Grace, Obedience, Salvation

I used to get very frustrated with my companions on my mission. Every time a Born Again Christian would announce that “Mormons believe they have to work their way to heaven” my companion would inevitably argue back “Well you believe that after you accept Christ you can commit any sin you want and still go to heaven.” Trying to separate the combatants and send them to their corners proved impossible. 

But Protestant Christians do not believe a person can accept Christ and then go out and commit unrepentant sin and still go to heaven [1] any more than Mormons believe they have to work their way to heaven. [2] But what is the difference between the Protestant Christian view of grace and works and the Mormon one?

Pat answers do not help here. Mormons claiming that that they are saved by grace “after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23) implies that Protestant Christians think one doesn’t really have to be serious about their commitment to Christ by putting in effort. But my direct experience with them contradicts this belief. Protestants usually do believe one must accept Jesus as Lord and begin to follow His commandments with sincerity. I believe Protestants and Evangelicals, while perhaps rejecting the language, in principle and practice accept the teachings of 2 Nephi 25:23. [3]

The idea that Mormons believe in the necessity of ordinances while Protestants do not doesn’t really help either. Even the most sacrament/ordinance defying sects of Protestantism still have their own rites that play the same role. For example, going before a minister and declaring your acceptance of Christ so that you “get saved” is really just a saving ordinance to a Mormon viewpoint. If it walks like a duck…

After reading How Wide the Divide? Stephen Robinson about had me convinced that there was actually no difference at all between the Mormon view of salvation and the Arminian view. And yet, I was never able to shake the feeling that there are significant differences between the Mormon and the Protestant views of salvation, but that they are – for some reason – difficult to define or come to agreement on. [4]

I wish to take my own stab at defining the differences.

Protestant View of Salvation, Grace, and “Works”

Protestants have varied and wide views on this subject, but there seems to be heavy overlap in a few areas. First, one must accept Jesus Christ to be saved. [5] This salvation comes “only” by grace, because there is nothing we can do — other than accepting Jesus — that affects our salvation. [6] Once a person accepts Christ they are “Born Again” and changed at that point from an unsaved being that deserved @#!*% to a saved being. This is because God, at the time of the individual accepting Jesus, has now paid for their sins. [7] As “a new creature” (2 Cor. 5: 17) in Christ the Christian now brings forth “good works” as a way of showing love and gratitude to God. This is part of the new nature God has given them. But these “good works” play no role in how one received salvation in the first place. [8]

To a Protestant, salvation can be defined as either not going to @#!*% , or going to heaven as these two are really the same thing in the Protestant worldview.

Mormon View of Salvation, Grace, and “Works” (aka Obedience)

So how does the Mormon view of salvation differ? Like Protestants, Mormons do believe one must accept Christ to receive any level of salvation, though admittedly we believe this can be in the afterlife. Mormons would agree with Protestants that a person that accepts Christ is “Born Again” and becomes a new creature in Christ. Mormons agree with Protestants that “obedience” or “works” is something you do out of Lordship to Christ and also because we Love Him. So far, we seem to be in agreement. [9]

Baptism as Covenant Relationship

But do Mormons believe a person is “saved” when they accept Christ and are “born again”? In a sense, perhaps yes, but it seems to me that the Mormon concept of baptism has less to do with “accepting Jesus” and more to do with “entering into a covenant relationship with Jesus.” (Mosiah 5:5) Indeed, unlike other Christians, Mormons seem to believe that all humankind is born already saved by the grace of Christ (Moro. 8: 12; that is why little children are alive in Christ) and that only our own sins (A of F 1: 2), if we reach the age of accountability, are a stumbling block. In fact, Mormons believe we lived with God before we were born. We already had everything other Christians are striving for and we chose to give it up! Why?

To Know God: Deification as Salvation

Because Mormons believe there is something greater than living with God: Knowing Him! “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 3:17)

But what does it mean to know God? What is the ultimate way to know something? If I read a book about how to do brain surgery, I may understand exactly how to do it, but I don’t “know how to do it.” For me to know brain surgery, I have to internalize it.

