by Michael Flournoy
I was born and raised in the Mormon church, served a mission in Anaheim California, and was married in the San Antonio Temple. In 2012 I began a “career” in LDS apologetics when I published a book entitled, “A Biblical Defense of Mormonism.” The book is no longer on the market, but to this day you can find old podcasts of me defending the Mormon church.1 In my mind, Mormonism was 100% true.
Then I heard the impossible gospel argument, which is based on the conditional statements in 2 Nephi 25:23 and Moroni 10:32.2
“For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”
— 2 Nephi 25:23
“Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind, and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.”
— Moroni 10:32
The impossible gospel argument says these verses teach that grace is only available after the beneficiary has extended every ounce of effort he can muster. According to the Moroni verse, all ungodliness has to be denied before grace becomes sufficient, therefore, according to Mormonism, grace is only for the perfect who don’t need it. The obvious dilemma is nobody’s perfect. I’m not perfect, and you’re not perfect. If you were, there would be no need to take the sacrament. The very act of taking it, is an admission that we have sinned and need to do better. Unfortunately, the Mormon church makes Christ’s admonition to be perfect seem like an attainable goal, when in reality 1 John 1:8 says: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
The impossible gospel argument really got me thinking about how grace works. In Mormonism grace is an enabling power, that strengthens us to overcome our weaknesses little by little. In theory, we might start the week with sins A and B, and if we resolve problem B, we’ll only have A left, and we’ll be that much closer to perfection. Reality, however, is far different. What I noticed, is I might solve sin B, but by the next week I had committed sins C, D, and F. If I stepped back and looked at my life, it wasn’t the stairway to heaven that Mormonism promotes, but rather a roller coaster of highs and lows.
Not one person I knew had denied themselves of all ungodliness. Not one. And being particularly weak myself, I knew that I wasn’t going to be the first normal person to do it. Then something clicked. I stopped thinking “if, then”, and started thinking, “what if?” “What if” Christians are on to something with their doctrine of imputation, and “what if” The Book of Mormon supports it? Imputation, by the way, is the doctrine that during the atonement, our sins were attributed to Christ, and His righteousness was attributed to us. Suddenly I saw 2 Nephi 25:23 and Moroni 10:32 in a new light. Maybe being saved after all we could do didn’t mean keeping every commandment flawlessly. “What if” it simply meant doing the only thing we *could* do: which was throwing ourselves at the feet of Jesus and accepting his mercy?
2 Nephi 25:23 makes a very simple statement: …we are saved by grace… It doesn’t say we are saved by grace and all we can do, it says we are saved by grace after all we can do. So it’s not a question of whether we’re saved by grace alone, but when we’re saved by grace alone. In conjunction with this, the Moroni verse says to “…come unto Christ, and be perfected in him…” That sounds a lot like imputation to me. So “what if” denying yourself of all ungodliness is really just accepting Jesus’ gift of grace? According to the Christian doctrine of imputation, doing so makes us 100% righteous, or “perfected in him” as The Book of Mormon puts it.
The truth is the impossible gospel isn’t a uniquely Mormon problem, it’s the problem for all mankind. We’ve all sinned and accumulated a debt we have no hope of paying on our own. And Jesus’ grace is the only solution to the impossible gospel. I believe the Bible and The Book of Mormon present a unified message about the problem of sin, and its solution.
The Problem: from the Bible and The Book of Mormon
The great dilemma we have as human beings is that God will accept nothing less than perfection for admittance into His kingdom, but we have inherited a sin nature from the fall that makes it impossible for us to obey God’s laws 100% of the time.
“Wherefore, if ye have sought to do wickedly in the days of your probation, then ye are found unclean before the judgment-seat of God; and no unclean thing can dwell with God; wherefore, ye must be cast off forever.”
— 1 Nephi 10:21
“Wherefore, all mankind were in a lost and in a fallen state, and ever would be save they should rely on this Redeemer.”
