The Vicarious Atonement Approach
A Guide for Witnessing to Latter-day Saints
Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.Matthew 10:16 ESV
In 2016, God made a major change in my life. I went from being an LDS apologist, to a saved Christian. Many things contributed to my conversion, but one doctrine in particular set the stage. When I learned that Jesus traded His righteousness for my sin, my erroneous beliefs melted away. The principle that changed my mind was imputed righteousness.
It is incredibly difficult to proselyte Latter-day Saints. If I’m honest, there are days I think there’s no hope for them. Then I look in the mirror and I’m convicted. If there was hope for me, there’s hope for everyone.
The challenge with Latter-day Saints, is how easily offended they are. The moment you say they believe in a different Jesus, or Joseph Smith was a fraud, they disavow you as “anti-Mormon” and your credibility goes out the window. If you take the soft approach, their Mormonese confuses them into thinking there’s no difference in our theologies.
My new approach takes a middle road. Even though it’s respectful, it cuts to the core of the Mormon faith. I have never had a Latter-day Saint get offended by it. It can be used with friends and family. Instead of attacking Mormonism, it teaches a biblical doctrine: one that negates the need for temple covenants. For me it was the antidote to a works-based religion.
This approach leads Latter-day Saints through four sacred crossings. Think of it like a baseball game. Baseball has four bases and there are four points Latter-day Saints must be convinced of before they can understand the gospel. The doctrinal points are as follows:
- Perfect righteousness is required to enter heaven.
- Man cannot achieve perfect righteousness.
- Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us vicariously.
- Full imputation of Christ’s righteousness occurs at faith.
Before I go over these points, here are eight reasons you can’t go wrong teaching imputation to Latter-day Saints.
- Imputation does not exist in the Mormon lexicon. You won’t get stuck saying the same words but having different conversations. Most Latter-day Saints have never heard of imputation, which gives you a few minutes to explain it without argument.
- Mormons do work for the dead in their temples, and it’s an easy parallel to use when teaching imputation.
- Latter-day Saints who leave tend to become agnostic. Imputation is a bridge to Christianity.
- It is promoted heavily by the Bible. The King James Version, which Latter-day Saints prefer, uses the word imputation several times.
- It doesn’t feel like an attack on Mormonism, which means the LDS are more likely to engage.
- Imputed righteousness fills in the gaps, and sheds light on the faith and works debate.
- The Book of Mormon has imputation hidden throughout its pages. Since their own scripture teaches it, it’s possible to pin them down.
- Talking to Mormons about grace is tough because they adhere to three heavens and multiple salvations. Their theology has several layers they hide behind to keep from being cornered. Imputation negates these layers, by qualifying us for each type of salvation.
If you’re interested in seeing an example of how this approach looks, or just need an article to share with a Mormon to get the ball rolling, look no farther.
On Using The Book of Mormon
There are pros and cons to using The Book of Mormon as a witnessing tool. On one hand, it’s a source Latter-day Saints trust, and it tears down their walls.
On the other hand, if it’s used excessively it can reinforce the idea that The Book of Mormon is real scripture.
Here’s my take. If you’re unfamiliar with The Book of Mormon, you can’t go wrong just using the Bible.
If you do use it in your approach, reserve it for steps one and two, ease into the Bible in step three, and finishing strong with the Bible in step four. Another way to play it, is to keep The Book of Mormon verses as backup for extra stubborn Mormons.
A lot of Christians are appalled by the idea of using The Book of Mormon. Here’s the rub: quoting from it doesn’t make you a practitioner of the faith, nor does it equate with using witchcraft. It’s simply a fallacious book.
If you’re on the fence, this video gives a well reasoned defense for using The Book of Mormon.
1st Base: Perfect Righteousness is Required
This is the easiest point to make since most Mormons will agree with you. However, deep down many Latter-day Saints comfort themselves by thinking grace will pick up where best efforts fall short.
