I get requests to talk to people outside of Mormonism. I’m excited to introduce a non-evangelical, run of the mill Lutheran pastor, Reverend Willie Grills from Arkansas on the show.  We’ll talk about Lutheranism, Mormonism, how protestants don’t just pick on Mormons but fight amongst themselves, and Willie will even ask me some questions about Mormonism. Let’s hope I answer correctly! Check out our conversation… 

Why is Lutheran Pastor Interested in Mormons?

GT  01:39  Yeah, so one of the things that’s amazing to me, I don’t usually point out when people are subscribers, but Willie, you’ve been a subscriber for a long time to Gospel Tangents. I’m just fascinated why a Lutheran pastor would be interested in Mormon history. Can you tell us why that is?

Willie  01:57  Well, yeah, that’s an excellent question. Mormonism, if I can use that term.

GT:  Yes

Willie: It’s a safe space, right?

GT  02:05  We’re non-correlated here. So it’s good.  (Chuckling)

Willie  02:09  One of the things that I really enjoy studying and focusing on is 19th century religion in America. Mormonism is integral to that part of American history. It comes out of a very interesting time, as far as the revivalism of the time. You’re getting into the Second Great Awakening. Mormonism is a force that we have to learn about, and that we have to understand, not only as Americans anymore, but as far as global Christianity is concerned. A lot of the apologetics around it, have kind of mixed effectiveness, we can say, on both sides. So, I think that understanding it, as an historian is as important as it is interesting. Then, theologically, too, the development of it. Both are very interesting, and of course, very important. When the missionaries come and knock on your door, what are you expecting here? Are you going to present a caricature of those guys? Or are we going to be able to talk to them in a fair and honest way? Plus, again, the history for me is just extremely, extremely interesting, and important.

Story of Martin Luther

GT  19:38  Alright, so can you tell us a little bit more about Luther? I think most Mormons, I’m going to still use the term. I don’t care. Most Mormons, most Latter-day Saints, we know about Luther’s 95 theses, but that’s probably about it, other than, he didn’t like the Catholics. Some people might know that Luther didn’t actually start the Lutheran Church. He was kind of a Denver Snuffer in that way, like, “Hey, I’m not starting a church.”

Willie  20:09  Yeah, let me give you the Cliff Notes version here. I think that’s important. I do think that even the LDS recognize the importance of the Protestant Reformation, at least today. I mean, I know that all of our creeds are an abomination, but they still, they’re kind of friendly toward us now. So, Luther is a man with a very troubled conscience. He is a monk. He joins the monastery after a near-lightning strike. He makes a vow, saying that he’ll become a monk. He’s always a very tortured soul, wondering about assurance of salvation, will he ever be good enough? So, even as a monk, he is confessing more than he has to. He is even more acetic than he needs to be. They send Luther to Rome. He doesn’t like the corruption that he sees there. He comes back. He’s a professor. He’s a doctor at the University of Wittenberg. He has a doctorate in theology and begins to seriously study the Scriptures.

Willie  21:07  So, I think your Joseph Smith moment that you’re referring to, in this documentary that you watched on Luther, is probably this experience, where he’s reading the Book of Romans. It finally clicks in his head, that the just will live by faith. This really is the linchpin of his theology, that everything that we have from God is gift, that it is received by faith, and that, yes, we can talk about good works and things a little bit down the road, but that everything we receive is grace upon grace. So, his conscience is able to be unburdened once that clicks for him. So, it is a bit of a shining moment for him. It’s an epiphany for him.  No angels appear. Although later, Luther, by some preachers will be referred to as the angel of Revelation, but we won’t get into that.

GT  21:55  (Chuckling)

Willie  21:56  So, that is it. Then, he begins, he’s writing tracts. He’s writing things that are getting him into trouble, and that’s eventually going to lead to his excommunication from the Catholic Church. But there are all kinds of other things that are tied up in this. So, you’re dealing with the Holy Roman Empire. You’re dealing with a Germany that is not united. You have all of these different princes and fiefdoms. So, they’re able to choose their own religion. He comes about at just the right time, to where a movement like this can spread. The printing press is there. So, his writings are being disseminated sort of far and wide. What he is preaching is really clicking with the peasant, with the layman, with certain princes, but it’s not really clicking with the Pope, and with certain bishops, and that gets him into trouble.

GT  22:51  So, is he kind of a Denver Snuffer of his day with the Catholic Church?

