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What is below is derived from Chapter 6 of my book, The Mormon Defenders.
Mormons are often said to believe in legalism (salvation by works), and while some undoubtedly do, just as many Christians unwittingly maintain a legalistic bent, the official Mormon doctrinal view is best described as covenantal nomism, the belief that upon entering a covenant with God (which is offered by grace), one must properly respond with obedience to remain in the covenant relationship. Mormons believe indeed that one is saved by faith and through grace, but that alone will not earn a place in the celestial heaven. One may be saved by faith and by grace and achieve one of the less desirable heavens; but they must remain obedient to the covenant requirements to get to the highest heaven.
The language of covenantal nomism is clear in the works of Mormon authors. Bickmore (Restoring the Ancient Church, 197) writes: "...Joseph Smith preached that there are certain ordinances or sacraments necessary for salvation. That is, certain rites must be performed wherein one makes covenants with God. Keeping these covenants entitles one to the grace of Jesus Christ, and hence, salvation." Anderson (Understanding Paul, 181) speaks of "the responsibilities of gratitude" and asks, "Does one ever receive a gift without moral obligation?" Finally, Robinson (Are Mormons Christians?, 105-6): "...(O)ur best efforts are a token of our good faith and of our acceptance of the offered covenant. Thus we participate in our own 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..."
Robinson goes on to note that many in the LDS church do not understand this and actually do hold to a conception of salvation by works. Owen and Mosser assert, however, that Robinson's views reflect "a larger trend within the [LDS] church." (Owen and Mosser, "Review of Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation," 63n.) This view is also similar to, but not a match for, the Christian perception that one is saved by faith, yet receives a reward in heaven in accordance with the worth and durability of the fruit of that faith. Even one whose works are minimal shall be saved; yet "if any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire." (1 Cor. 3:15)
By the same token, LDS apologists often work under the misperception that the "faith alone" teaching means that the believer is free to live a life of "cheap grace" which allows them to behave as they please. Talmage writes disparagingly of the "dogmas of men [that] have been promulgated to the effect that by faith alone may salvation be attained, and that a wordy profession of belief shall open the doors of heaven to the sinner." (Talmage, Articles of Faith, 98; see also Griffith, One Lord, 162) Bickmore, on the other hand, recognizes that "nearly all [Evangelicals] consider good works as an essential product of faith" and considers this to be a point where Mormons and Christians agree (Bickmore, Restoring the Ancient Church, 193).
Owen and Mosser summarize the Christian view well: "In our opinion, to say that one can be saved without submitting to the Lordship of Christ or without producing good works as the fruit of faith is a blatant heresy of the highest order." Owen and Mosser "Review of Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation,", 64n.
In accordance with covenantal nomism, Mormonism also follows in the footsteps of the Arminian branches of orthodox Christianity in not accepting the doctrine of eternal security. Mormons do not believe the saying, "once saved, always saved," but affirm that it is possible to fall from grace and apostasize from one's faith. Faithfulness to the covenant is required in order not to fall from grace.
Our basic argument, therefore, in light of our foundational essay (link 1 below), is that the Mormon teaching of covenantal nomism is an anachronism, for it views works in terms of actions that must be "kept up" for salvation to be guaranteed rather than as something that naturally flows out of the believer, and it is the latter, not the former, that corresponds to the anthropological context within which the Bible was written (i.e., the Semitic Totality concept).
Mormon apologists present an interesting response to Ephesians 2:8-9. They appeal to Romans 8:24-5: "For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?" This passage is taken as offering a linguistic parallel to Ephesians 2:8-9, and it is argued that "(t)aking Paul's words at face value, and in isolation from everything else he taught, one could make the case that hope is all a person needs to be saved." [Griffith, One Lord, 163] However, the argument is grammatically flawed: Romans 8:24 is a dative of reference, not a dative of means, so that it is best understood as saying that "we were saved, with hope as the ever present companion of this salvation," not that it is the way in which we are saved.) [Commentaries on Romans by Mounce, 186n; Moo, 522]
By way of application, let's look at the question: How does baptism fit into the Mormon paradigm of covenantal nomism? Richards is concise [A Marvelous Work, 102]:
Remission of sins comes only through baptism when one has truly repented of his sins; and baptism without repentance is not a means by which one can "flee from the wrath to come."#
Here is a view offered by Griffith [ibid., 172]:
The restored church teaches that baptism is essential for salvation. By baptism the truly repentant receive a remission of their sins and are admitted into the church. No one can live with God for eternity in his kingdom without being baptized.
