There seems to be some confusion about the place works and grace have in our journey toward godhood. Let’s take a brief look at works, the part it plays in our lives, grace and its rightful place in our lives, and finally we’ll look at how they fit together.
This will take some defining of terms and some quoting of prophets and scripture to get through, so don’t expect this to be a quick read. The presence of God’s grace and our personal efforts (works) in the plan of salvation interact on our souls based on the laws of agency we have been given by our Father in Heaven. First I will review some of the laws that govern our moral agency then we’ll venture into works and grace.
Setting up creation
Our Father in Heaven is very methodical in how He creates something. When He considers creating something there is a lot to think about. Why is it being created? What laws will govern this particular creation? Will what is being created be created to be acted upon, like a rock out in space, or will this creation have the ability to think and act according to its own will? If it will act on its own will then what are the laws that will govern its creation and progression?
In 2 Nephi 2:14 Lehi is talking to his sons before he dies. He teaches them that all things are created in one of two categories, either it is to be acted upon or it can act for itself.
14 And now, my sons, I speak unto you these things for your profit and ; for there is a God, and he hath all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be upon.
Mankind was created with laws set in place that allow us to make choices, to act. I have no idea what kind of agency God gave us in the premortal world, or what kind of agency we might obtain in the eternal worlds after our judgment day. But we know that here and now we have been given moral agency. We think of it as the ability to make choices, but actually we can’t make just any choice. This life in mortality is designed so that all our main choices are moral ones. They are centered around choosing to be obedient to God’s commandments or rejecting God’s will for someone else’s will.
Beyond the mundane choices we make each day, most of our time is spent making moral choices. Do we speak in anger to this person? Do we help this person? Do we go to church? Do we shop on the Sabbath? Do we pursue this career that till steep us in the ways of the world, or do we seek after something that will give us more time with our family, or give us more time to serve others? The list of options life presents us feels limitless at times. Each time we make a moral choice it influences the kind of person we ultimately become.
When we were given our spirit bodies, it was with the intent of steering us toward godhood. To that end the Lord also gave us the entire plan for our salvation/exaltation. The plan of salvation, also known as the gospel, contains all of the rules, requirements, blessings, punishments – in short – everything we would need to have available to us to go from where we were then in the spirit world to the ultimate goal of becoming gods ourselves, like our Father.
The laws of agency
The most fundamental law that governs almost everything else in the plan we have been given is the law of moral agency. I have discovered at least five laws that govern our agency. Perhaps it would be just as accurate to call them governing principles of agency. Call them whatever you like. I call them laws. Let’s look briefly at these five laws, because they will affect everything else we talk about here. There is a link at the bottom of the article to the short book I wrote on the five laws of agency. These are just an excerpt from the book.
1. Our right to choose is inviolate. God will not take it away from us, nor will He allow anyone else to take it away from us. As long as God loves us and desires that we become like Him, agency is ours to do with as we please.
The first law is pretty self explanatory.
2. Only we can give away our agency. It cannot be taken by any force in the universe. There is only one limitation placed on our right to choose.
This is an important principle to understand. When we follow the Lord’s commandments He helps us mature in our ability to think and act for our self. But when we disobey Him, and the laws we have been given, we are slowly giving the control of our agency to Satan. This explains why those who revel in the ways of the world, especially those who have been taught the gospel, gradually lose their ability to repent. The Lord refers to those who have lost all ability to exercise their moral agency in any meaningful way as ripe in iniquity. At that point He sees to it that they are removed from mortality and are brought back home. Obedience strengthens our moral agency and disobedience gives away the control of our agency to Satan whose goal it is to subject us and bind us to his will. In either direction here the progression is slow. It doesn’t happen overnight.
3. Our right to choose is only limited by the application of the punishments that come because of the laws we break in the use of our agency.
We are free to choose to do as we wish until the day of judgment. At that point our desire to be disobedient will left us, and all the times and ways in which we have been disobedient up to that moment will have to be answered for and a punishment meeted out. Only those acts of disobedience for which we have repented will be ignored as though they never happened. This is what the atoning sacrifice of Christ is all about.
4. Our ability to be saved from the full punishments of the laws we break in the use of our agency comes from Christ’s atonement. It is He who makes it possible for us to continue to use the agency God gave us. It is part of His atoning sacrifice (Mosiah 5:8, Galatians 5:1, 1 Corinthians 7:22). All three of these verses tell us that freedom of choice is available only through the atonement.
As I already stated, Christ is the catalyst that causes our ability to use our agency to strengthen when we obey God’s commandments. His atoning sacrifice is also the reason the sins for which we repent will not be mentioned on the day of judgment.
5. No force is allowed in the execution of one’s agency. We are completely free to make whatever choice we wish, and at any time we wish. It makes no difference if we choose to harm ourselves/others or to help ourselves/others, the law of agency forbids interference with our choices. The prohibition on interference includes God, Himself. People exclaim all the time, “How could a loving God allow such and such to happen?” Well, now you know. He has given us our agency, and He will allow no one, not even Himself, to interfere with our choices. By not interfering with our choices His judgments become truly just.
