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by Dave Johnson

(This originally appeared in the July/August 1998 edition of the MCOI Journal beginning on page 10)

There has been much public discussion in recent months, both inside and outside of Bible-believing churches, as to whether The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as Mormons) should be considered part of the Christian community. Is it just another Christian denomination? The vigorous and highly visible public relations campaign being presented by the LDS Church is aimed at persuading everyone that Mormons love and serve Jesus Christ the same way as Methodists or Presbyterians.

Two recent events have caused this debate to heat up: First, the publishing of the 1997 book How Wide the Divide (co-written by an evangelical scholar and a Mormon apologist) which sought to clarify and minimize the differences between traditional Christianity and Mormonism; and second, the decision by Southern Baptists (among the most conservative of churches) to hold their annual convention this past June in Salt Lake City, Utah (the location of the headquarters of the Mormon Church).

It is not surprising that non-Christian journalists (whose self-appointed role is to support “tolerance” and “pluralism”) and Mormon apologists are vociferous in their defense of the “Mormons are true Christians” mantra. Tragically, many Christians are either unsure or completely unaware that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cannot be considered a part of the body of Christ because it preaches a different God, a different Jesus, and a different gospel.

Perhaps the most important aspect of their different gospel is their teaching on salvation and how it is obtained.

According to traditional Christianity, the terms “salvation” and “eternal life” are synonyms, (having the same meaning) when pertaining to the condition of the human soul. At the time a person trusts Christ as his Savior, he receives the gift of eternal life which he never can lose (John 3:15-16, 5:24, 6:47, 10:27-28). This is NOT the case in Mormonism. As for the LDS doctrine of salvation, there is a significant distinction between the general meaning of “salvation” and what is meant by “eternal life.”

Defining the Terms

It is important to understand how the LDS Church defines these terms in order to communicate with Mormons effectively. Like virtually all cults, the Mormons use the same vocabulary as Christians but a different dictionary. When a Christian asks a Mormon, “Have you been saved?” the latter can respond “Yes” truthfully and sincerely according to his understanding. Yet, the Mormon may be answering a completely different question than the one the Christian intended to ask.

Salvation, according to Mormonism, can mean many things. LDS doctrinal authority Bruce R. McConkie, for many years one of the 12 “apostles” of the Mormon Church, taught that there are three distinct categories of salvation. In his highly respected book, Mormon Doctrine, McConkie wrote:

1. Unconditional or general salvation, that which comes by grace alone without obedience to gospel law, consists in the mere fact of being resurrected. In this sense salvation is synonymous with immortality; it is the inseparable connection of body and spirit so that the resurrected personage lives forever.

This kind of salvation eventually will come to all mankind, excepting only the sons of perdition …

But this is not the salvation of righteousness, the salvation which the saints seek. Those who gain only this general or unconditional salvation will still be judged according to their works and receive their places in a terrestrial or a telestial kingdom. They will, therefore, be damned; their eternal progression will be cut short; they will not fill the full measure of their creation, but in eternity will be ministering servants to more worthy persons.

2. Conditional or individual salvation, that which comes by grace coupled with gospel obedience, consists in receiving an inheritance in the celestial kingdom of God. This kind of salvation follows faith, repentance, baptism, receipt of the Holy Ghost, and continued righteousness to the end of one’s mortal probation. (D. & C. 20:29; 2 Ne. 9:23-24.) … {D. & C. = Doctrine & Covenants, one of the books considered to be Mormon Scripture; 2 Ne. = 2 Nephi, one of the books contained in the Book of Mormon}


Even those in the celestial kingdom, however, who do not go on to exaltation, will have immortality only and not eternal life. Along with those of the telestial and terrestrial worlds they will be “ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory. “They will live “separately and singly” in an unmarried state “without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity.”(D. & C. 132:16-17.)

3. Salvation in its true and full meaning is synonymous with exaltation or eternal life and consists in gaining an inheritance in the highest of the three heavens within the celestial kingdom. With few exceptions this is the salvation of which the scriptures speak. It is the salvation which the saints seek. It is of this which the Lord says, “There is no gift greater than the gift of salvation.” (D. & C. 6:13.) This full salvation is obtained in and through the continuation of the family unit in eternity, and those who obtain it are gods. (D. & C. 131:1-4; 132.)

Full salvation is attained by virtue of knowledge, truth, righteousness, and all true principles. Many conditions must exist in order to make such salvation available to men. Without the atonement, the gospel, the priesthood, and the sealing power, there would be no salvation. Without continuous revelation, the ministering of angels, the working of miracles, the prevalence of gifts of the spirit, there would be no salvation. If it had not been for Joseph Smith and the restoration, there would be no salvation. There is no salvation outside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 2, pp. 1-350.) 1Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed., (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1979), s.v. “Salvation,” 669-70 (emphasis mine).

