Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Agency & Atonement

I'm currently reading Claiming Christ by Robert Millet and Gerald McDermott. Millet is LDS and McDermott is an evangelical Lutheran.

In chapter 7 a discussion comes up on agency's role in salvation. McDermott believes that if a person had a choice to come unto Christ, man would be a co-participator in his salvation and that such an arrangement would do damage to grace. Further, man, being totally depraved, could not choose to accept Christ. It is beyond his capacity to do so. Lastly, because of the Fall of man, it is theoretically and practically impossible for man to live without sin. God elects who will be saved and makes the first move in salvation. Therefore, salvation is by grace alone.

Millet, on the other hand, insists that man is free to choose to accept the atonement of Jesus on man's behalf or to reject it. He is capable theoretically, if not practically, to live without sin. However, no man does so. Man is has received a fallen nature that is prone toward sin, but man has the power to resist sin and to choose to follow God. Since no man, excepting Jesus, has kept all of God's commandments and followed God perfectly, all need redemption through Jesus. Therefore, salvation is by grace alone.

I was in a ponderous mood when I read this. Let me share some of my thoughts with you.

What is a greater manifestation of grace--A) God saves man who couldn't have ever been perfect anyway or, (McDermott's evangelical view) B) God saves man who could have been perfect, but chose not to? (Millet's LDS view)? I think the second is the greater manifestation of grace and mercy.

If fallen man could not ever choose of his own free-will and choice to follow God (McDermott's evangelical view), then how can God condemn man when he doesn't follow Him? Would this destroy God's justice?

Since Jesus was fully man (evangelical and LDS views) and he lived a perfect life without sin (evangelical and LDS views), what would prohibit a man (theoretically) to live a perfect life without sin?

I have more questions and ideas, but I think that's a good place to stop for now. I think the evangelical view as represented by McDermott does damage to God's perfect justice and mercy. On the other hand, I believe the LDS view restores these two attributes to God in their perfection.

Let me say that while I believe men could, in theory, live a perfect life, I do not think that any man has ever done so (in practicality) except Jesus. In my mind, this is what is so marvelous about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Even though we have all fallen short of the glory of God, have sinned, and deserve an infinite hell, if we stop serving our will and decide to serve God's will, He will forgive us because of the merits, mercy, and grace of his Son.

Since God is just, he cannot condemn a man for something he did not choose to do of his own free will. If man were totally depraved and incapable of following God, God could not condemn us because we sin.

Truly God's justice and mercy are brought into perfect harmony in Jesus Christ!

How great, how glorious, how complete,
Redemption's grand design,
Where justice, love, and mercy meet
In harmony divine!

Eliza R. Snow (LDS),
(Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 195).

What do you think?


chad said...

First you said "If fallen man could not ever choose of his own free-will and choice to follow God (McDermott's evangelical view), then how can God condemn man when he doesn't follow Him?" ~

I agree this seems to fly in the face of any basic understanding of justice - this debate over agency is very similar to the Calvinist -vs- Arminianist debate that has raged (maybe rage is too strong a word now a days) in mainstream Protestant circles...Arminius says God elects but we must accept - Calvin says God elects and we cannot resist...strangely though this theologian is a Lutheran...I thought that the Lutheran understanding of election and grace was closer to the Arminian stance...I guess I was wrong...

Second you said "Let me say that while I believe men could, in theory, live a perfect life, I do not think that any man has ever done so (in practicality) except Jesus."

What are your thoughts on Zachariah & Elizabeth?

Luke 1:4-6 (NRSV)

"In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord."

Is this a different type of perfection than that of Jesus? Is this an example other than Jesus that humankind can be live God's commandments if we choose?

Then might we also consider Job?

"There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. " Job 1:1 (NRSV) KJV uses the word "perfect" instead of blameless...

These two examples at least raise more questions for me...I liked this post keep them coming

Andrew Miller said...


Thanks for your post. My understand is that Luther and Calvin both embraced St. Augustine's understanding of pre-destination. Calvin was very outspoken on the subject and so has had the honor of this concept being named after him. So, yes, I think Lutherans are generally Calvinistic. This website seems to confirm this. Thanks for asking.

The scriptures that refer to people living blamelessly or perfectly are interesting indeed. I believe they refer to a concept of relative perfection. Compared to the vast majority of mankind, these people were perfect and blameless. In other words, these people lived their lives nearly perfectly but may have still committed sins. Romans 3:23 says "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." However, these people who were "perfect" or "blameless" probably committed more sins of omission than sins of commission.

Another possibility is that their perfection has reference to their perfection in Christ. A Book of Mormon scripture would be helpful:

"Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God. And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot " (Moroni 10:32-33)

In other words, if a person comes to Christ, makes and keeps a covenant with him to follow him, keep his commandments, etc, then that person is perfect in Christ by virtue of that covenant. This perfection is relative in that while the individual may still sin at times (so long as he continues to repent), he is perfect in God's eyes because of his covenant with Christ. It is not actual perfection, but relative perfection. Actual perfection, I do believe, is the goal God has for all of us, but I believe that will not fully be realized until long after death.

chad said...

