Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Why I Am Serving a Mission

My life has lately been taking some surprising turns. Through a series of unpredictable events I have joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which unfortunately tends to be viewed negatively by many. In addition, I have decided to pause my schooling and my relationships in order to dedicate two years of my life to the spreading of this gospel to the Peruvian people. Meanwhile, many of my friends and family may be left wondering just what happened to me. In the hopes of answering some of their questions, I would like to spend some time addressing the message of the LDS Church, and why I made the decision to spend two years spreading this message abroad.
The Message

In order to understand what is taught and believed by the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it would help to first take a look at the name of the Church itself:

The Church . . .

The Church refers to the unified, worldwide body of believers and the organization that unites them all. The organization starts locally with single congregations run by unpaid “lay clergy”, which are united under larger and larger organizational bodies until it gets to the highest presiding quorums, which are the biblical quorums of the Seventy, the Twelve Apostles, and the First Presidency. The First Presidency consists of current President of the Church Thomas S. Monson and his two councilors. All who have authority in any level of the Church have the right to receive revelation by the Holy Ghost for those under them, therefore the president of the Church is also known as “the Prophet,” because he receives revelation for all the Church and all the world. The apostles are likewise prophets. Therefore, an essential aspect of the message of the Church is that prophets who give the word of God like those of biblical times are again restored to the earth.

Because all who lead in any position in the Church are expected to go to the Father in prayer before making any decision, the Church is both highly organized yet highly reliant on the guidance of the Spirit.

Additionally, every major decision at all levels of Church organization must be sustained by the unanimous consent of all the members. There exists such unanimity of mind between the leadership and membership that nearly every single decision in the Church is unanimously agreed upon.

Overall, the Church’s organization is modeled after the organization of Christ’s original New Testament Church. Our sixth article of faith states, “We believe in the same organization that existed in the primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth.” It helps people from all over the world come together as a single, unified people under Christ’s name, which leads me to the next part of the Church’s name:

 . . . of Jesus Christ . . .

Everything we do in the Church–every prayer, blessing, ordinance, act of service, etc.­–is done in the name of Jesus Christ, who is our Lord, Savior, and Redeemer. When we are baptized we take upon us the name of Jesus Christ and covenant to serve Him and represent Him throughout the world.

We in the Church are often—nay, constantly—reminded of what Jesus Christ did for us, and why we need Him. We teach that Christ was chosen from the beginning to be the Redeemer of mankind who would overcome the effects of the Fall of Adam, namely, death and sin, allowing us to repent and be reconciled to God. He accomplished this act by becoming the ultimate sacrifice for humanity, suffering greatly and taking upon Himself all the sins of the world. His miraculous birth, life, and crucifixion are considered the most important events of human history. Every week in our worship services we remember Christ’s great atoning sacrifice by partaking of the sacrament, or communion. If we do so with real intent, we are forgiven of our sins and renew our baptismal covenants to remember and serve Him in return for His great love.

Before ascending into Heaven after His resurrection, Christ established His Church with all the authority and organization needed to speak for Him and carry forth His message to world. He taught them faith, repentance, baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, and taught them that after He left they would gain the gift of the Holy Ghost. However, after the scattering and martyrdom of the original apostles, the Church could no longer withstand the intrusion of corruption that the apostles had been struggling so hard to correct (see Acts 20:29, Gal. 1:6, 2 Tim. 1:15, 2 Pet. 2:1, 1 Jn. 2:18, etc.). The original Church thus fell into apostasy as predicted by Paul when he said, “for that day [the coming of Christ] shall not come, except there come a falling away first” (2 Thes. 2:3). Though many groups remained who believed in Christ’s divinity, the Church established by Christ Himself was no longer found on the earth.

. . . of Latter-day Saints

But all hope was not lost. The Old Testament promise remained that “the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people” (Isaiah 11:11), and Paul prophesied of the “restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:21). And with the knowledge that “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7), our message to the world is that Christ’s Church has already been restored through a modern day prophet of God, Joseph Smith, in these latter days.

 Joseph Smith is not worshiped in the Church. He was merely a man, fallible just like any other. However, we believe he was a prophet of God who, like Moses, arose at an essential moment in human history to bring God’s truth to humanity. God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him while he was praying fervently in the woods at the age of fourteen. He was disillusioned by the lack of unity among the Christian churches at that time, and asked the Lord which Church he should join. The Lord told him to join none of them, but that through Joseph He would restore the true Church upon the earth again. Through this restoration the Lord brought back the true Christian teachings and ordinances, including the proper order of faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. He also restored the priesthood, or authority to act and preach in Christ’s name. Therefore, as members of the early Church were called saints in the New Testament, so are modern members of the Church called “Latter-day Saints.”