It is therefore crucial to understand that the Mormon Church teaches that “full salvation” or “eternal life” is the goal of every faithful member, and this is NOT obtained by grace alone but by “obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.”

It also is crucial to understand that in Mormonism the goal of becoming a god or goddess is described by these synonyms: exaltation, eternal life and having an eternal family. Only those who achieve exaltation have eternal life, and only those who have eternal life have an eternal family.

A number of Mormons may be unaware that their church makes these claims, so some quotes from LDS authorities should be helpful in making this case.

McConkie states:

As used in the scriptures, eternal life is the name given to the kind of life that our Eternal Father lives … He being God, the life he lives is God’s life; and his name (in the noun sense) being Eternal, the kind of life he lives is eternal life. Thus: God’s life is eternal life; eternal life is God’s life – the expressions are synonymous. 2Ibid., s.v. “Eternal Life,” 237 (emphasis mine)

Mormon founder Joseph Smith declared:

Here, then, is eternal life – to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one. [ 3. Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Press, 1938), 346-47 (emphasis mine).]

The basic LDS teaching manual Gospel Principles tells us:

Exaltation is eternal life, the kind of life God lives. He lives in great glory. He is perfect. He possesses all knowledge and all wisdom. He is the Father of spirit children. He is a creator. We can become like our Heavenly Father. This is exaltation … They [those who obtain eternal life] will become gods. 3Gospel Principles, (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1992), 302 (emphasis mine).

Joseph Fielding Smith, the tenth president of the Mormon Church, described eternal life this way:

ETERNAL LIFE IS EXALTATION. Now there is a difference between immortality and eternal life. Immortality is the gift to live forever. It comes to every creature. Eternal life is to have the kind of life that God has. All those who become servants will have immortality, but they who become sons and daughters of God will have the additional gift of eternal life, which is the greatest gift of God.

Eternal life is life in the presence of the Father and the Son. Those who receive it become members of the ‘Church of the Firstborn’ and are heirs as sons and daughters of God. They receive the fulness of blessings. They become like the Father and the Son and are joint-heirs with Jesus Christ.

What is eternal life? It is to have “a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.” No one receives eternal life except those who receive the exaltation. 4Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation: Sermons and Writings of Joseph Fielding Smith, ed. Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954-1956), 2:8-9 (emphasis mine).

LDS Requirements for Eternal Life

How is eternal life obtained in Mormonism? Not by grace alone but by great effort on the part of the individual who seeks it. It is not a gift to be received but a reward to be earned. Joseph Fielding Smith wrote:

None shall receive eternal life save it be those who keep the commandments of the Lord and are entitled thus to enter into his presence. 5Ibid., 2:4 (emphasis mine).

He explained the requirements for eternal life:

SALVATION COMES BY GRACE, FAITH, AND WORKS. Unless a man will adhere to the doctrine and walk in faith, accepting the truth and observing the commandments as they have been given, it will be impossible for him to receive eternal life, no matter how much he may confess with his lips that Jesus is the Christ, or believe that his Father sent him into the world for the redemption of man… So it is necessary, not merely that we believe, but that we repent, and in faith perform good works until the end; and then shall we receive the reward of the faithful and a place in the celestial kingdom of God. 6Ibid., 2:311 (emphasis mine).

And how strictly must the commandments be observed in order to obtain eternal life?

COMPLETE OBEDIENCE BRINGS ETERNAL LIFE. But to be exalted one must keep the whole law … to receive the exaltation of the righteous, in other words eternal life, the commandments of the Lord must be kept in all things. 7Ibid., 2:6 (emphasis mine).

Some Christians may wonder if the Mormon Church really teaches its members that they must flawlessly keep the entirety of God’s law. Wouldn’t this require perfection? Who, in their right mind, can expect to be perfect? The sad truth is that LDS leaders teach that God not only expects but also requires perfection from his children for them to obtain eternal life. Spencer W. Kimball, the twelfth president of the LDS Church, wrote:

Immortality has been accomplished by the Savior’s sacrifice. Eternal life hangs in the balance awaiting the works of men.

This progress toward eternal life is a matter of achieving perfection. Living all the commandments guarantees total forgiveness of sins and assures one of exaltation through that perfection which comes by complying with the formula the Lord gave us. In his Sermon on the Mount he made the command to all men: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48) Being perfect means to triumph over sin. This is a mandate from the Lord. He is just and wise and kind. He would never require anything from his children which was not for their benefit and which was not attainable. Perfection therefore is an achievable goal. 8Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft Inc., 1972), Ibid., 208-209 (emphasis mine).

