Archive for the ‘Grace’ Category

An appeal to the translation shamers of Eugene Peterson’s “The Message”

by Fred W. Anson
For years I’ve watched as well-meaning but largely uninformed Christians have torn into Eugene Peterson’s highly vernacular translation of the Bible, “The Message”. I’m old enough to have been around when he was just beginning his work on this unique translation and loved it from the first time I saw his very first translations of the Psalms published in Christianity Today back in the day (I even clipped the very first article and tucked it away in one of my many Bibles, I liked it that much). So from before even the very first imprints rolled off the presses and hit the shelves at Christian bookstores I “got” what Peterson was trying to do – after all, he never made it any secret.

However, a whole lotta folks never seem to have bothered to try to understand, let alone listen to what Mr. Peterson himself said about the translation. The term that he frequently used to describe it is that it’s a “Pastoral Translation” of the Bible that’s intended to speak to the reader in a way that more literal, formal translations can’t and don’t. Thus, it was intended to be more a devotional Bible than anything else.

And nowhere did he express his intentions, translation philosophy, or goals better than in the Preface – you know, the one that no one ever bothers to actually read because they’re either too busy blissfully loving and benefiting from The Message or misunderstanding and publicly shaming and bashing it – typically, out of uninformed ignorance.

To use an imperfect analogy, one need only read that preface to will see that what the latter group is doing is condemning The Message for not being a Mercedes Benz when it was never intended or meant to be one. Rather, it was meant to be a Volkswagen – that is, steadfast, simple, direct, approachable, readily available, and uncomplicated. And like a Volkswagen, it was never intended to replace or compete with a Mercedes Benz, it’s only meant to complement them and fill a niche that they can’t or won’t.

Thus, whenever someone compares The Message to the many excellent tighter more formal word-for-word translations of the Bible it’s very much the same. But however you slice it, both a Mercedes Benz and a Volkswagen will get you to your destination even though the ride may be very different. Both serve a function and a niche in the market. They are designed to serve their particular audience well, and they do.  And, to stretch this analogy even further, if you’re older, more mature, and more established in life (like this author is) while your current car might be a Mercedes, is it really a problem if your first car was a Volkswagen? Your Mercedes meets you where you are today, just as the Volkwagen did back in the day.

So then, tell me, given all this why is it that well-meaning but misguided, more mature and established Christians so often translation shame fragile new Christians – like those coming out of controlling Churches, like the former members of the LdS Church that this author specializes in –  for using the Message? Why do they use insensitive language like, “You really should be using a good translation, you know!” Friend, can you feel the condescension and arrogance just dripping like acid in those words? Well, guess what, so can these often struggling baby Christians who just trying to find an English translation of the Bible that speaks to them and meets them where they’re at! They’re trying to figure out this new Christian thing that they’ve gotten themselves into and instead, they’re being Bible translation shamed by their elder siblings. No one likes being “should” on, and given where they’re at and given where they came from these folks are particularly sensitive to it. I see it all the time – and it makes me cringe all the time.

So older, more mature, and more established in the Christian faith friends, I appeal to you – no, I plead with you in Jesus’ Name – if The Message connects with someone and helps them in their walk with Jesus, please, please, please just let them be. Please!

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t recommend that they also get a more literal, word-for-word translation for meetings and Bible Studies (since The Message isn’t designed for or a good choice for those functions) but if they like the Message for devotional and other personal reading (which is specifically what it was designed for an how it was intended to be used); if they find that it meets them where they; and if they find that they’re growing in the faith through The Message in private outside of meetings, then why oh, why can’t you just let them be?  Can you find it in your heart to have a little empathy for these dear new ones in Christ, please? Be the older, wiser, more compassionate brother or sister in Christ, not the shaming, judgmental, intolerant Church Lady.

So with that introduction, it’s my hope by republishing the Preface to “The Message” in its entirety (and sharing it whenever I encounter a “The Message” basher – of which there are many these days) perhaps I can do my own small part in bringing some peace and understanding to this increasingly ridiculous situation. Friends, if you’re going to criticize something don’t you think that you should first make at least some attempt at understanding it first? And when it comes to “The Message” all you have to do to gain that understanding is simply read the preface – it’s all right there.

