People who are not Mormon frequently focus on the rules of Mormonism without fully understanding the reason Mormons have rules which in the religious world are called commandments. It is often mistakenly thought that Mormons believe they can save themselves without the atonement which is a misinterpretation of Mormon beliefs on salvation. The truth, however, can be a bit complex to understand.
Mormon is a nickname sometimes used to describe members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. People sometimes inadvertently refer to this faith as the Mormon Church, but Mormons teach that a church belongs to the person for whom it is named, and so they never use the term “Mormon Church.” The long name is a mouthful, but it clarifies whose church it is. When shortening it, they call it The Church of Jesus Christ.
Mormons believe wholeheartedly in the atonement of Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon teaches that grace and salvation come only through Jesus Christ and that had He not been willing to atone for our sins and to die on our behalf, we would have had no eternal future.
What Does the Bible Say About Grace and Works?
The Bible speaks of grace, atonement, salvation, and exaltation in many seemingly contradictory terms. To fully understand what the New Testament really says about the subject, we have to look at all the scriptures involved, not just the one or two that reinforce the way we want it to work. So, while the Bible says we are saved by grace and not by works, in other places it says that a person who does not keep the commandments will not get into Heaven.
“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21, KJV of the Bible)
Titus 3:3-7 says we are not justified by works, but James 2:17-26 says that we are. How can both those ideas be true at once?
One way to understand this complication is to look at a few basic facts most Christians would agree on and then to see how they fit into a larger picture. Most Christians, for instance, agree that Jesus Christ atoned for our sins and that this is something we could not do for ourselves. Most also agree that a wicked person can’t go to Heaven and that good Christians should act like good Christians, although they may disagree about what type of behavior constitutes good Christianity.
What Do I Have to Do to Be a Christian?
Most Christian religions state that we are saved entirely by grace and nothing else. However, most also require a person to accept Jesus Christ as his Savior in order to be saved—and this, of course, is an act. Most also require baptism, again an act. The question is really, then, not whether acts are required, but how many and what they are.
It is clear from the Bible that how we live our lives matters. Mormons believe that the atonement was performed for everyone, even those who are evil or who reject it, and that it was a free gift. Some portions are unconditional—everyone gets them, whether or not they believe in Christ, or whether or not they want them. For example, we all rise from the dead and live forever, and we all have the ability to repent of our sins. That is the result of grace.
However, other aspects of the atonement, while present and available, have to be activated. For example, the ability to repent is of no value unless we actually do repent. Repenting activates additional aspects of the atonement.
Mormons believe that being saved is a lifetime effort. We don’t believe that once we accept Jesus as our Savior that our responsibility to Him comes to an end and we can go on with our lives with no spiritual responsibilities. Jesus made that clear when He told us that if we love Him we must keep the commandments. Accepting Jesus as our Savior is only the first step, not the last. It is then that we can really begin to fulfill our mission on earth.
While grace at its most basic level allows all of us to live forever, the full measure of the atonement allows us to live in God’s presence forever, and for most of us, that is a greater goal. Not everyone will receive exaltation in God’s kingdom. For that, we have to accept Jesus Christ as our Savior and then we have to act like Christians. This does not mean we put on a meaningless show as did the Pharisees, who felt that exact obedience to very detailed laws would save them and nothing else was required. (See Matthew 6:5). Jesus made it clear that this was not enough. He criticized those who fasted and prayed, but who did so only when people were looking and only by making a big show of the process. That would be the definition of being saved by your works and that is not what Mormons are taught to do. Rather, they follow what the Bible and the Book of Mormon says on the subject. Here is what the Book of Mormon teaches on this subject:
For I remember the word of God which saith by their works ye shall know them; for if their works be good, then they are good also.
For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing.
For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness.
For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God.
And likewise also is it counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such.
Wherefore, a man being evil cannot do that which is good; neither will he give a good gift. (Moroni 7:5-10 in the Book of Mormon.)
In other words, obedience to the commandments isn’t something a Mormon does to “earn points.” The commandments aren’t kept lightly or out of a need to “earn” heaven. Rather, they are kept because we love Jesus Christ and we made a promise to Him that we would keep His commandments and honor His name. It would be extraordinarily disrespectful to say, “Sure, I’ll accept you as my Savior, but I’m not going to change my life for you, no matter how great your sacrifices were. I’m not really interested in making any sacrifices of my own.” Mormons consider the willingness to sacrifice worldly things for Jesus Christ to be a measure of our love for Him and a way of thanking Him for what He has done for us. In addition, we promised to do so and our behavior is a measure of just how much we meant our promises and how much commitment we’ve really made to Him.
When we study the teachings of Jesus in the Bible, we note He spent more time on how to live than on actual doctrine. Clearly, how we live our lives matters or Jesus wouldn’t have spent so much time telling us how to do it. Nor would the Bible in general be so filled with commandments. Actions matter.
When we get to Heaven, we will be ourselves. Everything we’ve chosen to become in our hearts and minds will still be there. In Heaven, in God’s presence, we will be happier than we’ve ever been before. Part of that happiness will come from being with God again. Part of it will come from not being with those who choose not to live by God’s standards. Another part will come from having become the person God wanted us to be. No unclean thing can dwell in God’s kingdom and so we need to work on cleansing ourselves so we are worthy to be in His presence. We can’t get there without Jesus’ atonement, but we do need to get ourselves ready for eternity, just as we prepare for anything else that really matters. You have probably worked very hard to prepare yourself for important events or to make yourself worthy and ready for important goals on earth—isn’t getting back home to God even more important than getting into college or achieving the leading role in a play? Why would we refuse to put time and effort into achieving Heaven?
Mormons aren’t earning their way into Heaven. They are merely putting God first and are demonstrating their happiness at being able to put the world aside as much as possible to focus on things of eternal value.
Read more on whether we are saved by grace or works at LDS.org.