Note: The following was originally printed in the January/February 2022 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
Discussing the topic of salvation with a Latter-day Saint can sometimes be confusing since the word salvation is given two distinct definitions in Mormonism. General salvation, or resurrection from the dead, is something all humans will experience, regardless of what an individual believed or did during their earthly mortality. Individual (or personal) salvation, also described as celestial exaltation or godhood, will only be experienced by those who meet the conditions of “celestial law.”
These conditions must be fulfilled during a person’s lifetime on earth. The latter is what most Mormons are striving for since exaltation promises a place in the presence of Heavenly Father, as well as being accompanied by family members who also meet exaltation’s requirements.
Confusion lies in the fact that the word gift is often used to describe both general and individual salvation. However, when it comes to exaltation, the offer of exaltation is free, but exaltation itself is not. This distinction was made clear by Apostle Mark E. Petersen in an October 7, 1973 conference message titled “What Will a Man Give?” He taught,
To be saved in his presence is the greatest gift that can come to us, and to bring our family with us into the enjoyment of salvation will be the greatest achievement of our lives. But we must understand that salvation is not a free gift. The offer is free indeed, through the atonement of the Savior. But its enjoyment must be earned, not with any halfhearted effort, but with wholesouled, undivided, concentrated application to a program of development which is called the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In his October 2, 2021 general conference message titled “The Love of God,” Apostle D. Todd Christofferson warned his listeners that God’s blessings, including salvation, are not unconditional. He said “The commandments of God are ‘strict’ because His kingdom and its citizens can stand only if they consistently reject evil and choose good, without exception” (emphasis mine). In what I can only assume was an attempt to comfort his audience, Christofferson stated,
Despite our present imperfections, we can still hope to attain ‘a name and standing,’ a place in His Church and in the celestial world.” And how does the LDS member make this hope a reality? Christofferson answered by citing Doctrine and Covenants 1:32, which says, “Nevertheless he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven (Liahona, November 2021, 16-17).
Christianity has always had a doctrine of repentance that believers should not take lightly. In our fallen state, we will continually war with our sinful flesh, even though we too desire to reject evil and choose good, without exception. The Christian’s justification does not hang on an ability to stop sinning, yet that is exactly what Mormonism teaches its members must be accomplished during this lifetime.
Christofferson insisted that Mormonism is not a “religion of perfectionism,” yet I cannot count how many times I have been told “nobody’s perfect” when I have cited LDS scripture on this topic. Most Mormons know full-well what these verses are demanding, yet they realize that they are not meeting that command. In Mormonism the offer of salvation is free, but the hope of enjoying it comes only after it is earned.