The following excerpts are taken from an address to the Harvard Divinity School in March 2001 by Robert L. Millet, former dean of religious education at Brigham Young University. It is offered on Newsroom as a resource. What Do We Believe About Jesus Christ?
Latter-day Saints are Christians on the basis of our doctrine, our defined relationship to Christ, our patterns of worship and our way of life.
What Do We Believe About Christ?
- We believe Jesus is the Son of God, the Only Begotten Son in the flesh (John 3:16). We accept the prophetic declarations in the Old Testament that refer directly and powerfully to the coming of the Messiah, the Savior of all humankind. We believe that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the fulfillment of those prophecies.
- We believe the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the New Testament to be historical and truthful. For us the Jesus of history is indeed the Christ of faith. While we do not believe the Bible to be inerrant, complete or the final word of God, we accept the essential details of the Gospels and more particularly the divine witness of those men who walked and talked with Him or were mentored by His chosen apostles.
- We believe that He was born of a virgin, Mary, in Bethlehem of Judea in what has come to be known as the meridian of time, the central point in salvation history. From His mother, Mary, Jesus inherited mortality, the capacity to feel the frustrations and ills of this world, including the capacity to die. We believe that Jesus was fully human in that He was subject to sickness, to pain and to temptation.
- We believe Jesus is the Son of God the Father and as such inherited powers of godhood and divinity from His Father, including immortality, the capacity to live forever. While He walked the dusty road of Palestine as a man, He possessed the powers of a God and ministered as one having authority, including power over the elements and even power over life and death.
- We believe Jesus performed miracles, including granting sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, life to some who had died and forgiveness to those steeped in sin. We believe the New Testament accounts of healings and nature miracles and the cleansing of human souls to be authentic and real.
- We believe Jesus taught His gospel — the glad tidings or good news that salvation had come to earth through Him — in order that people might more clearly understand both their relationship to God the Father and their responsibility to each other.
- We believe Jesus selected leaders, invested them with authority and organized a church. We maintain that the Church of Jesus Christ was established, as the Apostle Paul later wrote, for the perfection and unity of the saints (Ephesians 4:11–14).
- We believe that Jesus’ teachings and His own matchless and perfect life provide a pattern for men and women to live by and that we must emulate that pattern as best we can to find true happiness and fulfillment in this life.
- We believe Jesus suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane and that He submitted to a cruel death on the cross of Calvary, all as a willing sacrifice, a substitutionary atonement for our sins. That offering is made efficacious as we exercise faith and trust in Him; repent of our sins; are baptized by immersion as a symbol of our acceptance of His death, burial and rise to newness of life; and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost (Acts 2:37–38; 3 Nephi 27:19–20). While no one of us can comprehend how and in what manner one person can take upon himself the effects of the sins of another — or, even more mysteriously, the sins of all men and women — we accept and glory in the transcendent reality that Christ remits our sins through His suffering. We know it is true because we have experienced it personally. Further, we believe that He died, was buried and rose from the dead and that His resurrection was a physical reality. We believe that the effects of His rise from the tomb pass upon all men and women. “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (Corinthians 15:22).
- We do not believe that we can either overcome the flesh or gain eternal reward through our own unaided efforts. We must work to our limit and then rely upon the merits, mercy and grace of the Holy One of Israel to see us through the struggles of life and into life eternal (2 Nephi 31:19; Moroni 6:4). We believe that while human works are necessary— including exercising faith in Christ, repenting of our sins, receiving the sacraments or ordinances of salvation and rendering Christian service to our neighbors — they are not sufficient for salvation (2 Nephi 25:23; Moroni 10:32). We believe that our discipleship ought to be evident in the way we live our lives.
In essence, we declare that Jesus Christ is the head of the Church and the central figure in our theology.
How Are We Different?
Latter-day Saints do not accept the Christ that emerges from centuries of debates and councils and creeds. Over the years that followed the death and resurrection of the Lord, Christians sought to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3). We believe that the epistles of Paul, Peter, Jude and John suggest that the apostasy or falling away of the first-century Christian church was well underway by the close of the first century. With the deaths of the apostles and the loss of the priesthood, the institutional power to perform and oversee saving sacrament or ordinances, learn the mind of God and interpret scripture was no longer on earth. To be sure, there were noble men and women throughout the earth during the centuries that followed, religious persons of good will, learned men who sought to hold the church together and to preserve holy writ. But we believe that these acted without prophet authority.
