I have had the opportunity many times in my life to dialogue with, worship alongside, befriend, and occasionally debate Reformed Protestants, known commonly as Calvinists. These individuals—a number of whom I consider it a privilege to call my friends—represent multiple denominations and consist of various kinds of Presbyterians, Southern Baptists and the like. Despite such differences, they hold in common the belief in a particular theological tradition formally born out of the Protestant Reformation and stemming largely from the variety of Christian thought and practice espoused by John Calvin. This tradition is distinguished by its emphasis on the sovereignty of God, the inherent depravity of man, and the exclusive role of Christ in bringing about salvation to the elect.
As an overview, or for anyone unfamiliar with the tenets of Calvinism, a traditional and simple iteration of the foundational doctrines for Reformed soteriology can be seen in the acronym TULIP, representing:
Total Depravity— humanity is inherently sinful and incapable of good outside of God.
Unconditional Election— salvation is predetermined by God’s will alone, not our own merits.
Limited Atonement— Jesus only died for the elect and His sacrifice is fully efficacious to save.
Irresistible Grace— once extended, the Grace of God is absolutely efficacious for our regeneration.
Perseverance of the Saints— those who have been saved will not fall from that salvation.
To the front of this acronym, I advise adding the indefinite article “A” (then forming “A TULIP”) so as to include one facet of Reformed Theology that vitally undergirds all of the above doctrines, namely that of:
Absolute Sovereignty— the belief that nothing occurs or exists outside of God’s ultimate control.
No doubt, there exist varying schools of thought within Reformed Theology that might quibble internally on the exact degree to which the above represent accurate summations of Reformed thought and how they are manifested in the world. For the sake of my argument, I will proceed hypothetically accepting them as being basically true.
So here’s where my problem comes in: I am a Mormon.
As a believing and practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I exist well outside the pale of orthodoxy according to the Reformed tradition (much less the traditional Christian world in general) and therefore I believe in a false God, a false Christ, and a false Gospel which cannot save me. Favorably, I am seen as presently misguided but blessed by opportunities to learn about the actual Good News which may result in my eventual salvation and coming to the true faith. Unfavorably, these same opportunities only highlight the hardness of my own heart as God has chosen to given me up to sin and spiritual damnation by participating in the false cult of Mormonism.
Of course, none of this has precluded me from speaking with various Calvinists. This last year of school as been so important for me personally in getting a chance to befriend and study the Bible with a group of Reformed Protestants and their local outreach ministry at ASU. The relationships I have formed with individuals in this group have been so valuable to me given how friendly, respectful, hospitable, and loving they have been toward me. We’ve had very intense and very personal conversations about our respective faiths, and though we disagree on many foundational beliefs, I fully intend on continuing to spend time learning from them for as long as I am welcome.
In my collective conversations with Reformed Christians though, we always eventually reach a crux in our conversation that seems quite obstructive. The crux is this: I remain a Mormon.
To be honest though, the “Mormon” part of that is less of my focus than is the consequence that stems from being a Mormon, or to be more specific, from not being a saved, orthodox Christian. There’s a certain level of dissonance that takes place when—after speaking for hours on the subject of Reformed Theology, discussing the tremendous ways in which it diverges from Mormonism, spending time studying the Bible together, participating in prayer and worship, and sincerely listening to the genuine stories of personal conversion shared by Calvinist friends—I continue to not find Reformed Theology compelling, continue to find spiritual grounding and fulfillment in my Mormon faith, and in their eyes, continue in a state of open rebellion against God.
Though I am not able to know the exact nature of their thoughts at the time, I have had many a Reformed Christian remark to me how they just could not comprehend how I could continue in being a Mormon when I have been privileged with so many chances to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached, and can (fairly accurately) articulate the doctrines of Reformed Theology. This has led some, such as Jeff Durbin at Apologia Church, to declare me a persona non grata and a child of wrath, given up by God to my false beliefs and thereby prohibited from attending church services or being on their property. Fortunately, this represents the exception, rather than the norm, for how I have been received by my Calvinist friends and acquaintances.
We can see me reaching this crux though in a partial clip of a larger conversation I had several years back with Pastor James White, who has since become an Elder for Apologia Church. Though unfortunately much of our discussion wasn’t included in the recorded excerpt, how the conversation ends illustrates our mutual disagreement pretty well. After discussing the nature of the Melchizedek Priesthood as covered in Hebrews 7:24 (see here for a treatment of why White’s Greek is way off-base), we had a brief and personally unsatisfying exchange on the eventual attainability of salvation for me, as a Mormon, knowing what I know. To see for yourself what I am referring to, I recommend watching from minute 10:49 until the end.
Did you notice some of the key things that were said there? I’ll transcribe them below:
White: “…from my perspective, knowing what you know, to go there and do that [be ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood within the LDS Church] is almost sort of a final way of saying I don’t care about that I have seen and I don’t have answers but I am still going to do this anyways. To claim to hold the priesthood that Jesus himself only holds… *sigh* it’s a weighty thing, man.”
Me: Or going through the temple, or…I am going to be serving a mission in a couple months too. [I ended up departing for my mission in October of 2018] Those are all big things. I mean, granted, I wouldn’t still be beyond salvation.”
