The first time I encountered them was the first week of my college sophomore year during a campus organization fair. I was a brand new believer, maybe just a few months old in the Lord, and I happened to walk by a booth and noticed a big painting of Jesus with angels descending from the clouds to earth. I said to one of the gals standing there, “That’s a cool picture,” to which one of them replied, “Oh, do you know much about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?”
I have to confess I was taken aback because all I knew was that Mormons were a non-Christian cult, and without hesitation I bluntly told the two girl missionaries they were a cult. Tactful, I know. That led to a spirited exchange between us as we debated whether or not Joseph Smith was a con-man or a true prophet. The conversation ended with me condemning their religion and telling them to repent. I think they said something like “God bless you” as I walked away.
The second encounter happened a year or so later. A friend of mine saw a TV ad for a free video about Jesus. He called the number and was surprised to learn it was a Mormon produced video. The operator asked if some missionaries could drop it by his apartment rather than mailing it. He said sure and gave them MY contact information. He then calls me and tells me to be on the look out for these missionaries. They eventually called me and because I had a misunderstanding of the warning in 2 John 9-11, I arranged to have a meeting with them at our college library.
I took my friend Johnny along and we debated with these two guys for about an hour. This time, I was a bit more knowledgeable about Mormonism than I had previously been. Johnny and I challenged the legitimacy of Joseph Smith being a prophet of God, the historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon, and the whole idea of men becoming gods. The encounter was again spirited for me, and interestingly, the one guy who did all the talking tells us, “You probably know my uncle.” I said, “Really, who’s that?” “Robert Schuller.” I still chuckle about that.
A third encounter happened shortly after I was married. One afternoon while I was taking a walk out on the pedestrian path that ran along side our condo complex, I saw four young men approaching me. I immediately recognized the white shirts, black pants, and name badges.
I then told him I knew what he was all about and like the previous times I had spoken with Mormons, we had a spirited exchange. I questioned Joseph Smith as a prophet and the validity of the Book of Mormon. By this time I was fully immersed in studying Calvinism comprehensively and I turned the conversation to the doctrines of total inability and sovereign election. All of the four guys expressed to me their hearty disdain for any notion of total inability and sovereign election and they made up an excuse to beat a quick retreat.
Now with those stories in mind, let me share a fourth, much more personal encounter I had with Mormon missionaries.
A few years ago, I come home from work and my wife greets me with a smile and a kiss and then says to me, “Guess who I spoke with today at the park?” She then proceeds to tell me how she and our kids were playing at our local park when a pair of Mormon missionaries stopped by where she was sitting and began chatting with her about their church. I replied, “Really? So how was the discussion?”
“Oh, we talked a bit,” she said, “But I invited them to eat dinner with us this weekend.” She then added, “You have a few days to prepare.”
My immediate reaction was to review all the resources I have on hand discussing Mormon history and theology. But as I pondered my previous encounters with Mormon missionaries, I wanted to take a more fruitful approach with any discussion that may occur. My thoughts turned to what I had been learning about evangelism and apologetics and how I have been sharpening my methodology and delivery.
I told my wife I would email a couple of individuals I knew who have a direct ministry with the Mormon people so as to get some advice, but rather than haggling with these two missionaries about Joseph Smith’s shady character and the quirky beliefs of Mormon theology, I would take a renewed approach.
Instead, my main objective will be four-fold:
- To listen respectfully to their presentation,
- Contrast and defend biblical doctrine against any contrary beliefs they will present,
- Emphasize the key points of the Gospel: man’s sin and inability to save himself, God’s just wrath against sinners, Christ’s wrath appeasing death in place of sinners, and His imputed righteousness to our account,
- And trust the Holy Spirit to use my efforts regardless of how eloquent a presentation I may or may not give.
I think I read a couple of articles from the Mormon Research Ministries, but most of my preparation was looking over important passages that speak of God’s eternality and singularity (being the only true God), and reviewing important passages on the inability of man to earn his own righteousness and Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us.
The dinner was scheduled to start at 6 PM on a Saturday evening. Fifteen minutes past the hour the two guys show up. I went down to invite them in. I introduced myself with my first and last name, and they introduced themselves as elder so-and-so. I asked them for their first names, but they insisted I call them elder so-and-so. My wife told me after they left that when she was at the park they told her their names were Rick and Roberto.
At the time when we lived at our condo, when you came through our front door, you would had been greeted with a gigantic book case filled with just some of my books. Roberto saw it and says, “Wow, you must like to read.” I said, “Oh yes, I sure do.” When you got to the top of our stairs that led into our living room, there were two other large shelves filled with even more books. Again Roberto says, “Wow. You have a lot of books.” I then told them I was a seminary graduate and I planned to pastor in the future. I could tell they were both a bit awed by my library as they browsed the titles, so I took that as a positive in my favor.
We all sat down for a nice spaghetti meal my wife prepared and I asked them where they were from. Roberto was from El Salvador and Rick was from the Kansas City Missouri area. Roberto was on his 3rd month as a missionary and Rick was finishing up his 17th month. Both of them had parents who converted to Mormonism.
Dinner was mainly chit-chat stuff. We talked about how to keep food from getting on our ties, and Rick was bold enough to ask me about the scar on my neck from my surgery when I had a tumor removed. I told him the entire story.
After we finished up dinner, it was down to brass tacks. They began by telling us they were Christians like us and that they believed Jesus died for their sins. My wife stopped them and asked them to define who they think Jesus is. Both of them claimed He was the Son of God and even affirmed the virgin birth.