Willie  23:04  See, the context is so different, because Luther is not a visionary, and later, he is really going to write a very strong polemic against those who are claiming divine revelation. So, he wants to be very clear that what he is teaching is in accord with Scripture and in accord with, even, the church fathers. So, he wants to be very careful that we’re not teaching anything novel, that there’s not a disconnect, that what has happened is corruption has entered into the church to where you can buy an indulgence, and that erases your sin. Now, that’s a very sort of reductionistic way of explaining this, but that is how a lot of people understood this. So, the 95 theses, sort of the first blast here, have a lot to do with the sale of indulgences. Can I buy something, or can I perform a certain action and receive a certain bit of alleviation for my time in purgatory? Or can I do that, for the souls in purgatory, for those who have died? These are the sorts of things that Luther is reacting against. So, he doesn’t like the abuses that he sees. But he’s like a Denver Snuffer in this way that he doesn’t intend to separate from the church, but they make that decision for him.

GT  24:15  Right. Yeah. Yeah, I can see some similarities there. But, yeah, Denver is definitely much more of a visionary than Luther, it sounds like.

Grace vs Works

Willie  30:19  So that we believe that from first to last, it is grace upon grace, that God has to call us first, and God does the work in our hearts to justify us. We do believe that people can reject that, of course, that people will have true saving faith and then fall away. So, all of your Calvinist listeners have now anathematized me, after that.

GT  30:43  (Chuckling)

Willie  30:43  So, with that Nephi verse, we would take issue with, “After all that we can do,” because we don’t believe that, first a priori, that we can do anything. We believe that man is dead in trespasses and sins, and so that the Holy Spirit must first work on him before that before man can believe in Him. And God does that in different ways.

GT  31:05  Yeah, and I’m not here to debate that, but I want to get…

Willie  31:07  No, no, that’s fine.

GT  31:09  Because there’s the one scripture in James that I believe Luther said, and I wish I could have it off top of my head. Luther said the Book of James was uninspired. Do you know what I’m referring to?

Willie  31:23  He refers to it as an epistle of straw. But I must say, and this is the caveat we always have to get. We are called Lutheran. But we don’t subscribe to everything Luther said, His words are not canonized, only the Bible is canonized for us, the Protestant canon. But a lot of his writings, as a pastor in the Missouri Synod, I do have to subscribe to without error. So, to be fair, but that doesn’t include everything he wrote. And everything I said is true for all of our congregations and pastors. But that, in James is, “Faith without works is dead,” is probably what you’re thinking of.

GT  32:01  That’s what I was thinking of.

Willie  32:03  Yeah, and, of course, James does also say that a man is justified not by faith alone. James does say that. So, a bit of a sticky wicket for us, right? That’s kind of the gotcha that people usually use for us. But we would typically explain it in two ways. The first, the most common way is that oh, James is talking about external righteousness. That’s what most Protestants would say. But there’s also the fact that if you have true faith, good works are naturally produced. Luther is reacting to a time where people are really seeing salvation is purely transactional. Have I done enough? Did I pay enough? Have I gone to enough masses, or this or that? So, there is a bit of a problem, even today, where if you’re looking for your assurance of faith in like, “Am I bearing enough fruit?” You’re going to despair pretty easily, I think. But we would wholeheartedly agree that true, saving faith produces works and so that if you say you have faith, but you are living a completely wicked lifestyle, and I don’t mean like, oh, you’re smoking cigarettes and saying cuss words, but you’re completely denying Christ with your life, that the person will be on very shaky ground spiritually. I fully admit that people can go from one extreme or another on this. And I know that this is one that Mormons bring out a lot, too, that man is justified, not by faith alone. But again, James is speaking to people who say they have faith, but their lives do not demonstrate that in any way. That would be a problem for us, too.

GT  33:49  I mean, kind of my personal theology, I’ll say it that way, is the whole grace/works argument is just kind of two sides of the same coin.

Willie  34:03  Yeah.

GT  34:05  I mean, I would probably subscribe to yes–correct me if I’m wrong. The Lutheran frame of mind is that because of grace, you’re going to have good works. Maybe the LDS frame of mind is, “I have good works, which shows I have faith. To me we’re really, it’s a kind of a chicken or the egg. You know, which came first, the chicken or the egg? I mean to me we’re basically–it’s a stupid argument. Like we’re arguing the same thing. It’s just semantics.

