Should We Use “Vicarious” in our Witnessing?
A basic witnessing principle is to avoid using theological jargon or words needing explanation. At first glance, it seems as if vicarious fits into this category. It’s a word not often used in normal conversations.
But it is familiar to Mormons. They use it to describe the temple work they do for the dead – work like baptisms for the dead. A living person is baptized as a proxy (another word they use) for a deceased person. Once this is done, they believe the person won’t ever need to be baptized again. It is as if the person themselves were baptized.
Of course, Christianity doesn’t teach vicarious works for the dead. It does, however, teach Jesus’ vicarious atonement, namely, that Jesus died in our place, for our sins. Mormonism occasionally talks about the vicarious atonement but most Mormons only have a passing acquaintance with it.
Putting these two facts together, Mormons’ familiarity with the vicarious work of the temple gives us an opportunity to talk with them about the unfamiliar topic of Jesus’ vicarious atonement. The point we want to stress is just like they regard a vicarious baptism as if the people themselves were baptized, so also Jesus’ vicarious death for us is if we ourselves have died. He vicariously atoned for our sins. This means we don’t have to. Our debt has been paid! “It is finished”.
We need to stress this point because Mormonism doesn’t teach it. Instead, it regularly talks about how Jesus’ atonement only made it possible for our sins to be forgiven. It always adds conditions Mormons must meet before they are forgiven – conditions like obeying the commandments. The chapter on Atonement in their basic manual Gospel Principles refers to a parable one of their apostles used to explain Jesus’ atonement. In the parable, after paying for our sins, Jesus asks if we will accept him as our creditor. He says we will have to pay him back for the debt he already paid for us! This totally negates the vicarious aspect of Jesus’ atonement.
Mormons reflect this idea by talking about what they still have to do to gain eternal life. It’s at this point that we can refer back to their vicarious temple work to get them thinking about the vicarious atonement. We could ask them something like this: If we still have to pay Jesus back even though he has already vicariously died to pay for our sins, does this mean the deceased person still has to be baptized, even though someone has already been vicariously baptized for them? They should answer by saying the person doesn’t need to be baptized again. We then could say that, likewise, we don’t have to repay Jesus. Our debt of sin has been canceled. It no longer exists.
Hopefully this will get your LDS friend thinking. Getting them thinking is often our goal. We become discouraged if we expect them to immediately agree with us. That rarely will happen. But when we present the gospel to them in a way they understand, they will more likely remember it. And think about it, giving the Holy Spirit more opportunities to bring them to the faith. And giving the Holy Spirit room to work is what witnessing is all about.