In recent years some Christians have insisted that the Mormon Church has been slowly abandoning its heretical roots and coming closer to embracing a more biblical soteriology. While we would like nothing more than to see this actually happen, we have been reluctant to engage in similar optimism. A speech given by Seventy Bruce Hafen in General Conference in April 2004 confirms our doubts.
In his talk titled “The Atonement: All for All,” Hafen made it very clear to his listeners that the LDS Church is not moving towards a Protestant view of grace and works. Hafen commented on how “some of our friends can’t see how our Atonement beliefs relate to our beliefs about becoming more like our Heavenly Father.” He went on to say, “Others 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, May 2004, p.97).
Hafen insisted that it was not enough simply to believe in Christ. Using the story of the Pearl of Great Price as his proof text, he insisted that for Mormons to qualify for “such exquisite treasure,” they must “give the way Christ gave — every drop He had.” While such language sounds pious, the fact of the matter is I don’t know too many people who “give every drop” on a consistent basis like Christ did.
He continued by stating, “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).
If Hafen was discussing personal sanctification, I wouldn’t protest so much. However, to insist that personal effort and the ability to keep commandments are the necessary requirement for eternal life is anathema to the biblical message of grace.
I personally found Hafen’s talk intriguing while wondering if his speech was meant to clarify the LDS Church’s position in light of comments made by popular BYU professor Robert Millet. Dr. Millet has written numerous books on the subject of grace that have given some the impression that the church is changing even though he would be be first to admit that he is not an official voice for the LDS Church.
Was Hafen offering a public rebuke? Was he engaging in damage control? I have no doubt that many members of the LDS Church have been confused by what appears to be mixed signals when it comes to obtaining salvation.
Hafen also used his talk to criticize the Christian view of the fall of man. He insisted that for centuries, Christianity has been wrong in its belief that “Adam and Eve’s fall was a tragic mistake, which led to the belief that humankind as an inherently evil nature.” The fall, he said, “was not a disaster.”
First of all, I object to Hafen’s stereotype that all Christians believe the fall was “a mistake or an accident.” Certainly it was a mistake on the part of Adam to sin against God’s decree, but I do not believe for a moment that the fall took God by surprise or that it was not in His divine plan.
Hafen’s comment on man’s nature is not out of step with what has been taught by LDS leaders of the past. On March 23, 1862, Brigham Young said, “Many of us have been taught the doctrine of total depravity—that man is not naturally inclined to do good. I am satisfied that he is more inclined to do right than to do wrong. There is a greater power within him to shun evil and perform good, than to do the opposite” (Discourses of Brigham Young, p.78).
Young’s position seems to conflict with the Book of Mormon when it says, “Therefore, as the soul could never die, and the fall had brought upon all mankind a spiritual death as well as a temporal, that is, they were cut off from the presence of the Lord, it was expedient that mankind should be reclaimed from this spiritual death. Therefore, as they had become carnal, sensual, and devilish, by nature, this probationary state became a state for them to prepare; it became a preparatory state” (Alma 42:9,10, emphasis mine).
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