Building Bridges of Understanding


M. Russell Ballard
From an address given at the Logan [Utah] Institute of Religion on 17 February 1998

Building Bridges of Understanding

In preparing to speak to you today, my thoughts went back to several years ago when I tried my hand for the first time at writing a book. For years I had felt the need for a book about the Church that would explain in simple terms our beliefs and our doctrinal position in relationship to all other churches. My attempt resulted in the publication of Our Search for Happiness. The one question I kept asking myself was, “What is it that I want to have happen with anyone who might read the book?” The word understanding kept coming into my mind. Here are a few words from my book:

“Consider for a moment the word understanding.

“It’s a simple word, really—one that most of us use every day. But it means something that is quite remarkable. With understanding we can strengthen relationships, revitalize neighborhoods, unify nations, and even bring peace to a troubled world. Without it chaos, intolerance, hate, and war are often the result.

“In other words, misunderstanding.”

Speaking specifically to non-LDS readers, I explained that “one of the most cherished tenets of our faith has to do with honoring religious diversity. As our Church’s first president, Joseph Smith, taught: ‘We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.’ (Articles of Faith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 11.)

“We really do believe that. Just as we claim the right to worship as we choose, we believe [others] have the right to worship—or to not worship—as [they] see fit. All of our interpersonal relationships should be built on a foundation of mutual respect, trust, and appreciation. But that shouldn’t prevent us from sharing deeply held religious feelings with each other. Indeed, we may find that our [religious and] philosophical differences add flavor and perspective to our relationships, especially if those relationships are built on true values, openness, respect, trust, and understanding. Especially understanding” ([1993], 1–2, 5; emphasis in original).

Now, it is important for each one of us to know that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored to the earth through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Priesthood authority is once again upon the earth so that sacred ordinances may be performed for the eternal blessing of all those who will accept the blessings that the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ has to offer. Significant eternal truths have been restored, and they are the very foundation of our faith. Yet not only do we need to know and understand these true doctrines for ourselves, there is also a great need for us as members of the Church to know how to courteously share our testimony and beliefs with others while maintaining their friendship and goodwill.

You may be interested to know that during the past two years, members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles traveled two by two to such places as New York; Washington, D.C.; and Los Angeles to build bridges of understanding with leaders of the United States in government, business, and the media. The first bridge-building meetings were held by President Gordon B. Hinckley in company with Elder Neal A. Maxwell. On that trip they met with President Clinton and presented to him his family history. The time was spent with the president of the United States in building an important bridge of understanding relative to the values and mission of the Church. President Hinckley’s appearance on 60 Minutes, during which he was interviewed by Mike Wallace, was the result of this bridge-building trip to New York.

Since that first experience, several of the Twelve have traveled two by two and met with such United States leaders as Vice President Gore; Secretary of Education Richard Riley; ABC news anchor and managing editor Peter Jennings; Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham; General Colin Powell; William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Education; Mortimer Zuckerman, chairman and editor in chief of U.S. News and World Report; the editorial boards of the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today; U.S. Senators John Ashcroft and Joseph Lieberman; and many others.

What do we talk to them about? We explain the mission of the Church and invite them to come to Salt Lake City to get better acquainted with us. Many have accepted, and we have enjoyed showing them what we teach to the people of the world. During the Utah State centennial year in 1996, we built bridges of understanding with 83 ambassadors, 590 religious leaders, 92 business leaders, and 148 educators from outside the United States who visited Utah and called on Church leaders. Last October in Washington, D.C., representatives from 37 countries, including 14 ambassadors and their families, were hosted by our Public Affairs Committee at a picnic at the Marriott Farm. This is an ongoing event now in its eighth year.

Can you see the great opportunity that is ours and yours to build bridges of understanding among the peoples of the world? While we as Latter-day Saints are pleased to share the good news of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ with any and all who would hear our message, there are times when helping those who are not members of the Church to understand our basic beliefs will be all that we can accomplish. We must remember that the Lord expects us to peacefully coexist with others not of our faith. We can pleasantly agree to disagree with them on certain points of doctrine even while we unite with them in the great common denominators of faith in God and benevolent service to others.