— 1 Nephi 10:6
Nephi, who supposedly wrote these verses, is a prime example of obedience in Mormonism. He is attributed as saying, “I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Nephi 3:7). This verse near the beginning of The Book of Mormon has set the stage for the idea that man is capable of keeping every commandment God gives us, even the admonition to be perfect!
But even Nephi would later state, “O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh, my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted” (2 Nephi 4:17-19).
The apostle Paul also calls himself a wretched man after admitting that instead of doing the good things that he should be doing, he’s doing the evil things that he shouldn’t be doing (Romans 7:24). James 2:10 says: “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.”
Our sins, whether great or small, are also the instruments of Christ’s death. Our hands are dripping with innocent blood, and our verdict is guilty.
The Answer from the Bible
The Bible makes it very clear that salvation is by the grace of Christ alone.
“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.
Being justified freely by his grace (The Joseph Smith Translation renders it: only by his grace) through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.”
— Romans 3:23-28 KJV
“Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”
— Romans 4:4-5 KJV
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.”
— Ephesians 2:8 KJV
“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be the righteousness of God in him.”
— 2 Corinthians 5:21 KJV
Hebrews 10 contrasts the old covenant with the new covenant. In Old Testament times, God’s people were required to make a sin offering once a year. This continued to be necessary year after year, because they continued to sin. As a Mormon, this should sound familiar, as it parallels the practice of taking the sacrament once a week. Regarding the sacrifice of Christ, however, Hebrews 10:12-14 says:
“But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; from henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.”
— Hebrews 10:12-14 KJV
Because of his offering, recurring ordinances to wipe away our sins are not necessary.
The Answer from The Book of Mormon
Surprisingly, The Book of Mormon also has passages that fall in line with this doctrine.
2 Nephi 2:4-7 for example, states:
“And thou hast beheld in thy youth his glory; wherefore, thou art blessed even as they unto whom he shall minister in the flesh; for the Spirit is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. And the way is prepared from the fall of man, and salvation is free. And men are instructed sufficiently that they may know good from evil. And the law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever. Wherefore redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth. Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.”
— 2 Nephi 2:4-7
Helaman 8:14-15 says:
“Yea, did he not bear record that the Son of God should come? And as he lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, even so shall he be lifted up who should come. And as many as should look upon that serpent should live, even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having a contrite spirit, might live, even unto that life which is eternal.”
— Helaman 8:14-15
Alma 37:46 proclaims the ease of living the gospel:
“O my son, do not let us be slothful because of the easiness of the way; for so was it with our fathers; for so was it prepared for them, that if they would look they might live; even so it is with us. The way is prepared, and if we will look we may live forever. ”
— Alma 37:46
Helaman 8:14-15 and Alma 37:46 equate the gospel with looking, and being saved. By comparing salvation in Christ to looking at the brass serpent, salvation becomes an issue of trust and belief, rather than an issue of works and covenants. Also of note, is the conversion of Alma the Younger in Alma 36:16-20 where he says, “And now, for three days and for three nights I was racked, even with the pains of a damned soul. And it came to pass that as I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world. Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death. And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more. And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as my pain!”
This conversion story is filled with things we’ve been taught to avoid, like deathbed repentance, praying directly to Jesus, and “easy believism”. Most importantly of all, there’s no mention of a repentance process. The forgiveness and the salvation is instantaneous!
Concerning the doctrine of being born again, The Book of Mormon says in Mosiah 27:25-26:
“And the Lord said unto me: Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; and thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.”
— Mosiah 27:25-26
Why it’s Important
You may be thinking, “wow, The Book of Mormon really does support the Bible in promoting salvation by grace alone… that proves the Church is true”, but does it?
The truth is, these verses about grace in the Bible and The Book of Mormon deeply oppose the actual doctrines of the LDS Church. Doctrine and Covenants 130:20-21 says:
“There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated- and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.”
— D&C 130:20-21
According to this passage, all blessings must be earned. Contrast that with the God of the Bible, who sends rain on the just and the unjust!
