I won’t bother with a scripture-intense discussion here. My intent is to help clarify meanings and intent, and sometimes by focusing on individual words we lose the bigger picture.
One of the principle complaints Christians have about my LDS faith is that we, apparently, focus too much on works. The criticism is that members of the LDS church do not believe that Christ’s grace is sufficient, and that we demand works for salvation.
There are a number of ideas conflating, one upon another here, so let me try to clarify them individually.
One, we are sinners, and are not worthy of salvation. By default, because of our natures and our actions, we are condemned to a horrible end.
Two, that Christ was sinless, and had the power to lay down his life and take it up again, and “buy” our souls, thus saving us from our own sin.
I think everyone agrees with the two points about that considers themselves Christian. I think the above two points are enough in my book to consider someone Christian, and in my mind, demonstrate a very large amount of faith.
But is simply believing enough? No, because Christ commanded baptism and repentance. If we do not repent and do not accept baptism, then Christ has said he will not cover our sins.
So we have a very, very important line here. Christ himself drew the line, and he is quite explicit about what it takes to cross it.
Now, I don’t want to spoil the fun here, but the main argument between the LDS faith and other Christian faiths (who admit that repentance and baptism are necessary for salvation) is that baptism and repentance are not enough! That is, simply giving up your sins and accepting baptism is necessary, but not sufficient, for salvation.
There are, as you might expect, other ordinances that you need to participate in to make your salvation sufficient. But, and I will be explicit here, you need not worry about them, because if you are faithful enough to repent and be baptized, you will be faithful enough to receive those ordinances, when the time comes.
In fact, and this is an important and very critical component of LDS faith, you need not do anything at all to be saved, except believe in Christ and show a willingness to serve him, in certain circumstances.
What are those circumstances? Simply this: you have done all you can do. This is where Christ’s grace steps in and takes over. If you are handicapped, if you die young or early, if you lived in a time or place where the gospel was not available or baptism could not be obtained, and so on and so forth, all you need to do is everything you could have done. That means African tribesman who never heard of Christ, but who treated their villagers with kindness and acted with all the dignity their culture afforded are just as qualified for eternal salvation as you and I, who live in very different circumstances.
In other words, “where much is given, much is required.” If you’re not given a lot, you don’t have to do a lot.
However, this does not contradict the line: you still need to repent, be baptized, and receive those other ordinances that Christ has required. The beautiful part is that you don’t necessarily need to receive these ordinances while you are alive. A proxy can receive them in your behalf, satisfying the requirements. (This is the weird part about baptism for the dead.)
But this is not all! A man or woman who receives these ordinances does not qualify for salvation. Why? Because these ordinances are really covenants, contracts of a sort. “If you do X”, Christ says, “then I will give you Y.” What are the X’s and Y’s? The X’s are faithful obedience to ALL of God’s commandments, and the Y is eternal salvation.
Now your head should be spinning, and rightly so. I just told you that you DON’T need to do things to be saved, but now I am saying you DO?
The catch is this, and it’s important. Salvation is an end goal. The goal is to become LIKE Christ. The goal is to live in His mansions, living the kind of life He lives. A murderer or a rapist cannot do such a thing. We can baptize such a person, we can get Christ to pay for his sins, but if he is still a murderer or a rapist in his heart, he simply cannot live like Christ. He must be changed, some how, some way, into something he is not. In fact, not just the rapist or murderer, but all of us, who have fallen short of God’s glory in one way or another. We need to be reborn as completely new people, with new hearts and new minds identical to Christ’s.
How is this to be done? Some people think that the born-again process is a one time event, that once it’s happened it’s over, and you are done because you’ve been reborn. But that’s not what we see in life. If that were so, then people who have been born again would act exactly like Christ acted on earth. Name one person you know who, in every way, acts exactly like Christ? See, you can’t name anyone, because they don’t exist.
If anything, the idea of being “born again” hints that we start off as an infant and start on a long journey of growth. Sure, it’s a new life, but you can’t say that people who just started off as a newborn in God’s kingdom are going to be like people who’ve been doing this for decades.
Even Paul, wonderful Paul, Paul who gave everything he could to serve Christ, lamented that he was not perfect and still had faults that tormented him. Every true disciple of Christ, every single one of them is intensely aware of what separates them from Christ. Everyone acknowledges they have a long way to go to maturity in God’s house.
Now, we get to the kernel of dispute. After all, receiving ordinances isn’t that big of a deal, compared to what you really need to do to become saved in the eternal sense, and the LDS don’t even believe you have to do the ordinances yourself.
The LDS church teaches that, if you want to be perfected, you have to begin acting, as best as you can, as a perfect being would. Then, bit by bit, as you accept Christ into your life to fix the faults you are aware of (or will soon become aware of as you try to keep all the commandments), bit by bit, like a carpenter fixing a house, Christ will change your very nature.
This process takes time, much more time than we have on earth. Even if we lived a thousand years there would not be enough time to completely change us, I believe. This process requires that we focus on the doing of the commandments, as well as the feeling. It requires a physical body and spirit, united. That’s why you can’t hold off on repentance until the day you die, thinking you can play catch up. This life is the time to prepare and to grow. Those on the other side of the veil are at a severe disadvantage, if they spent their life in opposition to God.
Now, will our good works save us? No, because no matter what good we do we cannot erase even a small bit of our sins. And no matter how good we do, there are certain things we simply cannot do for ourselves. It is only in and through Christ’s grace that we can ultimately be saved. He has all the power and ability to do what needs to be done, provided we simply allow him into our lives to do so.
And that means we do what he asks us to do.
Note, however, that good works are evidence of someone who is undergoing this process. If you are a Christian, you had better believe that you will tame your tongue, treat others kindly, share your substance with the poor. If you’re not, then you’re not doing it right, and you’ve likely not even got on the path yet.
This is not a simple concept. It escapes many of the LDS members. I grew up thinking I could just get through life by obeying the commandments, and repentance was for those other people who commit sin (not I!) It wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized how far off I had drifted from the ideal, and how incapable I was as a human being. I had seriously considered giving up on it, because I discovered it was impossible. No amount of willpower would fix the problems I had.
However, and this is the key, this is exactly the state of mind Christ wanted me to be in. He wanted me to acknowledge my faults, but desire to be something more, so that he can enter my life and begin the long journey of perfection. I’ve had ups and downs. I’ve grown prideful from time to time, at which point Christ couldn’t work with me anymore. I’ve woken up to find myself backwards a few steps as well, at which point Christ had to redo work previously done. But that’s part of everyone’s life, and as long as we get back on track as quickly as we can, all will be well.
We need to be perfect, even as our Father in Heaven is perfect. An impossible task, to be sure, save for Christ’s ability to fix us until we become perfect.