Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Brad Wilcox's Broken Piano: A Failed Redefinition of Grace


Latter-day Quagmire

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the "Mormon Church") is going to change. They've done it in the past and it will happen again soon. Their path, however, is uncertain.

Patrick Q. Mason, chair of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, recently said to the Washington Post, "I can see multiple futures for Mormonism. I honestly don’t know which way it’s going to go." 

The Church has to change because they have to survive. Jesus is not building that institution; therefore, they're subject to being overtaken by a variety of forces. Currently, many of their members are dabbling with secular humanism. Covid has given many of the members a break from their regular religious routines and many of them aren't coming back. Others have met the one, true God of the universe and are involved in real churches that preach real grace. They're not coming back, either.

So, on the one hand, the Church might try to reach those members leaning toward secularism by going liberal themselves, embracing a new morality while also letting go of their long-held claims to be the one, true church. The strategy here would be to turn the local church meetinghouses into what would essentially become Habitat for Humanity outposts, free from judgment and ready to meet felt needs. Young missionaries for the Church are already starting to think this way.

On the other hand, the Church may try to identify with more traditional Protestantism, seeking to reform their presentation of themselves in such a way that they're perceived as just another Christian denomination in the vast, diverse world of Christendom. They could attempt to change the public's perception of the Church as a restoration movement separate from the rest of Protestant Christianity. This would likely look like a continual emphasis on the name "Jesus Christ" in their title, as well as toning down the "only true and living church upon the face of the earth" rhetoric in exchange for "purest Christian denomination" rhetoric, while affirming other Protestant denominations in their convictions. To a certain extent, this approach is already being implemented. More on that in a moment.

(Note: Once upon a time, I asked someone who identifies more with the liberal Mormon camp about the "just another Christian denomination" Mormon camp and his response was interesting.)

I initially set out to write an article about the camp that supports the first proposition, the liberal Latter-day Saints. As I considered it, though, it seemed like a futile effort. In a short amount of time, these liberal Latter-day Saints will likely no longer be a part of the Church, as it is difficult to see how the institution could change quickly enough to accommodate them. It's possible that in ten years or so homosexuality will be fully embraced by the Church, but that's too long for many Latter-day Saints to wait. Today's liberal Mormons have one foot in secular humanism and the other foot on a banana peel.

The other camp -- the group that desires to see the church maintain its morality and tradition while also merging into more "mainline" Christianity -- these are the ones this article is about. In recent years, I've observed an evolution in LDS verbiage that has apparently sought to come across as more Christian. I first noticed this in a 2015 talk by Apostle Uchtdorf, but I have picked up on it more and more in general Mormon chatter since then. Brad Wilcox is a beloved LDS speaker who is, in many ways, leading the charge in such rhetoric. 

The motivations for this shift cannot be totally known, but it does seem as though a major factor has been to relieve the Church's membership of some of the burdens they feel in a works-righteousness system. There are certainly still plenty of admonitions given to members to keep working, but more and more voices are calling for grace, especially as they're confronted with the gospel of grace by Christian influencers. However, the new vocabulary espoused by LDS thought leaders is not biblical.


A Piano in Need of Tuning

The first thing you need to know about Brad Wilcox is that he is one of the most influential voices in Mormonism today and he is representative of a new definition of grace within the Church. He was called on to speak at the most recent General Conference and based on YouTube views, his talk was more popular than many of the Church's apostles'. He is the author of several books, including The Continuous Atonement, the subtitle of which reads "Christ doesn't just make up the difference, He makes all the difference," (emphasis original). In his talks, he frequently emphasizes the inability of people to be "good enough," while encouraging them with his view of the grace of Jesus Christ.

Wilcox has come up with a popular illustration to help Latter-day Saints understand grace in a new way. He encourages his listeners to consider the grace of Jesus Christ as an arrangement with humanity that mirrors a mother arranging piano lessons for her child. Because the mother has paid for the lessons in full, she can, in turn, ask her child to practice. By practicing, the child does not pay the piano teacher himself or repay his mother, as Wilcox always clarifies, but instead, practicing shows appreciation for the gift. The child is taking advantage of the offer to live life at a higher level and the mother finds joy in seeing her gift used in a way that improves the child.

