This is the third in a series of posts that examines the topic of Mormon spirituality, or how we respond to the Divine in personal living. Readers can find the first here and the second here. The purpose of the series is to explain why Mormons are the way they are and how it has to do with religion and doctrine. It was inspired by critics who seem to misunderstand or question the inner spirituality of Mormons as materialists or shallow.
When people think of Mormons, among the perceptions are a group of people who are mindlessly obedient to whatever they are told. Critics of a particular Evangelical Christian perspective believe that Mormonism teaches that we save ourselves. They often reject any idea that Jesus Christ is the center of all the Latter-day Saints do in their lives. Some of what they say is valid without understanding the contexts of those teachings. It can often seem that the Savior takes a limited role in the lives of Latter-day Saints where the emphasis is on obedience, Priesthood, tithing, Temple work, and families. Since the word “Grace” is not a word that has permeated the religious lexicon of Mormonism, it is assumed that it has little value. There becomes a war about “faith” or “works” saving the soul. Sadly, some Mormons are drawn into that argument needlessly. They don’t realize that Grace makes possible the individual salvation in those teachings.
Over the years the concept of Grace has become more prominent in church lessons than in the past. However, it has always been there as a package that Mormons call The Gospel. It is only one part of the whole that is the Atonement of Jesus Christ. To concentrate on that one word is to lose greater blessings possible to those with Faith. The life of a Latte-day Saint is, if done in the right religious spirit, the activation of Grace for the believer. Obedience to the Commandments and teachings of Apostles and Prophets is not and should not be about faith in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but faith in the saving power of Christ.
Brigham Young had this belief in mind when he stated:
The moment the atonement of the Savior is done away, that moment, at one sweep, the hopes of salvation entertained by the Christian world are destroyed, the foundation of their faith is taken away, and there is nothing left for them to stand upon. When it is gone all the revelations God ever gave to the Jewish nation, to the Gentiles, and to us are rendered valueless, and all hope is taken from us at one sweep. (Young, Brigham. Discourses of Brigham Young. Selected by John A. Widtsoe. 1941. Pg. 27. Emphasis mine.)
Arguably, one of the best discussions on the topic of Salvation as Mormons understand the term is “Have You Been Saved” by Dallin H. Oaks of the LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He lists six ways that Mormons use the word “Saved” in religious teachings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Among his words is a short explanation about how Grace works as part of Salvation. He states:
Some Christians accuse Latter-day Saints who give this answer of denying the grace of God through claiming they can earn their own salvation. We answer this accusation with the words of two Book of Mormon prophets. Nephi taught, “For we labor diligently … to persuade our children … to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23). And what is “all we can do”? It surely includes repentance (see Alma 24:11) and baptism, keeping the commandments, and enduring to the end. Moroni pleaded, “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; 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” (Moro. 10:32).
We are not saved in our sins, as by being unconditionally saved through confessing Christ and then, inevitably, committing sins in our remaining lives (see Alma 11:36–37). We are saved from our sins (see Hel. 5:10) by a weekly renewal of our repentance and cleansing through the grace of God and His blessed plan of salvation (see 3 Ne. 9:20–22).
The use of Grace is any time a Mormon repents, is baptized, receives the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, seeks to follow the Commandments, does Temple work for those who have died, and even stays away from coffee, tea, alcohol and other dietary Words of Wisdom. If they are done in Faith then they are no longer mere works, but worship. These actions are upheld by the Atonement of Jesus Christ for them to be of any value. As stated in Doctrine and Covenants 20:29-31 in a revelation to Joseph Smith:
29 And we know that all men must repent and believe on the name of Jesus Christ, and worship the Father in his name, and endure in faith on his name to the end, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God.
30 And we know that justification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true;
31 And we know also, that sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true, to all those who love and serve God with all their mights, minds, and strength.
Perhaps the real criticism toward Mormons is less that they don’t believe in Grace, but that they are not aware enough of their own teachings on the subject. It is something that has been corrected over the years. More talks and lessons have centered on Jesus Christ as Savior than other generations. However, Mormons also have a far more expansive understanding than saving a select few, but the Atonement effects all God’s children and more. We would remain in a fallen world (see 2 Nephi 2: 25-27) with no hope of salvation.
