After sharing some pizza with my new Mormon missionary friends, Elders E and Y, I went along today at their invitation to attend the Mormon General Conference down at the well-known LDS church in South Kensington opposite the Science Museum.
It was really nice to bump into my old friend Elder J there, and also get to know a Down Syndrome gentleman named Chris who told me he is a deacon in the church.
The meeting was a repeat of the Saturday afternoon session in Salt Lake City on the big screen. There were the usual line-up of Mormon 'suits' giving speeches one after the other - mostly white, middle-aged gentlemen from the Quorum of 12 or the Seventy, though there was one endearing Japanese chap. Occasionally the speeches were punctuated with a number from the choir - one of which those around me joined in with, the other of which was just listened to.
I am on this ongoing search to distill the Mormon message, and (I'm probably going to oversimplify here) according to the talks I heard today it is this:
1. God loves us as our Heavenly Father, and Jesus loves us as His Son.
2. We can only be saved through the atonement of Jesus Christ. Mormons put as much emphasis on Jesus' sufferings in Gethsemane as on the Cross.
3. We enter into this salvation through repentance from sin, faith in Jesus Christ, baptism into the LDS church, the receiving of the Holy Ghost through the laying on of hands, taking the sacraments of bread and water (as opposed to wine), and keeping the commandments and enduring to the end. A key verse for Mormon is 2 Nephi 2:25 - "We are saved by grace after all we can do."
4. The Book of Mormon is the greatest book on earth, and through reading it we can receive a 'testimony' from the Holy Ghost that it is God's Word and that Joseph Smith is God's prophet and the LDS is God's church on earth today. The feelings of confirmation that Mormons get are very, very important in their epistemology (how they know truth). They are less interested in corroboration for the Book of Mormon through, say, Old Testament prophecy or archaeology.
What is Biblical is the emphasis on Christ and His atoning death for our sins, and that, as one speaker reminded us, "there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved."
What is not so Biblical is the emphasis on human effort in the attainment of salvation. This is the common factor in all non-Biblical or extra-Biblical religions, it seems. Yes, we need Jesus. Yes, the Bible is God's Word. But we need more. For example, we need to do missionary work, we need to get married and raise kids in a moral way, we need to avoid immorality ourselves, we need to, we need to, we need to...
The definitive statement of Jesus on the Cross - "It is finished!" - declaring the absolute and total payment for our sins is something I have never heard a Mormon emphasise. From talking with many of them, including one today (who came back to the church after a long absence because she felt prompted at a Donny Osmond concert), a certain knowledge of the forgiveness of sins is absent. This particular lady, when I asked her if she knew her sins were forgiven, said, "I hope so." But then, I hear this a lot in evangelical churches too, sadly.
In short, everything comes down to a lack of full confidence in Christ's completed work on the Cross. If only Mormons, and everybody else, would see that Jesus has done it all for us, and that He has now sat down at the right hand of the Father, having achieved on our behalf our salvation. As God's Spirit applies the revelation of Christ's substitutionary death in our place to us, we are regenerated, repent, put our faith in Jesus and live the life of obedience that the Mormon church is at such great pains to stress. But without this revelation of Christ's completed work, and His indwelling Spirit, this religious zeal for righteousness is a broken cistern.