Likewise, the ultimate way to know a person is to be like them. To know God as fully as possible one must love Him so much and wish to be like He is so much that he/she starts to act like Him, until our character and God’s character converge into one. [10]

“Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)

“…have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?” (Alma 5:14)

When we know God that completely, God holds nothing back from us; we have become like He is. This is the Mormon doctrine of Deification and it is also the Mormon concept of salvation. The fullness of salvation is to know God so completely you are like He is. Living forever, even living forever with God, is secondary to Knowing God.

Have you ever thought about what this scripture really means? “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” (Matt 5:6) What does it mean to hunger and thirst after righteousness? It means you aren’t righteous but you wish you were so badly that it’s like a hunger inside of you. How is such a hunger filled? Jesus isn’t herein promising us avoidance of an inevitable @#!*% , he’s promising us righteousness!

No wonder he adds “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matt 5:48) This isn’t a statement made by Christ to cause us to despair of our own righteousness and thus call upon the grace of Christ, this is a statement of the reality of what God’s grace can do to us. Filled indeed!

That is the significance of the Mormon concept of baptism being a covenant relationship with God. (Mosiah 5:5) We promise God our willingness: “they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him, and keep his commandments which he hath given them.” (Moroni 4:3)

God is promising us grace in return, but not the Protestant concept of grace as a way of removing sins, though that is true too. This grace, or more properly “graciousness,” of God is that He will help us in our desire to be like He is. He will allow us to “always have his Spirit” (Moroni 4:3) with us as a constant companion now and forever until we attain to the promised blessing: To help us be like He is “that [we] may be one, even as [Christ and the Father] are one.” (John 17: 11, 21-22)

Obedience vs. Grace

But if salvation is forming a certain type of character rather than a trip to heaven, then we have solved another mystery of the ages: why “obedience” and “works” can neither merit salvation, nor can salvation happen in their absence.

If salvation is to have a certain type of character that acts in a certain type of way, then salvation is being the type of person that is obedient to God’s commandments. Our “works” aren’t how we obtain salvation, they are what we are trying to obtain itself!

No wonder Jesus warns us “Therefore… do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.” (Matt. 6: 2, 5, 16) How could a good act done for the wrong reason affect our character? It can’t! But affect to our character is the only thing that matters! Our “works” by themselves mean nothing to God nor us. But how that “work” affected our character is the very salvation we seek.


[1] For those Christians that believe a fall from grace is not possible, the official answer is that a person that goes out and commits unrepentant sin never really accepted Christ in the first place. The wording is different, but the end result is exactly the same. All else is word games.

[2] The Book of Mormon leaves no room for debate on this subject: Alma 22:14; 2 Ne. 2:8; Alma 34:12; 2 Ne. 9:7; Alma 34:8-16

[3] Ammon Rye pointed out that in Alma 24:11 ( The Book of Mormon defines “all we can do” as repentance: “And now behold, my brethren, since it has been all that we could do, (as we were the most lost of all mankind) to repent of all our sins.” There is actually a division amongst Born Again Christians between those that believe in “Lordship” vs. “No Lordship.” That is to say, some Christians believe one can accept Christ as savior but not as Lord and be savd while others believe you have to accept both. My statement that Born Again Christians, in principle, agree with 2 Nephi 25:23 is referring to “Lordship” Christians, which are the vast majority.

[4] An obvious difference I skipped over is belief in priesthood authority. But for this article, I’m concentrating on the doctrinal/theological differences.

[5] Variants I am aware of on how Protestant’s believe one accepts Christ are a) whether or not one has power on their own to accept Christ (i.e. has free will) or if God has to empower you to do so, b) whether you have to literally accept Christ or simply accepting God’s grace in any religion is equivalent to accepting Christ, c) whether or not one can accept Christ after death. “a” is the most common dividing point with “b” and “c” representing only minority views.

[6] Isn’t accepting Christ still a “work”? Calvinistic Christians reject free will in large part because they believe there is no work we can do to save ourselves. Arminians get around this objection by claiming that it was by grace that we have free will. Either way, God played a role in our acceptance of Him. I do not see the Mormon view as much different than the Arminian view on this one particular point. (It’s very different overall.) Mormons believe God allowed us freedom of choice.

[7] One Born Again Christian friend defined this change from an unsaved state to a saved state as being a transaction whereby the sinner accepts Christ and Jesus, at the point in time, pays for their sins. This friend, being Calvinistic, believes that is why a person can never fall from grace, because the transaction of grace has already taken place.

