Salvation by grace is all over the Book of Mormon like white on rice.
And by grace, I don’t mean the modern Mormon misconception of a little dollop doled out by God after we have done everything we can possibly do. I mean the superabundance of grace God gives us to be saved without our doing anything at all.
A grace separate and apart from works. A grace that precedes works. A grace God is dying to give us for the asking.
Grace figures in every major conversion story in the Book of Mormon.
These stories are structured so there can be no mistake the protagonists are saved by grace without their having to do anything to earn it, to qualify for it, or to merit it. That is because, time after time, the people being saved are in a state where they are rendered immobile.
In other words, they literally can do nothing. They can’t move a finger. And so the salvation that comes to them while in this state cannot be the result of any work of their own, but purely and solely through the grace and mercy of God.
Story No. 1 (Mosiah 27; Alma 36)—Mine by the Right of the White Election!
Alma the Younger, full of sin, while on his wicked way to destroy the Church, ran into an angel blocking his path. Alma was struck down by the angel and remained motionless for three days.
But things were going on in his mind . . . and in his heart.
Alma, recognizing his plight, called upon God for mercy, and was instantaneously saved by the grace of God. (Alma 36:18) Upon arising, he proclaimed that he was “redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit.” (Mosiah 27:24)
Alma the Younger was saved by grace. All he had to do was ask. It was not based on any works of his, for the only works he had done before being saved were evil, and he could do no work at all after he was struck down.
And by way of warning, Alma relays a message from God to the rest of us:
Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his son and daughters;
And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God. (Mosiah 27:25-26)
So not only Alma but all of us must be born again in a similar manner to be saved.
Story No. 2 (Alma 18-19)—Mine by the Royal Seal!
Lethal Ammon, his sword still smoking with the blood of unruly Lamanites, preached salvation by the blood of Jesus in the court of King Lamoni. The king, smitten by his sins, cried to God for mercy and “fell unto the earth, as if he were dead.” (Alma 18:41-42) King Lamoni awakes days later long enough to claim he has seen his Redeemer; then sinks again to the earth along with the queen. The servants all start to “cry unto God” and fall to the earth, as well.
When the queen is raised, she has been saved from an awful hell by Jesus, and blesses God for his mercy. (19:29) And when the servants are raised, they claim that their hearts have been changed; that they have no more desire to do evil. (19:33)
Story No.3 (Alma 22)—Mine by the Sign in the Scarlet Prison
Faithful Aaron, freshly freed from prison, teaches Lamoni’s father that man “could not merit anything of himself,” but that through the power of Jesus, he may be freed from spiritual captivity if he “will bow down before God, and call on his name in faith.” (22:16)
This the king does and “was struck as if he were dead.” (22:18) Upon being raised, the king “began to minister” unto his “whole household” such that they, too, “were converted unto the Lord.” (22:23)
Story No. 4 (Helaman 5)—Bars Cannot Conceal!
Nephi and Lehi are thrown into prison for preaching to the Lamanites that “there is no other way nor means whereby man can be saved, only through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.” (Hel. 5:9)
Though Nephi and Lehi are protected by a pillar of fire, the prison shook, threatening to crush their Lamanite captors, who “were immovable because of the fear which did come upon them.” (5:34) One of the paralyzed Lamanite crew, a backslid Nephite by the name of Aminadab, saw Nephi and Lehi “in shining morning face” conversing with unseen beings above.
Cloaked in a Stygian shroud, the Lamanites asked Aminadab what they should do “that this cloud of darkness may be removed from overshadowing us.” (5:40) Aminadab told them to “cry unto the voice,” which the Lamanites did; “yea, they did cry even until the cloud of darkness was dispersed” and found they were “encircled about, yea, every soul, by a pillar of fire,” and “angels came down out of heaven and ministered unto them.”
Brief Recap of the First Four Stories
All four of these conversion stories have in common the theme that those redeemed were struck down or rendered immobile such that they could perform no physical work to aid in their salvation. But saved they were. Not by any work they performed. But purely through the grace and mercy of God.
Highlighting the fact they did nothing to merit God’s grace, all of these people were wicked and sinful up to the very moment of their salvation. They repented of their sins in their asking for grace, but God did not stint nor require a probation period to prove their worthiness. God’s grace abounded as soon as they asked and they were immediately saved, born again, made new creatures in Christ.
Story No. 5 (Mosiah 1-5)—Obedience is Not the Key to Salvation
By way of contrast, the Book of Mormon provides an example of an entire group of people who were not wicked when they were saved. These are the people of King Benjamin who were “diligent in keeping the commandments of the Lord.” (Mosiah 1:11)
And yet their righteousness did not make them right with God. They were missing something. And that something they were missing was Jesus.
King Benjamin preached a mighty sermon to his people, teaching the perils of trying to get into God’s good graces by way of obey. Realizing their good works were as filthy rags, they fell to the earth, and “all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ.” (Mosiah 4:1-2)
In response and with no delay, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins,” and claimed that the Spirit “has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 4:3; 5:2)
And so we see that even righteous commandment-keepers are not saved by their works, but only by the grace of God.
Good works alone are never enough. God’s grace alone is sufficient.
Story No. 6 (1 Nephi 8)—The Other Way to the Tree of Life
In recounting his iconic dream, Lehi focuses so much on others pressing their way to the Tree of Life along the iron rod, it is easy to overlook the point that Lehi arrived by a different route.
