Discuss this article or ask questions at the LDS.net Forums.
Mormon Beliefs: Salvation and Exaltation
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often mistakenly called the Mormon Church) has a different understanding and definition of salvation than any other church’s. While most Christian denominations understand salvation to mean a belief in Jesus Christ that will save one from hell and bring him or her back into the presence of God, the Latter-day Saint understanding is at the same time more complex and just as simple.
For thousands of years, men have questioned the purpose of life and what happens, if anything, after men die on earth. What does life after death entail? Is there, in fact, life after this life? Is the difference between heaven and hell simply being happy in the presence of God versus burning in a pit of eternal fire with the devil? The answer is there is a lot more to the life after this life than that.
Mormon doctrine teaches that each of us is a spirit son or daughter of God and that we were created as spirits and lived in His presence before coming to this earth. His purpose in creating us was to help us learn and progress until we could become like Him. Several things needed to happen before we could get there, though. First, we would need to obtain a body. While we had that body, we would also need to be given the opportunity to learn the difference between right and wrong for ourselves by making mistakes and learning from them. However, by making mistakes, we would then be unworthy to re-enter the presence of God. We would somehow need to be cleansed and purified before we could re-enter His presence.
At this point in the development in God’s plan, one of our spirit brothers stepped forward and offered to be the means whereby each of us could be cleansed and sanctified. He offered to come to earth and sacrifice Himself for the rest of us, that, if we called on His name and obeyed His commandments, we could become worthy to return to God. His name is Jesus Christ. He came to earth as the literal Son of God, born of an earthly mother, the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, to have power over life as the Son of God, but also the power to die from His earthly mother. His godly heritage gave Him the ability to remain perfect in this life, which allowed Him to be a worthy sacrifice to take upon Himself the sins of the world.
This is all pertinent to the salvation of our souls, because without the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, none of us could return to God. His sacrifice applies eternally to all who will ever be born into this world, but upon the conditions He has set. This is another area in which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints differs from other Christian sects: many Christian denominations believe that man is saved by faith alone; some few others believe that it is a man’s works which will qualify him for salvation; Latter-day Saints, however, believe that it is a combination of the two. Further explanation is needed to qualify this statement.
Faith or Works
Latter-day Saints believe that “there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:17). This means that there is absolutely nothing a person can do by himself to work his way back to God. No matter how many good works he does throughout his life, no matter how charitable and kind he may be, he will never qualify to return to God’s presence. Where, then, do the works factor in?
When Jesus Christ suffered the atonement, He took upon Himself the sins of the world. He suffered the sorrows of sin and mortality not so that we wouldn’t have to, but so that He could empathize with and succor us. When we sin, there are still consequences. The atonement cannot be used as a free pass to save us from the consequences of our choices. However, Jesus Christ set up the qualifications for us to gain access to the power of the atonement, which can save us from suffering for our sins in the afterlife. These are His commandments. If we do our very best to follow and keep His commandments, and if we follow the steps He has laid out for repentance of our sins, then we may qualify for the cleansing and healing power of the atonement. His commandments do not only entail good works, but good works are certainly included in His commandments.
One of the truly beautiful aspects of the atonement of Jesus Christ is that it is available to all who wish to partake of its blessings. It has the power to heal wounds which are no fault of ours. It also has the power to heal wounds that are our fault. Jesus Christ can help us, through the power of the atonement, overcome trials which have nothing to do with sin, but which are simply consequences of a mortal existence.
Many people struggle with the idea of salvation by faith. While faith is a vital (in fact the central) prerequisite of salvation, it is worth nothing if that faith does not motivate a person to live a better life. So-called death-bed repentance is of little value, because a person does not have time to prove his convictions and faith by how he lives. A person cannot simply profess to believe and consequently be saved; he must exercise “faith unto repentance” to bring about “the great and eternal plan of redemption” (Alma 34:16).
Elder Dallin H. Oaks, apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gave further explanation of this principle: “What is meant by Alma 34:16 is that the person who repents does not need to suffer even as the Savior suffered for that sin. Sinners who are repenting will experience some suffering, but because of their repentance and the Atonement they will not experience the full, exquisite extent of eternal torment the Savior suffered for those sins” (“The Atonement and Faith,” Adapted from an address given at a June 2001 mission presidents’ seminar in Provo, Utah).