“The Daily Message” is the one year devotional Bible that Eugene Peterson produced using The Message as a basis. (click to zoom images)

Preface
TO THE READER
If there is anything distinctive about The Message, perhaps it is because the text is shaped by the hand of a working pastor. For most adult life I have been given a primary responsibility for getting the message of the Bible into the lives of the men and women with whom I worked. I did it from pulpit and lectern, in home Bible studies and at mountain retreats, through conversations in hospitals and nursing homes, over coffee in kitchens and while strolling on an ocean beach. The Message grew from the soil of forty years of pastoral work.

As I worked at this task, this Word of God, which forms and transforms human lives, did form and transform human lives. Planted in the soil of my congregation and community the seed words of the Bible germinated and grew and matured. When it came time to do the work that is now The Message, I often felt that I was walking through an orchard at harvest time, plucking fully formed apples and peaches and plums from laden branches. There’s hardly a page in the Bible I did not see lived in some way or other by the men and women, saints and sinners, to whom I was pastor — and then verified in my nation and culture.

I didn’t start out as a pastor. I began my vocational life as a teacher and for several years taught the biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek in a theological seminary. I expected to live the rest of my life as a professor and scholar, teaching and writing and studying. But then my life took a sudden vocational turn to pastoring in a congregation.

I was now plunged into quite a different world. The first noticeable difference was that nobody seemed to care much about the Bible, which so recently people had been paying me to teach them. Many of the people I worked with now knew virtually nothing about it, had never read it, and weren’t interested in learning. Many others had spent years reading it but for them it had gone flat through familiarity, reduced to clichés. Bored, they dropped it. And there weren’t many people in between. Very few were interested in what I considered my primary work, getting the words of the Bible into their heads and hearts, getting the message lived. They found newspapers and magazines, videos and pulp fiction more to their taste.

Meanwhile I had taken on as my life work the responsibility of getting these very people to listen, really listen, to the message in this book. I knew I had my work cut out for me.I lived in two language worlds, the world of the Bible and the world of Today. I had always assumed they were the same world. But these people didn’t see it that way. So out of necessity I became a “translator” (although I wouldn’t have called it that then), daily standing on the border between two worlds, getting the language of the Bible that God uses to create and save us, heal and bless us, judge and rule over us, into the language of Today that we use to gossip and tell stories, give directions and do business, sing songs and talk to our children.

And all the time those old biblical languages, those powerful and vivid Hebrew and Greek originals, kept working their way underground in my speech, giving energy and sharpness to words and phrases, expanding the imagination of the people with whom I was working to hear the language of the Bible in the language of Today and the language of Today in the language of the Bible.

I did that for thirty years in one congregation. And then one day (it was April 30, 1990) I got a letter from an editor asking me to work on a new version of the Bible along the lines of what I had been doing as a pastor. I agreed. The next ten years was harvest time. The Message is the result.

The Message is a reading Bible. It is not intended to replace the excellent study Bibles that are available. My intent here (as it was earlier in my congregation and community) is simply to get people reading it who don’t know that the Bible is read-able at all, at least by them, and to get people who long ago lost interest in the Bible to read it again. But I haven’t tried to make it easy — there is much in the Bible that is hard to understand. So at some point along the way, soon or late, it will be important to get a standard study Bible to facilitate further study. Meanwhile, read in order to live, praying as you read, “God, let it be with me just as you say.”
(Eugene Peterson, “The Daily Message”, Preface, Navpress. Kindle Edition)

In the foreword to “The Message Devotional Bible” Peterson continued that same Pastoral approach to scripture:

Our conversations with each other are sacred. Those that take place in the parking lot after Sunday worship are as much a part of the formation of Christian character as the preaching from the sanctuary pulpit. The small talk that happens around the ritual of putting children to sleep for the night is as sacred as the most solemn of Eucharistic liturgies.

But conversation, as such, though honored by our ancestors, is much neglected today as a form of Christian discourse. If we’re to be in touch with all the parts of our lives and all the dimensions of the gospel, conversation requires equal billing (although not equal authority) with preaching and teaching.

The conversations I would like to have with you are more casual than formal—the kinds of conversations we would have if we walked through the mountains together, stopping here and there to catch our breath. We’ll travel a lot of terrain together, some of it breathtakingly scenic, some of it ploddingly plain, and some of it precariously uncertain. Here and there along the way I’ll point out details in the biblical landscape, drawing attention to a particular word, pointing out a pertinent piece of historical background, pausing a moment to talk with you and to lead you in prayer.

With that in mind, it’s my personal joy to come alongside you in the wondrous and perilous journey that is your life and my pastoral privilege to walk with you through the Scriptures. I come as a guide as well as a fellow traveler.

Traveling mercies for us both.

