On January 17, apologist Ravi Zacharias spoke at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah at the invitation of Standing Together. This organization, according to their website, “seeks to be a catalyst for uniting the Utah Christian community through relational efforts of prayer, worship, and strategic evangelism.”
It was within that context that Zacharias spoke on the subject of “Lessons From History, Building a Nation Under God.” The hour-long message is available on You Tube.
When I saw the event being promoted online, it quickly grabbed my attention. We’ve been blessed during our Army experience to befriend several LDS families throughout the years. In fact, at our first duty station, the majority of our friends were LDS.
We had a lot in common. We had essentially the same worldviews, the same values, the same general priorities of faith first, family second, everything else third. We liked hanging out at one another’s houses and playing board games or watching movies instead of trolling the clubs on the weekends. I think we found each other to be safe places while we were exploring this new military culture, still made up of great people, but many of whom had decidedly secular humanistic lifestyles.
When we got there, I hadn’t looked into Mormonism in years. Most of what I’d learned, I had forgotten. I became a quick study, and subsequently spent several years becoming as fluent with Mormon doctrine, history and theology as I could. (The study still continues.)
One of the things I learned is that, Mormons and Evangelicals (not my favorite term, but the one they used for the event so I will use it) often use the same terminology when it comes to the things of God. Try your standard EE script on a Mormon and you’ll wind up in the same place you began, agreeing on most everything.
However, while we may agree on the same terms and phrases as being true, we don’t always use the same dictionary to define those terms. “Heavenly Father,” “Jesus,” “Heaven,” “Hell,” “Salvation,” and “Grace” are all words that have different meanings – below the surface – in Mormon and Evangelical theology.
Therefore I was curious to see how Zacharias would address his audience, made up of Mormons, Evangelicals, and anyone who wanted to attend. Zacharias was there to speak about creating a God-honoring culture in America, something important to both Mormons and Evangelicals. Once past the anecdotes and crowd-warmers, it became clear that every single word was chosen with intention.
He began with the story of Manasseh leading the nation of Israel astray, and attributed it to Manasseh’s disregard for the “Word of God,” continuing to say that, even in American churches, the “Word of God” has become less and less important, and that the church needs to rediscover the importance and the supremacy of the “Word of God.”
The term seemed ambiguous for the setting. Absolutely, Mormons believe the Bible is the Word of God. They also believe the Bible is A word of God, in addition to the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, the Pearl of Great Price, and the historical teachings of their prophets and elders.
But by the end of his message, Zacharias had transitioned from saying “Word of God” to specifically “The Bible,” and even encouraged the audience to study the Bible – not just the “Word of God” – daily, focusing on the Book of John. The meaning could not be clearer.
He also made specific mention of the Messiah as being proclaimed not only as the Prince of Peace, but also as the “Everlasting Father,” a statement significant to Mormon theology, where the Father and the Son are not triune, but separate, unequal beings. He emphasized that sanctification only comes through salvation, using John Bunyon’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” as a reference: “You’ll never get to the Celestial City without going through the cross.” Again, a phrase perhaps more significant to temple-worthy Mormon ears than to the minds of the Evangelicals in the crowd.
Zacharias’s message is an excellent example of what it really means to “relevantly” communicate the Gospel. As he pointed out in his message, relativism has affected the English language in such a way that words and definitions, such as marriage, have simultaneously no meaning and any meaning. The same thing often is the case when trying to share the truth of the Gospel.
Unless we are mindful of the definitions of the words we use, specifically in the mind of the hearer, it is easy to become bogged down in debates about minutiae or else find that what we thought we had communicated, actually came across with a different meaning.
I’m not advocating abandoning Biblical terms. I think the damage of ministries which have eliminated the use of “sin,” “Hell,” and “repentance” is obvious. But as Christians, it is important to take the time and effort to train our minds to communicate in someone else’s cultural and religious language for the sake of the Gospel and the sake of their souls.