The Iron Rod and the Escalator of God

Posted: January 30, 2022 in Michael Flournoy, Mormon Studies
An Explanation of Sanctification for Latter-day Saints

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30 (KJV)

by Michael Flournoy
In a previous article, I described two types of gospels: the gospel of amputation and the gospel of imputation. The gospel of amputation says we must remove the sin from our lives in order to become righteous. Since this includes sins of omission, we must also do all that God requires. In short, this is the gospel of obedience rewarded by grace. It also happens to be the gospel Latter-day Saints adhere to.

If you’re LDS reading this, there’s about a 50% chance you take umbrage at what I just said. However, I can be reasonably sure that I’ve spoken the truth based solely on the fact that the LDS church is a religion. 

Let me ask you a few questions. Does an ordinance bring you into a covenantal relationship with God? Can major sins overturn that relationship? If another religion showed up that did baptisms and sealings for the dead, would they be discredited as a false church? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you’re an adherent of amputation. I’m fully aware that some Latter-day Saints prefer grace over obedience. But even if you only have to keep one commandment and it’s the equivalent of clipping a fingernail, that still falls within the bounds of amputation. 

Imputation is the opposite proposition. Instead of cutting off sin, we put on the righteousness of Christ. This righteousness drowns out our wickedness and immediately makes us worthy of the Father’s presence. What’s more, it occurs before we obey commandments or undergo a single ordinance. Since obedience doesn’t lead to salvation, our sin can’t undo salvation. It’s not even in the equation. And if another religion pops up that does ordinances like baptism, but claims they’re saved by faith first, they are considered a legitimate faith. 

This is why many Protestant denominations can coexist, but the LDS Church can’t tolerate another organization appropriating their temples and performing their rites. If another religion does baptisms, those baptisms are considered illegitimate by the LDS church. Again, this is because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ties the ordinances themselves to eternal life. Once a religion does this, they must claim exclusive rights to their rituals, or else there would be no need for their faith. This is true not only of your religion but of every belief system on earth. 

The exception is those that believe in imputed righteousness. Those who accept Christ and His vicarious work on the cross become His children and are immediately and forever worthy of eternal life.  After we are declared perfect in Christ, we enter a sanctification process whereby we grow closer to God in love and trust. Our hearts are gradually changed so we desire the things of God. In practice, this isn’t all that different from how Latter-day Saints live out their lives. 

The difference is twofold. First, grace acts as a safety net to catch us when we fall, thus keeping us inside the covenant. And second, we don’t have to reach a certain stage of sanctification to gain eternal life, since we are worthy the moment we’re born again through faith. 

A painting by Jerry Thompson depicting Lehi reaching for the fruit of the tree of life while holding onto the iron rod; (from the official and correlation LdS Church “Primary Manual 4-14”).

The Iron Rod
To demonstrate these two gospels, let’s look at a well-known Book of Mormon analogy: the iron rod. Lehi has a dream in 1 Nephi 8, where he sees a rod of iron leading to the tree of life. Throngs of people hold tight to this rod as they make their way to the tree. This is a good representation of the gospel of amputation.

The tree symbolizing the love of God lies at the end of the path and effort is required to get there. The journey is treacherous, and many fall into forbidden paths and are lost. Others wander into filthy waters and drown therein. Even after reaching the tree and partaking of the fruit, some are embarrassed by the mocking of onlookers in a great and spacious building. They discard the fruit and enter the building, which later collapses.

The point is, there’s no assurance in the gospel of amputation. There’s no point in the journey where anyone can rest in the knowledge that their salvation is secure. Even after reaching the end of the journey and partaking in the love of God, they can be coaxed away. But what if I told you there’s another route to the tree?

After wandering around in the darkness for hours, Lehi prays for mercy and the darkness subsides. He finds himself in a spacious field near the tree. He simply walks up and eats the fruit. And he’s not the only one to forgo the rod. Nephi, Sam, and Sariah also approach the tree without using it. Of the four of them, none are lost to forbidden paths or drowned in the filthy waters, making this path far superior to the iron rod.

Imputation teaches that Christ already did the hard work of obeying God’s word. He made it past the iron rod, planted the tree of life, and built an escalator to heaven. This is the path of mercy. Justice is satisfied that Christ walked the path, and now Jesus can take us straight to the tree. The tree isn’t the end of the path, it’s the beginning.

Once we board the escalator through faith, we can rest assured that our salvation is secure in the blood of the lamb. There’s no way to get off and wander into the swamps of damnation. Our future in heaven with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is an absolute certainty. 

Sealed for Eternity
When faced with salvation by faith alone, Latter-day Saints often ask what role obedience plays. Allow me to answer that with an analogy about marriage.  When we get married to someone, all we have to do is say the words, “I do.” We don’t enter this relationship to earn the other person’s love, rather we marry as a result of that love.

Contrary to what fairy tales teach, the story doesn’t end at marriage. It’s the beginning of the adventure. It’s a rollercoaster of highs and lows. It’s an opportunity to grow closer to your spouse and learn to trust each other. But even during the tumultuous drops, the marriage covenant remains intact.  Nothing changes within us when we enter this relationship. There’s no transformation of character shouting to the world that we’re married. A couple may wear rings as an outward sign of their devotion, but that isn’t what makes them married. What makes them married is simply a legal declaration that they are. 

