“You Sank My Battleship!”: The Possible Gospel Approach

Posted: August 19, 2018 in Michael Flournoy, Mormon Studies

by Michael Flournoy
I sat around feeling dazed after two Mormon missionaries left my house one evening. The conversation had not gone as well as I would have liked. Despite being an Ex-Mormon apologist, I had been outclassed during the discussion.

As I replayed the night’s dialogue in my head, it became clear why I had struggled. I had allowed the two Elders to go on the attack when I should have been pressuring them. Their victory had been assured in the first few moments of the discussion. Since I failed to pin them down, they were able to engage in guerrilla warfare. This made it impossible to counter-attack, because I never knew exactly where they were coming from.

It’s been said that pinning down LDS theology is like nailing Jello to the wall, and that’s true. My new approach “The Possible Gospel”, is a way to pin a Latter-day Saint down so you can focus your message appropriately.

Step 1: Pin them Down
The first question you need to ask a Latter-day Saint is, “What type of righteousness do you believe gets you Eternal Life?”

The 5 types are as follows (in order from most accurate to least accurate):

Imputed Righteousness: God accredits all His righteousness to the believer up front.

Infused Righteousness: God gives His righteousness to His followers little by little as a reward for their obedience.

Joint Righteousness: The believer does his best and Christ makes up the rest.

Enabled Righteousness: Christ’s atonement enables or empowers believers to keep the commandments and obtain their own worthiness.

Self Righteousness: Righteousness can be obtained without Jesus.

As an aside, the words “saved” and “salvation” are almost worthless in this discussion. They may believe in imputed righteousness for salvation an in another righteousness for eternal life and exaltation, which are more important in their theology. You are always better off saying “exaltation” or “eternal life”.

You may need to specify that you are talking about the righteousness needed to enter the highest heaven: the Celestial Kingdom.

I don’t recommend trying this with more than one or two Mormons at a time, because different answers will complicate the process.

Also, don’t be surprised if the Latter-day Saint tries to squirm out of answering this question. Mormon do not like being pinned down. They will always want to leave some windows open to leap through if they get in a tough spot. For example, they might say, “I believe in a combination of these.”

If this happens, simply explain that the types of righteousness are exclusive to each other. Infused and imputed righteousness is God’s righteousness, joint righteousness is a combination of the two, and enabled and self-righteousness belong to the individual person. Suggest that perhaps what they believe in is joint righteousness.

The worst thing a Mormon can say is, “Maybe it’s none of those. Maybe it hasn’t been revealed yet.” If this occurs, remind the Mormon that the gospel is the means of salvation. If Mormonism is the “restored gospel” there must be a solid answer to this question.

In short, you must get the Latter-day Saint to commit to one of these answers or there is no point in continuing the discussion.

Step 2: Sink the other Boats
Once you get the Mormon to commit to one of the 5 types of righteousness, it’s time to play some Battleship. Sink the other types of righteousness until there is nothing left except the answer they picked and imputed righteousness. This is to prevent them from switching answers later in the discussion.

Refer to Step 3 to get a feel for refuting the different types of righteousness.

What’s nice about this step, is you are temporarily siding with the Mormon against these other false types of righteousness, and it’s likely they will actually help you complete this step. If they do, make sure to use their own words if they try to change positions later.

Step 3: Sink their Boat
Sinking Self Righteousness
Chance of them choosing this: Very Low
You won’t need to spend a lot of time on self-righteousness because the Mormon will agree that salvation is impossible apart from Jesus. You will want to discuss this first, as it sets the stage to sink the other types of righteousness (hint: enabled, joint, and infused righteousness are really just fancy types of self-righteousness at the end of the day).

A good verse to bring up is Galatians 2:21, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”

Sinking Enabled Righteousness
Chance of them choosing this: High
I recommend using the “Impossible Gospel” approach to deal with enabled righteousness.

Start with this question: If you believe in enabled righteousness, you must be perfect. Right?”