Why did we need the Restoration? Well, in a world of literally thousands of contending Christian sects, all claiming the right to call themselves the followers of Jesus Christ, nothing short of divine intervention could have restored the Christian Church in its purity. Joseph Smith is proof that God has not changed. He still speaks to His children in all parts of the world through prophets, and there is a living prophet today named Thomas S. Monson. These prophets teach the gospel of Jesus Christ with clarity, unity, and conviction.

The priesthood is a very important part of the Restoration. Christ passed on His priesthood to His apostles two thousand years ago, saying “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). The apostles Peter, James, and John appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery before the founding of the latter-day Church and conferred to them the priesthood of Christ. Today nearly worthy males in the Church receive the priesthood, which in turn allows them act in the name of Christ within their families and Church positions.

One of the most vital aspects of this sealing or binding power is that families can be together forever. When a couple is married by the proper priesthood authority in one of over 150 Latter-day Saint temples, their marriage and family has the potential to last far beyond the boundaries of death. The priesthood, then, is inseparably connected with the family, and has proved an incalculable blessing in strengthening and uniting families around the world.

Another aspect of the Latter-day Church is that we have the blessing of additional scriptures that testify of Christ and what He has done for the world in times past. Part of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling was to restore the knowledge of an ancient Hebrew people who migrated to the American continent in about 600 BC under the direction of the Lord. Their history is recorded in the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon contains over 500 pages of inspired insights, prophecies, histories, teachings, wars, and migrations regarding these people. It was named after the ancient prophet Mormon, who compiled his people’s history at a time when they were nearly extinct, sealing it up to be discovered at a later date. In the climax of this book, the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to these faithful people and taught them after His resurrection and ascension from the land of Judea, thus proving that Christ loved and taught people in other parts of the world who had no way of hearing His message otherwise. This book also serves as a wonderful companion to the Bible, clarifying and supporting teachings that are biblically founded but cannot be agreed upon in the Christian world. It also serves as a witness to the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, who was a 24-year-old farmer from upstate New York with little formal education when this immensely complex book was published in 1830. I invite everyone to read this book for him or herself to see if it contradicts the teachings of Christ found in the Bible. If you are like me, you will find that the Holy Ghost testifies strongly of this book, and that it clarifies and supports biblical doctrines in wonderful and eloquent ways.

This is the basic message of the Restored Church of Christ. I know this message can greatly improve lives and lead people to a better relationship with Christ and with their family. The gospel lifts individuals, families, and communities to new heights, and opens up blessings that cannot be imagined. Since I joined the Church, I have seen the world in a whole new light. I have learned to see the good in everything, and to seek after all things that are uplifting and true. I know the things I've learned have helped me to follow Christ more diligently, and have taught me the true meaning of sacrifice and faith. I have also learned what it means to truly live my faith, and to have a large, loving community of believers who help me to do so. I also understand my Father in Heaven more, and am grateful that He speaks to me through His Spirit, and also through modern prophets. And I am incredibly grateful for the knowledge that when I am gone from this life, my family relationships will not cease, but can continue forever through the blessings of modern day temples.

When I joined the Church, I thought a lot of people would think I was "weird" for joining a fairly unpopular religion. But I want to be better about sharing what I know to be good. I know the knowledge I have received has brought me countless blessings, and I want nothing more than to share what I have been given with others the best that I can. And that is why, though I will miss every one a great deal, I am grateful for this opportunity.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The First Principles of the Gospel

There is so much to speak and write about in reference to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that sometimes it can be easy to forget the first principles. These first principles make up the basic "plan" that we follow in order to become members of Christ's Church, which plan will lead us to happiness in this life and salvation in the life to come. Teachings and doctrines that go beyond these first principles only allow us further growth and understanding of the basic things we've already learned through the first principles.

Our third Article of Faith states, "We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel." I'm grateful for this article of faith because it establishes the fact that we do not think, as some contend, that we are saved merely by adherence to these principles without accepting Christ's grace. Adherence to the first principles is only possible because of the Atonement of Christ–for example, could we follow the commandment to repent unless Christ's sacrifice allowed our sins to be washed away?

Now that we have cleared up that issue, let's get to the first principles themselves–what are they? Well, the fourth Article of Faith tells us–"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."

Though it is not one of our official Articles of Faith, some Latter-day Saints would add a fifth principle–"Endure to the end"–because we do not believe in the popular idea of "once saved, always saved." However, I would call "enduring to the end," though it is indeed very important, more of an essential aspect of following the first principles than an entirely separate principle. For example, part of our baptismal covenants (which we renew through the Sacrament, or Communion, each week), is to "always remember [Christ] and keep his commandments which he has given [us]" (D&C 20:77). So when we follow the first principle of baptism, we are already agreeing to "endure to the end." Therefore, I will only address the four essential principles and ordinances mentioned in the divinely inspired Articles of Faith.

