Talking about your faith with a Latter-day Saint (Mormon) can be challenging. An evangelical friend recently told me about such a conversation. “I know that we hold different beliefs, but you couldn’t tell that from our conversation.” I asked her what she meant. “Well, I asked him if Mormons believe that salvation is by grace alone. He actually agreed! But I thought they believe in a works-based salvation.” She concluded that he was lying.
I don’t think her Latter-day Saint friend was lying, but neither do I think he was agreeing with her. Instead, what happened between them was miscommunication due to assuming. Both of them assumed that they meant the same thing because they were using the same words, especially the word salvation. In reality, evangelicalism and Mormonism (and other cults and religions) share the same vocabulary but use different dictionaries. Unfortunately, such assumptions lead to a whole mess of miscommunication for both evangelicals and Latter-day Saints.
Don’t Assume – Double-Click
Words like God, Jesus, sin, and salvation are extremely important to our faith. In fact, the gospel cannot be shared or received without them. If Latter-day Saints use these same words with different meanings, then how can we get past this confusing hurdle when sharing our faith? It’s simple: don’t assume, just ask!
When you hear a familiar word being used in an unfamiliar way, ask your conversation partner to define the word. I like to call this double-clicking. The files on your cluttered computer desktop don’t tell you much until you double-click on them and read their contents. The same can be said for words. For the sake of clarity, don’t assume that a word means the same thing to you as it does to your Latter-day Saint friend. Double-click that word and “read” its contents. So, for example, what does the term salvation mean in Mormonism?
In Mormonism, salvation means that all people are on an eternal journey of progression in knowledge and being. Before our earthly lives, we lived with our heavenly father and mother, God and his wife. We were sent to earth—a veil of forgetfulness caused us to forget our pre-mortal life—so that we may learn and grow in a world with mortality, sin, and laws from God. Through the cross, Jesus Christ, our eldest brother, ensured that all people will receive salvation in the afterlife by grace alone through a universal resurrection to lesser glories in heaven.
So when a Latter-day Saint says that people are saved by grace alone, at least in this sense, they mean it. My friend’s conversation partner was not lying, but neither was he agreeing with her. According to Mormonism, if a person receives the Mormon gospel, believes it, is baptized, and keeps covenants with God through his or her own works, then (in a combination of both God’s grace and their own works) they will be ushered into a higher degree of glory in heaven.
Articulate Your Faith
Having double-clicked on the term salvation, we not only understand the Mormon position better but we can also speak to that position better. Latter-day Saints believe that grace plays a big role in salvation. However, Mormonism both jeopardizes and neutralizes that belief because it fastens one’s works to God’s grace as a reward for greater glory in the afterlife. The evangelical faith is rightly allergic to the idea of a grace-works hybrid.
Justification comes by grace alone through faith alone, absent any work of our own (Romans 3:28; Ephesians 2:8–9). In fact, the apostle Paul fervently warned that adding even one self-righteous work to our justification neutralizes God’s grace and requires that we keep the whole law (Galatians 5:4). Consequently, the Mormon definition of salvation runs contrary to the gospel revealed in Scripture.
In short, don’t assume that you and your Latter-day Saint friend mean the same thing just because you use the same words. It will frustrate both of you. Worse, it will stymie your articulation of your faith. Instead, take the time to double-click on important terms so that you can better understand what a Latter-day Saint believes. This simple practice will, in turn, allow you to articulate your faith more clearly.
Kyle Beshears is a Ph.D. candidate in World Religions at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is an instructor at the University of Mobile and pastor at the People of Mars Hill in Mobile, Alabama, where he lives with his wife.