I have found myself at times trying to explain grace to someone who has largely taken up the protestant interpretation that has been popularized in books like “Believing Christ” by Stephen Robinson and “The Continuous Atonement” by Brad Wilcox. It is so hard for people who have taken up those ideas to make the least step forward in understanding the matter.
Which is odd, because their own personal experiences as a member of the church make the matter really clear. If they would just realize that:
(1) The gift of the Holy Ghost is part of the grace of God they are hoping to be saved by.
(2) If they will think about their own actual real world experiences with the Gift of the Holy Ghost they will see in their own experiences the basic pattern for how the grace of God actually saves someone.
What is frustrating is the degree to which they deny their own experiences in favor of something they read in a book.
Neither the grace of God, nor the atonement itself, does anything to change the fact that God does not look upon sin with the least degree of allowance. Yes. It allows one to be forgiven for past sins, but the person themself still needs to be changed into someone who won’t commit those sins again. How is that brought about? It is brought about by a combination of personal effort as well as the sanctifying effects of the Holy Ghost.
The more we press forward and do what is right, the more we have the Holy Ghost with us. The more we have the Holy Ghost with us, the easier it is to do what is right. Growing into the gift of the Holy Ghost allows us in process of time to become more and more one with the Father and the Son in the same way that they are one with each other.
But the Holy Ghost doesn’t come and dwell with us for half hearted effort. If you want the perfect measure of what Christ expects of you, you need only ask what you need to do to have the Holy Ghost in your life. If you are growing more and more into the gift of the Holy Ghost then your actions are pleasing to him, and are therefore also pleasing to Christ, as the Godhead is not divided. If you find the Holy Ghost to be dwindling in your life, or rarely any closer than the distant background, or if you feel like the Holy Ghost is approving of misbehavior (he doesn’t, that is the adversary lying to you) then you can know that you are not pleasing the Holy Ghost, and are thereby not pleasing the Savior either. They do not view the matter differently.
If we would just pause and ask “Does what I am about to say about the saving grace of God actually fit my personal experience with the Holy Ghost” before talking about God’s saving grace, we would teach a much better picture of the matter than is currently typical.
For instance, do you find with the Holy Ghost that because of the atonement, he feels like everything for your salvation is done, that you are “saved” due to your covenant with Christ, and that as long as you at least stay within that covenant you are saved? According to “Believing Christ” that is how Christ views the matter, and consequently it would also be how the Holy Ghost would view the matter.
Or do instead you find that the Holy Ghost attends you more when you go out and do missionary work, save your ancestors, attend the temple, or teach your children the gospel? Does the Holy Ghost consider you to now be “saved” and ready for the presence of God, or does he attend you based on your works?
Does the Holy Ghost require only the lowest level of Gospel living to attend you? Will he persist with you as you compromise with worldly standards? Does he care about strictly observing your temple covenants?
The atonement was necessary so that we could be forgiven on conditions of repentance. Does the Holy Ghost seem to care about repentance after we do something wrong? Or does he instead act like the atonement means that we are 100% clean because Christ already paid the whole price and our works do nothing to save us? If the doctrine found in “Believing Christ” is correct then it should be the latter, but that isn’t what we experience.
When we say that we cannot be saved by our works, we are saying that we are limited as human beings in power! We are mere mortals, we cannot resurrect ourselves after death. We cannot make our past sins go away. We cannot grant ourselves the knowledge of heavenly things. These are all required to save us. We cannot bring ourselves into the presence of God. But this is a statement of the limited POWER of mortals. It is not a statement that mortals are not able to make good choices, or that those choices are not the very means by which God will determine who is to be saved and who is not. Our works are not the MECHANISM that saves us because as mortals we lack POWER. But our choices will be the means by which God determines who to save.
In fact, the Book of Mormon testifies over and over again that we will be judged according to our works, whether they were good, or whether they were evil. If we are judged according to our works, then our works are the means by which God determines whether or not we are to be saved.
Mortals are very limited beings. We are as clay. We can read, write, dance, sing, run, jump, eat, sleep, paint, play, ponder, and any number of other things. But it is outside our POWER to transfigure ourselves and enter the presence of God. It is outside our POWER to cause our dead bodies to resurrect themselves. It is outside our POWER to make our sins go away, even if we have repented of them and do them no more.
This limitation on mortal power is one big part of what we mean when we say that we are saved by grace. We are saved by grace, meaning God is the one that exercises saving power. It is simply outside our abilities.
But the scriptures testify in abundance that the means by which God determines who to save will be by their works.
God’s power is the mechanism, but our works are how the determination is made.
Now what I have written about saving grace so far is basic. This is all just groundwork It is stuff that really shouldn’t even need to be said. But false ideas about grace and the atonement are currently being popularized so heavily so some groundwork is good.
There is more to the story. But as soon as I write the more someone is going to assume that I just revoked all the groundwork, and that is not true. The groundwork is good. But I will risk it and explain the more, hoping you won’t reject the groundwork.
