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Tim Challies

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religion

2 years 1 month ago
When on vacation last week I ambled into a wonderful little used book store in Fredericksburg, Virginia. There were hundreds of books that caught my eye there, but I left with only one—Faith and Betrayal, by Sally Denton, a biography that traces the life of Jean Rio, the author’s great-great-grandmother. One of England’s earliest and most notable converts to Mormonism, Rio set out from England to Utah in the 1850’s to settle down in Zion (which is to say, Salt Lake City, Utah). The book describes her journey, her arrival, and her eventual disillusionment as she comes to see the ugly underbelly of Mormonism—the violence, the polygamy, the greed and the utter hypocrisy of it all. It was a fascinating little book.

While Faith and Betrayal was interesting as history and biography, I read it at least in part because of an interest I have in Mormonism. It seems that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is coming into its own in recent days. Mormons tend to be high achievers and are increasingly finding their way into positions of power and influence, whether that is as CEO of a multi-billion dollar company or as a presidential candidate.

Faith and Betrayal was a ground-level look at Mormonism’s earliest days that generated as many questions as it answered. I followed it with another of Denton’s books, American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows which describes an act of barbarism in which early Mormons slaughtered over 100 members of a wagon train that was passing through their land. Moving to more modern times (and dealing with the fact that by this time I could read only what was available on the Kindle), I turned to Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, a book that focuses on modern day Mormon Fundamentalism. Krakauer seems to want to paint all Mormonism as related to the polygamous fundamentalists and, having done that, to paint all adherents of religion as fundamentalists. It is interesting, but goes beyond anti-Mormonism to the verge of anti-faith.

After all of this, I read Stephen Mansfield’s The Mormonizing of America. Published just this month, it looks at the growing popularity of Mormonism and tries to understand how this came to be and what it all means. Mansfield is a former pastor and bestselling author whose previous books have included The Faith of George W. Bush, The Faith of the American Soldier and The Faith of Barack Obama. I get the sense that he is something of a religious enthusiast and that he is not a serious historian. Nevertheless, I appreciated his brief overview of Mormon history and his look at how the faith has evolved to our day. There were three big takeaways for me.

The first is that Mormonism still has to overcome its past. As the spotlight is turned to Mormonism, it will need to deal with the fact that it has an ugly, embarrassing past. Few religions have a founder or great prophet quite like Joseph Smith, a polygamous, philandering, ego-centric, irrational, confidence trickster. Massively proud and profoundly charismatic, he was able to convince thousands of people, and then tens of thousands, to do his bidding. His successor Brigham Young was no better, another polygamous sociopath who presided over a reign of terror in Utah. Young bore much of the responsibility for the Mountain Meadow massacre which slaughtered over 100 men, women and child. These are just a few of the skeletons in Mormonism’s closet.

The second is that Mormonism is built upon “facts” that have since been disproven; many that have not yet been disproven still have no proof. DNA evidence has shown that the Native Americans are not related to the Jews as Smith claimed. The language of Reformed Egyptian, the language of the Book of Mormon that Smith had to translate, has not been shown to exist anywhere else in the world. He claimed there were horses in the New World before Columbus when it is clear there were not. It goes on and on, fact upon fact that are just plain wrong.

The third big takeaway has to do with relating to Mormons, and this may be the most important of all. One of the keys to understanding Mormons is to understand that they are not theologians. In fact there are relatively few Mormon theologians and most of the people who really concern themselves with systematizing Mormon theology are Christians who are trying to understand it in order to refute it. The Mormon leaders are not schooled in theology beyond the very, very basics.

Instead, Mormonism is an experiential religion. If you talk to a Mormon neighbor and point out inconsistencies between the Bible and the Book of Mormon, he will tell you how his faith has strengthened his family. If you show that Joseph Smith was an adulterer and egomaniac, he will tell you that his business is thriving because of the principles of Mormonism. He may well be right. Mormonism’s focus on the here and now, its focus on family, really do build strong leaders and strong families and this in an age where so many families are weak and crumbling.

I think this is really helpful to know when interacting with Mormons—they do not know their own theology and, in fact, may not even really care about it. So how, then, do you interact with a Mormon? I would simply ensure that you preach the gospel, being sure to point out his sinfulness and Christ’s provision for that sin. This is one area that Mormonism addresses only by the empty promise of good deeds.

The Mormonizing of America is a book I’d recommend as a primer on Mormon history and, more so, as a means of understanding why Mormonism has gained such popularity in recent days.

6 years 1 month ago

This morning brings us to our fifth reading in Jonathan Edwards’ The Religious Affections. This week’s reading was a very short one—just a few pages. I know that several of you took the opportunity to catch up with last week’s lengthy reading. So hopefully by now we are all on the same page!

Summary

In the Introduction to the book’s third part, Edwards asks the reader to keep three things in mind as he describes the distinguishing signs of truly gracious and holy affections (and here I’m relying on Sam Storms’ excellent summaries of these points):

  1. There will never be a time or system or standard of analysis of such issues that will yield infallible results. We will never be able to claim that we can, without error, discern who is a believer and who is not.
  2. We should not expect to find biblical signs that will enable a backslidden person to reassure himself that he is in a good way with God. It is God’s design that backslidden persons should have no assurance of their salvation.
  3. We should not expect that the signs by which we hope to differentiate between true and false affections will ever prove sufficient to convince those who are hypocrites and who have been deceived about their salvation.

Keeping these things in mind, we’ll turn in the following weeks to the twelve signs which will allow us to distinguish true religion from false religion.

