I wrote a series of articles on service and was roundly chastised by someone for coming dangerously close to denying the grace of Christ by not categorically renouncing that works have any part in our salvation, which isn’t true. After pondering on this subject, I have decided to try to explain to myself, and hence to you, how works and grace operate and the part each of them plays in our salvation.
Salvation means different things to different people. I will define two definitions of salvation then move on with my explanation based on the second definition.
1. Salvation is defined by some as resurrection from the dead and receiving a degree of glory. This does not include exaltation. This form of salvation is freely given to all through the atonement of Christ, and is the reward we were all promised by keeping our first estate before ever coming to mortality. Just by virtue of the fact that you are here means you qualified to be resurrected and receive some degree of glory in the eternities.
The important point about this definition of salvation is that we have already done what was required to receive it. So we don’t have to do anything during our mortal stay to receive it. It is freely given to all through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. The only ones who won’t receive it are those who didn’t keep their first estate, which is Satan and his followers.
2. When I refer to salvation I am speaking of the whole process of forgiveness and redemption, and the ultimate exaltation that follows in the next life. I am only referring to those who are seeking exaltation when I talk about salvation. This kind of salvation is not free for the taking. This kind of salvation requires us to do something to get it, whether here in mortality or in the spirit world following mortality.
In order to be redeemed from the fall (our separation from God because of sin) we must repent of our sins, be baptized (become a covenant maker and covenant keeper with God), and then live up to the covenants we have made. There is no part of this formula that can be omitted and still have salvation be a possibility. Exaltation comes only to those who have learned to honor in the lives they lead all parts of this process.
It doesn’t matter if the person is in mortality when this happens or if they are in the spirit world, having never heard the gospel in mortality. The process and requirements for exaltation are the same for everyone.
So salvation isn’t a single “come to Jesus” moment in which we accept Him as our Savior, and poof! all is done. Salvation means that we come to Jesus on His terms, in His own way, honoring His requirements. Only then will we have His grace extended to us.
Normally I would have a series of scriptures to illustrate each point being made, but this personal reflection is focusing only on the principles behind all the scriptures, so I won’t be giving any chapters and verses in this essay. Just focus on the principle.
The second definition we need to settle is that of works. Works are shown by how we live our lives. It is demonstrated in the good that we do each day, the covenants we keep, and how we choose to keep them.
Some people make covenants then do everything in their power to not keep them by stretching what is allowable in the commandments to their limit. They seem to want to see how much they can get away with without actually, technically “breaking” the law or commandment. These are usually people I will call literalists. They will live the letter of the law, but have a natural aversion to the spirit with which the law was given.
There are also those who show forth their works by keeping not only the letter of the law, but the spirit or intent of the law as well. These are the people who are genuinely trying to be good people and live lives that are pleasing to God. Pleasing God is their whole focus in life. They find joy in doing what will please their Savior and their Father in Heaven.
The important point about the word “works” is that it requires us to do something. Works is all about the actions we take because of our faith in Christ. It is how we demonstrate our love for Christ, because it is how we keep His commandments. It is not a theoretical keeping or honoring of the idea of the commandments, but actually obeying them as a guide for how we live life here in mortality.
Grace, to me is the most enigmatic thing in the gospel of Christ. I have yet to define it to my personal satisfaction. Following is my understanding of the doctrine of grace.
The modern apostles have defined grace as the “enabling” power of Christ. Through the power of his atonement Jesus is able to give us strengths and abilities that are not naturally ours. When we turn to Him through repentance and try to keep the commandments, His grace enables us to do more than we were able to do before we turned to him and tried to live according to His commandments.
This means that no amount of my personal efforts without Christ in my life can bring me the salvation I seek. Only in and through His atonement on my behalf can I be given the ability to change in all the ways that are necessary in order for me to be able to return to the presence of God one day and not flinch and cower in fear.
The power of his grace can change my heart, meaning change my disposition and feelings and make them more pure and refined. His grace can enable me to understand the things the Holy Ghost would teach me so I can become pure and holy.
Grace, in other words, is a power that is not available to mankind by means of mankind. It comes only from our Savior, and is the only power that has the ability to help us change in all the most needed ways so we can return home to our Father in Heaven.
There is always a catch
As in all things in the gospel, there is no doctrine or part of the gospel that stands alone, separate from all other doctrine. Everything is related and touches other doctrines and commandments. The gospel, or package of laws given to us that will enable us to return to our heavenly home, is a complete whole. There is nothing lacking, but we have to take the whole package, not just a part of it in order for it to do its proper work on our souls.
In this case, even grace, as powerful as it is, is not sufficient by itself to save us. There is no power in all of eternity that can save a man who does not want to be saved. There is no way to redeem someone who is unwilling to be redeemed. God will not interfere with our agency. This means that salvation has to be a partnership between the all-capable Savior, and the hardly-capable mortal. We have to work together to be saved. That is the catch. The salvation I’m talking about is the ultimate participation award. We have to DO something in order for us to qualify for exaltation.
Here is where the two requirements meet. Christ has grace that is sufficient to save us, but he needs our will, our cooperation in order for his grace to work its wonders on us. We have the ability to do good and be obedient, but we must be willing to keep the commandments Jesus has given to us in the scriptures and through the living prophets in order for us to access His grace. And we must be willing to be obedient according to the spirit of the law for us to obtain the full benefits of that grace.
We may start off keeping the commandments grudgingly, but over time the Spirit might help to soften our hearts and work on our disposition so that we come to genuinely desire to keep the Lord’s laws in the best way we know how. It is then that the Spirit can use the grace of Christ to enlighten our minds and change our dispositions in the fullest sense.
Those who believe in salvation by works feel no need for a Savior. All they have to do is fill out their checklist of responsibilities and they feel like they deserve salvation. It doesn’t work that way, but that is how some people feel. They have a difficult time with the notion that they actually can’t do this whole salvation thing on their own. They fight against the need for a Savior, whether it is only in their deeds or if it is in actual words as well.
I fell under this category for many years. I didn’t understand that I couldn’t change my own disposition for doing evil things. I figured if I tried hard enough I could change myself. It was a long, slow process coming to learn that I was truly kicking against the pricks on this one. I absolutely can’t do this on my own. I need the grace of God in my life to change me from the carnal to the spiritual man. It is a process that requires me to cooperate with my Savior through obedience to his commandments.
And there, I said it, obedience. We can’t have the grace of God operative in our lives without obedience to the commandments. As they say, “obedience is the first law of heaven.” Jesus may love me perfectly. His desire to save me may well be beyond my ability to fathom, but no amount of His love can save me if I am not willing to be saved through obedience to His commandments.
Wasn’t it Jesus who said, “If ye love me keep my commandments”? It is through our obedience, our good works if you will, that we apply the grace of God in our lives to change us from people of a carnal nature into people of a spiritual and holy nature. There are no shortcuts, and there is no other way. My personal salvation requires at least two people in order for it to happen. At the barest minimum those two have to be my Savior and me. Neither of us can save me by ourselves.