This is perhaps the most difficult of the laws of agency to tolerate. This is the part that allows horrible acts against others to take place without God stepping in and stopping them. He must allow the evil to continue just as He must allow righteousness to continue. Why? Because we have the right at any time to change our minds and choose something different. The righteous can choose to become lax or rebellious about their goodness, and the wicked can choose to repent and become better people. We have to be given the rope we need to either save ourselves or hang ourselves, spiritually speaking. For now all is in flux, but at some point in the future we will all have an accounting for the choices we have made in mortality.
Law five explains a lot. This explains why we must keep trying to give people the benefit of the doubt. We must believe in each person’s right and ability to choose to change. Only the Lord knows who is getting close to making a change for the better in their life. He needs to give them the time to make the discoveries about themselves and about life in general that will help them make good choices for the future. He also sees who has started down a path that will lead only to sorrow in the future, and they need time to be reclaimed if they can.
These are the five laws that govern our agency. If you think of other governing laws of agency I would love it if you would write them in the comments below so we can all learn more about this governing part of the gospel.
Mortality and Works
This part is uncomfortable for me to write, and may also be uncomfortable for you to read. It is here we must look at our own lack of ability to do what must be done in order to become gods.
I’m going to skip ahead to Adam and Eve, so the earth is already created, a Savior has been chosen, and our first parents are still in the garden. Let’s set aside the Christ for a moment and look at the plight Adam and Eve put themselves into as soon as they chose to eat that which was forbidden. Until that first bite was taken Adam and Eve were able to walk and talk with God. He instructed them, married them, and they enjoyed his presence. But once they transgressed they could no longer enjoy these privileges. They had chosen to cut themselves off from God’s presence in order to replenish the earth and experience mortality.
What exactly does it mean to be cut off from the presence of the Lord? It means that (without the Savior being factored in here) they would never see His face again. They would eventually die, because they had chosen to become mortal. They would experience two kinds of death. The first death was their separation from God, never to see him again. The second type was physical death. Where would that leave Adam and Even upon their death? They can’t return to God, because they had transgressed one of His laws. Upon their physical death they would be separated from their mortal bodies leaving them as spirits once again.
But where does a spirit go on earth if it can’t go back to God? The answer is that Satan becomes its master, for Satan was given charge of all spirits sent to earth after the great rebellion. This means that no matter how distasteful that might be to Adam and Eve, eventually they would end up as angels to the Devil. But you might ask, “What about repentance?” Nope. No repentance. Remember, we set aside Christ for a moment. At this point in time there is no Christ to save anyone. Adam and Eve, and all their children would suffer the same fate. They would eventually die and becomes servants of the Devil. There is no forgiveness of sins.
The above scenario assumes one major point, and that is that none of us has the ability to pay for our own sins. And that is just the tip of the iceberg! By force of will I can change my behavior, but I cannot change my heart, my desires. My body comes with built in desires that are all naturally geared to make us enemies to God. Our bodies are lustful, addictive, lazy, lovers of pleasure, etc., etc. This is why the scriptures tell us that the natural man is an enemy to God. Since none of us has the capacity to be able to change the very nature of our bodies, we would all die and have to live with Satan for the rest of eternity.
This is where many say, but what about Works? Doing good makes a difference, and doing good imitates the kind of personality trait we see in our Father in Heaven, but none of us would have the ability to maintain the level of goodness required to overcome the sins we all commit. Let’s face it, without Christ in our life our position before God is hopeless. We simply don’t have the ability to do enough to overcome our natural faults to get back to God on our own. No amount of good works could possibly make a difference to the size of that spiritual deficit we all carry around.
Our Father in Heaven knew long before He created the first of His family that we would not have what it would take to make it back to Him in one piece without some substantial help. He would pay for our sins Himself, but His time in mortality was already past. And once you have passed out of mortality you can never go back as a mortal. There is no such thing as reincarnation. He needed someone else to go to earth with us, someone who was capable of doing what He couldn’t personally do for us, but would if He could have. Someone else would have to Redeem us from our sinful ways. He would have to provide us with a Savior.
On top of providing us with a Savior, the Christ would also have to create the universe under God’s direction, including our world. He would then be required to live a perfect life, completely devoid of any hint of sin. Our Father knew about the nature of man, having already lived through mortality. He knew how Redeemers are treated. The only way to pay for all of our sins is for one who is perfect, without any sin, to satisfy the demands of God’s eternal justice by offering his very life’s blood on the altar of selfless sacrifice. That would give the Redeemer the right to become our judge at the last day, for it was He who paid the eternal price of our sins. This is grace, Godly kindnesses that are required and necessary, but given freely, without any possibility of ever being paid back by those of us who benefit the most from His charitable goodness. God’s grace, His loving acts of kindness that make our exaltation possible are given with the full understanding that it is done only because He is the only one capable of doing what is necessary to save everyone.
