Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lord, How Is It Done?

I was asked to speak in my ward today on the topic of exaltation. Big topic, I know. This is the talk I gave. It was fairly well received, I think. The best comment I got was from a friend who asked me, "What business does an engineer like you have using a word like 'soteriology?'" I just laughed. Enjoy.

Good afternoon, brothers and sisters. I take as my text today a statement of Enos, who spent the whole night in prayer to God for the remission of his sins. Somtime during the night, he tells us, “And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed. And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away. And I said: Lord, how is it done?” (Enos 1:5-7).

That’s the question I’d like to try to answer today. When we’re talking about redemption, about salvation and exaltation, “Lord, how is it done?” It’s a central question to all religions, what scholars call “soteriology”--what does salvation consist of, and how is it accomplished?

I’d like to argue that there are three conditions necessary for salvation and exaltation: First, we must have a divine potential. Second, those who are saved must be obedient to God’s laws and enter into a covenant relationship with Him. And third, we need the enabling, saving, and exalting power of Christ’s atoning grace.

I’d like to elaborate on each of these in more detail.
1. Divine potential (theosis)
First, in order for exaltation to be a possibility, we must each have a divine potential--that is, there must be something in us able to be exalted.. Mormon theology is very vocal in affirming that we are spirit children of God, with the potential to become like Him. This doctrine of theosis--of divinization--of man-becoming-like-God, is a strange one to those of other faiths--but it gives us hope. The idea that, as Paul says, “we are the children of God. If children, then heirs, heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” gives us something to strive for, gives us a limitless view of our possibilities. (Romans 8) The Christian theologian C.S. Lewis wrote,

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship...There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal...Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses...for in him also Christ...Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”

When we understand our divine origin and divine potential, it changes the way we act towards others and towards God. John said, “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the [children] of God...Beloved, now are we the [children] of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (1 John 3:1-3).

When we have hope that we are the children of God and can become like Him, it leads us to Godly living, to purify ourselves as God is pure.

This leads us to the second condition necessary for exaltation--Godly living, faith, repentance, obedience, and entering into a covenant relationship with God.

2. Faith, repentance, and obedience to covenants

The Prophet Joseph wrote, “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” (D&C 130:20-21) If this is true for everyday laws--for instance, if keeping the word of wisdom allows us to run and not be weary, and walk and not faint, and if paying tithes and offerings opens the windows of heaven to us, then surely the bigger things like exaltation are also predicated upon keeping God’s laws.

Obedience isn’t the end of our obligation, though. We also need to make and keep covenants with God.

In the sacrament we just participated in, we each renewed a covenant we made to take upon ourselves the name of Christ, to be called His people. This covenant relationship with God requires certain actions on our part--mourning with our brothers and sisters, comforting the afflicted, visiting the sick and the widowed and the fatherless--being God’s hands in doing his work.

The establishment of this covenant relationship demonstrates our obedience to God, but it also increases our desire to obey the Lord in anything He will command in the future. It means that our dedication to the Lord is not temporary or for as long as it is convenient, but that we are ready, as was Peter, to go with our Savior “both into prison, and to death” (Luke 22:33).

C.S. Lewis said, ‎"The work of devils and of darkness is never more certain to be defeated than when men and women, not finding it easy or pleasant but still determined to do the Father's will, look out upon their lives from which it may seem every trace of God has vanished, and asking why they have been so forsaken, still bow their heads and obey."

The Lord said of His covenant people, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” By making and keeping covenants we become Christ’s “sheep,” we become His people--He comes to know us, and we come to know Him. We hear His voice and learn to follow it.

Our personal righteousness, covenant-making and covenant-keeping, are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions of exaltation.

Or, in Abindai’s words, “Salvation doth not come by the law alone; and were it not for the atonement, which God himself shall make for the sins and iniquities of his people...they must unavoidably perish, notwithstanding the law” (Mosiah 13:28).

This leads us to the third, and most important, condition of exaltation: the mercy, grace, and love of God as manifest in the Atonement of Christ.

3. Christ’s grace, mercy, and love

Mormons have historically been uncomfortable with the concept of grace. Maybe that’s because it sounds too Baptist to us, or perhaps it’s because we would prefer to emphasize the more concrete concepts--all the things we need to do, and not do, in order to be good enough to return back to God.

But the scriptures repeatedly testify that while our works are necessary, we can never be good enough to deserve exaltation. You can never do enough home teaching, you can never deliver enough casseroles, you can never go to the temple enough or read the scriptures enough or turn down enough alcoholic beverages to be good enough to merit God’s presence. Or, as King Benjamin would say, “if ye should serve [God] with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:21).

Well, that sounds depressing. But it turns out that that’s okay. Because ultimately we’re not saved by our works. We don’t work our way to heaven. Christ was the only one who managed to work His way to heaven, and I promise you’re not going to be the second. We are saved, not on our own merits, but on the “merits and mercy and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh” (2 Nephi 2:8).