On the other hand, here is the view offered by Robinson [How Wide the Divide, 148-9]:
It is incorrect to state that Mormons believe baptism is necessary for all people in order to inherit the celestial kingdom of God...persons who did not have the opportunity of baptism presented to them during their lives may still inherit that kingdom if, in the infinite foreknowledge of God, they would have received it given the opportunity.
Further on, Robinson tells us [157-8]:
...(T)he LDS believe the only obedience necessary to be born again is obeying the commandments to have faith in Christ, to repent and to be baptized...But there is no quid pro quo here, no earnings being paid off; these things constitute being born again. The only "requirement" for coming to Christ is to come.
Although perhaps differing from certain Calvinist perceptions such as unconditional election, Robinson's view otherwise seems to be a match for the mainstream Christian perception of the role of baptism in the life of the believer as the natural product of faith. So, what of the seemingly contradictory views of Griffith and Richards? The problem is probably not, as some may suggest, that Mormonism is trying to hide the covert legalism within its ranks; it is more likely that Mormons have yet to define their own soteriology adequately. Robinson relates a relevant story of his experiences with LDS students whom he asks "if it is necessary to keep the commandments to enter into the celestial kingdom," who then reply "with absolute certainty that it is. They know that this is true because they have heard Church leaders and teachers tell them so all their lives."
However, Blomberg's response is appropriate: "If this description reflects Robinson's uniform experience with his students and what they have heard in their churches all their lives, then perhaps the reader can understand why I ask if it is really only a minority of LDS who do not adequately understand salvation by grace." Given the variable offerings of Robinson, Griffith and Richards, we may well wonder the same thing.
Robinson writes: "LDS terminology seems naive, imprecise and even sometimes sloppy by Evangelical standards, but Evangelicals have had centuries in which to polish and refine their terminology and their arguments in dialogue with other denominations. We Mormons have not been around nearly as long, and we have no professional clergy to keep our theological language finely tuned (thank heaven!"
Of course, as Blomberg points out, it is not hard to reach the conclusion that the tension found in Mormon scriptures and expositional writings (and, I would add, the attempt to reconcile those tensions in turn with the Bible) is not so much the result of a lack of time as it is that the tensions are not resolvable in the first place. How Wide the Divide?, 156, 177)
Now let's look at a small number of verses I have found to be uniquely misused by Mormonism on this subject (for other verses, used as well by other groups with similar views, see the general article on faith-works relation and baptism.)
Acts 19:1-4 And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples, He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John's baptism. Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.
LDS apologists claim that John's baptism and that of the church were "the same ordinance." [Anderson, Understanding Paul, 62-3] Those who had John's baptism and underwent another baptism after becoming Christians (Acts 19:1-7) are said to have been originally baptized by persons not qualified to administer the rite. Anderson explains:
The Ephesian "disciples" had to be rebaptized, which means that their first baptism was flawed, either in form or in authority. And at Ephesus, Luke highlights authority by telling about the Jewish magicians. Commanding an evil spirit to depart in the name of Jesus, they were ignored with the question, "Who are ye?" (Acts 19:15). Only a few verses before, Paul put a similar question to the dozen disciples: "Unto what then were ye baptized?" John's baptism had the same form as that of Jesus. So the issue of who had the right to baptize is raised a little before the associated issue of who had the right to cast out an evil spirit...
Noting then that these men are referred to as "disciples," Anderson comments upon their response ("We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost."):
Since ignorance of the Holy Ghost was ignorance of what John taught, the dozen at Ephesus certainly had not heard him or one understanding his message. Thus, Joseph Smith went to authority as the point of rebaptism: "No, John did not baptize you, for he did his work right; and so Paul went and baptized them, for he knew what the true doctrine was, and he knew that John had not baptized them."
The matter, however, is not as clear-cut as Anderson supposes. It is unlikely that these "disciples," regardless of whose disciples they were, had not heard of the Holy Spirit: Judaism recognized God's holy spirit (Ps. 51:11; Is. 63:10-11), if not in a Trinitarian sense, then in a general and recognizable way. The meaning of the reply is more likely along the lines of, "We have not so much heard whether there be any Holy Spirit available to receive." Beyond that, what we see reflected here is most likely an example of the confusion that would inevitably arise when Christian missionaries encountered those who know only the message of John, or perhaps only some of the message of John, or even, conceivably, had heard the message of John and not understood the meaning behind it: They had the right message, for the message of John had been made complete by the work of Christ on earth, so they could be called "disciples"; yet they were not complete in their belief.