In an effort to satisfy the accusations of Jews who denounced the notion of three Gods (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) as polytheistic, and at the same time incorporate ancient but appealing Greek philosophical concepts of an all-powerful moving force in the universe, the Christian church began to redefine the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One classic work describes the intersection of Christian theology and Greek philosophy: “It is impossible for any one, whether he be a student of history or no, to fail to notice a difference of both form and content between the sermons on the Mount and the Nicene Creed. … The one belongs to a world of Syrian peasants, the other to a world of Greek philosophers. … The religion which our Lord preached … took the Jewish conception of a Father in heaven, and gave it a new meaning.” In short, “Greek Christianity of the fourth century was rooted in Hellenism. The Greek minds which had been ripening for Christianity had absorbed new ideas and new motives.”[i]
What is the result? Such Platonic concepts as the immutability, impassibility and timelessness of God made their way into Christian theology. As one group of Evangelical scholars has stated: “Many Christians experience an inconsistency between their beliefs about the nature of God and their religious practice. For example, people who believe that God cannot change his mind sometimes pray in ways that would require God to do exactly that. And Christians who make use of the free will defense for the problem of evil sometimes ask God to get them a job or a spouse, or keep them from being harmed, implying that God should override the free will of others in order to achieve these ends. …
“These inharmonious elements are the result of the coupling of biblical ideas about God with notions of the divine nature drawn from Greek thought. The inevitable encounter between biblical and classical thought in the early church generated many significant insights and helped Christianity evangelize pagan thought and culture. Along with the good, however, came a certain theological virus that infected the Christian doctrine of God, making it ill and creating the sorts of problems mentioned above. The virus so permeates Christina theology that some have come to take the illness for granted, attributing it to divine mystery, while others remain unaware of the infection altogether.”[ii]
Latter-day Saints believe that the simplest reading of the New Testament text produces the simplest conclusion — that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are separate and distinct personages, that They are one in purpose. We feel that the sheer preponderance of references in the Bible would lead an uninformed reader to the understanding that God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are separate beings. That is, one must look to the third- and fourth-century Christian church, not to the New Testament itself, to make a strong case for the Trinity.
Some Distinctive Contributions
What, then, can the Latter-day Saints contribute to the world’s understanding of Jesus Christ? What can we say that will make a difference in how men and women view and relate to the Savior?
The First Vision. Joseph Smith’s First Vision represents the beginning of the revelation of God in our day. President Gordon B. Hinckley has observed: “To me it is a significant and marvelous thing that in establishing and opening this dispensation our Father did so with a revelation of himself and of his Son Jesus Christ, as if to say to all the world that he was weary of the attempts of men, earnest through these attempts might have been, to define and describe him. … The experience of Joseph Smith in a few moments in the grove on a spring day in 1820, brought more light and knowledge and understanding of the personality and reality and substance of God and his Beloved Son than men had arrived at during centuries of speculation.”[iii] By revelation Joseph Smith came to know that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost constitute the Godhead. From the beginning Joseph Smith taught that the members of the Godhead are one in purpose, one in mind, one in glory, one in attributes and powers, but separate persons.[iv]
There was reaffirmed in the First Vision the fundamental Christian teaching — that Jesus of Nazareth lived, died, was buried and rose from the tomb in glorious immortality. In the midst of that light that shone above the brightness of the sun stood the resurrected Lord Jesus in company with His Father. Joseph Smith knew from the time of the First Vision that death was not the end, that life continues after one’s physical demise, that another realm of existence — a postmortal sphere — does in fact exist.
The Book of Mormon. Through the Book of Mormon, translated by Joseph Smith, came additional insights concerning the person and powers of Jesus the Christ. We learn that He is the Holy One of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (1 Nephi 19:10) and that through an act of infinite condescension He left His throne divine and took a mortal body (1 Nephi 11; Mosiah 3:5). We learn from the teachings of the Book of Mormon prophets that He was a man but much more than man (Mosiah 3:7–9; Alma 34:11), that He had within Him the powers of the Father, the powers of the Spirit (2 Nephi 2:8; Helaman 5:11), the power to lay down His life and the power to take it back up again.
Another prophet, Alma, contributed the unfathomable doctrine that the Redeemer would not only suffer for our sins, but that His descent below all things would include His suffering for our pains, our sicknesses and our infirmities, thus allowing Him perfect empathy — “that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11–12). Truly, the Book of Mormon prophets bear repeated witness that the atonement of Christ is infinite and eternal in scope (2 Nephi 9:7; 25:16; Alma 34:11–12)
One could come away from a careful reading of the second half of the New Testament somewhat confused on the matter of grace and works, finding those places where Paul seems almost to defy any notion of works as a means of salvation (Romans 4:1–5; 10:1–4; Ephesians 2:8–10) but also those places where good works are clearly mentioned as imperative (Romans 2:6; James 2:14–20; Revelation 20:12–13). It is to the Book of Mormon that we turn to receive the balanced perspective on the mercy and grace of an infinite Savior on the one hand, and the labors and works of finite man on the other.