This is certainly not the case, and The Book of Mormon is adamant about it. Here are two questions you should ask.
- Can any unclean thing enter heaven?
- Can we be saved in sin?
Both these questions are covered in Alma 11:37, which says:
And I say unto you again that he cannot save them in their sins; for I cannot deny his word, and he hath said that no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore, how can ye be saved, except ye inherit the kingdom of heaven? Therefore, ye cannot be saved in your sins.
If your LDS friend is implying that grace makes up the difference, they are actually promoting salvation in sin. The above passage could not state more plainly that total perfection is required.
In Matthew 5:48 (KJV) Jesus says,
“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
If you need a final nail in the coffin, show them Alma 45:16, which says God cannot view sin with the least degree of allowance.
Under the weight of their own scripture, the Latter-day Saint should concede. This is just the warm up anyway. They will take the only escape pod on the ship and jettison to the belief that man can somehow achieve this necessary perfection. It’s time to follow them.
2nd Base: Man Cannot Achieve Perfection
If step one was the warm-up, step two is the war zone. Mormons will fight on this hill until their dying breath. They are convinced that Christ’s grace is an enabling power that helps them achieve perfection.
They will try to suck you in to World War 3. Don’t fall for it. If you don’t get to the next step and introduce imputation, this could drag on forever.
Your goal right now is to make a few quick points to knock them off balance or force a stalemate.
I recommend starting with Moroni 10:32 in The Book of Mormon. It reads:
Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.
What’s noteworthy about this verse, is grace doesn’t kick in until we deny ourselves of all ungodliness. If we have denied ourselves of all ungodliness, we no longer need grace, making it worthless.
If the Mormon says we get some grace before perfection, reiterate that the verse says grace isn’t sufficient until we do. Then ask if deficient grace can perfect us.
No matter their answer, share the following verse:
For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
James 2:10 KJV
Explain that according to this verse, we are guilty of breaking all God’s laws unless we’re perfect.
Follow up with Romans 3:10 (KJV):
As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one.
No matter how composed the Mormon seems, his conscience is calling him out for his sin.
The Latter-day Saint may say that perfection can’t be achieved in this life, but affirm that it can be grasped in the next. This is a good sign, you’re making headway.
Ask them if repentance is easier after this life. The Mormon should confess that it’s harder.
Alma 34:32-35 has this to say about repenting while we’re alive.
32 For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.
33 And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.
34 Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.
35 For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked.
Ask the Mormon how they hope to achieve perfection somewhere more challenging than here.
There’s a chance the Mormon will try to escape back to step one, by saying “grace makes up the difference,” or “as long as I’m on the path I’ll be okay.”
They are under pressure and struggling to hold their position. Remind them that you already talked about this and agreed that perfection is required to get to heaven.
Once you’ve reached a stalemate, it’s time to offer a lifeline.
3rd Base: Christ’s Righteousness is Imputed
You may be wondering why I separated points three and four. As a Christian, it feels natural to say, “Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us through faith.” However, Latter-day Saints need baby steps. If you give out too much information, the war drums will go off in their brains, leaving you with a fight on your hands.
Ask the Mormon if they believe the cross was a temple. They’ve likely never made this connection and will be intrigued. Tell them the Bible heavily emphasizes that a vicarious work was done on our behalf there.
Show them Collossians 2:13-14 (KJV):
13 And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;
14 Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to the cross.
Explain that a vicarious atonement is necessary because we’re dead in our sins. Next, teach them about imputed righteousness. I typically use their own beliefs to illustrate it.
In Mormonism, the dead cannot receive saving ordinances, so a living person must do it for them. Once a proxy ordinance is done, the dead person merely has to accept what has been done on their behalf.
In other words, the Mormon’s act of righteousness (i.e. getting baptized, endowed, or sealed) is accredited to the dead as if they did it themselves.
Explain that Jesus lived a sinless life of perfect obedience, and that he offered it to us vicariously on the cross.
