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Book Review: Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate

By Robert L. Millet and Gerald R. McDermott

By Aaron Shafovaloff

The following was originally printed in the January-February 2008 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here

I enjoyed this book. The exchange between Gerald McDermott, a Christian professor of religion at Roanoke College, and Robert Millet, professor of ancient scripture at BYU, is appropriately called a “debate.” Each author, one a Mormon, the other an evangelical Christian, gave positions, counter-positions, arguments, and even theological accusations. While I don’t agree with everything McDermott writes, what makes the book worth reading is his articulate, thoughtful theology combined with a cordial attitude. It has real meat and substance, and while I was at times frustrated, I found it refreshing that the book avoided the kind of glib speech that one comes to expect in a public forum. McDermott is a theologically competent conversation partner, and I hope that he should take a more dominant, active role in public dialog over others who have proven to be less than helpful.

The most notable chapter of the book, which I shall focus on, was on grace, faith, and works. Unfortunately, this chapter was most problematic. The subject is no small matter. Those who are involved in ongoing dialogs with those at BYU, particularly with Robert Millet and students influenced by him, seem to use the topic of grace as an olive branch and a point of common ground.

It can be summarized as follows: Certain evangelicals believe that, because of the way the doctrine of salvation by grace is being articulated by Millet and others like him, there is cause for celebration, encouragement, and optimism. Mormonism is effectively moving toward an evangelical view of grace, they say. We should apologize for those evangelicals who have characterized Mormonism as having rejected salvation by grace alone, take Mormon references to passages in the Book of Mormon that sound evangelical at face-value, and see the theological shift as proof that passive, low-key, innocuous interfaith dialog is working and that we should stop publicly challenging traditional Mormon theology and calling those of influence to account for authoritative Mormon literature, which smacks of a works-righteousness merit-system. Mormons in these BYU circles see the evangelical realization of the legitimacy of the Mormon view of grace not as the result of a substantial theological shift but the result of a mere renewal in emphasis and a restating of Mormon doctrine in a way that helps evangelicals understand what Mormonism has been teaching all along.

McDermott tells the conversion story of Martin Luther, who experienced conversion to God’s grace from “the medieval belief that God will give grace only to those who try their best” (p.163; all quotes come from the pre-release copy). Luther’s life was revolutionized after realizing that God justifies the ungodly by faith apart from works. To provide balance, he then speaks of the experience of Jonathan Edwards, who after the Great Awakening “came to conclude that faith is living only if it ‘worketh by love’ (Galatians 6:5),” that “the practice of the faith in works of love and obedience is the greatest final test of true faith” (p.165).

McDermott affirms the “inextricability of faith and good works. One cannot go without the other – unless one or the other is a cheap imitation.” Saving faith is a mighty worker and endures to the end, and “works are the best evidence of true faith to our own conscience” (p.167). This doesn’t contradict the doctrine of justification by faith alone because “works are not the price of God’s favor but instead the sign of faith and therefore God’s favor… [W]e are saved by Christ’s works, not by our own. But once we are saved, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, who inevitably does works through us” (p.167).

With these things I heartily agree, but he then goes on to say, “Many of us have wrongly accused Mormons of teaching salvation by works because they have put such strong emphasis on works” (p.168). McDermott argues that, in accordance with Mormonism, the Bible teaches that “true faith will necessarily produce works of love” (p.168). Appealing to Millet’s non-traditional interpretation of 2 Nephi 25:23 and other passages, he then says that, “Millet and other Mormon leaders teach salvation by Christ’s work of grace. They draw upon… rich language in the Book of Mormon.” When Mormons speak of salvation by works, they simply “mean… that after conversion they want to continue serving Christ with their whole lives” (p.169).

Wishing to “put some old staples of evangelical anti-Mormon apologetics to rest,” McDermott says that instead of comparing evangelical doctrine to that which is only “true of some Mormons in the pews,” we should compare it to official statements and Mormon scripture (p.170). With all due respect to Gerald McDermott and appreciation for much of his other material, this comes off as hypocritical because in order to establish the Mormon view over against what only is “true of some Mormons in the pews,” he appealed to the non-official interpretations of a low-on-the-priesthood-totem-pole Mormon professor. Millet tries to relieve and neutralize our concerns over Mormonism by appealing to passages within Mormon scripture that seem to promote a Biblical, evangelical view of grace.

If Millet is going to represent conventional, mainstream Mormonism, something that most of his audience expects of him, he must show not merely that the passages have been used by LDS leaders, but that the passages have substantially functioned in Mormonism to truly promote an evangelical theology of grace, that the particular interpretation of the passages has been sanctioned and disseminated from church leadership through actively used curriculum, or at least that the theology is actually embedded within the larger system of Mormon doctrine and culture.

The problem isn’t that Mormons have simply emphasized works. Rather, it’s that works have been emphasized in a way that gives them the meritorious role of helping to prove one’s worthiness before God. It’s not wrong for Mormons to speak of the inextricable relationship between faith and works. The heart of the issue is over what kind of relationship faith and works have. It’s good to affirm that works serve as an evidence of faith, but do they help us—even partially—merit our own eternal life?

Must people live their lives “trying their best” to merit and prove worthy of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life? The answer of authoritative Mormon literature and popular Mormon culture is a resounding YES. Apostle Robert D. Hales clearly stated in the October 2007 general conference that, “Each of us has been sent to earth by our Heavenly Father to merit eternal life.”

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