As members of the Church, we need to be kind and gentle in our conversations as we express our convictions and feelings that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored to the earth in its fulness through the Prophet Joseph Smith. As appropriate, we need to teach and testify and discern when it might be helpful to give the Book of Mormon and other Church literature to those who show interest.

When we are guided by the Spirit, I find that our conversations will often lead to the subject of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. We need to assure people that we are all God’s spirit sons and daughters. All of us, regardless of race, color, or creed, belong to the family of our Heavenly Father. Our understanding and knowledge of this basic truth should compel us to love all of our brothers and sisters and to share the eternal plan of salvation with them. To those who are interested, it might be well to explain our belief that the brotherhood of man includes our teaching that we all existed premortally as spirit children of God, our Heavenly Father, where we learned and accepted His plan for us to come to earth to gain a mortal body and be tested. Our deep-rooted respect for all mankind is enhanced by our understanding of our premortal life and experiences together.

With this as background, let me discuss with you five subjects that I often find lend themselves to misunderstanding when we share our doctrinal position with others. Some claim we are not Christians because of our belief in these revealed truths.

1. Our Belief in Additional Scriptures

The first concerns our acceptance of other books of scripture besides the Bible. These books, of course, are the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. To others who question the need for these scriptures, we can explain that the bedrock doctrines of the restored Church are based on revelation to a modern prophet of God. We believe that God raised up a prophet in our time, even Joseph Smith, and gave to him revelations, authority, and commandments as they pertain to our day.

The great pronouncement of the Lord at the beginning of this dispensation is contained in section 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants when He said:

“Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments;

“And also gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world; and all this that it might be fulfilled, which was written by the prophets. …

“And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:17–18, 30).

Now, brothers and sisters, those words from the Lord are either true or they are not. Either Joseph Smith was the Lord’s instrument by which the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ in its fulness was accomplished or he is not. There is no possible compromise of this doctrine. Yet, even when we are bearing testimony of this truth, we must be cordial in the way we express and explain it.

The message we share with all mankind is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the same as the church Jesus Christ established during His mortal ministry, restored in its fulness in these latter days. This truth is based on the fact that God the Father and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, have spoken to a modern-day prophet and have revealed themselves anew to the world. The keys and priesthood authority given to Joseph Smith to establish the Church of Jesus Christ upon the earth have come down to the current prophet President Gordon B. Hinckley. All the laws, covenants, and ordinances of the gospel and the priesthood authority by which man can receive the ordinances of salvation have been restored.

Thus, we can say to our friends, “Yes, without question, we believe in revelation and scripture in addition to that contained within the Holy Bible.” We can kindly explain that while we accept the Bible as the word of God as far as it is translated correctly, we believe that this generation has as much, if not more, of a need for God’s guidance and direction than generations of former times. Our belief that our Heavenly Father has sent prophets and apostles and has given us additional scripture for our day and time is a manifestation of His great love and concern for His children. If one chooses not to accept our beliefs, then we should kindly agree to disagree, while encouraging understanding.

2. Our Emphasis on Both Grace and Works

A second reason why some people think Latter-day Saints are not Christian is their belief that we do not accept the doctrine of salvation through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wise are the members of the Church who can visit with those who have this misunderstanding and in kind and factual ways build bridges of understanding by teaching that we accept the doctrine of salvation through the grace of God and His Beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

We believe our Father in Heaven is a God of love and mercy. He is desirous that all of us have joy and eternal happiness. Therefore, before our world was created, He provided an eternal plan for our salvation. The Book of Mormon calls it the “plan of happiness” (Alma 42:16).

Our Heavenly Father’s loving grace or goodness is demonstrated in part by the creation of this beautiful earth with all its bounties. To each of us He has given the precious gift of agency, through which we choose between pathways that lead to happiness or ones that lead to misery (see 2 Ne. 2:27). With perfect foreknowledge, our Heavenly Father knew what His children would experience as a result of the Fall of Adam. Each of us would be subjected to the conditions of temptation, sin, bodily infirmities, and physical death.