What is the basis for these first principles and ordinances? Well, as any student of the New Testament should see, Joseph Smith did not merely make these things up. He only articulated and clarified the essential principles taught throughout the New Testament by Christ and His apostles. This always was and is the role of prophets in Christ's Restored Gospel. Whereas Latter-day Saints know definitively and clearly what Christ expects of us in return for salvation, the rest of Christendom continues to argue on such basic issues as whether baptism is essential, the role of works vs. grace, at what point a person is "saved," etc.

Joseph Smith was not the only person teaching that such things were the basic principles of Christ's gospel. Other Christians of the time had deduced nearly the same things from their study of the New Testament. Perhaps the Christians who had gotten closest from their studies to Joseph's inspired first principles were the Campbellites (from whom descended the modern denomination named the Christian Church, or Disciples of Christ), a group from which came many of Mormonism's earliest and most ardent converts, such as Sidney Rigdon and Parley P. Pratt.

A foundational member of the Campbellite Movement named Walter Scott came up with his "five-finger exercise" for the basic principles of the Gospel, based on Acts 2:38. He would go from town to town, finding children to teach this exercise, in which the children held up a hand while Scott would "point to each finger and say 'faith, repentance, baptism, remission of sins, gift of the Holy Spirit.'"1 Scott would then instruct the children to go and tell their parents what he had taught them. This demonstrated that the gospel of Jesus Christ was so easy a child could understand it. Joseph Smith took these principles and showed that they could be even more simple by eliminating the fourth step (which was accomplished by the first three) and by clarifying that the gift of the Holy Spirit came by the laying on of hands by those with authority as was done in New Testament times, and was not merely a result of baptism as taught by Scott.

The first principles of the Gospel provide a lifetime of happiness as we continuously apply them. Even those ordinances which we only technically receive once (ie. baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost) can be continuously renewed as we take the Sacrament each week. The initial ordinance of receiving the Holy Ghost can be described as only giving us the chance to receive the continual guidance of the Holy Ghost, so that even when we have received the gift we can still go through periods of losing and gaining the Spirit's guidance as we go through periods of varying diligence in keeping the other first principles. Additionally, through the blessings of temple work, Latter-day Saints are blessed to be able to experience these ordinances time and time again as they perform them for those who have passed away.

Every day we can evaluate our state of spirituality by asking ourselves if we are living up to the first principles of the Gospel. We can ask things such as, "How is my faith in Jesus Christ today? Have I need of repentance? Am I living up to my baptismal covenants? Do I feel the presence of the Spirit in my life?" Personally, I always have room for improvement. Therefore, instead of letting my lack of perfection be a continual cause of guilt or regret, I use the Atonement of Christ and allow my imperfections to be a continual source of inspiration to become a better person. The Gospel is the best instrument out there for becoming better people.

I know these first principles are true principles, and that they work. They form a perfect plan to follow in order to become true disciples of Christ, and they offer a firm foundation on which to build further and deeper knowledge of Christ's Gospel. And as a missionary, I am excited to teach others of these principles, for I know there is no other church or plan that teaches the gospel of Christ with such clarity or offers the same level of happiness.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Combating Indifference with Obedience

Today I read Pres. Thomas S. Monson's 9/11 message for the Washington Post's On Faith blog.  Pres. Monson spoke of the surge of unity and faith among the American people following the 9/11 tragedies ten years ago, but lamented that much of the humility we learned has given way to indifference. "Our sorrow moved us to remember the deep purposes of our lives," he noted, "But we are forgetful. When the depth of grief has passed, its lessons often pass from our minds and hearts as well."

Pres. Monson's remarks led my mind to the issue of indifference as a whole. About the 9/11 terrorist attacks and other similarly world-changing events, the question is often asked, "Do you remember where you were and what you were doing?" Of course, most of us do. The more important question should be, "Do you remember how you felt and what those feelings motivated you to do?" I find that my feelings tend to be much more difficult to remember than physical memories such as sight and smell. I believe that is likely due to the fact that we can recall many memories at will, but the ability to feel emotion or motivation can only be brought on by external stimuli. For example, when I am unhappy, I can far more easily remember a time when I was happy than I can force myself to be genuinely happy. However, I find that dwelling on happy memories can be one of the best ways to make myself genuinely happy again. So, when we remember 9/11, we shouldn't just focus our memories on where we were, but should allow our memories of that day to stir our passions continually in order to cause us always to feel what we did in its aftermath. If so, we would be a stronger, humbler, and more faithful nation.

