Missionaries to Muslims often report resistance to the gospel message – not because Muslims reject Jesus as a great prophet, but because the Qur’an denies the doctrines of original sin and the atonement.
The idea of natural-born sinners runs counter to the Islamic belief that man is basically good but ignorant of Allah’s will. This may be overcome by repeating the shahada – “There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah” – and by embracing the five pillars of Islam.
In addition, Muslims deny Jesus’ substitutionary death because they cannot believe Allah would allow his second greatest prophet to suffer shame on a Roman cross.
In other words, many Muslims reject the gospel because it does not align with their cultural perspective that stresses shame and honor rather than guilt and innocence.
So, how can Christians, who embrace the doctrines of original sin and the substitutionary death of Jesus, present the gospel cross-culturally? Is it even possible?
Has anyone asked you:
“Why are all Christians homophobic?”
“Why should I worship a God who allows children to starve?”
“If Jesus is so great, why are so many of His followers jerks?”
Tough questions, to be sure. And making matters worse is the questioner’s tone, implying that he or she is not really looking for an answer.
So how should we reply?
Here are notes from a recent apologetics workshop I was privileged to lead in Oklahoma. Our love of Mormons — and more importantly God’s love of members of the LDS Church — should compel us to share the following truths with those who sincerely, even passionately, defend the teachings of Joseph Smith.
Every Christian should reject the Mormon doctrine of salvation for four important reasons:
- It minimizes Christ’s work on the cross
- It is universal in scope
- It is works based
- It makes godhood the goal
1. It minimizes Christ’s work on the cross.
What Mormons teach:
- Mormonism emphasizes Christ’s suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane rather than the cross; perhaps that is one reason Moroni, not a cross, stands atop Mormon temples.
- “Forgiveness is available because Christ the Lord sweat great drops of blood in Gethsemane as he bore the incalculable weight of the sins of all who ever had or ever would repent” (Apostle Bruce McConkie, The Promised Messiah, 337).
- Mormon leaders have taught that Christ’s atoning sacrifice began in the Garden of Gethsemane. They have drawn this teaching from two passages: Mosiah 3:7 in the Book of Mormon, and D&C 19:15-19.
- President Ezra Taft Benson: “It was in Gethsemane that Jesus took on Himself the sins of the world, in Gethsemane that His pain was equivalent to the cumulative burden of all men, in Gethsemane that He descended below all things so that all could repent and come to Him” (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, 14).
- “… it was in Gethsemane that ‘he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come to him’” (Bruce McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, 127-28, 224).
- “Where and under what circumstances was the atoning sacrifice of the Son of God made? Was it on the Cross of Calvary or in the Garden of Gethsemane? … In reality the pain and suffering, the triumph and grandeur, of the atonement took place primarily in Gethsemane” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 774).
What the Bible says:
- The New Testament mentions Gethsemane only twice (Matt. 26:36; Mark 14:32) and never attaches Christ’s anguish there as having anything to do with atonement.
- Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson write in Mormonism 101: “By emphasizing the Garden of Gethsemane, LDS leaders miss a significant point regarding the atonement. The expiation of sin (making amends for wrongdoing) was not based on the substitute’s perspiration, it was based on his expiration” (p. 145).
- See Rom. 5:8, 10; 1 Cor. 1:18; Heb. 9:22.
2. It is universal is scope.
What Mormons teach:
- Mormon leaders have taught that the atonement of Jesus Christ releases the “human family” from the consequences of Adam’s fall and allows a general resurrection from the dead. It also makes available the forgiveness of personal sins on the condition of repentance.
- “Everyone, from the most righteous to the most wretched, will be resurrected and will live forever in the next life…. By breaking the bands of death, Jesus Christ overcame death, and all will live again. In this respect, we are saved by grace unconditionally” (What do Mormons Believe, 38).