On the off chance they say, “yes”, point to 2 Nephi 4:17-19 in The Book of Mormon. It says:

“Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: 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.”

Note: This is a great verse to bring up at some point in the discussion even if they admit to being imperfect, because the theme of this verse “trusting God while still in sin” goes against enabled, joint, and infused righteousness.

You can pressure the Mormon and say, “Do you really believe you’re more righteous than Nephi?”

You can also point out 1 John 1:8, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

Of course, the Mormon will usually admit they are not perfect yet. When this happens, ask them why not. After all, if they are covered in the enabling grace of Christ, then keeping the commandments should be easy, so why do they struggle?

Sometimes Mormons will say they are getting a little better at obeying God each day. If this happens, ask for their ETA on reaching perfection.

Ask them if God will be satisfied with just improvement on judgment day when they are still in sin. Be prepared with Alma 45:16 in The Book of Mormon, which says God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.

Some more verses to hammer in the impossibility of the enabled gospel are as follows:

James 2:10: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”

2 Nephi 25:23 (Book of Mormon): “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.”

Moroni 10:32 (Book of Mormon): “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.”

Note: These Book of Mormon verses are great to use if the Mormon chose joint righteousness because they promote it more than enabled righteousness.

You’ll want to explain to your LDS friend that reaching perfection so we can have grace is actually the same thing as self-righteousness, and a perfect person doesn’t need grace.

Mormons may protest and say you are twisting their scriptures, and they rely on Christ. They may argue that commandments and covenants are simply part of faith because faith is an action word and not merely belief.

If this happens, ask if the Jews felt the same way. Didn’t they believe in the law and in God? Therefore Galatians 2:21 applies to them. If righteousness comes through the law, or commandments, or LDS covenants then Christ died in vain.

Challenge the Latter-day Saint to show you a passage in scripture that calls Jesus the great Empowerer or the Enabler.

Sinking Joint Righteousness
Chance of them choosing this: High
If the Latter-day Saint chooses joint righteousness, I recommend referring them to the talk “His Grace is Sufficient”, by Brad Wilcox. Although Mr. Wilcox is LDS, he is an enemy to joint righteousness, and he refutes the idea within the first six minutes of his talk. Mormons tend to be more receptive to correction from their own people.

Start with the question, “How much do you have to do before Christ makes up the difference?”

The Mormon will usually say they have to do their best. 2 Nephi 25:23 says we are saved after all we can do, and Moroni 10:32 says we must deny ourselves of all ungodliness for Christ’s grace to suffice.

Use the Impossible Gospel argument to point out that they aren’t doing “all they can do”. Could they have spent 5 more minutes praying this morning? Could they have read 10 more minutes of scripture? Could they have spent last weekend at the temple or feeding the homeless? Do they ever indulge in self-gratification when they could be serving God?

Use the arguments in my section about enabled righteousness to show that God cannot look upon sin with allowance, and if we falter in one point we are guilty of breaking His whole law.

Ask the Mormon if we can be saved in our sins and be prepared with Alma 11:37 in The Book of Mormon that says we cannot be saved in our sins. Explain to your LDS friend that joint righteousness is synonymous with salvation in sin.

Explain further that joint righteousness is impossible. Either we are worthy by ourselves and God doesn’t need to intervene, or we are sinners, and thus in the red. If we are in the red, God is saving us in sin, and fully on His own.

Sinking Infused Righteousness
Chance of them choosing this: Medium
Most Latter-day Saints have never heard of infused righteousness, but sometimes when it’s explained to them they’ll jump on the bandwagon.

If they choose infused righteousness, build it up first. Use Philippians 3:9 to show that Paul didn’t have a righteousness of his own, but a righteousness that came from God. Explain that infused and imputed righteousness are the only two viable options.

The trouble is, even though infused righteousness has a Biblical appearance, it still has the same practical problems as the other types of righteousness. For instance, if we are having righteousness infused into us, why would we still struggle? And why would God mix His righteousness with someone who is in sin?

