By Eric Johnson
In what may be the most quoted sermon at a General Conference in recent years, “The Gift of Grace” as delivered by Dieter F. Uchtdorf, the second Counselor in the First Presidency, on Easter morning (April 5, 2015) has created a buzz among many zealous Latter-day Saints. This talk has been pointed to as proof that Mormonism’s view of salvation is Christian. Reading this, many outsiders may even assume that Mormonism’s critics are wrong. Let’s take a closer look at what this general authority said and see if his sermon matches the reality of LDS teaching on this issue. This talk was taken from the May 2015 Ensign magazine (pages 107-110). The underlined words are Uchtdorf’s, with my comments following. The sermon is reproduced intact.
Today and forevermore God’s grace is available to all whose hearts are broken and whose spirits are contrite.
On Easter Sunday we celebrate the most long-awaited and glorious event in the history of the world. It is the day that changed everything. On that day, my life changed. Your life changed. The destiny of all God’s children changed. On that blessed day, the Savior of mankind, who had taken upon Himself the chains of sin and death that held us captive, burst those chains and set us free. Because of the sacrifice of our beloved Redeemer, death has no sting, the grave has no victory, Satan has no lasting power, and we are “begotten … again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Truly, the Apostle Paul was correct when he said we can “comfort one another with these words.”
For Christians Easter Sunday is the most “glorious event in the history of the world.” In Mormon theology, the Atonement is celebrated because it opened the door for “general salvation,” which is bestowed upon all of God’s children who will ultimately receive one of the three levels of heaven. (Hence, as Uchtdorf puts it, “the destiny of all God’s children changed,” with Jesus being called “the Savior of mankind.”) However, the resurrection is not considered to be a “glorious event” to those who reject the teachings of the Bible. Consider 1 Corinthians 1:18, which says, “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.”
When it comes to the resurrection of Christ, I wonder why:
- Mormon leaders throughout the years have stressed the Garden of Gethsemane more than Golgotha?
- Easter, which seems to land more often than not on the weekend of the spring LDS general conference (first weekend of every April), seems to be (at least for me) an afterthought in the conference talks?
We often speak of the Savior’s Atonement—and rightly so!
To grasp what Uchtdorf is trying to say, it is vital to understand what the traditional meaning of “Atonement” is. Consider this quote from tenth president Joseph Fielding Smith:
The atonement of Jesus Christ is of a twofold nature. Because of it, all men are redeemed from mortal death and the grave, and will rise in the resurrection to immortality of the soul. Then again, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel, man will receive remission of individual sins, through the blood of Christ, and will inherit exaltation in the kingdom of God, which is eternal life (Doctrines of Salvation 1:123).
Seventy Gerald N. Lund explained,
The atonement of Christ overcame physical death through the Resurrection. This is salvation by grace because it comes to all men automatically and does not depend on what kinds of lives they have lived. But, if we wish to overcome spiritual death and enter back into God’s presence, we must be obedient to laws and principles. This is exaltation by works. Thus, according to this explanation, we are saved by grace and exalted by works (“Salvation: By Grace or by Works?” Ensign, April 1981, p. 18. Italics in original).
According to Mormonism, everyone born on this earth gets resurrected, which is called general salvation or salvation by grace. In order to receive “remission of individual sins through the blood of sins” and the inheritance of “exaltation in the kingdom of God,” it is necessary to have “obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.” We’ll spend more time on exaltation later in this article.
In Jacob’s words, “Why not speak of the atonement of Christ, and attain to a perfect knowledge of him?” But as “we talk of Christ, … rejoice in Christ, … preach of Christ, [and] prophesy of Christ” at every opportunity, we must never lose our sense of awe and profound gratitude for the eternal sacrifice of the Son of God.
While Christians believe that Jesus is literally God in the flesh, the second member of the Trinity, Mormonism has traditionally taught that he is a created being, the literal firstborn spirit to Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. As sixth president Joseph F. Smith explained,
The Father of Jesus is our Father also. Jesus Himself taught this truth, when He instructed His disciples how to pray: “Our Father which art in heaven,” etc. Jesus, however, is the firstborn among all the sons of God—the first begotten in the spirit, and the only begotten in the flesh. He is our elder brother, and we, like Him, are in the image of God (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, p. 335).
Mormonism teaches that Jesus earned his position based on obedience. As Seventy Milton R. Hunter taught,
Jesus became a God and reached His great state of understanding through consistent effort and continuous obedience to all the Gospel truths and universal laws (The Gospel Through the Ages, p. 51).
Uchtdorf refers to the “eternal sacrifice of the Son of God.” Yet how could a finite (noneternal) being provide a sacrifice that could be considered efficacious in an eternal sense? Only an eternal being could have an effect on an eternal scale.
