By Gerald A. Smith
For the last several months I’ve been studying the concept of grace and atonement. During this time, I’ve also had some interesting discussions regarding it with both LDS and other Christians. Having been really impressed on how grace impacts every moment of our lives and is perhaps the most important concept in Christianity, I felt moved to discuss it here on my blog.
I will briefly explain some of the beliefs of grace given by other Christians, and then explain how grace has been revealed to the prophet Joseph Smith, evidence of the Restoration and its importance for the salvation of mankind. This being Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011, this is my Easter gift to everyone: a better understanding of Christ’s grace in our lives.
The concept of Jesus atonement has brought discussion and disagreement for centuries. The different views on it vary from a very limited grace that focuses on our personal works for salvation, to a universal salvation to all mankind, regardless of what they believe or do in regards to Christ.
Early in Christianity, a concept of grace was developed that attempted to unite faith, works and sacraments or ordinances together, all required for salvation. So important was baptism in the early Christian Church that Saint Augustine proclaimed that without it, little infants would burn in hell for eternity. To try and avoid such a tragic conclusion, the Catholic Church adopted the concept of Limbo, a beautiful place outside of heaven for such infants and others that did not merit hell due to evil works. However, even with this, Pope Benedict XVI recently discarded the concept of Limbo as not being doctrinal. So they again seek guidance as to how grace operates in the lives of infants and those who never had the chance to hear the name of Jesus Christ proclaimed.
John Calvin also struggled with grace. With requirements for works, disagreements over free will and predestination, and other major concerns, he issued the TULIP* doctrine which severely limited Christ’s atonement to just a few, with the remaining being sent to hell regardless of whether they ever had a chance to hear the word of God or not.
For some, “cheap grace” or simply acknowledging Christ is enough to be saved, regardless of whether one keeps the commandments, repents, or does anything holy. For some, “once saved, always saved” suggests that to believe in Christ today means that even if I reject him later in life, I’m still saved.
Clearly, we can see the world struggled and still struggles with the concept of grace.
Grace from a Restored Gospel Viewpoint
“16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3).
Unlike those who believe in a limited atonement, or that infants cannot be saved without baptism, or that our ancestors who never had a chance to hear the name of Jesus Christ would forever burn in hell, the Restored Gospel declares that Christ came to save all mankind, from every time and place, from children to the ancients, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and even atheists, from physical and spiritual death.
For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have doctrines that express the importance of grace, how faith and works figure in together, and how all mankind may be saved by Christ’s atonement. Such concepts are given through modern revelation, allowing Mormons to understand things that the Bible does not explain, or does not explain very well.
The LDS concept of grace is simple, yet contains a completeness often missing in other concepts of grace. We believe that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
Because of the fall of Adam, both physical and spiritual death came upon mankind. We will all die physically. Spiritually we are dead, because we are not in the presence of God, who gives fullness to life, or eternal life, for those in His presence. Christ opened the door where all will resurrect from the dead, saving them from physical death, and almost all will be saved from spiritual death through the atonement and grace of Christ.
Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, believe that all mankind will be resurrected. In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Amulek explained:
“40 And he shall come into the world to redeem his people; and he shall take upon him the transgressions of those who believe on his name; and these are they that shall have eternal life, and salvation cometh to none else.All will be resurrected, regardless of what they do on earth. They will never experience physical pain, grow old, or have the struggles and temptations we now have in the flesh. This is the redemption of mankind from physical death.
41 Therefore the wicked remain as though there had been no redemption made, except it be the loosing of the bands of death; for behold, the day cometh that all shall rise from the dead and stand before God, and be judged according to their works.
42 Now, there is a death which is called a temporal death; and the death of Christ shall loose the bands of this temporal death, that all shall be raised from this temporal death.
43The spirit and the body shall be reunited again in its perfect form; both limb and joint shall be restored to its proper frame, even as we now are at this time; and we shall be brought to stand before God, knowing even as we know now, and have a bright recollection of all our guilt.
44 Now, this restoration shall come to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, both the wicked and the righteous; and even there shall not so much as a hair of their heads be lost; but everything shall be restored to its perfect frame, as it is now, or in the body, and shall be brought and be arraigned before the bar of Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which is one Eternal God, to be judged according to their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil.
45 Now, behold, I have spoken unto you concerning the death of the mortal body, and also concerning the resurrection of the mortal body. I say unto you that this mortal body is raised to an immortal body, that is from death, even from the first death unto life, that they can die no more; their spirits uniting with their bodies, never to be divided; thus the whole becoming spiritual and immortal, that they can no more see corruption” (Alma 11).