In the Book of Mormon, the sobering realization that no one of us can make it alone is balanced by a consistent statement that the works of men and women, including the receipt of the ordinances of salvation, the performance of duty and Christian acts of service — in short, being true to our part of the gospel covenant — though insufficient for salvation, are necessary. The prophets declared over and over that the day would come when people would be judged of their works, the works done “in their days of probation” (1 Nephi 15:32; 2 Nephi 9:44). That is, “all men shall reap a reward of their works, according to that which they have been — if they have been righteous they shall reap the salvation of their souls, according to the power and deliverance of Jesus Christ; and if they have been evil they shall reap the damnation of their souls, according to the power and captivation of the devil” (Alma 9:28). In summary, the undergirding doctrine of the Book of Mormon is that we are saved by the grace of Christ “after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23), meaning above and beyond all we can do. As we come unto Christ by covenant, deny ourselves of ungodliness and love God with all our souls, His grace—His divine enabling power, not only to be saved in the ultimate sense but also to face the challenges of each day — is sufficient for us (Moroni 10:32).
The Book or Mormon has a high Christology; that is, the doctrine of Christ is thick and heavy on the pages of this scriptural record, and the testimony of the divinity of the Lord and Savior is powerful and direct. One cannot read the Book of Mormon and honestly come away wondering what the Latter-day Saints believe about the Divine Sonship. The Book of Mormon establishes clearly that “Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself to all nations” (Book of Mormon title page; 2 Nephi 26:12).
At the heart of the doctrine restored through Joseph Smith is the doctrine of the Christ. “The fundamental principles of our religion,” he observed, “are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”[v] The glorious news, the glad tidings is that Christ our Lord has come to earth, offered Himself as a ransom from sin and made available deliverance from death and hell. We rejoice in the message of redemption that fell from the lips of Old and New Testament prophets. More especially we exult in the realization that knowledge and truth and light and understanding concerning Jesus Christ — who He was, who He is and what marvels have come to pass through Him — have been delivered through additional scriptural records and modern prophetic utterances.
“Him Declare I Unto You”
One of the main reasons Latter-day Saints are often relegated to the category of cult of non-Christian is because we believe in scripture beyond the Bible. To be sure, we love the Bible. We cherish its sacred teachings and delight in reading and teaching it. We seek to conform our lives to its marvelous precepts. But we do not believe that the Bible contains all that God has spoken or will yet speak in the future.
Occasionally we hear certain Latter-day Saint teachings — like some of those concerning the Savior that I have detailed earlier — described as “unbiblical” or of a particular doctrine being “contradictory” to the Bible. Let’s be clear on this matter. The Bible is one of the books within our standard works, our scriptural canon, and thus our doctrines and practices are in harmony with the Bible. There are times, of course, when latter-day revelation provides clarification of additional information to the Bible. But addition to the canon is hardly the same as rejection of the canon. Supplementation is not the same as contradiction. All of the prophets, including the Savior Himself, brought new light and knowledge to the world; in many cases, new scripture came as a result of their ministry. That new scripture did not invalidate what went before nor did it close the door on subsequent revelation.
Most New Testament scholars believe that Mark was the first Gospel written and that Matthew and Luke drew upon Mark in the preparation of their Gospels. One tradition is that John the Beloved, aware of the teaching of the synoptics, prepared his Gospel in an effort to “fill in the gaps” and thus deal more with the great spiritual verities that his evangelistic colleagues chose not to include. How many people in the Christian tradition today would suggest that what Matthew or Luke did in adding to what Mark had written was illegal or inappropriate or irreverent? Do we suppose that anyone in the first century would have so felt?
Would anyone accuse Matthew or Luke or John of writing about or even worshipping a “different Jesus” because they were bold enough to add to what had been recorded already? Surely not. Why? Because Matthew and Luke and John were inspired for God, perhaps even divinely commissioned by the church to pen their testimonies.
If Luke (in the Gospel, as well as in Acts) or John chose to write of subsequent appearance of the Lord Jesus after His ascension into heaven, appearances not found in Mark or Matthew, are we prone to criticize, to cry foul? No, because these accounts are contained in the Christian canon, that collection of books that serves as the rule of faith and practice in the Christian world.
