"Mercy Cannot Rob Justice" — The Need for Mormons to Merit Exaltation

By Bill McKeever

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I recall listening on the news to some of the eulogy given at the funeral of a Mormon murder victim. It was not unlike many funeral messages I’ve heard. Much of it dealt with the positive aspects of the deceased’s personality and achievements. It also included a hopeful message that the deceased was experiencing the joy of full salvation. But how could this be known? Mormons generally are quick to insist they will go to heaven, but which “heaven” or “degree of glory”of Mormonism is being referenced? When I speak with Mormons, it is not uncommon for them to admit that they have no idea whether or not they have met the lengthy requirements that are mandatory for exaltation. If such an assurance eludes a Mormon while they are alive, how can a person giving their eulogy be so sure the deceased’s exaltation was achieved?

In a talk given in general conference in 2001, Mormon Apostle Richard G. Scott noted:

“Time and time again at funerals, statements are made that the deceased will inherit all blessings of celestial glory when that individual has in no way qualified by obtaining the necessary ordinances and by keeping the required covenants. That won’t happen. Such blessings can only be earned by meeting the Lord’s requirements. His mercy does not overcome the requirements of His law. They must be met” (Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2001, p.9).

Mormon teaching does not deny the need for mercy. But when and how this mercy is applied is a matter of controversy.

That everyone will experience “salvation by grace,” is also a part of Mormonism, but in Mormon thought this is relegated to what they call immortality, or the gift of being resurrected from the dead. According to tenth LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith:

“Immortality is the gift of God, through Jesus Christ, to all men; by which they come forth in the resurrection to die no more, whether they have obeyed him or rebelled against him. This great gift is theirs; even the wicked receive it through the grace of Jesus Christ, and shall have the privilege of living forever, but they will have to pay the price of their sins in torment with the devil before they are redeemed” (The Way to Perfection, p.329).

The LDS doctrine of eternal progression has everything to do with an individual’s ability to perform. The mortal status of all humans depended on how they behaved in the preexistence, or what Mormons call “the first estate.”Consider the following:

“With all this in mind, can we account in any other way for the birth of some of the children of God in darkest Africa, or in flood-ridden China, or among the starving hordes of India, while some of the rest of us are born here in the United States? We cannot escape the conclusion that because of performance in our pre-existence some of us are born as Chinese, some as Japanese, some as Indians, some as Negroes, some as Americans, some as Latter-day Saints. These are rewards and punishments, fully in harmony with His established policy in dealing with sinners and saints, rewarding all according to their deeds” (Mark E. Petersen, Race Problems as they Affect the Church, August 27, 1954, p.11).

“Is it not a reasonable belief that the Lord would select the choice spirits to come through the better grades of nations? Moreover, is it not reasonable to believe that less worthy spirits would come through less favored lineage? Does this not account in very large part for the various grades of color and degree of intelligence we find in the earth?” (Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, p.48).

“You and I were among those who used their agency to accept Heavenly Father’s plan to come to earth, to have a mortal life, to progress” (Robert D. Hales, Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2006, p.5).

“Throughout your premortal life, you developed your identity and increased your spiritual capabilities. Blessed with the gift of agency, you made important decisions, such as the decision to follow Heavenly Father’s plan. These decisions affected your life then and now. You grew in intelligence and learned to love the truth, and you prepared to come to the earth, where you could continue to progress” (True to the Faith, 2004, p.116).

Speaking to a group of young men at a priesthood session of conference in October of 2008, Seventy James J. Hamula said:

“Reserved to come forth in these last days and labor for our Father and His Son are some of the most valiant and noble of our Father’s sons and daughters. Their valiance and nobility were demonstrated in the pre-earth struggle with Satan. There, ‘being left to choose good or evil,’ they ‘[chose] good’ and exhibited ‘exceedingly great faith’ and ‘good works.’ Such are the traits that are now needed to sustain the work of God in the earth and to save the souls of men from the intensifying wrath of the adversary. Now, my young friends of the Aaronic Priesthood, you are these valiant and noble sons of our Father! You are the strength of the Lord’s house, His warriors! You are those who chose good over evil and who exhibited ‘exceedingly great faith’ and ‘good works.’ And because of your personal history, you were entrusted to come to the earth in these last days to do again what you did before—to once again choose good over evil, exercise exceedingly great faith, and perform good works—and to do so in behalf of the kingdom of God on the earth and your fellowman!” (Ensign, November 2008, pp.50-51. Brackets in original.)

