A verse of scripture that is often quoted among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the one that says, "for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23) and the usual interpretation given to this verse is that, as long as we put forth a sincere and honest effort to do our part in living the gospel, because of the atonement Jesus makes up the difference so that in the end we can become saved.
This principle has been explained by way of the following illustration: A person becomes indebted for a large sum of money and cannot pay it, therefore he is condemned to debtors prison. But another man - a benefactor - comes along and pays the debt, thereby freeing the man from going to prison. Yet the freed man is not truly free because he has now become indebted to his benefactor and, as part of the settlement, the debtor agrees to work for his benefactor until his debt is paid. However, as long as the debtor works diligently for his new master, the benefactor eventually says the debt has been paid in full, even though the debtor has not worked long enough to pay off the entire debt.
Although this concept is accurate, it is very simplistic and doesn't explain the full extent of Christ's atonement. And because it doesn't, this has led many Latter-day Saints to wonder and even worry about if they are indeed doing all they can in order to be worthy enough to have their debt of sin fully paid for. Their fear is that if they are not putting forth enough effort then they will not be entitled to being saved by the grace of God.
This sort of thinking is not only false but leads to a misunderstanding of what the atonement of Christ is, how it works, and what it can do for us.
Many people are of the opinion that the atonement is just about Christ dying on the cross to pay the penalty of our sins, and from this they conclude that the purpose of the atonement is to allow us to live with a sinless God in a sinless heaven. And that's because the usual definition of salvation is that we get to be saved from going to hell by being allowed to live in heaven with God, and since Jesus told His followers, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48) it is assumed that when we get to heaven we too will be perfect, just like God. However, that is not true.
Jesus told Nicodemus, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:5), and baptism (e.g., being born of the water) does indeed wash away our sins, but being sinless is not the same as being perfect. In order to enter into heaven we must be sinless because "no unclean thing can dwell with God" (1 Nephi 10:21) but we do not need to be perfect in order to dwell in heaven.
Being perfect doesn't just mean not sinning. It means having the character, attitude, disposition, feelings, thoughts, and temperament that God has. We can refrain from sinning while, at the same time, wanting to sin. For example, a person on a diet may know that partaking of pastries, donuts, pies, cakes, and ice cream will put on weight and therefore they deliberately choose to exclude these items from their diet, yet doing so doesn't take away their desire to eat these things. And because of that people on a diet will occasionally eat things they know they shouldn't.
On the other hand, being perfect is a condition where our hearts have been changed to the point where we have no more desire to do evil (Alma 19:33). More than that, to be perfect, just like our Father in heaven is perfect, is to have a heart that desires only to do those things that God desires.
To understand the difference between being sinless and being perfect, all we need to do is look at who we are and why we are here on earth.
As members of the LDS Church, we believe that we lived with our Father in heaven as His children before coming here to earth and that the purpose of earth life is to help us to become just like Him. That clearly shows that when we lived in heaven we were not perfect like our Father yet we were still worthy of living there. In our prior estate, we did not know what sin was, nor could we because heaven is a place where sin cannot exist, therefore it is clear that we lived in heaven as sinless beings.
But, to become like our Father in heaven it was necessary for us to gain the knowledge of good and evil so we could decide for ourselves which one we wanted to choose. Yet to do that we had to leave our heavenly home and go to some other location.
However the purpose of earth-life is not just to return back to our home in heaven as sinless beings, knowing the difference between good and evil. If that was the case there would have been no reason for us to leave there in the first place. The whole purpose of us coming here to earth is so we can return to our heavenly home and be able to inherit the kingdom of God. But to do that we not only need to gain a knowledge of good and evil but we must also learn to always choose good over evil.
In our pre-mortal state when we lived with our Father in heaven we did not "inherit" His kingdom; we merely lived in it. To inherit something means to own it or take possession of it. What God wants to do is prepare us so we are capable and worthy to have all the power, glory, and dominion that He now possesses. That's what it means to inherit the kingdom of God.
But to do that we have to become perfect as He is which means having a heart that will always choose to do good despite having the knowledge and the ability to choose evil. Thus, the atonement is not just about taking away our sins so we can live in heaven. Its purpose is to provide a way for us to become perfect in the same way our Father is perfect and thereby become worthy to inherit all that He has.
Jesus revealed to Joseph Smith, "Therefore I command you to repent-repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore-how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not. For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent" (D&C 19:15,16).
Nearly all Christians understand that the suffering Jesus endured in order to atone for our sins was more than any man could endure or even comprehend, but what very few Christians understand is that Christ's suffering also made it possible for us to repent. Without the atonement, no matter how much we might repent of the things we've done wrong, it would have had no effect in removing our sins.
To illustrate this point, image a beautiful white rug that someone has spilled some red liquid on, even accidentally. The rug becomes instantly stained and no amount of saying, "I'm sorry" will remove the stain. Worse yet, once the stain has soaked into the fibers of the rug, no amount of scrubbing on our part will remove the stain because we don't possess the kind of chemicals that will bleach it out.
If that white rug represents our pure soul, every time we sin we stain it, and since no unclean soul can live in heaven, and there is no way for us to remove the stains of our sins, that means we can no longer return to heaven, no matter how much we say we're sorry or how hard we work to undo the sin, even if we have committed just one tiny one.
But, because of the atonement, if we say we are truly sorry for what we have done wrong and try to demonstrate that sorry by doing what we can to undo it, Jesus is willing to apply the cleaning solution of His blood that has the power to make that stain of sin disappear as though it had never happened. As such, it is the atonement that allows us to repent and have it make a difference in removing our sins.
Yet, just having our sins removed doesn't make us perfect; it just makes us clean. But, the way we become perfect is by sinning and then repenting of our sins.