Eugene H. Peterson
(Eugene H. Peterson, “The Message Devotional Bible: featuring notes & reflections from Eugene H. Peterson . The Navigators”)

And this is the reason why I love The Message, why I use it, and why I will continue to include it in my devotions – period. My “default setting” is to analyze and study scripture rather than enter into a conversation with God through scripture in my devotions. My natural tendency is to go deep into the text rather than just let God speak through the text.

So, I was challenged by a good, discerning Pastor to stop doing this during my daily devotions and simply start reading scripture experientially rather than intellectually – after all, goodness knows, that I do enough of the latter in my Religious Studies work. Reading a more literal, formal translation (such as the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Bible, or my beloved New King James) tends to keep in that “default setting”. However, reading a high vernacular translation like J.B. Phillip’s New Testament, The New Living Translation, or The Message tends to push me out of my default setting and approach the biblical text like a conversation rather than a textbook – it skews me into a more visceral mode that for guys like me that like to live in their head can be very balancing. It works, try it.

Oh, and by the way, my Pastor was 100% right, treating my daily devotions strictly like my daily devotions, and nothing more has changed my life for the better.  We all need both bible study and daily devotions and my spiritual life was suffering from a full experience of the latter. I cycle through all good translations as I read the Bible each time through in my devotions – that means both formal and vernacular translations, and that includes The Message.

The bottom line to all this is this: The Message, though not a tight, formal translation of the Bible serves a purpose: personal devotional Bible reading. Just like a Volkswagen if it’s used within its role, limits, and purpose it’s a great resource. Yes, outside of those boundaries, it’s no longer an appropriate resource – and like a Volkswagen, The Message can and will be abused from time to time – we have all seen that. Regardless, Bible Translation shaming someone for using The Message and hating on it because it’s a Volkswagen rather than a Mercedes Benz not only makes no sense, it’s rude, insensitive, and inappropriate behavior. The very antithesis of what Jesus would do.

Perhaps no version of The Message captures the purpose, intention, and role of The Message like the Devotional Bible edition. It’s here where Eugene Peterson’s vision of the translation as “Pastoral” and “devotional” come together. (click images to zoom)

Robert Weingarten, “Jackson Pollock #1” (2007)

compiled by Fred W. Anson
The issue
“As an Evangelical, I’m being told that Charis is a reciprocal ‘covenant’ and also that Strong’s Greek is ‘outdated’. One of the sources that this LDS individual is using is Evangelical, Douglas Moo’s article, ‘John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift and the New Perspective on Paul,’ The other is Latter-day Saint, Stephen O. Smoot’s ‘Saved by Charis: A Review of “Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis”’ (with thanks to Cynthia Debban Petermann and Paul Nurnberg for providing this issue clarification)

Rob Bowman’s response
It’s complicated. This claim is also being made by some non-LDS scholars, although how it is understood or applied in the NT isn’t always the same.

First, I thought Douglas Moo’s article, “John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift and the New Perspective on Paul,” was excellent.1

Second, the Greek word “charis” (χάρις) does not mean “covenant.” Nor is the word necessarily associated with a covenant, though of course, the “new covenant” in Christ has grace as a key aspect. The Book of Hebrews, which uses the term “covenant” more than the rest of the NT combined (see especially chapters 7-10), tells us that Jesus is our high priest seated on the throne of God in heaven, ready and able to give us “grace” and “mercy” with sympathy for our weaknesses (Heb. 4:14-16), having died as a sacrifice for our sins in order to save those who come to him (7:26-8:6). So we can agree that the grace of God is associated with the new covenant, for which Christ is our mediator with God.

Third, describing the new covenant as “reciprocal” requires some explanation. It is reciprocal in the sense that a covenant is a relationship between two parties, in this case, God and believers (the church, if you will, considered as one party). It is therefore reciprocal in that God expects those who have entered into the covenant to remain in it in order to continue receiving the benefits of it. Remaining in the covenant entails continuing to honor the Benefactor in order to continue receiving his generous gifts. But those gifts can never be earned. There is no payment plan for reimbursing God, our Benefactor, for the gifts of forgiveness and eternal life.