Levels of Heaven
As with ancient Jews and Christians, LDS believe there is more than one level of heaven. Paul knew a man who “went to the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:1-4). This concept is supported by many early Jewish and Christian writings, such as the Ascension of Isaiah, and the Apocalypse of Paul, where the prophet and the apostle tell of their experiences ascending the various levels of heaven and into God’s presence.
The prophet Joseph Smith was taught that there are three main levels of heaven, with minor levels within at least the top heaven. These three main heavens are called the Celestial, Terrestrial and the Telestial. Through the atonement of Christ, all but the sons of perdition (those who become the complete enemies of Christ and seek gain through murdering innocents) will gain a kingdom of heaven. Of all people born on earth, we know for certain of only one son of perdition: Cain. Perhaps there are others, but we do not know who they are.
The greatest heaven (Celestial) offers the fullness of God’s glory and blessings. It is for those who are valiant in the testimony of Christ, receive the ordinances, and serve God with all their heart, mind and soul. The Terrestrial Kingdom offers many of the blessings of God and much of his glory. It is designed for those who have testimonies of Christ, but were not valiant. These are the noble people of the earth.
The lowest kingdom of heaven, the Telestial, is reserved for those who barely escape perdition. These are the hard hearted and hard headed who finally repent when compelled. This will include those who have murdered, committed adultery, lied, stolen, and done other very evil things, but who have not chosen to be the complete enemy of Christ, denying the Holy Ghost, and glorying in their evil. Such will suffer for their sins (see below) until they repent fully of their sins. At that time, they will be rescued from hell by Christ’s atonement, and will inherit the lowest kingdom of glory. Such is the love of God for his children that even this kingdom reserved for the likes of Hitler, mass murderers and others, will be more wondrous than any place upon the earth (D&C 76).
Salvation for the Wicked
As mentioned above, the Telestial Kingdom is reserved for those who barely escape perdition, or Outer Darkness. In the teachings of the Restored Gospel, we learn that upon dying, our bodies go to the tomb. Our spirits will enter into the Spirit World. A portion of the Spirit World is reserved for the righteous, a place of rest in Abraham’s bosom (see the parable of Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31). For the wicked, however, there is a gulf that separates them from the righteous. The wicked reside in this Spirit World hell until they repent fully of their sins, turning to Christ for salvation and redemption.
In the Book of Mormon, we read an event akin to this. The prophet Alma describes to his own son his wickedness and rebellion as a youth. Alma went about seeking to destroy the Church, leading people astray. One day, an angel appeared to him and told him to repent or be destroyed. This event so overwhelmed Alma that he collapsed into a coma. Indeed, some believe he had a near death experience. Alma explains:
“10 And it came to pass that I fell to the earth; and it was for the space of three days and three nights that I could not open my mouth, neither had I the use of my limbs.
11 And the angel spake more things unto me, which were heard by my brethren, but I did not hear them; for when I heard the words—If thou wilt be destroyed of thyself, seek no more to destroy the church of God—I was struck with such great fear and amazement lest perhaps I should be destroyed, that I fell to the earth and I did hear no more.
12 But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins.
13 Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments.
14 Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.
15 Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds.
16 And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul.
17 And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.
18 Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
19 And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.
20 And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!
21 Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.
22 Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there.
23 But behold, my limbs did receive their strength again, and I stood upon my feet, and did manifest unto the people that I had been born of God.
24 Yea, and from that time even until now, I have labored without ceasing, that I might bring souls unto repentance; that I might bring them to taste of the exceeding joy of which I did taste; that they might also be born of God, and be filled with the Holy Ghost” (Book of Mormon, Alma 36).
Here we see that Alma, as with all the wicked, suffered immensely for sins not repented of. For Alma this only took three days for him to humble himself and repent. Others could likely take much longer: years or thousands of years. Still, once they are ready to repent, they are delivered immediately from hell and brought into the Paradise side of the Spirit World, where they are filled with as much joy as they once felt pain.
For salvation, all that is required is to believe and repent. Christ then rescues us from hell. So, physical resurrection comes to all, and spiritual redemption comes to almost all mankind. Jesus’ grace and salvation are near universal. In the end, only those who forever refuse his atonement, who insist on being his eternal enemy, will be sons of perdition. Given the pains of hell, most of the wicked will choose repentance and salvation than to continue in such intense sufferings. They will be compelled by the pains of their own sins to seek Christ’s rescue.
But it must be on the condition of an honest repentance.