From the beginning, historic Christianity has denied the idea that human beings inherently are good (this point Mormonism also affirms) or that they can become perfect in this life – even with the help of Christ. The teaching that man can receive eternal life by grace plus his own good works has been thoroughly refuted for thousands of years by biblical writers and great church leaders. “Grace alone!” was the resounding cry of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Yet, this doctrine has been denounced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the harshest of terms:

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. 9Ibid., 206-207 (emphasis mine).

But perhaps the Mormon belief in the insufficiency of grace alone is an early teaching which the LDS Church has since abandoned. Is this the case? On the official web site of the LDS Church, this statement currently is found in the section called “Core Beliefs and Doctrines:”

Through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, all will be resurrected, and through his Atonement, all may partake of his love, mercy, and forgiveness. All have the potential of eternal life, conditional upon individual worthiness and obedience to the Savior’s ordinances and teachings. [11.The Internet address for this material is “ Core_Beliefs_and_Doctrines.html” (emphasis mine).]

In an address at the 168th Annual General Conference of the LDS Church given on April 5, 1998, Apostle Dallin H. Oaks proclaimed the following in a message titled “Have You Been Saved?”:

Finally, in another usage familiar and unique to Latter-day Saints, the words saved and salvation are also used to denote exaltation or eternal life (see Abr. 2:11). This is sometimes referred to as the “fulness of salvation” (Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, 4 vols. [1979-81], 1:242). This salvation requires more than repentance and baptism by appropriate priesthood authority. It also requires the making of sacred covenants, including eternal marriage, in the temples of God, and faithfulness to those covenants by enduring to the end. If we use the word salvation to mean “exaltation,” it is premature for any of us to say that we have been “saved” in mortality. That glorious status can only follow the final judgment of Him who is the Great Judge of the living and the dead. 10The Internet address for this material is “ 98_Apr/SunMor/Oaks-Have_You_Been_Saved.html” (emphasis mine).

What the Bible Says About Eternal Life

In stark contrast to Mormon doctrine, the Bible knows nothing of eternal life that is earned by works. According to the Bible, eternal life is a gift (something freely given) received by faith alone in Christ alone. Consider the words of Jesus:

John 3:15-16 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. 11All Bible verses used here are from the King James Version since that is the version used by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

John 4:14 But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.

John 5:24 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.

John 6:40 And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.

John 6:47 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. John 10:28 And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.

John 17:2-3 As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him. And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.

And examine Paul’s teaching on this subject:

Romans 5:19-21 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.

Romans 6:22-23 But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

1 Timothy 1:16 Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.

Justification is the Answer

The Christian doctrine of justification is the key to understanding how a sinful person is enabled to have eternal life in the presence a holy God. Job asked the vexing question, “How can a man be righteous before God?” (Job 9:2, NKJV). The answer is found in justification, the legal or forensic act of God by which He declares the sinner to be righteous on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.

There are two crucial elements to justification. The first is that man is not justified or perfected by his own works but by faith in Christ:

Acts 13:38-39 Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.

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.

Galatians 2:21 I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

Galatians 3:11 But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.

Romans 3:20-24, 28 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: 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 … Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

Romans 4:4-5 Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.

Romans 5:1 Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Titus 3:5 Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.

The second element of justification is that the Christian’s righteousness comes from Christ alone:

2 Corinthians 5:21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.

2 Corinthians 5:17 Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.

Romans 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

Philippians 3:8-9 Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.

Unfortunately, Mormons do not understand the biblical teaching of justification. Instead, they seek to be righteous by their own works and keeping the law. All Christians should understand about Mormons what Paul understood about unbelieving Israel when he wrote:

… they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth (Rom. 10:2-4).

Paul also opposed the LDS belief that “full salvation” comes by grace PLUS works when he wrote to the Romans: 

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” (Rom. 11:6).

Grace and works are mutually exclusive when it comes to obtaining eternal life.

Evangelism of Mormons

In summary, Christians need to realize that the Evangelism Explosion* question that is usually effective with most unbelievers doesn’t work well with LDS Church members. When a Mormon is asked, “If you were to die today, do you know for certain that you would go to heaven?” he is likely to respond by saying, “Which heaven? I believe in three different heavens.”

To be more effective, Christians should ask Mormons, “If you were to die today, do you know that you have eternal life? Are you certain that you will spend all eternity with God the Father?” This gets to the heart of the matter because a knowledgeable and honest Mormon must answer these questions “No!” This opens the door for the Christian to present the true gospel of Christ, that we can know with assurance that we have eternal life (1 John 5:11- 13); because, by His death on the cross, Jesus “hath perfected forever them that are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). This is the good news that brings eternal life.

*Evangelism Explosion is an evangelistic outreach program begun by Dr. D. James Kennedy.

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