I have made mention previously of Andrew, our youngest son, who is serving as a missionary in the Ohio Columbus Mission. He has encountered many members of the non-denominational church community known as "The Vineyard." There is a similar congregation in nearby Park City here in Utah. I have had the privilege of getting acquainted with one of their members, and have had several penetrating conversations with him in the past year. We have been discussing the gospel, sharing our testimonies of Jesus Christ with each other, and have discovered that far more unites us than divides us.
Recently, I wrote a letter to Andrew, which I now share with the rest of the world on this page. It highlights the answer to this persistent question, "Are the Mormons Christian?"
We have all learned that religious bigotry is still very much alive and well in America in the last presidential election. In fact, all other considerations aside, one must acknowledge that it sunk Mitt Romney's chances for election in the final analysis.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has put forward two masterful sermons on this topic in recent General Conferences of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (see “The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent,” Ensign, Nov 2007, 40–42, and "‘My Words … Never Cease’,” Ensign, May 2008, 91–94; also see a short video presentation of his testimony at http://www.youtube.com/mormonmessages).
Today, I put forward my own answer to the question in this letter to Andrew:
June 8, 2009
I’ve been preparing for another meeting with Kerry Lambert’s friend from the non-denominational Vineyard Church. We’re meeting again on the 16th, and this time he’s bringing a friend with him. The topic is going to be “The Nature of the Godhead.” It will be interesting.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what we really believe as Latter-day Saints as a result of these discussions. Most evangelical Christians challenge our “credentials” as true Christians, simply because we reject the notion of the Trinity doctrine. Your sister Melanie’s convert friend wondered if we really could obtain priesthood power through the laying on of hands. (We can confer authority by the laying on of hands, but priesthood power is a matter of personal righteousness that cannot be conveyed by the laying on of hands).
Elder Holland has done a wonderful job of clarifying our positions relative to the Trinitarian notions that have persisted since the days of the apostasy in ancient days since the death of the Savior and the Apostles. As I have distilled it in my mind recently, it occurs to me there are three simple questions we can ask our other Christian friends of our faith when they assert we are not Christian. The questions are these:
1. Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the literal Son of God; that He was fathered literally by His Father in the same way he was conceived literally of a virgin mother?
2. Do you believe that Jesus Christ literally did the miracles of the New Testament; that He literally walked on the water, changed the water into wine, called forth the dead Lazarus from the tomb, and silenced the threatening waves on the Sea of Galilee?
3. Do you believe that He was literally resurrected; that He came forth from the grave on the morning of the third day after His crucifixion; that He literally showed His resurrected body to first Mary, then appeared in an upper room behind locked doors to His Apostles and showed them His literal resurrected body of flesh and bones; that He literally ate fish with His Apostles on the shores of the Sea of Galilee; that He was seen of upward of 500 witnesses who literally bore witness of His literal resurrection, including two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus who failed at first to recognize Him, then literally knew it was Him?
The answers to those three questions quickly determine who the real Christians are and those who profess Jesus with their lips, but who draw figurative lines in the sand about how far they will allow their faith in Jesus to take them. Notice the common denominator in the questions -- the word "literal."
There isn’t another church in the world today that professes to literally believe the Bible and the events associated with Christ as literally as we do. There are few left in the clergy of any church who will boldly stand shoulder to shoulder with us and proclaim Christ’s literal divinity as the Son of God. There are fewer who will stand with us and boldly witness that His miracles literally happened the way they are preserved in the scriptures. The matter of the resurrection is even more befuddling to the uninspired clergy of our day. Few will proclaim without some qualifier, some reservation, that Jesus literally took up His body in a literal resurrection of the physical body and that He continues to live, minister and have direct interest in the affairs of men on the Earth today.
In each of these particulars, it has been my experience that the Mormons are the only church left on the face of the Earth today that literally accepts and proclaims these truths about Christ. To everyone else these are mere fantasies and fictions that must be properly interpreted as “mysteries” and are unexplainable to the natural mind. In each instance they qualify, they explain away, they attempt a “nuanced” explanation, but few if any there are who literally believe what we believe.
There can be only one explanation for our explicit assertion of these facts -– beginning with Joseph Smith the truth was restored about the nature of the Godhead. We have certainty because we have revelation. We have revelation because of the Restoration of truth. The Restoration came because of the answer to prayer, and the accompanying assertion by God that the heavens were no longer sealed, that God the Father would continue to assert His saving grace through the atonement of His Son for all His children, regardless of who, where, or in whatever circumstances they may reside.
