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Book Review: Starting at the Finish Line: The Gospel of Grace for Mormons

By John B. Wallace

Pomona House Publishing, 2014

Reviewed bEric Johnson 

Listen to Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson talk about the book on the August 19-22, 2014 episodes of Viewpoint on Mormonism: Part 1  Part 2  Part 3 

In the world of Christian apologetics to the LDS community exists a number of books written from several different angles. For example, the resources that have been authored by Bill McKeever and me (Answering Mormons’ Questions (Kregel 2013), Questions to Ask Your Mormon Friends (Bethany House 1994), and Mormonism 101 (Baker 2015)) are primarily aimed at Christians who desire easy-to-understand information about the teachings of the Mormon religion. (Of course, we knew Mormons and non-Christians would also buy these books, but our biggest retail outlets—Christian bookstores and Internet companies—are not often frequented by these audiences.) In each work, we liberally quote the church’s authorities and manuals to support our case. While some Mormons may disagree with their church’s leadership, we must ask who best understands the teachings of this religion: the laity or the church authorities? In the minds of Thomas S. Monson, the First Presidency, and the Apostles, the answer seems obvious. To refer to “Mormon doctrine,” then, means understanding what the leaders in Salt Lake City teach.

For author John B. Wallace, the target audience for Starting at the Finish Line is clearly marked throughout: those who are current believers in his former religion. Wallace, who is a practicing dentist in Southern California, hopes to reach out to “transitioning Mormons,” the “primary focus of his personal ministry.” Thus, his book aims to communicate with Latter-day Saints in a way that they can understand as delineated by someone familiar with their situation and worldview. Among the sections of his book are “a defense of the Bible,” “grace plus works,” and “a new creation.” He doesn’t focus excessive attention with LDS sources, as it appears he assumes that most Mormons already know what they believe. His aim, then, is contrasting LDS doctrine with the Bible and showing how Mormonism cannot be assumed to be synonymous with Christianity.

In chapter 2 titled “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not,” Wallace sets up a fair argument to his LDS readers when he writes,

“My advice to the Mormon church, not that anyone has asked me for it, would be this: make up your mind about the reliability of the Bible. Either embrace it as the infallible, inspired Word of God (as the rest of the Christian world has) or just chuck it once and for all. Your prophet already declared that the Bible is not the keystone of your religion. He’s given you ample cover to just focus your teachings on the Book of Mormon. After all, when you have the ‘most correct of any book on earth’ in your canon, why even trifle with anything of lesser value? It makes no sense. It would be like owning a Ferrari and yet driving around in your old clunker.” (p. 17)

Excellent point.

In his chapter titled “I am undone,” Wallace refers to the doctrine of preexistence in his direct address to Latter-day Saints:

“You chose Christ as Savior before this world ever was. Therefore, in order to enter into the lowest level of glory, you never have to choose Him again. To the Christian, this doctrine not only appears to breed complacency, but also it is dangerous. You see, if a Mormon missionary and an evangelical Christian missionary were evangelizing a lying, whore mongering adulterer who refused to come to faith in Christ, who would feel the most urgency to bring this fellow to the truth? Clearly the Christian missionary, because if this man doesn’t come to saving faith in Christ, he will suffer eternal anguish, separated from God forever, where there is ‘weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth’ (Mt. 13:49-50). If the Mormon missionary fails to persuade this fellow, the very worst thing that will happen to him, according to LDS theology, is eternal separation from the Father but in a kingdom of glory that’s still pretty comfortable—no weeping, wailing, or gnashing of teeth.” (p. 48)

He adds,

“To my LDS reader who wonders why a Christian co-worker or classmate always seems to be against you, or at least against the doctrines of Mormonism, this is one of the doctrines that serves as a Christian’s call to action. Can you begin to see why?”

It’s a great point. Hopefully the LDS reader will understand why Wallace (and we at MRM) take our responsibility very seriously. We do not attempt to condemn the Latter-day Saints; instead, we desire to warn this precious people about the potential consequences if biblical Christianity, not Mormonism, is true. Because so much is at stake, full consideration of the different possibilities is necessary.

The strongest part of Starting at the Finish Line is Wallace’s explanation of salvation covered in multiple chapters. On page 54, he hits the nail on the head when he explains a common LDS mentality concerning the perceived role the individual has in salvation:

“When I was LDS, I never viewed myself as weak, helpless or desperate; quite the contrary. God had given me certain gifts and, along with will-power and determination, I was going to ‘prove my worthiness to return to live with Heavenly Father.’ Isn’t that what we’re here on earth to do? For me, having tangible things that I could check off my list—home teaching, tithing, word of wisdom, temple attendance—provided me with a sense of accomplishment and at least relative worthiness. Me, a hopeless sinner? No way. I had far too many things in my ‘good boy’ box to ever raise suspicions, even to myself, that I was actually a vile sinner in desperate need of a Savior. Looking back now, LDS church meetings seemed more like swimming lessons to me than life preservation.”

