If you want to get a good ruckus started between Christians, get them discussing the subject of grace versus works. It’s been a good way to start a fight, but only for the last 2000 years.
I’ve written before about the Mormon view of grace, but I the more I see written by critics of the LDS Church on this subject, the more I feel the need to address it again, but with a slightly different emphasis.
The argument generally goes like this: Mormons believe that you can earn your way to Heaven. The Bible teaches that only through the grace of Christ can you be saved. Therefore, Mormons aren’t Christian, they hate the Bible, and they probably steal candy from babies. The problem with this, as with any sound bite, is that it oversimplifies everything.
Now, I have made a real effort in these posts not to quote tons of scripture, mostly because I find that people who aren’t members of the Church aren’t particularly interested in what the Book of Mormon says on something. They just want a straightforward summary of what Mormons believe. My approach is to give you the answer I would give if standing in line at the grocery store, with my scriptures safely locked in the car where they can’t hurt anyone. I’ll do the same here, although, in fairness, this probably lends itself more to a traditional “doctrinal” approach.
So, before you pay for the eggs, here we go:
Mormons basically operate from the premise that most scriptures have meaning. Rather than try to pick and choose which verses of the Bible we like the best, we try to harmonize what we have. The idea behind this is that the Spirit that leads to all prophetic writing is the same, and therefore the messages given by the Spirit should be more or less consistent. That can be a challenge, given that, if read in isolation, you can find a verse to support pretty much any religious argument (except, perhaps, trying to find anything to support the Nicene Creed, but I digress).
That said, it is pretty evident to me after several readings of the Bible that God gives us commandments, and He seems to think it is important that we be obedient to them. I assume that God didn’t give the Ten Commandments in order to show off his stone carving skills, and Jesus wasn’t just rambling when he said “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” I think it is very difficult to give fair meaning to the Bible as a whole and still contend that Christianity is a “come as you are” religion. The ministry of Christ and the Apostles was not merely to redeem mankind at the judgment, but to help men and women to become better people. It was a gospel of repentance.
So, what is this repentance stuff all about? I think that sometimes in the Church we have over-complicated the repentance process, describing it as a number of required “steps,” with the underlying assumption that if you miss one, you should dress for warm weather in the afterlife. I try to think of repentance as consisting as a number of principles rather than as a 6-step salvation program.
The first principle is recognizing that there is a gap between who we are and what God would have us be. It is being sufficiently humble to acknowledge that what we are now isn’t enough, no matter how good we think we are. Christ’s direction in Matthew 5:48 (I know, this is the second scripture quote, but I didn’t even cite the other one, so it didn’t count) is to be “perfect.” That’s a tall order, one that we know we haven’t accomplished.
The second principle is acknowledging that we aren’t going to get there alone. Paul describes a process of becoming perfect “in Christ,” which I think merely reflects the recognition that without the atoning sacrifice of Christ (“grace”) we can never become perfect. We rely upon Him to improve as much as we can in this life and, when we still fall short, He will make up the difference. This is what Mormons mean when they say that by grace we are saved, after all we can do. Grace enables us to improve our lives now, and then bridges the final gap between what we have become and what God can make of us. We don’t “earn” salvation. But we also don’t sit on our hands and demand that God save us “as is.” We strive with all our might to live like He who has redeemed us. We won’t get there in this life, but we will be judged by our effort to do so.
The third principle is that we should not deceive others about our failings. We own up to our weaknesses, both to God and to those against whom we might have sinned. That’s called confession. Sometimes, when our sins are of such a nature that we are unlikely to be able to overcome them on our own efforts, then we confess them to a Priesthood authority. In rare cases, formal discipline from the Church may be necessary in order for us to understand the gravity of our condition and be able to make a positive change.
The fourth principle is that we turn away from our mistakes and try to make up for them. We replace bad behavior with good behavior. If we have been driving in reverse all of our lives, putting the car in neutral won’t get us home. We have to get moving in the opposite direction. Part of that is restitution, where it is possible. More basically, it is about doing good where we used to do evil.
The fifth principle is that we are children of a loving Heavenly Father who is quick to forgive, forget, and help us to do better. Repentance isn’t a process by which God beats us like stubborn mules. Once we recognize the need for change, He is immediately there to help us. He will teach us, strengthen us, and help us to change our hearts so that it no longer is a matter of fighting temptation, but rather no longer having a disposition to do things that are wrong. The Book of Mormon describes this process (there I go again) as a “mighty change of heart.” Repentance ultimately isn’t about refusing to do something that you really want to do; it’s about wanting something different.
Maybe I am oversimplifying the process, but this is how I have come to understand the gospel of repentance. I think that it provides balance between the commandments given by God and the promised grace of Christ.
In my mind, religion is of very little power if it doesn’t result in making us better people here and now. When Christ was confronted with the woman caught in adultery, He did not high-five her and say “You go, girl!” Instead, His directive to her was to “Go and sin no more.” That is His commandment for all of us. It is the power of His grace that gives us any hope of keeping it.