White: “No, God has saved many a former LDS missionary. But, the amount of light…. let me mention one other thing… what do you think the unpardonable sin is when Jesus talks about it in the Gospel of Matthew?”
Me: “Well, that one is the blaspheming against the Holy Ghost.”
White: “And who committed it?”
Me: “Would it be Judas?”
White: “The Pharisees. Now, why was that an unpardonable sin? Because they were attributing to the Holy Spirit the activities of Beelzebub or Satan himself. So what made it unpardonable is that the Spirit is the one that draws you to Christ, therefore to identify the Spirit as Satan….but how did they do that? They did that by doing what you see in Isaiah chapter five, “Woe to those who call light, darkness and darkness, light.” Or white, black and black, white. These were people who had a tremendous amount of light. They had the Word of God in their hands!”
Me: “Granted, they couldn’t act on that though until God acted on them?”
White: No, no, no. Again, you are assuming something that we don’t know. We don’t know who the elect of God are. They are only held accountable for what God’s Law actually commands them to do, and so, the reality is they possess the Law, they use the Law to put other people under their control, and then their hearts do not follow after God. So the point is, they committed the unpardonable sin because they had so much light. I think that only people who have a tremendous amount of light can commit the unpardonable sin.
Me: So in that respect, would I almost be better off not engaging in any of this [dialogue and studying Reformed Theology] at all?
White: You would be better off repenting and believing in the true Gospel of Jesus Christ and following the true God!
Me: I know, but I can’t do that until that [irresistible] grace acts in though!
White: No, no, no, no, no. Don’t do that.
Me: Otherwise, isn’t it synergistic?
White: No sir. You are using an excuse that is never given to you in scripture and it is dangerous because you understand what the Bible says about the prior nature of God’s grace, but that is not a part of the proclamation. The proclamation is never “sit around and wait for grace”, the proclamation is “repent and believe”, because you do not know if you are going to have another opportunity after this evening.
Me: Right, I could get hit by a car and then… *shrugs* eternally damned.
Like I mentioned, White’s response to my query was less than satisfying because I believe it side-stepped the real issue I was trying to point out: even if under commandment to “repent and believe”, according to Reformed Theology, I cannot do so unto salvation unless first compelled by the regeneration of my heart through the power of God’s irresistible grace.
It is one thing to understand, in theory, Reformed soteriology. It is quite another to literally take it to heart and profess the Reformed Gospel myself under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
In line with the theological tenets of Reformed Theology, what I deem to be my personal “Calvinist Conundrum” may be succinctly stated as follows:
A) I am not presently saved.
B) I may or may not be saved in the future.
C) I cannot will my own salvation or bring it to pass as the result of my own beliefs, desires, and efforts.
D) Only the irresistible grace of God, which is perfectly efficacious unto the power of salvation, can fulfill the potential decree of God in predestining me for salvation.
E) As a Mormon, God has not regenerated my heart.
F) Unless my heart is regenerated in the future by God’s irresistible grace, I will not be saved and cannot profess the Gospel of Christ.
Conclusion: Thus, I cannot help but remain in the unsaved state in which I am.
What made White’s response largely unsatisfying is that he was seeking to shift the focus on my own culpability, rather than my legitimate inability, according to the constraints of Reformed Theology, to “repent and believe” unto salvation. Given that I am unable to do so of my own accord, it seems the inverse of this would be to do so in a way that wasn’t efficacious, and therefore, fundamentally couldn’t be legitimate repentance and saving belief.
I imagine White would disagree with a “fake it until you make it approach,” given that I couldn’t honestly say that I believe Reformed Theology, and therefore, the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. So one can see how the Conundrum remains unresolved, even if White doesn’t want to recognize it and instead, would like to make theological threats that I am likely all-the-more susceptible to eternal damnation by committing the unpardonable sin.
If the premises I listed above are all true, then logically, it seems I cannot help but to be unsaved, according to the theological implications of Reformed Theology. Fortunately, whether I am saved or damned, God still is glorified through either outcome. As Paul might say, I have no right as a clay pot to look up at the Potter and cry “Why have you made me thus?” It seems to me then that my only remaining options are to keep studying, keep learning, keep contemplating, keep praying, and wait for my potential event of salvation in the future, if indeed it ever comes.
Soli deo gloria afterall?
Thanks for reading. For anyone who may have any comments, critiques, or suggestions, feel free to reach out to me with them. I would be more than happy to see this “conundrum” of mine resolved if it turns out I have fundamentally misunderstood something regarding Reformed Theology. The last thing I would want to do is misrepresent someone’s faith.
To see more of James White provide ultimately unsatisfying responses while in dialogue with a Mormon, be sure to check out my previous article, James White and Daniel McClellan: The Challenge of Mormon Academia for Evangelical Apologetics.
Shortly after the release of this article, Dr. Leighton Flowers of Soteriology 101 (himself a former Calvinist) released a live-streamed commentary discussing my exchange with James White, as well as the arguments I raised against Calvinism from my current standpoint as a Mormon. In his video, he readily expressed his approval, agreed with the objections I raised above, shared how he found my reasoning to be sound, and confirmed the accuracy of how I depicted Reformed Theology. If you would like to hear more of what he has to say, I invite you to give it a look!