One day, as Jesus was walking along a pathway, a man came running up to Him "and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto himů Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honor thy father and mother" (Matt. 10:17-19). The apostle James said, "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). The apostle Paul wrote, "For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Gal. 5:14).
As we look at the gospel message we see a continuous exhortation for us to perform good works. In fact, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe "that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23). Because of this belief, we tend to stress the importance of doing good works, and, according to the scriptures, such a belief seems justified. In fact, as we just saw, in answer to the man who had asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus said, "Keep the commandments."
But that raises a question. If eternal life is dependant on us not committing adultery, killing, stealing, bearing false witness, or being dishonest, and on us visiting the sick, taking care of the poor, and loving our neighbor, then why do we need to believe in Jesus? Is it enough merely to live by a set of ethically moral standards? And what happens if a non-believer also lives as good a moral life as the believer does? If we are rewarded according to our works, then why shouldn't they inherit eternal life as well as those who believe in Jesus? But if Jesus died on the cross to take away our sins, then why is it important for us to do or not do certain things?
The answer has to do with Jesus Christ because He is the central figure in salvation. In order for salvation to be dependant on our works, then He needs to be the central figure in our works. If He isn't central in all that we do, then there is no salvation possible for us. And the reason why has to do with the purpose of the plan of salvation.
The apostle Paul wrote, "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Cor. 15:20). All men, whether they believe in Christ or not, shall be made alive, "both the just and the unjust" (Acts 24:15). And because of that, all men will stand before the judgment bar of Christ and be rewarded according to their deeds done while in the flesh. In modern-day revelation, the Lord has shown us there are three degrees of glory we can inherit as our reward. Those who have done wickedly will inherit the telestial kingdom. Those who were honest and honorable men of the earth will inherit the terrestrial kingdom. But only those who strive to become like God will inherit the celestial kingdom.
Those who don't believe in Jesus but live a morally ethical life will inherit the terrestrial kingdom, but even they owe that reward to Christ who died so that all men might live, including the unjust and the unbelievers. But the primary reason why Christ died wasn't so we could inherit the telestial or terrestrial kingdom, nor was it just so we could inherit the celestial kingdom. The central reason why Christ died for our sins was to make it possible for us to become exalted, or, in other words, to receive the highest reward of the celestial kingdom. What that means is that because of what Christ did for us we all have the potential to become like God.
But in order for us to become like God, we must first learn how to live like God, because it is from doing those things that God does that we will then be rewarded with all that God has. So, the real question becomes, what is God like and how do we live like He lives so we can have what He has and do what He does?
The scriptures repeatedly tell us that "God is holy." In fact, when we speak of God's Spirit, we refer to Him as the "holy" Ghost. In its simplest term, this means that God is without sin. In fact, the Lord Himself revealed to Joseph Smith, "For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance" (D&C 1:31). Obviously, if He cannot tolerate sin in the least degree then there can't be any sin in Him at all. Therefore, to become like God we must become sinless like He is. In fact, God has commanded us to "Purge ye out the iniquity which is among you; sanctify yourselves before me; (D&C 3:11). But how do we do that?
Joseph Smith testified, "That he came into the world, even Jesus, to be crucified for the world, and to bear the sins of the world, and to sanctify the world, and to cleanse it from all unrighteousness" (D&C 76:41). The word "sanctify" means to make holy, or make someone sinless. Thus, Joseph Smith testified that the reason why Jesus was crucified was so that through His atoning death He might cleanse all men from their sins, thereby making us holy even as our Father in heaven is holy. The apostle Paul taught this same message when he said that it is "in the body of his flesh through death, [that He is able to] present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight" (Co. 1:22)
If it wasn't for the atoning death of Christ, there would be no way for us to rid ourselves of the sins we commit. It is only through the sacrifice Jesus made for our sins that they can be removed. However, there are conditions that must be met in order to have our sins taken away. Over five hundred times in the scriptures we are repeatedly told that we must repent for the remission of our sins. A person may spend their entire life doing good deeds, but no matter how many they perform, deeds alone can never erase even one sin.
Sin is like a stain on a garment. Once a stain has been made, no matter how careful we may be not to create any more, the stain we've already made doesn't go away. The only way to get rid of a stain is to wash it with a stain remover. Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty of our sins, and because of that, His blood has the power to remove the stain of sin in our life. Repenting is the process by which we apply the stain remover to our sins so it can be eliminated. Those who don't believe in Christ but do good works will be rewarded for their deeds, but in order to receive the reward of the celestial kingdom, we must become sinless like God. And the only way to do that is through properly repenting of our sins and relying on Christ's sacrifice to remove it from our life's record. But, if we remove Christ as the central part of our life, the stain of sin remains and we aren't able to become like God. For those who do good works but don't repent, they will die in their sins and therefore will not be entitled to the reward of those who have been made sinless through their works.
