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Nearly half of all Americans know a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).1 The LDS Church is known for its missionary efforts. By the end of 2023, it expects to deploy 72,000 proselytizing missionaries.2 In fact, thirty percent of LDS Church members are converts,3 while convert baptisms have increased by 25 percent this year.4 And despite how Mormon doctrine diverges significantly from the Bible, the majority of LDS converts have some kind of Christian background.5
This situation led us to write the book Responding to the Mormon Missionary Message,6 from which this essay is adapted, with three purposes in mind. First, the book and this essay will resource Christians who want to compare Mormonism with biblical Christianity. Second, they will prepare Christians to resist Mormon conversion tactics. Most importantly, Christians will gain confidence to share their faith with Latter-day Saints, whether missionaries or not.
We believe the preparation to do this involves studying how to respond to LDS truth claims. But we also must learn how to treat the missionaries. Many missionaries report only negative interactions with Bible-believing Christians — having been mocked, insulted, and yelled at, rather than engaged with grace in a constructive faith conversation.
We also believe it is crucial to consider two larger issues that inform our witness to Latter-day Saints: culture and epistemology.
Latter-day Saint Culture
For biblical truth to land in the LDS soul, discussions need to account for how Mormon culture shapes LDS identity and influences how Mormons hear and evaluate truth. The good news of God’s saving work through Jesus Christ is universal and unchanging. Yet every human culture regards certain forms of communication as normal and credible. Each culture has unique ways of thinking about issues like what is true and what is not, the human predicament, or the nature of the non-physical world. When we share the gospel, we seek to understand our audience’s culture so that the message might actually be heard.
The apostle Paul’s practice exemplifies this. In Acts 13:16–42, speaking to a Jewish audience in Pisidian Antioch, Paul starts by quoting the Jewish Scriptures and argues for their fulfillment in Jesus as Messiah. In Acts 14:8–20, addressing a rural pagan audience in Lystra, Paul doesn’t quote Jewish Scriptures, which are completely foreign to his audience, but opens with the goodness of God they had experienced in His creation. Later, in Acts 17:16–31, addressing a sophisticated pagan audience in Athens, he starts with their general religious sentiment, quotes their own authors, and builds a bridge to the resurrected Jesus. In each situation, Paul communicates in a way appropriate to that specific cultural setting.
Christians interacting with Latter-day Saints should take into account cultural factors that influence how the truth is heard. For example, Latter-day Saints learn the core precepts of their faith by retelling foundational stories that illustrate important truths, such as the First Vision Narrative (described below).7 The centrality of stories in Mormonism invites us to share God’s truth not just in propositions but in story form as well. Latter-day Saints are also very sensitive to perceived persecution. With the memory of past wrongs woven into their shared experience, any criticism, even mild disagreement, can be construed as an attack against them and their faith. Finally, LDS culture underscores that truth is determined by experience. This leads us to the second issue inherent in faith conversations with Mormons.
Latter-day Saint Epistemology
Latter-day Saints believe that upon sincere prayer, God will grant an internal knowledge (a “testimony”) of the truth of their message. This subjective, internal approach to truth is not an essential doctrine for Mormons, but as a central aspect of Latter-day Saint culture, it is an essential factor to take into account when engaging in dialogue with them. Christians often walk away from discussions with Mormons deflated that all their great facts and logical arguments didn’t land, while their Mormon friend clings irrationally to their testimony. Doctrine and Covenants 9:8–9 describes the testimony as a “burning in the bosom,” which LDS apostle Dallin Oaks defined as “a feeling of comfort and serenity.”8 Another LDS leader asserts, “Sincere feelings conveyed from heart to heart by means of testimony convert people to the truth where weak, wishy-washy, argumentative statements will not.”9
We need our Mormon friends to first begin to doubt their testimony before they can believe the truth we share. After thoughtfully creating a place of doubt, we can make use of their high esteem for testimonial knowledge by deploying our own personal testimony, in conjunction with the powerful objective testimony of the Bible. One creative way to help people reflect on their testimony is to use a “police lineup” illustration. In a police lineup, the suspect of a crime stands next to several people of similar height and appearance. The task is to identify the real culprit versus the mere look-alikes. In broader Mormonism, the testimony that adherents seek to obtain is seen by them as the final representation of God’s truth. But the question is: which Mormonism? Since Joseph Smith’s death, numerous competing Mormon sects have arisen, including the Community of Christ, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the movements known as Bickertonites and Strangites, to name a few. Each competing group claims to have received a testimony about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, along with their authorized version of Mormonism. Yet all of their testimonies disagree. So, which is the real one true church?