Wallace understands the typical LDS mindset that struggles between grace and the good works claimed by the Mormon Church leaders as necessary to inherit the celestial kingdom. He explains on page 106:

“What if I do have to be in church every Sunday, pay my tithing, and do my genealogy? For years, I did what a lot of former Mormons do; I hedged my bets. I wanted to trust that Jesus did it all, but it just seemed too easy. So I made sure I was in church every Sunday, and I attached value to my church attendance. I tithed to my church, and I attached value to that act of obedience (that was an easy one because I could literally attach a monetary value to my offering). I did nice things for people, hoping God was taking notice, and you guessed it, I attached value to those acts of kindness too. I figured God surely would approve of me more for doing those things. Right? Actually, no.”

The best illustration in the entire book comes on pages 108-109. According to his story, an attorney knocked on a couple’s door and invited them to take a limousine ride to a huge mansion, complete “with beautiful landscaping and custom stonework.” The lawyer explained that the couple was being given the house by the wealthy Uncle Fred. Then comes the kicker:

“Before they enter the house, however, the attorney asks if they would just take a moment to sign some documents, loan documents to be exact. . . The celebration comes to a screeching half. . . .Suddenly it becomes clear that what Uncle Fred did was make the down payment on the house; he hadn’t purchased it outright. And although this down payment was incredibly generous in its own right, it left Kyle and Shannon with a crushing monthly obligation. . . . And this, for practical purposes, is the Mormon version of salvation.” (p. 109)

Referring to the title of the book, he writes on page 111:

“Christianity is the only religion (although I hate to use that word) that starts at the finish line. Salvation is guaranteed up front! And every bit of obedience and good work flows from that salvation as opposed to the LDS teaching, which is that obedience and good works are necessary for salvation.”

Throughout the book, Wallace quotes from historical stand-by LDS works such as Spencer W. Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness, Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine, and Joseph Fielding Smith’s Doctrines of Salvation. However, these are not his typical go-to sources. Instead, citations from the Bible are littered throughout for support, which is done very well. In addition, bits and pieces of this former Mormon’s personal testimony are given, including this description on page 55:

“This is a good time to ask yourself what kind of swimmer you are. Do you recognize the perils of the rough waters and immediately reach for the life preserver? Or do you swim yourself to the point of exhaustion, refusing to swallow your pride and grab hold of the one thing that will save you? I was definitely the latter. For close to forty years, I swam my heart out, thinking I really could make it to the shore. Finally, in 2004, I broke. I came to realize that I was never going to be good enough to please God or be worthy of His glory. I finally grabbed hold of the life preserver, and I haven’t let go, not even for a minute. I was the Pharisee. Now, I am the tax collector. Which one do you most closely resemble?”

Again, the strength of Wallace’s writing comes from his understanding the Mormon mindset, as he lived with this prevailing worldview for decades. Regarding the cross—certainly a topic of disdain for many Latter-day Saints—he writes on page 74:

“Do you find yourself being moved to tears when you contemplate Jesus suffering on the cross? Do you find yourself wanting to jump for joy as you accept the fact that because of His suffering, the law no longer condemns you? Maybe it takes a naturally arrogant, lustful, rebellious wretch like me to fully appreciate the promise of Colossians 2. Maybe the ultra ‘goody good’ isn’t particularly moved by this. I’ll never know. It is funny, though, how none of the pages of my old Book of Mormon are stained with tears. And certainly no part of my Doctrine & Covenants or Pearl of Great Price is. But now, every day of my life I find myself crying out, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you, Jesus, for taking my place on the cross.’”

There were only a couple of issues that I had with Wallace’s book. One, I think several of his friends may have been harsh with the book’s original draft (which I was not privy to see) by apparently claiming it was originally too heavy handed. He writes in the acknowledgment page that “John Morehead and Kim Keller” encouraged him to “tone down the rhetoric a notch or two.” Honestly, Wallace was so very nice and even soft-spoken at times that, even if he just notched the “rhetoric” up to double or triple its current ratio, I can’t see how this could possibly have been offensive to even the most sensitive Mormon. For example, speaking on the topic of “The Sufficiency of the Blood,” Wallace writes:

“Perhaps some of my LDS readers are feeling right about now that I’ve broken my promise that this book would not be a prosecution of Mormonism. I can understand why you might feel this way. But some teachings are so serious that they must be exposed, evaluated on their merits, and dealt with accordingly. I cannot stand by and allow for a doctrine that devalues the blood of Jesus and then assigned value (any value, let alone atoning value) to the blood of a sinner. I’m asking you, my LDS reader, to give serious consideration to this unique doctrine of blood atonement and ask yourself if you can, in good conscience, belong to a church that teaches it or has ever taught it. Please see for what it clearly is: a dangerous rejection of the sufficiency of the cross.” (p. 82)

On page 97, he writes,

“The fact is, you have never been righteous, and you never will be, not when held up to the standard of God’s righteousness. I know, tough love, but it’s true.”