The authority of scripture is tied to its source. From our perspective, the living, breathing, ever-relevant nature of the word of God is linked not to written words, not even to the writing of Moses or Isaiah or Malachi, not to the four Gospels or the epistles of Paul, but rather to the spirit of prophecy and revelation that illuminated and empowered those who recorded them in the first place. The Bible does in fact contain much that can and should guide our walk and talk; it contains the word and will of the Lord to men and women in earlier ages, and its timeless truths have tremendous normative value for our day. But we do not derive authority to speak or act in the name of Deity on the basis of what God gave to His people in an earlier day.
Just how bold is the Latter-day Saint claim? In a letter to his uncle Silas, Joseph Smith wrote the following:
“Why should it be thought a thing incredible that the Lord should be pleased to speak again in these last days for their salvation? Perhaps you may be surprised at this assertion that I should say ‘for the salvation of his creatures in these last days’ since we have already in our possession a vast volume of his word [the Bible] which he has previously given. But you will admit that the word spoken to Noah was not sufficient or Abraham. … Isaac, the promised seed, was not required to rest his hope upon the promises made to his father Abraham, but was privileged with the assurance of [God’s] approbation in the sight of heaven by the direct voice of the Lord to him. … I have no doubt but that the holy prophets and apostles and saints in the ancient days were saved in the kingdom of God. … I may believe that Enoch walked with God. I may believe that Abraham communed with God and conversed with angels. … And have I not an equal privilege with the ancient saints? And will not the Lord hear my prayers, and listen to my cries as soon [as] he ever did to theirs, if I come to him in the manner they did? Or is he a respecter of persons?”[vi]
Latter-day Saints feel a deep allegiance to the Bible. It seems odd to us, however, to be accused of being irreverent or disloyal to the Bible when we suggest to the religious world that the God of heaven has chosen to speak again. Our challenge is hauntingly reminiscent of that faced by Peter, James, John or Paul when they declared to the religious establishment of their day that God had sent new truths and new revelations into the world, truths that supplemented and even clarified the Hebrew scripture. And what was the response of the Jews of the day? “Who do you think you are?” they essentially asked. “We have the Law and the Prophets. They are sufficient.” Any effort to add to or to take away from that collection of sacred writings was suspect and subject to scorn and ridicule. And so it is today.
A Willingness to Listen and Learn
A number of years ago a colleague and I traveled with two Evangelical Christian friends to another part of the country to meet with a well-known theologian, author and pastor/teacher in that area. We had read several of his books and had enjoyed his preaching over the years. As a part of an outreach effort to better understand those of other faiths (and to assist them to understand us a little better), we have visited such institutions as Notre Dame, Catholic University, Baylor, Wheaton College and various religious colleges and seminaries. We met this particular pastor and then attended his church services on both Sunday morning and Sunday evening and in both meetings were impressed with the depth and inspiration of his preaching.
The next day we met for lunch and had a wonderful two-hour doctrinal discussion. I explained that we had no set agenda, except that we had admired his writings and wanted to meet him. We added that we had several questions we wanted to pose in order to better understand Evangelical theology. I mentioned that as the dean of religious education (at that time), I oversaw the teaching of religion to some 30,000 young people at Brigham Young University and that I felt it would be wise for me to be able to articulate properly the beliefs of our brothers and sisters of other faiths. I hoped, as well, that they might make the effort to understand our beliefs so as to represent accurately what we teach.
Early in our conversation the minister said something like: “Look, anyone knows there are big difference between us. But I don’t want to focus on those differences. Let’s talk about Christ.” We then discussed the person of Jesus, justification by faith, baptism, sanctification, salvation, heaven, hell, agency and predestination, premortal existence and a number of other fascinating topics. We compared and contrasted, we asked questions and we answered questions. In thinking back on what proved to be one of the most stimulating and worthwhile learning experiences of our lives, the one thing that characterized our discussion, and the one thing that made the biggest difference, was the mood that existed there — a mood of openness, candor and a general lack of defensiveness. We knew what we believed, and we were all committed to our own religious tradition. But we were eager to learn where the other person was coming from.
