There is a somewhat perplexing doctrinal conundrum that continues to give most members of the Church fits, particularly missionaries when they try to explain the meaning of "salvation" to investigators. The question usually revolves around how we are "saved" -- is it by grace or is it by works?
There are evangelical Christians who routinely cite several references from Paul's writings to "prove" men are saved by grace. For example, see Acts 16:31; Romans 3:28; 10:13; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8-9.
It seems difficult in the minds of members of the Church to reconcile our pronounced emphasis on the need to somehow "prove ourselves" through good works in order to claim the blessings of exaltation. We were taught as children gowing up that salvation is the equivalent of a "free gift" of resurrection and that exaltation on the other hand must be earned through the demonstration of good works.
We know this much -- because of the Fall of Adam two "deaths" were part of mortality. One is physical death, defined as the separation of the body and the spirit. Because of Adam and Eve, the seeds of physical death are sown in all of us -- someday we will all die.
The second kind of death we all inherited is a spiritual death. Like Adam and Eve when they were separated from the daily presence of the Father and the Son, each of us now resides outside Their presence in a physical body. That "spiritual death" is our physical reality in mortality.
Christ's redemption resolves both types of death after the Fall. Our Lord, the Savior Jesus Christ, voluntarily surrendered his mortal life -- his physical body was crucified in cruel Roman fashion -- but on the first Sabbath morning he took it up again. He overcame physical death and provided a free gift -- the resurrection. All the fallen children of Adam and Eve are thus "saved" from the effects of physical death. It is an unconditional blessing based upon grace, for which no one needs to do anything.
The spiritual death, however, is another matter. We could rightly say our Lord's suffering might have been even more intense in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was here, not on the cross, the Savior in some miraculous way understood by revelation and truly descended below "all things" -- meaning, he comprehended and he knew in that personal experience all our experiences. To claim this boon, we would have to do something. Exaltation, we have been told, comes by our works.
We are saved (or resurrected) by grace, but we are exalted (or redeemed) by our works. It's the traditional Mormon thought, and it's "neat" and familiar, but it carries with it four major doctrinal problems. That's why up front I called this a "conundrum."
We always assume "salvation" is something different from "exaltation." With very few exceptions (Elder Bruce R. McConkie said there were only three in all the scriptures), the scriptures almost always use the words salvation and exaltation synonymously. If we let the scriptures guide our thinking and reject the convenient explanations, we can perhaps come closer to the accurate definitions.
For example, in Doctrine and Covenants 6:13, the Lord says, "If thou wilt do good, yea, and hold out faithful to the end, thou shalt be saved in the kingdom of God, which is the greatest of all the gifts of God; for there is no gift greater than the gift of salvation." (Emphasis mine).
Clearly, resurrection is not the greatest gift of God; eternal life, or exaltation, is. (See D&C 14:7). To suggest salvation means only resurrection cannot be supported by scripture.
Those who insist the Savior's crucifixion on the cross covered only the effects of physical death and that the suffering in the Garden covered only the effects of spiritual death is not justified by scripture.
Christ's agony in the Garden and his painful suffering on the cross were both integral parts of the atonement and cannot be so neatly separated. Nowhere in scripture is there any evidence that supports the notion that the cross overcame physcial death and the Garden overcame spiritual death.
Where in the scriptures do we learn that our works will exalt us? When Lehi gave his doctrinally-drenched blessing to his son Jacob (see 2 Nephi 2), one of Lehi's fundamental points is that no man can be justified (or saved), by works alone. Rather, Lehi tells us only by the merits, mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah can we be saved (see 2 Nephi 2:8).
Christ tells the Nephites: "Hold up your light that it may shine unto the world. Behold I am the light which ye shall hold up -- that which ye have seen me do." (3 Nephi 18:24, emphasis mine). His works are the light, not our works.
Righteous works do exalt us, but the critical distinction is this one -- they are the Savior's works, not our own. When he comes among the Nephites following his resurrection, the Savior reminds the survivors: ". . . if it so be that the church is built upon my gospel then will the Father show forth his own works in it." (3 Nephi 27:10). Later in the same chapter he tells them, ". . . this is my gospel, and ye know the things that ye must do in my church; for the works which ye have seen me do that shall ye also do; for that which ye have seen me do even that shall ye do." (3 Nephi 27:21).
