When born-again Christians try to talk to their LDS friends about faith, they enter a minefield of miscommunication. The most frequent misunderstanding occurs at the all-important subject of salvation: What is it? How do you get it? Why is it even necessary?
A Common Misunderstanding
Conversations about salvation break down for a very simple reason. When born-again Christians speak of salvation, they’re talking about one event: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Salvation is one event that takes place between the Savior and the saved.
When LDS people speak of salvation, however, they’re referring to two events: one general and one individual.
The first salvation event is both unconditional and universal – Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection ensures that all will be saved, that is, resurrected from the dead. Let’s let the LDS Church explain it in their own words:
All people who have ever lived on the earth and who ever will live on the earth will be resurrected and brought back into the presence of God to be judged (see 2 Nephi 2:5-10; Helaman 14:15-17). Through the Savior’s gift of mercy and redeeming grace, we will all receive the gift of immortality and live forever in glorified, resurrected bodies.1
When Latter-day Saints speak of this first, unconditional, universal salvation, they can sound quite evangelical. Consider, for example, the following quotes from the Book of Mormon:
[After Jesus came to earth] men also were saved by faith in his name; and by faith, they became the sons of God. And as surely as Christ liveth he spake these words unto our fathers, saying: Whatsoever thing ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is good, in faith believing that ye shall receive, behold, it shall be done unto you. (Moroni 7:26)
And moreover, I say unto you, that there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent. (Mosiah 3:17)
Therefore may God grant unto you, my brethren, that ye may begin to exercise your faith unto repentance, that ye begin to call upon his holy name, that he would have mercy upon you. (Alma 34:17)
When verses like these emerge, both Latter-day Saints and born-again Christians can become frustrated as they try to get to the bottom of their differences. But remember, in LDS theology, salvation refers to two events, not just one. And the second salvation event is quite different, for it is conditional and works-based. It’s commonly called “exaltation” and refers to one’s ability to attain “the highest degree of glory.” Again, let’s let the LDS Church explain.
Although we are redeemed unconditionally from the universal effects of the Fall, we are accountable for our own sins. But we can be forgiven and cleansed from the stain of sin if we “apply the atoning blood of Christ” (Mosiah 4:2). We must exercise faith in Jesus Christ, repent, be baptized for the remission of sins, and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.2
Covenant Keeping and Salvation
When we allow the LDS Church to unpack the statement above, we find out a little bit more, namely, covenant-keeping, which plays a large role in this second salvation.
All the saving ordinances of the priesthood are accompanied by covenants. For example, we make a covenant when we are baptized, and we renew that covenant each time we partake of the sacrament (see Mosiah 18:8–10; Doctrine and Covenants 20:37, 77, 79). Those who have received the Melchizedek Priesthood have entered into the oath and covenant of the priesthood (see Doctrine and Covenants 84:33–44). The temple endowment and the sealing (marriage) ordinance also include sacred covenants.3
To review, when Latter-day Saints speak about salvation, they’re referring to two events. The first event occurs at the resurrection of the body, which is secured for all men by the atonement of Christ. The second event, exaltation to the Celestial Kingdom, comes from believing LDS doctrine and completing the saving ordinances, which are called “covenants.”
“OK,” you reply, “but I still get stuck. What am I supposed to say?” It’s not an easy question to answer and, I must confess, I’ve experimented with several imperfect answers. What follows is a line of thought that has worked for me and might work for you, too.[^4]
Instead of moving forward to biblical salvation, I go backward to a presupposition: Who gets to define God?
Clearly, God is the only Person who gets to define God. But, where does God define Himself? Through His Bible? Through our emotions? Through what makes sense to us?
Proverbs 3:5–6 is an excellent verse to present to your friend (you probably already have it memorized), “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths.”
An excellent companion verse is Proverbs 28:26, “Whoever trusts in his own heart is a fool, but he who walks wisely will be delivered.”
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).
Can you trust that lamp? Of course, you can. “You have exalted above all things your name and your word” (Psalm 138:2). “Every word of God proves true; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him” (Proverbs 30:5). Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35).
Inevitably, my conversations with Latter-day Saints about salvation circle back to emotions, intuition, and reason. “Are you willing to submit your thoughts about God to the written Word?” I ask. Once a Latter-day Saint brings his/her emotions, feelings, and reason underneath the Bible’s presentation of God, clear communication about salvation naturally follows.
So profound is the LDS commitment to their feelings/emotions that most are unwilling to submit them exclusively even to LDS written Scripture. As a rule, Latter-day Saints cling to the right to define God themselves. And until that notion is addressed, any discussion about God’s salvation will land on impassable terrain.