Deseret Book, 2000
Reviewed by Eric Johnson
In his book titled The Infinite Atonement, Tad R. Callister—a lawyer for 34 years who served in the LDS Presidency of the Seventy until he was honorably released from the position in 2014 and who currently serves as the Sunday School general president—wrote a best-selling book that remains very popular today. Based on the more than four hundred reviews found on Amazon.com, with more than 90% rating it as “5-star,” The Infinite Atonement has brought encouragement to LDS readers for close to two decades.
For instance, “D.L.” wrote,
I’ve read this book twice and I can’t believe how many questions it has answered for me. It answered questions that have been in the back of my mind for years. This is not a book you can read cover to cover in a couple days and digest it all. It is deep and simple at the same time. It should be essential reading for any and every Christian!
Another reader wrote,
This book has completely transformed my husband and changed his heart. He struggled with pornography for 20 years and is a completely different person. He has spiritually awakened and now he’s the spiritual leader in our home! I’m reading the book next!
After reading The Infinite Atonement and going through it a second time, I would agree with “D.L.” that this is not a book that can be read and digested in a couple of days. And I’m not surprised that this book had such an impact on the woman’s spouse, as we will see why a little later in this review. However, I believe that what Tad Callister has to offer is traditional Mormonism dressed up in the best way possible as he attempts to show off the “best” of the religion. But, as they say, you can put lipstick on a pig but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a pig.
Let’s take a closer look at what Callister writes and see if what he offers anything different that the stern “keep-all-the-commandments” message that has been offered by LDS Church leaders for so many years.
What does a Mormon mean by the “Atonement”?
On page 2, Callister writes, “. . . the Atonement of Jesus Christ is the most supernal, mind-expanding, passionate doctrine this world or universe will ever know.” He also writes on page 4:
The Atonement of Jesus Christ outweighs, surpasses, and transcends every other mortal event, every new discovery, and every acquisition of knowledge, for without the Atonement all else in life is meaningless.
At face value, evangelical Christians can agree with him 1000 percent! The atonement of Jesus Christ means so much for the Christian believer. However, while Christians and Mormons both use the word atonement, two different meanings are given to the same term. In other words, just because Mormons believe in the “atonement” doesn’t mean they grasp the biblical understanding of this important teaching. Consider the following exchange between a Christian and a Mormon who are strangers to each other in a dialogue that I am borrowing from my friend Corey Miller:
Christian: “Let me ask you a personal question. Do you have a mom?”
Mormon: “Yes, of course.”
Christian: “I do too! Can you spell that?”
Mormon: “Ummm . . . M.O.M.”
Christian: “No way! I spell it the same way. Maybe we have the same mom? Can you spell it backward?”
Christian: “Surely we have the same mom because it is spelled the same!”
Just because a Christian and Mormon use the same term does not mean that both people understand it the same way. Let’s take a closer look at what it means in a biblical sense.
The word atonement comes from the Old Testament and can be found throughout the Pentateuch. The Jews acknowledged the Day of Atonement on the tenth day of the seventh month with fasting and humiliation as the nation sought forgiveness of their sins. It was a reminder that sinful humans do not have the ability to appease God on their own. According to Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Encyclopedia,
The high priest who officiated on this day first sanctified himself by taking a ceremonial bath and putting on white garments (Lev. 16:4). Then he had to make atonement for himself and other priests by sacrificing a bullock (Num. 29:8). God was enthroned on the Mercy Seat in the sanctuary, but no person could approach it except through the mediation of the high priest, who offered the blood of sacrifice. After sacrificing a bullock, the high priest chose a goat for sin-offering and sacrificed it. Then he sprinkled its blood on and about the mercy seat (Lev. 16:12, 14, 15). Finally the scapegoat bearing the sins of the people was sent into the wilderness (Lev. 16:20-22). This scapegoat symbolized the pardon for sin brought through the sacrifice (Gal. 3:12; 2 Cor. 5:21) (p. 446).
According to the New Testament book of Hebrews, Jesus played the role of both the high priest as well as the sacrifice itself. Here are some of the characteristics detailed in the book:
4:14-15: Jesus is the great high priest, tempted but without sin
5:5-6: Jesus was appointed by the Father to be a high priest
7:1-28: Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek
8:1-7: Jesus is the priest of a better covenant
8:13: The old covenant was made obsolete
9:12: Jesus entered the holy place, not through blood of animals, but by His own blood
9:14: The blood of Jesus is capable of “purifying our conscience from dead works. . .”
9:25-28: Jesus offered once for all (sacrifice) “to put away sin”
10:12: Christ sat down at the right hand of the Father
10:14: His single offering “has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified”
10:17: Sins will be remembered no more
As the writer of Hebrews explained in chapter 11, it is only through faith that a person can be reconciled to an all-holy God. This appeasement came through the death of the sacrificial victim (in the Old Testament, the sacrificial animal; in the New Testament, Jesus). While Callister writes an entire book on the subject of the atonement, he seems to exhibit a lack of understanding of what the word means from a biblical point of view.