Fourth, the evangelical doctrines of salvation by grace alone and justification by faith alone do not mean that Christians are not expected to do good works. We are not saved by our works (Eph. 2:8-9), but because we are saved we do good works (2:10). Salvation consists not *only* in forgiveness of sins but also in regeneration (the new birth), the indwelling and sealing of the Holy Spirit, sanctification (being set apart or consecrated to God as his holy people), and eventually glorification in which we become sinless, absolutely holy, loving, good, and righteous people. No one can be saved who wants forgiveness without the rest of the blessings of salvation. You can’t tell God, “I’ll take forgiveness but I don’t want you messing with my life.” Let me re-post some material that I have posted on FB a couple of times in the past:

What is the evangelical view of faith and works? Let’s look at some representative statements.

First, here is Luther’s comment on Galatians 5:6:

Faith must of course be sincere. It must be a faith that performs good works through love. If faith lacks love it is not true faith. Thus the Apostle bars the way of hypocrites to the kingdom of Christ on all sides.”
The Epitome of the Formula of Concord, a Lutheran confession:
“But after man has been justified by faith, then a true living faith worketh by love, Gal. 5:6, so that thus good works always follow justifying faith, and are surely found with it, if it be true and living; for it never is alone, but always has with it love and hope.
(Martin Luther’s Bible Commentary, Galatians 5)  

John Calvin, in his Antidote to the Council of Trent:

I wish the reader to understand that as often as we mention Faith alone in this question, we are not thinking of a dead faith, which worketh not by love, but holding faith to be the only cause of justification. (Galatians 5:6; Romans 3:22.) It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone: just as it is the heat alone of the sun which warms the earth, and yet in the sun it is not alone, because it is constantly conjoined with light.

The Westminster Confession of Faith

Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness,
is the alone instrument of justification:
yet is it not alone in the person justified,
but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces,
and is no dead faith, but works by love.
(Westminster Confession of Faith 11.2)

To conclude: Evangelicalism teaches both “faith alone” (i.e., faith is the sole instrument of justification) and “faith not alone” (i.e., faith is never alone but produces love that does good works). This is not a contradiction but merely reflects the fact that the two statements use “alone” in different ways.

This is what evangelical theology teaches.

Jesus did say, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15; see also 14:21). I think we need to take that seriously. I also don’t think it conflicts with salvation by grace alone. God’s grace saves us not only from the penalty of sin but also from the power of sin. Love and good works are the fruit of genuine salvation.

NOTES
1 Just a clarification: As I just mentioned, the article is actually by Douglas Moo, not John Barclay. Moo is discussing Barclay’s book and the scholarly context in which it was written.

About the author: 
Rob Bowman is the former Executive Director of the Institute for Religious Research (IRR). He left IRR in 2019 to pursue a career in theological research, writing, and teaching. Previously he served as Manager of Apologetics & Interfaith Evangelism for the North American Mission Board (2006-2008). For ten years Rob taught graduate courses in apologetics, biblical studies, and religion at Luther Rice University (1994-99) and Biola University (2001-2005). He has also worked with other apologetics and discernment ministries, most notably the Christian Research Institute (1984-91), the Atlanta Christian Apologetics Project (1994-99), and Watchman Fellowship in Alabama (1999-2000). Rob has spoken at over a hundred churches and at some three dozen conferences and debates. He has five years of experience hosting call-in radio talk shows focusing on apologetics, including the nationally famous Bible Answer Man show.

Rob Bowman earned the M.A. in Biblical Studies and Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, did doctoral studies in Christian Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, and earned his Ph.D. in Biblical Studies at South African Theological Seminary. He is the author of roughly 60 articles (e.g., in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Review of Biblical Literature, Christian Research Journal, Moody Monthly, Pastoral Renewal, Mission Frontiers, and Journal of Evangelism and Missions) and 13 books pertaining to apologetics, religion, and biblical theology, including two winners of the Gold Medallion Award, An Unchanging Faith in a Changing World (1997) and Faith Has Its Reasons (2001; 2d ed., 2006). His most recent books are Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (co-authored with Ed Komoszewski, 2007), which received numerous endorsements from such scholars as Ravi Zacharias and Richard Bauckham, and What Mormons Believe (2012).

Rob and his wife, Cathy, have been married since 1981 and have four children, three of them still living at home.

This compilation was derived from the following Facebook discussion threads:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/1853695141544362?view=permalink&id=2072500106330530 and https://www.facebook.com/groups/PFAAS/permalink/2249032808677258.
(note this is closed Facebook group that you must be a member of in order to view group content. Click here to apply for membership in the group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/PFAAS)
It has been republished here with the kind permission of the contributors on Facebook. 

