One question people have asked me through the years is "what do the Mormons do with Paul, and the doctrine of justification?" The matter has recently resurfaced with the publication of Grace Is Not God's Backup Plan, an LDS writer's "urgent paraphrase" of Paul's epistle to the Romans.
According to Bruce R. McConkie (the author of the standard text Mormon Doctrine, 408), "in summarizing the plan of salvation, Adam taught: `By the water ye keep the commandment; by the Spirit ye are justified, and by the blood ye are sanctified'" (Moses 6:60). One would think that if you were going to define the doctrine of justification you would first turn to the Apostle Paul, not to the Book of Mormon.
McConkie continues, this time addressing the supposed misreading of Paul which Mormons are all to happy to correct. "Indeed, one of the great religious contentions among the sects of Christendom is whether men are justified by faith alone, without works, as some erroneously suppose Paul taught (Acts 13:38-39; Rom. 3:19-28; 4:5; 5:1-10; Gal. 2:15-21; 2 Ne 2:5), or whether they are justified by works of righteousness as James explained" (Jas. 2:14-26). So, James trumps Paul without comment. 2 Nephi 2:5, which is quite vague, is cited as a proof text, to the effect that Mormons reject justification by obedience to the law of Moses. It reads, "and men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil. And the law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever."
Joseph Smith made himself pretty clear where he stood on the matter. "To be justified before God we must love one another: we must overcome evil; we must visit the fatherless and the widow in their affliction, and we must keep ourselves unspotted from the world: for such virtues flow from the great fountain of pure religion, strengthening our faith by adding every good quality that adorns the children of the blessed Jesus. We can pray in the season of prayer; we can love our neighbor as ourselves, and be faithful in tribulation, knowing that the reward of such is greater in the kingdom of heaven. What a consolation! What a joy!” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 76). If, as Smith teaches, we must demonstrate sufficient love and good works to be justified, then my reaction is not to be "consoled" or "joyful." My "good" works only condemn me all the more!
Now comes a Mormon writer who has written a paraphrase of Romans, entitled, Grace Is Not a Back-Up Plan. In an interview recently posted on an RNS blog, the author (Adam S. Miller) contends,
Mostly we neglect Romans. A lot of that has probably just been reactionary, a way of distinguishing ourselves from our Protestant cousins. For a long time, what was most important to Mormons was showing how we were different from other Christians. That’s contributed, I think, to a general neglect of Paul and of Romans in particular. We tend to see Paul as their guy.
We’re often not very good readers of the New Testament, especially the second half. Once you get out of the history associated with the gospels and with Acts, it’s rougher going for people. One of the most interesting things about Romans is that it’s a 10,000-word explanation of how key gospel elements fit together—grace, sin, the law. That kind of long theological explanation is rare in scripture and it isn’t easy for us to work through.
Paul is a loose thread in early Christianity. He’s evidence of an ad hoc messiness in the original church that we as Mormons are often uncomfortable thinking about. He doesn’t fit well with the tidy institutional story of the institution.
There are many points of response one could offer to these comments, but I will limit myself to just two. First, Protestants (at least historic evangelical and confessional Protestants) are not "cousins" to the Mormons, who, based upon the quotes above from Bruce McConkie and Joseph Smith, openly reject Paul's doctrine of justification as heartily as they do the doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Jesus. Mormonism is a heretical sect--period. Mormons continue to masquerade as a Christian Church, and here is yet another attempt to co-opt traditional Protestant theology and to sound like mainstream evangelicals. "We like Romans too . . ."
Second, the only way a Mormon can read Paul's letters and not become an Evangelical or confessional Protestant, is to read Romans in the form of a paraphrase, such as the one mentioned above. Mormons have a rather poor track record when it comes to paraphrasing Paul. It is hard to forget Joseph Smith's abominable "paraphrase" of Paul's statement that grace is a free gift from God, received trough faith. In an obvious re-working of Ephesians 2:8-9, in 2 Nephi 25:23 (Book of Mormon) we read; "For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do." Grace only comes "after all we can do."
So, when Mormons paraphrase Paul, we all ought to be a bit nervous. When they do it with "urgency" we should be very nervous.