An issue that has come up in my (Bobby) discussions with Mormons recently is the issue of whether the Mormon Church does teach a gospel of grace? Our new volunteer Gary Carter has put some thoughts down on this, please leave any comments or questions below.
It is quite easy to walk through everyday life and not realize the magnificence of grace. I can guarantee you that I fall into sin everyday from not refuting gossip in the workplace to not spending enough time on my relationship with Jesus. There are a great many sins that I forget to repent of because they do seem so ‘insignificant’ but these ‘insignificant sins’ do as much to separate us from God as ‘serious’ sins such as theft and murder. When I reflect on this, I am so grateful for the grace that comes from Jesus, the grace that covers all my iniquities, the grace that comes by faith and not by fallible human works.
‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.’ – Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV)
Christianity has always had to deal with a difficult balancing act when it comes to grace and works. The issue of indulgences in the Reformation is perhaps the most famous example of this but there are many examples of people who I have met who view Christianity and the Church as a place to learn morals, not a place to meet Jesus and his grace. There is the accusation by people who dot not accept Mormonism as a form of Christianity that Mormonism does not subscribe to the principle set out in Ephesians 2:8-9 that salvation comes from grace alone but salvation in fact comes from works, a statement that goes against the Ephesians quote. This suggestion is something that Mormons vehemently deny. This debate has been central in nearly every Christian-Mormon debate/discussion I have ever had. It is important to examine this crucial question; do Mormons actually believe in salvation by grace?
It is important to state from the outset that all (or at least nearly all) branches of Mormonism accept the Bible as scripture so Mormonism would argue that they accept the principle in Ephesians 2 based upon this. In regards to scripture however, Mormonism is very distinct in that their canon does not stop with the Bible but includes the Book of Mormon, The Pearl of Great Price and Doctrine and Covenants as part of its scriptures, books that are rejected as sources of truth by Christianity. Below are some selected quotations that give rise to our question:
And may God grant, in his great fullness, that men might be brought unto repentance and good works, that they might be restored unto grace for grace, according to their works. – Helaman 12:24
And now I speak unto you, the Twelve—Behold, my grace is sufficient for you; you must walk uprightly before me and sin not – D&C 18:31
For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fullness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace. – D&C 93:20
And thus Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord; for Noah was a just man, and perfect in his generation; and he walked with God, as did also his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. – Moses 8:27
“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; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God” – Moroni 10:32.
Now at this point I accept that I have been selective in terms of the quotations I have chosen. There are many other quotations that talk of grace without the hint of work-based salvation but there was something that troubled me with these quotations. The LDS website was very helpful in understanding my troubles when I read of grace on the Book of Mormon in that it gave me the LDS definition of grace that follows below:
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
The grace that I was reading of in the Book or Mormon, Pearl of Great Price etc. is not the same as what Christianity would describe grace as. Grace is the ultimate undeserved forgiveness that comes from the death and resurrection of Christ. It is not a divine help or strength. By the LDS definition, Mormonism and Christianity have already become distinct.
At this point, it is important to go into the Mormon doctrine of continual or progressive revelation. Mormonism subscribes to the idea of the priesthood of all worthy male believers. A key part of this idea is that the Spirit can inspire any man to speak the Word of God, an idea that is found within Christianity. This is especially true of the Prophet, no matter what the Mormon grouping may be. The words of the Prophet have always been held to be the word of God and as the prophet is to be the witness of Christ for the whole of the Mormon church, when the prophet makes a pronouncement on a topic such as grace, this will nearly always be accepted (D&C 21:4-6). Below are some quotations from the 12th President Spencer W. Kimball:
“One of the most fallacious doctrines originated by Satan and propounded by man is that man is saved alone by the grace of God; that belief in Jesus Christ alone is all that is needed for salvation”
(Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 206. See also The
Book of Mormon Student Manual Religion 121 and 122, 1996, p. 36).
“And however powerful the saving grace of Christ, it brings exaltation to no man who does not comply with the works of the gospel”
(Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 207).