Missing the Boat and Landing in the Mud
As I read through the book, it was obvious that Callister was taking a flying leap from the pier in an Evel Knevel-like attempt to land in the boat, falling far short and landing directly in the mud surrounding the shore. Let’s see how.
- Mormonism teaches that there is no such thing as original sin and that the fall was necessary for people to become gods
Callister writes on page 24 that the atonement was meant “to provide the power necessary to exalt us to the status of a god (see D&C 76:69).” On page 36 he explains that Adam and Eve only disobeyed a “warning” and not a “commandment”:
Some people feel that the “command” not to partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was more a warning than a commandment, and thus, Adam and Eve purposefully “disobeyed” a lower law in order to fulfill a higher one.
Talk about twisting the scriptures! Second Nephi 2:25 in the Book of Mormons does say, “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” But what is the difference between a “command” and a “warning.” An example of a warning would be, “If you play in the street, you could be hit by a car.” A command, on the other hand, would be, “Don’t play in the street, or you might get hit by a car.”
In Genesis 3:3, Eve reported that God said, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.” This is not just a warning but a command. The result of the sin, as recorded by the apostle Paul in Romans 5, was “sin entered the world through of one man, and death through sin.” The command was disobeyed and the result was eternal death.
Then, on page 253 he says that “the Fall opened doors that had previously been sealed and eyes that had previously been shut.” And on page 41 he writes, “The Fall was not a tragic step backward; to the contrary, it was a painful but nonetheless giant step forward in our eternal journey. It was the springboard to our ascent.”Callister states on page 38, “Certainly God with his omniscience knew that Adam and Eve, of their own agency, would partake.” Just because God knows of something in advance doesn’t mean that the act was within His moral will. Amazingly, Callister even heaps praise on Adam and Eve on page 38 to show how he believes they
are to be commended, not condemned. Some day we will know the full stature of their nobility. If they consciously partook of the fruit, sufficiently understanding the consequences, we honor them. If they partook in innocence or were partially deceived, and thereafter learned the plan of salvation because of their obedience and faithfulness, which plan they thereafter taught with love and diligence to their prosperity, then again, we honor them.
I wonder if Adam and Eve would have agreed with the assessment that they had “nobility” worthy of honor for their direct disobedience to God. According to Callister, because Adam and Eve’s disobedience caused their eyes to be opened, this “enabled them to ‘[become] as Gods’ (Alma 12:31).” Of course, Callister places his chips on the authority of extra biblical scripture. He provides no support to show how the Bible teaches this. “Without modern scriptures,” he writes, “particularly the Book of Mormon it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to grasp many of the basic tenets of the Atonement.” He references 1 Nephi 13:39, 40 on page 15 and says the Bible “has had ‘many parts which are plain and most precious’ deleted from its original contents.” So it’s no wonder that Callister can cite fellow Mormon Robert J. Matthews and say,
“There is a prevailing idea that although the resurrection is free, only those who repent and obey the gospel will ever return to the presence of God. Those who adhere to this idea, however, seem to have missed a very essential point and fundamental concept of the Atonement, and this is that Jesus Christ has redeemed all mankind from all the consequences of the fall of Adam” (p. 46).
Callister also writes on page 49,
The scriptures clearly teach that the Atonement automatically rectifies all the effects of Adam’s transgressions, without any action on our part . . .
When he says “scriptures,” it certainly must be talking about the unique LDS scriptures and not the Bible, which disagrees with the idea that the fall was necessary for salvation. Consider this section in Romans 5 where Paul contrasts the act of Adam with the sacrifice made by Jesus:
Death in Adam, Life in Christ
12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
This passage does not even infer that the fall of humanity led to godhood for humanity. Instead, it describes painful consequences. According to Paul, sin and death came through the federal headship of one man, Adam. This one trespass brought condemnation to all men as “original” sin entered the world. Fortunately, Christians have a Savior, Jesus, who played the role of both the priest making the sacrifice as well as the sacrificial victim; it is through the blood that was shed at this event that allowed righteousness to be restored to all believers.
- Mormonism has traditionally taught that the atonement took place at the Garden of Gethsemane.
On page 3, Callister cites Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, who wrote,
The most transcendent event in his entire eternal existence, the most glorious single happening from creation’s dawn to eternity’s endless continuance, the crowing work of his infinite goodness—such took place in a garden called Gethsemane.
On page 122 Callister explains, “It seems appropriate that the place for this shedding of blood should be a garden called Gethsemane.” He continues on page 133:
Those who have belittled the Savior’s sacrifice as so superhuman feat, because others have been so crucified and died so “nobly,” have forgotten the moments in the Garden. The physical pain of the cross alone, when compared to the accumulated pain of the Garden and the cross, was a penlight to the sun. Perhaps the cross was chosen because the Savior wanted us to know he had endured man’s greatest form of inhumanity to man; but even the, such anguish was relatively insignificant when compared to the spiritual agony in the Garden . . . (p. 133)
A number of Mormon leaders have emphasized the Garden (rather than the cross) is the place where the blood of Jesus was shed for the atonement of all humans. Yet this doctrine regarding Gethsemane is not talked about at all in the “keystone” of the LDS religion, the Book of Mormon. On page 14, Callister cites thirteenth President Ezra Taft Benson who wrote,
Much of the Christian world today rejects the divinity of the Savior. They question His miraculous birth, His perfect life, and the reality of His glorious resurrection. The Book of Mormon teaches in plain and unmistakable terms about the truth of all of those. It also provides the doctrine of the Atonement. Truly, this divinely inspired book is a keystone in bearing witness to the world that Jesus is the Christ.