In 2011, Wilcox presented this illustration at a chapel service at Brigham Young University (BYU) and went on to directly address those Latter-day Saints who are considering leaving the LDS works-based system for true, biblical grace. Like a child who grumbles at the prospect of completing his piano practice, there are Latter-day Saints who grumble because they see that "other Christians" (note his phrasing) don't have to obey the same commandments as their church, he said. Wilcox asserted that the grumbling child simply isn't viewing the piano lessons with his mother's eyes (she sees what's best for him); likewise, grumbling Latter-day Saints aren't viewing tithing and mission work with Christ's eyes.

"Maybe we have not yet comprehended what he (Jesus) is trying to make of us," he concluded. This piano lesson paradigm is at the heart of much of what Wilcox teaches (hence the title). Wilcox supported traditional Mormon doctrine in the talk by saying, "Christ asks us to show faith in Him, repent, make and keep covenants, receive the Holy Ghost, and endure to the end." Robert Bowman rightly sums up

"He is saying this within the context of LDS Church religion and doctrine. One cannot make or keep covenants or receive the Holy Ghost, in the senses meant in this context, except in the LDS Church. Non-Mormon Christians have faith in Christ, repent of their sins, believe that they have become part of the new covenant community (the church), believe that they have received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and endure in their faith to the end of their lives. Yet they are still not qualified to live with Heavenly Father according to Mormon doctrine."

In 2009, Wilcox spoke to a group of educators at BYU and addressed the famous Book of Mormon twisting of Ephesians 2:8: "For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do," (2 Nephi 25:23b). This is not the vision of grace that Wilcox wants Latter-day Saints to have, so he must alter the traditional interpretation of the assertion.

In this talk, Wilcox says,

"Many Christians in the world say, 'Oh, Jesus' grace took care of everything and we don't have to do anything.' We say, 'Jesus's grace took care of everything, but we still have something to do. Not to get the grace, but to use the grace so that we can get to be the kind of people that Christ would have us be.'

"Christ is not waiting at the finish line; rather, he is finishing our faith. Grace is not the prize at the end of the climb; it is the enabling power that he gives us throughout the climb that he requires."

In 2017, Wilcox engaged in a long dialogue with Steven Crane (an evangelical) at Christ Community Church in Idaho Falls. He helpfully outlined some Mormon doctrines that many are unaware of, as well as stating this about grace

"We're forgiven of sin by grace -- through the grace of Jesus Christ. And through the grace of Jesus Christ we believe we can be transformed...A lot of Christians look at our ordinances or they look at our covenants and they say, 'You're working your way to heaven.' No, we look at our ordinances and our covenants, not that we are believing more in works than in grace, but rather we see those covenants and ordinances as a way of inviting more grace into our lives. For us, grace isn't something that comes once; grace is something that we get more and more and more of...We're learning how to be better and we're learning how to invite more grace into our lives."

In the conversation, Wilcox contrasted the LDS view of salvation with what the Bible teaches. He stated that Bible-based Christians have a small view of salvation, whereas Latter-day Saints have a view of salvation that includes much more (his obvious reference is to the core LDS belief of meriting of different levels of exaltation and ultimately becoming a god). Although he very much seeks to avoid language that puts pressure on his fellow Church members, he cannot escape the reality of his Church's works-righteousness gospel. Bill McKeever does a great job pointing this out in his review of Wilcox's book Changed through His Grace.

At the October 2021 General Conference, Wilcox gave a ten-minute talk titled, "Worthiness Is Not Flawlessness." In it, he shared the story of a young Latter-day Saint who was addicted to pornography and wanted to quit. Once the young man realized that God viewed his struggle as "weakness" rather than "rebellion," he could have confidence that God wasn't angry with him when he returned to the habit, but that God saw him "prospering by degrees," saying, "Look how far he's come."

"Some mistakenly receive the message that God is waiting to help after we repent. God's message is that he will help us as we repent. His grace is available to us no matter where we are on the path of obedience," he said.



Clashing with the Past

Brad Wilcox's presentation of grace is radically different from traditional Mormonism. Consider these words from Gerald Lund: "The atoning power of God unto salvation is a freely available gift from him -- but our works of righteousness are essential to bring the gift into power in our lives." Less than a generation ago, Latter-day Saints weren't comforted with assurances of God's continual gracious presence regardless of tangible improvements in their lifestyle. It was taught that personal works of righteousness were required for grace to show up.

