By Robert Millet
Reviewed by Bill McKeever
The front jacket reads, “As Latter-day Saints we sing and speak of the redeeming love of Jesus Christ, but do we take those words of praise and worship to heart? In whom do we really trust? Upon whom do we really rely? What does it mean to us today to have saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ?”
Such questions sound very much like those posed by evangelicals; however, the above statement is taken from a book called Grace Works, written by BYU professor Robert L. Millet.
As I read Dr. Millet’s book, I honestly didn’t know whether to rejoice or grieve. Could it be that an educated Mormon was actually setting aside the works-based theology that has long separated Mormonism from the Christian fold? Or was this merely an attempt to use Christian terminology to superficially make it appear that Mormonism was moving towards an orthodox position?
Millet begins on page one retelling a story about a student who came to visit him in his office. The student asked, “What do you wish you had understood when you were my age.” He answers the young man by saying, “I really wish I had understood more about the Atonement. I think if I had understood the proper relationship between grace and works, I would have lived my life a little differently.”
I found this answer to be quite odd. Mormon leaders have spared no ink discussing this subject. To be sure, it is the Mormon doctrine of the atonement that has caused a great deal of concern among Christians who hold the Bible dear. LDS leaders have made it absolutely clear that the Atonement of Christ is two-fold in nature; 1) It atones unconditionally for the original sin of Adam and Eve and provides for a physical resurrection from the grave; 2) It provides forgiveness of sins on the condition of complete repentance and obedience to all of the commandments. How could it be that Dr. Millet, who was not only raised in an LDS home and spent several years as a teacher at BYU, feel that he had misunderstood such a teaching?
Just prior to leaving on his mission, he asked his father, “Dad, what does it mean to be saved by grace?’ He stared at me for a moment and then said firmly, ‘We don’t believe in that!'” When he asked why not, his father responded, “Because the Baptists do!” (pp.6-7.)
Millet describes his father as a bishop and seminary teacher who was “a powerful preacher” and “knew the principles and doctrines of the gospel well.” “Knowing as he did that Latter-day Saints believed in the necessity of good works, Dad simply put the matter to rest by stating that we believed something very different. And, to some extent, we do.”
From this point on, I sensed that this book was probably not going to be much different from others that deal with LDS soteriology. What makes it different from other works written by Mormon general authorities is that it is peppered with phrases familiar to Christians, but unfortunately these words are often not clearly defined. Though Millet attempts to offer a view of grace that seems more palatable, he is often confusing because he does not explain the myriad of statements made by his own leaders that conflict with his conclusions.
For instance, on page 13 he writes, “The great plan of happiness is a gift. Salvation, which is exaltation, which is eternal life, is free. It is not something for which we can barter, nor is it something that may be purchased with money. Neither is it, in the strictest sense, something that can be earned.”
I gather that 12th President Spencer Kimball would have disagreed with this assessment. On pages 211-212 of his book The Miracle of Forgiveness, Kimball chastised members who “are doing nothing seriously wrong except in their failures to do the right things to earn their salvation” (emphasis mine).
John A. Widtsoe, the respected Mormon apostle whose works are still read widely today, wrote, “Every person will inherit a glory of salvation, which will be the one that he has earned” (Joseph Smith–Seeker after Truth, Prophet of God, p.170, emphasis mine.).
Many LDS leaders have stated that exaltation is something that must be earned, including current LDS President Thomas S. Monson. “It is the celestial glory which we seek. It is in the presence of God we desire to dwell. It is a forever family in which we want membership. Such blessings must be earned” (“An Invitation to Exaltation,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 1988, p.53. Emphasis mine). So from where is Dr. Millet drawing his conclusions?
On page 13 Millet also quotes Mormon Apostle Bruce McConkie who said, “What salvation is free? What salvation comes by the grace of God? With all the emphasis of the rolling thunders of Sinai, we answer: All salvation is free; all comes by the merits and mercy and grace of the Holy Messiah; there is no salvation of any kind, nature, or degree that is not bound to Christ and His atonement.”
However, because Millet fails to quote the McConkie comment to the end of the paragraph, we miss his intended meaning. McConkie goes on to say, ” Specifically, our Lord’s atoning sacrifice brings all men forth in the resurrection with immortal bodies, thus freeing them from death, hell, the devil, and endless torment: and our Lord’s atoning grace raises those who believe and obey, not only in immortality, but unto eternal life; it raises them to sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in God’s everlasting kingdom forever” (The Promised Messiah, pp.345-346, emphasis mine).