Discussion

Because we read only a few pages, there was not a lot of content to interact with this week. However, there was one section that jumped off the pages at me. I very much appreciated Edwards’ exhortation that it is God’s design that men obtain assurance not by thinking a lot about assurance and not by a process of rigorous self-examination, but primarily through “mortifying corruption, and increasing in grace, and obtaining the lively exercises of it.” So assurance is obtained less by self-examination and more by action.

Edwards gives the example of the Apostle Paul and says, “He obtained assurance of winning the prize, more by running than by considering. The swiftness of his pace did more towards his assurance of a conquest than the strictness of his examination.” This is such an important point and I am guessing it is one Edwards will return to later in the book. When we experience moments of concern or doubt about our salvation, so often we can spend time thinking about ourselves and looking primarily inward for assurance of our faith. But the Bible makes it clear that we will be known by what we do and what we are. So we need to look outwards to see if we are putting sin to death and if we are living in the way Christ tells us to live. Here we will see whether or not we are being conformed to His image and whether our not our trust is in Him.

Finally, I was glad to see Edwards affirm that we can never know perfectly whether or not another person is saved. “It was never God’s design to give us any rules by which we may certainly know who of our fellow professors are His, and to make a full and clear separation between sheep and goats.” God has reserved this infallible knowledge for Himself and so we look for distinguishing characteristics, always knowing that we are so easily fooled.

Next Time

For next week we will read the first distinguishing sign of truly gracious and holy affections. This is a long section (around 40 pages in my edition) but I don’t see any real benefit in dividing it into two readings. So please read that section for next Thursday. Because it is a lengthy reading, you may wish to begin in the next day or two!

Your Turn

As always, I am eager to know what you gained from this part of the book. Feel free to post comments below or to write about this on your own blog (and then post a comment linking us to your thoughts). Do not feel that you can only say anything if you are going to say something that will wow us all. Just add a comment with some of the things you gained from the this week’s reading. To this point the discussion has been excellent!

10 years 1 day ago

For reasons I cannot quite ascertain (though I am hoping they are not prophetic), I have been thinking a lot lately about the issue of whether children who die in infancy are automatically ushered into heaven. In other words, what happens to children when they die? I have heard various answers to this question, and none have been particularly satisfying. I will admit, though, that I have never studied this topic in depth and that is something I intend to do over the next few days (or weeks or however long it takes to get a few answers).

At this point I have no answers, but I do want to give an idea as to what my thoughts are right now. I hope that in a week or two, after I have done some hard research on the matter (mostly Biblical research) I will have a more solid idea of what I believe. But first, some thoughts on the arguments I have heard in the past. Please do not think these are the only arguments or even that my summaries provide an accurate assessment of them - I merely pass along what I have been taught by various people.

Do All Children Who Die In Infancy Go To Hell?

This would seem to be the most logical argument, wouldn’t it? God tells us that the only way to be saved is through faith in Jesus Christ. If one does not have faith, he must necessarily be condemned to hell. Children are incapable of having saving faith, therefore all children who die must go to hell.

We know, though, that this is not true. As we know from the life of King David, he had confidence that he would see his son again. He had assurance that his son was in heaven, for if this were not the case, God would not have included that verse in the Bible - a verse that has given so much hope to so many grieving parents. So we know that at least one baby in history has gone to heaven. Would God save only one child in the history of the world and then taunt the rest of us with that fact? No, I’m sure He would not. This argument does stand.

The Justice Argument

Another argument people make is that God could not possibly condemn a child to hell because that child has never had an opportunity to repent. It would be unfair for God to condemn such a child.

The problem I have with this line of reasoning is that it seems to presuppose that the child, however sweet and beautiful he may be, is somehow innocent in God’s eyes. The reality, of course, is that from the moment of conception that beautiful child is a sinful child and one who deserves punishment as much as you or I. It is a hard but unavoidable truth. Adam, as our first representative sinned, and his sin has been imputed to all his descendents. Not one of us is born innocent, for we are all born with Adam’s original sin counting against us. From the very moment of conception we are condemned sinners.

I believe, then, that the justice argument fails. If God saves infants, he must do it on a basis other than justice. Justice would usher them immediately into hell.

Age of Accountability

Many people speak of an age of accountability, a time before which children are not considered accountable for their sins simply because they are incapable of expressing faith necessary for salvation. With this line of reasoning we are led to believe that a child from conception to a certain age, which will vary from child-to-child is considered “safe” from condemnation. However, once that child reaches an age of accountability, he is considered culpable for his sins and no longer has a “free ride.”

I find this argument difficult to believe, primarily because it finds little Scriptural support. But also, it seems strange that a child could lose his salvation simply because his mental capacity increases to a certain extent. Logically I just do not see how this argument remains consistent.

We Can Have No Assurance

This is the view I was taught in my younger days. We are unable to have any true assurance of where our children have gone. As believers we can have more assurance that they have gone to heaven than if we were unbelievers, but not full assurance. We are not to take comfort in a (false) belief that our child is in heaven, but are to take comfort in the indisputable fact that God is in control and that this child died as part of His plan.

Now while that assurance should be enough for us, it is a pretty tough sell. Who wants to be told that their tiny baby might be in hell? And what do you say to the children of unbelievers? At the same time, there is a type of satisfying logic with this option.

The Grace Argument The final argument I have heard is that God, in His grace, chooses to save children who die in infancy. I remain uncertain as to what the criteria for this are. For example, at what point is a child considered too old to be covered by God’s special grace?

Final Thoughts

Those are the various arguments I have heard over the past years. Honestly I do not find any of them particularly convincing, for all of them seem to have at least one gaping hole. I am seeking a consistent, Biblical perspective on this issue. Perhaps there is not one and we are simply left having to take our best guess. I prefer to think there is a satisfying, Biblical, logical answer. And I hope to find it. I will report in on my progress.

If you would like to suggest some resources that might help me, feel free to post a comment.