The continual remembrance of the Lord's commandments works the same way. In the same way that failing to remember our feelings on 9/11 can cause us to forget our strength as a nation, so can failing to keep the commandments cause us to forget the strength of our Lord and His role in our lives. If we fail to keep the commandments, we inevitably fall into indifference. I find that indifference is one of the biggest challenges we face as a nation today. With all of our distractions, when can we find time to sit back and reflect? I find that when I spend time reflecting about the great questions of life, I always come out of it with a stronger faith in God and commitment to follow His paths. But when I get caught up in the daily routine, never taking time to pray or reflect on life, I nearly forget about God. Think about it, we as a modern people have more leisure time than any people before us, but I would argue we spend less time in prayer and reflection. This is a tragedy, and surely one of Satan's greatest achievements in the latter days. I'm sure this explains why our modern-day apostles and prophets spend so much time instructing us to keep the commandments--pray often, study the scriptures daily, do your home and visiting teaching, attend the temple regularly, keep the Sabbath holy, etc.--we need constant reminders of these things!

I love the line in Pres. Monson's message where he said, "we owe to God the same faithfulness that He gives to us." It's true. God never leaves us nor forgets us. Are we doing the same for Him?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Mormonism and Ancient Israel

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes a lot of big claims. One of these claims is that it is a restoration of and welding link to many of the keys and beliefs held by ancient Israel from the days of Adam and onward. Just read this excerpt from D&C 128:18:
 . . . for it is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of times, which dispensation is now beginning to usher in, that a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place, and be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time. And not only this, but those things which never have been revealed from the foundation of the world, but have been kept hid from the wise and prudent, shall be revealed unto babes and sucklings in this, the dispensation of the fulness of times.
Pretty bold stuff, eh? In this, the dispensation of the fulness of times (which is a bold enough claim in the first place), we have many things that ancient Israel and the early Christians possessed that have been lost to the world. But not only that, we even have things they didn't! Additionally, we Latter-day Saints call ourselves children of Israel and claim that through us the restoration and gathering of the tribes of Israel will take place, and to a certain extent is already taking place through missionary work (see D&C 110:11 and the tenth Article of Faith).

Mormonism as an Ancient Faith

Yes, these claims are awfully bold, and probably absurd to many. But I say no Christian faith is complete without them. These claims give us the necessary link to ancient Israel and to the prophecies and teachings of the Bible, the lack of which leaves many Bible-believers wanting. I used to belong to a "mega-church" where there were light shows and rock concerts every Sunday morning. There was little to no ceremony or anything that made it feel like an ancient faith, as Christianity is. In fact, everything felt thoroughly modern, which was probably the point of it all. The church was supposed to make the modern person feel entirely comfortable. But, the fact remains that Christianity is an ancient religion, and therefore should not be entirely at home with our modern culture. Most of the ideas of Christianity extend to far before Christ lived on the earth. Looking to the teachings of Moses and even earlier prophets will lead you to the same things Christ taught. So it shouldn't be strange if a truly Christian church had many aspects that felt ancient or bizarre to modern people.

When I was investigating the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this ancient aspect was something I came to notice. I realized that it had far more in common with ancient Israel than did any of the other churches I had attended. I also realized that it made sense for it to be this way if it was truly a restoration of ancient things as the Church claimed to be.

For the rest of this post, I'd like to make a list of practices and beliefs that we Latter-day Saints hold in common with ancient Israel that, to my knowledge, no other Christian Church does (at least not to the same extent). It is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list, but merely one that comprises the things I began to notice as I was investigating the Church.