My only contention with that idea would be that all these people mentioned existed prior to Christ's 'actual' sacrifice ~ now if we are saying that because Christ is the "...lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev 13:8) a concept the BoM prophets seemed to have a better grasp over than did the OT prophets then I suppose that would qualify the blamelessness and or perfection of these figures as being something they obatined through their excercise of faith in Christ...however at face value it would seem to me that this would be a bit of a stretch.

Now if we look to judaism and it's observance of the 613 mitzvot as the mark of someones righteousness then this would better explain the perfection these figures obatined...and in turn one could (a Christian) still deem that a lesser perfection because the law is a shadow of that which is/was to come, namely even if one was to obey all the Mosaic commands ~ commands which find their fulfillment in Christ (something I found interested when comparing the beatitudes in the gospel accounts and then in 3 Nephi is that in Nephi Christ says the law is fulfilled in him)one would still be found wanting, because the perfection of that law is found in Christ...

Interesting anyway.

chad said...

Also from the Evangelical Lutheran Church website


Andrew Miller said...


Great insights. You're right. Their "perfection" may have been measured by their observance of the law. That is a very likely answer to your question.

Thanks for the link. It is insightful!

You're also right that LDS believe that Christ's coming and sacrifice was not only prefigured in OT times, but was understood (at least by some). We also believe that the atonement of Christ had saving power even before it was performed. There are two possible explanations for this: 1) Christ's atonement was infinite and therefore timeless--it applies to all time both before and after it happened. 2) The atonement's power had application before it happened by virtue of the covenant made by Christ to be a sacrifice for sin. In other words, since Jesus could be trusted it was as though his atonement had already happened simply because he said he would do it.

I think both are possibilities.

Chad, I appreciate your comments and insights. I'm learning from them and it's nice to know I'm not just "shouting at the wind" around here.

chad said...


Blogs can be if nothing else very therapeutic...I have a political blog covering my local town and county government that gets some comments and I have a personal blog that chronicles a recent trip I took to the Palestinian West Bank - no one comments on that one...but both allow a certain pleasure in simply writing down thoughts.

I really am enjoying your blog - I have been researching the church for a while now (w/o mssionaries or even a mormon friend) so your insights are helping me as I try to both spiritually and intellectually discern how I "feel" about the LDS church, BoM and J.S. thanks for continuing to post....

BTW the idea of the atonement having saving power prior to it's actual and physical realization has been a stumbling block for me while reading the BoM. I have found it hard to believe that the Nephite prophets had such a vivid understanding of Christ and his role so long before his enfleshment while the OT prophets seem to only allude to him - it is still something I am trying to hash out - I think I have pretty much decided that J.S. couldn't have written the BoM as a work of his own, yet I still stumble over this pre-Christ understanding and the many words and references that would be better placed in NT times than 100 or more years B.C. (i.e. church, the name Jesus Christ of Greek derivation, Baptism etc...) I can give that the language is given so it is familiar to a 19th cent readership, but still the concepts are very much NT so I struggle with that...but I keep on reading and taking Moroni's challenge....

Andrew Miller said...

My parents were both raised as southern baptists. In 1973 my uncle, a southern baptist preacher, joined the LDS Church. While he was studing the NT in school, he became convinced that there were doctrines taught in the New Testament that were not reconciliable with his beliefs as a baptists. When he had contact with the LDS Church, he found the answers he was looking for and joined. He very soon told my parents about it.

My parents were baptized two and a half years later after intensive study. Like you, my parents never saw a missionary once. My dad preferred to study on his own. He read the Book of Mormon, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, and of course, the Bible. My parents made some friends at church before they were baptized (they often attended both churches), and when one of these friends invited them to be baptized, my dad says that his mouth open and said he would be baptized "tomorrow" while his mind was saying "I'm not ready!" After being baptized, the Holy Ghost was poured out on him and he gained a perfect assurance that it is true.

I was raised in the Church. Not long before I turned 15, (the beginning of my sophmore year in High School) I decided to read the Book of Mormon. I started reading and I couldn't put it down! I read through it quickly. I had several experiences that witnessed to me that the book was divine. At the time, I didn't recognize the experiences as such. After I finished reading I prayed to know if it was true. A thought came strongly to my mind, "Andrew, you already know it is true!" In fact, I did. As I read the book the Spirit testified to me time and time again that it was true even before I asked God. Before that school year was over I read all of the church's standard works (the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price).

