Twice in the last week I have seen the same comment made by ministers of other faiths who are trying to highlight the differences between Mormons and Christians. According to them, Mormons believe that Jesus was “just a man” who “earned” his position of Christ through his good works. According to both of these “experts,” Mormons thus contradict traditional Christian doctrine that Jesus always has been the Christ. I’ll admit to spending a fair amount of time scratching my head trying to figure out how anyone came to believe that this accurately reflects Mormon doctrine.
It’s really a mash-up of misconceptions about several Mormon teachings, including those about the nature of God, the mission of Christ, and the origins and destiny of man.
Let’s start this from the broadest of perspectives. Mormons believe that everything is eternal, including us. The LDS Church teaches that all of us have existed throughout time as “intelligences,” which subsequently became spirit children of our Father in Heaven. There is plenty of speculation about the process by which intelligences received spirit bodies, but nothing detailed has been revealed about it, so we can’t claim to know anything for certain. What we do know from what has been revealed is that all of us have an eternal nature and that mortal life is but a small moment in our eternal progression.
Of these spirit children of our Father in Heaven, the Firstborn was Jesus Christ. Mormons believe, with no small amount of scriptural support from the Old and New Testament, that Jesus is the same individual or deity that was known as “Jehovah” prior to coming to Earth to inherit a body. As far as we know, He always held a special position as the Firstborn of God. He was ordained from the beginning to be the Creator, Redeemer and Judge of this world and innumerable others. Under the direction of the Father, He created this and other worlds. In his pre-Earth life he ruled in the heavens as Jehovah. Thus, in the Mormon viewpoint, Jesus always has been the Christ, the Anointed One, the Savior of the world.
We also believe that Jesus was ordained from the beginning to come to Earth, receive a mortal body, suffer for the sins of the world, die on the cross, and be resurrected. Thus, the Old Testament is the story of Christ’s dealings with his people as Jehovah, and the New Testament is the story of His dealings with mankind as the mortal and then resurrected Savior. The question becomes, then, what was the nature of Jesus when he was here on Earth?
As we have discussed elsewhere in this blog, Mormons do not accept the Nicean view of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost as three manifestations of the same God. Rather, we believe that they are three separate and distinct individuals comprising one Godhead, unified in their righteous attributes, purpose and mission. We believe that Jehovah came to earth and received a physical body as the Only Begotten of God, the son of our Father in Heaven and the virgin Mary. But during his mortal ministry, was Jesus always the Christ, or did he “earn” that position through his good works?
We know very little about the life of Christ outside of the three years of his formal ministry, other than that he “increased in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and man.” (Luke 2:52). Although Jesus was without sin, Luke suggests that He went through a period of intellectual, physical, social and spiritual growth. In a revelation to Joseph Smith and recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, he learned that Jesus “received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness.” What this suggests is that Jesus lived under the same conditions that we do, without a memory of His life before mortality, and that His understanding of His own nature grew as He exercised perfect faith and obedience. He did not “become” Christ through his obedience, but rather understood His position as the Christ as He experienced the challenges and temptations of mortality.
That Jesus was continuing to learn of His own mission is suggested by a phrase used by Mark near the end of his Gospel, when he describes Christ as “sore amazed” as he entered Gethsemane. (Mark 14:33). Does this mean that Jesus was, even in these final days of His life, capable of some degree of surprise at the enormity of the burden He was taking upon His shoulders? We are told by Luke that as Jesus suffered for our sins, an angel came to “strengthen” Him. (Luke 22:43). Why would God need strength from an angel, unless there were some limitations imposed upon Him by mortality?
It seems, then, that the mortal Jesus fulfilled a mission, one that required growth (in terms of wisdom and experience), even though He apparently understood from at least the age of twelve that He was the Son of God. This by no mean suggests that Jesus was “just a man,” as critics of the Church insist we believe. There was nothing ordinary about Jesus of Nazareth. He was the Son of God, the Creator of the world and had been ordained from the beginning as our Savior and Redeemer.
That’s the linear perspective, but I don’t know that anyone believes that our Father in Heaven is limited by a linear perspective of time. Alma, a Book of Mormon prophet, stated that “all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men.” (Alma 40:8). This cannot be a surprising notion even to those who reject the Book of Mormon, given God’s ability to reveal future events to His prophets. If time is irrelevant to God, then He is not limited to a linear chronology. Therefore, from God’s perspective, Jesus always has been and always will be the Christ.
I won’t opine any further about this, at the risk of reducing a religious discussion to an episode of Doctor Who. The point here is that no matter how you look at it, Mormons do not believe that Jesus was just some guy who earned his way to Godhood through good deeds on Earth. To call that a mischaracterization of our doctrine would be generous.
As Mormons, we can talk ourselves hoarse trying to demonstrate our commitment to Christ, but to some critics there is nothing we can say, do, or believe that will be satisfactory evidence of our Christianity. So be it. We remain uncompromising in our devotion to the Savior of the world and in our continuing efforts to be more like Him.