There appears to be no harshness (“rhetoric”?) in the presentation at all. In fact, I felt kindness throughout. It seems obvious that the author is someone who is very tender and could be considered guilty of anything more than having an incredible concern for his people. I just don’t believe that anyone could ever accuse the author of being “anti-Mormon” or mean-spirited.

An improvement for the next edition would be to add a Works Cited/Bibliography section to provide more information regarding the cited resources. (Typically, just the author’s name and the title of the book with the corresponding page number(s) is provided.) Not having the complete details of these can be frustrating for those who, like myself, don’t want to look up titles on but want to know the year of publication as well as the publisher. (Being required to do our own works is more effort than what the readers should have to exert.) In addition, several of the resources in the New Testament section—though fine when they were written—are now outdated, including works written by John Warwick Montgomery, William F. Albright, and F.F. Bruce.

Although these scholars provided good information in the earlier part of the 20th century, the most up-to-date information and numbers should be provided. Wallace encourages readers to do their own Internet research on important manuscripts such as Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, but if a chapter is going to be titled “The New Testament,” perhaps a little more information on these important topics is necessary, even if it’s in an abbreviated form. And while we’re making requests, perhaps a scriptural index at the back of the book would be nice.

I did have an issue with the final chapter titled “Secure in Our Salvation.” Wallace refers to Calvinism, which he says “teaches ‘once saved, always saved.” To describe this, he writes,

“Most teachers of the Bible today, my pastor included, teach eternal security for the faithful. Since we are saved by grace through faith in Christ, the only way we could ever lose our salvation would be if we lost our faith in Christ as Savior.” (pp. 186-187)

What Wallace has written certainly doesn’t fit under Calvinism’s “once saved, always saved” teaching; instead, these words reflect an Arminian position, which states that the security of the soul is “eternal” as long as the person remains faithful. If the person walks away, it is believed that salvation is lost. Traditionally, “perseverance of the soul,” or “eternal security,” means that a person who becomes a Christian will stay with the faith because the Holy Spirit has entered into relationship with the individual. Just like initial salvation (justification), a person becomes a believer based on God’s initial choice. Hence, nobody is “smart enough” to choose God.

What is even more confusing is that the very verses cited by Calvinists are used in the following paragraphs. For example, Wallace quotes Romans 8, which says “who will separate us from the love of Christ.” He then writes, “Nothing, absolutely nothing, separates me from Him once I truly belong to Him.” (p. 187) John 10 is also quoted (“no one will snatch them out of my hand”), with the following analysis at the bottom of page 187:

“No one steals us away from Him (or His Father) once we truly belong to Him. . . . He knows His sheep; we’re the ones that hear Him and follow Him. We believe, repent, receive, abide, and endure.”

If nothing else, the author confuses the reader on what  is meant by “eternal security.” Does he mean that those once-saved individuals who were once regenerated can lose their “eternal” standing by recanting their initial decision? Or does he believe that while it’s a logical possibility that those who were “once saved” could leave the sheep pen, such an event would certainly never happen? I’m not sure.  However, if Wallace indeed holds that a person is “eternally saved” until he or she decides to leave the fold, then the term eternal is a misnomer and cannot have any significance in this conversation. After all, how is it possible for someone to have “eternal” salvation one minute but not the next? Honestly, a more careful analysis by the author needs to be provided so that confusion does not reign, at least in this reader’s mind.

Finally, at least three extensive quotes from several books written by Shawn McCraney are provided in different sections of the book. While I don’t want to go into too much detail here, let it be known that there has been controversy with McCraney’s teaching and his recent outright denials of the Christian Godhead (i.e. the Trinity). For future editions I might recommend refraining from quoting someone who, though he certainly originated in the Calvary Chapel movement (note: Wallace attends a Calvary Chapel in California), strongly disagrees with a fundamental teaching of his former denomination.

Despite these complaints, please know that Starting at the Finish Line remains a highly recommended resource, especially for those Latter-day Saints who are willing to listen to a well-reasoned tome about the differences between Mormonism and the Bible. I especially recommend the book to Latter-day Saints who want to know why anyone ought to consider leaving Zion for Evangelical Christianity.

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