And here is a quotation from the 15th President Gordon B. Hinckley:
“I believe in the grace of God made manifest through His sacrifice and redemption, and I believe that through His atonement, without any price on our part, each of us is offered the gift of resurrection from the dead. I believe further that through that
sacrifice there is extended to every man and woman, every son and daughter of God, the opportunity for eternal life and exaltation in our Father’s kingdom, as we hearken and obey His commandments”
(Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 1986, pp. 50-51).
There are other quotations from apostles and seventies that subscribe to this idea but there are too many to list. It is also important at this point that the 16th President Thomas Monson (the current president of the LDS church) has not differed from this teaching at this current time.
It is also important to get our terminology correct at this point. Whilst it is true to say that the Christian understanding of salvation is rather simple in that salvation is eternal life by believing in Jesus, the same cannot be said of Mormonism. According to the True to the Faith teaching manual, Mormonism splits salvation into five categories. When the Christian says that they believe in ‘salvation by grace’, the Mormon will agree but there will be a different understanding. Salvation to Mormons in this context refers to the general resurrection and souls resting in the telestial and terrestrial kingdoms. The equivalent term for Christian salvation is Mormon exaltation. This ‘exaltation’ is the eternal life and path to godhood that comes with living a good Mormon life, accepting the Melchizedek Priesthood and keeping the sacred temple covenants such as eternal marriage. This ‘exaltation’ is work based and most Mormons wouldn’t deny that.
With that, let us return to our question, do Mormons believe that salvation is by grace alone. Based upon the texts that that can be seen above, there can be two answers to this question, which are Mormons do not believe in the same grace as Christians do and that they do not believe in salvation by grace alone. This may seem controversial and potentially antagonistic so let me explain my reasoning.
In regards to a different grace, in my years as a Christian, it has never been taught in a Christian church that grace is a ‘divine help’. Grace is the action that saves. By belief and acceptance in the forgiving grace of God that is completely undeserved because of our sinful nature and actions that brings us to salvation. Our works can never bring us to God because we can never make ourselves perfect even though we should always aim to be like Christ who was perfect. In short, Christians believe in and attempt to live out the Ephesians 2 principle we were discussing at the beginning. This ‘definition’ for want of a better word is completely different than the definition of grace given by the LDS themselves.
This then leads us to our second conclusion, that Mormons do not believe in salvation by grace alone. If grace in Mormon circles is a very different principle to the Christian idea (a.k.a. the divine help idea), then a Christian understanding of salvation by grace alone does not exist within the Mormon context. The quotations from the specifically Mormon scriptures and from the LDS presidents add to the evidence that Mormonism does not believe in salvation by grace alone. One only needs to look at the Kimball quotations to see this. To call salvation by grace alone a ‘fallacious doctrine originating from Satan’, is not exactly a ringing endorsement for the idea. Gordon Hinckley does not go as far as Spencer Kimball in his language but he does not step back from the idea that works is central to salvation. President Monson has not stepped back either. Based upon the principle of continual revelation, it has to be said that if this is still the view of the Presidents of the LDS church then this is still LDS teaching.
I am very aware that the LDS are the what can be termed the ‘mainstream’ Mormon church so I will move back to the LDS scriptures that are accepted by other Mormon denominations from the more liberal Community of Christ to the hardline FLDS. Doctrine and Covenants 18:31 argues that we must walk uprightly before God because his grace/divine help is sufficient. D&C 93:20 says that we must keep God’s commandments if we ever were to see His grace. Helaman 12:24 tells us that we must be brought to repentance and perform good works we may receive God’s grace. These scriptures do not leave room for salvation by grace alone.
Now I am aware of an argument that says ‘well what about the Old Testament, there isn’t much grace there’. I would argue that there are lots of examples of God’s grace in the Old Testament but we must also consider the fact that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law. Trying to obey the Law entirely by human endeavour is impossible due to our sinfulness hence the need for the grace of Jesus.
In conclusion, not only do I believe that that Mormonism does not believe in salvation by grace alone, I do not believe that we are even talking about the same thing when it comes to grace. Now there will be others who disagree with me and I welcome that. It is always good to talk.