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New Horizons

Mormonism and the Gospel

Jody O. Morris

My name is Jody Ormond Morris. Like so many other names, it tells a story. Mine is of a fifth-generation Mormon who was converted to Christianity and is now serving the Lord with his family as a pastor in the OPC. I'd like to share my story with you.

I'm named after my grandfather, William Ormond Morris, and my great-great-grandfather, Joseph "Jody" Smith Morris. He was named after the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith. My dad gave me his nickname—Jody.

From Wales to Utah

My Mormon history began in Wales during the earliest days of the Mormon church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). My dad tells a story about a missionary who was instrumental in our family's conversion to Mormonism. Dan Jones was a steamboat captain on the Mississippi River and a friend of Joseph Smith. He was with Joseph in prison on the day before he was killed. Dan went from there to Wales to be a missionary during the time that my family was converted. They must have known him, and were perhaps converted by him. In any event, Joseph (Jody) Smith Morris was a grandson of that legacy, and so am I. I once joked with my wife about naming our first son William after my grandpa—you know, to keep the legacy alive. Instead, we named him Calvin.

My family eventually emigrated from Wales and made their way to Utah. I grew up in the small town of American Fork, just south of Salt Lake City, past the point of the mountains.

Growing Up a Mormon

I had an insular childhood. Everything I knew and loved was bathed in Mormonism. My family was Mormon. I went to a Mormon church. My school was filled with Mormon kids, and my teachers were Mormon too. I attended Mormon seminary in high school during regular school hours. I can literally count on one hand the number of non-Mormon people I knew and non-Mormon experiences I had as a kid. My fifth grade teacher was Catholic, as was a nice lady who lived across the street. I remember a Catholic kid who moved in from out of town during the sixth grade. Not least of all, there was the children's book series that my fourth grade teacher read to us, "The Great Brain." It's about a Catholic family growing up in Utah in the late 1800s. I really loved that series. Everything else I knew as a child was Mormon, through and through.

I have many fond memories of my life as a Mormon. It was the time when I was closest to my family. I appreciate the emphasis that was placed on family life, and I miss that connection with them. For example, on Sunday morning, instead of hearing a traditional sermon, we would hear one family in the church present a topic on morality, such as tithing or honesty. The entire family—brothers, sisters, mom, and dad—would give a short talk. Throw in a few hymns and prayer, and that would be the service. The emphasis that Mormonism placed on the family was practical and effective. Whose heart wouldn't be warmed by listening to a six-year-old explain why honesty is the best policy? I also enjoyed family home evening on Monday. This was a night set aside by the church for families to be together in their homes. Each of us would have our assignment. My sister might be responsible for the game, and I might be responsible for dessert, while the other kids prepared a lesson and took care of cleanup. For the most part, we could count on the family being together that evening. But my favorite event was of course the father-and-son outing (if you were a girl, you would have the daddy-daughter dinner date). That was when we did fun things, like fishing and camping or going to the arcade.

As a child and even as a young teenager, the doctrines of the Mormon church were very simple. I and the other children in the church would recite them regularly to everyone in worship. We called it testimony meeting, and it replaced the regular worship service once a month. I remember it like it was yesterday. Standing up before the whole church with mouth pressed to the microphone, I would say, "I'd like to share my testimony. I know this church is true. I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, and I know that the Book of Mormon is God's word." It was simple doctrine. If we were older, we might add a statement about the living prophet and his apostles. For me that would have been Spencer W. Kimball, whose catchy slogan was "Do it." I think Nike stole it from him!

There were spiritual highlights too. I was baptized when I was eight, received the Aaronic priesthood when I was twelve, and began distributing the Lord's Supper when I was sixteen. For all the highlights, I don't think I fully appreciated the centerpiece of Mormon piety (especially for young people), that God would speak to me in a "still small voice." It's not that I didn't believe God could do it. I guess it was just hard to know if I'd really heard his quiet voice or truly felt a burning in my bosom. I talked to God all the time, mostly to confess my sins and promise to be a better person. The problem was that I never heard him talk back, at least not in any comforting way.

How I Heard the Gospel

By the time I was nineteen, a lifetime of solid Mormon teaching was telling me to go on a mission, but I didn't go. I had an opportunity to move to Washington, where my sister lived. Leaving the only life I'd ever known, I moved to the Northwest. I look back now and see the hand of God's providence. He was bringing me there to hear the gospel.

Washington was liberating in the sense that I was free to pursue life, and it was crippling because I had a growing sense of God's displeasure with me. I remember how truly afraid I was to die, because I knew that facing God would not be good. Still, this wasn't American Fork, and I was free to pursue life and religion in whatever way I wanted. So I began looking into other Christian faiths. My sister had been converted to Christianity many years before, and she was happy to indulge my eager questions about God and religion. In time I became a believer.