- Bruce McConkie explains: “Salvation in its true and full meaning is synonymous with exaltation or eternal life and consists in gaining an inheritance in the highest of the three heavens within the celestial kingdom…. Salvation in the celestial kingdom of God, however, is not salvation by grace alone. Rather, it is salvation by grace coupled with obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel” (Mormon Doctrine, 670-71).
What the Bible says:
- The Bible teaches that not all will be saved (Matt. 7:13-14, 21-23; Rev. 20:11-15), although all will be resurrected and stand in judgment (John 5:28-9; Rom. 14:10; 1 Cor. 3:10-15; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:11-15).
3. It is works based.
What Mormons teach:
- “One of the most fallacious doctrines originated by Satan and propounded by man is that man is saved alone by the grace of God; that belief in Jesus Christ alone is all that is needed for salvation” (President Spencer Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, 206).
- “Resurrection” is how the LDS Church defines “general salvation.”
- Bruce McConkie said that salvation by grace alone is the second greatest heresy on Christianity … a “soul-destroying doctrine [that] has the obvious effect of lessening the determination of an individual to conform to all of the laws and ordinances of the gospel” (Mormon Doctrine, 670-71).
- Apostle James Talmage said “redemption from personal sins can only be obtained through obedience to the requirements of the gospel, and a life of good works….The sectarian dogma of justification by faith alone has exercised an influence for evil” and is a “pernicious doctrine” (The Articles of Faith, 478-80).
- Brigham Young: “Who will be saved in the celestial kingdom, and go into the presence of the Father and Son? Those only who observe the whole law, who keep the commandments of God – those who walk in the newness of life, observe all his precepts and do his will” (Journal of Discourses, 14:133).
What the Bible says:
- The Bible clearly teaches that forgiveness of sins and everlasting life are gifts of God, given by grace and received by faith (John 5:24; Rom. 4:4-5; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).
4. It makes godhood the goal.
What Mormons teach:
- “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become” (Lorenzo Snow, 5th LDS president).
- Every person is destined for one of six places: 1) outer darkness – for those who did not receive mortal bodies, and for apostate Mormons and other extremely wicked people; 2) telestial kingdom, where the wicked will spend eternity; 3) terrestrial kingdom, where honorable people go, including “lukewarm” Mormons; 4-6) celestial kingdom, consisting of three separate levels, with the top level reserved for Mormon exaltation.
- Scripture passages misused to prove this point: 1 Cor. 15:40; 2 Cor. 12:2-4).
- Doctrine & Covenants 131:1, 4 makes reference to the highest level of celestial glory, where Mormon progress may continue. Faithful Mormons reside here eternally with their families, and Mormon males become gods of their newly inherited worlds.
- The highest level of the celestial kingdom is known as the Church of the Firstborn. Here a Mormon may experience exaltation or godhood.
- Those in the celestial kingdom not found worthy of godhood will become angels and serve in a subservient role.
- “Eternal increase” includes the ability to procreate throughout eternity. Just as the Mormon god continually populates his earth, so it is taught that Mormon males and their goddess wives will have the ability to populate the worlds they will inherit.
What the Bible says:
- Heaven and hell are the only two destinations that await humanity (Matt. 25:46; John 14:1-3; 2 Cor. 5:8; Rev. 14:9-11; 19:11-16; 20:10-15; 21-22).
- In heaven the family of God spends eternity praising Him and dwelling in His glory (not ours).
- Those who reject God’s gift of salvation are condemned (John 3:18; Rev. 20:15).
The Mormon doctrine of salvation:
- Minimizes Christ’s work on the cross and emphasizes His suffering in the garden.
- Is universal in that “general salvation” means resurrection.
- Is works-based, meaning the level of heaven one achieves is based on his or her works as judged by Mormonism.
- Has godhood as its goal.
The Biblical doctrine of salvation:
- Emphasizes Christ’s work on the cross. The “One who did not know sin” became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21).
- Involves the “whole man” (body, soul, spirit) but not all men.
- Is granted by God’s grace through faith, apart from human effort.
- Has Christlikeness – not godhood – as its goal.
