This might seem like a simple yes or no question, but it is actually a rather complicated one, made more complicated by the ways various religions use the term, and by a need to understand other connected doctrines that influence Mormon beliefs on this subject. Let’s see if we can come to an understanding of how Mormons use the term and what they believe about being “saved.”
Mormon is a nickname that is sometimes used to describe members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The terms should not be used as the name of the church. The name makes it clear Mormons are Christian. They use the King James translation of the Bible in English and other versions in other languages. Let’s start, though, with the Book of Mormon, a volume of scripture similar to the Bible and which Mormons use with the Bible, just to verify that Mormons do believe in grace.
The Book of Mormon sets out the basic principle of grace:
24 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved.
25 Wherefore, may God raise you from death by the power of the resurrection, and also from everlasting death by the power of the atonement, that ye may be received into the eternal kingdom of God, that ye may praise him through grace divine. Amen (2 Nephi 10:24).
Having established that Mormons believe we are saved by grace, we have to figure out what that means. A Mormon, wanting to know what the church says the word means will head to the Bible Dictionary, which is included in Mormon editions of the Bible. It’s not canonized, so it isn’t official, but it’s a good starting point. Here is a portion of the definition. Following the link will take you to the remainder of the entry.
“It is through the grace of the Lord Jesus, made possible by his atoning sacrifice, that mankind will be raised in immortality, every person receiving his body from the grave in a condition of everlasting life. It is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means. This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts.” (Bible Dictionary)
What does that tell us about grace, then? It says Mormons believe grace comes from the atonement of Jesus Christ, that it allows us to be resurrected after death, and that we can do good works as a result that we couldn’t do otherwise. It also says we are able to repent and that repentance is required in order to access the full benefits of the atonement, as is faith in the atonement. It gives us the opportunity to return to God.
There is one portion of this that is a little different from what some religions believe. It says we receive exaltation—the full measure of grace—after we have done as much as we can do.
This is often misinterpreted as meaning that Mormons think they can earn their way into Heaven. Clearly, that isn’t what it says, and it isn’t actually different from what other religions believe when understood correctly. It’s just a different way of using words, since for many religions, grace is refers to the entire process, while to Mormons it refers to our resurrection and a great deal of potential.
Most religions teach that in order to be saved, a person must accept Jesus Christ as his Savior. This is an act. Most also agree that baptism is required. This is an act as well. In other words, grace alone is not enough, even for churches that say it is. They believe there are at least two acts required to get into Heaven—but they don’t think of it as “earning” your way in. Mormons agree that both of these are required in order to return to God—a reward Mormons call exaltation. The debate then, is not whether our acts are part of the process, but how many acts are required. Most religions that denounce acts actually require a few of them themselves.
Most people also believe that once you accept Jesus Christ, you need to act in a way that honors His name. The Bible makes it clear that this is more than just a nice idea.
21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven (Matthew 7:21).
In other words, we learn from the Bible that mere expressions of faith aren’t enough—because Jesus said in the Bible that if we love Him, we must keep his commandments. If we don’t love Him, we’re not really converted and so we’re not really saved in the Protestant usage of the word. Our “works” then, are a measure of our love for Jesus Christ—if we are doing them for the right reasons. If a person didn’t love Jesus Christ but merely wanted exaltation for his own purposes, his actions would mean nothing at all.
There is a story the current Mormon prophet, Thomas S. Monson, loves to read each Christmas. It is The Mansion by Henry Van Dyke. It concerns a man who died after a lifetime of doing good works for all the wrong reasons. He had always insisted that he get worldly credit for his good deeds—a building named after him, his name on a plaque…he never did anything he couldn’t get praise from the world for doing. He was shocked to learn, when he died, that God didn’t take those works into account because he’d already been rewarded for them on earth. He had not done them out of love for God or even other people. He did them out of love for himself and a selfish desire for fame and honor.
Mormons don’t believe they can make a checklist and systematically cross things off, their heart disconnected from their actions, and get into Heaven. As the Bible Dictionary says, grace enables us to do good deeds we couldn’t do otherwise, because when we do them out of love for God, we receive His help.
Yes, Mormons believe you must keep the commandments because God and Jesus said you did. They didn’t give us suggestions. They gave us commandments and we must do them. Mormons believe that the more we love God, the less of a burden the commandments begin to seem. True Christianity begins when we find that doing God’s will is a joy, not a responsibility.
For Mormons, then, accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior is not the final step, one that enables us to live any life, however un-Christ-like, without consequences. It is, rather, the first step in a lifetime, and even in an eternity, of working to become as Christ-like as possible simply because we love God and Jesus Christ.
Grace makes all this possible. It allows everyone to rise from death to live forever. It also makes it possible to repent—but repentance is a choice we make. It makes it possible for us to be forgiven of our sins if we repent. Had Jesus Christ not taken on Himself our sins in the Garden of Gethsemane—an event too many Christians overlook—and then died on the cross, it wouldn’t matter how many good deeds we did or how much we loved God. We simply would not have been able to be saved. It required the loving and voluntary sacrifice of our Savior to make all that possible and it is through Him we are saved.
Mormons believe we must do all we can personally do—accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, be baptized, and keep the commandments. Then Jesus will take care of the rest, because the rest is beyond our capabilities. This is His gift to us.