Deciphering the Mormon Code: A Translation of LDS Soteriology into Plain English
By: Michael Flournoy
If you’re a Christian who has ever witnessed to Mormons, chances are you’ve walked away from more than one encounter feeling confused. They probably agreed with you that salvation comes through faith and nodded their heads as you explained grace to them. You may have wondered if perhaps they were more Christian than you realized or alternatively, if they were lying through their teeth.
It may surprise you to learn that Mormons are not lying when they make these claims. The problem is that Latter-day Saints and Christians use the same words, but speak different languages. Words like faith, salvation, grace, and heaven all have different meanings assigned to them by our respective faiths. As a result, it can be extremely difficult to get our message across to Mormons because they won’t see the difference in our doctrines and when we insist they believe falsehoods, it makes them put up walls.
That’s where I come in. I was LDS for 32 years, and my favorite people to debate were Evangelical Christians. In 2015 I decided to study grace in the Bible so I could be a more effective weapon. What I found tore my world apart and a year later I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior.
The point is, I’ve been in both faith groups. I’ve had dialogues with both sides, from both sides, and I thought it would be prudent to translate Mormon beliefs into English.
Be forewarned that not every Latter-day Saint will agree with my translation. There is no official dictionary of LDS terms, and some of them disagree over finer points of doctrine and how they should be defined. However, this should serve as a guide to understand how the majority of Latter-day Saints understand soteriology.
The first thing you need to understand is Mormons believe in three heavens, and in different requirements to achieve each one. Because of that, they have reinvented common Christian terms to compensate for their worldview.
Latter-day Saints believe we are literally children of God the Father, and therefore, the same species. Because of this, they see people as essentially good and undeserving of hell. While hell is preached in their churches, it is considered a temporary punishment where the wicked pay for their sins before entering some level of heaven.
The lowest heaven is the Telestial Kingdom. People in this tier will enjoy the presence of the Holy Ghost, but the Father and the Son will be absent. You don’t have to be good to go there. It is believed that Hitler, along with murderers, adulterers, liars, and thieves will live in this place.
Doctrine and Covenants 76:88 says that these Telestialites will be “heirs of salvation.” I cannot stress enough that in Mormonism, someone can be saved and still not enter the presence of Jesus. It’s like being invited to a wedding, but you’re stuck in the foyer away from the Bridegroom. Mormons will also sometimes use saved to refer to the resurrection, since these individuals are saved from physical death. The resurrection is what Latter-day Saints are referring to when they say salvation is a free gift from God.
The Terrestrial Kingdom is the second level of heaven. Those people will enjoy the presence of the Son, but not the Father. Good people who didn’t accept the Mormon gospel will go there, along with anyone who died without law. Of course, us poor, apostate Christians get lumped into this category, and are told in patronizing fashion that we’ll be totally content since we’ll get to live with Jesus.
It should be noted that Mormons believe in a works-based righteousness. Instead of a vicarious atonement, where Jesus obeyed on our behalf, they believe in an enabling atonement where Jesus opened a path for them to establish their own righteousness. This is where the concept of a middle heaven comes into play. Not everyone is as wicked as Hitler or as righteous as Mother Teresa (who ironically only makes it to the Terrestrial Kingdom), so they believe God made a middle heaven so people wouldn’t be punished more severely or rewarded more lavishly than they deserved.
Mormons lack a good understanding of James 2:10 which states that even one sin causes us to break the whole law. Nor do they understand the concept of reckoned righteousness, which makes us totally worthy in the eyes of God. The Bible doesn’t leave room for a middle ground. We are either damned or redeemed, in the Spirit or of the flesh, on Christ’s right hand or at His left.
The highest level of Mormon heaven is the Celestial Kingdom. This kingdom is only available to children who died before the age of eight and individuals who were baptized into the LDS church. Although a Mormon might claim that non-members can enter this realm, they actually mean non-members who accept their gospel in the next life.
The Celestial Kingdom is what a Latter-day Saint is typically referring to when they mention heaven, and the state of being experienced there is called “eternal life”.
This is not to be confused with “exaltation”, where an obedient temple Mormon advances to godhood. Exaltation is viewed as a secondary function of the atonement. When we insist that their temple ordinances are necessary to enter the Father’s presence, Latter-day Saints write us off as ignorant. So mind the nuance!
As a general rule: don’t use “salvation” when talking to Latter-day Saints as it generally refers to the lower heavens. Instead, use “eternal life” since it’s much closer to our use of the word saved. For example, you might ask, “What is essential for someone to have eternal life in the presence of the Father?” This should cause the Mormon to go straight into their Mormon-unique doctrines instead of beating around the bush.
Faith and Grace
Faith and grace also have different meanings in Mormonism. To a Latter-day Saint, faith is an action verb that includes works. They are often skeptical when we equate faith with belief because “the devils believe and tremble.” (James 2:19) They rightly conclude that faith is more than an intellectual acknowledgement but they go too far and equate faith with faithfulness.
