Several years ago, I remember having a series of conversations with a good friend. She’s one of the more thoughtful, conscientious people I know, so she was grappling with questions of cosmic proportions.
Specifically, her questions dealt with the role and nature of covenants. In her mind, it seemed unfathomable that God would ask for commitments so steep and challenging that we could never truly fulfill our “end of the deal.”
“I won’t make a promise I’m not sure I can keep,” she’d tell me. “I don’t understand why God even requires it. It seems like He’s just setting us up to fail.”
At the time, I gave her the best answer I could: “God never gives us more than we can handle. We can do it if we believe enough and try our best. You’ve just got to believe more and try harder.”
Looking at it now, I wish I could go back in time and revise my answer!
You see, my answer, as sincere as it was, belied a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of Jesus Christ as Savior. This misunderstanding is inherent in the very way I phrased it: “WE can do it if WE try hard enough and work hard enough and believe enough.”
The emphasis, the focus, was on us–on our effort. As though it could ever be enough!
Well, I can’t go back. But I can revise my answer. For the record, my friend, here’s what I would tell you today:
“I know it seems hard to understand, but that is the miracle of grace. We will NEVER be able to fulfill ‘our end of the deal’–not on our own. God knows that. He expects it. It’s a bi-product of our natural, fallen existence, and part of His plan. Otherwise, why would He have sent His Son?
“God gives us challenges and commandments and covenants not to torment us with unattainable standards, but to bless us with His goodness and remind us how much we need our Savior. That He allows people as sinful and imperfect as we are to partake of His blessings is truly a miracle! But that is His very purpose.
“The Lord Himself says in Ether 12:27: ‘And if men come unto me I will show unto them their aweakness. I bgive unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my cgrace is sufficient for all men that dhumble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make eweak things become strong unto them’ (emphasis mine).
“When you make covenants, you are giving yourself to Christ. And He makes you whole and complete–makes you strong–thereby fulfilling the covenant in you and washing away your mistakes.
“No, He didn’t set us up to fail. He set us up to succeed. The only failure is in refusing to acknowledge the hand of Christ. The only failure is in attempting to do it on your own, without His help.”
So there you have it. History revised. As always, please feel free to contribute questions, comments, insights, disagreements, and massive praise in the comments below. 😉 The only requirement is that the dialogue remain respectful.
QUICK NOTE AND DISCLAIMER: This post is pretty long. I was going to cut it down or post it in several segments, but my husband told me not to. And because I’m the ideal woman, I always do what my husband says. *wicked grin*
This post is written for mainstream, believing Mormons. The purpose of this post is NOT to argue whether or not ordinances and covenants are necessary for salvation. I am open to that discussion, but not here. The believing Mormon already accepts that they are. I am attempting to reconcile the belief in essential ordinances with the belief in a grace-based salvation–positions which, I believe, pose no inherent conflict.
I acknowledge that what follows is merely my own opinion and does not represent the Church in any way.
Whenever I discuss the doctrine of grace with my fellow Mormon brothers and sisters, there is a question that often arises:
But what about the ordinances?
In this post, I hope to…
- Dispel the notion that embracing a grace-based salvation means rejecting the role and importance of works
- Demonstrate how the ordinances are, in themselves, powerful examples of God’s grace
- Address common misconceptions related to ordinances that tend to skew the interpretation in favor of works
Definitions and Distinctions
Before I continue, I want to clarify a few things so you understand what I mean when I use certain terms or phrases.
Salvation. For the purposes of this post, when I speak of salvation, I am referring to being saved in the Celestial Kingdom.
Exaltation. Exaltation is “higher” than salvation, and involves inheriting all that the Father hath. I’m not sure it’s been fully revealed what exaltation truly means, and so I will refrain from speculation here.
Ordinances. Symbolic, physical rituals performed through priesthood power with specific promises and covenants associated with them.
Ordinances of Salvation, Ordinances of Exaltation, and Non-Essential Ordinances
Within Mormonism, there are varying levels of ordinances. Some are required for salvation. Some are required for exaltation. Others are simply given as blessings and benefits for us.
The ordinances of salvation are baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.
The ordinances of exaltation are temple ordinances and ordination to the Melchizedek Priesthood for men.
Examples of non-essential ordinances include patriarchal blessings, blessings for the sick or afflicted, grave dedications, blessings of infants, and more.
Sacraments of the Church vs. Good Works
The Sacraments of the Church are the ordinances of the gospel.
Good works are the good things we do in this life, such as acts of service, prayer, scripture study, being kind, honest, chaste, tolerant, avoiding sin, etc.
Both are works, but they are different varieties.
Accepting Grace AND Works
It is important to note that grace and works are not mutually exclusive, despite the somewhat dichotomous tone many such conversations seem to take. They are two sides of the same coin; or, as C.S. Lewis said, two shears on a single pair of scissors. They cannot be divorced one from the other, and any attempt to do so is flawed theology.
Having said that, there is nothing we can “do” to earn or merit salvation.
This simply means we are forever in Christ’s debt. Even if we were to serve Him night and day, we would still be unprofitable servants (Mosiah 2:21). There is nothing we can do to merit salvation on our own, because on our own, we merit hell-as we are all sinners (Romans 3:23).
When I express this concept to my fellow LDS, I am often met with this response: “So you’re saying I can do whatever I want and still be saved?”
Once we have accepted Christ, we will necessarily do His works. It is the sign of a converted heart–for “by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt 7:20, Ne 14:20).
A true disciple of Christ would never ask, “What is the minimum I must do and still be right in the eyes of God?” That’s like saying, “Jesus, how much can I hurt you and still be okay?” It is a flawed premise.