Commonalities Between Ancient Israelites & Mormons
  • Temple Worship. This is perhaps the most obvious similarity. Both groups believe in building Houses of the Lord in order to worship Him in a sanctified place that is separate from the world. Both groups make sacred covenants and perform sacred ordinances in said temples. In both peoples' temples, there are different areas representing differing levels of sanctity and which only certain priesthood types can enter. Both groups see temple worship as a highlight of their religious activity and often make long pilgrimages to be there.
  • Ritualistic Worship. This goes hand-in-hand with temple worship, but I thought I'd make the distinction anyway. In addition to personal prayer, both groups use ritual as one way to worship God. For Latter-day Saints, the ritualistic/symbolic nature of the temple and the sacrament come to mind, as well as the practice of anointing with oil and laying on of hands. And, obviously, there are things such as animal sacrifice and many aspects of the law of Moses and temple worship on the ancient Israel side.
  • Use of Sacred Clothing. Part of the worship of God in both groups involves the donning of sacred clothing in association with their temple worship.
  • God as Our Heavenly Father. Both groups seem to view God as the literal Father of our spirits. Now, I know not all agree on this one, but my own studies have led me to this conclusion. Numbers 16:22 and 27:16 both reference our Father as "God of the spirits of all flesh." And Malachi asks, "Have we not all one father?" (Mal. 2:10). The clearest evidence comes from Jesus's quoting of Psalms 82:6, which states, "I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High." When the accusation of blasphemy reached Jesus for calling Himself the Son of God, he answered, "Is it not written in your law, I said, ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?" (John 10:34-36). The meaning is clear: if the scriptures call us all gods, and children of the most High God, then it is not blasphemy for Jesus to call Himself the Son of God.
  • Heavenly Mother. The LDS Church's "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," declares that every human being is a "beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents." Reason tells us in the Church that if there exists a Father in Heaven, then there must be a Heavenly Mother. Even so, we know little about the subject, and are taught only to pray to our Heavenly Father. Many gawk at this belief, but modern scholarship is making us more and more sure that the ancient Israelites believed the same thing. See http://www.youtube.com/user/fairldsorg#p/u/1/zI7HqScxs54.
  • The Divine Council. LDS theology references a divine council in Heaven consisting of the premortal spirit children of El Elyon (translated the Most High God), among whom was the firstborn, Jehovah, or Jesus Christ. This divine council in heaven was responsible for the creation, thus the plural "ours" and "us's" in the Genesis creation account. Modern scholarship is finding that this appears to be exactly what the ancient Israelites believed as well. See http://www.thedivinecouncil.com/, this Wikipedia article, and this excellent post on Mormanity.
  • The Corporeality of God. If we (and ancient Israel) believe that we are literal offspring of heavenly parents, and that, as the Bible says, we are made in His image, then the logical conclusion is that God has a physical body, albeit a glorified, perfected body. In the Hellenized world of today, this belief is considered absurd. But it's right at home in an ancient faith.
  • Polygamous Heritage. The LDS Church's history with polygamy continues to be one of its most controversial aspects, among members and non-members alike. One of the things that hit me as I was investigating the Church was that whether I joined the Church or not, I already had a polygamous heritage as a Christian. A reading of the Old Testament reveals that nearly every major figure in ancient Israel was a polygamist: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, etc. In the case of David we even have 2 Samuel 12:8 saying that God, through the prophet Nathan, gave to David his wives, and would have given him more if it were not enough for him. In addition, the Bible claims Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. So, as a Christian, I already had to deal with polygamy as a practice at least not condemned by God. And as can be seen on this Christian web site, Christians and Latter-day Saints even seem to give the same reasons for why polygamy may have been practiced by its foundational members–1) to care for the large number of women and 2) to produce a large population quickly. But regardless of how you explain it–like it or not, polygamy is not only a Mormon problem. The only difference appears to be that Latter-day Saint polygamy occurred more recently, and therefore is more fresh in the public mind.
  • "A Peculiar People." I don't imagine our critics will disagree with this one. Let's face it, Mormons are an unusual people. In making our baptismal and temple covenants, we agree to separate ourselves from many of the world's pleasures and devote our lives to serving Christ and living according to His standards. This often places us at odds with many worldly practices and ideas. Others who do not understand Latter-day Saint beliefs tend to see us as "odd." It was the same with ancient Israel. Deuteronomy chapter 14 states, "For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth" (v. 2).
  • Health Laws. In both Latter-day Saint and ancient Israelite belief, the Lord has given a code of health whereby to live. In both cases, adherents believe abiding by the code will bring physical and spiritual blessings. However, the Israelite code of health was part of the Law of Moses. Therefore, Latter-day Saints do not adhere to that code because we believe the Law of Moses was fulfilled at Christ's coming. Our health code, "The Word of Wisdom," seems to be more about avoiding the snares of addiction, thus we avoid addictive substances such as coffee, tea, alcohol, and drugs.
  • Gathering of Israel. The gathering of Israel is a major theme in the Old Testament (see http://lds.org/scriptures/tg/israel-gathering-of.t1?lang=eng&letter=i). The Lord reassured the ancient Israelites that even though they were being scattered then, at a future date He would gather them all together again. Yet, in much of modern Christianity, this idea is all but ignored. I do not remember ever hearing of the Lord restoring ancient Israel in my days as a Protestant. So what comes of all the ancient prophecy? Well, Latter-day Saints do believe in the literal gathering of Israel, and believe that it is now underway. We believe the keys to this gathering were given to the Church by Moses in the Kirtland Temple on April 3, 1836 (D&C 110:11). It is even one of our Articles of Faith.
Anyway, these are just a few of the major similarities. You may have noticed that the beliefs and practices of Latter-day Saints that are most often criticized are those shared with the ancient Israelites. At least, that is what I came to notice. It just goes to show that this religion is no modern-day concoction. In fact, it struggles to defend its ancient beliefs in a thoroughly modern world in which, if modern, this religion should feel most comfortable.

P.S. For more information on this topic and a truly fascinating read, read the essay by Methodist preacher and Cambridge-educated theologian/Bible scholar Margaret Barker entitled "What Did King Josiah Reform?"