The church manual Gospel Principles reports, “The Savior atoned for our sins by suffering in Gethsemane and by giving His life on the cross. It is impossible for us to fully understand how He suffered for all of our sins. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the weight of our sins caused Him to feel such agony that He bled from every pore” (p. 61). While he acknowledged that Jesus would eventually go to the cross, President Joseph Fielding Smith implored,
I wish we could impress this fact upon the minds of every member of this Church: His great suffering occurred before he ever went to the cross. It was in the Garden of Gethsemane, so the scriptures tell us, that blood oozed from every pore of his body; and in the extreme agony of his soul, he cried to his Father. It was not the nails driven into his hands and feet. Now do not ask me how that was done because I do not know. Nobody knows. All we know is that in some way he took upon himself that extreme penalty. He took upon him our transgressions, and paid a price, a price of torment (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, p. 63).
Other leaders have taught about Gethsemane in a similar fashion, including:
- Seventy Wolfgang H. Paul, 2007: “It was there that the Savior paid the price for all the sorrows, sins, and transgressions of every human being who ever lived or ever will live. There He drank the bitter cup and suffered so that all who repent may not suffer” (Ensign, June 2007, p. 15).
- Seventy Lawrence E. Corbridge, 2008: “Jesus Christ entered a garden called Gethsemane, where He overcame sin for us. He took upon Himself our sins. He suffered the penalty of our wrongs. He paid the price of our education. I don’t know how He did what He did. I only know that He did and that because He did, you and I may be forgiven of our sins that we may be endowed with His power” (Ensign, November 2008, p. 35).
- President Russell M. Nelson, 2013: “Because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, all mankind—even as many as will—will be redeemed. The Savior began shedding His blood for all mankind not on the cross but in the Garden of Gethsemane. There He took upon Himself the weight of the sins of all who would ever live. Under that heavy load, He bled at every pore (see see D&C 19:18). The agony of the Atonement was completed on the cross at Calvary” (“The Mission and Ministry of Jesus Christ,” Ensign, April 2013, p. 35).
Notice that last statement where Nelson, the current president of the church, said it was the garden where Jesus “took upon Himself the weight of the sins of all who would ever live”! This idea makes the cross nothing more than an afterthought. Yet a garden atonement seems odd for a couple of reasons.
One, Paul always pointed to the cross where this event happened; never did he give any indication that the atonement was divided over two locations. In addition, the Bible only refers to the garden twice—never once in association with the atonement. Two, if Christ actually atoned for all of the sins of mankind in the garden, what would be left for Him to atone for on the cross?
In the chapter on the atonement found in our 2015 book Mormonism 101, Bill McKeever and I explained how the blood shed by Jesus on Calvary’s cross completed the atonement, while Mormonism clearly teaches that the Garden of Gethsemane is the place where the efficacious atonement took place. In effect, the cross almost seems to be an afterthought in Mormonism.
Evangelical Christianity affirms the divinity of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, His perfect life, and the resurrection. Yet not one mention of the Garden can be found anywhere in the Book of Mormon, even though the life of Jesus is described in many other places. This seems rather strange indeed.
- Mormonism teaches that Jesus died for everyone and His atonement is thus efficacious for all.
To come to this conclusion, Callister takes biblical verses out of context to make his point. For instance, on page 97 he cites 1 Peter 3:18, which says that Jesus “suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.” He points out how Jesus says in John 1:29 that “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” He also brings up unique LDS scripture to support his point.
While Callister does bring up verses such as 1 Peter 3:18 (“suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God”), it must be understood that the context of these passages is not talking about everyone getting “heavenly glory.” Generally, these epistles are written to believers, and the apostle is merely using first person pronouns to refer to them and him. It is true that everyone will receive a resurrection, the Bible says, but this will not be a pleasant experience for every person. According to John 5:29, there is a “resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” Jesus talks much about eternal judgement awaiting those who are not His sheep, calling them “goats.” In Matthew 25:46, he says, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” There is quite a contrast between the two judgments, as it does not appear that “eternal punishment” is anything anyone should look forward to in the next life.
Callister says that “the consequences of ‘original sin’ are temporary, since they were remedied by the Savior on an unconditional basis” (p. 49). On page 46 Callister quotes Robert J. Matthews who said,
There is a prevailing idea that although the resurrection is free, only those who repent and obey the gospel will ever return to the presence of God. Those who adhere to this idea, however, seem to have missed a very essential point. . . The scriptures teach that every person, saint or sinner, will return to the presence of God after the resurrection.