Jesus explained to Joseph Smith:
"10 For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore—
11 Eternal punishment is God’s punishment.
12 Endless punishment is God’s punishment.
13 Wherefore, I command you to repent, and keep the commandments which you have received by the hand of my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., in my name;
14 And it is by my almighty power that you have received them;
15 Therefore I command you to repent—repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.
16 For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
17 But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
18 Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—
19 Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.
20 Wherefore, I command you again to repent, lest I humble you with my almighty power; and that you confess your sins, lest you suffer these punishments of which I have spoken, of which in the smallest, yea, even in the least degree you have tasted at the time I withdrew my Spirit.
21 And I command you that you preach naught but repentance..." (D&C 19).
Even as Alma suffered for his sins, so will all mankind who will not humble themselves enough to repent. Truly, it is easier to repent now than later. Now, we can humble ourselves and repent, Christ forgiving all our sins. In the Spirit World, we will be compelled by our own pains to repent, and will suffer until we are humbled enough to do so. Yet, in this, Christ seeks to save us from Outer Darkness, an eternity without the glory or blessings of God.
Faith and Works
So how do faith and works fit in this? Through basic faith in Christ and repentance, we are saved from death and hell.
Still, we mentioned above that there are several heavens of glory. The level of heaven we obtain depends on what kind of person we become. If we become holy, one who always seeks the will of God, then we will receive his highest glories and blessings in the Celestial Kingdom. If we are good people, but not truly valiant, then we will receive glory in the Terrestrial Kingdom. And those who were wicked and just barely rescued by Christ will receive glory in the Telestial Kingdom. Those in the lower kingdoms will enjoy the blessings of God, but are not ready to receive all of God’s blessings.
"21 And they who are not sanctified through the law which I have given unto you, even the law of Christ, must inherit another kingdom, even that of a terrestrial kingdom, or that of a telestial kingdom.
22 For he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory.
23 And he who cannot abide the law of a terrestrial kingdom cannot abide a terrestrial glory.
24 And he who cannot abide the law of a telestial kingdom cannot abide a telestial glory; therefore he is not meet for a kingdom of glory. Therefore he must abide a kingdom which is not a kingdom of glory” (D&C 88).
Those in lesser glories will be happy in those kingdoms of heaven, because that is who they are. It is the amount of Christ’s gift of salvation they want. The Telestial would not feel happy nor comfortable dwelling in the full presence and glory of God, but are happy with a portion of his glory (Mormon 9:4).
"29 Ye who are quickened by a portion of the celestial glory shall then receive of the same, even a fulness.
30 And they who are quickened by a portion of the terrestrial glory shall then receive of the same, even a fulness.
31 And also they who are quickened by a portion of the telestial glory shall then receive of the same, even a fulness.
32 And they who remain shall also be quickened; nevertheless, they shall return again to their own place, to enjoy that which they are willing to receive, because they were not willing to enjoy that which they might have received.
33 For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift” (D&C 88).
Each will receive the kingdom they are willing and able to receive. Even those in Outer Darkness go there, because they refuse the gift of Christ’s grace and atonement. Those in the lower heavens receive all the blessings and glory they are capable of receiving with joy, unable to experience greater glory without feeling pain and sorrow, because they did not become holy enough to enjoy greater glories of God.
For many Christians, grace is an all or nothing event. Either you receive Christ’s grace, or you don’t. In Calvinism, either you receive the irresistible grace of the elect, or you are damned to hell. There is no other choice.
For others, as mentioned, it is a cheap grace, where any and all can be saved by basic faith without works. Yet, it does not reach out to those in other religions or periods of time, who have never had a chance to hear of Jesus and his gospel.
In LDS teaching, grace is something we gain a little at a time. All it takes is just a little grace to be saved from hell. As mentioned above, there are levels of heaven. The greater the grace we have, the greater blessings and glory we receive.
The Lord showed to Joseph Smith ancient doctrine taught by the apostle John regarding Jesus’ mortal life:
"11 And I, John, bear record that I beheld his glory, as the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, even the Spirit of truth, which came and dwelt in the flesh, and dwelt among us.
12 And I, John, saw that he received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace;
13 And he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness;
14 And thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first” (D&C 93).
We are then taught that even as Christ went from grace to grace, or one level of holiness to the next, we must also. And as we become holy to a certain level, we receive greater grace from God, until we receive a fullness of that grace.
Free Will and Agency of Man
Through all of this, the atonement of Christ gives us freedom of choice. We can choose righteousness or wickedness. We can choose to listen or ignore, obey or disobey, do works of good or evil. Agency is important, because without it, any judgment of God upon us would be unfair. How could God cast people into hell fire, if they never were taught about Jesus Christ? How could God reject little children, after Jesus said, “of such is the kingdom of heaven”? (Matthew 19:14).