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips
Recently I had the privilege of joining six other Christians from Middle Tennessee on a trip to northern Chile, where we worked with missionary Rojelio Silva to share the gospel with the Aymara Indians. In all, 95 people trusted in Christ. Here is a report of God’s work through us in one of many divine appointments. Many thanks to teammate Rob Tudor for the photographs.
The Aymara Indian’s skull was crushed, and his twisted legs were all that could be seen protruding from beneath the wrecked SUV that lay above us on the Andean hillside. “There has been an accident,” a policeman told us. “Three people are dead. Can you help us recover the bodies?”
We were on our way to Pachica, one of 142 pueblos in the Chilean province of Camarones, to encourage new Christians and share Christ with Aymarans who have never heard the gospel. There were 11 of us on this LifeWay sponsored trip, in partnership with a Chilean ministry called “Manantiales en el Desierto” – Streams in the Desert. We got out of our vehicles and began the somber climb to the site of the crash.
The rugged mountains, steep ravines, and serpentine dirt roads carved out of volcanic rock make passage through these Andean foothills slow and treacherous, especially when, as the police explained, 14 people are crammed into one vehicle, traveling at night.
This pass is particularly devilish, climbing 600 feet in altitude through a series of switchbacks and hairpin curves. Apparently, the driver of the SUV, nearing the top of the mountain, failed to navigate one of the turns. The vehicle slid back and rolled over the edge, plummeting more than 120 feet before resting upside-down in the rocky ravine. Amazingly, 11 people survived, including a two-year-old.
The dead evidently had been thrown from the car and suffered fatal injuries, with one – an 81-year-old man – pinned beneath it. We later read his name in the newspaper and learned that his daughter also died in the crash, along with an unrelated traveler on his way to a job. We climbed the jagged rocks, helped place the bodies on stainless steel litters and carry them to the road below.
The body of the elderly man required the assistance of nearly a dozen people who tilted the SUV just enough so two of us could free his corpse. As I thrust my hands under the man’s arms and another grabbed his legs, I saw his round face, closed eyes and eerily peaceful smile and wondered whether he had been sleeping at the moment he plunged into eternity.
The policemen thanked us for our help while a photographer from the newspaper in nearby Arica snapped pictures. A few hours later we were in Pachica, and then Esquina, sharing the gospel with school kids, adobe craftsmen from Peru, and a candle salesman – all of whom found new life in Christ.
Of course the tragic accident reminds us of the brevity of life. James writes that we are “a bit of smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes” (James 4:14). And any preacher worth his salt will share an experience like this to remind unbelievers of the precarious state they are in apart from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
But seeing the Aymara Indian’s face brought home to me three other simple truths:
First, life is brief for all people, not just unbelievers. When Christians stand before the judgment seat of Christ we will give an account, not of how long we lived, but of how faithfully we served. On the long dusty ride to Pachica after helping the police, I prayed to be more mindful of my life’s ticking clock.
Second, our choices have consequences in time and eternity. The driver of the SUV, who survived, will spend the rest of his life agonizing over his failure to negotiate a hairpin turn. The families of the dead are grieving yet today. And the survivors are confronted with the mystery of why they made it, and what it means. The three who died, of course, passed into eternity without a chance to say goodbye or make their peace with God.
Third, God is evident in all things if only we look. Seeing the bloodied face of the Aymara Indian man, I thought how God created, loved and sustained him for 81 years. Did he know this? Coming upon the scene of the accident as we did, at the moment we did, gave us a God-ordained opportunity to help the officials who would deal directly with the injured and the grieving. But there’s more.
Two days later we were in Taltaca, a small pueblo on the other side of the mountain from Pachica. We met an Aymara woman named Veronica and six members of her family. She told us she had just read in the paper that her sister-in-law, along with two others, had died in a car wreck across the mountain. She showed us the newspaper, which said some English-speaking tourists stopped to assist the police. Looking at the photographs, she recognized that those tourists were us.