The scriptures also tell us that, "love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom. 13:10). All the commandments God has given us can be summed up in one word - love; love for God and love of our fellow man. The reason why we don't commit adultery, kill, steal, bear false witness, or be dishonest is because that's not the way a person treats someone they love. When a person loves their neighbor they care for them when they're sick, they help them when they're having financial difficulties, they assist them when they're having troubles, and they comfort them when they're grieving.
And the reason why God has told us to do these things is because that's what God is like. "God is love" (1 John 4:8). In fact, "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16) But more than that, God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to die even for those who would not believe on him. And it is because of that love, God has made it possible for all men to be resurrected and be rewarded for their deeds. Therefore, if we want to be like God then we have to learn to love like God does.
But just being a loving person is not enough to inherit the celestial kingdom because there is more to God's love than just treating people kindly. If that was all it took to be like God, then we wouldn't need Jesus in our life. Therefore, despite all the good works we might do, if we remove Jesus from being the central part of our life, the best reward we can expect is the highest honor in the terrestrial kingdom, "but where God and Christ dwell they cannot come, worlds without end" (D&C76:112).
Then what kind of deeds will qualify us to inherit exaltation?
Jesus taught, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). Baptism is the entrance ceremony into the kingdom of God. Without it, no matter how many good works a person does, they will never enter into the celestial kingdom. But baptism alone, without repenting or learning to love like God does, is meaningless. It's just getting wet for no good reason. But good deeds without baptism is only good enough for the terrestrial kingdom.
But why is baptism so necessary to enter the celestial kingdom?
The answer is found in the sacramental prayers, which we often refer to as "renewing our baptismal covenants." Baptism is more than being dipped in water. It is a ceremony teeming with symbology. Most people see only the most obvious symbol of having our sins washed away. Those familiar with the scriptures point to Paul's words that tell us baptism symbolizes being buried with Christ and coming forth from the dead, meaning the resurrection (Rom. 6:4). It also symbolizes a new birth, as though we are coming forth from a watery womb.
But there is a more important symbol that is directly linked to the covenant we make at the time of our baptism. In the sacramental prayer we renew our promise "that [we] are willing to take upon [us] the name of thy Son and always remember him, and keep his commandments which he has given [us]." Our baptism symbolizes or represents a whole-hearted commitment on our part to serving God. It's an oath we take. It's a pledge of allegiance to God. As such, baptism symbolizes us becoming citizens of the kingdom of God. It's the means whereby we become sons of God and are brought into the household of God (Eph. 2:19). (For a more in-depth look as this subject see The Kingdom of God).
Therefore, it isn't enough just to do good deeds. If we want to become like God then we have to do the good deeds like God does them, and baptism is our commitment to do just that. But the only way we know how to do that is if God reveals that information to us. Therefore, God has set up a channel of communication whereby He makes known to us the proper way to show love to our neighbor. And the way He does that is through living prophets. If you will, they are like college professors who instruct us on how to become like God by teaching us how to properly behave like God.
Perhaps we can gain a clearer understanding of this principle if we put it in earthly terms. In order for someone to earn a degree that authorizes them to lawfully carry a certain title, they must first take and then pass certain prescribed courses that qualify them for that title. For example, a person can go to school to become a nurse, but, depending on the courses taken, they can graduate either as a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or a Registered Nurse (RN). In this case, the word "licensed" and "registered" do not mean the same thing. Although both people are technically known as "nurses," there is a definite difference in their level of knowledge and skill. Until an LPN has become qualified through the courses they take, then may not legally call themselves an RN.
But as skilled as an RN might be in treating the sick, they are not qualified to claim the title of "doctor." An RN might have worked for years at the side of a skilled doctor and in that time might have learned nearly as much about medicine as a doctor who has just graduated from college, yet, until they have earned the proper degree from an accredited school by taking the prescribed courses, they are not authorized to call themselves by the title of "doctor."
If we want to be like God, then there are certain things we must do to qualify ourselves to be like Him. There are certain "courses of instruction" we must not only take, but successfully pass in order to acquire the title of "god." If we do not acquire that title legally, then we cannot become like God.
Therefore, to teach us this information, God has set up His own university here on earth. But rather than calling it by that name, He refers to His institution of higher learning as a "church." However, just like there are many different colleges and universities, there are also many different kinds of Christian churches. And, just like not all colleges and universities award the same degrees, so also, not all churches teach the subjects needed to award their students an exalted position in the celestial kingdom.