This is why Romans 5:10 (KJV) associates our salvation not only with Christ’s death, but with His life. It says:
10 For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.
If you need Book of Mormon verses that teach imputation, check out this article.
Show the Mormon Philippians 3:9, where Paul promotes a righteousness that is not his own.
Pinned down by their own scripture and the Bible, they should admit that our righteousness comes from God.
At this point, they are clinging to Mormonism by their fingernails. I’ve been in this spot, and it’s very precarious. Alien righteousness is not necessarily contrary to LDS doctrine, as God’s righteousness could technically be passed out little by little in conjunction with temple ordinances.
In any case, you have them right where you want them.
Home Run: Imputation Occurs at Faith
Once the Mormon embraces alien righteousness, explain that infinity can’t be divided. Tell them Jesus is an infinite Being of infinite righteousness, and therefore, if He gives any percentage of His righteousness, He gives it all.
The moment Jesus gives us His righteousness, we are worthy to enter the Father’s presence (and even of exaltation if you prefer Mormonese). So when righteousness is imputed, there is no need for us to do an ordinance ever again. Salvation is already ours.
It is difficult to refute this logic, but if the Mormon resists, share Romans 10:2-4 with them. It says:
2 For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.
3 For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.
4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.
Instruct the Latter-day Saint that since Jesus is the end of the law, there’s nothing else we need once we obtain his worthiness.
A Latter-day Saint might agree, but only on the premise that imputation occurs at baptism, or during one of the other saving ordinances. This is the only way imputation could coexist with Mormonism.
However, the Bible is very clear that imputation occurs at faith, and it’s time to show it to your Latter-day Saint.
Start with Romans 4:3-5. It says:
3 For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.
4 Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.
5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.
The Mormon will likely jump to James chapter 2 as a desperate, last ditch defense. In particular, verse 22 where it says Abraham was justified when he offered Isaac on the altar. If they do, explain that it promotes Protestant theology more than Mormonism.
For example, none of the instances of justification in James 2 have anything to do with their saving ordinances. James 2:23 says:
23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.
Not only is imputation directly tied to belief, the scripture being cited is Genesis 15:6, in which Abraham is counted righteous before Isaac is born.
It doesn’t make sense for Abraham to need justification if he already has Christ’s righteousness. Clearly the attempted sacrifice was proof of his faith in God.
Romans 4:11 is great to use when explaining that obedience is a seal of the righteousness you already have.
Assure the Mormon that works are important for our sanctification, but when it comes to salvation our works and Christ’s don’t mix.
Galatians 5:4-5 (KJV) says:
4 Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.
5 For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.
Finish strong with Romans chapter 4.
Verses 6-8 state that righteousness is imputed without works, and in this state our sins don’t count against us.
6 Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works,
7 Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.
8 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.
Finally, it’s time to go for checkmate with verses 20-24, which talk about Abraham’s faith in God’s promise.
20 He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God;
21 And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.
22 And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.
23 Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him;
24 But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead;
This passage places imputation squarely on belief. If you’ve laid the groundwork properly, there’s no squirming out of it.
Even if you successfully pull off this approach, the Mormon will not leave the church. You have planted a powerful seed, and it needs time to grow.
Your best play now is to be a genuine friend. Tell the Mormon you’re always available if they have questions, but don’t come at them aggressively.
Most importantly, put them in God’s hands. Pray for them and trust that God is their only hope, not you.
Now that your Mormon knows what imputation is, he won’t be able to ignore it again. Every time they see it in scripture, or hear their leaders teach contrary to it, it will stick out like a sore thumb.
The more the Latter-day Saint learns about imputation and the vicarious gospel, the more challenging it will be to cling to a works-based faith.
I’ve encountered many Mormons who were former Protestants, but I haven’t met one yet who knew what imputation was when they left. I do not believe it is possible to believe this truth and remain Mormon.