doctrinal clarification comes on the heels of relationship: It doesnt produce it.

Salvation is a heart change. When the rich young ruler came to Christ and asked, "What must I do to be saved?" Jesus didnt tell him. He said, rather, give up your riches, then you may begin your journey toward God (see Matthew 19:16-26). When Nicodemus came to Jesus to have a religious conversation, Jesus said, in effect, "You need a radical spiritual change, not a doctrinal discussion" (see John 3:1-21).

I strongly recommend that early conversations with Mormons avoid arguing about whether or not the Mormon is saved, but rather focus on introducing him to the nature of God, the nature of revelation, and the Book of Mormon.

These discussions will be more likely to lead a Mormon to Christ. Discussing what Jesus or the Bible says about salvation presupposes he knows Jesus and the Bible. But in fact, he does not. He knows a different Jesus. He knows a different Bible. He is blinded and has received "a different Jesus, a different gospel, and a different spirit."

We must first bring him to see the real God. Then show him the way God really speaks (through Scripture). Then show him the real Scripture. Then and only then, I believe, are you prepared to talk about how one is saved.

Bringing up salvation too early in the conversation may unduly discourage your Latter-day Saint friend. Telling him he is not a Christian may anger him and you may lose him. So ask him to explain Mormon polytheism to you instead. If you can get him to see that polytheism is unbiblical, you are well on your way to destroying the religious barriers that keep him from salvation. As long as the Mormon is clutching the idols of Mormonism plurality of gods, Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, the Mormon social institution he does not feel a need for salvation.

For these reasons, I call the discussion of salvation theology an Advanced Encounter. I do not mean that the average Christian cannot handle the discussion. With proper training, after the foundations have been laid, after the polish has been knocked off the Mormon testimony, and after the Mormon comes to see that the Bible Jesus is not the Mormon Jesus, there will come a time when he will be anxious to hear the old, old story.


Understanding Mormon Salvation Theology

The essence of Mormon salvation is the belief that salvation is a "process." A process of obedience to "laws and ordinances." The Third Article of Faith says:

That means that only part of the process of salvation is Jesus coming to die. The other part depends on mans continuing obedience.

The Fourth Article of Faith spells out what some of those laws and ordinances are:

Note how many steps there are to salvation added to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The atoning work of the Cross is undone because it is only one step in a process. These steps, we are told, put us on the path to "exaltation" in the Celestial Kingdom. That path is long and demanding. Mormon Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, in his encyclopedic Mormon Doctrine, a widely accepted work in the Mormon Church for forty years, says:

I can vouch personally for how wearisome and frightening is the burden of salvation through obedience. I remember speaking with an elderly Mormon stake president, a man "born under the covenant," who was one of the stalwarts of my Ward in St. Anthony, Idaho.

"President," I said, "Ive been a Mormon for ten years and I dont feel much closer to the celestial kingdom than when I first joined. Im faithful in attendance and in tithing and Im morally clean. But Im getting nowhere. How do I know Im going to make it to the celestial kingdom? I mean, what about you? Are you going to the celestial kingdom?"

Ill never forget the moment that followed. I looked into the wizened face of this old patriarch and in his dark eyes I saw only fatigue, without a trace of hope.

"Jim," was his reply, "you know I cant answer that. No one can. All I can say is that Im trying."


Unconditional and Conditional Salvation

McConkie tells us of two salvations:

There are at least six different estates to which men will be assigned, based upon their conduct in this and the next life. These states are: perdition, the telestial kingdom, the terrestrial kingdom, and three degrees of the celestial kingdom.

Mormonism teaches that when men die they go to a "spirit world," divided into two sections, "spirit prison" and "paradise," to await assignment to one of the heavenly kingdoms. During this time, prior to the resurrection, those in spirit prison may be evangelized by Mormon spirits from paradise.

In the Doctrine and Covenants (Mormon scripture) is a report of Joseph Smiths vision of hell. Satan is called "Perdition," an angel who rebelled against God. Those who "know [Gods] power, and have been made partakers thereof & [and who] deny the truth and defy my power&are sons of perdition" (Section 76, vs. 31-32).