Under a section he titles “What does it mean to be saved by the atonement?” on pages 51 and 52, Callister lists four meanings of salvation:
- “First, all men, even the sons of perdition, will be resurrected and thus be saved from physical death. . . all men will be saved.”
- “All men, except the sons of perdition, will be saved in yet another way, namely, they will be resurrected with a glorified body and be assigned to a kingdom of glory. . . “
- Those who are not worthy will not be able to have “eternal seed, and they cannot become like God. Accordingly, they are saved only in a limited sense.”
- “To be saved in the fullest sense means to be exalted.”
According to Mormonism, exaltation, or eternal life, is qualifying for the celestial kingdom and being able to live as gods for eternity. For someone who reaches this state, “there is absolutely nothing that can stop this person’s progress. He or she may have eternal increase, create worlds without number, and become like God (D&C 132:19-20, 37)” (p. 52). Of course, this is all contingent on a person’s ability to keep the commandments continually. This LDS presupposition is why Callister mocks the Christian belief in salvation by faith alone as he writes on page 15:
For many, the beautiful and deep doctrine of the Atonement is summarily dismissed and placed on the back shelf with the facile response, “Just believe and be saved.”
When he uses the Bible, Callister takes verses out of context to make his point, as if merely citing the Bible (and yet using it wrongly!) ought to be persuasive. While there are some who call themselves “Christian” while believing in “universalism”—that is, a view that says everyone eventually receives a pass to heaven—the context of the scriptures he uses teaches that only those who are true believers in Christ have their sins forgiven. In John 10:27-30, Jesus said,
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.
- Obedience required for advancement
As the previous point says, the type of salvation every Mormon is supposed to strive for is exaltation (godhood) and celestial glory. Anything less is not the very best available to humans. What Christ’s atonement has accomplished, according to Callister, is really nothing more than the ability to repent. On page 184 he says, “The Savior ‘picks up’ part of the burden for those who do repent” (emphasis mine). It is obedience, pure and simple, that is required for “freedom,” as Callister writes on pages 258-260:
How then does the Lord propose to make us free? The answer is obedience. . . . As we obey God’s laws we receive increased knowledge of God’s plan, and with increased knowledge comes increased ability for freedom. . . Obedience also broadens the list of our choices. If we are not obedient we have no option to be baptized, no option to receive the priesthood, no option to be endowed or sealed in the temple, all of which are necessary in our transformation into the freest of all beings, namely, gods. . . . Obedience is one of the prime keys that unlock the power of godhood, bringing freedom in its fullest and grandest measure. (Ellipses mine)
Coming from a biblical worldview, the two words—“freedom” and “obedience”—tend to be self-refuting. After all, obedience has requirements, i.e. something must be done in order to receive the benefit (in this case, freedom). To try to cram these two words together in an attempt to make them fit is inconsistent. Consider the apostle Paul’s take on this issue in Galatians 3:
23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.
In the next chapter Paul writes in verses 3-5,
3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.
In Galatians 5:1, Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Notice his points:
- The law held all people captive and imprisoned them
- The law served as a guardian until Christ came
- The law is no longer our guardian
- Believers are adopted by Christ
- Therefore, we are no longer enslaved to the law, which required obedience
In Galatians 5:3-4, Paul add this:
3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.
Paul uses the work of circumcision, which would have been understood by his audience. But any number of words could be substituted to say the same thing. Let me remind you about what Callister said above:
Obedience also broadens the list of our choices. If we are not obedient we have no option to be baptized, no option to receive the priesthood, no option to be endowed or sealed in the temple, all of which are necessary in our transformation into the freest of all beings, namely, gods. . . . Obedience is one of the prime keys that unlock the power of godhood, bringing freedom in its fullest and grandest measure.
So, for circumcision that Paul mentions in Galatians, we can easily substitute the words provided by Callister: baptism, priesthood, and temple. These are all rituals or things that involve ritual. There is no freedom without performing these and then keep every other requirement demanded in Mormonism. Paul taught in Galatians 5:3 that “you were called to freedom, brothers,” a freedom that does not come by successful obedience to all of God’s commandments. The only thing that counts, he says in Galatians 6:15, is becoming “a new creation” through faith.
The atonement in Mormonism becomes efficacious by providing the “opportunity to repent.” On page 177, he writes, “With the Atonement, that cleansing can come—but only if we repent.” He cites Apostle Marion G. Romney to show how the atonement was only conditional and that “we must obey the law.” Citing LDS scripture, Callister explains on page 176,
While “the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance,” he has nonetheless promised, “he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven” (D&C 1:31-32).
Most Mormons find this passage troubling, yet Callister seems to cite it positively. If all that is necessary is to keep the commandments, then how many are required? (Mormons typically reply, “All of them.” Is this supposed to give a person assurance and peace?
True repentance, Callister says, must come with “broken hearts and contrite spirits.” He explains how “the Lord’s forgiveness is total and unconditional once we have repented.” Notice the time sequence. Repent and then you receive forgiveness of sins. On page 178 Callister writes:
It is a burning resolve to make amends with God at any cost. Such a change means “we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:2).