Now let’s pretend the bride was 100,000 dollars in debt on the day of the wedding but she married a billionaire. By virtue of her husband’s name, she is now a billionaire too despite all that debt. That’s how imputation works. We take Christ’s name upon us and acquire His righteousness. The difference is, His righteousness is infinite. So there’s nothing we can do to make up the difference or slide back into spiritual debt. 

In my analogy, the husband may teach his bride to be wiser with money, but that comes after the marriage. In the same way, God’s word is a standard to teach us morality, but our covenantal relationship with Him predates our obedience. Consider this question by the apostle Paul: when was Abraham counted righteous? Was it before or after he was circumcised? He answers that it was before circumcision and explains why in Romans 5:11-13 (KJV) which reads:

“And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also:  

And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised.  

For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.”

“And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee. And he said, Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him.” (John 9:37-38 KJV)

Can Salvation Be Lost?
Most Latter-day Saints balk at the idea that grace is sufficient for eternal life. They consider sola gratia to be “cheap grace” and a license to sin. Let’s shift over to a parent/child analogy. Some Latter-day Saints have told me they give rules to their children to teach them discipline, and argue that our loving Heavenly Father employs the same methods.

I agree, but with a caveat. Disobedience doesn’t undo the covenantal relationship. Can you imagine kicking your kid out of the house because he didn’t clean his room? Or disowning him because he told a lie? Or is your love unconditional? Do you value your relationship with your children, even when they do things you’re ashamed of? If your child grew up and said they hated you and walked away, wouldn’t they still be a son or daughter in your eyes?

I believe this resembles the relationship we have with God. When we sin, God doesn’t abandon us until we get our act together. If anything, He’s closer to us in these times, giving us the comfort and direction we desperately need. As Paul so eloquently preaches in Romans 5:20, “Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”

This is evidenced in the story of David and Bathsheba. Not only does King David commit adultery, but he puts the woman’s husband on the front lines of the battle to die. When Nathan the prophet confronts him, David confesses his sin and Nathan replies: “The Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.” (2 Samuel 12:13) How great is God’s grace, and how boundless is His mercy that He could forgive so great a sin! Surely there is nothing cheap about grace like this. 

So to my LDS reader I ask, does the same God who forgave David of murder and adultery really take away salvation when we do less evil than that? Does the Jesus who died for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8) abandon us because we’re still sinners? Jesus prayed for the very people who condemned him to death saying, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34 KJV) And I posit that it’s against Christ’s nature to turn around and disown His own children. 

But what about us? Can’t we turn our backs on Him? We can leave him, but He will move heaven and earth to bring us back to the fold. Ultimately, the question that needs to be asked is this: do we adopt God or does He adopt us? If God adopts us, what right do we have to nullify that? We can complain or act out in disobedience, but nothing we do can sever our relationship with Him. Even if we walk down an escalator, the stairs still work to bring us up.

Another disagreement Latter-day Saints have with Evangelicals is our tendency to say those who leave Christianity never believed in Jesus at all. But let me explain, using marriage as an example again. I was married to my first wife for nine years. At the end of it, she informed me that she wanted to date other men. When I protested, she filed for divorce. I spent months in a state of agony, reliving our most cherished memories, and yet they meant nothing to her. She saw my sorrow and wasn’t fazed. 

Did she fall out of love? No. The simpler explanation is she never loved me at all. What she felt for me was actually infatuation. Many people have an infatuation with the idea of God, but as soon as being a disciple becomes inconvenient, they abandon their Christian ideals. My friends, do not be deceived. Someone like this could never have loved God. 1 Corinthians 13:7 tells us that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. If it doesn’t endure then it isn’t true love, is it? 

As a Latter-day Saint, you may say: people get divorced all the time. Doesn’t that prove someone can walk away from God’s covenantal relationship? Can’t we reject His love? The question of divorce was posed to Jesus by the Pharisees and He replied,

“For the hardness of your heart [Moses] wrote you this precept.  But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”
(Mark 10:5-9 KJV)

In other words, divorce is not a God thing, but a man thing. And according to the New Testament, Christ is our bridegroom (Matthew 25:5). If we have been sealed to Him, how can we be separated?

I would also note that love can’t be rejected. If someone loves us, that love is present whether we feel it or not. It’s there whether we want it or not. However, the rod of the iron gospel teaches the opposite. Since the tree in Lehi’s vision represents the love of God, we can infer that God’s love only covers those who make it to the shade the tree provides. He doesn’t love those who walk away from Him. He doesn’t love the lost, or even the ones obeying His word, because they haven’t endured to the end. This love must be earned, and therefore is not love at all. This resembles an abusive, narcissistic relationship more than it resembles real charity. Like the iron rod itself, this love will inevitably rust.  Contrast that with what Paul writes in Romans 8:35-39 (KJV):

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ‘As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.'” Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

If you’re tired of fighting a losing battle to reach perfection, if broken covenants condemn you, if your sins have traded your peace with fear, and if a love that runs at the sight of your imperfections is what you’re used to, then I invite you to flee from it. You will never be or do enough in a gospel like that and you will never finish proving your worthiness. Instead, I invite you to embrace the unconditional, unending, fully accepting, ever merciful, totally sufficient, and all-encompassing love of Christ.

“Security” by David Bowman

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.