by Bill McKeever –

Discussing the issue of salvation with our Mormon friends can, at times, be a very frustrating experience. Many evangelical Christians have walked away after dialoguing with members of the LDS Church thinking that their beliefs are not all that far apart. However, as with all other topics pertinent to religious faith, it is imperative that Christians make sure that these terms are clearly defined if they hope to have an effective verbal exchange.


In volume two of his book Doctrines of Salvation, Joseph Fielding Smith, the tenth LDS prophet and president, wrote, “Christ’s sacrifice and death did two things for us: it brought unto us unconditional salvation and conditional salvation. Sometimes we refer to these as general salvation and individual salvation.”1

In saying this, Smith makes clear that according to Mormon thought, salvation can provide simply “redemption from the effects of original sin or, based on certain conditions, it can provide redemption from our personal sins.”2In this explanation we understand how Mormons are taught to view Christ’s atonement. In essence, the atonement is of a “twofold nature.” It redeems mankind from the grave and, should an individual obey all of the necessary laws and ordinances, qualifies him for eternal life, otherwise known as exaltation or godhood.

Mormon leaders have defined general salvation as nothing more than resurrection from the dead. This concept, also known in the LDS vernacular as salvation by grace alone, allows all mankind to experience bodily resurrection while stopping short of allowing the individual to experience the benefits that could have been gained had the person lived a life in complete harmony within the context of Mormonism.

Christians have never denied that all mankind will be resurrected. Jesus said that the dead will come forth; some will be resurrected unto life while others will be resurrected unto damnation (John 5:28-29). What makes the LDS position difficult to understand is how those who are resurrected unto damnation are also “saved by grace alone.” Being saved by grace unto damnation seems highly paradoxical!

Mormon leaders have strongly objected to the concept of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Apostle Bruce R. McConkie called this a “soul-destroying doctrine” while twelfth LDS President Spencer Kimball referred to it as a “fallacious doctrine originated by Satan.”3Mormon leaders have never hidden their belief that if true salvation is to be gained, a life of works and obedience to God’s commands is essential.

When I explain to Mormons that salvation is granted as a result of God’s mercy and that no amount of works could ever satisfy Gods demand of justice, I am often referred to Matthew 5:48 where Jesus told the multitudes they must be perfect, even as their Father in Heaven is perfect. What I find exceptionally odd is how quickly Mormons admit they are not perfect when I ask them if they are meeting the demand of this passage (at least in the way they interpret it). Was Jesus insisting that we must be sinlessly perfect in this passage? Or was He merely saying our behavior with believers and unbelievers should be consistent? The context (which begins with verse 43) allows for the latter understanding.

According to LDS teaching, salvation by grace alone has nothing to do with what a person believed or did during his lifetime. Evangelical Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and even lukewarm Mormons will all be saved by grace, but personal behavior during this lifetime will determine which degree of glory they will receive in the afterlife. The wicked of this world run the risk of being cast into outer darkness with the devil and his angels, while the less vile may be assigned to either the telestial or terrestrial kingdoms. Only Mormons who meet all conditions of exaltation have any hope of achieving eternal life. Those who qualify expect to gain an inheritance in the “highest of the three heavens within the celestial kingdom…those who obtain it are gods.”4


To follow in God s footsteps is the desire of every faithful Mormon. Central to Mormon thought is a couplet coined by fifth President Lorenzo Snow that states, “As man is, God once was, as God is, man may be.” On August 8, 1852, second LDS President Brigham Young declared,

The Lord created you and me for the purpose of becoming Gods like Himself; when we have been proved in our present capacity, and been faithful with all things He puts into our possession. We are created, we are born for the express purpose of growing up from the low estate of manhood, to become Gods like unto our Father in heaven.5

John Taylor, Young’s successor, concurred when he stated that man “is a God in embryo and will live and progress throughout the eternal ages, if obedient to the laws of the Godhead, as the Gods progress throughout the eternal ages.”6 In the words of Mormon Apostle John Widtsoe, man “comes of a race of gods, and as his eternal growth continues, he will approach more nearly the position which to us is Godhood, and which is everlasting in its power over the element s of the universe.”7


Spencer Kimball said each command we obey sends us another rung up the ladder to perfected manhood and godhood; and every law disobeyed is a sliding toward the bottom where man merges into the brute world. Only he who obeys law is free8 Kimballs analogy causes me to ask Mormons, How t all is this proverbial ladder? And which rung are you currently on? Needless to say, these questions are unknowable for the average Mormon.

