Thursday, April 9, 2009

Jesus is our Temple Recommend

In my opinion, the best pithy quotation from Conference weekend came from Aaron Shafovaloff over at Mormon Coffee on his Liveblogging General Conference. In a conversation during Elder Eyring's talk, Aaron pointed out that introducing prerequisite merit and worthiness into the question of how to receive eternal life and forgiveness and sanctifying help removes a vital layer of grace. He then declared,

"Jesus himself is our temple recommend, received by faith as a free and immediate gift."

Because of the LDS Church's unprecedented efforts in this new millennium to place themselves within the spectrum of views that are generally accepted as Christian, the necessity of "grace" has been emphasized in a different way than it was in nineteenth and twentieth-century Mormon teachings. Stephen L. Robinson has been in the vanguard of this redefinition, most notably in his book Believing Christ, and his atonement model The Parable of the Bicycle. Robinson claims that Mormons believe in salvation by grace and not by works. He teaches:
"We participate in our salvation as we attempt to keep the commandments of God, but we can never earn it ourselves or bring it to pass on our own merits, no matter how well we may think we are doing."

This view is subtly different than traditional Mormon teachings, as exemplified by this quote by Bruce R. McConkie:
"…one of the untrue doctrines found in modern Christendom is the concept that man can gain salvation (meaning in the kingdom of God) by grace alone and without obedience. This soul-destroying doctrine has the obvious effect of lessening the determination of an individual to conform to all of the laws and ordinances of the gospel, such conformity being essential if the sought for reward is in reality to be gained. Immortality is a free gift and comes without works or righteousness of any sort; all men will come forth in the resurrection because of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. (I Corin 15:22) In and of itself the resurrection is a form of salvation meaning that men are thereby saved from death, hell, the devil, and endless torment. (2 Ne. 9:17-27)… 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." (see also LDS Bible Dictionary, "Grace.")

Whereas the word "salvation" as an unmerited gift through Jesus' atonement previously referred simply to resurrection, the new Mormon evangelists are now including exaltation in their definition of salvation by grace. That Robinson is extending salvation by grace to include exaltation is made very clear at the conclusion of his parable:
"The truth is, there’s something we all want, and we want it more than any child ever wanted any bicycle. We want the kingdom of God. We want to go home to our Father in Heaven worthy and clean. At some point in that spiritual voyage, we recognize the full price of admission into that kingdom, and we also realize we cannot pay it. We’ll never have enough - - never. The tremendous price of perfect performance is hopelessly beyond our means."

In today's Mormon atonement model, we are asked to give all that we can give and that Jesus will make up the shortfall. I am wondering if this doctrinal shift is showing up in temple recommend interviews and will one day transform into a more Shafovaloff-type standard.

"Bishop, I have abstained from smoking, but I just can't seem to give up that glass of wine at dinner. But I've done all that I can do, now let the Savior make up the difference."

Or, "I just can't stop viewing porn, or sleeping with my neighbor's wife. But I am trying to repent and put all the effort I can into being a good husband and father. Jesus is my temple recommend."


Further reading:

Death, Embodiment, and Grace
, by Clark at Mormon Metaphysics

The Problem of 2 Nephi 25:23, by J. Nelson-Seawright at By Common Consent

Why the Parable of the Bicycle is Wrong
by Geoff J. at New Cool Thang

How are we Saved by Grace?
by Jeff Lindsay at LDS FAQ


Clean Cut said...

Ever since reading "Believing Christ", I've always felt hesitant to answer the question in the temple recommend interview about personal worthiness. I know that I, alone, am not worthy. But in a covenant relationship with Christ, where I get to rely on His worthiness, and I'm judged as one with Him, I trust that I'm worthy enough, and that's indeed "good news".

The book version of "Believing Christ" was published in 1995. Four years later, when Robinson met Craig Blomberg at Fuller seminary in a group of a dozen scholars, Robinson said:
"I'm now prepared to accept the story the way Craig retold it" (meaning that even if we don't have a "cent" to give, Christ still saves).