To me it is absolutely clear that there is no other explanation than the God of Heaven is literally interested in saving ALL His children without exception in a kingdom of glory. He fully understands that because of agency this knowledge may take some time to permeate into every heart and soul of every one of His children, either here in mortality or in the spirit world, but make no mistake – He will have a saved posterity.
There is a little used statement by the Prophet Joseph that clearly articulates this position, but it is more frequently used to define “sons of perdition.” I use this statement to focus instead upon the notion of universal redemption for and the infinite possibilities for forgiveness of ALL sins except the one sin against the Holy Ghost. It is this:
A Salvation for Men
I have a declaration to make as to the provisions which God hath made to suit the conditions of man — made from before the foundation of the world. What has Jesus said? All sin, and all blasphemies, and every transgression, except one, that man can be guilty of, may be forgiven; and there is a salvation for all men, either in this world or the world to come, who have not committed the unpardonable sin, there being a provision either in this world or the world of spirits. Hence God hath made a provision that every spirit in the eternal world can be ferreted out and saved unless he has committed that unpardonable sin which cannot be remitted to him either in this world or the world of spirits. God has wrought out a salvation for all men, unless they have committed a certain sin; and every man who has a friend in the eternal world can save him, unless he has committed the unpardonable sin. And so you can see how far you can be a savior.
The Unpardonable Sin
A man cannot commit the unpardonable sin after the dissolution of the body, and there is a way possible for escape. Knowledge saves a man; and in the world of spirits no man can be exalted but by knowledge. So long as a man will not give heed to the commandments, he must abide without salvation. If a man has knowledge, he can be saved; although, if he has been guilty of great sins, he will be punished for them. But when he consents to obey the Gospel, whether here or in the world of spirits, he is saved.
A man is his own tormenter and his own condemner. Hence the saying, They shall go into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone. The torment of disappointment in the mind of man is as exquisite as a lake burning with fire and brimstone. I say, so is the torment of man.
I know the Scriptures and understand them. I said, no man can commit the unpardonable sin after the dissolution of the body, nor in this life, until he receives the Holy Ghost; but they must do it in this world. Hence the salvation of Jesus Christ was wrought out for all men, in order to triumph over the devil; for if it did not catch him in one place, it would in another; for he stood up as a Savior. All will suffer until they obey Christ himself.
The contention in heaven was — Jesus said there would be certain souls that would not be saved; and the devil said he could save them all, and laid his plans before the grand council, who gave their vote in favor of Jesus Christ. So the devil rose up in rebellion against God, and was cast down, with all who put up their heads for him. (Book of Moses — Pearl of Great Price, Chap. 4:1-4; Book of Abraham, Chap. 3:23-28.)
The Forgiveness of Sins
All sins shall be forgiven, except the sin against the Holy Ghost; for Jesus will save all except the sons of perdition. What must a man do to commit the unpardonable sin? He must receive the Holy Ghost, have the heavens opened unto him, and know God, and then sin against Him. After a man has sinned against the Holy Ghost, there is no repentance for him. He has got to say that the sun does not shine while he sees it; he has got to deny Jesus Christ when the heavens have been opened unto him, and to deny the plan of salvation with his eyes open to the truth of it; and from that time he begins to be an enemy. This is the case with many apostates of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
When a man begins to be an enemy to this work, he hunts me, he seeks to kill me, and never ceases to thirst for my blood. He gets the spirit of the devil — the same spirit that they had who crucified the Lord of Life — the same spirit that sins against the Holy Ghost. You cannot save such persons; you cannot bring them to repentance; they make open war, like the devil, and awful is the consequence.
I advise all of you to be careful what you do, or you may by-and-by find out that you have been deceived. Stay yourselves; do not give way; don't make any hasty moves, you may be saved. If a spirit of bitterness is in you, don't be in haste. You may say, that man is a sinner. Well, if he repents, he shall be forgiven. Be cautious: await. When you find a spirit that wants bloodshed — murder, the same is not of God, but is of the devil. Out of the abundance of the heart of man the mouth speaketh. (TPJS, 356-58; emphasis mine).
Did you catch the significance of his statements about forgiveness? It’s important to understand that ALL SINS will be forgiven on the basis of gaining knowledge – either in this life or the next. We have been so busy urging everyone to not procrastinate the day of their repentance (and it is right that we do among the covenant people) that we have lost sight of what the words infinite atonement and mercy really mean. We have put limits on the full saving power of the atonement.
Alma 34:15-16 states: “And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance. And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption."