Mormon scripture declares in Doctrine and Covenants 25:15 that if a person hopes to go where God is, he or she must “keep the commandments continually.” There is no ambiguity about this command. However, ask your LDS friends if they are complying with D&C 25:15 and they normally will concede that they are not. While they will admit that they are not continually keeping Gods commands, most Mormons feel that this requirement is offset through repentance. The irony of this is found in the very fact that proper repentance includes admitting that one is not keeping the commandments continually. How does this help a person’s situation? If keeping the commandments is what God demands, how does admitting you’re not keeping them get a Mormon off the hook?

Mormons often turn to James 2:20 to defend the concept of salvation by works. Again, I agree, faith without works is dead. Righteous works will spring forth from a person who has a living faith in Christ, but works of righteousness are not the grounds for a person s justification. The demand of the law is perfect obedience. It cannot be satisfied with partial obedience or sincere intent. For this reason James also noted ten verses earlier that if a man offends the law in one point, it is as if he of fends it in all points. If Mormons choose to believe that Christ’s atonement was not all encompassing, then it makes perfect sense that the Mormons works are necessary. The problem is, no Mormon keeps all of the commandments.

Alma 11:37 is also a classic proof text used by Mormons to prove that faith is not enough. This passage insists that God will not save people in their sins and that no unclean person has any hope of inheriting the kingdom of heaven. What often surprises my LDS acquaintance is when I also offer no argument against these truisms. I firmly believe that the God of the Bible has a standard of perfection that has never been lowered on account of man’s fall. I firmly believe with my Mormon friends that God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance. If we hope to live eternally with our Heavenly Father, we must be clean.

Where we disagree is how sinful mankind achieves perfection, gets clean, and therefore is declared guiltless when sin is not completely abandoned. This is the crux of the issue. Because Mormons are not given the correct answer to these questions, many sincere Latter-day Saints live a life of uncertainty and guilt. If salvation is based on their personal ability to overcome sinful behavior, they can never be sure if they have met the demands of Gods righteousness-unless, of course, they stop sinning.


One of the greatest joys offered by the Christian faith is the assurance of forgiveness. Knowing you are forgiven offers a peace no one can explain. Sadly, forgiveness in Mormonism is inextricably tied to the individual’s ability to refrain from sinning and thereby keep the commandments. Of course, this begs the question, “How many sins must he or she refrain from committing? And how often must he or she keep the commandments?” Kimball said the only way a Mormon could be guaranteed total forgiveness and be assured of eternal life is if a person is “living all of the commandments.”9

There is no doubt that repentance plays a major role in the salvation of Mormon believers. Doctrine and Covenants 58:42, 43 states, “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more. By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins-behold, he will confess them and forsake them.” The Encyclopedia of Mormonism states that “for repentance to be complete, one must abandon the sinful behavior . . .Failure to alter outward actions means that the sinner has not repented, and the weight of the former sin returns.”

So how many sins must a Mormon never repeat in order to prove to himself and to God that he is truly repent ant? The answer seems pretty clear-none. Bruce McConkie stated, “Salvation comes by obedience to the whole law of the whole gospel. Joseph Smith said: ‘Any person who is exalted to the highest mansion has to abide a celestial law, and the whole law too.’ (Teachings, p.331.) Thus, a man may be damned for a single sin.”10

Are we misunderstanding something here? Apparently not. On a trip to Salt Lake City in 2003, my good friend Mark Champneys, himself an ex-Mormon of many years, visited LDS Church headquarters in Salt Lake City and asked if he could speak with someone who could “authoritatively” answer a doctrinal question. Mark was directed to two men in the church department of correlation. After making it very clear who he was, Mark proceeded to say to the gentlemen, “My understanding is that the teachings of the Church regarding the forgiveness of sins can be boiled down to this: In Mormonism, before you can be forgiven of a particular sin, you must successfully stop that sin permanently. So in order to be forgiven of all sin for time and eternity, you must successfully stop all sin permanently.”