Just like a person cannot get a nursing degree by going to an engineering school, so also, a person cannot take the proper courses to be awarded exaltation unless they go to a church that is accredited and accepted by heaven. And just as there is only one God, so also, that one God has only one church. Therefore, if we want to become like God, then we must attend and participate in His church. Therefore, baptism is the entrance requirement into God's university.
At the head of every colleges or university is a person who holds the title of "president." This person is responsible for making sure that their organization operates in accordance with proper academic standards by insuring that qualified professors are hired, that all necessary courses are being taught, and that the proper learning environment is maintained.
God does the same with His university. And the person whom He has selected to be the president of His church is Jesus Christ. Jesus said, "I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me" (John 5:30). Jesus kept His Father's word so precisely and so completely that He was called "the Word of God." And because He did all that God required of Him, He became like God. That is what He meant when He said, "I and my Father are one" (John 10:30). Therefore, to be Christ-like is the same as being God-like.
As President of God's university, Jesus is the One who is responsible for making sure that the academic standards for teaching godhood are maintained, and He does this by making sure there are qualified prophets to teach the students, insuring that all necessary programs are being practiced, and that there is a proper environment for learning the knowledge and skills necessary to qualify people to receive exaltation. Therefore, Christ is the central figure around whom all things in the church are dependent upon. If we take Christ out of the center of whatever we do, no matter how good our deeds may be, they don't qualify us for exaltation because they are not done in accordance with and under the authorization of the president of the celestial university.
But, just as there is more to entering the celestial kingdom than merely doing good deeds, so also there is more to receiving exaltation than just being baptized and repenting. Since God is our Father and we are His children, in order to become like Him, we too must become a parent like God is, not just in this life but for all eternity as well. Therefore, to become like God, there are courses of instruction in the temple we must take, as well as becoming sealed to a spouse. Without doing this, a person may still enter the celestial kingdom but they will only be qualified to become "ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory" (D&C 132:16). They will be like RNs working for a doctor.
To become a parent means to have children. Since we refer to God as "our Father" and we refer to ourselves as "children of God," that therefore makes God a "parent." If we hope to someday be like God, then that also means we hope to be able to beget children the same way God does throughout all eternity. But once children are born, then the primary responsibility of a parent is to raise their children. Therefore, to become like God also means that we must learn to become the kind of parent He is.
God revealed to Moses, "For behold, this is my work and my glory-to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man"(Moses 1:39). As a parent, God insures that His children have the opportunity to obtain not only immortality, but eternal life as well. If we want to become a heavenly parent like God is, then we have to learn how to fulfill the obligations that are associated with such a title. Therefore, God seeks to teach us how to do the very thing that He does with us. And the way He does that is by having us assist Him in His work.
Whenever we care for the poor, help the sick, pick up the down trodden, or relieve the suffering of others, we are doing what any good parent would do for their child. Therefore, our Father in heaven let's us practice playing "parent" with one another. If you will, it's like we are playing "house," by pretending we are behaving like our heavenly Father. Except, there is a purpose to our playing. What we are doing in reality is practicing on one another in an effort to acquire the knowledge and gain the skills necessary to someday do the very things that God does for His children.
But there is much more to being a heavenly parent than simply doing kind deeds for your children. The three-fold purpose of the church is to "preach the gospel, redeem the dead, and perfect the saints," and all three of these have to do with saving God's children. When we "preach the gospel" we are assisting our Father in heaven in helping His children come to know and accept the plan of salvation, just as our Father did with us in our pre-earthly state. When we serve in the church, nearly all callings are for the purpose of "perfecting the saints," or helping them to become Christ-like, which is what God is striving to help each one of us do. When we "redeem the dead" we are helping to save others by doing something for them that they cannot do for themselves, just as Christ did for us. Therefore, in all that we do in the church, we are doing the very work of salvation that God does with all of His children.
If the church is God's university for teaching us to become like Him, then the purpose of all the programs in the church are meant to help us develop the very skills we will someday need to become effective heavenly parents ourselves. That means, the "good works" that we need to be performing are those that will help us be able to do what our Father in Heaven does as our Parent. Therefore, doing good works, in and of themselves, are unable to make us eligible to inherit all that God has. To do that Christ must be the center and purpose of our good works. And when Christ is at the center of all that we do then we will be learning those skills that will help us become like God. If we fail in doing those kinds of works, it would be neither fair nor wise for God to reward with exaltation those whose "works" don't meet the standard necessary to be heavenly parents.
But, without a correct understanding of who God is, who we are, and what His plan is for us, there is no way we can do the kind of works that will help us become like God.
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