The police lineup illustration points out to Latter-day Saints a reason to question the reliability of their testimonies compared to others. It is rhetorically powerful because it uses “Mormonese” — the language of experience — and subverts their misuse of testimony, while preparing to use our own testimony properly. (A Christian’s testimony is likewise subjective but corresponds to the objective testimony of Holy Scripture.)
As you give your own testimony, use the most explicit statement in Scripture that tests the legitimacy of a testimony: 1 John 5:9–13. Ask your LDS friend if they have the testimony this passage speaks of. If they died today, would they know that they would experience eternal life with Heavenly Father? God is not a liar. We can know we have eternal life because we trust in Christ’s work alone. Mormonism does not offer the confidence that our testimony has, nor is it in harmony with God’s testimony. He says that whoever has the Son can know that eternal life with their Heavenly Father is assured. What a wonderful promise to both embrace and share!
The Mormon Missionary Manual: Preach My Gospel
Latter-day Saint missionaries are trained using a manual called Preach My Gospel.10 Responding to the Mormon Missionary Message interacts directly with the five lessons in Preach My Gospel that express what missionaries want potential converts (“investigators”) to accept.
Lesson One: The Message of the Restoration. Missionaries will assert that through a general apostasy, the original church founded by Jesus was lost. Since God’s authority was no longer found on the Earth, the true church had to be restored. The lesson begins by trying to establish the importance of prophets throughout human history. “Whenever people choose to disregard, disobey, or distort any gospel principle or ordinance, whenever they reject the Lord’s prophets…they distance themselves from God and begin to live in spiritual darkness.”11 It then introduces the idea that Jesus imparted divine authority to his followers. “[The Savior] called twelve men to be His Apostles and laid His hands on their heads to give them priesthood authority.”12
With that foundation in mind, the lesson argues for a complete apostasy. “With the death of the Apostles, priesthood keys and the presiding priesthood authority were taken from the earth….Without the Apostles, over time the doctrine was corrupted, and unauthorized changes were made in Church organization and priesthood ordinances, such as baptism and conferring the gift of the Holy Ghost.”13
To support the idea of an apostasy, Latter-day Saints believe that the Bible has been corrupted. Without prophetic authority to interpret Scripture, well-meaning (or corrupt) scribes made changes to the Bible. With so many errors in transmission over such a long time, the inevitable conclusion is that the Bible cannot be trusted to convey the true message of salvation.
LDS claims of a general apostasy are built on a misunderstanding of Scripture and history. The argument appeals to 1 Timothy 4:1–3. This text foretells that individuals will indeed depart from the faith through unbiblical doctrines, yet it never speaks about an institutional church. There is no evidence in the Bible or early Christian history that the LDS forms of priesthood supposedly established by Jesus ever existed, and no historical evidence of widespread abandonment of biblical doctrine. The science of textual criticism, analyzing the staggering number of biblical manuscripts available today, demonstrates that there has been no substantial corruption of the Bible.
However, the idea of general apostasy sets the table for the LDS claim of a restoration. Missionaries teach that in 1820, Joseph Smith, a sincere young farm boy, sought the truth amid a flurry of religious revival. He wanted to know which among the myriad churches was true. God appeared to him with the message that all of them were false (this is the First Vision Narrative mentioned above). Later Smith was visited by John the Baptist, Peter, James and John, Isaiah, Moses, and even Jesus himself. All the prophets of past ages returned to restore the knowledge and priesthood powers that had been lost. The original church was restored!
Yet one problem with the LDS restoration story is that much of what Joseph Smith established was never part of the original first-century church. This includes baptisms for the dead, regimented priesthood roles, temples (where people prove their worthiness to enter and receive secret knowledge to gain salvation), and much more. Another problem is Smith’s concept of prophetic ministry. While this restored church was led by prophets (starting with Smith), Latter-day Saint prophets are not of the kind God sent in biblical times. And their message runs counter to what God has already revealed in the Bible.