These sons of perdition are doomed to the lake of fire in "outer darkness." Apparently ignoring the images of the "lake of fire" and "outer darkness" Joseph Smith wasnt too worried about the sufferings of the damned. He said, "Hell is by no means the place this world of fools supposes it to be, but on the contrary, it is quite an agreeable place." (3)

McConkie says these sons of perdition are:

Joseph Smith calls this "the sin against the Holy Ghost." (5) It is interesting to note that Section 76 says there are the

Except for these sons of perdition, "all the rest" shall be saved!

We have in Mormonism, then, a theology known as Universal Salvation, in which mankind is universally saved. Mormonisms Universal Salvation is wrapped up in a complex theology in which the saved ones are relegated to five levels of "glory," depending upon their works. (Oddly, although it is clearly Universalist, the Book of Mormon soundly condemns Universalism.)

Not only do we find Universalism in Mormonism, but we find a concept akin to purgatory. Some, "in due time," will even come out of perdition. McConkie says that those who will be assigned to the telestial kingdom will have first "suffered the wrath of God in hell until the last resurrection." However, ultimately it is their destiny to "inherit telestial glory." (7)



The Three Kingdoms of Heaven

"It [is] self-evident," Joseph Smith said, "that if God rewarded every one according to the deeds done in the body, the term Heaven & must include more kingdoms than one." (8) here is how these kingdoms are described:

Celestial Kingdom. Section 76, as we have seen, begins with the sons of perdition. Then it describes those who inhabit the celestial kingdom. They are those who: (1) believe in Christ; (2) are properly baptized and confirmed by someone holding the appropriate priesthood authority; and (3) are cleansed from sin by keeping the commandments. (9)

These people are:

While he does not specify the exact catalog of celestial law, McConkie speaks of the "law of consecration" and "making ones calling and election sure" by "undeviating and perfect devotion to the cause of righteousness." (11)

This undeviating obedience is required even after one reaches the celestial kingdom, for not all will go on to the very highest levels of exaltation. Those who miss the mark in the celestial kingdom will be ministering servants to

Terrestrial Kingdom. The terrestrial kingdom will be the domain of "honorable men of the earth" who either did not hear the Mormon gospel or rejected it on earth, but received it in the spirit world before the resurrection. This also will be the domain of the lukewarm Mormons. (13)

Those who inhabit the terrestrial kingdom "receive the Presence of the Son, but not the Father," and never get to marry and continue in exaltation.

Telestial Kingdom. At the end of the millennium, the second resurrection takes place. All those who are not assigned to outer darkness inherit the telestial kingdom. Most people who ever live on the earth go to this kingdom, McConkie says. This kingdom is for endless hosts who have been carnal, sensual and devilish, liars and thieves, sorcerers and adulterers, blasphemers and murders. Those who are unclean and immoral, who are proud and rebellious, who walk in paths of wickedness, who are carnal and sensual, who do not maintain standards of decency, uprightness and integrity. (14)

And yet, even so, this is not a bad place to live:


An Incredible Gulf

An incredible gulf separates Mormon salvation from that of the Bible. Evangelicals understand that salvation comes through the merits of the shed blood of Christ. Man is hopelessly lost in sin, unable to raise himself from the mire of his fallen nature, "dead in transgressions and sins" (Ephesians 2:1). We gratefully acknowledge that we are saved by grace alone (see Ephesians 2:8-9).

But a Mormon not only has to earn his acceptability in Gods sight, but he has to earn his way up a ladder that stretches into the infinities on the way to godhood:

The Mormon is committed to this process. It "makes sense" to him. That is because the natural minds rebels at the suggestion that we are sinners, that we are bad separated from God. The natural mind says, "Were not too bad and with a little fix-up well be really good."

So, the most "natural" thing in the world is that we begin a program of self-improvement that culminates in our full acceptability to God.