PLEASE NOTE: I could devote an entire post to this concept–and will in the future. But for now a quick summary: Good works cannot be divorced from grace. But we do not “earn” grace through our good works. Good works flow from grace as a mighty river flows from its fountainhead.
The Role of Covenants and Ordinances
So where do ordinances and covenants fit in to our salvation?
Ordinances and covenants are the vehicles God has given us to formalize our commitment to Him and signal our acceptance of His salvation.
The ordinances of salvation are highly symbolic, with baptism by immersion signaling that we are willing to follow Christ down into His grave and rise again with Him, walking in a newness of life (Romans 6:4).
The Laying on of Hands for the Gift of the Holy Ghost symbolizes the very transference of God’s power to our lives.
And yet, it goes beyond just signaling our submission to Christ.
Performed through the priesthood, these ordinances literally “bind” us to Him (see Matt 16:19) in an unbreakable covenantal relationship.
This, I believe, is the primary role of all the essential ordinances of the gospel (ordinances of salvation and exaltation). They provide us a physical, tangible signal that we are progressing in His path, while binding our souls to Him.
So why do people use the existence of ordinances to conclude that salvation is by works? Here are some of the most common assertions I’ve heard…
1)-You must receive the ordinances in order to be saved. Ordinances are works. Therefore, we are saved by works.
This is true, and so in the strictest sense of the word, I suppose ordinances could be considered necessary “works.” Yet they are different from the “good works” we often speak of, such as serving others, abstaining from sin, and so on. Instead, they are prescribed rituals Christ has given us that bind us to Him.
But even at that, do the ordinances themselves that save us? Or is it the fact that Christ, in His great wisdom and mercy, has declared them efficacious and honors His promises by bestowing upon us His saving power?
That God has designated the ordinances as the vehicles through which He blesses us is, to me, simply another example of his limitless mercy and grace.
2)-When we receive the ordinances of salvation and exaltation, we make covenants. And when it comes to making and keeping covenants, you must first do your part before God does His.
This is a prime example of the “you do what you can, then God ‘makes up the difference'” language that I’ve heard quite often in church. And while I appreciate the sentiment, I wonder if the phrasing isn’t a little imprecise.
The ancient Israelites, God’s covenant people, turned their back on God time and time again. And yet-they RETAINED their status as His covenant people through it all. In fact, to this day, they STILL retain that status, and He has stretched forth His hand again to gather them in (Isaiah 11:11), despite the fact that somewhere along they way they stopped believing in Him and followed their own path instead of His.
But Christ says: “How oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens, and ye would not” (3 Ne 10:5, Matt 23:37, emphasis mine).
The point is that God doesn’t “wait” for us to do our part before He honors His “side of the deal.” On the contrary, God is ALWAYS doing His part. We, however, don’t always let Him.
This may seem like a fine distinction, but it has been an incredibly powerful insight in my life. Instead of feeling as though I must always stretch and strain and work for Divine approval or Divine blessings (which discouraged me and wore me down to the breaking point), I realized that God has ALREADY given me these blessings, if I would simply open my heart to receive them.
3)-Certain worthiness standards are required before you can receive essential ordinances. These ordinances are required for salvation or exaltation. Therefore, you must do certain things in order to be saved or exalted.
God’s commandments are wonderful, and the desire to live a clean and righteous life, in harmony with the teachings of the Savior, is of God. In fact, it is necessary for true happiness and to enjoy the companionship of the Spirit.
However, we all fall short of God’s standards (Romans 3:23). Even after we have been converted, we will sin. This is part of mortality.
In his book Believing Christ, Stephen Robinson tells a powerful story of a woman who came to Christ despite her checkered past.
“For a long time after her baptism, this sister swore like a trooper, even in church, and never quite lived the Word of Wisdom 100%. On one occasion during her first year in the Church, she lost her temper during a Relief Society meeting and punched out one of the sisters.”
Finally, after several years, she stopped smoking, drinking coffee, got her temper “somewhat” under control, and was ready to attend the temple.
Then Robinson asks this crucial question: ” At what point did this sister become a candidate for the kingdom?”
Was it when she mastered her temper? Or when she finally stopped smoking? Was it when she received her temple recommend?
No, Robinson says, it was when she accepted Christ through baptism.
When she turned her heart to Him, became His through the covenant, THAT was the turning point. She made mistakes afterwards, to be sure–don’t we all?–but at her core, she had offered up her sacrifice of a broken heart and contrite spirit.
Therefore, she was made whole in Christ-though she hadn’t yet arrived at a place where she could receive a temple recommend.
Isn’t it possible that God is much, much kinder to us than we are to ourselves?
I submit that the status of our hearts is more important to God than the level of “righteousness” we’ve attained–worthiness standards or otherwise. If we have offered up to God the broken heart and contrite spirit He requires, He will guide us along the path and help us overcome the thorns in our flesh to enjoy greater and greater fellowship with Him.
In the meantime, as we continue to progress with His help-recognizing that all of us are a constant “work in progress”-we are covered by His grace.
I hope the preceding post has provided some food for thought. The ordinances and covenants of the gospel are important and necessary for salvation. But the fact that they exist does not diminish our utter dependence on Christ in any way. Were it not for Him, we would all be lost. It is His grace that makes the difference-His grace that brings us home again.
Please feel free to comment, ask questions, provide alternative interpretations, share experiences, etc. All comments are welcome, whether you agree or disagree with me. The only requirement is that the comments be respectful. Please see this post for the standards this blog adheres to in terms of quality of discourse.