Lesson Two: The Plan of Salvation. The second lesson in the LDS missionary presentation overviews the LDS salvation metanarrative, from premortal life to eternal rewards. Missionaries open this lesson by asserting: “Our message helps us understand the purpose of life and who we are. It gives us hope and helps us find peace, joy, and happiness. It tells us where we came from, why we are here on earth, and where we will go after this life.”14
They will describe how Heavenly Father devised a plan whereby all of his children may become like him. They would come to Earth, receive a physical body, and have the possibility of becoming like he is. This sojourn on Earth would be a time of testing and trial, to show whether they would follow good or evil. Overcoming sin would require a Savior to atone for mankind and provide a way to be free from sin’s consequences — namely, death and separation from God’s presence. Jesus was chosen in the premortal council in heaven to come to Earth as mankind’s Savior. Those who would follow the laws and ordinances of the gospel would be able to return to Heavenly Father after this life.
This message assumes that every human is a literal spirit child of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, who lived with God in a pre-existent state before coming to Earth. Yet the Bible teaches that we are not literal children of God by nature. Those who believe in Christ become God’s children by adoption, by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.15 To those who “received Him,” God “gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13).16 Regarding the claim of pre-existence, the Bible teaches that God formed us within our mother’s womb. The psalmist gives praise to the Lord because of this: “For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13).
The key element in the Mormon Plan of Salvation is the atonement of Jesus. “Jesus Christ is central to God’s plan. Christ’s atoning sacrifice overcame the effects of both physical and spiritual death. We will all be resurrected and will live forever with physical bodies free of pain and sickness. Christ also made it possible to overcome spiritual death. As we live His gospel He will mercifully forgive our sins.”17
On this topic, LDS beliefs depart from the Bible by minimizing the role of the cross. First, they believe that Jesus bled from every pore of his body in the garden of Gethsemane. Second, they believe that Jesus paid the price for our sins while praying in Gethsemane. Christians recognize that Jesus’s suffering in the garden was indeed a reality, but they do not believe that this was when He paid the debt for our sins. Christ’s suffering and death upon the cross is the event that reconciled man with God (1 Peter 2:24; 1 Corinthians 1:18; Colossians 1:20; Ephesians 2:16).
The Mormon Plan of Salvation culminates with the promise that everyone enters some kingdom of glory in the afterlife, “according to our works and desires.”18 There is no prospect of hell. Yet the Bible paints a different picture. Hell is described as a reality — a real state of being not just reserved for a few. In fact, Jesus spoke of hell more than any other figure or author in the New Testament.
Lesson Three: The Gospel of Jesus Christ. This lesson explains the principles and ordinances that human beings are required to fulfill so that “We can be forgiven of our sins, and we will be able to return to live in the presence of our Father in Heaven.”19
The first principle of the Mormon gospel is faith in Jesus Christ. LDS missionaries will teach: “Faith in Christ leads to action. It leads to sincere and lasting change. Having faith causes us to try as hard as we can to learn about and become more like our Savior….We believe in Christ, and we believe that He wants us to keep all His commandments. We show our faith by obeying Him” (emphasis added).20
Christians do indeed believe that Jesus is Lord and should be obeyed,21 so what’s the difference? The answer lies in how Mormons read Philippians 2:12: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Are Christians supposed to live their lives in fear and trembling because they might not be found good enough to live in God’s presence, or does this fear and trembling come from the fact that the very God of heaven and earth “works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13)?22 The LDS version of faith is not mere belief or even trust. For Latter-day Saints, faith is strictly a verb. It includes completing extrabiblical works that are requisites to receiving blessings.