Consider, too, the parable of the bicycle. In this video illustration offered by the Church to help explain grace in the book of Romans (!), members of the Church are to view their lives as children who are saving up to purchase a bicycle. The father of the child in the video tells her to work really hard to save money to buy the bike. After earning an allowance, setting up a lemonade stand, and doing other things a child does to make money, the father took the little girl to the bicycle store. It was quickly realized that the child didn't have nearly enough money. The father then, in "grace," stepped in and paid the difference. According to the Church, this is how grace should be understood in salvation.

Contrary to Brad Wilcox's piano lesson illustration, the grace only arrived after the child did all she could to do it on her own. There was no up-front or along-the-way grace; rather, in the spirit of the 2 Nephi verse quoted above, grace arrived after all she could do. The little girl had no certain assurance of acquiring the bicycle, but rather a na├»ve confidence in her abilities. She had no word from her father that he would pay for the bike, but rather an order to go out and earn it herself. In fact, at the end of the video, her father takes her money and uses it to pay for the bike!

The traditional Mormon belief is that a person's religious works empower grace; Wilcox teaches that grace empowers a person's religious works.

As noted above, Wilcox's book, The Continuous Atonement, features the subtitle, "Christ doesn't just make up the difference, He makes all the difference." His teachings are a diversion from the trajectory set by traditional Mormonism. There are obviously two definitions of grace competing with one another in the LDS sphere. 

Latter-day Saints who were raised in a Mormonism that emphasized works-based righteousness as found in the parable of the bicycle are put in an interesting position today. Brad Wilcox presents a message that is certainly nuanced in such a way that the sharp edge and force of pressure is taken off the Church's ordinances. There's a strong case to be made that he has redefined Mormonism's grace altogether. Tragically, however, Wilcox hasn't brought anyone closer to grace as it is defined in the Bible and regardless of his nuance, the fact remains that his church teaches that there is no assurance of eternal life or forgiveness in this life.


What Is Grace, Really?

Scripture teaches that grace is unmerited favor.

Consider Noah, who, though he was a fallen, sinful, rebellious man living in a wicked and perverse generation, found favor with God. There was nothing that Noah did to earn this position with the Lord. In fact, there was nothing that God required of him to achieve such a privilege. Noah was favored by God because God shed His grace on Him out of His own free will. Noah experienced God's favor because God chose Noah to experience His favor.

Consider Moses. He was a murderer who could have been justly punished by God. Instead, God chose to show compassion and mercy to Moses out of His own free will. There was nothing that Moses did to earn that position with the Lord. He couldn't have done anything that would have made up for the ways he sinned against God. He was totally dependent on God's grace.

Now consider Paul. Before he was an apostle, he presided over the murdering of Christians, constantly kicking against Jesus. When he was born again by the grace of God, he went on to write much of the New Testament, explaining the nature of the grace he encountered. One of the most striking passages he wrote about God's grace is found in Philippians 3, where he said:

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of His resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. (vv. 7-15a, NIV)

Although the word "grace" does not appear in this text, Paul is clearly speaking to the grace he had experienced in salvation. He wrote off all of his own merit for the sake of the favor he found in Jesus Christ. As it states in the emphasized section above, Paul repudiated his own righteousness for the righteousness of God that comes through faith in Christ alone. The merits of Jesus, not of his own works, were Paul's only hope. That is true grace.

This grace stands in stark contrast to the false notions presented in illustrations about pianos and bicycles. Instead of offering a dump truck full of God's free grace, Mormon illustrations about grace offer handcart loads of works wrapped in paper-thin platitudes that lack truth and, subsequently, assurance.

The heart of LDS teaching -- whether it's couched in Wilcox phrasing or more traditional Mormon verbiage -- is that God is just like us. Brad Wilcox believes he will become a god one day. Just because he lessened the pressure to perform in this life, it doesn't mean he has understood true grace. Wilcox also believes that he's relatively unaffected by the Fall. He's not spiritually rotten to the core in his natural state. As a free agent, he can choose the right and earn points in God's system of exaltation.

All forms of Mormonism, whether old school or new school, don't see the need for biblical grace; therefore, they don't teach it.

I hope that one day Brad Wilcox will give a talk where he teaches biblical grace. I hope God uses him to rock Mormonism to its core and bring down the stronghold of lies that have captivated so many people. He very well may be on that trajectory -- the Holy Spirit may be drawing him to the real Jesus. But until that day, his false version of grace is no better than the traditional Mormon teaching, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is no closer to Christianity than it's ever been.

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