A “Restoration” of the Church and of the Gospel?

firstvisionWith my son’s recent call to serve as a pastor in the Salt Lake City area (at Hope Lutheran Church in West Jordan, Utah), I have been prompted to do some reading once again in the history and teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – known more informally as the Mormon Church – which is based in Salt Lake City. Our Mormon neighbors in the Phoenix metro area – where I live and serve – have also been in the news of late, in view of the upcoming March dedication of a new temple for their church in the City of Gilbert, Arizona.

Most of us know the basic story of Mormonism. Joseph Smith claimed to have been visited by God the Father and Jesus Christ in 1820 (when he was 14 years old), and to have been told by them that all the churches on earth were “corrupt” and that the creeds of these churches were an “abomination” to God. Also according to the Mormon story, Smith was later visited several times also by the angel Moroni, on one occasion by John the Baptist, and on another occasion by the apostles Peter, James, and John. Smith understood it to be his divine mission to restore to the earth the true and alone-saving church of Jesus Christ, with all of the offices and ordinances that the true church needs to have. According to Smith, the church on earth had lost these offices and ordinances soon after the time of the original apostles, thereby causing the church itself to cease to exist on earth.

The eventual organization of the Mormon Church by Smith and his early followers also included the introduction of additional Scriptures (the Book of Mormon, etc.), and the building of special temples for certain rituals that could be performed only in such a temple (such as celestial marriage “for time and eternity,” and proxy baptism for the dead). Smith also promulgated unorthodox teachings regarding the nature and character of God (whom he understood actually to be one of many gods, and formerly to have been a man), and regarding the nature and character of human existence and human salvation. All of this is called the “restoration” of the church by those who believe that these ideas and actions were legitimate and valid.

As Christians, and as Lutherans, we are not among them. With a sober mind, we would recall the admonition and warning of St. Paul: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the race of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6-8, ESV). The unbiblical teachings of Joseph Smith mark him, to us, as having been a false prophet, and not the restorer of the true church.

Lutherans do sometimes speak of the events of the sixteenth century as a “restoration” of sorts. The pure, apostolic gospel of the sinner’s forgiveness and justification before God, by grace through faith in the merits of Christ alone, is sometimes said to have been “restored” to the church through the teaching and reforming activity of Martin Luther and his colleagues. But Lutherans do not believe that this gospel had even been completely lost to the church or the world. In many places it had become obscured, and when it was proclaimed, it was not proclaimed as clearly as it should have been. But Luther does remind us that the essence of the gospel had not disappeared from the earth during the Middle Ages, and therefore that the church of Jesus Christ likewise had never disappeared.

In a 1527 response to certain extremists who did think that there was no salvation available to people under the Medieval and Reformation-era papacy, he wrote: “It is our confession that in the papacy there are the right Holy Scriptures, the right Baptism, the right Sacrament of the Altar, the right keys for forgiveness of sins, the right preaching office, the right catechism, such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed. … Now if Christianity exists under the pope, it must be Christ’s true body and members. If it is His body, then it has the right Spirit, Gospel, Creed, Baptism, Sacrament, keys, preaching office, prayer, Holy Scriptures, and everything that Christianity should have. Therefore we do not rave like the ‘enthusiasts’ that we reject everything in the papacy” (Von der Wiedertaufe).

So, there was no need to restore the church. The church, even during times of theological weakness, had been preserved on earth by its Savior and Lord through the means of grace. This preserved and enduring church truly is the one living temple of God, and the special dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’” (2 Corinthians 6:16, ESV).

But in view of the many corruptions and errors that had indeed crept into the church institutionally during the Middle Ages, the church in the sixteenth century was in need of a reformation – so that the gospel would once again shine forth in brilliance, and once again have its proper place at the center of the church’s life. In fact, the church on earth is in need of reformation in every generation. In every generation, the words of St. Paul are to be heeded: “…test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, ESV). In every generation, the authority of God’s Word needs to be reaffirmed, and God’s Word needs to be applied as a corrective to the challenges and misdirections of the age, so that the faith of God’s people in each generation can be renewed in the certain hope of Christ, and be refocused on the gospel of Christ crucified.

As you in this way abide in the Word and promises of God in Christ, you will be comforted in the assurance that “our Lord Jesus Christ…will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:7-9, ESV).


Comments

A “Restoration” of the Church and of the Gospel? — 5 Comments

  1. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the race of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6-8, ESV).

    This statement by the Apostle Paul would suggest that an apostasy was already in the making during the time of Paul – not 1800 years later; that there were those in Paul’s time who were already teaching a “different gospel” The question that needs to be asked is, Are Lutherans part of the different gospel that Paul warned about? Are Lutherans part of the heritage of “a gospel contrary to the one Paul preached?” What were the actual teachings of Christ at the time of Paul. Do Lutherans actually teach the correct gospel?