The second principle of the LDS Gospel, as explained by the missionaries, is repentance. Mormons are taught that they must repent daily and abandon their sins, or their former sins will be held against them: “And the anger of God kindleth against the inhabitants of the earth; and none doeth good, for all have gone out of the way. And now, verily I say unto you, I, the Lord, will not lay any sin to your charge; go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God.”23
The goal of every believer in the “restored gospel” is to become like God — to become gods themselves, as Joseph Smith taught.24 But God is perfect. Latter-day Saints who understand the impossibility of that goal know that they cannot have blessed assurance — neither in this life nor in the life to come. This is why Latter-day Saints so often report feeling hopeless. They face a long and repeating process, a never-ending climb up a staircase or a ladder.
While Mormons are taught that faith is an action word and that repentance also requires them to act, these are largely internal aspects of a person’s life. The first ordinances of the “restored gospel” — baptism and confirmation — are external acts. These sacred ceremonies or rites show that a person has entered into a covenant with God.25 Missionaries will tell the investigator, “Covenants place us under a strong obligation to honor our promises to God. We should desire to worthily receive the covenants that God offers us and then strive to keep them.”26
The person receiving baptism, then, promises to do certain things, and in return for faithfully keeping that covenant, God promises to provide certain blessings. The “restored gospel” is one of reciprocity: do this and you shall receive that. Baptism removes the guilt of past transgressions. Latter-day Saints must then try to keep their promise to love and care for others in order to receive forgiveness for future sins.
Confirmation is the rite by which newly baptized members of the LDS Church receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. The missionaries will teach: “The Holy Ghost has a sanctifying, cleansing effect upon us. Through the gift and power of the Holy Ghost, we can receive and retain a remission of sins through continued faith in Christ, repentance, and following the will of God and obedience to His commandments. Those who receive the gift of the Holy Ghost and remain worthy can enjoy His companionship throughout their lives.”27
The companionship of the Holy Spirit is what provides the power to overcome sin and become sanctified. Notice, though, the two instances of the word “can” in the above quotation. Mormons are taught that while they have the right to the Spirit’s companionship, this is conditional upon their obedience to LDS teachings. Their Scripture teaches, “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.”28
Lesson Four: The Commandments, and Lesson Five: Laws and Ordinances.29 Building on the doctrinal foundations outlined in previous lessons, these lessons explain specific directives God has given. Commandments explained in Lesson Four include: obedience, prayer, Scripture study, Sabbath observance, following the prophet, keeping the ten commandments, chastity, the word of wisdom, tithing, fasting, and obeying civil law. Lesson Five adds another set of requirements: missionary work, eternal marriage, temple work and family history, service, and enduring to the end. “If we endure to the end of our lives in being true to our covenants, we will receive exaltation.”30
These lists outline what people need to do to live out “the gospel.” This gospel, however, never affords any point when someone can rest in the grace of Christ. It is not good news at all.
Preach My Gospel states, “Work with members to help people you are teaching accept and begin living these laws and ordinances. Help people recognize that by keeping God’s laws, they will retain a remission of their sins and stay on the pathway to exaltation.”31 This is not the gospel of grace, the good news that Christ justifies the ungodly by imputing His righteousness to them. Imputation refers to the biblical truth that Jesus lived a perfect life of obedience on our behalf and offered this righteousness to us on the cross, contingent on nothing but faith.32 In contrast, in the Mormon gospel, grace is reduced to an enabling power, while salvation is gained from obedience and repentance. Mormon Scripture states that “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”33 The LDS Church rejects imputation and teaches a gospel of amputation: you must amputate the sin from your life in order to become worthy.
It’s All about Jesus
We’ve seen that the Mormon missionary lessons elevate the role of human achievement in salvation, with Jesus playing a crucial but limited role. Because of this emphasis on worthiness and perfection, the authors of Responding to the Mormon Missionary Message (all former Mormons themselves) rightly identify the hopelessness many Latter-day Saints feel and their desperate need for the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is one word that undoes all the heresy and abuse of the LDS Church. There is one word that lights up the darkness and provides a ray of hope. That word is the majestic name of Jesus.
Everything the LDS Church preaches is made null and void by what Jesus Christ does and who He is. The need for eternal marriage is nullified because Jesus is our bridegroom. The temples are obsolete because Jesus imputes His righteousness vicariously on the cross. Enduring to the end ceases to be man’s responsibility and becomes a work of God. Jesus is our prophet, so we no longer need to place ourselves under the authority of LDS leaders. Jesus is our proxy. We no longer need to do works to merit salvation because our work has already been done. Jesus is our eternal family, our priesthood, and our temple. We can trust that His grace is sufficient to catch us and carry us home.
