My friend Robert Millet wrote an interesting book two years ago, with the title What Happened to the Cross? Bob is a distinguished Mormon theologian who is extensively involved in interreligious dialogue (including the evangelical-Mormon dialogue which he and I co-chair). This book, published by the Deseret Book Company, is addressed primarily to a Latter Day Saints audience, so it is interesting to be able to listen in on what he says to his fellow Mormons about Christ’s redemptive mission.
The very title suggests that Bob wants Mormonism to pay more attention to the Cross of Christ. That the Cross is not a very visible symbol in the Mormon community Millet attributes to the fact that many early Mormon leaders had Puritan roots, and they shared Puritanism’s worries about too much visible symbolism. As he observes, the same was true for many Baptists, who only started displaying crosses when they moved into the Protestant mainstream in the 19th century.
But there is also a theological issue at stake for Mormons—the Mormon focus on what Millet describes as “the central role of Gethsemane.” Mormonism has insisted, he says, “that our Lord’s suffering there [in the Garden] was not simply an awful anticipation of Calvary but that it was redemptive in nature.” Millet does argue, though, that the emphasis on Gethsemane should not detract from the acknowledgement that Christ’s atoning work was” consummated” on Calvary. He cites the late Gordon Hinckley in this regard. In 2005 the LDS president put it clearly: it was on the Cross of Calvary that “our Savior, our Redeemer, the Son of God, gave Himself, a vicarious sacrifice for each of us.”
Obviously there is much to discuss here with our Mormon friends. At the very least, though, it should be clear that the “counter-cult” folks have not been fair when they have insisted that for Mormonism, Christ’s redemptive mission was somehow accomplished exclusively in Gethsemane. Ed Decker and Dave Hunt, for example, are bearing false witness when they state bluntly, in The God Makers, that “Mormons have an almost fanatical aversion to the cross and the shed blood of Jesus Christ.” Bob Millet’s book provides overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Actually, there are good reasons why we evangelicals ought ourselves to pay closer attention to Gethsemane as an important stage in Christ’s redemptive mission. For anyone looking for a solid Reformed basis for that claim, here is question and answer 37 of the Heidelberg Catechism, commenting on the “he suffered” phrase in the Apostles Creed:
Q. What do you confess when you say that He suffered?
A. During all the time He lived on earth, but especially at the end, Christ bore in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. Thus, by His suffering, as the only atoning sacrifice, He has redeemed our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtained for us the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life.
Christ paid the debt for our sin “especially at the end,” but the transaction began much earlier. Carrying the burden of our sins in his own person was not merely a three-hour affair. It began in Bethlehem, and it certainly was experienced in an especially intense way when he sweat drops of blood in the Garden. This means that we have some common themes to build on in our dialogues with Mormons. More importantly, it means that a focus on Gethsemane can be a worthy exercise in our own spiritual formation.