It is noble to want to do the right thing, but is it possible for God’s commandments to be kept all the time? Twelfth President Spencer W. Kimball said yes. Writing at the end of his classic work The Miracle of Forgiveness, he wrote:
The former transgressor must have reached a “point of no return” to sin wherein there is not merely a renunciation of the sin—where the sin becomes most distasteful to him and where the desire or urge to sin is cleared out of his life (pp. 354-355).
Like Kimball, Callister says that it is not enough to have good intentions or make honest attempts to do the right thing. He writes on page 180, “There cannot simultaneously be repentance and rationalization. Rationalization is the world’s answer to sin; repentance is the Lord’s.” Kimball also wrote,
Trying is not sufficient. Nor is repentance complete when one merely tries to abandon sin. . . . To try is weak, to do the best you can is not strong. You must always do better than you can (pp. 164-165, ellipsis mine).
Doing, not just trying, is the emphasis given by Callister. As he write on page 186,
True repentance requires an absolute forsaking. . . . “But for how long must I forsake?” comes the oft-repeated inquiry. “How long before my membership can be reinstated or I can be rebaptized?” The answer is always the same–when there is a mighty change of heart and a new mind to make the Lord’s will supreme in our lives, regardless of our own passionate desires–when there is an unequivocal resolve to put behind us our former ways. There is a measuring rod, but it is one primarily of attitude, not time. (p. 186, ellipsis mine).
Good intentions in Mormonism don’t mean anything unless there is obedience to the commandments.
Perfection and godhood
The goal in Mormonism is godhood, which is achieved through becoming as perfect as God. Callister explains on page 230,
Perhaps no doctrine, no teaching, no philosophy has stirred such controversy as has this—that man may become perfect as God is. It is a prime focus of anti-Mormon literature; it was the underlying motivation that caused the Jews, when confronting the Savior, to cry out, “For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God” (John 10:33). Ironically, godhood for his children is the crowning goal of the Savior’s atoning sacrifice.
He went on to say on that same page,
We live in a day when this glorious principle advocating man’s quest for godhood is being maligned and ridiculed. It is viewed by some as blasphemous, by others as absurd. Such a concept, they challenge, lowers God to the status of man and thus deprives God of both his dignity and divinity. Others claim this teaching to be devoid of scriptural support. “Certainly,” they say, “no God-fearing, right-thinking, Bible-oriented person would subscribe to such a philosophy as this”—and the attack goes on and on.
To support his case, Callister cites fifth LDS President Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet:
As man is, God once was;
As God is, man may be.
He then cites Snow’s own words to explain what was meant:
We were born in the image of God our Father; He begat us like unto Himself. There is the nature of Deity in the composition of our spiritual organization. In our spiritual birth, our Father transmitted to us the capabilities, powers and faculties which He possessed, as much so as the child on its mother’s bosom possesses, although in an undeveloped state, the faculties, powers and susceptibilities of its parent.
Callister expounds on this idea in chapter 21, which is titled “The Blessing of Exaltation.” He says on pages 238 and 239,
In truth, every man is a god in embryo, in fulfillment of that eternal law that like begets like. . . . Accordingly, the more we become like God, the greater our ability to pay him homage. In that process of lifting men heavenward, God simultaneously multiplies his own honor and thus is “honored more,”not less. (Ellipsis mine)
To support his point, Callister explains on page 231 that “the scriptures are replete with references to man’s potential for perfection and thus godhood.” Here are the verses he uses, with my short response to each:
- Genesis 17:1: An angel appeared to Abraham and said, “Walk before me, and be thou perfect.”
Response: Although the King James Version does use the word “perfect,” a better translation for this is “blameless,” which is used by both the English Standard Version and the New International Version. In chapter 15, God made a covenant with Moses by having His Spirit go through the animal carcasses; however, Abraham was not required to walk through these same carcasses, which was symbolic of what ought to happen if the covenant was broken. In the rest of chapter 17, God makes His covenant with Abraham that He would “make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee” (verse 6). The covenant was thus not based on Abraham keeping His side of the bargain but was a done deal based on the promise of the Lord.
- Matthew 5:48: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Callister writes, “The Savior’s soul-stirring and thought-provoking injunction to ‘be ye therefore perfect’ was more than the sounding of brass or tinkling of cymbals.”
Response: For more on this verse, visit “Is Perfection an Achievable Goal?”
- John 17:22-23: Jesus petitioned “that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one.”
Response: The NIV reads, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.” In the Greek, the word for “perfect” is a modifier to “unity” (lit: “they might be made complete in unity”) and has nothing to do with an individual becoming a god through keeping the commandments flawlessly. This is not a good reference to support a requirement for godhood.
- Ephesians 4:12-13: According to Callister, “Paul taught that a vital reason for the church was ‘for the perfecting of the saints, . . . till we all come . . . unto a perfect man, . . . unto the measure of the nature of the fulness of Christ.’” Callister adds, “The standard of perfection was not other men, nor angels, but Christ himself.”
