Some years ago, I was listening to a bagpipe rendition of “Amazing Grace.” A non-LDS friend who was with me noticed that I was squirming a bit, and he commented, “Oh, that’s right. Mormons don’t believe in grace, do they?” I had to explain to him that my discomfort had nothing to do with theology. I just hate bagpipes.
Painful musical instruments aside, one of the common mischaracterizations of LDS belief is that Mormons reject the doctrine of grace and instead believe that people are able to “earn” their way to salvation through their works alone. While the debate over the respective roles of faith and works in the salvation of mankind dates back to the New Testament itself, the amount of attention that Mormons get on this issue is unique.
The reason for this is that critics of the Mormonism use the question of grace as a way of making a broader accusation, which is that Mormons aren’t Christians. Rather than acknowledging that the Mormon view on grace and works is part of a 2000 year-old theological debate among Christians, they incorrectly assume that all of Christianity is agreed on this issue, and that the Mormon view falls outside of “traditional” Christianity. Put more simply, they argue that Mormons believe that they can be saved on their own merits, without any need of the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
This characterization of Mormon doctrine is so twisted that I cannot help but question whether it is honestly made. It puts Mormons in the common, but unfair, position of having to convince people of what we believe rather than why we believe it. Fair or not, let’s look at both the what and why.
The LDS view of grace and works isn’t that complicated or unusual. We believe that the Fall of Adam brought two things into the world: Sin and death. We believe that the only way to be redeemed from each of these consequences of the Fall is through the redeeming power of Jesus Christ.
Death and Resurrection
In the LDS view, physical death came into the world as a result of the Fall of Adam, and not as the result of anything that any of us have done individually. Because of that, we believe that Christ’s death and resurrection provided the means by which all mankind will be literally resurrected, as a free gift. The principle is as simple as a TV theme song: We didn’t do the crime, so we don’t do the time. Expressed in more “churchy” terms: “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, not for Adam’s transgression.” (Article of Faith 2).
Thus we are all physically redeemed from the effects of the Fall strictly by the grace of Christ. Saint and sinner alike will be resurrected. However, Mormons do not believe that to be the end of the story. There is still the question of under what conditions we will be resurrected. In other words, does our physical salvation mean that we will also be spiritually saved?
Sin and Redemption
In Mormon doctrine, the second result of the Fall of Adam was the introduction of sin into the world. Good and evil co-exist in mortality, and each of us is given the opportunity (Mormons use the word “agency”) to choose what kind of life we will live. However, with the sole exception of Christ, all men and women sometimes make mistakes, give in to temptation, and fall short of being like Christ. As a result of these poor decisions, we become unworthy to dwell with Christ or our Father in Heaven. No matter how good we might be, we still cannot meet the standard that Christ gave to us: “Be ye therefore perfect.” (Matthew 5:48).
We believe that without the redeeming sacrifice of Christ (which Mormons refer to as the “Atonement”), no one would be able to enter into the presence of God. It is only through the suffering and grace of Christ that we can bridge the gap between who we are and who we ought to be.
However, Mormons believe that spiritual salvation is conditioned, to some extent, upon our own efforts. In simplest terms, Mormons believe that God gives us commandments for a reason: He expects us to make our best efforts to obey them. Jesus clearly taught that we demonstrate our love for Him by keeping His commandments (John 14:15). We believe that if we do not do our level best to be obedient, then we will not enjoy all of the blessings that God has prepared for us after this life.
Critics of the LDS Church distort this doctrine by contending that we believe that we “earn” our salvation. However, we do not believe that we earn anything. Instead, we believe that without the atonement of Christ, we would be forever lost regardless of how obedient we try to be. As this doctrine is explained in the Book of Mormon, “It is by grace we are saved, after all we can do.” (2 Nephi 25:23).
What distinguishes Mormon beliefs regarding salvation is that we believe Christ’s redemption to be even more expansive and inclusive than do other Christians. Most of the Christian world believes that those who reject or never hear of Christ will be forever damned, suffering unimaginable torment in Hell. Mormonism teaches that all mankind ultimately will receive some degree of glory in the eternities, conditioned upon the extent to which we were given the opportunity to learn the doctrine of Christ and then chose to embrace it. (In another blog, we will look in more detail at Mormon beliefs regarding Heaven and Hell.)
Mormons don’t marginalize the role of Christ’s grace in our redemption. Instead, we believe that the reach of Christ’s love is broader than many Christians ever have hoped. We believe that the grace of Christ, and only the grace of Christ, gives hope to every person born into mortality.
Even bagpipe players.