The Gospel of the Atonement covers Faith, Repentance, Baptism, Resurrection, and Exaltation that have no power alone and apart from the Grace of our Lord and Savior. This isn’t a new thing taught by the LDS Church, but an essential understanding of the religion. A true Latter-day Saint knows this and seeks to worship the Lord with that knowledge. Mormonism has a sophisticated understanding of the interplay between Grace and Works. In a sense, they don’t save except that Jesus Christ has instituted the Laws of the Gospel so that Mercy and Justice can co-exist (see Alma 42). It is those Works that are vital for Salvation, because Grace gives them the power to save through Christ.
Very few Christians who believe in Faith alone really believe that in total and would probably agree with Brigham Young that, “When faith springs up in the heart, good works will follow, and good works will increase that pure faith within them” (DBY, 156). If Faith because of Grace is all you need then those who believe it should be amoral. Sin and repentance would have no meaning. Considering how often they argue for morality it is clear that isn’t entirely the case. They probably have more in common with what Mormonism teaches about the Gospel of Jesus Christ than they realize.
LDS President Heber J. Grant said:
His peace will ease our suffering, bind up our broken hearts, blot out our hates, engender in our breasts a love of fellow men that will suffuse our souls with calm and happiness.
His message and the virtue of His atoning sacrifice reach out to the uttermost parts of the earth; they brood over the remotest seas. Wheresoever men go, there He may be reached. Where He is, there may the Holy Spirit be found also, with its fruit of “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith.” (Galations 5:22.)
He will be our comfort and solace, our guide and counselor, our salvation and exaltation, for “there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12.) (In James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 6:140.)
Mormons try to live their religion with that in mind and heart. Those who want to “go through the motions” without Faith are not experiencing the full potential of the Gospel blessings. To live righteously is a part of using Grace to worship. It is a way to invite Christ to come closer to us rather than keep the Savior at arms length.
Jettboy, this is great stuff. I think the word “grace” is yet another example of Mormons not using a word that evangelicals, for example, use a lot. The actual theological differences between us and other denominations is often smaller than some people think. Of course we believe in grace — we could never be saved without the Atonement, which is given to us by the grace of God.
Thanks Geoff B., I am glad you are enjoying the series and its not done yet. I like what you said about the theological differences smaller than people think. While I can agree with that to an extent, my main concern is less about the size of the gap (and I personally think its huge) than a misunderstanding of where that gap is located. My hope is a non-Mormon can read these short snippets and start to understand Mormons on their own terms and not through simplistic stereotypes based on surface evaluations.
I mindlessly render lip service but keeping do my own dang thing to whatever I’m told. 😉
Excellent essay. In a different mood I might give an account of things that differs for yours somewhat, but what you’ve said is simple and true.
If there is any differences then I don’t mind a discussion when you are in the mood. Any way that we and others can get a better understanding is good. My goal with this is to build a better framework for others to talk about and understand Mormons and the faith, especially from the perspective of everyday life.
I am old enough to remember when use of the term “grace” had a bad rap in the church, mostly in the context of criticizing those who believe that we are saved by grace alone.
That is mostly gone now, and in my experience it started to go away in the early 1980s, but members still seem awfully confused by the term and rarely use it at all. Instead we use the term “the atonement” or “blessings of the atonement” almost exclusively.
I think that is kind of sad – “grace” is a much better term. The problem, in my opinion, is that we do not have a common discourse on how to use the term “grace” without implicitly endorsing the “cheap grace” common to much of contemporary Protestantism, notably the doctrine of Eternal Security (confess Christ and be saved, no repentance required).
What we need, in my opinion, is guidance on how to use the term in a manner consistent with the principles that no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of God, and that no one can be exalted without ultimately putting their all on the line in God’s behalf.
Of course, if we made a proper distinction between salvation and exaltation, that might be a lot easier to explain.
As I stated above, we do have “Grace” as part of the Atonement and the blessings of the Atonement. To start using the word Grace more often is, to me, taking its use to an extreme that ignores the full definition of The Gospel. Instead, I propose Mormons start recognizing the term as used in the Doctrine and Covenants section I quoted. It is the driving mechanism of justification and sanctification that produced the blessings of all that we do, including Exaltation. Yet, we must recognize Mercy does not rob Justice or we will end up with a “cheap grace” model.
Mark D –
You can find some guidance on grace here:
If you’ll listen carefully you’ll hear a lot of GAs referring to the “strengthening and cleansing power of the atonement”. I’d assume they’ve been taught by Elder Bednar, who was not revealing anything new, but rather giving voice to concepts difficult to explain.
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