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Are We Saved by Works? Addressing the False Premise

Recently I was watching a program on an evangelical Christian television network on "ministering to Mormons." The program was filmed in Utah and consisted mainly of the host walking up to Mormons on the street and asking them a series of questions to help them realize how much they needed salvation. The host first condemned the Latter-day Saints by going through the ten commandments with them one by one and showing them how they were breaking all of them in one way or another (interesting side note: the commandment on keeping the sabbath day holy was conspicuously absent from the host's list, but that's another matter for another time), then proceeded to give the cure for his condemnations: faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. When the Saints would protest, saying something to the effect of, "I already have faith in Jesus Christ. He is my Savior and Redeemer," the host would brush the comments off with, "Yes, but of course your Jesus is the brother of Satan," then proceed to proclaim their faith all but useless because they believed they were saved by works, or by keeping the commandments.

From my experience, these two arguments--Mormons believe Jesus is the brother of Satan and that they are saved by works, not grace--are the two most commonly used against Latter-day Saints by evangelical Christians. I will not get into the first argument at this time, but I would like to speak about the second argument. The argument that Mormons believe they are saved by works is so often given as a reason they are not Christians, but those who give it often have no idea what Mormons actually teach and believe about the relationship between grace, works, and faith.

First, the plain truth: Do members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that they are saved by works and not by grace and/or faith? Emphatically, no. To clarify, consider the fictional case of a man who lives the gospel admirably from day to day. He is the kindest, meekest, humblest, most charitable, faithful, and loving man anyone has ever known. He is entirely selfless and follows nearly every command of the Lord Jesus Christ. But, and here's the kicker, he doesn't actually believe in Jesus Christ. Still, he's a religious man and hopes to attain full salvation by his good works. According to our critics, since we believe that men are saved by their works, this man would be granted full salvation in our view. However, this is not the case. We believe that only those who accept the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and covenant to enter into His straight and narrow path by the necessary scriptural conditions (which we'll get into in a bit) are eligible for full salvation and exaltation. Only then can their works bring them closer to God, since because all sin to some degree or another, we need that Mediator to allow us to begin to return to our Heavenly Father.

We believe that the scriptures plainly demonstrate a logical balance of faith, grace, and works involved in one's obtaining of salvation. Let's evaluate this balance:

By Grace, through Faith, unto Works
 In defense of their doctrine on grace, Protestants often quote Ephesians 2:8-9, which reads, "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." Do Latter-day Saints believe this scripture? Yes, we do, but Paul's thought is incomplete, for in quoting the scripture Christians often leave off the tenth verse, which adds, "for we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." So the entire scriptural idea presented here is, then, that we are saved by grace, through faith, unto works. This may sound complicated, but really it's quite simple: God offers us salvation by His Eternal grace, but in order to access it we must have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, which will lead us to the good works that God has always "ordained that we should walk in."

Jesus Christ is rightly called the Mediator, because it is His atoning sacrifice that allows us to access God's salvation by grace. Sin once created an impenetrable barrier between us and God, but when Christ performed His atonement, He created a way for us to overcome (or repent of) our sins and have them permanently removed from our record, so that on the Day of Judgment we may be found spotless (1 John 1:7; Isaiah 1:18). Part of this faith in Christ entails following His teachings and commandments. After all, Paul describes Christ as "the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him" (Hebrews 5:9), and the Savior Himself said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). And, just to really hit the point home, let's add this bold declaration of the Savior: "Not every  one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21). It will not do to claim all of God's grace for ourselves without first meeting the conditions He has set for us in His holy writ. Can we really even claim to have faith in Jesus Christ if we do not follow the words He spoke?

Conditions for Grace
The conditions for God's grace (aka the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel) are set forth in the Church's Articles of Faith, "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" (Articles of Faith 1:4). This pattern is merely a repetition of the pattern of salvation throughout the New Testament, most clearly shown in Acts, chapter 2. In this setting, Peter gives an impassioned sermon to a large group of Jews on the day of Pentecost. Following the sermon, many in the congregation were "pricked in their heart" (v. 37), and, (1) having faith, asked Peter, "what shall we do?" Peter's response was thus: "(2) Repent, and (3) be baptized every one of you [note: that's EVERY one of them] in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and (4) you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (v. 38).

