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Evangelicals and Mormons: A Conversation and Dialogue (w/ Richard Mouw, ...

Published on Jun 14, 2012
Dr. Richard Mouw, President and Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Dr. Robert Millet, Professor of Ancient Scripture and Emeritus Dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University, discuss "Evangelicals and Mormons: A Conversation and Dialogue." The discussion took place with journalists at the May 2012 Faith Angle Forum in Miami, FL.

A transcript of the discussion is available here:

The Faith Angle Forum is a semi-annual conference hosted by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The forum brings together a select group of nationally respected journalists and distinguished scholars for in-depth discussions of crucial issues at the intersection of religion and public policy.

For more about (and from) the Ethics and Public Policy Center, visit

Blogs » Flunking Sainthood

This week's CT article showcases difference between Mormon and evangelical views of grace. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock;
This week’s CT article showcases differences between Mormon and evangelical views of grace. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock;

This month, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today asked three experts on youth ministry how Protestants might better engage their own teenagers and young adults, looking to Mormonism for a possible answer. With its recent sharp increase in new missionary recruits shipping out around the world, Mormonism has become the It Religion for youth involvement and leadership.
I should say at the outset that it’s progress that CT would dare to look to Mormonism for any kind of inspiration. As some of the article’s comments show, doing so is not a popular stance among evangelical readers; two commenters have already accused CT of having an editorial agenda “contrary to the scriptures.”
But apart from a grudging admiration of the passion of Mormon youth, the article itself is hardly laudatory of Mormonism. In fact, its title — “What Can Christians Learn from the Surge in Mormon Youth Missionaries?” – makes the age-old battle lines clear: Christian ≠ Mormon. All three of the experts fault Mormonism for a works-based theology:
“Trying to earn God’s favor through human effort is not going to help any teenager, whether Mormon or Protestant.” – Greg Stier
“Mormon culture is founded on a worldview requiring works in order to gain eternal life.” – John Divito
“Christians have a unique core that motivates our service, a core that separates our religion from others, including Mormonism. That core is grace—amazing grace.” – Kara Powell
And they’re right, up to a point. On the works-grace continuum, most Mormons stand closer to the “works” end of the spectrum than most evangelicals do. But an eloquent (and polite!) LDS commenter to the CT post notes that the theology inherent in the Book of Mormon’s “by grace we are saved, after all we can do” mantra (2 Nephi 25:23) is indeed compatible with a theology grace:
Those who quote this verse often misunderstand the meaning of the last phrase. It reads: “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” Alma 24:10-11 makes it clear that “all we can do” is repent. LDS beliefs are not a system of works-righteousness. LDS beliefs are in accord with the teachings of both Paul and James. We believe in salvation by grace through faith (Rom. 5:2; Eph. 2:8) but we also believe that faith without works is dead (Jam. 2:17). True faith will be accompanied by good works. Other portions of the Book of Mormon make it clear that our works in no way save us.
It’s good to understand the 2 Nephi quote in context, and it’s also important for evangelical writers to recognize that over the last two decades, Mormonism has been emphasizing grace more and more from the pulpit.
As I’ve tracked this theological evolution, though, I have seen a key difference in how Mormons use the language of grace and how evangelicals use it. Evangelicals often talk about grace as a means of salvation, which (in rhetoric if not always in lived practice) is an end in itself, full stop.
Mormons talk about grace as our means of salvation as well, for everything begins with the free gift of Christ’s atonement. But grace also equips us for service in the here and now. The opening sentence in the LDS Gospel Topics reference defines grace as “the help or strength given through the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Mormon definition focuses on grace as “enabling power” and “spiritual strength.” It is a gift, yes, but it’s one we have to unwrap and put into play.
A danger of the Mormon view of grace is that it can easily devolve into the caricature that some evangelicals have charged us with – the notion that our works can save us. As the second CT commenter rightly observes, a performance-based religion “leads either to pride (‘I can do it!’) or to despair (‘I can’t do it!’).”
A danger of the evangelical view of grace is complacency. If grace is merely the key that unlocks salvation, then why does the vast majority of the Bible focus on grace-full ways of inhabiting this life—how we spend our money, teach the gospel, serve our neighbor, and feed the poor?
The answer is that it is a balance. I’m grateful for evangelical friends and writers (Philip Yancey in particular) who have taught me what makes grace so amazing. But I’m also grateful that Mormon theology demands, every day, that any faith that God’s grace has sparked in me be put into action.

"That’s a great perspective. Thank you. But when I read the CT piece, I thought that the only part of it which misrepresented the works-grace issue was the segment written by John Divito. Since he’s billed as a former Mormon, I guess that the editors probably figured, hey, he’s our expert, so he can say what he likes, particularly if it already fits in with our preconceptions.
But of course, he can’t say what he likes, not if he wishes to be truthful. It’s my fervent hope that both evangelicals and Mormons believe that bearing false witness is a sin. John Divito should think about that.
Ephesians 2:8 is a great verse. As a Mormon – by the way, I am also a former evangelical, so I’m an expert too! – I fully believe in the truth of Eph. 2:8. Textually it sits very comfortably alongside 2 Neph. 25:23, since both of them teach plainly the necessity of grace and the inadequacy of works. But Eph. 2:8 is not the only verse in the Bible, and especially can’t be given precedence over the teachings of Jesus Christ, who never, ever quite said that all you need is a moment of belief and you’re good to go.
And I’ve been curious for a long time about why the necessity (in evangelical theology) of that moment of belief isn’t still a “work.” In other words, I have sat in pews listening to hundreds of calls to the altar in my day. I’ve been to Billy Graham crusades, when thousands stream out of the stands in response to his call to give their lives to Jesus. All of those pastors, all of those evangelists, were always very specific about what YOU need to do do be saved. So if it is something that YOU need to do to be saved, then that’s a work, no?
Salvation feels like a binary term. You either are or you’re not. But Mormons understand that the term salvation can be used in more than one sense. In the most basic sense, which is salvation from physical death and from the damnation associated with sin, Mormons believe, even more so than evangelicals, that salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, purchased through the atonement of Christ, unconditional on anything required of us at any time.
So, I’m not sure that I agree with Jana about where Mormons stand on the grace-works continuum in relation to evangelicals. (Jana, I’m thinking of an important talk by Elder Dalin Oaks on this subject.) My sense is that the theology of God’s grace, and of man’s duties of faith and obedience, is too rich to be reduced to placing a dot on a line between two undoctrinal extremes."

Val Larsen

"LMA, great comment. You are spot on, and so articulate. Salvation clearly comes to us through the works of grace. We have to become like God to be saved–”Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father in Heaven is perfect”–but we have no hope of attaining that standard except through on-going engagement with and reliance upon the atonement and enabling power of the Savior. Christ has us symbolically partake of his body and blood each week, making him part of us. That symbol reveals a profound truth. Unless he is part of us, unless he empowers us, we can never be the person we must be to be saved. The Mormon sacrament prayers contain this insight. In the prayer on the bread, we testify that we “are willing” to always remember Christ and keep his commandments. We are willing but unable. After we partake of the body of Christ and make him part of us, we gain the capacity to do what we are willing but unable on our own to do. The prayer on the water then says we “do always remember him.” Our capacity to do is the gracious gift of God through his only begotten son, Jesus Christ. So works are indispensable and Christ and even Paul make very clear, but they are ever and always the works of grace."



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