Part of the requirement the Father placed on the Savior was that he had to die for our sins so he could be resurrected, opening the door for all of us to regain our bodies in glorified form. Most of us would never return to our Father, but all of us who enter mortality will someday see ourselves in a resurrected and glorified body, courtesy of our Savior’s sacrifice and his own resurrection that turned the key for the rest of us.
The big question
We have already looked at the pitiful plight of all mortals without the Savior in their lives. We would all eventually become angels to the Devil. We are completely incapable of saving ourselves. We have also looked at the power that lies in our Savior, and how he sacrificed so much for us to be able to return to God and become gods ourselves. But can we? Can we become gods just because of the grace of God? How does agency affect the grace we receive from our Savior and his many sacrifices on our behalf?
Remember the first law that governs how agency is used? The first law of agency is: “Our right to choose is inviolate. God will not take it away from us, nor will He allow anyone else to take it away from us.” This includes God. Even God will not violate our agency. This means He won’t force us to be happy, just as He won’t force us to be miserable for eternity. Those are choices we must make for ourselves.
Despite all the acts of grace we have been given, the gift of agency, a Redeemer, the possibility to be forgiven for our sins, a guaranteed resurrection and a glorified body for eternity, and even the possibility of exaltation, none of these gifts can overrule the use of our own agency. Like any gift that is given to us, we must choose to accept it, open it, and use it, and learn to cherish it. All our Father and our Savior can do is make the offer. Neither of them can save us without our willing participation in the process of becoming godly.
This is a hard truth that after giving so much to us, and doing it so willingly and selflessly, most of us will still turn our backs on the opportunities to become godly and receive the full blessings they have offered us. But that is the nature of their love for us. Most of us won’t be willing to accept the full gift God is offering, and He knew that before He created the first of his children. This is why we have multiple kingdoms created for us in the plan of salvation. They exist so that all of God’s children will have the greatest opportunity for happiness they are willing to receive. And with so many children, the variety of what each of us is willing to receive varies vastly.
The perfect combination
Please don’t think what I am about to say in any way demeans, belittles, or minimizes God’s grace in any way. Their grace is powerful. Their grace is able to save us all, even though it can’t because it can’t interfere with our agency. God’s grace requires one last thing – our cooperation. Yes, we who are so weak and incapable. His grace is indeed powerful, but until we choose to cooperate with God and obey His commandments, the real power of His grace will be hidden from us until the judgment day, at which point it will be too late for us to make use of it.
I have hinted at this already. What is it about the atoning sacrifice of Christ that makes it so powerful? It is not just that he will forgive us, but that his atonement enables him to change our very natures as we repent and practice doing good as he does. The more we choose to do and be good, the more his atonement enables our natures to change. Little by little, line upon line, we come to comprehend the spiritual truths of eternity that bring us greater and greater happiness. As we do good, because we choose to do good, our natural disposition to do evil dissipates until our only desire is to always do good.
This doesn’t mean we will be perfect or that we won’t sometimes have unkind or impure desires. What I mean is that choosing to exercise our agency as God intended it to be exercised is what reveals to us the nature of His own personal happiness. It is the source of His power. Living His laws, His commandments teaches us the principles of love that rule His life. These are the very principles of love that caused Christ to offer himself as a sacrifice for the rest of us. This deepens our appreciation for him and all that he stands for.
And what do we call all these choices to do good that show us the wonders of God’s love? This is what we call Works. Works is the process of putting into practice our weak attempts to become more godly in our behavior, our nature, and our character. And it does indeed take work. A lot of it. We are still inadequate, but that is okay, for God’s grace is sufficient to make up the difference. That is the whole point. Just as God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost are perfectly united in purpose and function, so too did God design our salvation to work by us becoming one with the Godhead. Our salvation/exaltation is only possible because we choose to exercise our moral agency to become more than our native state began with. We become more tolerant, more patient, more loving, more kind, more obedient and willing to sacrifice for the welfare of others. And it is the work we put in, together with the grace of God that ultimately creates people who have become godly and are worthy to walk back into the presence of our Father and be happy to be where we are comfortable.
To be clear, lest I have not been clear enough, grace alone will not save us and bring us back into the presence of God. Works, our own personal efforts, when done without the Savior’s grace is certainly not a possibility. We are naturally enemies to God, so we are incapable of doing what is needed to return to our Father’s presence. But when we utilize Christ’s atoning sacrifice, make wise use of God’s gift of agency, and choose to do and be good each and every day, Christ’s atonement will gradually change us into people who are spiritually strong, who love unconditionally, who cherish virtue in all its forms, and who have learned to love God above anything the world can offer.
The key to successfully returning to God is to rely on God’s grace, and work as hard as we can to change into people who are comfortable with spiritual things. This is the unity Christ demands of us if we want to return to our Father in Heaven. Only because we are willing to do what he commands us can he make the necessary changes in us that will allow us to go home again.
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