By contrast, what did the Evangelical preacher of the television show say were the conditions for God's grace, if any? Interestingly, he said that we must accept Jesus Christ as our personal Savior, and repent. His answer left me a little wanting. I couldn't imagine how one could repent without violating the ideas he was condemning Latter-day Saints for. Before telling them to repent, he spent quite awhile trying to counsel them how futile it was to repent. The impression he left me with was that it was silly to think we could be righteous, so why even try? And that reminds me of another conversation I was involved in with another evangelical preacher, in which he said after we accepted Jesus as our Savior, our repentance was covered by grace and we never needed to repent again. It logically follows, therefore, that we also could never sin again. What a dangerous doctrine! What possible good could it be to tell a man that he could not sin? I can think of only negative results. But anyway, in regards to repentance, I know we mortals can never be perfect in this life, but I refuse to accept the idea that that means God does not ask certain things of us. I, for one, will keep trying. And when I fall short, well, isn't that what the Atonement is all about, anyway?

So, do Latter-day Saints believe we are saved by our works? No. But do we acknowledge that we must do certain things the Lord has asked us in order to qualify for admittance into the kingdom of heaven? The Lord was quite clear that this was the case. It is hugely important to read all scriptures in context and remember the balance that is taught throughout the whole text, not just in one or two isolated verses.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Tangible Miracle of the Book of Mormon

As I read through the Book of Mormon again in preparation for my upcoming mission, here is a thought that keeps returning to my head:

The Book of Mormon is unique among our Father's miracles. What other miracle of God has been mass-produced like the Book of Mormon? I or any one else can easily obtain a copy of this miracle and hold it in our hands. It truly is "a marvelous work and a wonder" (Is. 29:14).

In the Book of Mormon, we have 531 double-columned pages of histories, prophecies, sermons, miracles, poetry, wars, instructions, and testimonies, all leading us closer to Jesus Christ and His true doctrine, and all legitimately from the perspective of ancient Hebraic peoples. 180+ years of scholarship have actually given more credibility to the Book of Mormon than it had when it was first published, which is the opposite of what should have happened if it were a fraud perpetrated by an ignorant youth. Among the things discovered in recent times which lend credibility to the book are the following: the discovery of an ancient trade road that matches the road taken by Lehi and his family from Jerusalem to Bountiful, as well as the discovery of likely matches to the Valley of Lemuel and the River of Laman; the discovery of the ancient practice of writing on metal plates; discovery of Hebrew text written in Egyptian script, as well as the discovery of several forms of "reformed Egyptian" scripts; the use of cement in ancient America; accurate and detailed descriptions of ancient warfare practices; accurate and detailed descriptions of olive tree cultivation in Jacob 5; many Hebraisms in the text that are awkward in English, such as the frequent repetition of "and it came to pass"; the discovery of complex chiasmus, an ancient Hebrew poetic structure, of which Alma 36 is as good an example as you could find anywhere; and many other things (more information on these topics can be found at http://www.jefflindsay.com/BMEvidences.shtml).

All of these things have brought us a deeper appreciation of the ancient origins of the Book of Mormon, but the most important proof that can be offered is the testimony of the Holy Ghost. Yes, the Holy Ghost testifies strongly of this book, and this testimony is available to all who honestly, humbly, and sincerely read and pray about it. And once this testimony is gained, the Book of Mormon becomes an indispensable witness of Christ and His gospel for this reason: It was discovered and translated by the gift and power of God, and therefore contains exactly what God desires us to know. It is essentially a physical, tangible miracle, and again, one that anybody can hold in their hand. That is why it is such an awesome testifier of Christ and His gospel, because the miracles described in the book, including Christ's atonement and resurrection, have to be true once we know that the book itself is true. After all, God has put His stamp of approval on the whole book. No more "spiritualizing" of doctrines and miracles as has been done to the Bible by many "practical" people over the years. All those supernatural things that are difficult to believe become necessary to believe once we can hold such a miracle in our hands. In this God has given us a practical and tangible means whereby to learn of His plan of salvation and obtain an undeniable testimony of it. That is why I love the Book of Mormon.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Reflections on Protestantism