When Rich and Joe were on their missions, President Packer made an unscheduled visit to our stake conference. I made careful notes of everything he said because I wanted the boys to have it just the way he said it. Among other things, he taught this doctrine: “When we go beyond the veil we will be surprised at how different things are. But we’ll also be surprised at how similar things are. If we don’t get things fixed here we’ll get them fixed there, but don’t give up.” Again, no sermons, just simplicity beyond belief! Then this: “I have a little experience with things beyond the veil, too sacred to talk about here.” He said the leaders of the Church are not strangers to the Lord.
It began to occur to me some years ago that redemption for all in a kingdom of glory is really what the gospel plan is all about. There are no covenants for the telestial or terrestrial kingdoms. All covenants are to point us toward the celestial kingdom. The Restoration as complete as it has been to this point is still lacking certain elements and keys of the priesthood that we still do not have. The plan is far more comprehensive and expansive than any of us supposes. For example, what about the keys of the resurrection?
We have some faint glimmers of understanding about resurrection keys and their use. We rarely think of resurrection as a priesthood ordinance involving keys, but these thoughts were on my mind recently as we stood in the Salt Lake City Cemetery visiting the graves of our dead relatives. The resurrection will be conducted in the same way other priesthood ordinances require the operation of priesthood power and priesthood keys. President Brigham Young perhaps said it more authoritatively than anyone. We sometimes forget that to believe in a universal resurrection one must also accept that such can only be done based upon faith in the redemptive power of Christ, which is conditioned upon faith, repentance, baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. Even resurrection in order to be effected must be done on this same fundamental basis. Brigham Young taught:
“All who have lived on the earth according to the best light they had, and would have received the fulness of the Gospel had it been preached to them, are worthy of a glorious resurrection, and will attain to this by being administered for, in the flesh, by those who have the authority. All others will have a resurrection, and receive a glory, except those who have sinned against the Holy Ghost. It is supposed by this people that we have all the ordinances in our possession for life and salvation, and exaltation, and that we are administering in these ordinances. This is not the case. We are in possession of all the ordinances that can be administered in the flesh; but there are other ordinances and administrations that must be administered beyond this world. I know you would ask what they are. I will mention one. We have not, neither can we receive here, the ordinance and the keys of the resurrection. They will be given to those who have passed off this stage of action and have received their bodies again, as many have already done and many more will. They will be ordained by those who hold the keys of the resurrection, to go forth and resurrect the Saints, just as we receive the ordinance of baptism, then the keys of authority to baptize others for the remission of their sins. This is one of the ordinances we cannot receive here, and there are many more. We hold the authority to dispose of, alter and change the elements; but we have not received authority to organize native element, to even make a spear of grass grow.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, 397–98).
Closer to our day, President Spencer W. Kimball, in a General Conference address in April 1977, confirmed that no one now living holds the keys of resurrection. And that is not because we lack the desire to possess them. President Kimball said: "Do we have the keys of resurrection? . . . I buried my mother when I was eleven, my father when I was in my early twenties. I have missed my parents much. If I had the power of resurrection as did the Savior of the world, I would have been tempted to try to have kept them longer. . . . We do not know of anyone who can resurrect the dead as did Jesus the Christ when he came back to mortality" (Conference Report, April 1977, 69).
Nevertheless, President Kimball promised, the faithful will receive not only the keys of resurrection but also the power of godhood in the resurrection: "We talk about the gospel in its fulness; yet we realize that a large part is still available to us as we prepare, as we perfect, and as we become more like our God. In the Doctrine and Covenants we read of Abraham, who has already attained godhood. He has received many powers, undoubtedly, that we would like to have and will eventually get if we continue faithful and perfect our lives" (Conference Report, April 1977, 71).
When the spirit of Jesus re-entered His physical body in the Garden Tomb that first Easter morning, He became the first person on this earth to receive the keys of resurrection. It is true He inherited the power to take up His body again from his Father (Elohim) at the time of His mortal birth. But He received the keys of resurrection only after His own resurrection.
President Joseph Fielding Smith explained the sequence this way: "Jesus Christ did for us something that we could not do for ourselves, through his infinite atonement. On the third day after the crucifixion he took up his body and gained the keys of the resurrection, and thus has power to open the graves for all men, but this he could not do until he had first passed through death himself and conquered" (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:128; emphasis added).
This is a vast and far-reaching doctrine in its application, because it means the keys of resurrection are conferred after one has been resurrected and those keys are then used to resurrect others. It explains why we research our deceased family members so the work can be done for them, because eventually we will also resurrect them using priesthood keys. And conversely, they can only be resurrected and receive a kingdom of glory when (and only when – either here or in the spirit world) they accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. There is an expression at the end of "The Vision" (Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants) that perfectly explains this doctrine: "And heard the voice of the Lord saying: These all [the heirs of the telestial kingdom] shall bow the knee, and every tongue shall confess to him who sits upon the throne forever and ever." (Verse 110).