The more to this story comes back to what I was originally writing about. The saving grace of God is nicely illustrated in the gift of the Holy Ghost, and if we would use that as the principle of understanding and speaking about saving grace, we would do a much more correct and exalting job of teaching the matter.
God’s grace saves us by exercising the necessary power. But it also helps us to behave better, as well as making his will known to us. It allows us to become one with him in a way we couldn’t possibly do on our own.
When we have a strong experience with the Holy Ghost, the will of the Lord is more apparent to us, we see what he wants more. But when we experience that, it is also easier to submit our own will to the will of the Lord.
In fact, Joseph Smith said that the purpose for which the Lord said he would grant his glory to his apostles in his great intercessory prayer was so that they could be one with him and the Father as the Son and Father were one with each other.
And that is a major part of the point. God’s saving grace is manifest by changing us so that our works are different.
We see this need for divine grace even in the Savior’s life. He said he did always those things which pleased his Father. Because of that we learn that the Father didn’t pour out the Holy Ghost on Christ just by measure. And that in turn strengthened the Son. The two things aren’t really separate. They go hand in hand.
Grace doesn’t change the fact that we will be judged by our works. It changes what our works are so that we can be saved. Saving grace saves us by changing us so that our works are good. There is no conflict between the fact that we are saved by grace, and the fact that we will be judged according to our works. They are in perfect agreement. Any doctrine of salvation by grace that promises eternal rewards later without transforming us here and now is a lie. We are saved, our works are changed, as we obey and God grants us the marvelous manifestations of his grace such as forgiveness of sins thereby making us a worthy receptacle for the gift of the Holy Ghost. As we grow into the gift of the Holy Ghost we become more and more one with God, we know his will more clearly, and we are more capable of submitting our will to his. This is an ongoing process, not a one time event. And it is a process that transforms our works.
And now I must pause again, because here is another layer of groundwork, and once again if I proceed to explain someone will decide that I am revoking the existing groundwork. But no, the groundwork is good. It needs to be left in place.
The next thing is when we talk about being judged according to our works, what works are we talking about? There are a few different scriptural lists, but we should recognize that when Christ said he did the works of his Father, that same principle applies to us, though sometimes we word it differently and say “these signs shall follow them that believe”. As we grow and become one with the Father and the Son then the works of the Father become manifest in us, as they were in Christ. These are some of the “works” that are manifest by the grace of God that we will be judged by. Christ told men to judge whether he was doing God’s work by whether the Father’s works were manifest in him, and to a lesser degree the same is true of us, though when applied to ourselves we usually invoke the phrase “these signs shall follow them that believe” instead of “the works of the Father are plainly manifest”. But they mean the same thing. So we press forward and hope that, as Peter, one day we will be converted and that the works of the Father will be manifest in us, because we will be judged according to our works.
And while there is more than one list of “works” that is mentioned as being discussed at the judgement bar, one notable one is the list found in D&C 76. These works are interesting because, by and large, they are not works in the traditional sense, but are in fact manifestations of the grace of God very similar to the gift of the Holy Ghost: They are given on conditions of obedience. These are works we can count on being judged by, though, by and large, as a people they are works we finish in the spirit world. We do not, as a people, generally make it through all these works in mortality, but complete them in the spirit world starting from where ever we left off at death. The exception is verses 60-65 which are intentionally in future tense.
D&C 76:51 They are they who received the testimony of Jesus, and believed on his name and were baptized after the manner of his burial, being buried in the water in his name, and this according to the commandment which he has given—
52 That by keeping the commandments they might be washed and cleansed from all their sins, and receive the Holy Spirit by the laying on of the hands of him who is ordained and sealed unto this power;
53 And who overcome by faith, and are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, which the Father sheds forth upon all those who are just and true.
54 They are they who are the church of the Firstborn.
55 They are they into whose hands the Father has given all things—
56 They are they who are priests and kings, who have received of his fulness, and of his glory;
57 And are priests of the Most High, after the order of Melchizedek, which was after the order of Enoch, which was after the order of the Only Begotten Son.
58 Wherefore, as it is written, they are gods, even the sons of God—
59 Wherefore, all things are theirs, whether life or death, or things present, or things to come, all are theirs and they are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
60 And they shall overcome all things.
61 Wherefore, let no man glory in man, but rather let him glory in God, who shall subdue all enemies under his feet.
62 These shall dwell in the presence of God and his Christ forever and ever.
63 These are they whom he shall bring with him, when he shall come in the clouds of heaven to reign on the earth over his people.
64 These are they who shall have part in the first resurrection.
65 These are they who shall come forth in the resurrection of the just.
66 These are they who are come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly place, the holiest of all.
67 These are they who have come to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of Enoch, and of the Firstborn.
68 These are they whose names are written in heaven, where God and Christ are the judge of all.
69 These are they who are just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood.
70 These are they whose bodies are celestial, whose glory is that of the sun, even the glory of God, the highest of all, whose glory the sun of the firmament is written of as being typical.
So there it is in D&C 76, a list of works that describes who is in the celestial kingdom. Not surprisingly, many of these works are actually manifestations of God’s grace, given to us on condition of prolonged obedience.