Mormon beliefs about grace, works, baptism
This is part 2 of a response to a reader’s question about Mormon beliefs regarding grace and works, baptism, and more. You can read part 1 here.
In my first post, I gave a little background as to why some of the beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may seem a bit unfamiliar when looking at Biblical teachings. I’ve explained a little about the Restoration, and about how God has continued to speak through living prophets and apostles, just as He did in ancient times in the Old and New Testaments. We are so grateful to share this message with others — that God has opened the heavens again and continues to speak in these “latter days.” Jesus has restored and leads His Church once again through apostles and prophets. We have additional scriptures that we use with the Bible, namely the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.
That said, much of what you ask can be addressed by using the Bible. Book of Mormon teachings and teachings of living prophets amplify those teachings, but so many of them are Biblical. (p.s. If you are interested in reading more about what latter-day leaders teach on these subjects, you can read prophetic teachings at lds.org, especially under the “General Conference” section.)
Mormons Believe in Grace!
For example, our belief in grace is full and deep (you shared some of the scriptures on that topic). You can read more on this topic of grace at mormon.org, where various Mormons share their thoughts on the doctrine of grace. You might also consider searching lds.org and/or the scriptures on the topic of grace.
But we also believe in works in the sense that we have choices we can make about how we spend our time, where we place our hearts and focus and attention, etc. This is a Biblical teaching. This truth is explored by James in the New Testament, for example, in James 2, where he addresses how works and grace dance together.
Mainstream Christians may not commonly use the word works, but those who are committed to Christ show through their actions and choices and words that they are committed. (And you can feel it when they do! The fruits of a committed heart testify of God’s grace and love and power.) For example, they seek to pray, raise children in truth, be chaste and pure, help the poor and needy, testify and teach of Jesus, etc. These are all ways we can show our love to God. These are ways we can open our hearts to God’s grace as well. And these are ways we can invite others to find the wonder of Christ’s grace in their lives. We don’t do this to glory of ourselves or to save ourselves, but rather, to show our love to God, to invite Him into our lives, and, as the Savior taught In Matthew 5:14-16, to shine light outward, “That [others] may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
This reality that grace and works are both part of the Savior’s truth is something understood and experienced over a lifetime, through personal experiences with God’s mercy as we continually do fall short of doing all that God wants all of the time in perfect ways. In Mormon doctrine, we often talk about this as we talk about the principle of agency. We believe God placed us on earth to give us an opportunity to grow in faith as we seek to use our time for good and to remember and glorify and follow Him and His Son. He knew we would make mistakes. As you wisely note, no matter how hard we try, we will ALWAYS fall short. God’s mercy and grace is absolutely essential. The “all we can do” at some level is to repent, be baptized, and then just keep trying to do our best to remember and follow Jesus. To keep choosing to give our hearts to Him and to remember and try to make choices that reflect our belief in the Savior.
But then we wait for Him to change our hearts. We can’t even make good choices fully of our own accord. We need His help and grace to change our hearts because our mortalness can so often get in the way. But God is not surprised by our imperfection. He gave us laws and commandments both to help us know how we can seek to show our love to Him, but also as a regular reminder about how much we need Christ’s grace!
Why baptism as part of our commitment to Christ?
Baptism is an outward sign to God that we are committed to follow Him. It’s an outward reminder that our ‘old self’ and ways of doing things need to be buried and that in Jesus, we can have new life. It’s a reminder of Jesus’ death and the reality of His resurrection, and a testimony that we will all be resurrected someday.
This doctrine of baptism, too, is Biblical in its roots. Jesus Himself commanded His apostles to go and teach His gospel and baptize people. He showed us the example by being baptized (by one who had the authority to baptize…the Biblical connections with the Restoration to me are so amazing — the very person who baptized the Savior came to restore the authority to baptize in our day!). The Book of Mormon teaches us more about why He was baptized. Even though He was perfect, He did something to show the Father that He was willing to do all that God commanded Him…and to show us the way to be on the path back to the Father.
Again, we are mortal and cannot perfectly do all that God commanded us, and this reality is central to our doctrine, but we seek to follow Jesus’ example by being baptized and making covenants with Heavenly Father that we will seek to do His will and give Him our hearts. We take the sacrament (instituted by the Savior before His death) to help keep our minds and hearts focused on the Savior and to recommit each week to our covenants with God.
How do we know we have done “all that we can do?”
How do we know when we have done enough? This is another “question of a lifetime,” really. But a verse in the Book of Mormon teaches one way to know:
[T]he remission of sins bringeth meekness, and lowliness of heart; and because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost, which Comforter filleth with hope and perfect love, which love endureth by diligence unto prayer, until the end shall come, when all the saints shall dwell with God.
As we seek to follow Christ and obey God’s commandments (after all, He is the one who said that we show our love to Him by keeping His commandments), He blesses us with a change of heart. Through the grace available through Jesus’ sacrifice and love, we can become more meek and lowly and God’s Spirit can more fully bless our lives and give us hope and a feeling of peace and love. The offering we bring to God is our efforts to keep trying to connect with Him each day through prayer and seek to follow His truth and His Spirit each day. We repent when we err, and then because of Jesus’ grace, we can be forgiven. And eventually we can have the opportunity to live with God again.
I sometimes think of it in terms of the scripture where Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” He’s always there. His grace is always available. Salvation is free for the receiving (and because of Jesus salvation from death is free for everyone through the resurrection), but the fullness of God’s blessings now and eternally can only come if we choose to receive Jesus actively into our lives and hearts and minds.
Imagine your courtroom example. If jail and bail were the required punishment but someone came and posted bail (“paid the price”), the prisoner could only truly be free if he/she chose to accept that gift by moving their feet and choosing to leave the prison. True freedom after prison would then come not from mindlessly continuing past behaviors, but actively trying to make changes to be a better person and have a happier, more healthy, more full life. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but the full blessings of being freed by Christ aren’t only about the price being paid, but also about the choices being made. We invite the blessings of Christ’s mercy by choosing to obey God’s commandments and repent when we sin or make mistakes. Which we will always continue to do, which means we continue to rely on Jesus to help us.
Jesus has taught us through ancient and modern prophets how we can open that door, how we can continually seek to walk the path of freedom He makes possible. Indeed, His grace is there with any effort to seek to follow Him and acknowledge Him. But the fullness of the blessings He has promised come through the path He has prescribed, which includes ordinances that can bind us to God and remind us of Jesus and what He has done for us. As one author, Brad Wilcox recently wrote (and I’m paraphrasing) it’s not about earning salvation, it’s about learning it. About learning about Him and His power in our lives.
I hope some of this might be helpful. But I hope more than anything, though, that you will continue to do your own study and pray for God’s guidance. If you haven’t already done so, I invite you to read the Book of Mormon and ask God if it’s true. See what it has to say about Jesus and His grace. For me, the Book of Mormon has helped me understand Jesus and His Atonement in life-changing ways. I feel God speak to me through all the scriptures; they work together in beautiful ways to magnify the role of Jesus Christ in God’s plan for all His children collectively — and in my life personally as a daughter of God.
God bless you,