To understand the difference between Mormonism and traditional, biblical Christianity, you need to understand the crucial distinction between how these two approaches think about two key concepts: “gospel” and “religion.”
The Core Difference
“Gospel” and “religion” are words which can summarize two very different approaches to Christianity. Mormons often assume that when they call themselves Christian or when others call themselves Christian, the title is referring to a person’s actions or lifestyle orientation—what they do vs. what’s been done for them. A “Christian,” to most Mormons, is someone who claims to follow Christ and exhibits Christlike behavior. This illustrates a larger disagreement about the difference between the gospel and religion.
Religion is centered around “me.” In this mind frame, God serves the “religious person.” It doesn’t necessarily look this way on the outside because religious people do good things “for” God—they serve, give, attend meetings, and much more. Yet all of this is an attempt to earn something from God. The idea is that if we are obedient or hold up “our end of the bargain,” then God is obligated to bless us accordingly. Blessing, in this framework, could be money, health, a good family, or anything at all we think we should get from God for doing the right things.
[Related: Is Religion Enough?]
“Blessing” in the Bible
A New Testament view of blessings affirms, however, that if we follow Jesus Christ, we are already blessed. This doesn’t mean God can’t or won’t provide for our physical needs or help us through tough times. Rather, a properly biblical framework that understands the difference between the old and new covenant says that receiving blessings is not about engaging in a transaction with God or fulfilling the stipulations of a contract. We already possess the most important of all blessing by virtue of knowing Christ as our savior and our lord.
[Related: The Old and New Covenants]
This is clear in the Old Testament wisdom literature and in the life of Jesus, as well. Job, Proverbs, many Psalms, and Ecclesiastes all wrestle with the fact that wicked people seem to succeed in the world while the righteous often suffer because they are not always seeking a leg-up on others. The promise is that in the final judgment, the wicked will receive their due from God. Very often, doing the right thing means we will not see earthly blessings. But if we trust in Christ, we will receive eternal blessings in the restored heavens and earth.
Understanding the Gospel
The gospel, unlike religion, is centered around God. We can do all the same things—serve, give, attend meetings, etc.—but it’s because of what’s been done for us and in us. These things are responses to God’s goodness to us. Ephesians 2:8-10 affirms this clearly: We do the things God has set before us because we have been saved by grace through faith. Our Christian living comes from our trust in God through Christ.
[Related: What Is the Gospel?]