This experience says something to me about what can happen when men and women of good will come together in an attitude of openness and in a sincere effort to better understand and be understood. Given the challenges we face in our society — fatherless homes, child and spouse abuse, divorce, poverty, spreading crime and delinquency — it seems so foolish for men and women who believe in God, whose hearts and lives have been surrendered to that God, to allow doctrinal differences to prevent them from working together. Okay, you believe in a triune God, that the Almighty is a spirit and that He created all things ex nihilo. I believe that God is an exalted man, that He is a separate and distinct personage from the Son and the Holy Ghost. He believes in heaven, while she believes in nirvana. She believes that the Sabbath should be observed on Saturday, while her neighbor feels that the day of corporate worship should be on Friday. This one speaks in tongues, that one spends much of his time leading marches against social injustice, while a third believes that little children should be baptized. One good Baptist is a strict Calvinist, while another tends to take freedom of the will quite seriously. And so on, and so on.
Latter-day Saints do not believe that the answer to the world’s problems is ultimately to be found in more extravagant social programs or stronger legislation. Most or[S1] all of these ills have moral or spiritual roots. In the spirit of the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind, is it not possible to lay aside theological differences long enough to address the staggering social issues in our troubled world? My recent interactions with men and women of various faiths have had a profound impact on me; they have broadened my horizons dramatically and reminded me — a sobering reminder we all need once in a while — that we are all sons and daughters of the same Eternal Father. We may never resolve our differences on the Godhead or the Trinity, on the spiritual or corporeal nature of Deity or on the sufficiency or inerrancy of the Bible, but we can agree that there is a God; that the ultimate transformation of society will come only through the application of moral and religious solutions to pressing issues; and that the regeneration of individual hearts and souls is foundational to the restoration of virtue in our communities and nations. One need not surrender cherished religious values or doctrines in order to be a better neighbor, a more caring citizen, a more involved municipal.
In addition, we can have lively and provocative discussion on our differences, and such interactions need not be threatening, offensive or damaging to our relationships. What we cannot afford to do, if we are to communicate and cooperate, is to misrepresent one another or ascribe ulterior motives. Such measures are divisive and do not partake of that Spirit that strengthens, binds and reinforces. President Gordon B. Hinckley said of the Latter-day Saints: “We want to be good neighbors; we want to be good friends. We feel we can differ theologically with people without being disagreeable in any sense. We hope they feel the same way toward us. We have many friends and many associations with people who are not of our faith, with whom we deal constantly, and we have a wonderful relationship. It disturbs me when I hear about any antagonisms. … I don’t think they are necessary. I hope that we can overcome them.”[vii]
There is, to be sure, a risk associated with learning something new about someone else. New insights always affect old perspectives, and thus some rethinking, rearranging and restructuring of our worldview are inevitable. When we look beyond a man or a woman’s color or ethnic group or social circle or church or synagogue or mosque or creed or statement of belief, when we try our best to see them for who and what they are, children of the same God, something good and worthwhile happens to us, and we are thereby drawn into a closer union with the God of us all.
Jesus Christ is the central figure in the doctrine and practice of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is the Redeemer.[viii] He is the prototype of all saved beings, the standard of salvation.[ix] Jesus explained that “no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). We acknowledge Jesus Christ as the source of truth and redemption, as the light and life of the world, as the way to the Father (John 14:6; 2 Nephi 25:29; 3 Nephi 11:11). We worship Him in that we look to Him for deliverance and redemption and seek to emulate His matchless life (D&C 93:12–20). Truly, as one Book of Mormon prophet proclaimed, “We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, … that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:26).
As to whether we worship a “different Jesus,” we say again: We accept and endorse the testimony of the New Testament writers. Jesus is the promised Messiah, the resurrection and the life (John 11:25), literally the light of the world (John 8:12). Everything that testifies of His divine birth, His goodness, His transforming power and His godhood, we embrace enthusiastically. But we also rejoice in the additional knowledge latter-day prophets have provided about our Lord and Savior. President Brigham Young thus declared that “we, the Latter-day Saints, take the liberty of believing more than our Christian brethren: we not only believe … the Bible, but … the whole of the plan of salvation that Jesus has given to us. Do we differ from others who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ? No, only in believing more.”[x]
It is the “more” that makes many in the Christian world very nervous and usually suspicious of us. But it is the “more” that allows us to make a significant contribution in the religious world. Elder Boyd K. Packer observed: “We do not claim that others have no truth. … Converts to the Church may bring with them all the truth they possess and have it added upon.”[xi]
Knowing what I know, feeling what I feel and having experienced what I have in regard to the person and power of the Savior, it is difficult for me to be patient and loving toward those who denounce me as a non-Christian. But I am constrained to do so in the spirit of Him who also was misunderstood and misrepresented. While it would be a wonderful thing to have others acknowledge our Christianity, we do not court favor nor will we compromise our distinctiveness.
We acknowledge and value the good that is done by so many to bring the message of Jesus from the New Testament to a world that desperately needs it.