Asking the men if his understanding was correct, they both nodded in agreement. They also conceded that “many members of the church do not understand this.” This answer is not at all out of harmony with what LDS leaders have taught. Spencer Kimball insisted that “discontinuance of sin must be permanent.”11


Successfully ridding oneself of personal sin is a noble goal, but it cannot be achieved through human effort. If a permanent discontinuance of sin was what was necessary in order to be justified before the Holy God of the Bible, then it is obvious that no one would be saved. Mormon doctrine insists that a man’s works, apart from God’s grace, cannot save but that both are necessary if exaltation is to be reached. Hence, according to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “the person whom God justifies has not yet necessarily received the promise of eternal life.”12

BYU professor Robert Millet writes in a recent book, “In biblical terms justification is a divine verdict of not guilty-fully righteous.” He goes on to say that “justification is more than simple pardon; pardon alone would still leave the sinner without merit before God. So when God justifies He imputes [places on account] divine righteousness to the sinner. Christ’s own infinite merit thus becomes the ground on which the believer stands before God. So justification elevates the believer to a realm of full acceptance and divine privilege in Jesus Christ.”13

The above explanation sounds like Dr. Millet is taking a right step towards orthodoxy. The problem is his book is permeated with statements that contradict what is otherwise an accurate assessment of biblical justification. For instance, he doesn’t hide the fact that he believes man has “an obligation to cooperate with God in the salvation of our souls”(93) or that “the works of man are necessary” (128). He defends Moroni 10:32 when it says that Gods grace becomes sufficient only after a person denies himself of all ungodliness.

In essence, Millet’s understanding of imputation is very similar to the Catholic teaching of infusion. In Catholicism the infusion of sanctifying grace makes the Catholic objectively righteous and pleasing to God. This “grace” permits him to enter heaven based on his own progressive goodness. In Mormonism it is the atonement that enables the Mormon to “repent” and keep the commandments. Although both groups condemn the idea of salvation by works alone, each one insists that works are necessary if salvation is to be achieved.

As Millet explains, “[A] person will eventually be justified, but may be regarded as being so now, if he retains a remission of sins and continually shows his faith in God” (emphasis mine). In a Mormon context, “a proper faith in God” always includes a strict obedience to the requirements set down by the LDS Church. It is abundantly clear that exaltation, as defined in Mormonism, cannot be gained without works.

No one disputes that a Christian should model his life in a way that honors Christ. Good works are important as we seek to, as Philippians 2:12 put s it, “work out [not for] our salvation with fear and trembling.” Once justified, Christians should be determined to demonstrate that we are “set apart” as a people who desire to glorify God in our actions. However, since a Mormon s justification and forgiveness hinges on his ability to keep the commandments, he can never fully know if he has done enough to meet Gods demands.

The New Testament often describes the Christian s justification and forgiveness in the past tense.14The apostle John quite definitively said in 1 John 5:13 that “ye may know
that ye have eternal life.” Mormonism robs its members of
that assurance. In the words of Kimball:

It depends upon you whether or not you are forgiven, and when. It could be weeks, it could be years, it could be centuries before that happy day when you have the positive assurance that the Lord has forgiven you. That depends on your humility your sincerity, your works, your attitudes.15

This can hardly be considered good news.

Bill McKeever is the founder of Mormonism Research Ministry in El Cajon, California, and coauthor (with Eric Johnson) of Mormonism 101: Examining the Religion of the
Latter-day Saints.

1Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1955), 2:9.
3Spencer Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969), 206.
4Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 670.

5 Journal of Discourses 3:93.
6Journal of Discourses 23:65.
7A Rational Theology (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1965), 26.

8The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982),153.
9 Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, 208.

10 Bruce McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 3:257.

11 Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, 176.

12 The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 2:777.

13 Robert Millet, After All We Can Do… Grace Works (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2003), 77.

14 Luke 5:20; 7:47-49; Acts 13:39; Romans 3:24-28; 4:5,7; 5:1,9,18; 8:30; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Galatians 3:24; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 2:13; Titus 3:7; 1 John 2:12.

15 Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, p.325.