Willie  34:42  Yeah, I mean, to be fair, I think you all, too, have a very, I would say a stricter system of accountability in the LDS Church, a stricter system of accountability.

GT  34:59  Oh, yes.

Willie  35:00  While it is true that our church is historically, especially in America, I mean even well into the 1900s would post all of the giving records of the members publicly on the church bulletin board.

GT  35:12  Oh.

Willie  35:14  We don’t we don’t do that anymore. We don’t really check tithing records.

GT  35:18  That sounds very Catholic. (Chuckling)

Willie  35:19  (Chuckling)  So, yeah, we are a bit more relaxed in that these days. I think for a lot of Christians, sometimes they look at us as a little bit impious, because a lot of our people will drink alcohol, for example, smoking cigars, tobacco, that thing’s common. So, people associate piety only with abstaining from those things. And I’m not talking about Mormons. I mean, if a Baptist saw that, they would be possibly scandalized, too. But I believe that there’s a problem using those things to excess, don’t get me wrong. But I think sometimes we forget that the true fruits of the Spirit are things like charity, love, kindness, patience, those sorts of things.

Trinity & Atonement

Willie  1:11:30  This is something that’s always confused me.  Now, when I read theology, you know, I like a good systematic. So, I’ll still pull up Mormon Doctrine, to try to figure it out, even though it’s outdated. I feel like sometimes, maybe, when the LDS theologians today, I feel like they maybe soften or, kind of fudge a little bit on clear statements. So, the Atonement has always been interesting. So, if you look at a lot of anti-Mormon tracts, they’ll say that Mormons only believe the atonement happened in Gethsemane. But that doesn’t seem to be the case when I hear like, say, back to Bruce McConkie. You look at Bruce McConkie’s, what I’ll call the final testimony. He says, “I testify that Christ atoned at Gethsemane and Golgotha.” So, all the theories aside, where do you believe that the atonement happened? How does Gethsemane figure into that, I guess, is my question? Because we don’t believe that it really happened at Gethsemane.

GT  1:12:29  When you’re talking about the atonement, as far as the price that he paid for our sins, is that what you’re saying?

Willie  1:12:35  Yeah, it’s typically pictured as Christ’s Atonement either happens or begins at Golgotha. Excuse me, at Gethsemane. Of course, it happened at Golgotha. Or am I butting into folk Mormonism here?

GT  1:12:47  This is where I just want to reject all the penal substitution and the ransom theory altogether, because to me, it’s so barbaric and awful. I would much rather talk about moral influence or Christus Victor. To me, those are much more appealing. Because I just feel like the LDS Church is very tied to penal substitution and I don’t like it. So, to answer your question, what’s the official thing? Not what’s my thing?

Willie  1:13:29  Yeah, the official thing that, not the Bennett-ite position.

GT  1:13:33  I’m much more of a Christus Victor and a moral influencer, view of atonement. I like it way better. So, I hate this question. I’ll just say. But yeah, from the “official,” I kind of I hate to say this, because I disagree with Bruce R. McConkie a lot, but I kind of think he might be right on that one. It’s kind of a combination of on the cross and in the garden. To me, this is so barbaric. Once again, this is why I don’t like penal substitution. Jesus bled from every pore as he’s praying in the garden. That’s horrible. What kind of a God would do that?  “Jesus, here, let me make you bleed from every pore, because you got to pay for everybody’s sins.” I just don’t like it.

Willie  1:14:23  Well, and then see, there’s an ontological difference here with the way we view God, too. Because we’re Trinitarian, we believe in one God, united, three persons, same divine essence. You’re dealing with two different beings of flesh and bone and so I think that that colors that a little bit, too. There’s a potential, perhaps, in Mormon theology for disagreement between the Father and the Son, not that that’s ever, that you officially teach that, but at least it’s theoretically possible. But we believe that God is one, and [in your theology] the Father and the son are not one. [They are] maybe one in purpose. I understand that, but not one in essence or being.

We also talked about Word of Wisdom, how protestants fight with each other as much as they do Mormons, and biblical literalism. (Willie is much more of a literalist than I am, that’s for sure!) We also discussed whether Christian nationalism is a problem, and whether religionists have infiltrated both democrat and republican parties.

Is one party worse for christian nationalism?

Do you agree with me that Mormons believe the atonement occured in both Gethsemane and Golgotha?

Has your experience with protestants been this cordial when discussing different beliefs?

Are you on board with penal substitution, or do you prefer another atonement theory?