Bo Bartlett, “Forge (Swords Into Plowshares)” (2008)

by Keith Walker
I belong to a number of private Facebook groups populated by Mormons and Christians. One Mormon apologist asked the group members a good question. He asked, “How did you come to hold the religious worldview that you presently occupy?” The instant thought in my mind was, “I worked for it.” I was immediately struck by the irony of my answer, especially when you take into consideration that it was a Mormon who asked the question.

There is a dichotomy of belief between Mormon and Christian thought and this question, and my answer, exposed exactly how different we are and to what depths that difference extends. What I meant by my answer is that I have put a great deal of time and energy into studying, not only what I believe, but why I believe it. I believe it because I worked hard for it. I worked hard to understand it. The Bible is replete with admonition to early Christians to, “test yourselves to see if you are in the faith” (1 Corinthians 13:5), “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1), “examine the scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11), “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). The outcome of such study is described in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.” In other words, the Christian faith is a reality and there is proof for it, sound reasons to believe it.

What is true about Christianity, and what I have proved to myself about it, is that we do not, nor can we ever, reconcile ourselves to God through our works (Titus 3:5-7). Our works, our performance, our faithfulness, our behavior, has nothing to do with it. The only thing I contributed toward my salvation was the need for it (Romans 3:23). My works, my righteous deeds, are filthy rags and earn me death (Isaiah 64:6, Romans 6:23). This is what I deserve.

What I don’t deserve is to be saved despite my unrighteous works (Ephesians 2:1-9). In fact, the bible says that God justifies, or declares righteous, those who do not work (Romans 4:4-6). The bible mentions two kinds of righteousness in Romans chapter 10, God’s righteousness and our own. Verse three says that if we are seeking to establish our own righteousness, then we are not subjecting ourselves to the righteousness of God. We will either stand before God attempting to establish our own righteousness, (filthy rags, Isaiah 64:6) or we will subject ourselves to the righteousness of God. In other words, we need to repent of our righteousness and accept the righteousness of God provided for us through Jesus! Second Corinthians 5:21 explains that Jesus took on our sin, “so that, we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Our righteousness is insufficient. God will reject it outright. It is only the work of Jesus Christ on my behalf that God accepts. To believe otherwise is to trample under foot the Son of God, consider His blood unclean, and insult the Spirit of grace (Hebrews 10:29).

Mormonism works (pun intended), the opposite way. The only test for faith that prospective Mormons are encouraged to pursue is found in Moroni 10:3-5. Investigators are told to “ask, ponder and pray” and if they do so with real intent, then God will reveal the truth of Mormonism to them by the Holy Ghost. I have had many Mormons testify to me that they have received a spiritual witness, described as a beautiful feeling, that Mormonism is true.

Investigators of Mormonism are not encouraged to test Mormonism by other means. History, archaeology, textual criticism of the Book of Mormon, prophecy, Joseph Smith’s polygamy or criminal activities, none of it matters when compared to the inward, subjective testimony of what is believed to be the Holy Ghost. Not even the bible.

I had one Mormon lady tell me that I could hand her a “stack of facts” proving that Mormonism was false, but she would still believe Mormonism because of her spiritual witness. Note that she did not say, stack of evidence. She said stack of facts. Speaking from more than 25 years’ experience of talking with Mormons, this is not an uncommon sentiment. There is no work, in the sense of study or research, that Mormons are encouraged to pursue for the purpose of strengthening their faith like they are encouraged to pray. Granted, some Mormons do study and research, but what they learn through these disciplines is always subject to how it makes them feel. Their study is subjected to their feelings instead of having their feelings subjected to their study.

Ironically, Mormons believe hard to believe, as opposed to work hard to believe. The book of Mormon redefines faith as incomplete knowledge. Alma 32:21 says, “And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” In other words, you need to believe something is true without any proof, otherwise, what you believe isn’t done so with faith. Verse 27 of the same chapter explains. “But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.” Before you can believe Mormonism is true, you have to desire to believe that Mormonism is true. If you follow this prescribed manner of “belief,” then you will come to “know” that Mormonism is true.

Contrary to the Biblical gospel message, Mormons believe their personal works contribute towards their being forgiven. This is one of the many things they “know” is true about Mormonism. In Mormonism, being reconciled to God is not done as a gift, it is done based on their works. Many Mormons would disagree with that last sentence, but the testimony of Mormon leaders is clear.

“The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation, and it is absolutely necessary for every man and woman in the Church of Christ to work righteousness, to observe the laws of God, and keep the commandments that he has given, in order that they may avail themselves of the power of God unto salvation in this life” (Teachings Of Presidents Of The Church, Joseph F. Smith, p. 243).