[8] One sizeable difference between Calvinistic vs. Arminian Christians is over if a fall from grace is possible due to your sins. Arminians often affirm that one’s sins can cause a fall from grace. Calvinists believe your sins cannot cause a fall from grace, but they hedge a bit on this by proclaiming that anyone that commits a serious sin, such a murder or adultery, had not really accept Jesus in the first place or else the grace of Christ would have kept them from committing such a sin.

[9] For Mormons, I use the word “obedience” instead of “works” because I believe it more correctly captures the Mormon concept of the importance of our choices and actions.

[10] I think a good way to think of this is in terms of “idol worship.” Lest you think I’m being sacrilegious when I say this, bear in mind that an “idol” is something that stands in the place that is rightfully God’s. Thus “idol worship” is to treat something else the way only God should be treated. When we “idol worship” a celebrity we dress up like him (or her), talk like him, learn about him, and emulate his life. To use a play on words, if we “idol worship” God, we are doing that which is correct.

16 thoughts on “Grace, Obedience, Salvation

  1. I love this post! More because of how it made me see my own beliefs than the Evangelicals’, to be honest. I did have one question, though.

    “Mormons do believe one must accept Christ to receive any level of salvation, though admittedly we believe this can be in the afterlife.”

    Depending on what is meant by “accept,” is this strictly true? I know that all will acknowledge Christ (every knee shall bow . . .) but that isn’t the same as accepting Christ. It has always seemed to me that the various levels of glory are based on the various levels of belief of Christ precisely because a person does not have to accept Christ entirely to accept Him in part.

    It seems also that this is the crux of the insult our doctrines present to Evangelicals. For people who are so intimately reliant on the Savior and a relationship with Him, it is deeply offensive to suggest that they really don’t know Him as well as they think they do. And that is, in essence, our belief when we suggest that the fulness of the purpose of the Atonement is exaltation, not just salvation.

  2. SilverRain is right, you are very eloquent in your explanation of LDS beliefs, and you are able to demonstrate how beautiful the LDS doctrine is. It makes me proud to be Mormon.

    I only think you could have been a little more specific in your statement of the Protestant idea of grace. You say: “As “a new creature” (2 Cor. 5: 17) in Christ the Christian now brings forth “good works” as a way of showing love and gratitude to God. This is part of the new nature God has given them. But these “good works” play no role in how one received salvation in the first place.”

    But I think for them it is more than merely showing love and gratitude. They are insistent that works are important, even essential. But only “after” acceptance of Christ, and that works are merely the fruit of Christ in you. I’ve heard them describe it as Jesus did, “I am the vine, ye are the branches.” First we connect ourselves to the vine, and receive that nourishment, and then the works come as good fruits from the vine, through us, the branches. They consider it great folly to think that anyone can produce fruits unto righteousness before God, without having first connected themselves to the vine from whence comes all righteousness.

    Whenever I talk to Evangelicals who are preaching grace to Mormons, I say, Good for you! We need to hear it!

  3. Nice job, Bruce.

    There are some Protestant sects that believe in “cheap grace”, but as you note, most do not.

    I think the LDS Church had an over-focus on obedience as being the “first law in heaven” for many decades. Grace was almost an after thought, and the lower kingdoms of glory were treated as if they were an extension of hell.

    John Taylor, in translating the Book of Mormon into German translated the “after all we can do” to “in spite of all we can do.” Truly a different view from the McConkie era, and more in line with King Benjamin’s discourse.

    The problems lie in two things. First, a problem of definitions. Mormons have often used the term “saved” to mean “exalted.” This caused Mormons and traditional Christians to talk past one another. It is time we begin using their terminology, or at least clarifying our use of terms.

    Second, in the LDS Church, we do a lousy job of explaining justification and sanctification. The Protestant “saved” is equal to our view of justification: through faith and repentance, we are made guiltless through Christ’s blood. No works are necessary beyond faith and repentance, and we are rescued from death and hell and receive a kingdom of glory.

    Sanctification becomes clearer in the LDS vernacular, in that once we are justified, we follow the Holy Spirit into ever higher levels of grace. It makes us holy, and therefore compatible with higher levels of glory and holiness. It is a process that even Jesus had to follow (DC 93), going from grace to grace, receiving grace for grace, until achieving a fullness of grace, or exaltation.