Heavenly Father loved us so much that He sent to this earth His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, as our Savior and Redeemer (see John 3:16–17). I mention only two of the many things that Jesus accomplished for us that we could not do for ourselves. First, at the conclusion of His mortal ministry, He suffered the Atonement, through which He took upon Himself all our sins and infirmities, suffering “these things for all, that [we] might not suffer if [we] would repent” (D&C 19:16). And second, He broke the bands of death and made it possible for all mankind to be resurrected. This means that after our physical death, we will gain a resurrected, physical body. And if we exercise faith in Him, repent, and are faithful to the gospel covenants we make in the ordinances of salvation, our body will be glorified like the sun (see 1 Cor. 15:40–41). With great emphasis I want to say that all of this is made possible through the grace of Jesus Christ. That is why the great Book of Mormon prophet Nephi wrote, “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Ne. 25:26).

In the Christian world, there has been much debate regarding the relationship of grace and works. To The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints both are core doctrines. Just as a pair of scissors requires two blades to function, the Lord’s grace and our works of faith in Christ, personal repentance, and receiving saving ordinances are required for eternal life in God’s presence.

Our works consist of placing our full confidence and trust in Jesus Christ and then exercising our desire and willingness to live by His teachings. We do this by repenting of all our sins and obeying the laws and ordinances of Christ’s gospel. As we do this faithfully over our lifetime, we are sanctified by the Holy Ghost and our nature is changed.

The scriptures inform us that Jesus grew from “grace to grace” until He received a fulness of the Father’s grace. What I understand that to mean is that He obeyed His Heavenly Father’s will and by so doing He received an increase of our Heavenly Father’s power. Thus He increased in the divine attributes of godliness until He was perfect in virtue and holiness like His Father. Jesus thereby showed us the path of holiness and then promised us: “If you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace” (D&C 93:20).

The doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regarding grace is forthright. We understand that since we have all become spiritually unclean because of sin (see 1 Jn. 1:8), and since “there cannot any unclean thing enter into the kingdom of God” (1 Ne. 15:34), no individual can receive eternal life solely on the merits of his or her own effort. We believe that only as we rely on the Savior’s grace and demonstrate our changed nature through obedience to His laws and ordinances may we receive eternal life. This principle is beautifully taught by Moroni in the closing chapter of the Book of Mormon. Please note the harmony and balance between the efforts we must make and the role of God’s grace in the process of perfecting ourselves.

“Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.

“And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot” (Moro. 10:32–33).

We believe that this should be the goal and striving for each of us.

It is only through the infinite Atonement of Jesus Christ that people can overcome the consequences of bad choices. Thus Nephi teaches us that it is ultimately by the grace of Christ that we are saved even after all that we can do (see 2 Ne. 25:23). No matter how hard we work, no matter how much we obey, no matter how many good things we do in this life, it would not be enough were it not for Jesus Christ and His loving grace. On our own we cannot earn the kingdom of God—no matter what we do. Unfortunately, there are some within the Church who have become so preoccupied with performing good works that they forget that those works—as good as they may be—are hollow unless they are accompanied by a complete dependence on Christ. It is this dependence that causes us to want to sing what Alma eloquently referred to as “the song of redeeming love” (Alma 5:26).

You remember that quote from the fifth chapter of Alma, in the Book of Mormon, in which he asks a series of powerful questions that are instructive in this matter. He asked members of the church at that time:

“Have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?

“Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body? …

“Or do ye imagine to yourselves that ye can lie unto the Lord in that day, and say—Lord, our works have been righteous works upon the face of the earth—and that he will save you? …

“I say unto you, can ye look up to God at that day with a pure heart and clean hands? I say unto you, can you look up, having the image of God engraven upon your countenances? …

“I say unto you, ye will know at that day that ye cannot be saved; for there can no man be saved except his garments are washed white; yea, his garments must be purified until they are cleansed from all stain, through the blood of him of whom it has been spoken by our fathers, who should come to redeem his people from their sins. …

“And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now? …

“Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you” (Alma 5:14–15, 17, 19, 21, 26, 33).

Let us never forget that it is by and through the grace of Jesus Christ and our coming unto Him through spiritual rebirth that the happy possibilities of eternal life are available to all of us.

A great demonstration of the love, mercy, and grace of our Heavenly Father is His preparing kingdoms of glory for His children’s eventual eternal residence based on the exercise of our personal agency relative to the commandments of God. Even the telestial glory surpasses our understanding. If we obey the laws of the gospel, we will receive a celestial glory. In other words, the Lord has said that we will be rewarded on the basis of “that which [we] are willing to receive” (D&C 88:32).