The Savior’s Atonement cannot become commonplace in our teaching, in our conversation, or in our hearts. It is sacred and holy, for it was through this “great and last sacrifice” that Jesus the Christ brought “salvation to all those who shall believe on his name.”
The imagery here surely seems evangelical. What does this general authority mean? As it has been explained above, traditional Mormonism teaches that all human beings will receive a “general” salvation based on personal merit in the preexistence and receiving a mortal body in this estate. Here he quotes from Alma 34:38 in the Book of Mormon, which is very similar to Romans 10:9-10 (most likely the source that was used by Smith, who “translated” the Book of Mormon).
This definition of salvation (as used in Alma 34:38) doesn’t seem to fit the Mormon understanding of either general or individual salvation. For one, belief is not a requirement in Mormonism for a person to get receive general salvation, which results in mere resurrection to one of three levels of heaven. In addition, much more than belief (obedience) is necessary in individual salvation for a person to receive eternal life and qualify for eventual exaltation. The idea that “salvation (comes) to all those who shall believe on his name” cannot fall under either definition. (Check out the difference again here.)
There are many time when Mormon leaders have mocked the idea in salvation based on belief alone. According to them, many works are also required. As one church manual states:
Note that you cannot be saved in your sins; you cannot receive unconditional salvation simply by declaring your belief in Christ with the understanding that you will inevitably commit sins throughout the rest of your life (see Alma 11:36-37). Through the grace of God, you can be saved from your sins (see Helaman 5:10-11). To receive this blessing, you must exercise faith in Jesus Christ, strive to keep the commandments, forsake sin, and renew your repentance and cleansing through the ordinance of the sacrament (True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference, pp. 151, 152. Italics in original).
Ninth president David O. McKay explained,
Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, has given us the means whereby man may obtain eternal happiness and peace in the kingdom of our Father, but 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. He who will not grasp this means provided him, will sink beneath the waves of sin and falsehood (David O. McKay,Gospel Ideals, p. 8).
According to 12th President Spencer W. Kimball,
One of the most fallacious doctrines originated by Satan and propounded by man is that man is saved alone by the grace of God; that belief in Jesus Christ alone is all that is needed for salvation. Along with all the other works necessary for man’s exaltation in the kingdom of God this could rule out the need for repentance. It could give license for sin and , since it does not require man to work out his salvation, could accept instead lip service, “death-bed repentance,” and shallow, meaningless confession of sin (The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 206-207).
By quoting from Alma and not providing additional information, Uchtdorf is (I believe) purposely muddling the lines. If not and Mormonism truly is moving closer to Evangelical Christianity, then it is necessary for him and the rest of the leadership to refute the many teachings of past leaders.
I marvel to think that the Son of God would condescend to save us, as imperfect, impure, mistake-prone, and ungrateful as we often are. I have tried to understand the Savior’s Atonement with my finite mind, and the only explanation I can come up with is this: God loves us deeply, perfectly, and everlastingly. I cannot even begin to estimate “the breadth, and length, and depth, and height … [of] the love of Christ.” A powerful expression of that love is what the scriptures often call the grace of God—the divine assistance and endowment of strength by which we grow from the flawed and limited beings we are now into exalted beings of “truth and light, until [we are] glorified in truth and [know] all things.”
I find Ucthdorf’s definition fascinating. “Divine assistance”? “Endowment of strength”? These descriptions don’t even come close to what the biblical meaning of grace is. Indeed, there can be no better definition than Ephesians 2:8-9, which says,
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
So what do we learn here? Grace provides salvation, through faith. This is consistent with so many other passages (including Acts 16:31; Romans 3:28; 10:9-10). It is a gift, something provided without the receiver having to do anything (whether in this life or a previous life). And third, it is not just divine assistance but something provided through no effort of our own. As Jesus said in John 6:39, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” And John 20:31 adds, “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” Belief, therefore, is what is required; our works will always fall short.
Notice how, at the end of the quote, Uchtdorf refers to “exalted beings.” This is what is called individual salvation, as described by Apostle Russell M. Nelson:
Eternal life is to gain exaltation in the highest heaven and live in the family unit (“Prepare for the Blessings of the Temple,” Ensign Special Issue Temples, October 2010, p. 49).
Exaltation is equated with godhood. As a current church manual puts it,
These are some of the blessings given to exalted people: 1. They will live eternally in the presence of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ (see D&C 76:62). 2. They will become gods (see D&C 132:20–23). 3. They will be united eternally with their righteous family members and will be able to have eternal increase. 4. They will receive a fulness of joy. 5. They will have everything that our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ have—all power, glory, dominion, and knowledge (see D&C 132:19–20) (Gospel Principles, 2009, p. 277).