There is one quality Lehi singled out in his blessing to Jacob -- the Messiah's grace -- and he said the Messiah is filled with it (see 2 Nephi 2:6). So when Nephi comes along to conclude his record, what does he say? "For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do." (2 Nephi 25:23, emphasis mine).
There is a widespread assumption among Church members that overcoming the effects of spiritual death is conditioned upon how we live. It's the reason every time I ask for a show of hands in a class by those who expect to be exalted, no one raises their hand. The idea we can actually become good enough to be exalted is somehow foreign to our mind. It is because we are root-bound in the law and we all know just how weak we are and how full of sin we have become. We become easily discouraged in our attempts to live the law perfectly, particularly in the presence of those who "appear" to us to be doing so much better than us on a relative scale of measurement.
On the one hand we accept without question the idea we have to earn our exaltation, but when confronted with how silly it is, none actually believes it is possible. We are a strange lot!
The Second Article of Faith states, "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam's transgression."
So follow the logic here: If we believe coming back into the presence of God (meaning eternal life or exaltation) and thereby overcoming spiritual death is conditional based upon our own good works, when it was the Fall of Adam that originally caused our separation from the Father and the Son, wouldn't the logical extension of that line of reasoning mean we must suffer punishment for Adam's transgression?
That's just nuts. The resolution is really quite simple, isn't it? We are saved/exalted based upon the works, merits, grace and mercy of our Savior, not our own attempts at perfection.
The Fall of Adam and Eve did introduce the effects of two deaths into the world -- both physical and spiritual death. Christ's redemption is unconditional and applies to all. We did nothing to be under the effects of the Fall, except to come through the lineage of Adam and Eve. Is it fair or just that we should have to meet any conditions to be free from those effects of physcial and spiritual death?
In 2 Nephi 2:8, Lehi said, "[He] layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit." Lehi mentioned both the suffering of the flesh and the suffering of the spirit as necessary to bring about the resurrection of the dead. This resurrection is unconditional, and all become immortal. But two verses later in 2 Nephi 2:10, Lehi elaborates: "Because of the intercession for all, all men come unto God; wherefore, they stand in the presence of him, to be judged of him according to the truth and holiness which is in him." (Emphasis mine.)
The Savior's atonement automatically redeems us from both deaths introduced by the Fall of Adam. Each week after we have been baptized, we partake of the emblems of the sacrament to remember what he did for us.
There is much to be learned from Lehi's blessing. He bears his testimony to Jacob: "I know that thou art redeemed because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer." (2 Nephi 2:3, emphasis mine). Note this "inconvenient" truth -- inconvenient only to those who assume we must earn our exaltation. Lehi did not say, "I know that thou art redeemed because of your righteousness and your obedience in keeping all the laws and ordinances of the gospel perfectly."
I finally "see" a few more hands going up to my question posed earlier. That's good. There should be nothing but hope in your hearts for your eventual exaltation. It should be an expectation deeply embedded in your souls.
We came forth to earth from the presence of our Heavenly Parents with divine potential to return home again one day. When my father conducted the sealing ceremony yesterday for our oldest granddaughter and her new husband, he encouraged them to study their patriarchal blessings together. He reminded them, "I have never heard of anyone's patriarchal blessing that told them, 'You're a loser.'"
Lehi is very explicit about the law (and he's not talking about the law of Moses here, as some might suggest) who would lightly dismiss Father Lehi's reasoning:
We are reminded, Jacob had "beheld in thy youth his glory; wherefore, thou art blessed even as they unto whom he shall minister in the flesh; for the spirit is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. And the way is prepared from the fall of man, and salvation is free. All men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil. And the law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever." (2 Nephi 2:4-5, emphasis mine).
Once again, law is not our Savior, and our obedience to the law will not save us. Then as now, law is only a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. (See Galatians 3:24).
The foolishness of pursuing this line of thought is (or should be) obvious. Supposing we could actually live the laws perfectly, it still would not justify us under the laws because Paul tells us emphatically (see Romans 3:23) we are all fallen and have come short of the glory of God, even Pharisees like him who were attempting to be justified by their good works under the laws. The laws can only find you innocent if you live the laws perfectly. We cannot be justified, therefore.
However, Lehi offers this important clarification on which we can pin our hopes for exaltation: "Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered." (2 Nephi 2:6-7, emphasis mine).
