Words matter. Ideas have consequences. In the years that I have been engaging Mormons about matters of faith, I’ve learned to define terms very carefully. Christians and Mormons use many of the same terms: “grace”, “heaven”, “Jesus”, “God”, “salvation” and many more. But when the definitions of these terms are examined, it’s apparent that we are talking about extremely different ideas. These differences matter. They separate Mormons and Christians and demonstrate that we are not worshipping the same God.
As an example, I’ve been in conversations with Mormons and have talked about the nature of grace and salvation. Maybe you’ve had similar conversations:
You: “As a Christian, I believe that we are saved by faith alone.”
Your Mormon Friend: “As a Mormon, I agree!”
Your Mormon Friend: “Mormons know that ‘salvation’ as you put it, is a gift from God.”
You: “OK, but we believe that Jesus paid the penalty for our sin and that He alone saves us.”
Your Mormon Friend: “We agree! We believe that Jesus died for us and that without His gift of salvation, none of us would be ‘saved’ as you are calling it.
You: “OK, but Christians believe that Jesus’ work ALONE saves us; we don’t believe that our own efforts can save us at all.”
Your Mormon Friend: “We feel the same way! We know that Jesus alone makes it possible for us to be reunited with Heavenly Father; we don’t believe that ‘salvation’, can be achieved with our good works.”
Wow, it sure sounds like your Mormon friend holds a Christian view of salvation through faith alone, doesn’t it? I’ve had many conversations that are very similar to this one. The Mormon doctrine of salvation is NOT the same as the Christian doctrine, but unless you take the time to ask good questions and sift through the answers, you may not see the distinctions clearly.
What Do We Mean When We Use the Term, “Heaven”?
Let me try to describe the difference between “Christian grace” and “Mormon grace” with an illustration that I’ve used hundreds of times training Christians to discuss their faith with Mormons. Before we begin, however, we need to define a foundational term: “heaven”. Christians sometimes ask their Mormon friends, “If you died today, would you be in heaven?” or “What do you have to do to go to heaven?” Unless we define the term “heaven” this approach will not help us understand the differences between the two faith systems. I never use the term “heaven” when talking to my Mormon friends and family. Instead, I focus on “the greatest gift that God can offer us after death”. For Christians, this is, in fact, heaven; the realm of god we will share for all eternity. But the Mormon heaven is divided into three levels and virtually everyone is going to get into one of these levels. Any of these heavenly “ranks” could accurately be called “heaven”. So we need to be more specific with our Mormon friends; for them, the “the greatest gift that God can offer us after death” is not just “heaven”, it’s exaltation in Celestial Kingdom. This exaltation results in deity for the Mormon believer. They become Gods just like Heavenly Father.
Is Grace A Ladder or a Lifeline?
So, the real question is, “What must you do to be exalted in Celestial Kingdom with Heavenly Father?” Now, with this question clarified, we can talk about grace and the contribution that Jesus makes to this process. So, here is the illustration that I typically use: imagine that you are a Mormon who wants “the greatest gift that God can offer after death” (heaven). How can you achieve exaltation in Celestial Kingdom? For the Mormon, Jesus makes this journey possible because he visits us here on earth and, in essence, provides us with a ladder we can climb to heaven. This ladder is a free gift. It is given as an act of “grace” according to our Mormon friends. But here is the problem: the Mormon has to climb the ladder on his or her own. This climbing is done through a lifelong series of good works. Jesus may give you the ladder, but he doesn’t climb it for you.
This is an important distinction to understand. Mormons will tell us that they cannot get to “Celestial Kingdom” without the free gift offered by Jesus. That’s true. Without the free ladder, you can’t begin to climb. Mormons will also say that Jesus alone makes it possible for them to attain the “greatest gift that God offers us after death”. That’s true. Only Jesus has the ladder. Mormons will also say that they could never ascend to Celestial Kingdom on the basis of their own good works. That’s also true; “climbing” isn’t possible unless there’s a ladder to climb. Mormons can’t get to Celestial Kingdom with their own good works alone; they need that ladder.
So, What’s the Difference Between Mormon Grace and Christian Grace?
The Christian view of grace doesn’t involve a ladder of any kind; in Christian theology, Jesus doesn’t bring us a ladder to climb. Instead, Jesus drops us a lifeline, a rope He climbs down and ties to each of us. Jesus then pulls us up on his own, in spite of our own inability. It doesn’t matter how heavy we are or where we are in our journey toward sanctification. We simply have to trust him to tie the lifeline. Mormonism is a works based religion, like many other world religions. In fact, in this one regard, Mormonism is like every other world religion. Christianity stands alone as the only religion that offers true “grace” to its adherents. Salvation is not the result of anything we do. God offers it as a free gift; not a free opportunity to work hard for our salvation, but a truly free gift that needs no additional contribution on our part. This distinction is critical and it separates Mormonism from Christianity, not as a separate denomination, but as a completely separate notion about the nature and saving work of God.
For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
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