Behold the Man on the Cross
by Fred W. Anson & Michael Flournoy
For me, Fred, every General Conference there’s always one speaker that I always look forward to hearing from, Dieter F. Uchtdorf. To say that he’s my favorite Mormon Leader is an understatement. In fact, I once offended an entire Internet group by suggesting that all the other Mormon leaders with seniority in front of him should choose the right by stepping aside and letting him assume his clearly rightful place as the President of the LDS Church. The non-Mormons were offended that I would implicitly endorse the LDS system of church governance and the Mormons were offended that I would suggest that their system is anything less than ideal. Toes stepped on all around. Well done, Fred!
My enthusiasm is due to what I see as his clear focus on Jesus Christ and His redeeming grace above all else. In my opinion, if there is any voice in General Conference that can be counted on to exalt Jesus it is Dieter F. Uchtdorf. So you can imagine my excitement when there was a buzz on Facebook that in his Spring 2018 General Conference – on Easter Sunday, no less – address Elder Uchtdorf, had preached the clear, pure, gospel of the Bible. And we can see why they would come to that conclusion when words like this are spoken:
To find the most important day in history, we must go back to that evening almost 2,000 years ago in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus Christ knelt in intense prayer and offered Himself as a ransom for our sins. It was during this great and infinite sacrifice of unparalleled suffering in both body and spirit that Jesus Christ, even God, bled at every pore. Out of perfect love, He gave all that we might receive all. His supernal sacrifice, difficult to comprehend, to be felt only with all our heart and mind, reminds us of the universal debt of gratitude we owe Christ for His divine gift…
Jesus Christ paid the price for our sins.
All of them.
On that most important day in history, Jesus the Christ opened the gates of death and cast aside the barriers that prevented us from passing into the holy and hallowed halls of everlasting life. Because of our Lord and Savior, you and I are granted a most precious and priceless gift—regardless of our past, we can repent and follow the path that leads to celestial light and glory, surrounded by the faithful children of Heavenly Father.
Because of Jesus Christ, we will rise from the despair of death and embrace those we love, shedding tears of overwhelming joy and overflowing gratitude. Because of Jesus Christ, we will exist as eternal beings, worlds without end.
Because of Jesus the Christ, our sins can not only be erased; they can be forgotten.
We can become purified and exalted.
(Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Behold the Man!” Spring 2018 General Conference)
But friends, there are some real problems here! For a start, not only does the Bible affirm that the atonement took place on the cross, not the Garden of Gethsemane, so does the Book of Mormon:
“And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world”
— 1 Nephi 11:33
“Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world”
— 3 Nephi 11:14
And there’s a good reason for this, though the difference between Gethsemane and Golgotha might appear to be a trivial technicality, it underscores the vast differences between orthodox Biblical Christianity and Mormonism. By situating it at Golgotha, mainstream Christianity locates the atonement in the sacrifice of Christ; by situating it in Gethsemane, Mormons locate the atonement in the obedience of the believer.
It’s the difference between grace and works. On the one hand, there is the truly finished work that the believer looks to in faith; and on the other, there is the completed demonstration that the believer aspires to recreate (albeit metaphorically). In the latter, Christ might show the way, but he stops short of becoming the way, thus the believer is thrust back on his own efforts to secure the goal. As Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker noted, Mormonism is more about attainment than atonement, (Adam Gopnik, “I, Nephi: Mormonism and its Meanings”; The New Yorker, August 13, 2012). But such a focus denies the Christ-centered redemption narrative that’s at the very core of the gospel message and so rightly cherished by Christians the world over.
Further, and in the end, Elder Uchtdorf shifts the focus of his address off of the exaltation and glory of Jesus Christ and places it squarely on what Christ can do for us:
So, when you ponder the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, what do you see?
Those who find a way to truly behold the Man find the doorway to life’s greatest joys and the balm to life’s most demanding despairs.
So, when you are encompassed by sorrows and grief, behold the Man.
When you feel lost or forgotten, behold the Man.
When you are despairing, deserted, doubting, damaged, or defeated, behold the Man.
He will comfort you.
He will heal you and give meaning to your journey. He will pour out His Spirit and fill your heart with exceeding joy.
He gives “power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.”
When we truly behold the Man, we learn of Him and seek to align our lives with Him. We repent and strive to refine our natures and daily grow a little closer to Him. We trust Him. We show our love for Him by keeping His commandments and by living up to our sacred covenants.
In other words, we become His disciples…
My beloved brothers and sisters, I testify that the most important day in the history of mankind was the day when Jesus Christ, the living Son of God, won the victory over death and sin for all of God’s children. And the most important day in your life and mine is the day when we learn to “behold the man”; when we see Him for who He truly is; when we partake with all our heart and mind of His atoning power; when with renewed enthusiasm and strength, we commit to follow Him. May that be a day that recurs over and over again throughout our lives.
I leave you my testimony and blessing that as we “behold the man,” we will find meaning, joy, and peace in this earthly life and eternal life in the world to come. In the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.
(Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Behold the Man!” Spring 2018 General Conference)
So, in the end, the message preached here is that when we “behold the man”, Jesus Christ becomes something of a magic talisman or cosmic “turbo button” that we can push to get past our problems and press on to both temporal and eternal achievement and accomplishment. In such a scenario God gets pushed right off of the throne of our lives so we can sit down.
This is not the gospel of Jesus Christ, this is the gospel of I, me, mine. It is a false gospel.
Further, despite Elder Uchtdorf’s use of the scripture elsewhere in his address, this is not, “we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:26), this is the gospel of “It’s all about what Christ can do for me!” And, speaking as those with Mormon family and friends, it is this false gospel that breaks our heart.
For you see, the gospel isn’t about us, it’s about Jesus. Perhaps another German said it best when he so plainly and directly stated, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” And his words are even more powerful and plainer when considered in their full context:
The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Cost of Discipleship”, p.71, Nook edition)
A gospel than culminates in the garden rips the very heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ out of it. Mr. Bonhoeffer, might not be the Bible but he most certainly understood this. Consider the words of the Apostle Paul:
“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.”
— Galatians 2:20&21 KJV
Or, better yet, consider the words of Jesus Himself:
“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.”
— Luke 9:23&24 KJV
Garden theology and cross theology are completely at odds. The disciples were with Jesus in the garden. They were admonished to watch and pray. An angel came and strengthened Jesus. If the atonement happened in the garden, then Jesus was incapable of ransoming mankind alone. He needed help. This gospel makes grace an enabling power instead of a saving power, and salvation becomes a joint effort.
Cross theology has Jesus suffering alone. He even calls out saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” No one is present to strengthen the Savior or lighten his load. The burden is His, and His alone to carry. This gospel crowns him King of the Jews, the author, and finisher of our faith, and the sole rescuer of men.
Garden theology is a gospel of never-ending striving. In Mormonism, Jesus bled from every pore as He took the sins of mankind, but even after that he said to Peter, “Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11) Speaking in the future tense, he admitted he yet had a cup to drink. He describes this bitter cup in 3 Nephi 11:11 as “taking upon me the sins of the world.” Mormonism, therefore, is a theology of never truly having salvation. Just as Jesus still had to drink the bitter cup, Mormons still have to keep the commandments and endure to the end. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, and salvation is always something you aim for but can never possess.
Cross theology has Jesus definitively saying, “It is finished!” (John 19:30) It is a gospel of peace and rest, a gospel of trust, knowing that God has our salvation firmly in His grip. Salvation is a gift, it’s something believers can possess and be assured of in mortality.
Perhaps most dangerous of all, garden theology makes Jesus into a mere man. In the garden, he says to God, “Not my will, but thine be done.” (Luke 22:42) This is a theology where men are on a journey to become Gods themselves, and Jesus is on the same path trying to align Himself with the Father. In this vein, in the aforementioned 3 Nephi 11:11 passage Christ even goes so far as to say, “I have suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning” which implies that the atonement was a contest of his will v. Heavenly Father’s. Cross theology, in contrast, has Jesus in full submission to the Father. The wills are aligned. Jesus even says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” (Luke 23:34). In this theology, Jesus is already one with the Father. He is already fully God.
I, Michael, always thought it was amazing how Pontious Pilate could stare Jesus, the author of all truth, in the face and say, “What is truth?” It was this utter blindness that led him to say, “Behold the man!” What irony, that Pilate said these words, and nearly 2,000 years later they were repeated multiple times by a Mormon “pilot”. The true gospel of the cross does not inspire us to behold the man, it inspires us to behold the Son of God!
Garden theology teaches that God’s work is to exalt mankind. Everything is filtered through this lens. Every trial we go through is about our growth and learning. In cross theology, everything is for the glory of God alone. We are bidden to take up our cross, for only in losing our life can it be found – a paradox that requires a total and complete trust in God alone, even when the trial makes no sense to us or others. Thus, the gospel isn’t about personal achievement, it isn’t about self-actualization, it isn’t even about achieving personal perfection, it’s about dying to self, and being resurrected to live in Christ (see Romans 6:1-11). If the atonement culminates by simply achieving a life of self-glorifying obedience to religious laws and ordinances, then what need is there for the cross at all?
Friend, the gospel isn’t about using Christ as an enabling power, or a benevolent older brother to guide your way. The gospel isn’t about Jesus punching your E-ticket so you can be resurrected and spend eternity with your family and friends. The gospel isn’t about living a happy, self-actualized, prosperous life in the here and now. The gospel is about dying. The gospel can’t be found in the garden. Nor is it found in choosing the right. The gospel is found on Golgotha. On a cross. In a tomb. In death. The gospel is about dying to self and being raised to live with Christ in His righteousness. The gospel is Jesus Christ. He is the beginning and He is the end. As C.S. Lewis, said well,
Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.
(C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics)“, pp. 226-227, Kindle edition)
Friend, He calls to you, to me, to us, and to anyone who will listen, “Come and die.”