    Another question that might be asked is – if the Catholic church had all of the doctrines correct, then any break away including the Lutheran church would be an apostate church which the Catholic church would have excommunicated. So either the Catholic church is the only true church on the face of the earth since all others are breakaways and therefore false – or the Mormon church is because they claim to have “restored” the correct doctrines and authority.

    There is only one way to find out which is true and that is to actually kneel down and ask God which is true. It wouldn’t hurt to read the book of Mormon too, just so you know what you’re praying about. Depending on your sincerity and desire to really know, perhaps this time next week you’ll either be Catholic or Mormon.

  2. Since he’s going to be in the thick of it he might enjoy a book I read a few years ago about Mark Hoffman, a document dealer who sold the Mormons a number of documents, including one called the Salamander Letter, which was purported to be written by Joseph Smith wherein Smith allegedly claimed that it was a golden salamander that showed him where the Golden Plates were buried. The fascinating thing about the book is the duplicity of the Mormon hierarchy in trying to buy up and bury documents that made Joseph Smith and the Mormons look bad. It turns out they were scammed, and everyone wondered how it was that the “12 Apostles” could have been hoodwinked by a document forger turned bomber who killed a number of prominent Mormons . . . The book is a real page turner and a window into how Mormons think . . . AND, it’s a true story.

  3. One thing the Mormons have done right is art. Arnold Friberg made the Book of Mormon seem very real with his incredible illustrations. If you can see it, it must have happened. And for whatever reason, the Mormans are currently enjoying a Renaissance of realist painters. I think Lutherans should learn from this.

  4. @Paul Plumb #1

    “There is only one way to find out which is true and that is to actually kneel down and ask God which is true.”

    This is absolutely not so. Jesus said: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

    And remember the Bereans. They “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

    God has given the Scriptures to the church, and within the church has traditioned them to us, so that they can be the norm, the guide, and (if need be) the corrective, of the church’s doctrine and life. Until the late Middle Ages, it was the standard understanding of the church that the Scriptures are the supreme judge in matters of controverted doctrine. Look here and here.

    The Lutheran claim to continuity with the church of all times is no less pronounced than the Roman Catholic claim. The difference lies in what the “markers” of that continuity are. Is it the gospel preached over the centuries in its truth and purity, and the sacraments administered over the centuries according to the Lord’s institution? Or is it an outward succession over the centuries of bishops in communion with the bishop of Rome? We admit that in certain times and places – when and where the church was in need of evangelical reformation – the “Lutheran” markers appear only in weakness. But let’s not forget the scandal of the “great schism,” when there were two and for a while three rival claimants to the papal throne in late Medieval Europe. How did the unifying function and continuity-guaranteeing function of the papacy work itself out then?

    In contrast to both of these claims, the Mormon Church does not claim such a continuity. That in itself rules it out as a valid Christian option, even apart from their bizarre doctrine. For the sake of argument, Roman Catholicism might be the best embodiment of the true church of all time, and Lutheranism might be the best embodiment of the true church of all time, since they both at least claim to be that, and make their case to the world that they are that. Mormonism unabashedly says that it is not that.

    J. L. Neve observes: “Mormonism is a strange and incongruous mixture of Jewish and heathen ideas covered over with Christian terminology. It stands opposed to evangelical doctrine at every point.” Dr. Neve could conclude this because he examined L.D.S. teaching in light of Holy Scripture, not because he knelt down and asked God if Mormonism is true. That would be tempting the Lord – asking him, in effect, if his Word really is true, and if that which directly contradicts it really is false.

  5. Paul Plumb Wrote:

    There is only one way to find out which is true and that is to actually kneel down and ask God which is true. It wouldn’t hurt to read the book of Mormon too, just so you know what you’re praying about. Depending on your sincerity and desire to really know, perhaps this time next week you’ll either be Catholic or Mormon.

    So, the only way to know the truth is to look into your heart and wait for the “burning in the bosom?” Wow. Was it not Jesus who said in many places that the heart is deceitful above all else and cannot be trusted? I’m thinking that looking to how one feels about their belief is a pointless exercise in naval gazing. When I look inside I see nothing but sin and the deceit of the devil. It is only in Christ that I can stand in the presence of the One who hates both sin and the sinner apart from the work of His Son to save. Thanks anyway, but I will put my trust in God’s Word, not in my heart or the teachings of a man who claimed to have been visited by an angel from heaven against the advice of St. Paul, who said that if either he or an angel from heaven comes with a “gospel” different from the one we have received, let him be accursed.

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