There is a particular articulation of the concept of grace, perhaps owing to a simplified explanation of salvation, that I sometimes hear in Church settings. It is, in effect, that Jesus Christ saves us from physical death by grace as a “free gift,” but that redemption from spiritual death comes “by works,” with no mention of grace’s involvement. This is to account for the fact that we believe that all humanity will be resurrected physically, but that the possibility exists for us to fall short in our works and thereby lose the opportunity for spiritual salvation in Heavenly Father’s Kingdom. Those who receive exaltation have committed certain acts, such as baptism, which covenant is absolutely required to receive such a blessing as exaltation. Thus, physical redemption is free grace, but spiritual redemption is entirely up to you and your effort.
I believe this unfortunate articulation can lead the gospel learner into a very discouraging existence, attempting to earn one’s way into heaven and – as most experienced Mormons know – ultimately failing. It violates scriptures which could not be more clear. Speaking of the power to “sit in heavenly places”, Paul says “…by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9) Jacob warns us to “remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved” (2 Nephi 10:24, emphasis mine). Aaron, who learned this lesson painfully, says “since man had fallen, he could not merit anything of himself; but the sufferings and death of Christ atone for his their sins” through gospel principles and ordinances (Alma 22:14). Nowhere in scripture do we find the application of grace to resurrection at the exclusion of salvation and exaltation; it is all by grace and only by grace.
Some Mormons fear this insistence, for it can lead to predestinarian notions of grace, which I will address later. First, though, I address the notion of free resurrection. Indeed, resurrection (like salvation and exaltation) comes as a gracious gift from God, but we cannot say we were not involved in receiving the gift. Our choices influence our reception of the gift, but those choices associated with resurrection merely took place before this life. Premortal humans chose to accept the Father’s plan, made and kept covenants to follow His Son, and received the promise of mortality and immortality by the grace of the Savior. Satan and his followers rejected this grace and will not receive it. Thus, not even the gift of resurrection came “free,” at least not in the sense that we receive it outside of our choice.
Neither can we “earn” salvation and exaltation. After all, we are eternally (not a term to use lightly) indebted to God: “in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted to him.” When we keep a required commandment, “he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever. Therefore, of what have ye to boast?” (Mosiah 2:23-24, cf. 21). Earning one’s way to heaven is a hopeless venture; God refuses to be outdone by one of His children in such a contest of love, for He cannot help but win. We are entirely dependent on and indebted to Him.
Importantly, an unfortunate and confusing term sometimes enters the fray: “to earn.” We must remember that we did not earn resurrection. Jesus did, and it cost Him greatly, but our role is centered on agency, keeping our plates facing up to receive the promised blessing, which we all did.
Now, this articulation of grace makes some Church members uncomfortable, especially those who interact often with Evangelical friends and family who may espouse a more predestinarian articulation of grace. This other articulation involves a complete rejection of the role of required works in the salvation process (except, perhaps, an oral witness of Jesus Christ’s divine Sonship).
I heard this notion explained most clearly by a man I spoke with while a missionary. He said, “I’m an alcoholic, but I believe if I were to try to escape my sins, even just a little bit, I would do injustice to God’s grace. When He wants to save me from this, I will be saved, for I will not attempt to save myself from my sins. I believe in Jesus Christ, but I can do nothing else.” He acknowledged how unreasonable that may sound to Mormons, but insisted that he would sin if he attempted to help himself. How terribly God must want to save that man, to heal the damage done to himself and his family, but I fear he has chosen to reject the grace offered to him, at least for now, in the interest of proving Christ’s power.
I have termed this the “go-limp gospel,” though I am reticent to do violence to a concept that many people revere. Still, the idea is to go limp and allow Jesus to carry oneself to heaven. One may be a good member of society, and Evangelicals often are exemplary, but such is not required and no sin could ever shake one’s opportunity to enter heave. And, after all, it seems to align with many scriptural passages. It, too, though, is not a complete articulation of grace.
In the first articulation, there is no grace. In the second, there is no agency, for one is predestined either to the election of grace or reprobation; the only trick is to discover the grace that has saved you (if it has saved you) and express it vocally (if that). Agency reconciles these differences.
Anthropologists like Peter Berger (1967) talk about agency as a “moment,” a very fine and hard-to-recognize phenomenon. It is the choice to accept or reject something offered to you by something that is not you, such as a social norm, a belief, an action, or gifts (grace). Sometimes, if not always, the actions chosen by agency involve physical or mental effort, but those are works (“externalizations” in Berger’s terms), which are distinct from agency. Agency takes place in the self, in the heart, and is sometimes envisioned as our desires, which may explain the close association between works and desires in God’s judgment (D&C 137:9). Still, though, neither agency nor the works associated with it have salvific power. Even the opportunity to choose is a gift of God’s grace! Without the Atonement, we would have no such opportunity. Thus, works are actually a subset of grace, blessings given to those who have chosen faith in the context of God-given (gracious) agency.
When a person has chosen to follow Christ, grace enters immediately to enable that person to come unto Him. All works that follow take effort, require agency, and feel difficult at times, but are all gifts of God. Baptism, repentance, temple covenants, the development of Christlike behaviors, and ultimately charity and exaltation are gifts of a loving Father (describing both the Father and the Son [Mosiah 15]) to His children. They are not free, cheap, or earned, but something else entirely. Consider the covenant of the sacrament: we are “willing” to do many things, and – in exchange for our willingness – we are promised the Spirit Who will enable us by grace to do them. We are saved through our works and from our sins by grace.
I believe I have accurately described how I feel about grace. I have done many good things in my life, and I used to think of myself as a good person. I failed to look back and admit that it was all, all the grace of God. Like the nine ungrateful lepers, I thought I had somehow earned it. I hope I am learning my lesson and becoming, by grace, more like the tenth.
1967 Religion and World-Construction. In The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Pp. 3-28. New York: Anchor Books.