In fact, Lehi is not even aware there is an iron rod until he is already at the Tree.
Lehi follows a gleaming guide into a dark and dreary waste, where he is abandoned and wanders alone many hours in darkness.
What does Lehi do? “I began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy on me,” and in response Lehi sees a large and spacious field with a fruitful tree. “And I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof.”
All this happens in 1 Nephi 8:11. It is not until 1 Nephi 8:19 that Lehi sees there is a rod of iron leading to the tree, and not until the following verse that he sees the strait and narrow path.
There is another way to the Tree of Life. It is Lehi’s way. It is the way of grace given immediately to Lehi when he calls upon God for mercy.
To paraphrase Thoreau, “For every thousand hacking at the leaves of salvation, there is one striking at the root.”
Story No. 7 (1 Nephi 7)—Grace in the Details
Brawny Nephi, bound by brothers, prays to God for strength to burst his bands. (1 Nephi 7:17) But God does not give Nephi extra strength to perform this superhuman feat. Nephi will not work his way out of bondage. Instead, God intervenes another way and “the bands were loosed from off my hands and feet.” (1 Nephi 7:18)
God answers Nephi’s prayer, but not in the way Nephi prayed it. Even in the details, the Book of Mormon depicts God’s hand in redemption, and leaves no leeway for Nephi to second guess that maybe he did it himself; or even that Nephi’s strength played any part in his redemption.
Nephi was freed from bondage solely by the grace of God. And God wanted to make sure Nephi knew it.
Though not exhaustive, these seven stories serve to illustrate the overarching Book of Mormon theme of salvation by grace and not by works. Grace illuminates every story and permeates every page.
Nonetheless, LDS doctrine appears to have strayed from its roots. It is common now to hear of salvation coming through works; by “lifting ourselves by our bootstraps”; by doing everything we can possibly do before grace is applied to make up the difference; to “qualify” ourselves by obedience to have the companionship of the Holy Ghost; that being born again is a process, not an event.
The Book of Mormon teaches the opposite on all these points.
Another such meme, more and more heard, is exemplified in Elder Bednar’s famous General Conference talk in which he likened the plan of salvation to the pickling process. According to Elder Bednar, a person is “born again” from being a cucumber of carnality to a pickle of perfection through a slow and gradual persistent process of upward incrementalization.
After citing the example of the people of King Benjamin, whose spiritual birth occurred quickly and all at once, Elder Bednar strangely states the very opposite,
The spiritual rebirth described in this verse typically does not occur quickly or all at once; it is an ongoing process—not a single event. Line upon line and precept upon precept, gradually and almost imperceptibly, our motives, our thoughts, our words, and our deeds become aligned with the will of God. This phase of the transformation process requires time, persistence, and patience.
But nowhere in the Book of Mormon is there an example of what Elder Bednar describes. And likely there is no such example in all the standard works. There are no stories of people being born again “gradually and almost imperceptibly.”
Rather, all Book of Mormon conversion stories are indeed an event, not a process.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that Elder Bednar is actually teaching against the Book of Mormon. And remarkably, he is quoting from the Book of Mormon to do so.
But Elder Bednar is not alone. He merely typifies an increasing trend in the Mormon doctrine of salvation. A trend that diverges significantly from the Book of Mormon itself.
Elder Christofferson struck the same discordant note in April 2008 General Conference:
You may ask, Why doesn’t this mighty change happen more quickly with me? You should remember that the remarkable examples of King Benjamin’s people, Alma, and some others in scripture are just that—remarkable and not typical. For most of us, the changes are more gradual and occur over time. Being born again, unlike our physical birth, is more a process than an event. And engaging in that process is the central purpose of mortality.
Why should the multitudinous Book of Mormon examples be considered “remarkable and not typical”? They appear to have been typical for people in Book of Mormon times. And why do Church leaders never give a scriptural example of what they term “typical”? Could it be because there is no scriptural example to give?
And in its place is substituted a plan of salvation completely foreign to the Book of Mormon. A plan based on slow and plodding incremental obedience through sheer force of will.
Now, self-improvement programs have their place. But they will never lead to salvation. Using this method, one can spend a lifetime climbing a ladder only to find at the end it is leaning against the wrong tree.
A Missing Grace?
The question could be asked as to why such a doctrinal shift would occur in the first place, especially considering how diametrically opposed it is to the foundational LDS scriptural text.
Is it possible a gradual and almost imperceptible process of salvation is preferable precisely because it is gradual and almost imperceptible? Is a salvation that transpires invisibly and undetected favored because it is impossible to tell if it hasn’t happened? Are we really just relying on the “arm of the flesh” to be as good as we can be? This smacks more of human effort than God’s intervention.
And indeed, Elder Bednar teaches that the transformation of spiritual rebirth is a “process” that “requires time, persistence, and patience.”
Why does it require persistence? Whose persistence? Ours? This sounds perilously close to the doctrine of salvation by works—a doctrine panned in the Book of Mormon by King Mosiah who taught his righteous people they could never get into God’s good graces by mere obedience.
This is hire and salary, not salvation by grace as taught in the Book of Mormon.
In short, why has it become common for the LDS Church to abandon its own scriptures in favor of teaching a graceless plan of salvation?