Many born-again Christians feel pressure to master LDS theology before engaging a friend in gospel conversation. Effective evangelism to Latter-day Saints, however, requires less knowledge about Mormonism than one might think. Deep-dives into LDS theology are not only time-consuming and frustrating, but also delay gospel conversations that should have happened already.
But that begs the question, So, why study LDS theology at all? First, solid preparation will give you confidence as you teach. Second, an overall structure will help you learn nuances given in later lessons. Third, and most important, you’ll be able to correctly interpret your friend’s questions and concerns.
For these three reasons, we’re providing the following primer. As you read, try to absorb the material while noting Mormonism’s overarching time-line, especially in God’s Plan of Salvation. A basic comprehension will work just fine.
The history and the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are weighted heavily on Joseph Smith, Jr (1805-1844). According to Smith, he journeyed into the woods in Palmyra, NY, at fourteen years old to pray about which church to join. Angelic beings appeared and told him not to follow any existing Christian denomination, all of which had perverted Christ’s true church (called The Great Apostasy).
According to Smith, after seven years of failure, the angel Moroni (pictured by the bronze, trumpet-blasting angel who sits atop all LDS temples) finally led him to Cumorah Hill where, in September of 1827, he collected golden plates, Urim and Thummim (a set of stone-like spectacles), a breastplate, and the Sword of Laban. These plates contained histories of previously unknown Jewish descendants who had migrated to the Americas. Eventually, Smith translated the plates’ Reformed Egyptian by dictating English words as they appeared in the bottom of his hat. And thus, the Book of Mormon was born.
Armed with “Another Testament of Jesus Christ,” Smith set about to re-establish Christ’s true church on the earth. His dynamic personality and sensational preaching drew many followers as they sojourned from Kirtland, OH, to Independence, MO, and then to Nauvoo, IL. In 1844, after 5 years in Nauvoo, Smith found himself imprisoned due to a controversy related to the destruction of a local printing press that had recently criticized Smith’s polygamy. On the evening of June 27, 1844, a mob stormed the prison and murdered both Joseph and his brother Hyrum.
Following Smith’s death, the Latter-day Saints splintered into as many as twenty different sects, but the majority followed Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; he led them to the Utah territory where they settled in 1847. Through aggressive missionary activity and widespread polygamy, the Latter-day Saint population quickly grew (Prophet Wilford Woodruff officially ended “plural marriage” in 1890). Today, the mainstream LDS Church boasts of 12 million members worldwide with an estimated annual income of $6B (the LDS Church does not release any official financial figures).
For a longer review of LDS history, see A Brief History of Mormonism.
The cornerstone of LDS theology is the “the doctrine of eternal progression.” In its most basic form, married couples can “progress” to godhood whereupon their heavenly offspring also have opportunity to become gods. Latter-day Saints sometimes claim that “eternal progression” is not a topic of much discussion in Ward meetings, which is true. But as the outlines of LDS theology emerge, one will see that progression lies at the root of it all.
Latter-day Saints believe that in the past eons of time, Heavenly Father (or, Elohim) and Heavenly Mother bore billions of spirit children where they live near the star Kolob. Of these celestial spirit-children, Jesus Christ was the firstborn and chief. Knowing that his spirit children could not themselves progress to godhood unless they took a human body, Heavenly Father decided to send them to earth to form families and “gain knowledge” unto their own potential godhood. But before finalizing this Plan of Salvation, Heavenly Father called all his spirit children to a council where he posed the question: When my children get to earth and sin, how will they return to me?
Lucifer proposed a plan that robbed these spirit children of free-will – obedience to Heavenly Father would be obligatory. Jesus’s plan, however, retained human choice and saves only those who follow Heavenly Father’s ways. Surmising that free-will maximized Heavenly Father’s glory, the council unanimously accepted Jesus’s proposal, which embittered Lucifer and touched off a heavenly war. Today people remember nothing of the pre-mortal life, of course, because Heavenly Father drops a Veil of Forgetfulness over human memory.
When Heavenly Father commissioned Adam and Eve, he gave two commands: (1) do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and (2) be fruitful and multiply. When Lucifer successfully tricked Eve into violating the first command, Adam was placed on the horns of a dilemma. If he obeyed the first command and refused to eat the forbidden fruit, his chance to multiply would end when his wife was banished. Or, Adam could join her disobedience, share in her exile, and pave the way for others to attain godhood. Adam, of course, heroically chose the sacrificial path of self-expulsion so that he might procreate with Eve.
Jesus and Salvation
Adam’s deliberate disobedience created a problem: Who would atone for Adam’s sin? Jesus sinlessly atoned for Adam’s sin in both the Garden of Gethsemane (when he sweat drops of blood) and on the cross. Jesus’s atonement has two universal, unconditional benefits for salvation: (1) it atones for Adam’s sin and (2) it provides a general resurrection for all mankind.
The Savior’s atonement has additional salvific components both individual and conditional (we say much about this idea in Lesson #4 of Discovering God Together, which is entitled, “Discovering God’s Salvation”). Those who accept the LDS message, follow its tenets, receive Temple ordinances, and much more, can qualify themselves for individual “salvation” in the highest heaven. It is there, in the Celestial Kingdom, that they may progress to godhood.
Latter-day Saint theology teaches the existence of three heavens: the telestial, terrestrial, and celestial. The telestial, the lowest heaven, is reserved for those who have rejected the LDS message. The terrestrial is for Latter-day Saints who maintained connection with the Church throughout their lives but were lukewarm in their pursuit. The Celestial, which also has three layers, is for those who believed and behaved worthily. These individuals can progress to godhood, create their own spirit race, and fellowship fully with Heavenly Father. Some Plans also picture Outer Darkness, which is a place reserved for apostate Latter-day Saints who “remain filthy still.”
Finally, LDS theology retains a second chance for Heavenly Father’s spirit children. After the first resurrection, mankind will be presented another opportunity to repent. If a family member has undergone Temple ordinances on their behalf (commonly known as Baptism for the Dead), they can receive a higher degree of glory at Jesus’s Final Judgement.
It was almost as if the apostle Paul could see into Utah’s future when he wrote, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8-9). What is the gospel that Paul preached? He goes on, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Jesus Christ, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16).
As one Christian writer put it, the difference between born-again Christianity and Mormonism is this – Latter-day Saints believe their salvation is doing; Christians believe it is done. “When the fulness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).