Lately I've been reflecting a lot on my former faith as a Protestant. I must say it has been fascinating to realize some things about Protestantism that I never considered when I was one. The more I think about Protestantism as a whole, the more intrigued I am by it. I think it is a religion (if that is the right word for it) that is unique in this world. Here are some reasons why [note: this should not be taken as a personal attack to all Protestants, but more as an honest evaluation of my own understanding of my former beliefs]:
  • It is a self-loathing religion. When I was a Protestant, I did not often think about the fact that I was a Protestant. To my mind, I was only a Christian. And just as many other Protestants say, my belief in the Bible came before any denominational affiliation. In other words, I was only trying to follow the Bible to the best of my ability. Whatever sect of Protestantism I chose to join was only a reflection of my understanding of the Bible at that time. I did not like that there were a lot of different denominations, but accepted it because I thought that's just how things are. Any glaring inconsistencies between how things were in the Bible and how things existed in Protestantism I carefully overlooked or blamed on incorrect teachings of other pastors or sects. I read the Bible as applying directly to me personally, and not to my church. I did not embrace Protestantism as a whole, but only those who believed similarly to myself. Additionally, I've observed that a favorite pastime of some Protestants is to accuse other Protestants of not being saved. All these things and others led me to believe Protestants are not proud of being Protestant, but actually dislike their heritage, which leads me to my next point:
  • It ignores its place in history. Despite the fact that, as I have stated, I did not particularly care for the sectarian nature of Protestantism, I nevertheless considered myself a part of the Christian Church. It think I had a rather idealized view of my system of belief when I wanted to. It is as if I completely overlooked the history of Christianity as a whole, and the place of Protestantism in that history. In my mind, even though I was a Protestant, I ignored that in order to place my roots directly in the New Testament Church. I did not really think about how my church actually branched off from a church I thought was corrupt (the Catholic Church), and how nothing can grow from dead roots.
  • It is a religion that leaves you alone. Unlike most religions out there, Protestantism basically allows you to believe whatever you want to believe, as long as you call yourself a Christian, which you are free to do without a lot of questioning, because there does not exist a universal standard to which every one must adhere before they can be called a Christian. You can belong to a church with a pastor that teaches something you strongly disagree with every Sunday over the pulpit. And, in fact, you will be hard pressed to find two people in one church that believe the same things about the gospel of Jesus Christ. I remember being embarrassed when I would overhear Christians trying to explain their basic beliefs to others, and I would hear something that I didn't agree with. I would think, "Oh, no, they're teaching them wrong," even though I had no more reason to be right in my opinions than they did in theirs.The motto of Protestantism is, to each his own.
  • It claims a book as its source of authority. As great as the Bible is, it can never be a substitute for God. But in my former faith, I believed the only way to access God's knowledge was from reading the Bible. Likewise, I believed that the only reason that Protestantism as a whole could exist was because we were trying our best to understand and apply the teachings of the Bible, yet without any commission or revelation from God Himself. Ecclesiastical leaders were not called by those with authority and set apart by the laying on of hands as was done in New Testament times, yet got their calling indirectly by trying to mimic what they saw in the Bible.
  • It actually argues against the ideal Church presented in its foundational text. Though I always knew that the New Testament Church was quite a bit different than my church, I always of necessity accepted the popular teachings that this was just because we live in a different age now and we therefore do not need the apostles/gifts/miracles/Holy Ghost/etc. that the early Church possessed. Never mind that the Bible shows us this ideal Church as an example of the kind of Church we should belong to, and says nowhere that this Church was only for the earliest believers. In that sense, I actually argued against the Bible, even though I claimed all my belief, knowledge, and authority from that book.
  • It rejects that Christ established a Church. This was one of the most striking things for me to realize while I was reflecting on my former beliefs. I realized that, for me at least, there did not seem to be any teaching that Christ actually established a Church. Yes, I realized that there was an organization present after the ascension of the Lord consisting of prophets, apostles, seventies, elders, teachers, etc., but I never heard it taught that this organization came from Christ Himself. I guess I just assumed it popped up after Christ's ascension in order to spread the teachings of Christ, who is considered more of a teacher than the founder of a kingdom as is described in the scriptures. This makes sense in light of the Protestant mindset: church is an entirely individual pursuit, based on one's understanding of the teachings of the Messiah. Christ came and taught the message; it was up to His followers to subsequently organize and spread that message. This allows the Protestant to put himself in the same camp as the apostolic church--"if the apostolic church was nothing but a group of believers organizing on their own to spread the message of Christ, then, well, that's what we still do today!" On the other hand, Catholics and Latter-day Saints know that only a Church established by the Savior could have the authority and power that the early Church did. In other words, we ask, "if the church was established by men, why did the apostles have the authority to speak for Christ?" I was talking with a Protestant co-worker (who is attending a Bible college in preparation for becoming a minister) about this subject recently, and his response was that it was because the apostles knew Jesus personally while He was on the earth. "Okay, what about Paul?" I asked. He responded by saying he thought that maybe Paul was able to personally know Jesus through daily visions like the one he experienced on the road to Damascus, only extended over a long enough period that would make him the equal of the other apostles in His knowledge of Jesus. "Hmm... Complicated," I thought. "And what about Luke? And Mark? How were they able to have the authority to write gospels that would later become a part of the Bible?" The thought process was far too complicated for me. I prefer the simple and biblical explanation that Christ established His church with the foundation of apostles, with Himself being the chief cornerstone, and that subsequent callings in the Church were done by the authority of Christ's priesthood, by the laying on of hands. No complicated theories required! It's all right there in the Bible. And I am grateful today that the original authority and organization has been restored--not by man's own skill or wisdom, but by the power of God.
But anyway, these are just a few of the thoughts I've been having. Protestantism is fascinating and unique indeed, and I enjoy thinking about my roots in that faith tradition.