This principle is taught in the Bible by James. In Chapter 2, verses 18 and 26:
- “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. . . For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”
It is easy for someone to say that he believes something, but until a person is required to live that principle, it is hard to believe that person’s declaration.
What does a person have to do then, to be saved? First is to have faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and the Savior and Redeemer of our souls. Then a person must exercise that faith to repent of his or her sins. Once a person has repented, baptism by immersion for the remission of sins is the first essential ordinance which must be received. The companion ordinance to baptism is the receiving of the Holy Ghost (Article of Faith #4).
Once a person accepts Jesus Christ as his Savior, he must follow Jesus Christ’s commandments, if he hopes to have the full blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The commandments are comprehensive and involve a complete change of heart and complete devotion to living the principles that Jesus Christ taught. This is not simply a check list of dos and don’ts. While there are certainly specific things that a true follower of Christ would and would not do, the true test is a person’s level of charity. This is not a quantifiable, measurable thing by our mortal perceptions and standards. Only God and Jesus Christ know a person’s heart. A person could seem to be living these commandments, but could be doing these things for all the wrong reasons. The simple act of keeping the commandments is not enough to save a person; faith in Jesus Christ is still the number one factor of salvation.
Heaven or Hell
If a person has exercised faith in Jesus Christ unto repentance and has done his best to keep His commandments, what happens to him? What is salvation? What does being saved actually mean? What happens to a person in the life after this life?
While many Christians believe that salvation is quite simply living in the presence of God for eternity, Latter-day Saints believe there is much more to salvation than that. Mark Twain, for one, was disgusted with the idea of being an angel and sitting around playing a harp all day, as he voices through his character of Huck Finn. What is the point of living obediently in this life if all you do in the next is sit around and play the harp?
Latter-day Saints believe that this mortal existence is only a small fraction of our spirit’s eternal life. We lived as spirit children in the presence of God before we came to this earth, and we will continue to exist for eternity after we die here. However, Latter-day Saints believe that there will be a great deal to keep us busy and occupied in our life after death.
The idea of a heaven with multiple levels is found in the Bible and is discussed in 1 Corinthians 15. Three degrees of heaven are discussed: the levels celestial, terrestrial, and telestial. Latter-day Saints believe that the highest degree or level is that of the celestial, which is compared to the glory of the sun. Here, righteous resurrected beings will dwell in the presence of God forever. This means millions of billions of years; more time than our finite minds can begin to comprehend. Latter-day Saints believe that this time will be spent improving ourselves and becoming more like Christ and like God. We will become perfected and become joint-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17).
In addition, those who have received all necessary ordinances (e.g. baptism, confirmation, endowment, temple marriage) and have been faithful to the covenants they made in those ordinances will have the blessing of being sealed to their families forever. They will be with spouse, parents, siblings, children, and all extended family who are part of that covenant. This is one of the most special blessings the gospel of Jesus Christ has to offer. The celestial kingdom offers the chance for eternal progression, as well, until we become perfect like Christ.
Since each of us has our free will to choose for ourselves and to make up our own minds, however, there will be those who choose to live a lower law than that of the celestial kingdom. They will still live eternal existences and will still glorify God, but they will not have the blessing of being with their families as an eternal unit, and they will be limited in the progression they can make. The terrestrial kingdom will still have more glory than the telestial, but neither has as much as the celestial.
Mormon doctrine, however, teaches a much more loving version of salvation than most Christian faiths. Prophet Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon beheld a vision of the three degrees of glory. The telestial kingdom of heaven, the lowest, was populated by millions of sinners, many of whom had rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ. The glory of the telestial kingdom was still so glorious as to be beyond description. Read the vision here.
God’s Plan of Salvation for His children is beautiful and eternal. He wants for us to choose to keep a celestial law, because with a higher law comes a higher level of progression and joy. Every commandment we have been given is for our good, not God’s. He is already perfect; He wants us to become more like Him, and we can only do that by living His law and by having faith in Jesus Christ, our Savior.