    Ordinances are just a step in our sanctification. Baptism is not required to be saved. It is required as a sanctifying step to enter into the Celestial Kingdom. And so it is with the ordinances of the temple.

    Too many members still think they must save themselves. Yet the scriptures tell us time and again that we cannot do that. We are not saved by being obedient to a commandment. We are blessed, as King Benjamin notes, for every good thing we do. Since we are immediately rewarded by God, we can never earn our way into heaven. Instead, obedience is just a tool to help us become more holy and sanctified. It should be a natural outcome of our faith. Or, as Hugh Nibley noted, “work we must, but the lunch is free.”

    Again, great thoughts on this topic. LDS really need to understand these concepts better. It hurts us to not understand such a key doctrine better. And it places barriers between traditional Christians and us, which should not be there.

  4. My understanding has always been that the protestant view was that works were the evidence of receiving grace, rather than works having anything to do as a precursor or prerequisite. It comes down to how you see Matthew 16:27, “For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.” In fact, I suppose how you interpret this scripture it could change a lot of things about the nature of the Godhead, etc. With the LDS coming down on the more direct and literal approach, in my view, and the alternate views requiring more nuance and interpretation. Ironically, the only thing that would make their interpretation valid, would be a claim to modern day revelation, which would also be opposed to their scriptural framework.

  5. Nate,

    I appreciate your feedback. It sounds like your description of protestant views on faith and works is the same as the one I wrote but with a bit different emphasis. Or am I misunderstanding?

  6. SR,

    “So long as a man will not give heed to the commandments, he must abide without salvation. … But when he consents to obey the Gospel, whether here or in the world of spirits, he is saved. … All will suffer until they obey Christ himself.” -Joseph Smith

    Of course, as with any set of words, I suppose there is room for interpretation. But I do see it similar to the way you just said it “the various levels of belief of Christ precisely because a person does not have to accept Christ entirely to accept Him in part”

    I think of it a bit differently, I suppose. In my mind, all accept Jesus fully at some point (save perhaps the Sons of Perdition) but what the difference is is *when* we accept Him.

    Those that accept Him (i.e. via authorized ordiances) in this life on faith go to the Celestial Kingdom. Those that accept Him in the next life (and would not have in this life had they been given a chance) go to the Terrestrial Kindgom. Those that only accept Him after suffering in hell go to the Telestial Kingdom.

    But it does seem that acceptance of Jesus, in some sense, is required for any sort of salvation. So in this, we may not be so far off from Protestants except in that we believe it can happen in the afterlife.

    Yes, I agree that our doctrines boil down to a claim that they have, in some measure, accept Jesus less fully. That is why its offensive to them.

  7. I would love to discuss your ideas of the degrees of glory in more detail, but I don’t know that this is the right place. I guess we have a topic the next time there is an M* snacker?

  8. “Protestants”? There are infinite varieties of Protestant. I think its true that in their official and fullest understandings, most Protestant denominations do not believe in cheap grace, and mostly don’t preach it.

    Its also true, however, that many American Protestants, especially evangelicals, and many unaffiliated churches of the First Bible Church of Non-Denominational kind, do believe in and preach cheap grace, or at least don’t make significant efforts to distinguish their doctrine of grace from a kind of perpetual papal indulgence.

  9. “Truly a different view from the McConkie era”

    Ram, I have to call a strawman when I see it.

    Here is what the man himself said,
    “Does salvation come by grace, or grace alone, by grace without works? It surely does, without any question in all its parts, types, kinds, and degrees.

    We are saved by grace, without works; it is a gift of God. How else could it come?

    In his goodness and grace the great God ordained and established the plan of salvation. No works on our part were required.

    In his goodness and grace he created this earth and all that is on it, with man as the crowning creature of his creating–without which creation his spirit children could not obtain immortality and eternal life. No works on our part were required.

    In his goodness and grace he provided for the Fall of man, thus bringing mortality and death and a probationary estate into being–without all of which there would be no immortality and eternal life. And again no works on our part were required.

    In his goodness and grace–and this above all–he gave his Only Begotten Son to ransom man and all life from the temporal and spiritual death brought into the world by the Fall of Adam.

