I was really tired. I saw them approaching on bikes, and I figured they would smile, wave, and pass right on by. I was wrong. Instead, they stopped as they got to where I was (walking home from school). They saw I was wearing a backpack, had a book in my hand, and was over the age of 18, so naturally, the apparent leader of the two LDS missionaries said, “Hey, you aren’t one of those seminary guys, are you?”
I smiled and nodded. “Yes, I am!” After they introduced themselves, the leader (there’s always a leader, and a silent partner) asked, “What’s that book?” Great, I thought. How am I supposed to explain Swinburne’s Epistemic Justification on two-and-a-half hours’ sleep? Instead, I just explained that it had to do with the idea of knowledge, and religious knowledge in particular. They asked me how I could know something, and I explained that it was justified, true belief, and that God created us to be knowers, and so knowing Him was the highest calling of all.
It was at that point he started quoting the prophet Joseph Smith. I recognized the strategy; it’s what all “random chance evangelistic situations” call for, no matter who you are. Find a common point of discussion, relate to it, relate it to your message. I sensed an opportunity to try out a couple of my current areas of research. “I want to see what you guys think about this.” They nodded politely and showed they were listening.
“I know not everyone believes what I’m about to say—maybe you guys don’t believe it—but a lot of LDS people do believe it. It’s the idea that before Elohim—Heavenly Father—became God, there was another god before him, and so on and so forth back infinitely into the past. Many people, completely independent of religious thought, think there might not be able to be an actually infinite collection of things, formed successively. So, take moments of time. A lot of people think there had to be a first moment in time because for any moment you choose, such as this present moment, if an actually infinite amount of time has passed, then this moment should have arrived an infinite amount of time ago. But it didn’t arrive an infinitely long time ago, it’s now! So then, by the rules of logic, an actually infinite amount of time has not passed. But if an actually infinite amount of time has not passed, then there cannot be an actually infinite number of gods, like some of LDS theology would claim, and thus those conceptions are falsified. What do you guys think of that?”
The elders shifted uncomfortably. I interjected quickly, “I’m not trying to say you believe it, or to put something on you that you don’t believe. I’m trying to be fair.” They nodded. The leader said something like, “I don’t know what to think of that. I do know that I believe everything on LDS.org, and you can go on there and read the doctrines.” (I knew this was part of the strategy as well—avoid getting bogged down in discussions and refer to the website) “As far as all that goes, I’m not sure.”
After briefly discussing my reading of an LDS philosopher, I politely moved to the Gospel. “If I died, how could I ensure that I would be with Heavenly Father?” They gave me a lot of religious language, most of which was identical to the Gospel. One phrase interested me, however. He said, “We must enter in at the gate….”
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt, but what do you mean by that?”
“Well, I mean that in Nephi [edit: I believe this is what he said, perhaps not. I was tired!] we are told to enter into the narrow gate, to start on the path to Heavenly Father.” I don’t remember his precise wording, but it was clear the way to salvation involved works. I wanted to dig deeper.
“So, what would you guys say to someone who wanted to challenge you [since they had insisted one was saved by grace] by saying we are saved by grace, after all we can do?”
They immediately laughed (a polite chuckle, nothing derogatory) and said, “Oh, you’re quoting us now!” I laughed along with them. The leader started on a long explanation about how grace is central, but it is that commitment to Christ (which involves “all we can do”) that secures salvation. I said, in response, “There’s where we differ, and I don’t want to be mean or rude to you guys at all! In orthodox or traditional Christianity, what you’re describing is the doctrine of sanctification. It’s what happens as we become more Christ-like, in Romans 8:29 and that whole passage. If I don’t act in righteousness ever, I don’t have the right to call myself a real Christian. But in Pauline theology, as it says in Eph. 2:8-9, ‘Not by works of righteousness…’ oh wait, that’s Titus 3:5-6 [hey, I said I was tired!], so as it says in Ephesians, ‘For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, lest [or because otherwise] any man should boast.’ Both of those passages show faith and works as being opposite each other. The point of works, in James, is to show your faith, not add to it or be a part of it. The Gospel is through Jesus Christ, by grace, through faith, but not of works! And again, I am not trying to offend at all. But if I really believe this, if I really believe this is the true way of salvation, and I don’t tell you, that’s not very friendly or good at all.”
So I said I would think about what they had said, and asked them to think about what I had said, that what makes us distinct was the Gospel, and who God is. “There can only be one God—one Greatest Possible Being [I found this to be easier terminology]. For any Greatest Possible Being has the power to create anything outside itself [and indeed is such a creator], so there cannot be two, as they would have power over each other! Also, I know if we hashed out the details, you would say he is the only God ‘with whom we have to do,’ but it’s far more than that. And I know you say you have the Bible, so long as it is translated correctly. But no one is claiming Ephesians 2:8-9 is being translated incorrectly. But you guys have been polite, and I thank you for listening.”
After that, we parted company. They were nice guys. I didn’t expect to convert them. Who knows what they expected. I tried to treat them with respect (calling them “LDS” as much as possible) and blunted my criticisms in the area of rhetoric. My criticisms were not intended to show them how wrong they were, but to show them the God they needed was not the God they had, and the Gospel they have accepted is not the Gospel of the Bible. We ought to be as loving as possible to these people, and not insulting, degrading, or seeking to beat them in a debate.
 Incidentally, LDS people should more or less believe something like this, because this was the reasoning that Joseph Smith was given in his vision as to why he needed to start a new church.