Response: Again, the word for “perfect” in verse 13 is a reference to “completeness” and “mature,” not sinless perfection and godhood. The NIV reads “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” If perfection is what justified a person before God, then why did Paul need to write Ephesians 2:8-9, which says the believer’s standing before God is not based on good works but rather on grace?
- John 10:34: Jesus said, “’Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?’” “He was referring to his own Old Testament declaration, with which the Jews should have been familiar: ‘I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High’ (Psalm 82:6)” (p. 231).
Response: For more on this verse, click here. John 10:34: Ye are gods
- Acts 17:28: “The Savior was merely reaffirming a prophetic teaching that all men are children of God and thus might become like him. Paul understood this principle, for when speaking to the men of Athens he said: ‘Certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.’’’
Response: This passage has nothing to do with “all men are children of God” and the admonition that we are to “become like him.” In Acts 17:16-34, Paul addresses the philosophers and leaders of Greek gods and goddesses at Mars Hill in Athens. Instead of worshiping the “unknown God,” Paul explains in verse 23 that his desire is to share the Lord of heaven and earth. In order to make his point, he support himself using pagan writers, not scripture.
This makes sense because, in this context, these pagans had no desire to look up Old Testament passages that held no authority to them. Verse 29 reads, “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone–an image made by human design and skill.” Is this possibly a reference to the preexistence of human beings? The answer is “no” for several reasons.
First of all, Paul is not explaining that all humans came from a previous spirit world, but rather that everyone has been created for a purpose. Verses 26 and 27 say, “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”
Second, we must remember the context. Paul is doing his best to describe the simple gospel truth to men who were pagan at heart. He certainly is not wanting them to read into his words, and he provides no description of a premortal existence. Instead, his focus is on this “unknown God” and show how it’s possible to have a relationship with Him.
Third, there is no biblical proof (outside of selected proof texts like this) to support the notion that people existed as spirits in a previous life and that their birth was predicated on their behavior in this state. Such a teaching was neither advocated by the early Christian church nor by Christians throughout the centuries. This sounds more like an Eastern religious idea involving karma and reincarnation rather than anything having to do with Christianity.
- Romans 8:16-17: “Paul knew our potential as offspring for God, for while speaking to the Romans he declared, ‘The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.”
Response: The Bible says that the children of God are those adopted by faith. They are sinners who have trusted in Christ for their salvation. Just before the quoted passage above, Paul refers to these “children” as being “adopted,” and thus they are not by nature children (read by Mormonism as “spirits”) from a previous realm who were born into this world. Galatians 3:26 says, “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” John 1:12-13 says, “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Also see Gal. 4:5-6 and Ephesians 1:5.
Second, Christians reject the idea that “heirs of God” and “co-heirs of Christ” refers to exaltation. One Christian book refers to this as “an inheritance of all spiritual blessings in this life (Eph. 1:3), and all the riches of God’s glorious kingdom in the next life (1 Cor. 3:21-23)” (When Cultists Ask, 218). This type of salvation is referred to by Christians as “glorification.”
- 2 Timothy 2:12: “If we suffer, we shall also reign with him.” Callister writes, “The word reign suggests a kingdom, a dominion over which we will have rule. The words reign with him suggest a position of like power and rule.”
Response: This verse has nothing to do with people becoming gods of their own right. Instead, it refers to believers who have been not only justified but will also be glorified in heaven. Indeed, these glorified believers will rule with Christ. Paul said in Romans 8:28-30, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” It’s a done deal and a surety that Christians will reign with Christ.
On page 233, Callister says,
The critic, unable to understand, responds, “But such a concept lowers God to the status of man, and thus robs God of his divinity.” “To the contrary,” comes the reply, “does it not elevate man in his divine potential?” . . .
Citing Philippians 2:5-6 (“thought it not robbery to be equal with God”), Callister adds, “The Savior knew that for him to be a god would not rob God of his divinity . . . it is possible for us to become like God without robbing him of his divinity. That is good logic.”
Talk about taking a passage and making twisting it to make it say something that the original author never meant! By explaining how Jesus–being in “very nature God”– humbled Himself to become a man and die on the cross, Paul was explaining how Jesus did not give up His divinity when He took on His humanity. The hypostatic union says that Jesus is both fully God and fully man, so in essence, Jesus never lost His deity even if He limited His deity (“emptied,” the Greek word “kenosis”) to do so. This had nothing to do with God the Father not being threatened to allow others to have divinity.
“Saved by grace after all we can do”
Callister likens salvation to a synchronistic partnership between God and man. He wrote on page 310:
When the lifeguard stretches out a pole to the drowning swimmer, the swimmer must reach out and hold on if he desires to be rescued. Both the lifeguard and the swimmer must fully participate if the swimmer’s life is to be saved. Likewise, works and grace are not opposing doctrines, as is so often portrayed. To the contrary, they are indispensable partners in the process of exaltation.