The Evangelicals debriefed and asked each other "Are we conceding something we shouldn't?" Nobody could ever come up with anything, so Craig was left wondering if the movement was all on the LDS part.

I prefer to think that instead of "moving" or shifting doctrinally, we're merely improving the way we articulate our own doctrine that's always been there (in our own Standard Works).

Whether or not we have or can give relatively much or little, it doesn't change the equation that we are saved only through Christ's merits, not our own.

As for your final questions--it's all based on our faith. Someone who sleeps with their neighbors wife definitely has weak faith. James would probably even say that it's "dead", since "alive" faith is shown by our works.

Craig Blomberg teaches that "works do flow from saving faith. James says that faith without works is dead...It's not that works contribute to the salvation, it's that they demonstrate it."

In LDS language, we would also say that our works demonstrate our faith, and also faithfulness to our covenants. We can't be breaking our covenants and expect to be worthy. They're our lifeline.

Seth R. said...

I had a chance to talk to Robert Millet last year during one of his Evangelical-Mormon outreach events. Grace vs. works had been a major topic at the event.

I noted that his read on Mormon doctrine was one of salvation by grace and not by works. Then I asked "but doesn't the fact that we have to go through a temple recommend interview act as a potent symbol of salvation by works?"

I had no idea what answer I was going to get. But Millet merely nodded his head and agreed that it did. He didn't have much other explanation to offer

So I assume he hasn't got this one nailed down either.

It's really hard to argue salvation by grace alone when entrance into our rituals symbolizing coming into the presence of God have a checklist of works acting as gatekeeper.

My own feeling is that "grace alone" is simply incorrect - based on the scriptural record.

Works do not "earn" exaltation in any sense. There is no merit system in LDS religion (or there shouldn't be anyway). We all absolutely fall short in that respect.

But what is wanted is for us to come into a relationship with God the Father. If we are willing to enter the relationship, THEN his grace is sufficient for us.

I think this is exactly what the temple recommend questions are about. You cannot have a relationship with God when you are living in flat-out indifference or rebellion to him.

In the story of the Prodigal Son, the father didn't hike out to the pigsty, and haul his wayward boy out of there. No, the reconciliation only occurred AFTER the son "came to himself" and returned to the father. Then the father dropped all dignity and ran out to him and embraced him.

We do not earn a place with our Father. But we do have to choose him first. Honestly, I think that is what the temple recommend questions are trying to do - determine if we've actually chosen him.

For a Protestant, like Aaron, who believes in the notion of Total Depravity and that there is nothing in human beings even capable of freely choosing God, this notion isn't going to make any sense.

SilverRain said...

I have never understood this dichotomy well. It is clear to me, when read as a whole, that we are saved (and eventually exalted) by grace alone. Christ, however, has put certain requirements upon which His grace is predicated. In order to receive the fulness of His grace, we must show active faith by obedience.

Bored in Vernal said...

CC, I feel comfortable with your statement that our works demonstrate our faith. But we really have to face the fact that LDS doctrine has undergone a shift. That we are still in the process of this movement is evident by the sometimes conflicting statements in General Conference on this topic. Many Mormons would agree with you that our covenants are "our lifeline," while others would say that they are merely symbols, and that Jesus is our lifeline.

SR, dichotomy indeed. How can we be saved by grace alone if there are requirements? And your conclusion that obedience is necessary to receive a FULNESS hearkens back to the McConkie explanation of Salvation vs. Exaltation.

Seth, interesting encounter with Millet, and thank you for your perspective. I have come to realize over the years that there are very few of the TR questions that I can answer completely honestly the way they are supposed to be answered. But so far, I still have a current recommend, primarily because of that one caveat at the end: "Do you consider yourself worthy to enter the Lord's house and participate in temple ordinances?" I answer that one "yes." And the only way ANYONE could ever answer that one yes would be if Jesus is our temple recommend.

adam said...

Interesting discussion! I like the thoughts about a shift in doctrine, as well.