Some might then indeed need Christian baptism; others, like Apollos (who is said to have taught accurately about Jesus -- Acts 18:25) apparently did not. "Whereas Apollos had recognized Christ as the fulfillment of John's baptism, not so with the Ephesian 'disciples.' " We might expect that Christian missionaries encountered several such "gray areas" when dealing with those who had heard only the message of John, and we may also be sure that there was some discussion over what their status would be in the Christian community.
Luke, clearly, sees enough of a continuity in the proclamations of John and in the work of Christ that he was agreeable to referring to these Ephesians as "disciples," and thus this passage offers no indication that John's baptism and that of the church were "the same ordinance," although it does seem probable, from the example of Apollos, that it was considered to have sufficed if one had the gospel message adequately within grasp. The rule of thumb was comprehension, not baptism. [See Acts commentary by Witherington, 154, and A. Andrew Das, "Acts 8: Water, Baptism, and the Spirit," Concordia Journal (April 1993): 123.
Das shows that the story of Apollos and his conversion offers the best parallel in Acts to the story of the Ephesian disciples, both relating to the question of who requires baptism. Witherington also notes that the various accounts in Acts of conversions, baptisms, and receipt of the Spirit, teach a very important lesson: "...Luke was not trying to teach his audience some sort of normative order to be followed in later church practice. God can do it however God wants to do it." Baptism sometimes preceded receipt of the Spirit (Acts 8:4-25); sometimes it followed it (10:44-8); sometimes they came practically at the same time (2:38, 8:38-9). To attempt to derive some sort of prescriptive schedule beyond initial belief is to miss the point.]
1 Peter 3:20-21 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ...
Let's now look at an unusual Mormon twist on this verse (as opposed to a general misuse shared by other groups), based on what Hopkins says of 1 Peter. He tells us that the "like figure" refers to the number eight, which is believed, according to Mormons, to represent "the minimum age at which a person may be a candidate for baptism." But the word "figure" is not a reference to a numeral. The word is antitupon, meaning a representative or a counterpart (cf. Heb. 9:24). What "figure" is referred to here is not the number eight but the "figure" (as in, comparable idea) of Noah's family being saved through water [Hopkins, Biblical Mormonism, 174-5, 265] .
If a man dies on the way to the baptismal pool, and has no time to produce the fruits of repentance, will he be saved? The Latter-day Saints don't worry about this, since baptism for the dead covers any such eventuality. The Christian would also not be concerned, and say that "...before baptism, faith saves in so far as it is open to baptism and to all that it implies." (Duplacy, Baptism in the New Testament, 103n)
Faith with works is a living faith, but works do not save, nor are they "proof" of salvation in the sense that one has something to prove in order to be saved. Works rather flow naturally from the individual because they are saved, and baptism is the first of these works. To speak of baptism as a requirement for salvation is to miss both the purpose of the rite and the anthropological grounding in which it took root.
In asking "Must one be baptized to be saved?" one may as well as, "Is it necessary to pray to be saved?" or "Is it necessary to take the Lord's Supper to be saved?" The answer to each is the same: "If you are saved, and you know and understand what is going on, why is there even a question?" Beasley-Murray summarizes our case thusly [Baptism in the New Testament, 298]:
The assertion, "Unless you become baptized you cannot be saved," would have sounded to a first generation Christian like saying, "Unless you believe and are Christians you cannot be a Christian..." It is only because in the development of the Church the whole complex of baptism-faith-confession-Spirit-Church-life- sanctification has been torn asunder that the question has been forced upon us as to the relationship between baptism as an act and that which it represents, and whether the reality can be gained apart from the act with which it is associated in the New Testament.
Ironically, many Mormon apologists who claim that our modern Christian church is a Hellenized apostasy now miss the point of baptism and of works--precisely because of a type of thinking that was Hellenistic. Mormonism is closer to orthodox Christianity here than it is on any subject, but it is nevertheless not representing the authentic Christian faith that it is taught in the Bible.