It is a most wondrous thing, this grace of God. Yet it is often misunderstood. Even so, we should know about God’s grace if we intend to inherit what has been prepared for us in His eternal kingdom. To that end I would like to speak of grace. In particular, first, how grace unlocks the gates of heaven and, second, how it opens the windows of heaven.
Fancy and creative wording. And I agree the grace of God “is often misunderstood.” Let’s see how this unfolds.
First: Grace Unlocks the Gates of Heaven
Because we have all “sinned, and come short of the glory of God” and because “there cannot any unclean thing enter into the kingdom of God,” every one of us is unworthy to return to God’s presence.
It is true that everyone has sinned and cannot qualify for the glory of God through their own efforts. This is verified in the quote provided from Romans 3:23. In other words, humans are fallen and cannot get up since they are completely dead in our sins. As Romans 2:1 states, “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” The problem is our sin. This we agree on.
Even if we were to serve God with our whole souls, it is not enough, for we would still be “unprofitable servants.” We cannot earn our way into heaven; the demands of justice stand as a barrier, which we are powerless to overcome on our own.
At face value, the language once again appears equal with Evangelical Christianity. Consider these phrases: “We cannot earn our way into heaven.” “Justice stand(s) as a barrier.” “We are powerless to overcome on our own.”
Let’s translate this, according to traditional Mormonism. A person cannot become exalted without the Atonement. It is something that a person could never do for him/herself alone. So in this sense, Uchtdorf can say that “we cannot earn our way into heaven.” It’s a combined effort between God and man. Mormonism teaches that the atonement plus personal effort equals eternal life, or exaltation.
What does personal effort entail? Complete obedience. Probably nobody said it quite as clear as Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, who stated:
To the saints his everlasting counsel is: Obey, obey, obey; keep the commandments; earn the attributes of godliness-and then, and then only, cometh salvation! (Bruce R. McConkie,Doctrinal New Testament Commentary 3:124).
As sixth president Joseph F. Smith was cited in a church manual:
There is no salvation but in the way God has pointed out. There is no hope of everlasting life but through obedience to the law that has been affixed by the Father of life, “with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” [James 1:17]; and there is no other way by which we may obtain that light and exaltation. Those matters are beyond peradventure, beyond all doubt in my mind, I know them to be true. Every blessing, privilege, glory, or exaltation is obtained only through obedience to the law upon which the same is promised. If we will abide the law, we shall receive the reward; but we can receive it on no other ground (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, p. 153).
Eleventh President Harold B. Lee says it quite simply:
He has given us in another revelation the formula by which we can prepare ourselves as the years pass. “Verily, thus saith the Lord: It shall come to pass that every soul who forsaketh his sins and cometh unto me, and calleth on my name, and obeyeth my voice, and keepeth my commandments, shall see my face and know that I am” (D&C 93:1). Simple, isn’t it? But listen again. All you have to do is to forsake your sins, come unto Him, call on His name, obey His voice, and keep His commandments, and then you shall see His face and shall know that He is (The Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, p. 34).
Current President Thomas S. Monson, who sat behind Uchtdorf during his general conference talk, said,
Don’t put your eternal life at risk. Keep the commandments of God ( “Preparation Brings Blessings,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2010, p. 66).
We can come up with many, many additional quotes to explain Mormonism’s position how complete salvation comes through obedience. Failing to delve deeply into this important aspect of Mormonism, Uchtdorf continues:
But all is not lost. The grace of God is our great and everlasting hope. Through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the plan of mercy appeases the demands of justice “and [brings] about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.” Our sins, though they may be as scarlet, can become white as snow. Because our beloved Savior “gave himself a ransom for all,” an entrance into His everlasting kingdom is provided unto us. The gate is unlocked!
What must a person do to enter this “unlocked” gate? As Kimball was quoted in a church tract,
The forsaking of sin must be a permanent one. True repentance does not permit making the same mistake again. . .The Lord said: ‘Go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return.’ (D&C 82:7) (Spencer W. Kimball, Repentance Brings Forgiveness, an unnumbered tract).
This verse was used in a current church manual:
Doctrine and Covenants 82:7. We are commanded to forsake sin. If we sin again after repenting, our former sins return. (5–10 minutes) Bring several rocks to class that are all labeled with the same sin (for example, breaking the Word of Wisdom). Tell students a story about an imaginary person who commits this sin. Invent details to embellish your story. Each time the imaginary person commits the sin, pick up a rock, until you are holding several of them. Set all the rocks you are holding aside and ask: • What might setting the rocks aside represent? (Repentance.) • What happens to our sins when we repent? (The Lord forgives them.) Read Doctrine and Covenants 82:7 and look for what happens when we sin again. Ask: • How many rocks would a person need to pick up if he sins after repenting? (All that you were previously holding plus a new one.) • Why do you think our former sins return? • What does that teach you about the importance of forsaking sin? • How can knowing this doctrine help you avoid sin? (Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Resource Manual, p. 134. Bold in original).