Callister then recounts a famous story told by Stephen E. Robinson who related how his young daughter had only 61 cents to purchase a bike that cost much more. Seeing how her resources fell far short, Robinson told her, “I’ll tell you what, dear. Let’s try a different arrangement. You give me everything you’ve got, the whole sixty-one cents, and a hug and a kiss, and this bike is yours.” Using that 61-cent contribution, Robinson purchased the bike. Callister writes,
The bicycle was certainly not totally earned by the young girl, but nonetheless, it was gladly given by a father who recognized she had given her all. This is the spirit in which Nephi counseled, “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). In other words, we contribute to our salvation, but we do not earn it. . . Thus works alone cannot save us; grace is an absolute prerequisite. But a certain amount of works (i.e., the best we have to offer) are necessary to trigger God’s grace and mercy. No matter how hard we work, how diligently we serve, or how righteously we live, we will never deserve more than we receive. (ellipsis mine)
In chapter 23 titled “The Blessings of Grace,” Callister writes,
How are we able to receive of grace’s cleansing powers, or peace, or succor, or freedom? How does the perfection and exaltation of an imperfect being come about? Nephi gave the answer: “We know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). This might have read, “We know that it is by grace that we are exalted, after all we can do.” Some have misunderstood this scripture, supposed that the Atonement provides the cleansing power, while our works alone provide the perfecting power; thus, working hand in hand, exaltation is achieved. But such an interpretation is not correct. It is true that the Atonement provides the cleansing power. It is also true that works are a necessary ingredient of the perfecting process. But without the Atonement, without grace, without the power of Christ, all the works in the world would fall far short of perfecting even one human being. Works must be coupled with grace both to perfect and to cleanse a person unto exaltation. In other words, grace is not only necessary to cleanse us but also to perfect us.
He uses the phrase “enabling power,” adding,
In essence, grace is a gift of divine power, made possible by the Atonement, that can transform a mere mortal with all his failings into a god with all his strengths—provided we have done “all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). . . . The divine principle to be learned is this: that God will use his heavenly powers to exalt us, but only if we have done all within our power to accomplish that end. (ellipsis mine)
In other words, Callister wants to make sure the reader understands that nothing can take place without the atonement and grace (i.e., resurrection to one of three kingdoms of glory, the possibility to attaining the celestial kingdom, etc.), but that the atonement and grace do not stand on their own. Rather, these require good works. As he wrote, “only if we have done all within our power to accomplish that end.” But notice the inconsistency when he says 2 Nephi 25:23 really means “it is by grace we are exalted, after all we can do.” He substitutes “exalted” for “grace.” This is not the “amazing grace” that John Newton writes about or what Christians believe the word means.
On page 265 Callister went on to say that “when we have reached our limits, when we have asserted all our mental, moral, and spiritual energies, then the power of heaven will intervene.” There are critical deficiencies by suggesting that “we do our best and Jesus pays the rest,” including:
- According to the parable of the bicycle, as told by Robinson above, the daughter made a partial payment, with 61 cents, a kiss, and a hug. Because he received what he asked for, as little as it might seem, Robinson cannot say that he gave his daughter a “gift.” Call him a bad bargainer or a very generous man, but Robinson should not consider the bike as a gift he had given because he received something in return. A gift is something that is given with no strings attached. There can be no expectations when giving a gift rather than somehow making an exchange. A paycheck is not a gift but a payment for the work that we done. In the same way, making payment with 61 cents and a hug and a kiss is the exchange.
- Jesus paid everything for the Christian’s justification, as Romans 3:28 says the believer is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. Ephesians 2:8-9 says grace cannot be earned by works or someone could boast (i.e., the girl could say, “But daddy, I earned this bike with my money, the kiss, and the hug.”) First Peter 1:18-19 says that Jesus paid for the believer’s salvation through His blood, while 1 Corinthians 7:23 says believers were bought with a price. Galatians 3:13 adds that Jesus had to become a curse.
- Even the faith the Christian has in God is not something conjured up but is rather a work of God. As Jesus explained in John 6:29, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” Believers cannot even take the credit for believing in their faith!
- What exactly does it mean that a person has “asserted all mental, moral, and spiritual energies”? Obviously, effort is required and the gift is not able to stand on its own.
Remember, Callister wrote on page 180 that “there cannot simultaneously be repentance and rationalization. Rationalization is the world’s answer to sin; repentance is the Lord’s.” But isn’t that all that is left when a person is unable to do what 1 Nephi 3:7 says he is capable of doing, that is, keep God’s commandments? “I have gone as far as I can,” the Mormon might claim, “so now it’s time for God to take over.” After all, that Mormon has done everything in his or her might to quit smoking and pay an honest tithe, but it wasn’t quite enough. Isn’t that when God’s grace takes over?
Imagine if such a person went to the bishop and tried to get a temple recommend. What would the average bishop say? The recommend would surely be withheld because of the breaking of the Word of Wisdom and tithing laws despite the person’s best efforts! Who has been able to do everything humanly possible to conquer the sin is his or her life? Spencer W. Kimball wrote:
The gospel is a program of action—of doing things. . . . Eternal life hangs in the balance awaiting the works of men. This progress toward eternal life is a matter of achieving perfection. Living all the commandments guarantees total forgiveness of sins and assures one of exaltation through that perfection which comes by complying with the formula the Lord gave us. In his Sermon on the Mount he made the command to all men: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48.) Being perfect means to triumph over sin. This is a mandate from the Lord. He is just and wise and kind. He would never require anything from his children which was not for their benefit and which was not attainable. Perfection therefore is an achievable goal (The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 208-209).