    He sent his Son to redeem mankind, to atone for the sins of the world, “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). And again all this comes to us as a free gift and without works.

    There is nothing any man could do to create himself. This was the work of the Lord God.

    Nor did we have any part in the Fall of man, without which there could be no salvation. The Lord provided the way, and Adam and Eve put the system into operation.

    And finally, there neither has been, nor is, nor ever can be any way nor means by which man alone can, or any power he possesses, redeem himself.

    We cannot resurrect ourselves anymore than we can create ourselves. We cannot create a heavenly abode for the Saints, nor make provision for the continuation of the family unit in eternity, nor bring salvation and exaltation into being. All these things are ordained and established by that God who is the Father of us all. And they all came into being and are made available to us, as free gifts, without works, because of the infinite goodness and grace of Him whose children we are.

    Truly, there is no way to overstate the goodness and grandeurs and glories of the grace of God which bringeth salvation. Such wondrous love, such unending mercy, such infinite compassion and condescension–all these can come only from the Eternal God who lives in eternal life and who desires all of his children to live as he lives and be inheritors of eternal life. “

  10. Chris,
    Note that Elder McConkie gave that talk in 1984, near the end of his life. By then, he was changing many of his views (including that on blacks).

    His written works, however, often say something very different. And more people have Mormon Doctrine in their home than this BYU speech you provide.

    Take for instance the Bible Dictionary’s note on “Grace”, which was primarily from Elder McConkie:

    “Grace. A word that occurs frequently in the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul. The main idea of the word is divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ.

    “It is through the grace of the Lord Jesus, made possible by his atoning sacrifice, that mankind will be raised in immortality, every person receiving his body from the grave in a condition of everlasting life. It is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means. This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts.

    “Divine grace is needed by every soul in consequence of the fall of Adam and also because of man’s weaknesses and shortcomings. However, grace cannot suffice without total effort on the part of the recipient. Hence the explanation, “It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23). It is truly the grace of Jesus Christ that makes salvation possible.”

    Elder McConkie also has stated that salvation in a lower kingdom is no salvation at all. His view of “saved” or grace is that a person is resurrected for free. Everything else requires effort on our part above and beyond faith and repentance. His view of “salvation” in the above refers primarily to exaltation, and not the basic salvation from death and hell, which is what most Protestants think of when discussing the term.

    I think Elder McConkie was a wonderful and very dynamic apostle in his day. That said, the Church’s view on grace and salvation are moving further and further away from what MD talks about it.

  11. But do Mormons believe a person is “saved” when they accept Christ and are “born again”? In a sense, perhaps yes, but it seems to me that the Mormon concept of baptism has less to do with “accepting Jesus” and more to do with “entering into a covenant relationship with Jesus.” (Mosiah 5:5)

    I don’t see the distinction. The key difference here isn’t grace v. works, but sacramentalism v. non-sacramentalism. Of course, some Protestants insistence that all that matters is what happens inside your head, while Mormons insist on a visible, outward ceremony is probably symbolic of the divide.

    Indeed, unlike other Christians, Mormons seem to believe that all humankind is born already saved by the grace of Christ (Moro. 8: 12; that is why little children are alive in Christ)

    Interesting insight. Of course the same kinds of passages also said that the heathen were saved by grace, although we have since refined our understanding to say that heathen are just offered a chance to accept the gospel in the afterlife and to be baptized vicariously. I predict that we will eventually learn that something similar is true of children, that in the Millennium or some such they have a chance to learn, grow, accept Christ, and be baptized. See here — — But I don’t know if the analogy makes sense for your post, because in the justice of God we don’t just beleive that young children will be saved in the narrow sense you use it here, but we also usually believe they’ll be exalted.

    Still and all, these objections aside, I love your explanation of what salvation really means.

  12. Moroni 10:32

    and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ

  13. Adam, good quote. But is this talking about basic salvation or exaltation?

    Telestial beings are saved (D&C 76). They are murderers and other very sinful people who barely miss becoming sons of perdition. The only thing they do, either in this life or the Spirit World, is believe a little and repent. It comes close to what we call “cheap grace.” They have not become holy. They have not denied all ungodliness. They have not loved God with all their might. They receive grace, but not a perfect or full grace that brings exaltation.

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