To understand why let's first go back to our illustration of a benefactor paying someone's debt. The debtor may not have to go to prison but he is not out of debt. Instead the debt has been transferred to the benefactor. Suppose that the condition which the benefactor imposes to forgive the debt is that the debtor learns how to manage their finances in a responsible manner so that they will forever avoid getting into debt again.
Jesus is our benefactor because He has paid the price for our sins but what He wants in return is for us to learn how to make wise choices so that we no longer have the desire to sin, thereby guaranteeing that we will never sin again. However, for that to happen, several things must take place.
The first is for us to understand that we cannot save ourselves, no more than a penniless man can pay off his debts. It's like a man reaching down, grabbing his boots by the bootstraps, and trying to lift himself up. It's impossible to do. In the same way, we cannot save ourselves. It's an impossible task. Only Jesus can save us, and that's because of the atonement which He made for each one of us personally.
Jesus paid the price for the sins of each and every individual therefore He has a personal interest in our personal salvation. And it is because He has bought us with His blood that He has the power, the means, and the desire to help us become perfect.
The second, and perhaps the more important thing is that we have to be willing to learn how to become perfect. Without that desire on our part, no amount of help, from even the best instructor, will do us any good. Those who resist being taught have, what the scriptures refer to as, "a hard heart." When Nephi says we are saved "after all we can do," that includes having a heart that is willing to be taught.
However, our natural inclination is to do things our way. As part of our human personality, we resist being told what to do, so having a heart that is inclined to listen and obey the Lord is not a condition that comes easily. And that leads us to the next thing we have to understand. Becoming perfect isn't something that happens all at once. It's not like studying a manual and then taking a test where, if we pass, we are awarded a prize of completion.
Perfection is a process, not an event. It happens a little at a time as we learn one precept of righteousness at a time. And that also includes learning how to turn our hard heart into one that is soft and teachable. Even the best of us have not completely and totally turn our hearts over to Christ. All of us have areas in our life over which we don't want to relinquish control.
So when Nephi says we are saved by grace after all we can do, that includes enduring to the end in persevering in our efforts to go through the process of becoming perfect. It means never giving up, and when we get discourage and do give up, doing our part means shrugging off our disappointments and discouragements, getting up and keep on persevering on the road toward perfection.
The reason why we can't perfect ourselves is because we don't know how to do that, but because of the atonement, we have access to the Holy Ghost who is our instructor, teaching us what we need to learn. He is our guide who shows us the way to perfection. He is our comforter when we become discouraged, as He encourages us to keep going on no matter how many times we fail in our efforts to emulate Christ. He is our aid who helps strengthens us when we become weak and allow the temptations of the world to pull us off course. He is our friend who is always there to help us with any of our questions, doubts, confusions, difficulties, and problems. Without His assistance none of us could ever become perfect.
But the Holy Ghost can't perfect us all by Himself, no more than we alone can perfect ourselves. It takes a joint effort between Him and us. Thus, we have to work together as a team. As such, to achieve true salvation takes a partnership arrangement where the Holy Ghost does His job and we do ours. Since we know that the Holy Ghost will do His part, we have to better understand what is required of us in this partnership if we want to be saved.
Just believing in Jesus isn't enough. Jesus said, "And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" (John 17:3, emphasis added). Eternal life is more than just living with God in heaven. It is inheriting all that the Father has, but if we don't know God and His Son, Jesus Christ, we can't possibly know how to become perfect like they are, and until we have become like them we cannot inherit eternal life.
If the Holy Ghost is our teacher then that makes us His students, and what makes a student successful is how much time, energy and effort they put into learning the lessons they have been taught. Therefore, our responsibility in this partnership is to not only learn what it takes to become perfect but to put that knowledge into practice so that we develop the same traits, habits, and thinking that makes God perfect.
The reason why we have been counseled to read the scriptures every day is so we can come to better know our Father in heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ. The scriptures are like their biographies, showing us their likes and dislikes, what their character is like, and how they think and behave. Therefore, the more we diligently study the scriptures, especially under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, the more we come to understand and know about God and His Son.
Then, the more knowledge we gain about them, the better able we are to emulate their character traits as we seek to pattern our life after theirs. But learning how to behave like Christ is a process, and as we struggle to become like our Father in heaven we will stumble and fail many, many times in our efforts. Yet, this is to be expected because we learn from our mistakes.
Failing is a part of our learning process therefore we can look at our mistakes as successfully sinning, meaning that our failures can act as stepping stones to help us improve. And because of the atonement, our sins, transgressions, and weaknesses can all be erased through repentance which then gives us access to God's grace so that in the end we can not only be made sinless but be made perfect as well.
However, not all sins are equal. Some sins, if committed, can be damaging to our spiritual progression. That's because they are so serious that they can only be forgiven after much repentance and agony of spirit. But there are other sins that are not as serious in and of themselves but can be just as detrimental to our progress. These are sins we deliberately and consciously commit, as opposed to sins we commit as a result of our human frailties.
There is a significant difference between trying to do what's right and failing, and willfully refusing to do what we know to be right. One is an act of weakness while the other is an act of open rebellion. God can be patient with our imperfections but willful disobedience is something that drives the Spirit away and brings about God's displeasure. And if that rebellion is not repented of and continues, it can also bring on God's wrath.
When Nephi says that we are saved by grace after all we can do, he doesn't mean we have to do everything in our power first before God will consent to save us. As he also explained, "Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life" (2 Nephi 31:20).
Salvation, in the full sense of that word, requires us to do our part to help ourselves, and as long as we are willing to seek instruction from the Holy Ghost and then make a sincere effort to apply that knowledge in our life, we are doing all that God expects of us.
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