In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Mormon explained to his son, Moroni, that little children are saved in Christ’s atonement. They are unable to choose good from evil, and so are innocent. Christ automatically saves those who are innocent, until they arrive at the age of accountability (or maturity), where they begin to make decisions based on understanding of good and evil. (Moroni 8).
And in the LDS revelation entitled the Book of Moses, the prophet Enoch taught the people that original sin had no eternal effect on the people, because Christ would pay the price for it (Pearl of Great Price, Book of Moses 6:54).
So important is atonement for our agency and free will that the Nephite prophet Jacob explained that without the atonement, we would be trapped forever without resurrection and redemption. In such a state, we would only have one choice: to be subject to the devil forever.
The Infinite Atonement
"7 Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement—save it should be an infinite atonement this corruption could not put on incorruption. Wherefore, the first judgment which came upon man must needs have remained to an endless duration. And if so, this flesh must have laid down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more.
8 O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace! For behold, if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more.
9 And our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself; yea, to that being who beguiled our first parents, who transformeth himself nigh unto an angel of light, and stirreth up the children of men unto secret combinations of murder and all manner of secret works of darkness.
10 O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit.
11 And because of the way of deliverance of our God, the Holy One of Israel, this death, of which I have spoken, which is the temporal, shall deliver up its dead; which death is the grave.
12 And this death of which I have spoken, which is the spiritual death, shall deliver up its dead; which spiritual death is hell; wherefore, death and hell must deliver up their dead, and hell must deliver up its captive spirits, and the grave must deliver up its captive bodies, and the bodies and the spirits of men will be restored one to the other; and it is by the power of the resurrection of the Holy One of Israel.
13 O how great the plan of our God! For on the other hand, the paradise of God must deliver up the spirits of the righteous, and the grave deliver up the body of the righteous; and the spirit and the body is restored to itself again, and all men become incorruptible, and immortal, and they are living souls, having a perfect knowledge like unto us in the flesh, save it be that our knowledge shall be perfect.
14 Wherefore, we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness, being clothed with purity, yea, even with the robe of righteousness.
15 And it shall come to pass that when all men shall have passed from this first death unto life, insomuch as they have become immortal, they must appear before the judgment-seat of the Holy One of Israel; and then cometh the judgment, and then must they be judged according to the holy judgment of God.
16 And assuredly, as the Lord liveth, for the Lord God hath spoken it, and it is his eternal word, which cannot pass away, that they who are righteous shall be righteous still, and they who are filthy shall be filthy still; wherefore, they who are filthy are the devil and his angels; and they shall go away into everlasting fire, prepared for them; and their torment is as a lake of fire and brimstone, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever and has no end.
17 O the greatness and the justice of our God! For he executeth all his words, and they have gone forth out of his mouth, and his law must be fulfilled.
18 But, behold, the righteous, the saints of the Holy One of Israel, they who have believed in the Holy One of Israel, they who have endured the crosses of the world, and despised the shame of it, they shall inherit the kingdom of God, which was prepared for them from the foundation of the world, and their joy shall be full forever” (2 Nephi 9).
Thanks to the Infinite Atonement of Christ, we are free from physical and spiritual death. We will all resurrect. We all have the choice of following Christ, rather than being subject to Satan. Almost all of us will be rescued from hell and Outer Darkness. Each of us will receive the kingdom of glory we are ready to receive, based on our obedience and becoming Christ-like.
Jesus truly is the Savior, the Messiah of the world. We do not have to struggle over what grace is or isn’t. We can believe in a God who truly loves the world enough to send Christ to save all mankind. And we can have faith that Christ can and will save us.
* TULIP (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calvinism)
1. Total depravity: man’s complete inability to be holy, due to the Fall of Adam.
2. Unconditional election: God’s choice from the beginning of eternity for those to be saved by Him is not based upon any virtue, merit or faith in those people. It is solely based on God’s mercy.
3. Limited atonement: this teaches that only the sins of those already elected by God are washed away in Christ. God could have elected all mankind and saved them through Christ, but chose instead to save just a few.
4. Irresistible grace: those who are the elect are transformed by God, so that they have no choice but to obey God and be redeemed through Christ.
5. Perseverance of the Saints: also known as the preservation of the saints, means that all those elected by God will continue in faith until the end, regardless of what the world does.
Calvin’s TULIP: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calvinism
Ascension of Isaiah: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/ascension.html
Apocalypse of Paul: http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/ascp.html