Looking back now, I'm not most thankful to Mormonism for the family values I mentioned above. I'm thankful to Mormonism most of all because it helped me understand that I was in serious trouble with God. It did not matter whether a six-year-old kid gave a talk on Sunday about the importance of honesty or a bishop preached a message on the importance of faith and obedience to the unique commands of the church. The duty-centered message of Mormonism always drove me to the same conclusion: I was guilty of sin. I'm thankful for that knowledge. The problem was that Mormonism never gave me a way to get clean, to find forgiveness for my sin.

Sure, Mormons have their version of an atonement and forgiveness. They believe that Jesus died for sin, but in my experience their version of the atonement was unable to make me right with God. It only made it possible for me to make myself right with God. I remember a recurring lesson in Sunday school. The teacher would draw a ladder on the chalkboard and say that our spiritual life was like being on it. We all stood on a ladder somewhere between the Celestial Kingdom and Outer Darkness. Confession and repentance would be met with forgiveness and bring me further up the ladder and closer to heaven. Sin and rebellion would bring me down to hell. On judgment day, I would go to whatever kingdom I had reached at the time of my death. Forgiveness was not full or final. It was just another part of what I must do to make myself right with God.

You can imagine how this affected my heart. I lived with a guilty conscience all the time. Christ's payment for sin only did part of what God required. It put me on a ladder that made salvation possible. It's true, that's a big part of what God required; one could even say that Jesus did most of what I needed to be saved. But no matter how much Jesus did, I was responsible for the rest. It's the being responsible for the rest that I remembered most. It was the part that held me captive to sin and God's wrath. I was stuck on a ladder that led to heaven, when what I really needed was a Savior who could get me all the way there.

The LDS church failed me most on that point. There are plenty of reasons to be critical of Mormon doctrine. The church has failed Christianity in many ways. They deny that God is one in essence and three in persons. They also deny that Jesus is God and that the Holy Spirit is God. They deny that God created the universe out of nothing, and believe that he was once a creature himself. The list goes on and on. They are deadly errors. Still, the LDS church failed me most at the point where my guilty conscience needed to be cleansed. I needed a true Savior and full atonement. I needed complete forgiveness and eternal salvation, but that was not available.

Embracing Biblical Christianity

When I began investigating the doctrines of the Bible, some things came easy, while other things were strange and hard to accept. With all the emphasis the church places upon The Book of Mormon, I should have had a hard time accepting the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible. But it wasn't hard. Mormonism always taught me that the Bible was the word of God. It's true, they have many sacred books, and they have even rewritten key passages of the Bible. Still, I'm thankful that they were able to instill the simple truth that the Bible is God's word, despite their inconsistencies. On that foundation, other doctrines came easily too—such as the Trinity. I accepted it at face value because the Bible presents God that way. That was enough for me.

Other doctrines were strange and hard to accept. My brother-in-law must have shared the gospel with me a hundred times before I finally understood him. It just didn't make sense in my world. On one occasion, I finally understood him. As I was leaving his house, I asked, "So what you're telling me then is that I don't have to do anything except repent and believe in Jesus?" "Yes," he said. I laughed out loud. I walked out the door, laughing out loud. Obviously I had to do something; I had to be good to be saved! And yet the remote possibility of something different was exhilarating. My conversion was not immediate. Several months passed before I fully embraced the gospel and openly committed myself to Christ. But that was a time when God set my heart free from bondage to sin and wrath. I finally found true and complete forgiveness of my sin.

You may think my perspective on the gospel should be unique, since I grew up Mormon. It's not really. It's true that religions are different from one another in many ways. They define God and heaven differently. They prescribe a wide variety of paths that lead to heaven. And yet they also live by a common principle. They say, if you do this duty or you do that good thing, then you will live and will be accepted by God in heaven. Paul describes this principle and its manifestations as "the elementary principles of the world" (Gal. 4:3). For all the religious diversity we see and know about, the rule of salvation is always the same: "Do this and live." Mormonism made that rule loud and clear to me. Like the rest of the world, Mormonism says, "Be good and God will reward you." Some people are able to say "I am good," and that's enough for them. They're confident in that. But I never had that confidence. Paul lived by a completely different rule. He said, "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes" (Rom. 10:4). He lived by the rule of faith. Now that's something I can do! I can believe, and I do! I believe I am righteous, not because of works that I have done, but because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to me.

I wish Mormonism had been true to the gospel of God's saving grace, but they strayed far from the gospel. In my childhood experience as a Mormon, I cannot recall any reference to the gospel as salvation by grace through faith. There was never any explanation of the imputation of my sin to Christ or of Christ's righteousness to me. Today, I cherish this gospel. I love faith that looks out to Christ and to what he has done for me, rather than looking in at me and at what I should be doing but have not done. I love the gospel of God's grace that roots forgiveness for sin in my Savior and not in me! I love the verse that says, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). It tells me that Christ stood before the judgment seat of heaven and was counted by God as Jody the sinner, so that Jody the sinner could be counted by God as the righteousness of Christ. That's me, Jody Ormond Morris. I'm a sinner who is forgiven by God forever! I'm part of a new heritage in God's true family, and I pray that his heritage will be strong in my family for generations to come.

The author is pastor of Redeemer OPC in Carlisle, Pa. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2010.

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