It seems pretty clear that forgiveness is fleeting. What a heavy load as proposed by the Mormon gospel! Kimball added in a church manual dedicated to his teaching how important it is to stop sin:
In his preface to modern revelation, the Lord outlined what is one of the most difficult requirements in true repentance. For some it is the hardest part of repentance, because it puts one on guard for the remainder of his life. The Lord says: “. . . I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance; Nevertheless, he that repents and does thecommandments of the Lord shall be forgiven.” (D&C 1:31–32. Italics added.) This scripture is most precise. First, one repents. Having gained that ground he then must live the commandments of the Lord to retain his vantage point. This is necessary to secure complete forgiveness (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, p. 43. Ellipses and italics in original).
Another manual explains:
Our sincere sorrow should lead us to forsake (stop) our sins. If we have stolen something, we will steal no more. If we have lied, we will lie no more. If we have committed adultery, we will stop. The Lord revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith, “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them” (D&C 58:43) (Gospel Principles, 2009, p. 110. Parentheses in original).
This idea is echoed in yet another manual:
Abandonment of Sin. Although confession is an essential element of repentance, it is not enough. The Lord has said, “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them” (D&C 58:43) (True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference, p. 134. Italics in original).
Why do I quote these tracts and manuals? Because these are vetted correlated curriculum and approved by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to these official leaders and sources, repentance is the tool that allows a person to enter into the unlocked gate. But it is temporary relief. When repentance takes place, it is acknowledgement that sin has been committed. The requirement is for the person to cease sinning. However, LDS scripture says repeating that sin will cause all former sins to return. Simple? No. Impossible? Yes.
The Mormon who believes that Uchtdorf is abandoning all former teaching is making an assumption that is just not verified in this talk. While his language is certainly ambiguous, it’s hard to believe that this general authority is suggesting that the other leaders and decades of teaching are to be abandoned.
But the grace of God does not merely restore us to our previous innocent state. If salvation means only erasing our mistakes and sins, then salvation—as wonderful as it is—does not fulfill the Father’s aspirations for us. His aim is much higher: He wants His sons and daughters to become like Him.
Here “exaltation” is mentioned, a sure sign that he hasn’t abandoned the former teaching. What must a person do “to become like Him”? Notice what a church manual quoting eighth President George Albert Smith says:
We believe that we are here because we kept our first estate and earned the privilege of coming to this earth. We believe that our very existence is a reward for our faithfulness before we came here, and that we are enjoying on earth the fruits of our efforts in the spirit world. We also believe that we are sowing the seed today of a harvest that we will reap when we go from here. Eternal life is to us the sum of pre-existence, present existence, and the continuation of life in immortality, holding out to us the power of endless progression and increase. With that feeling and that assurance, we believe that “As man is, God once was, and as God is, man may become.” Being created in the image of God, we believe that it is not improper, that it is not unrighteous, for us to hope that we may be permitted to partake of the attributes of deity and, if we are faithful, to become like unto God; for as we receive of and obey the natural laws of our Father that govern this life, we become more like Him; and as we take advantage of the opportunities placed within our reach, we prepare to receive greater opportunities in this life and in the life that is to come (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith, p. 71).
Joseph Fielding Smith put it this way:
If we have lived in faithful obedience to the divine plan given to Adam and handed down by duly appointed servants of the Lord, we are promised a glorious resurrection. And we will become gods, even sons and daughters of God with power eventually to gain perfection, ruling over our own posterity and thus laying a foundation of eternal progress as sons and daughters of our Eternal Father and joint heirs with Jesus Christ, our Eldest Brother, who redeemed us from eternal death by the shedding of his blood on the cross (Selections from Answers to Gospel Questions: A Course of Study for the Melchizedek Priesthood Quorum 1972-73, p. 172).
A church manual reports,
(40-7) We Can Become like God Because We Have the Seed of Deity Within Us. When Jesus was created after the fashion and in the likeness of the Father, and was therefore in the image of his Father, did he strive also to become like God in every other way? What does the word equal mean? And since Jesus thought that it was not robbery for him to become like God, what does Paul say you should strive to do as well? (See Philippians 2:5–8, 12; 3 Nephi 27:27.) (The Life and Teachings of Jesus & His Apostles Religion 211-212, p. 328).
Let’s review. According to historical Mormonism, people earned the right to be born in this world because of their obedience in the preexistence. The potential for godhood rests on their faithfulness in this realm. When they attain this status through complete obedience, they have the opportunity for eternal increase. In other words, true salvation (eternal life or exaltation) results in a person attaining godhood, which is based on obedience and not on faith through grace alone.
