Not only do Mormons believe in grace, Mormons are dependent upon grace, just like everyone who lives on this earth. Mormons are Christians, and we believe that Jesus died to pay for our sins.
Some friends from other faiths have told me that we don’t believe in grace. This couldn’t be further from the truth, but at the same time, it offers a fair criticism of Mormon culture. Let me explain. We’ll come back to the fair criticism at the end. Let’s clear up the concept of grace first.
Some religions believe that we are saved by Jesus’s grace as soon as we accept Him as our personal Savior and Redeemer. They believe grace cannot be earned, but is instead a gift for believers who keep their faith. We Mormons bristle a bit about this, and assume that they don’t understand “works.” Mormons run straight to Paul the Apostle’s statement, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. 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.” James 2:17-18. However, interpreting this to mean that our works can earn us some of the way back to Heaven is simply wrong. Grace does all of that for us.
Are you puzzled yet? Let’s look at it further. Read now in the Joseph Smith Translation of that chapter of James, “Yea, a man may say, I will show thee I have faith without works; but I say, Show me thy faith without works, and I will show thee my faith by my works.” JST, James 2:15. There is a subtle difference here. Note that there are two examples given. The first choice is to simply have faith, and then do nothing “churchy” or religious in your life because of that faith. The second choice is to have faith which motivates you to learn to be more comfortable with heavenly things. That’s right – we are learning to be more comfortable with heavenly things. This is what is meant in the scriptures when it says that some will be able to abide His presence, and some not. My wife shared this thought with me, “We need to be learning salvation, not earning salvation.” I don’t know who said it originally, but I heard it from her, so I’ll credit it to her.
It’s just as wrong to sit back and say, “Save me,” as it is to say “I’m going to save myself.”
Think of it this way. Imagine yourself on the goal line of a football field, with the length of the whole field, 100 yards, between you and the goal line you need to cross to win. Comparing this to salvation, the question is, “How far can I make it on my own toward the goal, and how much must the Atonement cover for me?” How far will you make it in your life – 35 yards, 2 yards, -2 yards?
Be careful, because this is a trick question. The answer is that you won’t make it any of that distance on your own. Without Christ you would not make a single step’s progress toward salvation. He pays 100% of the price for your sins, which would otherwise keep you from advancing at all. In fact, even if you only committed one sin in your entire life, and that sin was so minute that others would not even consider it at all, it would bar your entrance to Heaven without the atonement. Have you considered that? It is by grace that we are saved.
I have always had a testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’ve always known that Jesus saved me, through grace, by atoning for my sins. His expiation is the penultimate, crowning event of this world, eclipsing even the Creation, in my view. One can hardly grasp the pain that quittance caused Him, and how He suffered. I know He did it willingly because of His feelings for me, you, and everyone of Father’s children.
There have been times in my life when I have glimpsed, for a microsecond, the types of feelings which motivated His reparationless sacrifice for us. When I have cared deeply about someone and watched as they exercised their agency poorly, it hurt me down in my soul. That type of pain doesn’t just go away. Exercising faith in the Atonement is the only cure for those heavy, sad feelings. When I attend a Disciplinary Council (which, thankfully, is quite infrequent), we get to stand in with Christ and help coach someone in how to avail themselves of the mechanics of the Atonement, since they are at a point where they cannot see it. Never would I claim to understand the Atonement, but there are times such as those, when I live my life in a manner worthy of the companionship of the Holy Spirit, when I can discern the pain in the aggrieved heart of the person we are serving, and can receive inspiration in how to guide them back to the iron rod.
I’ve been on the receiving end of similar help from a humble, inspired priesthood leader as I have repented of sins in my own life. Never is the Atonement so poignant in magnificence as when you juxtapose the depth of anguish one feels when they cognize the gravity of their sin with the weightless, adrenalizing, exuberance of forgiveness. Only when you experience that for yourself will you first begin to understand the Atonement.
This hymn seems to sum it all up:
Now, I said this question offers a fair criticism of Mormon culture. Here’s why – we don’t use the word often enough. Sometimes we are so quick to distinguish ourselves from other religions that we miss the similarities. Sometimes we are so quick to talk about works that we forget how impossible it would be to think we could work ourselves into Heaven. Sometimes, we should include in our prayers our thanks for His grace. I do. If grace is the thing which makes the difference between Heaven and hell for me, I think I’m going to be talking about and appreciating and studying it more often.