The first doctrine the resurrected Christ teaches among the Nephites is this: "And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso [meaning anybody who does this good work] cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost, even as the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not. Behold, I have come unto the world to bring redemption unto the world, to save the world from sin. Therefore, whoso [meaning anybody who] repenteth and cometh unto me as a little child, him will I receive, for of such is the kingdom of God. Behold, for such I have laid down my life, and have taken it up again; therefore repent, and come unto me ye ends of the earth, and be saved." (3 Nephi 9:20-22, emphasis mine). So once again, salvation/exaltation is conditional.
In all these uses of "salvation" or "saved" there is something implicit in the meaing that goes far beyond the single meaning of resurrection -- the implication is always exaltation, or eternal life, and the "earning" of it is linked to repentance as the only condition upon which it is predicated.
I remind you, in 3 Nephi 9:13 we learned these [those to whom he is speaking] were "more righteous than they" [the ones who perished in the physical upheavals of the earth preceding the Lord's coming among them], and to these "more righteous ones," he says, "return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted that I may heal you."
So, it would appear that those who are members of the Church, those who are "more righteous" because of their adherance to the laws and ordinances of the gospel, still have some work to do -- we, too, must repent and come unto him.
Then we have this very signficant teaching that illustrates immediately thereafter the linkage between the synonymous use of "salvation" and "exaltation." "Yea, verily I say unto you, if ye will come unto me ye shall have eternal life. Behold mine arm of mercy is extended towards you, and whoseover will come, him will I receive; and blessed are those who come unto me." (3 Nephi 9:13-14, emphasis mine).
If it's just resurrection, and there are no conditions imposed in order to be resurrected, then is it such a stretch to assume he is speaking of exaltation here and elsewhere?
Look how universal this salvation/exaltation really is: "For, behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him. And he hath risen again from the dead, that he might bring all men unto him, on conditions of repentance." (D&C 18:11-12, emphasis mine).
But wait, we just said salvation was unconditional, and Joseph Smith has now inserted a condition. The doctrine is perfect -- the condition -- the only condition for exaltation is repentance. Then the promise: "And as many as repent and are baptized in my name, which is Jesus Christ, and endure to the end, the same shall be saved." (D&C 18:22, emphasis mine).
Matthew 24:13 -- "But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved."
2 Nephi 31:20 -- "Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life."
Alma 34:15-16 -- "Thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowerth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance. And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption."
D&C 127:4 -- "And again, verily thus saith the Lord: Let the work of my temple, and all the works which I have appointed unto you, be continued on and not cease; and let your diligence, and your perseverance, and patience, and your works be redoubled, and you shall in nowise lose your reward, saith the Lord of Hosts. And if they persecute you, so persecuted they the prophets and righteous men that were before you. For all this there is a reward in heaven." (Emphasis mine above).
Nephi concludes his record as an echo to his father Lehi: If we "press forward with a steadfastness in Christ," feasting (not nibbling or snacking occasionly) upon his word, and enduring to the end, we have the promise that we will one day hear the Father saying unto us, "Ye shall have eternal life." (2 Nephi 31:20, emphasis mine).
What are the works? His works.
Upon what condition is the "reward in heaven" based? By our coming unto him through repentance, being faithful, patient, diligent, by persevering and enduring to the end.
Through the mercy -- grace -- of our Father in Heaven and His Son, our Redeemer Jesus Christ, there is a conditional path back into their presence, thus overcoming the effects of our separation from them here in mortality. There is only one condition and it is not our works of righteousness.
Once a person reaches the age of accountability, sin enters their life. They fall. Something thereafter must happen to save them from spiritual death. Were that person to be brought back into the presence of God prematurely to stand before him to be judged, he would not be permitted to stay in God's presence.
Since there is really no one else to blame but ourselves for our own sins, our ultimate redemption and subsequent exaltation becomes conditional upon our actions.
I believe this is what Lehi meant when he said the sacrifice the Messiah offered to satisfy the ends of the law is viable only for those with a broken heart and a contrite spirit. This condition, which comes through faith and godly sorrow (see 2 Corinthians 7:9-10) is simply repentance.
That godly sorrow for sin must be in evidence both before and after baptism. It will bring the individual to participate in the redemptive ordinances of baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, being ordained to the priesthood, and accepting the temple ordinances.
In this sense, then we are "saved" AND "exalted." The two terms are scripturally synonymous. Moroni said it best, "Be perfected in him. . . his grace is sufficient for you. . . ye are sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ. . ." (See Moroni 10:32-33).