Ross Anderson, DMin, was born in Utah and was raised LDS and left Mormonism as a young adult. Ross is currently a teaching pastor at Alpine Church. He is also the executive director of Utah Advance Ministries and founder of the Faith after Mormonism project.
Corey Miller, PhD, was born in Utah as a seventh-generation Mormon. Miller is president and CEO of Ratio Christi (ratiochristi.org), a campus apologetics evangelism ministry on 125 campuses.
- Michael Lipka, “How Many People of Different Faiths Do You Know?,” Pew Research Center, July 17, 2014, https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2014/07/17/how-many-people-of-different-faiths-do-you-know/.
- Susan Bates and Jacob Hess, “The Number of Latter-day Saint Missionaries Is Rising Rapidly,” Deseret News, June 28, 2023, https://www.deseret.com/faith/2023/6/28/23774517/number-of-lds-missionaries-going-up.
- “Chapter 2: Religious Switching and Intermarriage,” Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, May 12, 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2015/05/12/chapter-2-religious-switching-and-intermarriage/.
- Bates and Hess, “The Number of Latter-day Saint Missionaries Is Rising Rapidly.”
- “Religious Beliefs and Practices,” Religion and Public Life Project, Pew Research Center, January 12, 2012, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2012/01/12/mormons-in-america-beliefs-and-practices.
- Corey Miller and Ross Anderson (with other contributors), Responding to the Mormon Missionary Message: Confident Conversations with Mormon Missionaries (and Other Latter-day Saints) (Abbotsford, WI: Aneko Press, 2023).
- Joseph Smith — History 1:5–20 (Pearl of Great Price).
- Dallin Oaks, “Teaching and Learning by the Spirit,” Ensign, March 1997, 13.
- Gene R. Cook, “Are You a Member Missionary?,” Ensign, May 1976, 103.
- Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004, 2019), https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/preach-my-gospel-a-guide-to-missionary-service.
- Preach My Gospel, 34.
- Preach My Gospel, 35.
- Preach My Gospel, 36.
- Preach My Gospel, 56.
- Editors’ note: See endnote 32 below.
- Unless noted otherwise, Bible quotations are from the NKJV. Editors’ note: The Lord Jesus taught, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:5–8). And the apostle Paul wrote, “When the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4–7).
- Preach My Gospel, 57.
- Preach My Gospel, 59.
- Preach My Gospel, 68.
- Preach My Gospel, 62–63.
- Editors’ note: The Lord Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15 NASB); James wrote, “as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26).
- It is critical not to take Philippians 2:12 out of context and sever it from verse 13.
- Doctrine and Covenants 82:6–7.
- “You have got to learn how to be gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all gods have done before you.” Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith, ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1969), 348.
- Preach My Gospel, 64.
- Preach My Gospel, 64.
- Preach My Gospel, 65.
- Doctrine and Covenants 82:10. Contrast this teaching with Romans 4:1–5.
- In a future version of Preach My Gospel to be printed next year, these two chapters are combined into one, and organized around the four elements of the LDS baptismal covenant.
- Preach My Gospel, 94.
- Preach My Gospel, 86.
- Editors’ note: Many orthodox Christians (including not a few evangelicals and Protestants, as well as Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics) do not affirm the imputation of Christ’s righteousness or forensic justification and yet do not reduce salvation to a system of works righteousness. In accord with Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie, many proponents of forensic justification distinguish between “what is essential to the gospel itself” and “what is essential for people to believe about the gospel in order to be saved.” Geisler and MacKenzie argue that one can be saved “by grace alone, through faith alone, based on Christ alone” and yet be ignorant of the mechanism of forensic justification in their salvation. They would say we are not saved by believing in the doctrine of forensic justification; we are saved by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ. In a private email to the editors, Ross Anderson aptly stated: “I think the point actually is, ‘In what does a person trust to be right with God?’ — in the finished work of Jesus or in one’s own achievement of worthiness?” See Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995), 502.
- 2 Nephi 25:23 (Book of Mormon)