“The Lord will bless us to the degree to which we keep His commandments. Nephi … said: ‘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.) The Savior’s blood, His atonement, will save us, but only after we have done all we can to save ourselves by keeping His commandments” (Teachings of The Presidents of The Church, Harold B. Lee, p.24).

In an April 1998 General Conference address, which messages are treated by Mormons as new scripture, Mormon apostle Dallin H. Oaks said, “As to salvation from sin and the consequences of sin, our answer to the question of whether or not we have been saved is “yes, but with conditions.” Our third article of faith declares our belief: ‘We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.’”

Notice the constant theme. Mormons are told they must keep commandments, do all they can do, and that they are saved by their obedience. Mormons work hard because of what they believe. Here is the contrast. Christians work for what we believe, but what we believe cannot be worked for. We work for our faith (belief system), then believe it. Mormons believe their faith (belief system), then work for it. The difference is, Christians are told to test their beliefs to see if it is true, whereas Mormons are taught to believe it and then they will know it is true. This does not line up with what Jesus did in the first chapter of Acts for those who doubted in His resurrection. He did not tell them to pray and believe. Verse three states, “To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.” Christian faith is an objective faith, there are reasons for it and there is proof. If you don’t study, test and question, but just believe, your faith is dead. It isn’t living and active. It is lifeless and rote.

Caravaggio, “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” (c. 1601-1602)

About the Author
Keith Walker is the President of Evidence Ministries. He was born in Michigan City, Indiana in 1967, born again in Rochester, New York in 1988 and has lived in San Antonio, Texas since 1992. Keith has a twisted sense of humor, a strong sense of justice and an unusual way of looking at things.  His favorite book of the Bible is Romans, favorite color is tye-dye, and likes to compete in USPSA sanctioned handgun matches at the Bullethole Shooting Range.  At present, he is a “C” class Production shooter.

Keith’s personal goals are to raise a God-fearing family, mentor his children to be noticeably different Christians, read the Bible through once every year, increase his handgun proficiency and read one book a month. His spiritual goals are to live a life that will count for something and impact others long after God calls him home. Keith’s gravestone will read: Keith Walker, Born: 9/24/1967, Born Again 9/16/1988, Died: Date, When Jesus comes, I’ll be back.

Elder Jeffery R. Holland speaking at the October 2017 General Conference.
(click image to watch the full address)

by Michael Flournoy
During last Fall’s General Conference, I had two Latter-day Saints recommend that I listen to the talk given by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, an apostle of the Mormon faith. The talk, entitled “Be Ye Therefore Perfect- Eventually” was rumored to put the nail in the coffin of the argument levied against the church that it holds to an impossible gospel.

Holland begins his speech by ripping Matthew 5:48 out of context, saying we are to be “…perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect,” and continues, “yet surely the Lord would never give us a commandment He knew we could not keep.” His main idea throughout the talk is that we can be content with steady improvement. The ironic part is even in the out of context version embraced by the LDS church, Jesus did not say to be perfect- eventually. He simply said to be perfect – that is, right here, right now.

The talk’s title, which I was not aware of until recently, called to mind Alma 13:27 which says, “And now, my brethren, I wish from the inmost part of my heart, yea, with great anxiety even unto pain, that ye would hearken unto my words, and cast off your sins, and not procrastinate the day of your repentance.” Alma did not suggest shaving off our sins, little by little. I would argue (and I think Alma would agree) that steady improvement is just a fancy word for procrastination.

Now lest any of you get the wrong idea and think I do not like Elder Holland, let me set the record straight. He is far and away my favorite LDS apostle. As far as public speakers go, he is probably the most powerful man in the entire church. And if he showed up at my door on a stormy night, looking for food and shelter, he would have it. No questions asked.

As I listened to his speech, I felt like a hopeless romantic who was peeling petals off a flower. But instead of saying, “She loves me, she loves me not,” I found myself thinking, “he gets the gospel of Christ. He gets it not. He gets it. He gets it not…” Some of his statements were nothing short of inspirational. My favorite quotes from the talk are as follows:

“Every one of us is a debtor, and the verdict was imprisonment for every one of us. And there we would all have remained were it not for the grace of a King who sets us free because He loves us and is ‘moved with compassion toward us.’”

“Our only hope for true perfection is in receiving it as a gift from heaven- we can’t ‘earn’ it.”