I then asked them to give me their testimony as to how they became Mormon. Though each of them gave a little more detail to their family up bringing, neither one of them really got around to explaining under what circumstances they were brought to a place to confirm Mormonism as being true. Both of them claimed they took the Mormon test at some point during their early life. That is, prayerfully reading through the Book of Mormon and asking God to confirm whether the book was true or not. Both of them spoke of experiencing a spiritual enlightenment, or what is known as the “burning bosom” sensation after they tested the Book of Mormon with prayer.
I then recounted to them the Joseph Smith story and asked if he had a similar experience, to which they replied yes, he had. I then asked if Smith believed he was restoring the true Church of Jesus Christ, to which they said yes. But then I asked about the other sects of Mormonism that have splintered off the main group due to various disagreements. I asked if whether or not their members had the same experience with the Book of Mormon as they did, and if they did, how then could you call them apostate or in error if the “Holy Spirit” was allegedly confirming the correctness of their beliefs with the “burning bosom” experience. In other words, if there are two hundred different sects of Mormonism all claiming to be the true representatives because they had an alleged experience with the Holy Spirit, how could anyone ever claim they were mistaken or in error? Their affirmation for what is true is based upon purely speculative and subjective means.
I am not sure either one of those guys had ever been challenged with that question, because both of them seemed a bit perplexed with what I asked. They had to ask me to clarify what I meant. At first I thought their hesitancy was due in part to my inability to ask my question coherently, so I rephrased and repeated it several different ways. However, in spite of my efforts, they didn’t seem to have an answer to what is really a fundamental understanding as to how a person determines the Book of Mormon as being true.
Rick eventually went to Matthew 7 where Jesus talks about a good tree producing only good fruit and tried to explain that any Mormon who claims to have the “burning bosom” experience will also be a faithful Mormon. But I tried to explain that the truthfulness of what the Book of Mormon teaches is still in the realm of the subjective if the person you say is not bearing good fruit insists he or she is certain of their experience. There has to be an objective standard by which we can judge the validity of the person’s so-called experience.
That was a good lead into my two objections to Joseph Smith being a prophet. I again repeated the Smith story and asked them to correct and clarify anything I might have gotten wrong. After I explained the Smith story, they both affirmed I had the details correct, so I told them I have two troubling problems with what Smith claimed:
First, he claimed he was restoring the true Church of Jesus Christ which allegedly had gone into apostasy only a few hundred years after the time of the apostles. I told them Jesus specifically said that He would build His Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18-20).
Additionally, Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:20,21 that God’s Spirit will always be operative in the hearts of God’s people so that He will be glorified in the Church to all generations. That implies an uninterrupted Church. Though those who claim to be Christians may slide into error and fall away as the NT affirms in a variety of places, there will always be a faithful, redeemed remnant on the earth standing firm in the Faith once and for all delivered to the saints. Smith, I said, is contradicting that teaching by claiming God told him no denominations are correct and he was chosen to restore the true church. Essentially, Smith is claiming with his vision that Christ failed in his promise as described in Matthew 16.
Second, I pointed out that the Bible presents some important marks identifying a prophet of God. Deuteronomy 13:1-5 says that any person who claims to be a prophet by seeing visions and giving signs, BUT presents new revelation about God that contradicts the previous revelation and leads people away from the true worship of God, is not only to be rejected as a false prophet, but killed. I told them that from what I know of Mormon theology, Joseph Smith taught doctrine that runs the direct opposite from biblical Christianity, especially the notion that God was once a man who became a god.
Both of those guys, particularly Rick, affirmed that is what Mormonism teaches, and Roberto was insistent this is what the Bible teaches also. He took me to the classic passage in Psalms 82:6 where the text says, I said “you are gods,” and all of you are children of the Most High, and then he related it to Jesus’ words in John 10:34. I then backed up and read the entire Psalm and when we came to verse 7 which reads, But you shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes, I asked them, “So if this passage is affirming the Mormon doctrine that men can become gods, does this mean once you become a god you can do something to die? What is it that can cause a god to die and what happens when a god does die? What sort of death” is in mind here?”
Stone silence. I began hearing creaking sounds as they shifted in their chairs.
It was at this point Roberto started to wrap the discussion up by telling us they were not here to convert us, that we could talk all night about these things, and that they only want to encourage us to take up the Book of Mormon and prayerfully ask God to show us that it is true. He further stated that neither one of them wanted to condemn any other church or denomination, and as far as they were concerned, God is blessing all of those churches and using them.
I then asked Roberto, “In light of that last comment, I need to know if there is anything of eternal value at stake here? Both of us cannot be right in our understanding of the Christian faith. Either I am correct and you are wrong, or you are correct and I am wrong.”
He repeated his exhortation for me to take up the Book of Mormon and pray about it, and then asked me how I personally knew the Bible was true. I responded by saying that the Holy Spirit does affirm its truth to me in my heart, but my faith is also set upon the historical reality of the Old and New Testament. The Book of Mormon does not have this historical reality.
That is when I recounted the gospel message. I told them about man’s sinfulness and being separated from God, how God in His grace provided a substitute to satisfy His wrath against sinners and how God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us on account of our faith alone. My wife added a passioned plea for them to repent, because, as she told them, they are in a false religion that will only lead to hell. “The works of Mormonism cannot save you,” she concluded.
Both of them ended the night by thanking us for our hospitality and our spiritual concern and we walked them to the door. My wife’s final comment to them was outstanding. She said, “Guys, if you are correct, we have nothing to fear and lose. However, if we are correct, you have your soul’s to lose for all eternity. I pray that God will open your eyes to see the truth. Don’t blind yourself to the lies of the Mormon Church.” And with that, they thanked us again and left.
We went up stairs and prayed for God to use the words we spoke to work in the hearts of Rick and Roberto. Who knows what will happen, but over all, I was thankful for the time was much more profitable on my account than my previous experiences with Mormon missionaries. Perhaps we will encounter them again, and maybe we will have further opportunity to bring them the truth of scripture.