We asked for the chance to tell her about Jesus and she eagerly agreed. That afternoon Veronica and six members of her family passed from death into life (John 5:24). If ever the imprint of God’s finger on human destiny was clearer, I have not experienced it.
We hugged Veronica and the rest of her family and said our goodbyes. The dust from our wheels hung briefly in the air and then vanished in the fading sunlight as Veronica and her family waved so long. While the eternal destiny of the three crash victims is known only to God, I took comfort in knowing that through Christ’s death, eternal life came that day to the Valley of Camarones.
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. But every spirit who does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist; you have heard that he is coming, and he is already in the world now. You are from God, little children, and you have conquered them, because the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4:1-4 HCSB)
The Bible not only warns believers about false prophets; it describes them in graphic ways:
- Ravaging wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15; see also Acts 20:29).
- Deceitful workers (2 Cor. 11:13).
- Springs without water, mists driven by a whirlwind (2 Peter 2:17).
- Dreamers who defile their flesh, despise authority, and blaspheme glorious beings (Jude 1:8).
- Liars (Rev. 2:2).
- Antichrists (1 John 2:18).
How do we define a false prophet? Simply put, a false prophet is one who preaches, teaches, or foretells events contrary to the Word of God, yet claiming God as his or her source. As believers, we can guard our hearts from the teachings of false prophets by obeying three commands of the apostle John:
1. Do not believe every spirit. Kenneth Wuest’s translation of 1 John 4:1 puts it this way: “Stop believing every spirit.” The term “spirit” refers to those who claim to have divine gifts for service, according to Vine’s Expository Dictionary. We should beware. Jesus warns us of miracle-working false messiahs and false prophets (Matt. 24:23-4). Paul says Satan masquerades as an angel of light, and his followers disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:14-5). Paul further cautions against “deceitful spirits” and “the teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). And he warns that the time will come when people will not endure sound doctrine, but turn aside to myths (2 Tim. 4:3-4). We should be like the Bereans who greeted Paul and Silas. Acts 17:11 says “they welcomed the message with eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (emphasis mine).
2. Test the spirits. The Word of God is the yardstick by which all claims of truth must be measured. Here are a few markers. True prophets:
- Are 100 percent accurate when they speak in the Lord’s name (Deut. 18:21-2).
- Exalt God, not themselves or false gods (Deut. 13:1-4).
- Tell the whole truth, not tickle the ears (Ezek. 13:22-3; 2 Tim. 4:3-4).
- Proclaim salvation by grace through faith (Gal. 1:8-9).
- Set lifestyle examples (2 Peter 2:1-3).
3. Know the Spirit of God. In his first epistle, John challenges the views of the “antichrists” about who Jesus is. The most important question Jesus ever asked – and the question upon which every person’s eternal destiny hangs – is, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). Peter answered correctly, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” (Matt. 16:16). Believers need to know who the real Jesus is:
- The eternal Son of God, Creator and sovereign Lord (John 1:1-3; Col. 1:16-18; 2:9-10; Heb. 1:3).
- Virgin born (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:18-25).
- Full deity and full humanity in His incarnation (John 1:14).
- Sinless Savior whose death paid our sin debt (1 Cor. 15:3-4; 2 Cor. 5:21).
- Raised and ascended in the flesh; seated at the right hand of the Father as our Mediator and Intercessor; and returning Lord who will appear visibly and physically one day (John 14:1-3; Acts 1:9-11; 1 Tim. 2:5-6; Heb. 4:15-16; Rev. 19-22).
John’s words are simple and effective. Christians are people of faith – not a blind, ignorant faith, but a reasonable faith based on the evidence God has given us in creation, Scripture, and in the Person of His Son. While there have always been false prophets, and while there will continue to be those who fleece the flock rather than feed it, we can guard our hearts – and protect our families and our churches – from false teachings if we follow John’s commands: Don’t believe every spirit (that is, every person claiming divine gifting); test the spirits (according to Scripture); and know the Spirit of God (the Holy Spirit’s teaching about the real Jesus as revealed in the Bible).
Copyright 2008 by Rob Phillips