With the gift of God’s grace, the path of discipleship does not lead backward; it leads upward.
What does “lead upward” reference? Exaltation, as he explains in the next sentence.
It leads to heights we can scarcely comprehend! It leads to exaltation in the celestial kingdom of our Heavenly Father, where we, surrounded by our loved ones, receive “of his fulness, and of his glory.” All things are ours, and we are Christ’s. Indeed, all that the Father hath shall be given unto us.
Do you see the problem? Uchtdorf is talking about the “gift of grace” and “exaltation in the celestial kingdom” in the same paragraph. He is not making his distinctions clear. I guarantee you that he is not assuming that grace alone is what allows a person to achieve exaltation.
To inherit this glory, we need more than an unlocked gate; we must enter through this gate with a heart’s desire to be changed—a change so dramatic that the scriptures describe it as being “born again; yea, born of God, changed from [our worldly] and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters.”
OK, so here have a qualification. It is necessary to enter the gate with a desire to be “changed” “to a state of righteousness.” Getting there involves good works. Christianity understands grace as unmerited favor from God provided to those who believe (Rom. 12:3, 6). Again there is nothing anyone can do on their own to achieve this. Romans 5:2 and 20 say:
Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. . . . Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.
Romans 11:5–6 adds:
So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
Christian scholar Leon Morris wrote:
It is not at all unlikely that at first the Christians did not realize the full significance of the cross. But in time they came to see that the crucifixion is rightly understood only when it is seen as God’s great saving act. It is the means God used to deal with the problem of human sin. The Christians came to emphasize that the way of salvation is not the way of law, as devout Jews held. It is the way of grace. People do not merit salvation but receive it as a free gift from God on the basis of what Christ’s death accomplished (The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance, 11).
Second: Grace Opens the Windows of Heaven
Another element of God’s grace is the opening of the windows of heaven, through which God pours out blessings of power and strength, enabling us to achieve things that otherwise would be far beyond our reach. It is by God’s amazing grace that His children can overcome the undercurrents and quicksands of the deceiver, rise above sin, and “be perfect[ed] in Christ.”
Notice the words emphasizing the human’s response: “enabling,” “overcome,” “rise,” and “be perfected.” These are responsibilities of the individual. Mormonism teaches in synergism, or the need for cooperation to take place between God (grace) and man (own efforts).
However, the Bible teaches that God bestows grace upon people without considering what good works they might do after receiving the Spirit. Justification is not based on a person’s works but rather on the work done by God in that person’s life. When the word “grace” is used by Uchtdorf, he is referring to an enablement that allows a person to do what is commanded (i.e. keep all the commandments, as taught by D&C 25:15). Granted, the LDS general authority not very clear; a person who doesn’t understand Mormonism might be fooled into thinking that Mormonism’s grace is synonymous with what is taught by Evangelical Christians. But this version of grace that he is speaking about is very much in line with traditional Mormonism. The context and meaning of Ephesians 2:8-9 is completely mangled.
Though we all have weaknesses, we can overcome them. Indeed it is by the grace of God that, if we humble ourselves and have faith, weak things can become strong.
Again, this is reinforcement for what I wrote above. In Mormonism God’s grace merely allows a person to do the work required in his or her own life. This is accomplished by keeping commandments and enduring to the end.
Throughout our lives, God’s grace bestows temporal blessings and spiritual gifts that magnify our abilities and enrich our lives. His grace refines us. His grace helps us become our best selves.
Sounds almost like prosperity teachers Robert Schuller/Joel Olsteen; it could even be a subhead for Your Best Life Now. Still, grace does much more than “help us become our best selves.” Let’s be clear: God’s grace doesn’t refine. Rather, it revolutionizes. Romans 5 explains that Christ died for His people—sinners through and through—before they ever had a chance to be good. It says,
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (ESV)
It goes on to say,
18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (ESV)
In the next chapter (Romans 6:6-7), Paul writes,
6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. (ESV)
What does all of this mean? Second Corinthians 5:17 explains, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”
Will grace allow us to be “refined?” No way. How about revolutionized? Absolutely.
Who Can Qualify?
In the Bible we read of Christ’s visit to the home of Simon the Pharisee. Outwardly, Simon seemed to be a good and upright man. He regularly checked off his to-do list of religious obligations: he kept the law, paid his tithing, observed the Sabbath, prayed daily, and went to the synagogue. But while Jesus was with Simon, a woman approached, washed the Savior’s feet with her tears, and anointed His feet with fine oil. Simon was not pleased with this display of worship, for he knew that this woman was a sinner. Simon thought that if Jesus didn’t know this, He must not be a prophet or He would not have let the woman touch him. Perceiving his thoughts, Jesus turned to Simon and asked a question. “There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: … one owed five hundred pence, … the other fifty. And when they [both] had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?”Simon answered that it was the one who was forgiven the most. Then Jesus taught a profound lesson: “Seest thou this woman? … Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.”