Citing Mathew 5:48, Kimball also said on page 286 that “we are commanded to be supermen. . . We are gods in embryo, and the Lord demands perfection of us.” And so, the question remains for the honest Latter-day Saint, have you done all you can do? Are you doing all you can do? Will you ever be able to do all you can do?
Callister writes on page 296,
An integral part of the temple experience is the making of covenants. Why? Because faithful observance of those covenants can help to bring about the broken heart and contrite spirit that allow us to more fully enjoy the infinite blessings of the Atonement. . . Temples are designed to endow us with power so as to enable us to return to God’s presence and be like him.
Each Sunday a Latter-day Saint is supposed to renew his baptismal covenants and promise to keep the commandments. As mentioned by Callister, these promises are also made in the temple ceremonies. How many Latter-day Saints break their promises? Well, they all do, or they would not be repenting each Sunday! It’s an endless cycle.
Is it possible to not fail at keeping God’s commandments? While it appeared that Callister was budging on this, what he writes on page 301 shows clearly that there is no way around it. Referring to Jesus who “observed every spiritual law with undeviating exactness,” Callister explains on pages 301 and 302,
But what of the rest of us, who do not comply with each and every immutable law? Could we not just try and try, and try again until we finally got it right, and then become gods, even though it might be on a delayed timetable? The answer is no. Evidently these immutable spiritual laws offer no leniency or mercy or second chances. If we do not comply, we have lost forever that opportunity for increased power that naturally flows from compliance.
Then he writes this straightforward paragraph on page 302:
If someone falls from an airplane, he will plummet to the ground. The law of gravity will not change to accommodate his dire circumstances. There will be no slowing of the descent or softening of the earth to cushion the fall, however good a fellow he may be. He cannot say just before impact, “Let me take that last step one more time.” No, there is only the automatic application of the law, hard and fast and uncompromising. Why does it work this way? There is no answer to that question. It is like asking, “Why does matter exist?” or “Why is the sky endless?” “Why” is not a question that can be asked of something that was never created. It exists because it exists.
Concerning the “immutable laws of the universe,” Callister cites Apostle Erastus Snow on page 303 as saying that “no atonement of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ can alter that eternal law, any more than he can make two and two to mean sixteen.”
On pages 316 and 317, Callister retells Boyd K. Packer’s story of the Parable of the Debtor. According to the fictional story, a man had a friend who owed someone money he could not pay. So this friend told the creditor, “I will pay the debt if you will free the debtor from going to prison.” The creditor agreed. So this friend said, “If I pay your debt, will you accept me as your creditor?” The debtor was glad and agreed. As Packer explained, “The debtor, in turn, had been extended mercy. Both laws stood fulfilled. Because there was a mediator, justice had claimed its full share and mercy was fully satisfied.”
Or was it? After all, while the friend did pay the debt, the obligation of that original debt did not go away. Instead, it was merely refinanced. In the footnote, Callister references D&C 82:7, which says, “Go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return” (D&C 82:7). Callister, who is a lawyer, refers to a “well-known principle referred to as a ‘condition subsequent.’ It means that a contract may be retroactively nullified.” He then explains on page 332,
Consistent with this legal theory, the Lord could say, “I have paid your debt and you are now clean, but this contract has a condition subsequent, namely, if you later engage in the same sin, then that cleansing is retroactively nullified.” In other words, Christ paid the price for our sins, but the cleansing is permanent only if we do not return to our former state. Such a legal interpretation is consistent with the scriptural proposition that Christ’s suffering paid the debt created by our sins.
How different from the God as described in the Bible! Yes, there are laws. Justice demands that sinners receive punishment. Despite the requirement that “the wages of sin is death” as described in the first part of Romans 6:23, there is a second part to that verse: “But the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is not a “bending” of the rules but a complete transformation. Yes, sin deserves punishment, but what if Someone could take the punishment? Isn’t that what Jesus did. After all, while we Christians were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 3:28).
Many Mormons are apparently enthralled by The Infinite Atonement. Honestly, the title sounds very convincing and loving. Yet, when the author’s points are taken for what he really means in light of the Gospel message of Mormonism, it is clear that the atonement is not a full payment for the sins of a believer. Instead, there is a joint agreement—a contract, if you will—that a person will fully receive the atonement if the works are enough to eventually pay the debt. Such a concept misunderstands the overall message of the Bible, as Titus 3:5 says, Jesus “saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.”
In my mind, Tad Callister and Spencer W. Kimball (The Miracle of Forgiveness) are in complete agreement. If they are correct, there is no ability for anyone to have their sins forgiven. What a hopeless Gospel that is! After all, what good is an “infinite atonement” if nobody is able to fulfill the requirements? Thankfully, the type of “infinite atonement” described by Callister and Kimball is not the same gospel as what is described in the Bible.