Mans answer always is some ascetic program of self-improvement toward acceptability. Buddhism, for example, teaches the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to righteousness; the Unification Church teaches the concept of indemnity, that man becomes good by living in the shadow of the True Parents (Sun Myung Moon and his wife); Hinduism teaches the Law of Karma, that man is reincarnated until he is refined enough to become one with the Kosmic Mind.

Every religion on the face of the earth, outside of Bible Christianity, teaches salvation by some form of self-improvement or self-righteousness. Mormonism is not unique in that respect.


Gods Justice

All these self-help doctrines, in the final analysis, fail to deal with sin! Sin goes unpunished.

But God is a God of justice. He fixes penalty for sin and it must be paid. Sin without punishment makes a mockery of law. A good act cannot cancel a bad one. You cannot hate your neighbor and make up for it by loving your children; you cannot steal ten dollars from me and cancel out your debt by giving ten dollars to charity. The problem is, you still hate your neighbor and Im still out ten dollars.

Punishment is not simply for the sake of rehabilitation. It is also for the sake of justice. It was not enough that the Nazi war criminals saw the error of their ways; the Holocaust demanded justice. God has decreed that no amount of mercy will rob His justice. He will "not leave the guilty unpunished" (see Exodus 34:5-7).

So the problem is that man is a sinner deserving punishment and no amount of good works will pay for the sin he has already committed. He universally broke Gods law and earns a sentence of death. Man always sins and God always demands justice. There is, however, a just solution to the problem of sin, which is found in the Bible concept of substitution.

No cultist is able to grasp the Christian concept that "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness: (Hebrews 9:22). All cults and Mormonism is no exception relegate the Atonement to a symbolic event in which Christ simply demonstrated infinite love. The concept that His blood was payment for our individual sins escapes them.

Mormonism has great trouble with the sacrifice of Jesus.

Brigham Young explicitly stated that Jesus was "not [crucified for] the actual individual transgressions of the people, but only for Original Sin." (17) A modern Mormon scholar, Keith Norman, says that Jesus never understood his death to be a vicarious atoning sacrifice." Norman says it was Paul who developed the concept that Jesus death was "an expiatory, atoning sacrifice to redeem others." He did this, Norman says, "to convert Hellenistic Romans to whom such a concept would make sense." (18)

The Bible says "there is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof is destruction." Mormonism has taken such a path. Whenever I give a Mormon one of my books, I write on the flyleaf this reference in which Paul writes of his beloved Jewish brothers. I think the passage applies to my Mormon brothers and sisters:

My theory is that it is a waste of time to talk to Mormons about salvation until they have come to doubt the ability of Mormonism to save them.

They are blind to the Gospel; the ideal of the Cross is foolishness to them.

Only when the Mormon sees that Mormonism is wrong will his false god, which blinds him to the Gospel, lose some of its authority over him. Only then will he begin to ask, "What must I do to be saved?"


  1. McConkie, p. 116.
  2. McConkie, p. 116.
  3. The Nauvoo Expositor, June 7,1844.
  4. McConkie, p. 746.
  5. Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 358.
  6. Doctrine and Covenants, Sec. 76, vs. 37-38.
  7. McConkie, p. 640
  8. Doctrine and Covenants, Sec. 76, Heading.
  9. Doctrine and Covenants, Sec. 76, vs. 51-53.
  10. Doctrine and Covenants, Sec. 76, vs. 56-70.
  11. McConkie, pp. 116-118.
  12. Doctrine and Covenants, Sec. 132, vs. 16-17; see also McConkie, p. 670.
  13. McConkie, p. 784, see also Doctrine and Covenants, Sec. 76, vs. 71-80.
  14. See McConkie, p. 778, and Doctrine and Covenants, Sec. 76, vs. 81-112.
  15. Doctrine and Covenants, Sec/ 76, vs. 89, 111-112.
  16. Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 348.
  17. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 13, p. 143.
  18. Sunstone, "Toward a Mormon Christology," Vol. 19, No. 4, pp. 20-21.