Paul put it simply, “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” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Eternal life is “the greatest of all the gifts of God,” and it is a gift, not a salary. If we are exalted, it will be because of Christ, not because of us.

Now by this point, some of you are probably thinking, “Hey, wait a minute!” and quoting the other half of the couplet we like to use when we talk about grace, Nephi’s statement that “by grace we are saved after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23).

It’s an intruiging statement. In context, Nephi says, “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. And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law...and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ...wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith.” (2 Nephi 25:23-25). It’s clear his emphasis is on salvation through the grace of Christ, irrespective of the law, which he says is “dead.”

But we’re still left with an interesting problem. That couplet hasn’t fully been explained. “By grace we are saved after all we can do.” What does he mean, “after all we can do?”

Well, let’s rule out some things he doesn’t mean. He doesn’t mean “after we keep every commandment perfectly, after we do all that is possible for us to do, then grace will save us,” because if he meant that, none of us would qualify--there is no one in this room who has ever done “all they could do,” who has ever kept the commandments perfectly, who has NOT “sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God.”

OK, so if “after all we can do” doesn’t mean that, what does it mean?
Anti-Nephi-Lehi, the king of the pacifist converted Lamanites, gave us some insight into that phrase. He spoke to his people, uring them not to go to war, “And I also thank my God, yea, my great God, that he hath granted unto us that we might repent of these things, and also that he hath forgiven us of those our many sins and murders which we have committed, and taken away the guilt from our hearts, through the merits of his Son.

“And now behold, my has been all that we could repent of all our sins and the many murders which we have committed, and to get God to take them away from our hearts, for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain” (Alma 24:10-12).

“All we can do,” it seems, involves repenting of our sins and allowing God to take them away from our hearts. “All we can do” is to repent sufficiently before God that he will take away our stain. And when we have done “all we can do,” the grace of Christ saves us, according to what Moroni calls “the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins.” And that, brothers and sisters, is a covenant that cannot be broken.

In order to meet the conditions of that covenant, we have to repent. And in order to repent, we have to be humble, to recognize our fallen nature and our need for an atonement. It’s a very human tendency, among Christians who are trying to live good lives, to think, “Of course we all need the Atonement, I just need it a little less than most, thank you very much. I’m doing pretty well on my own.” But in order to repent we have to have the attitude of King Benjamin’s people, who “viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mosiah 4:2). Only when they were humble and recognized their need for an Atonement did the “mighty change of heart,” joy, and “peace of conscience” come.

So now let’s recap. We’ve talked briefly about each of the three conditions for exaltation--Divine Potential, Obedience and Covenant Relationships with God, and the Atonement and Grace of Jesus Christ. Moroni wraps all these conditions into a few short verses in his last charge to us: he takes for granted that we are perfect-able beings, with divine potential, and that we can be saved and exalted by obedience, repentance, and relying on the grace and mercy of Christ. He says: “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 nowise deny the power of God. And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot" (Moroni 10:32-33).

Brothers and sisters, I add my witness to Moroni’s that when we repent, deny ourselves of all ungodliness and love God with everything that we have, then His grace is sufficient for us, and we can be exalted, that we can become holy, without spot, because we will be perfect-in-Christ. I bear testimony that we can come boldly before the throne of grace, and receive the promise that Enos received when the Lord told him, “thy sins are forgiven thee.”

I have felt his reassuring promise and have known, like Enos, that God could not lie. I have tasted the beautiful peace and wholeness that comes from Christ's Atonement. When I felt that same "peace of God, which passeth all understanding" (Philippians 4:7), I have been led to say with Enos, "Lord, how is it done? How is it possible that I could feel this wonderful, this complete, this joyous? How can You take pain away so completely and replace it with such exquisite joy?" And the answer, as was the Lord's answer to Enos, is simply, "Because of thy faith in Christ... wherefore, go to, thy faith hath made thee whole."

I bear witness that through the Savior’s Atonement we can be forgiven of our sins, and can be exalted, becoming “holy, without spot.” I testify that the Atonement has the power to heal, because it has healed me, and I do so in the name of my Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.


  1. In reference to the first paragraph in the section about grace, I think that there has been a movement within Mormonism that has overreacted to the false dichotomy presented by many protestants: are we saved by grace or by works? If Mormons respond with works, they're denying the Christ. If they respond with grace, some of our more extreme friends say we contradict ourselves because we believe that we must be baptized, etc. Because the first of the two arguments doesn't always come up (or perhaps because it sounds so extreme that it's easy to dismiss), many Mormons choose works if they have to choose between the two.

    The problem is that they're wrong. Of course, so is the question. And that's why I appreciate this article: it explains the relationship between the two. Thanks, Amy.

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