“I am grateful to know that in spite of my imperfections, at least God is perfect—that at least He is, for example, able to love His enemies, because too often, due to the ‘natural man’ and woman in us, you and I are sometimes that enemy. How grateful I am that at least God can bless those who despitefully use Him because, without wanting or intending to do so, we all despitefully use Him sometimes. I am grateful that God is merciful and a peacemaker because I need mercy and the world needs peace.”
(Jeffrey R. Holland, “Be Ye Therefore Perfect—Eventually”, General Conference, October 2017 on the official LDS Church website) 

This final quote hits the nail on the head and is the hope of all Christians everywhere. And while I do appreciate his humility in admitting he needs mercy and is sometimes an enemy of God who despitefully uses Him, it makes me wonder how any Latter-day Saint can expect to eventually gain perfection. Because if Elder Holland, an apostle, has not obtained it at the age of 77, then seriously, who can?

Things take a particularly precarious turn when Jeffrey R. Holland attempts to explain the parable of the Unmerciful Servant. In the parable, a man is forgiven a 10,000 talent debt, only to harshly punish a debtor who owes him a mere 100 pence. It’s a pointed story about the importance of forgiveness.

Holland, however, puts an unusual twist on the meaning of the parable, rendering it not only unbiblical but contrary to The Book of Mormon as well. First, he compares the debts to what they might be in modern U.S. currency. The debt the man was forgiven would be roughly equivalent to 1 billion dollars, while the amount he refused to forgive would be 100 dollars.

After joking that 1 billion dollars is an incomprehensible personal debt (because no one can shop that much) he states,

“Jesus uses an unfathomable measurement here because His Atonement is an unfathomable gift given at an incomprehensible cost. That, it seems to me, is at least part of the meaning behind Jesus’s charge to be perfect. We may not be able to demonstrate yet the 10,000-talent perfection the Father and the Son have achieved, but it is not too much for Them to ask us to be a little more godlike in little things, that we speak and act, love and forgive, repent and improve at least at the 100-pence level of perfection, which it is clearly within our ability to do.”
(Ibid, bolding added for emphasis, italics in original) 

The implication is that we are capable of making a down payment of 100 pence to God and go from there to eventually come to pay the remaining 10,000 talents.

King Benjamin in The Book of Mormon vehemently opposes the gospel taught by Elder Holland. “Are we not all beggars?” he first asks and then expounds on in Mosiah 4:19-20,

“For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?

And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy.”

According to King Benjamin, we are all beggars. And do beggars have the ability to pay 100 pence? No, we do not. Even the servant in the parable used by Jeffrey R. Holland could not pay the 100 pence. What Latter-day Saints are being asked to do essentially, is to be able to leap out of earth’s atmosphere by the end of their lives. But not to worry, a six foot vertical will suffice for now, as it is clearly within our ability to do.

The fact remains that for we fallen, broken, and sin-corrupted children of Adam, perfection is indeed an impossible gospel. Whether it is now, or 50 years down the road, not one of us is up to the challenge – no, not one. We are all beggars.

Perfection has to be granted as a gift – it must be imputed to us. How grateful I am that at least Jesus is impossibly strong and perfect and that He has given me that perfection as a gift. Because if I were trying to obtain it through my own merits, all the time since the creation would not be near enough.

Yes, we are all beggars, but Jesus’ gift of imputed perfection is enough. It is finished.

King Benjamin’s response to Jeffrey R. Holland.
(Mosiah 4:19)

A Critique of Brad Wilcox’s “His Grace is Sufficient”

“And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”
(Matthew 12:7 ESV) 

by Michael Flournoy
I was born and raised in the Mormon Church, and in early 2015 I began a serious study on the topic of grace. One of the first videos I watched was a BYU devotional given by Brad Wilcox called “His Grace is Sufficient”. Not only did Mr. Wilcox revolutionize the way I viewed grace, his talk was largely responsible for my journey out of Mormonism and into mainstream Christianity.

I was surprised when I listened to it recently, to see how it sounded to my Protestant ears. I caught myself saying “amen” half a dozen times. I was struck by how useful his catchphrases were for explaining my own transition. He says for instance, that we aren’t earning heaven, we’re “learning heaven.” He uses a piano analogy where Mom pays for lessons and requires us to practice. Practicing does not pay for the lessons, nor does it pay back Mom. He goes on to say that we’re keeping the commandments for a different reason, “it’s like paying a mortgage instead of rent, making deposits in a savings account instead of paying off debt…”

To this day Brad Wilcox is a favorite LDS speaker of mine. However, I found a few problems with his speech. Namely, the way he describes Evangelical Christians is mostly false. He says his Born Again friends often ask him if he has been saved by the grace of Christ, and he replies with a question they haven’t fully considered: “Have you been changed by grace?”

