The following was originally printed in the May-June 2008 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
By Eric Johnson
In a masterful public relations maneuver during the 2008 Easter season, the Mormon Church leaders dedicated their entire issue of the March Ensign to “The Lord Jesus Christ.” With a beautiful see-through overlay over the cover of a portrait of Christ and more than a dozen articles centering on Him, the editors “invite you to study these messages [about Jesus] prayerfully, take them to heart, and share them with others.”
It’s an 80-page issue attractively filled with General Authority-written articles and colorful pictures that would be the perfect tool to give to a non-LDS neighbor or coworker who was investigating Mormonism. To promote evangelism, members are encouraged to be “witnesses of Christ when we help others come unto Him” (p. 61), as they are provided with answers to “a few of the questions people often pose when they encounter the Church or its members for the first time” (“We Believe,” pp. 54-56). In addition, tips on witnessing (p. 57) explain how the Saints can encourage nonmembers to read the Book of Mormon, talk with Latter-day Saint missionaries, and visit LDS websites. However, because this particular issue of the Ensign fails to adequately address the specific differences separating the Christian and LDS view of Jesus, a great majority of those reading these articles will never really understand the particulars that make up this ongoing controversy.
Any Christian layperson who is unfamiliar with this religion could easily take away the idea that Mormonism’s version of Jesus is synonymous with the biblical Jesus, obviously what the editors want the reader to think.
In the article “He Lives! The Witness of Latter-day Prophets,” pp. 8-11, quotations about Jesus are provided from each of the fifteen LDS prophets as declarations are made showing Mormons are Christian because of their faith in Christ. The quote from 13th president Ezra Taft Benson is telling:
“The question is sometimes asked, ‘Are Mormons Christians?’ We declare the divinity of Jesus Christ. We look to Him as the only source of our salvation.”
Adds eighth president George Albert Smith:
“I have found many in the world who have not known that we believe in the divine mission of our Lord, and I have been led to say upon more than one occasion that there are no people in the world who so well understand the divine mission of Jesus Christ…as the Latter-day Saints.”
Yet in the next article (“Who is Jesus Christ,” pp. 12-19), Boyd K. Packer, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, ratchets up the cadence. After quoting multiple verses from the standard works for the first two pages of his article—and more than half of them come from the Bible!—he complains that the word atonement only appears once in the English New Testament (Rom. 5:11). “Atonement, of all words!” he incredulously proclaims, adding, “I find that to be remarkable.” Wondering why, he theorizes, “I know of only one explanation. For that we turn to the Book of Mormon.”
He then proceeded to quote 1 Nephi 13:24, 26, explaining that the “great and abominable church” had “taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away” (24, 26). Citing First Nephi 13:29, Packer says, “Because of the many plain and precious things which have been taken out of the book,…an exceedingly great many do stumble, yea, insomuch that Satan hath great power over them.” He concludes this section by stating that the Book of Mormon uses the word 39 times. He then asks, “What better witness that the Book of Mormon is indeed another testament of Jesus Christ?” (p. 16)
Because he is apparently not well-versed in the biblical languages and relies on a translation that is some five centuries old, Packer makes several crucial errors. First of all, the word for “atonement” in Romans 5:11 is derived from the root word καταλλαγη, which literally means “reconciliation.” But this same word is also used in Romans 11:15 and 2 Cor. 5:19 (“the reconciling of the world,” or “reconciliation,” as the NIV puts it). In addition, the word atonement did not become an English word until the early 16th century.
Other related words for atonement include ιλαστηριον, which is translated variously in the King James Bible. This word is used in Romans 3:25 (Jesus is a “propitiation through faith in his blood”), Hebrews 2:17 (Jesus makes “reconciliation for the sins of the people”), and Hebrews 9:5, which refers to the “mercy seat” of Christ in reference to the Old Testament place of the atonement involving the High Priest. Packer is correct that the Old Testament uses the word atonement a dozen or so times, especially in the Pentateuch, as the Law demands punishment for everyone who is guilty. Yet it is clear that there is more than one New Testament passage reflecting the idea of the atonement of Christ.
If using the word atonement only once is really a biblical detriment, perhaps the apostle can explain why Joseph Smith’s “Inspired Version” follows the same pattern as the King James Version. If this is really an example of corruption, why didn’t Smith correct the problem? Since the Inspired Version is quoted several times in this issue, one might think that this point was conveniently ignored.
Finally, the fact that the Book of Mormon uses the word atonement thirty-nine times versus once in the King James Version—as pointed out by Packer—is truly meaningless, even if it were true. After all, if a certain word is found more times in one book compared to another, should this mean this book is automatically superior? If so, then I suggest Mr. Packer look up the word Jesus in both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon to see which one lists this name more often. Actually, there are almost a thousand times Jesus’ name is used by the New Testament writers, three times more than what is found in the Book of Mormon, which is prominently advertised as “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” Yet if someone suggested that this meant the Bible is more accurate about Jesus than the Book of Mormon, wouldn’t the Mormon have a right to protest? Absolutely!
In another article (“The Atonement of Jesus Christ,” pp. 32-38), Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland writes:
“The Atonement was the foreordained but voluntary act of the Only Begotten Son of God in which He offered His life and spiritual anguish as a redeeming ransom for the effect of the Fall of Adam upon all mankind and for the personal sins of all who repent.”
Such language has led some Christians to assume that the LDS version of the atonement of Christ sounds just like evangelical Christianity. Yet Seventy Bruce C. Hafen explained to an April 2004 General Conference audience that there are important differences:
“….some of our friends can’t see how our Atonement beliefs relate to our beliefs about becoming more like our Heavenly Father. Others mistakenly think our Church is moving toward an understanding of the relationship between grace and works that draws on Protestant teachings. Such misconceptions prompt me to consider today the Restoration’s unique Atonement doctrine” (“The Atonement: All for All,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2004, p. 97, emphasis his).
Indeed, a careful reader who understands the basic concept of Mormonism should be able to detect in Holland’s article how the Mormon Jesus’ atoning power is not all sufficient. He writes on page 35:
“…while all members of the human family are freely given a reprieve from Adam’s sin through no effort of their own, they are not given a reprieve from their own sins unless they pledge faith in Christ, repent of those sins, are baptized in His name, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost and confirmation into Christ’s Church, and press forward in faithful endurance the remainder of life’s journey.”
In other words, while the atonement is called a “gift” earlier in the article, the Mormon version of atonement requires full effort of an individual in order to receive forgiveness of sins. This, however, is certainly not a gift at all but a wage for a job that is literally impossible for any human to ever accomplish (Rom. 4:4).
Again, it is evident that most non-Mormon lay readers of this issue of the Ensign will fail to grasp how diametrically opposed Mormonism and biblical Christianity really are when it comes to the doctrine of Jesus Christ and the atonement. Obviously, LDS leaders are not attempting to pass a $30 bill. Instead, what they are offering to an unsuspecting public what looks and feels like the genuine $20 bill, so the only way to detect its authenticity is putting it to the test, as 1 Thessalonians 5:21 and 1 John 4:1 say we must do. Since the Mormon Christ is, as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 11:4, “another Jesus” making up “another gospel,” believing in a counterfeit version of Him just will not do.