Which of these two people are we most like?
Are we like Simon? Are we confident and comfortable in our good deeds, trusting in our own righteousness? Are we perhaps a little impatient with those who are not living up to our standards? Are we on autopilot, going through the motions, attending our meetings, yawning through Gospel Doctrine class, and perhaps checking our cell phones during sacrament service?
Or are we like this woman, who thought she was completely and hopelessly lost because of sin? Do we love much? Do we understand our indebtedness to Heavenly Father and plead with all our souls for the grace of God? When we kneel to pray, is it to replay the greatest hits of our own righteousness, or is it to confess our faults, plead for God’s mercy, and shed tears of gratitude for the amazing plan of redemption?
Salvation cannot be bought with the currency of obedience; it is purchased by the blood of the Son of God. Thinking that we can trade our good works for salvation is like buying a plane ticket and then supposing we own the airline. Or thinking that after paying rent for our home, we now hold title to the entire planet earth.
Notice how Uchtdorf says “salvation cannot be bought with the currency of obedience.” Yet I have quoted more than a dozen leaders and manuals saying that obedience is the currency that provides complete salvation (exaltation) in Mormonism.
Here’s how we can prove to our LDS friends and family members that Uchtdorf doesn’t mean what some may assume he’s saying. When your LDS friend brings Uchtdorf’s talk to your attention, immediately reference this part of the essay. I can imagine a sample conversation going like this:
LDS friend: See, Mormonism does hold to a biblical view of grace.
Christian: Really? I notice that he said this toward the end of his talk, “Salvation cannot be bought with the currency of obedience; it is purchased by the blood of the Son of God.” Does this mean you personally believe that through grace alone a person can attain exaltation?
Your friend is at a dilemma. If she answers yes, then respond:
Christian: So I guess getting baptized in the LDS Church, believing in Joseph Smith as a prophet of God, getting married in the temple, or keeping the Word of Wisdom are no longer requirements in order to reach the celestial kingdom and become exalted?
Mormonism: No, they’re still important.
Christian: Then help me understand what Uchtdorf meant by his words.
Consider pointing your friend to the many quotes on obedience that l have listed above. Or point out the following quotes taken from the church manual series Teachings of Presidents of the Church:
- Wilford Woodruff: “If a man does right, is valiant in the testimony of Jesus Christ, obeys the gospel, and keeps his covenants, when he passes to the other side of the veil he has an entrance into the presence of God and the Lamb; having kept celestial law he enters into celestial glory, he is preserved by that law, and he participates in that glory through the endless ages of eternity. It pays any man under heaven to obey and be faithful to the law of God the few days he spends in the flesh.” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff, 212.
- Joseph F. Smith: “Every blessing, privilege, glory, or exaltation is obtained only through obedience to the law upon which the same is promised. If we will abide the law, we shall receive the reward; but we can receive it on no other ground.” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, 153.
- Heber J. Grant: “If you want to know how to be saved, I can tell you; it is by keeping the commandments of God. No power on earth, no power beneath the earth, will ever prevent you or me or any Latter-day Saint from being saved, except ourselves. We are the architects of our own lives, not only of the lives here, but the lives to come in the eternity. We ourselves are able to perform every duty and obligation that God has required of men. No commandment was ever given to us but that God has given us the power to keep that commandment. If we fail, we, and we alone, are responsible for the failure, because God endows His servants, from the President of the Church down to the humblest member, with all the ability, all the knowledge, all the power that is necessary, faithfully, diligently, and properly to discharge every duty and every obligation that rests upon them, and we, and we alone, will have to answer if we fail in this regard.” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant, 38.
- George Albert Smith: “Being a member of the Church and holding the Priesthood will not get us anywhere unless we are worthy. The Lord has said that every blessing that we desire is predicated upon obedience to His commandments. We may deceive our neighbors, and we may deceive ourselves with the idea that we are going through all right, but unless we keep the commandments of our Heavenly Father, unless we bear worthily this holy Priesthood that is so precious, we will not find our place in the celestial kingdom.” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith, 53.
- Joseph Fielding Smith: “Through obedience to those commandments which are set forth in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and by continuance therein, we shall receive immortality, glory, eternal life, and dwell in the presence of God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, where we shall truly know them.” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, 237.
- Harold B. Lee: “The greatest message that one in this position could give to the membership of the Church is to keep the commandments of God, for therein lies the safety of the Church and the safety of the individual. Keep the commandments. There could be nothing that I could say that would be a more powerful or important message today.” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, 35.