Joseph Smith declared, in explaining this doctrine, "Baptism is a sign to God, to angels, and to heaven that we do the will of God, and there is no other way beneath the heavens whereby God hath ordained for man to come to Him to be saved, and enter into the Kingdom of God, except faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, and baptism for the remission of sins, and any other course is in vain: then you have the promise of the gift of the Holy Ghost. . . The sign of Peter was to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins, with the promise of the gift of the Holy Ghost; and in no other way is the gift of the Holy Ghost obtained." (TPJS, 198-99). To accept Jesus as your Savior is more than mere confession with the lips -- it involves the first principles and ordinances of the gospel, as Joseph taught.
Jesus was the Great Prototype of resurrection. If we want to know what resurrection looks like, we look to Christ. Having obtained the keys of resurrection Himself (after His own experience with resurrection), He then possessed power in the priesthood to resurrect all others who would follow after Him.
According to President Brigham Young, those keys of resurrection first acquired by the Savior are then further given, extended, or delegated to others who have died and been resurrected. "They will be ordained, by those who hold the keys of the resurrection, to go forth and resurrect the Saints, just as we receive the ordinance of baptism, then the keys of authority to baptize others" (Discourses of Brigham Young, 398).
It gives added meaning to these powerful declarations by first, President Wilford Woodruff, then President Lorenzo Snow.
“So it will be with your fathers [referring to D&C 137:7-8]. There will be very few, if any, who will not accept the Gospel. Jesus, while His body lay in the tomb, went and preached to the spirits in prison, who were destroyed in the days of Noah. After so long an imprisonment, in torment, they doubtless gladly embraced the Gospel, and if so they will be saved in the kingdom of God. The fathers of this people will embrace the Gospel. It is my duty to honor my father who begot me in the flesh. It is your duty to do the same. When you do this, the Spirit of God will be with you. And we shall continue this work, the Lord adding light to that which we have already received.” (Wilford Woodruff, Collected Discourses, April 8, 1894).
“I believe, strongly too, that when the Gospel is preached to the spirits in prison, the success attending that preaching will be far greater than that attending the preaching of our Elders in this life. I believe there will be very few indeed of those spirits who will not gladly receive the Gospel when it is carried to them. The circumstances there will be a thousand times more favorable. . . I believe there will be very few who will not receive the truth.” (Lorenzo Snow, Collected Discourses, October 6, 1893).
Thus, in one respect we might think of the ordinance of resurrection as being like other ordinances which we see performed on this earth. It involves those who possess the authority and keys of resurrection. As President Brigham Young and Elder Erastus Snow also taught, the resurrection will be conducted much as other things are done in the kingdom, by delegation (Journal of Discourses, 6:275; 15:136–39; 25:34). Just as we cannot bless or baptize ourselves, so we cannot resurrect ourselves. Ordinances are performed on our behalf by those who are authorized to perform the ordinances.
Knowing what we do about the importance of worthy fathers guiding and blessing their families in righteousness, it does not seem out of order to believe that worthy fathers and priesthood holders will have the privilege of calling forth their wives, or their children, or even other members of their family from the grave. Is it not the order of heaven for righteous patriarchs (fathers, grandfathers, and others) to bless, baptize, and perform other ordinances for their loved ones?
Before Jesus was resurrected, only his Father, our Father in Heaven, possessed the keys of resurrection (even though as the Son of God, He possessed the power of life in Himself — independently). After He was resurrected, Jesus acquired the keys of resurrection which could then be given to others.
These illuminating statements of President Young, President Kimball, and President Smith, taken together, help us to see once again that God's house is a house of order. As a result of His own resurrection, Jesus now controls all power and all keys, under the direction of his Father, which He delegates to others as they are worthy and become prepared to possess the various powers of godliness. These powers are then used to bless the human family. This is true for the keys of resurrection as well as all other priesthood power and authority.
These things are intentionally kept hid from the world, because they constitute what can aptly be named as “the mysteries of godliness.” As Elder Neal A. Maxwell used to say often, I too believe the beauty of the Restoration is that God is giving away all the mysteries of the universe to any of His children who are inclined to pray and ask about them in due course. They are revealed as we are ready to seek knowledge, gain understanding and accept them as truth.
So we end where we started – who are the true Christians? Consider this: “The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God, and after they have paid the penalty of their transgressions, and are washed clean, shall receive a reward according to their works, for they are heirs of salvation.” (D&C 138:58-59).
Love and blessings,