This same McConkie also taught, “Salvation grows automatically out of the resurrection, and the coming forth in the resurrection constitutes the receipt of whatever degree of salvation has been earned.” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 1:196. emphasis mine). In volume three of the same set, he wrote, “Salvation is free,’ but it must also be purchased; and the price is obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel” (3:462, emphasis mine).
Millet insists that “grace is unmerited favor;” however, the grace he speaks of “is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts” (p.18, emphasis mine). To the biblically trained ear this is nothing but contradictory double-speak. Like fingernails scraping against a chalkboard, these explanations cause pain to the Christian’s ears.
On page 43 Millet appeals to the Book of Mormon. “It was Aaron, son of King Mosiah, who pointed out that because man had fallen, he could not merit anything of himself.” Had he at least quoted the passage up to the semi-colon, his readers would have seen that this passage only tends to once again confuse the issue. Alma 22:14 goes on to say: “but the sufferings and death of Christ atone for their sins, through faith and repentance, and so forth.” It is the Mormon definition of “repentance and so forth” that causes me concern since these terms always involve man’s works if salvation (i.e. exaltation) is to be gained.
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” (3:1217). In Mormonism repentance involves overcoming sin and, in the words of Spencer Kimball, “discontinuance of sin must be permanent” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 176). Understanding these definitions is crucial if a person is to fully grasp what Millet says in his book.
Millet knows this, for he elaborates on it on several pages. On page 59 he speaks of how Latter-day Saints remain “in a justified position.” He says, “As we endure to the end through living constantly in a state of repentance with an ever-present desire to be transformed in Christ, the Savior holds us guiltless.”
To their credit every faithful Mormon has a desire to live a godly life; but to say his success at living this life is what gets him justified and keeps him justified is the complete antithesis of what the Apostle Paul tried to convey to the Galatians.
Paul insisted that Christians are justified by faith and not by the works of the law. A Mormon may argue that Paul was merely referring to the Mosaic Law, but clearly his writings take this issue much further. No work of righteousness on our part adds anything to our justification. If we must exchange anything to gain and keep this justification, then Paul’s numerous references to God’s mercy becomes meaningless.
Dr. Millet often states in the book that our salvation is based on Christ’s merit. I agree. However, when I say I trust Christ totally for my salvation, I mean this quite literally. My salvation is not based on the fact that I was baptized, or give financially to my church, or by my attempts to live “sin less.” I firmly trust in the fact that Christ paid for my salvation entirely, despite my shortcomings! There is nothing I can add to my sin debt that was paid in full by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
Dr. Millet makes an excellent observation on page 66. “What a person trusts in, what he or she relies on — these are excellent indicators of spiritual maturity.” Mormons often say they are totally trusting in Christ, but is this really so? Does Dr. Millet have the confidence that he will achieve exaltation without his church membership, his baptism, his tithe, or his temple endowments? Can any Mormon who has neglected being sealed for time and eternity in a Mormon temple be confident that he will be exalted? My experience talking with Mormons shows that they are not. The fact that they are trusting in these accomplishments etches away at any probability that they are trusting completely in the merits of Christ for their salvation.
Where Dr. Millet really stands on this issue depends on what page you are reading. On page 70 he says “faith is complete trust, confidence in, and reliance upon the merits, mercy, and grace of Jesus Christ for salvation,” Then he turns around and says that only by a person’s “continued observance of the requirements of God” can a person have the confidence that he is “acquitted,” “righteous” and “in divine favor” (p.72). On page 128 he rhetorically asks, “If I rely wholly upon the merits of Christ, how much do I rely upon myself to be saved? If I rely alone upon the merits of Christ, how much do I rely upon myself to be saved? The answer to both questions is a resounding ‘None'” (emphasis his). None?
He correctly notes that “justification is a legal term” and insists that justification establishes his righteous standing before God. But he adds that when Paul says a believer is justified by faith, he merely means it is “the starting point.” “In short, as we have faith, repent, and are baptized, we are justified before God” (p.75). Paul says no such thing. The apostle emphatically declares that a believer is justified by faith and that no man is justified by works of the law (Romans 3:28; 5:1; Galatians 2:16; 3:11; 3:24). Paul does say we are saved “unto good works,” but his writings make a clear distinction between what justifies the believer before an all-Holy God, and what separates the believer unto God.