- Spencer W. Kimball: “The Savior came ‘to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man’ (Moses 1:39). His birth, death, and resurrection brought about the first. But we must join our efforts with his to bring about the second, to attain eternal life.”Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, 29.
By reading between the lines, Uchtdorf appears to be telling the Latter-day Saint that nobody should expect to earn exaltation without God’s grace. The enabling power of God provided through the atonement is required. If Uchtdorf really wants his audience to believe that salvation (specifically, exaltation) takes place by grace alone and not through obedience, then he must discount all of these quotes that, I can guarantee you, will not be rescinded in future editions of this manual series. Don’t be misled into thinking that Mormonism (and Uchtdorf himself) is somehow now teaching that “the gift of grace” is the sole requirement for true salvation.
As a sidenote, let’s just suppose that Ucthdorf’s words ought to be taken at face value. Perhaps the church is changing it’s stance on justification. We would applaud such a move, if it were approved by the others leaders. It would be the Mormon leaders coming biblical Christianity’s way, not a move by Christianity toward the heretical teaching of Mormonism!
Why Then Obey?
If grace is a gift of God, why then is obedience to God’s commandments so important? Why bother with God’s commandments—or repentance, for that matter? Why not just admit we’re sinful and let God save us? Or, to put the question in Paul’s words, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” Paul’s answer is simple and clear: “God forbid.” Brothers and sisters, we obey the commandments of God—out of love for Him!
Is Uchtdorf suggesting that obedience comes after justification and forgiveness have been provided by God? If so, then this would fly in the face of traditional Mormonism. Consider these teachings from church manuals:
- “Latter-day Saints are Abraham’s seed of the latter days. Their exaltation or eternal life depends on their obedience to the covenants they have made and kept with God.” Old Testament Student Manual: Genesis – 2 Samuel, 62.
- “The Atonement of Jesus Christ assures each of us that we will be resurrected and live forever. But if we are to live forever with our families in Heavenly Father’s presence, we must do all that the Savior commands us to do. This includes being baptized and confirmed and receiving the ordinances of the temple” (Gospel Principles, 233).
- “Full obedience brings the complete power of the gospel into your life, including increased strength to overcome your weaknesses. This obedience includes actions you might not initially consider part of repentance, such as attending meetings, paying tithing, giving service, and forgiving others. The Lord promised, ‘He that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven’ (D&C 1:32).” (True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference, 135).
- “The Lord keeps His promises: ‘I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise’ (D&C 82:10). We must do our part to qualify for the blessings (see D&C 130:20–22). We should also remember that God determines the then part according to His wisdom and not according to our expectations.” (Building an Eternal Marriage Teacher Manual: Religion 235 (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003), v)
- “Have class members find and read Moroni 10:32. [It reads: “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in no wise deny the power of God.”] According to this verse, what must we do to ‘come unto Christ, and be perfected in him? (‘Deny [ourselves] of all ungodliness, and love God with all [our] might, mind and strength.’) Explain that ‘deny yourselves of all ungodliness’ means ‘give up your sins.’ We must strive to give up our sins and demonstrate that we love God with all our might, mind, and strength. If we do this throughout our lives, then Jesus Christ, through his Atonement, will help us become perfect” (Preparing for Exaltation Teacher’s Manual, 123. Brackets mine).
- “Receiving ordinances and keeping covenants are essential to Heavenly Father’s plan. The scriptures often refer to His people as a ‘covenant people.’ The Lord’s blessings exceed our mortal expectations. To live in the presence of our Heavenly Father, we must receive all of the necessary ordinances and keep all of the required covenants.” (The Gospel and the Productive Life Student Manual Religion 150, 98).
Mormons have never been taught that obedience is merely a result of their love for God. Rather, obedience is what a person does in order to attain salvation.
Trying to understand God’s gift of grace with all our heart and mind gives us all the more reasons to love and obey our Heavenly Father with meekness and gratitude. As we walk the path of discipleship, it refines us, it improves us, it helps us to become more like Him, and it leads us back to His presence. “The Spirit of the Lord [our God]” brings about such “a mighty change in us, … that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.”
This idea that “we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” certainly flies in the face of the words delivered by the apostle Paul. Consider the last part of Romans 7:
14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (ESV)
It seems that no matter how hard we try “to do good continually,” evil is right there beside us. Just because a person has the Holy Spirit does not mean that he or she has eliminated the battle between flesh and blood (see Ephesians 6:12).
Therefore, our obedience to God’s commandments comes as a natural outgrowth of our endless love and gratitude for the goodness of God. This form of genuine love and gratitude will miraculously merge our works with God’s grace. Virtue will garnish our thoughts unceasingly, and our confidence will wax strong in the presence of God.