As far as this issue goes of Christ being preached before his coming, I hope Joseph Smith's words on this issue may be of some help or interest to you:

"It is said by Paul in his letter to the Hebrew brethren, that Abel obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts. To whom did God testify of the gifts of Abel, was it to Paul? We have very little on this important subject in the forepart of the Bible. But it is said that Abel himself obtained witness that he was righteous. Then certainly God spoke to him: indeed, it is said that God talked with him; and if He did, would He not, seeing that Abel was righteous deliver to him the whole plan of the Gospel? And is not the Gospel the news of the redemption? How could Abel offer a sacrifice and look forward with faith on the Son of God for a remission of his sins, and not understand the Gospel? The mere shedding of the blood of beasts or offering anything else in sacrifice, could not procure a remission of sins, except it were performed in faith of something to come; if it could, Cain's offering must have been as good as Abel's. And if Abel was taught of the coming of the Son of God, was he not taught also of His ordinances? We all admit that the Gospel has ordinances, and if so, had it not always ordinances, and were not its ordinances always the same? Perhaps our friends will say that the Gospel and its ordinances were not known till the days of John, the son of Zacharias, in the days of Herod, the king of Judea. But we will here look at this point: For our own part we cannot believe that the ancients in all ages were so ignorant of the system of heaven as many suppose, since all that were ever saved, were saved through the power of this great plan of redemption, as much before the coming of Christ as since; if not, God has had different plans in operation (if we may so express it), to bring men back to dwell with Himself; and this we cannot believe, since there has been no change in the constitution of man since he fell; and the ordinance or institution of offering blood in sacrifice, was only designed to be performed till Christ was offered up and shed His blood—as said before—that man might look forward in faith to that time. It will be noticed that, according to Paul, (see Gal. 3:8) the Gospel was preached to Abraham. We would like to be informed in what name the Gospel was then preached, whether it was in the name of Christ or some other name. If in any other name, was it the Gospel? And if it was the Gospel, and that preached in the name of Christ, had it any ordinances? If not, was it the Gospel? And if it had ordinances what were they? Our friends may say, perhaps, that there were never any ordinances except those of offering sacrifices before the coming of Christ, and that it could not be possible before the Gospel to have been administered while the law of sacrifices of blood was in force. But we will recollect that Abraham offered sacrifice, and notwithstanding this, had the Gospel preached to him. That the offering of sacrifice was only to point the mind forward to Christ, we infer from these remarkable words of Jesus to the Jews: 'Your Father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad' (John 8:56). So, then, because the ancients offered sacrifice it did not hinder their hearing the Gospel; but served, as we said before, to open their eyes, and enable them to look forward to the time of the coming of the Savior, and rejoice in His redemption. We find also, that when the Israelites came out of Egypt they had the Gospel preached to them, according to Paul in his letter to the Hebrews, which says: 'For unto us was the Gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it' (Heb. 4:2). It is said again, in Gal. 3:19, that the law (of Moses, or the Levitical law) was 'added' because of transgression. What, we ask, was this law added to, if it was not added to the Gospel? It must be plain that it was added to the Gospel, since we learn that they had the Gospel preached to them.

"From these few facts, we conclude that whenever the Lord revealed Himself to men in ancient days, and commanded them to offer sacrifice to Him, that it was done that they might look forward in faith to the time of His coming, and rely upon the power of that atonement for a remission of their sins. And this they have done, thousands who have gone before us, whose garments are spotless, and who are, like Job, waiting with an assurance like his, that they will see Him in the latter day upon the earth, even in their flesh.

"We may conclude, that though there were different dispensations, yet all things which God communicated to His people were calculated to draw their minds to the great object, and to teach them to rely upon God alone as the author of their salvation, as contained in His law." (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected and arranged by Joseph Fielding Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976], 59-61.)

Andrew Miller said...

Here are some links that might be helpful to you:

Christianity in the pre-Christian Book of Mormon

Baptism in the Book of Mormon (pre-Christian)

The Word "Church" before Christ in the Book of Mormon

Was John’s baptism a new ordinance or were the people already familiar with it?

How much do we know about baptism before Christ’s time?

Andrew Miller said...

PS Chad, a friend of mine posted a response on the other blog post. He says if you liked D&C 88 you'll also like D&C 93 and you should read it. Just wanted to let you know

chad said...

OK...going to read section 93 today.

It's great to hear about your background. My grandmother was Baptist (although not SBC) and my father's family was Reformed. My dad is a retired pastor who served in various Evangelical churches for about 50 it's interesting to learn of your that vein I like reading Millet, I think he is a good author for people raised in Evangelical circles...

Also - The quotes from Joseph Smith are yet another example for me that he was not just a mere farm boy...I will check out the links you provided...and be back...thanks

Andrew Miller said...

Of course, Joseph Smith started out as a farm boy, but he moved well beyond that in his lifetime. He learned foreign languages including German, Latin, Hebrew, Greek, etc. So, yes, he was a farm boy in 1820 and to a large extent in 1830, but by 1840 he was learned.

Andrew Miller said...

I might add, the pharisees were shocked at times at Jesus' learning, even though he was a "carpenter's son." There is a big difference between divine teaching and learning and the learning of men.