Finding Grace in Mormonism

by Sharon Lindbloom
20 December 2017

According to a recent Deseret News article, back in 1980 it became apparent that Mormons didn’t understand that “grace” had a place in their religion. Latter-day Saints who had been interviewed for a Newsweek article titled, “What Mormons Believe,” so described their Mormon faith that the journalist concluded,

“Mormons believe that men are born free of sin and earn their way to godhood by the proper exercise of free will, rather than through the grace of Jesus Christ.”

According to the LDS leaders of the time, these Mormons were mistaken, and something had to be done about it. The recent Deseret News article, “Grace is not a Mormon heresy, LDS leaders and scholars say after doctrinal ‘climate change’,” chronicles the steps Mormon leaders and scholars took over the next thirty years to clarify LDS theology and help Mormons understand that Mormonism does indeed embrace a doctrine of “grace.”

Regarding what the article describes as “the exposed gap between theology and the understanding of rank-and-file church members,” the question that comes to mind is, “Where did Latter-day Saints get the idea that salvation in the celestial kingdom was by works rather than, or without, grace?”

The LDS Church’s third Article of Faith states,

“We believe that through the Atonement of Christ all, mankind may be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.”

There is no mention of “grace” in this uniquely LDS scripture. Salvation is by obedience. Period.

Tenth LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith (1876-1972) explained,

“Salvation is twofold: General – that which comes to all men irrespective of a belief (in this life) in Christ – and, Individual – that which man merits through his own acts through life and by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.” (Doctrines of Salvation 1:134)

President Smith also taught,

“…the Lord will not give unto men that which they do not merit, but shall reward all men according to their works.” (Doctrines of Salvation 2:27)

“If a man will enter into life, then he must abide in the law of the gospel, keeping all of the commandments to the end of his mortal life.” (Doctrines of Salvation 2:34)

“Now, if we want to become heirs, joint-heirs with Jesus Christ…there is only one thing required of you and me, and that is that we keep the whole law, not a part of it only.” (Doctrines of Salvation 2:37)

“Those who gain exaltation in the celestial kingdom are those who are members of the Church of the Firstborn; in other words, those who keep ALL of the commandments of the Lord.” (Doctrines of Salvation 2:41)

“In order to receive this blessing [exaltation in the celestial kingdom], one must keep the full law…” (Doctrines of Salvation 2:41)

“Through the atonement of Jesus Christ, we receive the resurrection… We thus become immortal, and if we keep the commandments which are given us, we will inherit celestial glory.” (Doctrines of Salvation 2:47-48)

Joseph Fielding Smith spent 62 years in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and in the Church’s First Presidency. He was known for his doctrinal orthodoxy and was but one voice in the LDS Church that emphasized salvation by individual merit. Consider, for just one example, the words of Marion G. Romney (of the First Presidency):

“The truth is that we are saved by grace only after all we ourselves can do. (See 2 Ne. 25:23) There will be no government dole which can get us through the pearly gates. Nor will anybody go into the celestial kingdom who wants to go there on the works of someone else. Every man must go through on his own merits. We might just as well learn this here and now.” (“In Mine Own Way,” Ensign, November 1976, 123)

It’s no surprise that Mormons assumed there was no “grace” in the salvation doctrines of the LDS Church; they rarely heard about it. But it was there, in the shadows. The LDS Bible dictionary included (and still includes) an entry for “grace” that says in part:

“It is…through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means. This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts.

“Divine grace is needed by every soul in consequence of the Fall of Adam and also because of man’s weaknesses and shortcomings. However, grace cannot suffice without total effort on the part of the recipient. Hence the explanation, ‘It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do’ (2 Ne. 25:23). It is truly the grace of Jesus Christ that makes salvation possible.”

This Mormon doctrine of “grace,” from a Christian perspective, is heretical. The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms provides a biblical definition of “grace”:

“Unmerited favor. God’s grace is extended to sinful humanity in providing salvation and forgiveness through Jesus Christ that is not deserved, and withholding the judgment that is deserved (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7; Titus 2:11).”

In Mormonism, “grace” is not received until it is merited — until it is deserved. LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie explained,

“The blood of Christ was shed as a free gift of wondrous grace, but the Saints are cleansed by the blood after they keep the commandments.” (Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, 77.)

LDS theologian Sterling McMurrin clarified “grace” in Mormonism in his 1965 book, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion. He wrote,

“Mormon theology is not without a doctrine of grace, but it undertakes to conform that doctrine to the belief in merit that is consistent with its denial of original sin and is implicit in its affirmative concept of man. The orthodox position that there is no salvation except by the atonement through Jesus Christ is clearly affirmed. But the atonement, though necessary, is not a sufficient condition for salvation …the meaning of the atonement is that by the grace of God through Christ it is made possible for man, who is by nature neither corrupt nor depraved, to merit his salvation by free obedience to the law. By the fall man gained the possibility of a moral life through the implementation of his freedom, and by the atonement he gained the possibility of salvation in eternal life through merit.” (70-71)

“The meaning of the grace of God given through the atonement of Christ is that man by his freedom can now merit salvation.” (83)

This LDS doctrine of “grace” has always been present in Mormonism, though the teaching of it has often been neglected. So, the “doctrinal ‘climate change’” reported by Deseret News really boils down to one simple thing: Mormons hear the word “grace” in connection to their religion more often now than in the past. But it doesn’t change anything for “rank and file church members” who understand that Mormonism requires them to work very hard to merit the “grace” that they hope will eventually lead to their salvation (exaltation).

LDS leaders have consistently taught that, though “grace” is necessary, eternal life in the presence of God is not gained by grace alone. Ninth LDS President David O. McKay minced no words when he condemned what he described as the “most pernicious” Christian teaching that “Jesus has done all for us.” He said,

“…man must work out his own salvation through obedience to the eternal principles and ordinances of the gospel. For centuries men have been blinded by the false teaching of ‘belief alone sufficient’; and today there is manifest on every hand the sorry plight into which this and other perverse doctrines have thrown the pseudo-Christian sects. The world is in sore need at the present time of the gospel of individual effort—the gospel of faith and works.” (Gospel Ideals, 8)

According to the Bible, David McKay was teaching a false gospel. The biblical apostle Paul rejected any “gospel” that would seek to combine faith and works for salvation. In his letter to the Galatians Paul wrote,

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1:6-7)

The problem Paul was addressing was the idea that, in order to be saved, followers of Christ needed to add works of the law to the grace God had provided in Christ. Elsewhere, Paul explained that,

“…if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” (Romans 11:6)

Grace and works do not mix. If you try to combine them, the apostle Paul taught, “you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4).

Mormonism clearly rejects the biblical teaching that salvation is a gift from God, given in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8–9). It proclaims a works-based salvation that wouldn’t be possible if not for “grace” (defined as an enabling power), but is nevertheless dependent on individual merit. The LDS Church’s “doctrinal ‘climate change’” may put the word “grace” before church members more frequently than in the past, but it does nothing to give them greater hope for eternal life. As one former Mormon remarked about this so-called change, it’s really nothing but “smoke and mirrors.”