With 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).