3. Our Relationship to Christ

A third area of misunderstanding that I’d like to discuss for a moment has to do with our relationship to Christ. We occasionally hear some members refer to Jesus as our Elder Brother, which is a true concept based on our understanding of the premortal life with our Father in Heaven. But like many points of gospel doctrine, that simple truth doesn’t go far enough in terms of describing the Savior’s role in our present lives and His great position as a member of the Godhead. Thus, some non-LDS Christians are uncomfortable with what they perceive as a secondary role for Christ in our theology. They feel that we view Jesus as a spiritual peer. They believe that we view Christ as an implementor for God, if you will, but that we don’t view Him as God to us and to all mankind, which, of course, is counter to biblical testimony about Christ’s divinity.

Let me help us understand, with clarity and testimony, our belief about Jesus Christ. We declare He is the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Creator, the Savior, the Captain of our Salvation, the Bright and Morning Star. He has taught us that He is in all things, above all things, through all things and round about all things, that He is Alpha and Omega, the Lord of the Universe, the first and the last relative to our salvation, and that His name is above every name and is in fact the only name under heaven by which we can be saved.

Further, the Lord Himself, as recorded in the Book of Mormon, told the brother of Jared, “Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have life, and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters” (Ether 3:14).

But how is that possible? How can Jesus Christ be both the Father and the Son? It really isn’t as complicated as it sounds. Though He is the Son of God, He is the head of the Church, which is the family of believers. When we are spiritually born again, we are adopted into His family. He becomes our Father or leader. To further explain this concept of Jesus also being our “Father,” let me use an analogy and say that seven of my premortal spirit brothers and sisters were born to my wife, Barbara, and me. We are therefore their premortal spiritual brother and sister and also their earthly physical father and mother. Similarly, Christ is our spiritual Elder Brother and the Son of God, but He is also our Father or leader and our God. King Benjamin taught his faithful followers that “because of the covenant which ye have made [through the baptism of fire, or spiritual rebirth] ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters” (Mosiah 5:7).

In 1916 the First Presidency issued a doctrinal statement on how Jesus is both a Father and the Son. You can find that in the appendix section of any edition of the book The Articles of Faith, by Elder James E. Talmage of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

In no way does this doctrine denigrate the role of God the Father. Rather, we believe it enhances our understanding of the role of God the Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. God our Heavenly Father is the Father of our spirits; we speak of God the Son as the Father of the righteous. He is regarded as the “Father” because of the relationship between Him and those who accept His gospel, thereby becoming heirs of eternal life. And the third member of the Godhead, God the Holy Ghost, has the specific mission to teach and to testify of truth as it pertains to the divinity of both God the Father and God the Son.

Now we can understand why some Latter-day Saints have tended to focus on Christ’s Sonship as opposed to His Godhood. As members of earthly families, we can relate to Him as a child, as a Son, and as a Brother because we know how that feels. We can personalize that relationship because we ourselves are children, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. For some it may be more difficult to relate to Him as a God. And so in an attempt to draw closer to Christ and to cultivate warm and personal feelings toward Him, some tend to humanize Him, sometimes at the expense of acknowledging His Divinity. So let us be very clear on this point: it is true that Jesus was our Elder Brother in the premortal life, but we believe that in this life it is crucial that we become “born again” as His sons and daughters in the gospel covenant.

With this background, we need to understand that there are many in the Christian world who believe this doctrine is inappropriate. In fact, there are many who say that Latter-day Saints believe in a “different Jesus” than do other Christians and that we are therefore not “Christian.” Here is another place that we can agree to disagree without being disagreeable. We believe in the Jesus of the New Testament, and we believe what the New Testament teaches about Him. We do believe things about Jesus that other Christians do not believe, but that is because we know, through revelation, things about Jesus that others do not know. It is a twisting of language to call this a “different Jesus,” as though we have created some other individual by that name.