Many Christians have bought into the claims of some modern LDS apologists who insist that salvation is neither merit based or earned. Is this a reasonable assumption? If behavior and merit in the supposed preexistence played a major role regarding their status in coming to earth, would it not also make sense that behavior plays a role when it comes to life after death? Consider the following statements from these Prophet/Presidents of the LDS Church (emphasis mine):

We must work for our own exaltation. I cannot imagine anything that is so vastly important as to work for and obtain one’s own individual exaltation and glory. That undoubtedly is one great purpose for which we came into the world. When we lived in the other life we had no doubt some understanding with reference to our duties in this life when we were permitted to come to this our second estate. And very likely we put ourselves under certain obligations that we would discharge certain duties devolving upon us when we came here into our second estate. And we had rendered ourselves worthy to come upon this earth for the purpose of securing those blessings that could only be obtained by observing the laws pertaining to our present estate” (The Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, p.95).

“We are living eternal life, and our position hereafter will be the result of our lives here. Every man will be judged according to his works, and he will receive only that degree of glory that he has earned” (The Teachings of George Albert Smith, p.30).

“The purpose of this earth-life, so far as man is concerned, is that he may, through all the vicissitudes of mortality, prove himself worthy of advancement to the fulness of exaltation, or, through rejection and transgression of divine law, receive a reward of punishment and denial of blessings according to his works. Whether he receives exaltation or condemnation, we are positively informed thatit will be a reward based upon individual merit” (Joseph Fielding Smith, The Progress of Man, p.65).

“There is only one objective so far as our Father’s work is concerned, and that is that in the end when we shall have finished our work here on earth, whether after a short space of time or a long, we too shall have overcome the world and have earned the right to that place called the Celestial Kingdom” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, p.230).

“It is the celestial glory which we seek. It is in the presence of God we desire to dwell. It is a forever family in which we want membership. Such blessings must be earned” (Thomas S. Monson, Ensign, May 1988, p.56).

Contrary to the belief of some, this notion has not been abandoned in LDS theology. Speaking in general conference in 2007, Apostle Robert D. Hales stated, “Each of us has been sent to earth by our Heavenly Father to merit eternal life” (Ensign, November 2007, p.87).

Mormon leaders have insisted that works are necessary because God cannot be merciful at the expense of justice:

“Many of the world think that eventually the Lord will be merciful and give to them unearned blessings. Mercy cannot rob justice. College professors will not give you a doctorate degree for a few weeks of cursory work in the university, nor can the Lord be merciful at the expense of justice. In this program, which is infinitely greater, we will each receive what we merit. Do not take any chances whatever” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p.150).

“Mercy will not rob justice, and the sealing power of faithful parents will only claim wayward children upon the condition of their repentance and Christ’s Atonement. Repentant wayward children will enjoy salvation and all the blessings that go with it, but exaltation is much more. It must be fully earned. The question as to who will be exalted must be left to the Lord in His mercy” (James E. Faust, Ensign, May 2003, p.62).

Such comments expose a complete misunderstanding of Christ’s role in the atonement of His people. Sin most definitely must be dealt with and while it is true that “mercy cannot rob justice,” justice was served and satisfied when Christ suffered and died to pay the penalty of sin on the cross of Calvary! It has already been paid in full and has no need to wait for the efforts of men.

Through His sinless life, Jesus met the full requirements of the Law. He did what we cannot (and will not) do. If a believer has any “merit” at all it lies in the imputed righteousness given to him by faith in Christ’s behavior and accomplishment, not ours. The notion of earning salvation is anathema to the New Testament message, but is a foundational teaching of Mormonism. As stated by Henry H. Moyle, a former member of the LDS First Presidency: “Our Church is founded upon the premise that spiritual growth and exaltation must be earned by the efforts of the individual” (Henry D. Moyle, Improvement Era, December 1937, p.787).


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