Spencer W. Kimball wrote, “One of the most fallacious doctrines originated by Satan and propounded by man is that man is saved alone by the grace of God; that belief in Jesus Christ alone is all that is needed for salvation”
(The Miracle of Forgiveness, p.206).
Joseph Fielding Smith agreed when he said, “One of the most pernicious doctrines ever advocated by man, is the doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone’, which has entered into the hearts of millions since the days of the so-called ‘reformation’” (The Restoration of All Things, p.192).
Even the 3rd article of faith states: We believe that through the atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.
There’s no denying that Mormon doctrine states that we must continuously repent, be baptized, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, receive our endowments, be sealed for time and eternity, and keep the covenants we make in the temple to inherit the Celestial Kingdom.
Since The Book of Mormon contradicts LDS doctrine, we are left with only two possibilities. First, The Book of Mormon is false, even though it happens to have some Biblical truth, in which case the Church is also false. Or second, The Book of Mormon is true, and therefore the Church is in a state of apostasy. Either way though, if salvation is by grace alone, Mormonism is not necessary.
As I compared Christian doctrine to Mormon doctrine, one thing really began to eat at me. In the LDS Church I was taught that God ‘loves’ everyone. I was also taught that when we fall into sin, the Holy Ghost abandons us until we get our act together. However, in John 10:12-14 Christ says it’s actually the hireling who flees when he sees the wolf coming, because he doesn’t care about the sheep. Jesus, in contrast, is the good shepherd. In 1 Corinthians 13 we read that charity endures all things and never fails. So a god that cannot endure my shortcomings, and fails me when I’m caught in the very teeth of sin, is a god who doesn’t love me.
I for one, would choose the good shepherd over a hireling any day. After all, what power does a sheep have to defend itself when the wolf comes prowling? None.
When I was 16 I attended Especially for Youth, a week-long retreat for teenage Latter-day Saints. One night they showed us a video about Christ. In it, people testified that he had changed them. That night the Holy Spirit revealed Jesus to me for the 1st time. I found myself faced with his perfection and holiness, and as a natural byproduct I think, I was also made aware of my own imperfections, and by comparison, my filthiness.
Mentally I thought, I must be detestable to this Holy God, but simultaneously I was being showered in his love. I was shocked, because I knew I didn’t deserve it, and yet there it was, full and unrestrained, proof that my sins carried no weight when determining God’s love for me. At 16 years old, it was the first time I had ever experienced unconditional love.
There have been so many times I have fallen short of God’s standard, and each time, somewhere in the back of my mind I’ve thought: I’m going to put God on the shelf, just for a moment, and I’m going to choose this instead. But God has never placed me on the shelf. In fact, he placed his glory and his life on the shelf, and he chose me instead.
So how can I not love someone who puts me first, even when my heart is far from him? Someone who has suffered on all points what I have, and who, like me, still has some scars that have never healed? How can I not love someone who has forgiven me 7 times 70 million times? How can I not love someone who went as my proxy through mockery, through scourging, to death on the cross, and who vicariously on my behalf, descended below all things because I owed a debt I couldn’t pay?
I tried, really, really, really tried to find that kind of love, grace, and devotion to the Savior in the current teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but I couldn’t – I had to look elsewhere. I didn’t want to but I had to. Which is why today I can testify that under his banner there is no condemnation, but love unconditional and grace freely given. And I testify, that His grace is enough.
My name is Michael Flournoy, and I’m a former Latter-day Saint. Today I am a bond servant of Jesus, a humbled recipient of the gift of His possible gospel. I am now a Born Again Christian.
1 See The Mind Renewed, “TMR 110 : Debate : Bobby Gilpin Vs Michael Flournoy : Mormonism & The Gospel”; Premier Christianity, “The Mormon: Why I believe in Jesus Christ Faith Explored”, and; Premier Christian Radio, “Is the Mormon gospel the Biblical gospel?”
2 See Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, “The Mormon View of Salvation: A Gospel That Is Truly Impossible”, Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 04 (2011). Also see YouTube Playlist of Videos on the Impossible Gospel of Mormonism (video play list)