This is a common misconception about Evangelical Christianity. Having been LDS, I recall thinking the Christian model of salvation was very 2-dimensional. Having passed through the veil so to speak, to the other side, I see now that Christianity is not what Brad portrays it to be.

In fact, as an Evangelical, my day to day lifestyle is not so different from how I lived as a Mormon. What has changed is my motivation for living the way I do: before, I was trying to earn heaven, and now I’m learning it. I was obeying from a place of condemnation, but now it’s from a place of acceptance. Before it was about fear, now it’s about appreciation. When I embraced Brad Wilcox’s grace, I found that I fit in with Evangelicals much more than my fellow Latter-day Saints. So in answer to his unconsidered question, here is my unexpected answer: yes, the grace of Christ is changing me.

As a Latter-day Saint, I scoffed at the idea that we were created for God’s glory alone. As I mentioned previously, it seemed 2-dimensional. I thought those who were “saved” would have no motivation to be better spouses, parents, employees, and disciples. I assumed as Brad stated, that Christians believed “God required nothing of [them]”. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, God’s abundant grace motivates Christians to improve and give their lives to Jesus.

He goes on to explain that Latter-day Saints can sometimes view God’s commandments as overbearing and say, “Gosh, none of the other Christians have to tithe. Gosh, none of the other Christians have to go on missions…” Actually, we do. To set the record straight, “other Christians” do understand the importance of obedience.

I was shocked the first time tithing was discussed at my Protestant church. I thought I had gotten away from all that! My pastor explained that we don’t pay tithing to get into heaven, but because we’re free. As a Latter-day Saint, my perception was that Christians viewed grace as a license to sin. I see now that grace is better described as insurance, covering us in case we sin.

In his speech, Brad Wilcox mentions several people who don’t understand grace: there are those who are giving up on the LDS church because they are tired of falling short, young men and women who graduate from high school and slip up time and again and think it’s over, return missionaries who slip back into bad habits and break temple covenants and give up on hope, and married couples who go through divorce.

He chides anyone who thinks there are only two options: perfection, or giving up. He does not seem concerned that such a huge swath of Latter-day Saints are ignorant about grace, even after admitting he used to picture himself begging to be let into heaven after falling short by two points. My idea of grace was not dissimilar to his. Ironically, he belittles Christians for having the same view of grace he has now, while turning a blind eye to Latter-day Saints who hold an opposing view, as if it were a coincidence.

However, these views against grace are not a coincidence, but a byproduct. My diagnosis is that Brad Wilcox understands grace, but he doesn’t understand Mormonism.

After all, Alma 5:28-29 in The Book of Mormon says if we are not stripped of pride and envy we are not prepared to meet God, nor do we have eternal life. Where’s the grace in that? Doctrine and Covenants 82:7 says if we sin our former sins return to us. Where’s the grace in that? Moroni 8:14 states that should someone die while thinking children need baptism, his destination is hell. Where’s the grace in that? Alma 11:37 says that Jesus cannot save us in our sins. My friends, there is no grace in a religion that says we must amputate all sin from our lives before Jesus can save us.

Mr. Wilcox conveniently leaves out covenants in his speech, which form the foundation of eternal life in Mormonism. According to LDS doctrine, covenants like baptism and temple sealings are required to enter the Celestial Kingdom. These covenants are two-way promises where God gives us eternal life if we keep our end of the bargain. The temple covenants include keeping the commandments, so a Latter-day Saint who fails by 2 points on judgment day will have no right to plead for grace. In Mormonism, grace is not enough.

I do love Brad Wilcox’s speech. I would not be where I am today without it. That said, I call upon him to repent for his false witness against Evangelical Christians and I pray he will see the error in defending an organization that tramples the grace of God. I can say from experience that coming into Protestant Christianity from Mormonism is like “…paying a mortgage instead of rent, making deposits in a savings account instead of paying off debt…”, it’s the difference between being a servant of your own free will, and being a slave.

mercy-and-grace-heat-map

About the Author
Michael Flournoy served a two-year mission for the LDS Church where he helped organize three Mormon/Evangelical dialogues and has participated in debate at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Born into Mormonism, Mr. Flournoy converted to Evangelical Christianity in 2016.