To me, we are saved 100% by the atonement. Nothing we do on our own saves us. However, works come in for me when it comes to growth and progression, which is assisted by the atonement. I don't know if this makes sense, but it works for me. Example, if I was an recovering alcoholic, grace would save me, but it would take MY works to not go back to it. A personal example would be working on my marriage. My wife and I have both worked hard on it, and have made some really great progress, but that growth has nothing to do with earning salvation, imo.

NonArab-Arab said...

"But we really have to face the fact that LDS doctrine has undergone a shift."

I think I have to take a bit of exception to this statement. I'd instead go to a slightly modified version of what Clean Cut said. He stated:

"we're merely improving the way we articulate our own doctrine that's always been there (in our own Standard Works)"

I think that's basically right, but that what I'm guessing you're taking perhaps a bit of exception to is the unspoken but perhaps implied (if one wants to read it that way) notion that nothing has ever changed about Mormonism. Here is where I think the hazy but oh-so-critical line between doctrine and culture/musings/intellectual-guesswork becomes so critical. We have to strip down what has been said over the years and ask ourselves what was merely us as Mormons (leaders or non-leader members) saying, and what was truly core doctrine all along whether or not we grasped it 'right' at the time. The church is about getting us to some currently unattainable level of perfection through Christ. Which means we muddle, we stumble, and we use imperfect mortal languages and concepts to try and convey core principles that only the Spirit truly conveys in pure form but which we rarely if ever can perfectly articulate. The scriptures and canonized modern revelation are the closest to gold standards we have along those lines, which is why I like Clean Cut's statement.

When I look at things in this light, I have no problem even if some past emphasis (whether just in Mormon culture or by church leaders speaking in non-canonized form) didn't quite jive with my current understanding (which let's face it, may not be fully 'right' yet either). I'm trying to arrive at what's really true, as are all faithful church members. I think we need to understand the search for truth via the Spirit and the tools the Spirit has given to the church in this light. Stating that somehow the core doctrine has changed, well I don't think that's correct. Maybe the ability of some of us (or even of most of us) to understand the doctrine has, but the scriptures and the whisperings of the Spirit have always stood there firm in providing us what we needed to know at any given stage in trying to get us to the ultimate truths we all seek.

Seth R. said...

I think it's more accurate to state the Restored Gospel has always been there for whoever wanted to investigate it, but our understanding of it has not always been the same, and has evolved.

In short, the Restored Gospel has not changed, but "Mormonism" has.

m_and_m said...

As I have thought about this topic, I think Elder Bednar's talk on clean hands and a pure heart, and Elder Christofferson's recent talk on covenants helps me ponder this more. I think language is limited on these things. I think grace is more fully accessed the more faithful we are -- faith being an action that leads toward efforts to be obedient.

I also see the temple recommend not as some end point, but actually a minimum level of covenant behavior that makes the flow of grace more full in our lives.

Lastly, the thought in my mind has been about what grace is for. It isn't just about making up for what we can't yet do, but enabling us to eventually be changed to do what we couldn't do before. It's like weight lifting. Our bodies are built such that repetitive motion can unleash the muscles' God-given ability to become stronger. We can't just pray our way to stronger muscles physically, and we can't just pray for grace to help us grow spiritually. (Just did some weight work so that is on my mind...don't know if that is a good analogy, but it came to mind, fwiw.)

(BTW, got your comment...please do track me down in Aug!)

CJ Douglass said...

Great discussion.

I like to use the Evangelical word, "progressive sanctification" and I think this is exactly what Elder Christofferson was talking about last week - in his own way. We often use different language but mean the same thing.

I also have no problem with the idea that our understanding of Jesus and His grace(even among his Apostles) is evolving and improving. After all, is there evidence of any other ways that God communicates with His children (other than line upon line)?

NonArab-Arab said...

"In short, the Restored Gospel has not changed, but "Mormonism" has."

Seth, that is so perfect. Thanks for putting it better than I could. Your whole comment.

Clean Cut said...

"In short, the Restored Gospel has not changed, but "Mormonism" has."