Wow! “Merge our works with God’s grace”! If this doesn’t prove that Uchtdorf is denying salvation by grace through faith alone, nothing will!
Dear brothers and sisters, living the gospel faithfully is not a burden. It is a joyful rehearsal—a preparation for inheriting the grand glory of the eternities. We seek to obey our Heavenly Father because our spirits will become more attuned to spiritual things. Vistas are opened that we never knew existed. Enlightenment and understanding come to us when we do the will of the Father. Grace is a gift of God, and our desire to be obedient to each of God’s commandments is the reaching out of our mortal hand to receive this sacred gift from our Heavenly Father.
Did you notice this nuance depicting classic Mormonism? When a person is obedient, then this is the acceptance of “this sacred gift from our Heavenly Father.” How does this compare with biblical teaching? Romans 3:28 says, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” We do not accept the gift of grace through our own efforts.
In his Inspired Version to the Bible that was finished on July 2, 1833, Joseph Smith added the word “alone” after the word “faith,” which provides even a stronger definition of justification by faith but is something denied in Mormonism. Where in the Bible does it teach that obedience is a requirement to receive this sacred gift? What Uchtdorf proposes here should be considered a wage, not a gift. After all, a gift is given with no strings attached. Remember, Ephesians 2:8, 9 says that it is
by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
Even being able to say that I reached out my hand to receive the gift of God provides wiggle room for boasting.
All We Can Do
The prophet Nephi made an important contribution to our understanding of God’s grace when he declared, “We labor diligently … to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”
For a closer look at 2 Nephi 25:23, check out this article.
However, I wonder if sometimes we misinterpret the phrase “after all we can do.” We must understand that “after” does not equal “because.” We are not saved “because” of all that we can do. Have any of us done all that we can do? Does God wait until we’ve expended every effort before He will intervene in our lives with His saving grace?
This is an interesting spin, but the word is not “because” but rather “after.” After involves a time element. After all we can do, then God’s grace kicks in. As Harold B. Lee explained,
The Lord will bless us to the degree to which we keep His commandments. Nephi put this principle in a tremendous orbit when he said: “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” (2 Nephi 25:23.) The Savior’s blood, His atonement, will save us, but only after we have done all we can to save ourselves by keeping His commandments (Stand Ye in the Holy Places, p. 246. See also Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, p. 24).
The $100,000 question is, what does “all we can do” look like in real life?
Many people feel discouraged because they constantly fall short. They know firsthand that “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” They raise their voices with Nephi in proclaiming, “My soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.”
He’s exactly right that “many people feel discouraged.” This is why I think so many Mormons have gravitated to Uchtdorf’s message, as this makes it appear that maybe the requirements are not as stringent as traditional Mormonism teaches. I can’t tell you how many ex-Mormons whom I have met telling me how depressed or frustrated they became since they were unable to do everything their church required. Mormonism’s gospel is truly impossible.
I am certain Nephi knew that the Savior’s grace allows and enables us to overcome sin. This is why Nephi labored so diligently to persuade his children and brethren “to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God.” After all, that is what we can do! And that is our task in mortality!
Overcoming sin is a requirement to truly receiving the Savior’s grace.
Grace Is Available to All
When I think of what the Savior did for us leading up to that first Easter Sunday, I want to lift up my voice and shout praises to the Most High God and His Son, Jesus Christ! The gates of heaven are unlocked! The windows of heaven are opened! Today and forevermore God’s grace is available to all whose hearts are broken and whose spirits are contrite. Jesus Christ has cleared the way for us to ascend to heights incomprehensible to mortal minds.
If a person is able to keep all the commandments continually (D&C 25:15), then the gates of heaven according to Mormonism can be unlocked. Yet who can do this? Is Mr. Uchtdorf able to do this? By making grace nothing more than an enabling power, this member of the First Presidency neuters the very power of grace. What Mormons need more than anything is the gift of true grace offered only by God, not earning grace through their own efforts. As cited earlier, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
I pray that we will see with new eyes and a new heart the eternal significance of the Savior’s atoning sacrifice. I pray that we will show our love for God and our gratitude for the gift of God’s infinite grace by keeping His commandments and joyfully “walk[ing] in [a] newness of life.”In the sacred name of our Master and Redeemer, Jesus Christ, amen.
In his conclusion, it is reiterated that God’s infinite grace ultimately comes “by keeping His commandments.” For those Latter-day Saints who have excitedly shared this sermon with their Evangelical friends and relatives, I ask,
How is this take-home message any different from what Mormon leaders have been teaching for close to two centuries?
And if you are a Christian, don’t be fooled into thinking that we ought to now consider Mormonism as a Christian religion. It still isn’t.