4. Our Understanding of the Godhead

A fourth area of misunderstanding among some of our friends in Christianity is that they refer to us as “polytheists,” meaning that we believe in a plurality of Gods. Much misunderstanding would be avoided if they understood that we worship only one Godhead, consisting of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. We believe that the biblical record teaches that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are separate persons. When the Savior was baptized, the Father spoke His approval from heaven, and the Holy Ghost was witnessed to be present by the sign of a dove (see Matt. 3:16–17). Likewise the Bible records the prayers of Jesus Christ to our Father in Heaven, a separate being (see John 17:3). We believe this doctrine is taught in the Bible despite what the creeds of other Christian denominations may teach. Such creeds were created hundreds of years after Christ’s mortal ministry through the processes of debate and compromise, often at the expense of biblical truths. The falling away from the teachings of Jesus Christ resulted in the Apostasy, which made the restoration of the gospel essential. This is a subject to be studied by all; the various Christian creeds were born through church councils and other efforts to define the true nature of God and His Son, Jesus Christ. Through revelations to modern prophets, we now know God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost and our true relationship to each one of them.

There is another related dimension of the scriptures that causes discomfort for many traditional Christians regarding this whole matter. We believe our Father in Heaven has promised His faithful sons and daughters “all things”—even that those worthy of exaltation in the celestial kingdom will be as “gods, even the sons of God” and that “these shall dwell in the presence of God and His Christ forever and ever” (see D&C 76:55, 58, 62). Although we do not know the full detail of these promises or what is fully meant by being “gods, even the sons of God,” we do accept these promises as revealed doctrine. Yet notwithstanding these promises, we say that for us there is indeed no other object of worship than God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

5. Our Belief That the Father and Son Have Bodies of Flesh and Bones

The final area of misunderstanding that I want to address has to do with our belief that “the Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also” (D&C 130:22). As Latter-day Saints, we believe that the resurrected Christ has a body of flesh and bones (see Luke 24:39). Now if Jesus is the express image of God the Father, which we believe that He is, then God the Father has a resurrected body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s. Most Christians who accept the Bible believe that Christ will come again and will even show the wounds in His hands. As one ancient prophet has declared, He will show those wounds to others and say they are “those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends” (Zech. 13:6). We believe that Jesus did not and in the future will not discard His resurrected body. God the Father and His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, are glorified, exalted, resurrected beings, and from the moment of the appearance of the Father and the Son to Joseph Smith, we have known their true nature.

In closing, may I suggest that what we want most of all is for Christian and non-Christian alike to understand that we love the Lord Jesus Christ. We revere His name. We count it a great honor and privilege to take upon ourselves the name of Christ as Christians and as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yet, while “we claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience,” we “allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may” (A of F 1:11). Further, just because people of other faiths don’t believe everything that we believe about Jesus Christ and His eternal ministry, we don’t deny that they are Christian. They are simply different from us in some of their beliefs. Although we may differ in points of doctrine, and although we may wish to share with them marvelous truths that we believe the Lord Himself has revealed in these last days, we will and must respect their Christianity and ask only that they likewise respect ours.

Now there are other areas where misunderstandings may occur. There isn’t time to list all of them. My intent, brothers and sisters, in sharing these concepts with you is to encourage you to become lifelong students of the scriptures and the restored gospel of Jesus Christ so that you might always be prepared to courteously and respectfully help clarify misunderstandings about our Church as they occur with those of other faiths. Notwithstanding our efforts to build bridges of understanding and to be charitable in all our dealings, we have the same obligation which the Savior issued to Peter: “When thou art converted,strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:32). When opportunities present themselves to you in the course of your lives, may the Lord bless you to share the gospel generously and kindly with your families, your friends, your work associates, and any others who are not members of the Church to bring about a better understanding of the restoration of the gospel. That is our responsibility as Christians. That is the responsibility of every member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

May I leave with you my personal testimony that I know that God our Father lives and that through His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, He has restored to the earth their Church with true teachings and doctrines and with priesthood power and authority to perform the ordinances of salvation for all our Heavenly Father’s children. Joseph Smith is a prophet, as are all of those who have succeeded him. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true; that I know. May the Lord bless each of you with increased knowledge and testimony.

[photo] Reaching out to others helps build an understanding of our doctrine and people. (Photo by Steve Bunderson.)

[photo] While we believe in the Bible, we also believe in additional scripture that comes from a Heavenly Father who provides continual revelation through His prophets to His children. (Photo by Jed Clark.)

[illustration] We worship one Godhead, consisting of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. We strive to return to their presence through repentance made possible by the Atonement of Jesus Christ. (The First Vision, by Del Parson.)