If, as he says, “Christ’s own infinite merit thus becomes the ground on which the believer stands before God” (p.77), how can an individual’s sin-stained merit add to this? If I am justified by Christ’s merit, how can I become more justified by including my own?
Dr. Millet’s beliefs regarding salvation by grace alone are nothing new to Mormon thought. “The works and deeds of man, though insufficient of themselves for salvation, are necessary…Man cannot be saved by grace alone; as the Lord lives, he must keep the commandments; he must work the works of righteousness; he must work out his salvation with fear and trembling before the Lord” (pp.118-119).
He refers to Moroni 10:32 and comments, “As Moroni instructed, when we come unto Christ and seek to deny ourselves of ungodliness and give ourselves without let or hindrance to God, ‘then is his grace sufficient for you…'” (p.133). Actually, Moroni 10:32 does not promise God’s grace to those who merely “seek” to deny themselves of ungodliness. This is a conditional passage that makes it clear that grace becomes efficacious only after a person has successfully denied himself of all ungodliness. He made this clear in a commentary he co-authored with Joseph Fielding McConkie. “Indeed, it is only after a person has so performed a lifetime of works and faithfulness – only after he has come to deny himself of all ungodliness and every worldly lust – that the grace of God, that spiritual increment of power, is efficacious” (Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon 1:295).
A similar comment is made in volume two of the same commentary. He and McConkie wrote, ” After we have done all that we can do, after we have denied ourselves of ungodliness and worldly lusts, then is the grace of God sufficient for us; then we are sanctified in Christ and eventually made perfect in Christ (see 2 Nephi 25:23; Moroni 10:32″ (Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon 2:258).
I am sure Dr. Millet is a sincere man who strives to be the best Mormon he can, but can we really assume he, or any Mormon for that matter, has actually succeeded at denying himself of all ungodliness? If so, what is the necessity of continual repentance? We would think that a person who has successfully denied himself of all ungodliness would find no need to repent.
If there is one thing I have learned in my Christian walk, it is this: The more I seek God’s righteousness, the more I realize how transcendent and holy He really is and how vile, sinful, and rebellious I really am. This fact compels me to abandon any hope that my well intentioned “merit” will help my situation in any degree.
Sadly, Grace Works does not offer a compelling argument that Mormonism is changing.
Like many LDS authors, Dr. Millet demonstrates his lack of understanding when it comes to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Like many of his colleagues and leaders, he continues to confuse sanctification with justification. Because of this, I have an increased concern that many Christians will give this book only a superficial read and, without understanding the necessary Mormon definitions of crucial terms, assume that Dr. Millet is abandoning his old Mormonism and coming closer to a New Testament consensus. If he wrote Grace Works with traditional Mormon definitions in mind, then he is really offering nothing new on this important topic.
There are some who do not share my skepticism and, in turn, feel Dr. Millet is leading his church to a more orthodox position. If that is the case, then I don’t think this view is shared by the leadership in Salt Lake City. In a conference address titled “The Atonement: All for All,” Mormon Seventy Bruce Hafen quenched such high hopes when he commented on how some people “mistakenly think our Church is moving toward an understanding of the relationship between grace and works that draws on Protestant teachings.” Such “misconceptions,” he said, prompted him to address this topic in his conference message (Ensign magazine, May 2004, p.97). He then proceeded to warn LDS members that “If we must give all that we have, then our giving almost everything is not enough. If we almost keep the commandments, we almost receive the blessings.” (p.98, emphasis his).
As difficult as it is, I would like nothing more than to give Dr. Millet the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he is truly engaged in a struggle to reconcile his Mormon faith with the biblical message of grace. If so, I pray that he receives that same peace that passes all understanding that I have in knowing that all my sins are forgiven and that none of my shortcomings can stand in the way of receiving the best God has for me. However, if he wrote this book using definitions closer to that of a Protestant, I can’t help but ask why he wrote a book that would not clearly communicate this thought to his Mormon readership. I have a difficult time visualizing a Mormon who reads this book as understanding it in anything but traditional Mormon terms. If grace works only after a person has denied themselves of all ungodliness and every worldly lust, grace doesn’t work at all since no one has done this.