The fastest way to make a Latter-day Saint think you don’t understand them, is to tell them they believe they are saved by their works. It’s a bit more nuanced than that.
Would you be surprised to learn that Mormons agree with Christians that we are totally saved by grace? The real difference in our soteriology is we adhere to salvation by grace through faith, but they believe in salvation by grace through baptism and faithfulness to their covenants. In other words, their works indirectly save them by making them worthy of grace.
Mormons often refer to grace in an enabling sense. They believe God gives them grace to strengthen them so they can keep the commandments. The Book of Mormon teaches that “…the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” (1 Nephi 3:7)
Latter-day Saints do not believe the law exists to condemn, but to make us righteous. They balk at the idea that a loving Heavenly Father would give us commandments we can’t keep. That’s where Mormon repentance comes in. Christians view repentance as a change of mind, specifically related to accepting Christ and being born again.
Latter-day Saints, however, view repentance as an ongoing endeavor, not for the sake of sanctification, but for regaining worth in God’s eyes. Every time they sin, they fall out of favor with God until they repent, which includes correcting any wrongs and overcoming the sin so they do not fall into its trap again.
Doctrine and Covenants 82:7 has this to say about repentance:
And now, verily I say unto you, I, the Lord, will not lay any sin to your charge; go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God.
Repentance is viewed as an ongoing effort to stay on God’s good side. When a Mormon is baptized they make a covenant with God, which they view as a two-way promise. They promise to obey God’s commandments, to bear one another’s burdens, and to stand as witnesses of God. In return they believe God offers them eternal life.
Traditionally, Mormonism tied eternal life to successfully keeping these covenants, but modern Mormons are content with trying to obey. They will often say they remain in God’s favor as long as they “stay on the covenant path.”
After being baptized, Mormons receive the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. At that moment they are born again, become adopted as sons of Christ (this is in addition to naturally being children of the Father, which doesn’t really count for anything in their doctrine), and become heirs of Abraham.
The gift of the Holy Ghost is not to be confused with the power of the Holy Ghost. The gift is the permanent indwelling of the Spirit (unless the Mormon sins, in which case the Spirit leaves until repentance is accomplished) while the power is the temporary influence of the Spirit.
Are you confused yet? Not only are these terms foreign to a Christian understanding, but many of them have dual meanings. Mormon semantics are purposely vague. It is difficult to share the gospel with them, because as soon as they feel threatened they enter chameleon mode. They will use this Christian sounding language to throw us off their scent and lose us in their maze of nuanced beliefs. This is why it’s been said that pinning down Mormon doctrine is like nailing Jello to a wall.
How to Reach Them
So how do we witness effectively to Latter-day Saints, when their semantics are so confusing? The good news is, I’ve already written an article that translates our doctrine into “Mormonese”. I recommend reading or sharing it with your Mormon friends as a conversation starter. It should at least get you past the initial confusion and into more meaningful dialogue.
Some Mormons can feel threatened when the differences in our beliefs are exposed, especially when they realize they can’t hide behind convoluted phrases. They might insist that they believe exactly what we do. In this circumstance there is one question you need to use to get them out of the chameleon zone:
“Are you saying the church didn’t need to be restored?”
No matter how much they want to be thought of as Christian, this question forces them to admit the unique aspects of their faith. No Mormon wants to be brought down to the level of a generic Christian.
Aside from that, here are a few tips for talking to Latter-day Saints.
- Always ask them to define their terms, and make sure you define yours, especially during the initial conversation.
- Don’t assume what they believe based on statements from past Mormon leaders. Their current leaders and scriptural canon is much more reliable to them.
- Ask questions. Telling them their beliefs are wrong is less effective than asking challenging questions. These questions will keep them engaged and force them to think for themselves.
- Show them you love them. They need to know you care about them as people before they will ever listen to what you have to say.
Finally, don’t rely on my definitions to win over Mormons. This article is meant to help Christians avoid being thrown off track by slippery Mormon wording. I can tell you as someone who’s first language is Mormonese, that knowing their tricks isn’t enough to convince them. Your tone and your heart for the Mormon is the greater factor. Ultimately, the Spirit will determine how well a conversation goes.
Be aware that the LDS language barrier is a double-edged sword. It keeps them just as confused about Christianity as it keeps us about them. But they need the good news nonetheless and we can’t give up on them just because it’s hard.
My prayer for anyone who is teaching Mormons is that they would be filled with patience and an overwhelming love. I pray that the love of God would be seen through my Christian brothers and sisters and that the Mormons would see grace for the incredible gift it is. I hope that many of them would have not only a zeal for God, but a correct knowledge of Him and His work. I pray that God would open their eyes, break the chains of false religion, and that many Latter-day Saints would be saved in the Kingdom of God.