If you are familiar with Catholicism (they believe in infused righteousness), use some comparisons. Catholics believe in a holding place for Spirits that aren’t righteous enough, just like Mormons. Catholics believe in ongoing communion to cancel out sin and add righteousness, just like Mormons.

The dilemma with infused righteousness is it never quite gets you all the way to perfect worthiness. Eternal life is always something you strive for, but never something you achieve.

The apostle Paul dismantles infused righteousness in Romans 4:4-5:

“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”

In other words, if God hands out His righteousness as a result of our obedience, that’s a wage. However, Paul stresses over and over again that grace is a gift, and it has nothing to do with our works.

(click to zoom)

Step 4: Teach them Imputed Righteousness
At this point, the Mormon will be confused or anxious so offer them a way out. Tell them they might like imputed righteousness more than they think because it’s all over The Book of Mormon and it’s a major theme in the temple.

A Mormon likely won’t be familiar with imputed righteousness, so you’ll have to explain it a little. I do it like this:

“Imputation is kind of the opposite of amputation. Instead of having something taken off you, you’re having something put on, or accredited to you. It’s kind of like marrying a millionaire. Even if you were tens of thousands of dollars in debt before, you are now a millionaire by virtue of your spouse.

You actually do believe in it. You believe that when Jesus died, He took our sins upon Him. That’s imputation. The big difference between us, is I believe in double imputation. So not only did Jesus take the full weight of my sins, he also gave me the full weight of His righteousness when I became a believer.”

A good example of double imputation is the story of Barabbas, a guilty criminal, in the New Testament. Christ took the death penalty that Barabbas deserved, while Barabbas received the freedom that Jesus deserved.

Imputation is a major theme in LDS temples because Mormons do saving ordinances for the dead who can’t receive them. The dead do not have to physically perform any works, they just have to accept what has been done on their behalf. It is a flawless representation of imputed righteousness.

Mormons will probably push back a little by emphasizing obedience, sanctification, and repentance. Sometimes the phrase, “I believe that too,” is your best tool. This way Mormons come to realize that imputation covers all the bases that are important to them. The difference is, it provides a safety net for the believer while they are being sanctified.

Show the Mormon Moroni 10:32-33 in The Book of Mormon. The same passage that refutes joint and enabled righteousness, fits imputed righteousness perfectly. Especially verse 33 which says,

“And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.”

According to this verse, perfection comes before sanctification, and both are the result of grace and the shedding of Christ’s blood. I’ve told LDS before, “If that’s not imputed righteousness, then I don’t know what is!”

This passage in Moroni echoes Hebrews 10:14: “For by a single offering [Christ] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”

The fact is imputed righteousness immediately satisfies the worthiness requirement to enter God’s presence, while allowing the believer to grow in his walk with God.

Step 5: Get out of God’s Way
This approach isn’t very flashy, and it’s not going to make anyone too defensive. You never really get to a resolution, it’s more about planting a seed and letting God grow it. Instead of attacking Mormonism, you are showing the virtues of a Biblical doctrine.

This is the belief that stole me away from Mormonism, it was the antidote to a works-based religion. Mormons say they are saved by grace, but they also believe ordinances like baptism are required to enter the Celestial Kingdom. Imputation is the missing puzzle piece that emphasizes grace and negates works and covenants.

Challenge the Latter-day Saint to study imputed righteousness. Tell them you have a testimony of the doctrine, and let them know you are available if they have questions about it.

The more a Latter-day Saint comes to embrace imputation, the more precarious their position becomes. If imputation is true, there is no requirement for temple ordinances because we already have sufficient righteousness. If imputation is true there was no need for a restoration because Christians already had the true gospel.

If imputation is true we don’t need a priesthood to seal us to God because Christ’s righteousness already does that. Simply stated, if imputation is true then Mormonism is false.

“Sinking of HMS Hood” by J.C. Schmitz-Westerholt

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