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Can Falsehood Produce Good Fruit?

“John said to him, Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us. But Jesus said, Do not stop him, for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” – Mark 9:38-39

“What, then (shall I say)? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice.” – Philippians 1:18

“Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many powerful deeds in your name? And then I will confess to them: I never knew you.” – Matthew 7:22-23

How can the LDS faith be evil, when its people do so much good? Can God be at work within a false church? Can a person come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ as a member of the LDS church, or will they be automatically lost? Does following a false prophet send you to hell?

I grappled with these questions while visiting a local stake conference meeting during our two months in Utah. I saw and heard powerful conversion stories and testimonies of changed lives. How could I explain all this?

I would say that what I saw was stories of people who were thirsty for Jesus, and for whom Jesus met that powerful thirst, even though they were swallowing a lot of toxic elements along with that living water.

Can God work within a false church? Apparently so. One suspects that God similarly chose to save people inside the ancient Gnostic and Arian heresies. But that’s no reason not to reach out to those who are entangled in serious deception.

If you follow a false prophet, you are in danger of ending up where the false prophet leads you. You are not guaranteed to be lost, but we need to take Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7 with the utmost seriousness.

It is worth noting that the high sexual morality defended by today’s LDS church was not gotten from the personal example of Joseph Smith, but actually contradicts his example. This is what Jesus really means when he says, “You will know them by their fruits.” We know a church, not by the fruits of their followers, but by the fruits of the prophet they follow.

I also notice that many LDS have a faith that is more evangelical Christian than it is LDS. Glenn Beck’s theology sounds more like Billy Graham than Joseph Smith. I see this phenomenon as the reason why numerous LDS may find themselves being saved from Joseph’s eternal fate, and why God seems to be producing the fruits of the Spirit in such people.

Lately, the LDS have been putting a strong emphasis on Christ’s atonement. As they do so, they have been messaging a different doctrine of atonement than what they have always taught. The LDS talk a lot about the Savior, but they are unclear on the question “Savior from what?” The official LDS Articles of Faith teach that Jesus saves us only from the effects of Adam’s sin, so that now people can be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of their gospel. The LDS have also tended to de-emphasize the cross, as we see from the absence of crosses anywhere on their buildings. (A surprising exception that contradicts the rule: Alma 34:10-15 proclaims a doctrine of the Atonement that reads like it was written by St. Anselm!)

So the recent effort to proclaim the Nicene Christian version of Jesus taking away all of our sin is not very LDS at all, but it does speak to the hearts of multitudes who are desperate to know God’s forgiveness. The apostle Paul is thrilled that Jesus is being proclaimed, even by legalists in his day, because God can use the name of Jesus to lead people to salvation from sin, even in a movement where people are trying mistakenly to save themselves by their own good works.

Sadly, what converts get after they join the LDS church is a works-based theology that is a burden to the soul. That’s why my heart went out to the LDS when I first met them. Grace is almost nowhere to be found. Life becomes an endless treadmill of obedience and obligation that drives many to depression. The LDS prophet Spencer Kimball describes forgiveness in his book The Miracle of Forgiveness as such a long process of suffering, contrition, and penitence that it sounds like a miracle if anyone ever obtains it. 2 Nephi 25:23 speaks of grace, then pulls the rug out from under it when it says, “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” (See also Mosiah 4:30.)

Even if Jesus is working within the LDS church to draw people to himself, he is doing so within a church with a very different understanding of God. In his last few years before his death, Joseph Smith (and his successors from Brigham Young onward) taught “eternal progression,” the doctrine that God started out as a human who become God through obedience to the same principles that his ancestors followed, and that today’s LDS hope to follow to be exalted to godhood. As the prophet Lorenzo Snow put it: “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.”

That’s a very different God than the God of Isaiah 43:10 and numerous other verses, where God says clearly, “Before me was there no God formed, neither shall there be after me.” Isaiah 45:22: “I am God, and there is no other.” Deuteronomy 4:39: “The Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath: there is no other.” Joel 2:27: “I, the Lord, am your God, and there is no other.”

I would argue that, as is the case with Islam, anything good in the LDS church actually comes from the Bible as its source. In neither Islam nor the LDS church does the new prophet bring a major or unique teaching that improves on the Biblical message.

Can Jesus be at work in the LDS church? Jesus did not object when a guy who did not follow him used his name to cast out demons (although in Acts 19:13-16, demons themselves question a similar exorcist’s right to do so). But in every possible instance where God seems to be at work in the LDS church, we must ask: Is it all about Jesus, or is it all about Joseph?