Saturday, February 21, 2015

Not Earning Heaven; Learning Heaven

One of the finest addresses I have ever heard on the topic of the grace of Christ from a Mormon perspective was given by Brad Wilcox at BYU on July 12, 2011 (see text, video). Wilcox suggests that a common misunderstanding of the Mormon approach to heaven — both among members of the LDS Church and others — is that Mormons are trying to earn salvation by their own works.

To this Wilcox responds, "No, we are not earning heaven. We are learning heaven. We are preparing for it (see D&C 78:7). We are practicing for it."

I will admit that for much of the first couple of decades of my life I felt a lot like the young lady Wilcox mentions at the beginning of his speech. Although I had been baptized, I had the idea that I still needed to earn the grace of Christ to be saved. I generally tried to do the right thing. But since I continually messed up, I felt like I always fell short of qualifying for Christ's grace.

My perception is that this misunderstanding of actual LDS doctrine and scripture was somewhat general among Mormons when I was younger. Indeed, when I was a young adult a national magazine published a generally favorable article about Mormons that cited a study suggesting that Mormons tended to see their own role in gaining salvation as primary with Christ's role as secondary. Many Mormons actually were trying to earn heaven.

Along with several other trends observed by church leaders, that article served as a wake up call that resulted in much greater emphasis in church talks and lessons of the Savior Jesus Christ and his prime role in individual salvation. Although great strides have been made over the past three decades, too many Mormons still think they are trying to become worthy of Christ's grace before they can benefit from it.

Actual LDS doctrine teaches that everyone that has earnestly accepted the covenant of authoritative baptism and that has continued faithful in that covenant is saved in the sense of being cleansed from the sins from which they have repented. As Wilcox puts it, Jesus Christ has "paid our debt in full. He didn’t pay it all except for a few coins. He paid it all. It is finished."

This isn't to say that the covenant can't be broken through sin. But we need to be realistic about what breaks the covenant and what doesn't. In his book Believing Christ Stephen E. Robinson reminds that the scriptures regularly compare the covenant of baptism to marriage. All human spouses that are faithful to their marriage covenants are still imperfect spouses. They make many mistakes that do not destroy the marital covenant. Likewise, those that faithfully maintain their covenant relationship with Christ regularly make mistakes that don't destroy the covenant.

Anyone that has read 2 Nephi 31 should understand, however, that baptism is only the beginning of the road to our ultimate eternal home. It is like the wedding ceremony at the start of a marriage. The Savior has paid the price for us to enter that gate (2 Nephi 31:9-17). We are then to walk with the Savior the strait and narrow path that leads to eternal life (2 Nephi 31:18-21) just as newly married spouses are to walk the long road of marriage together.

In other words, it is appropriate to joyfully remember the wedding ceremony (i.e. our baptism). Indeed, we should do this weekly when partaking of the sacrament. But Wilcox warns that we must not remain "so excited about being saved that maybe [we] are not thinking enough about what comes next" (i.e. the long marriage). Not only must we be saved by grace, we must be "changed by grace."

This is what walking that long path to eternal life is all about. "What is left to be determined by our obedience" says Wilcox, "is what kind of body we plan on being resurrected with and how comfortable we plan to be in God’s presence and how long we plan to stay there." The purpose of gospel covenant living is to allow Christ to make us more like himself so that we can someday actually be comfortable in his literal presence.

Wilcox uses a story about a troubled young man to illustrate the point that those that are unwilling to allow Christ's grace to change them to become more like God will have no desire to be in God's presence. They will be so uncomfortable that they will say in essence, "Get me out of here!" "The miracle of the Atonement" Wilcox says, "is not just that we can go home but that—miraculously—we can feel at home there."

I fear that sometimes we feel like we are walking that strait and narrow path alone. Sure, the Savior got us through the gate, but now we are on our own to hike the path. We are gritting our teeth and tenaciously putting one foot in front of the other so that we can earn the highest degree of glory in heaven. We are hiking our way to the Celestial Kingdom, proud of the blisters we are earning on the way.

But I think this view is all wrong. Jesus Christ has already walked that path. Not only does he walk the path with us, he is our guide. Not only will he support us and help us, at critical times he will carry us. There is no other way to get to the Celestial Kingdom. We cannot do it on our own. And when we arrive we will have become like him. Any blisters we have gotten along the way won't matter because, like him, we will be stripped of pride.

Wilcox applies the analogy of piano lessons to explain his point that our obedience is about practicing for heaven. A child's mother pays for her child to take piano lessons so that the child's life will be enriched. The mother requires the child to practice — not to repay the mother or the piano teacher — but so that the child can change in a way that will improve his life.

Similarly, the Savior pays the entire cost of our lessons to become like him. He asks us to practice being like him — not to repay him — but that we might have life "more abundantly" (John 10:10), even eternal life with him in his kingdom.

Carrying the analogy further, Wilcox notes that we readily accept that a child practicing piano is far from perfect and makes many mistakes. We accept that "growth and development take time." Likewise, we should accept that our path to eternal life will involve many mistakes. Wilcox asks, "Why is this perspective so easy to see in the context of learning piano but so hard to see in the context of learning heaven?"

We just have to be willing to keep practicing, even if we feel like we're not very good at it. As we do so, Christ's grace will be "our constant energy source" taking us toward our eternal destination as we learn heaven.

Wilcox ends with a powerful testimony of the help we will have on that path. "I testify that God’s grace is sufficient. Jesus’ grace is sufficient. It is enough. It is all we need. ... Seek Christ, and, as you do, I promise you will feel the enabling power we call His amazing grace."


JC said...

Thank you so much for this wonderful post. It really gave me a new perspective on the grace of Christ and, as I read it, I felt like those words were intended especially for me. I needed to read them to help give me hope as I try to overcome serious addictions that have seemingly taken control of my life. Thank you again.

- JC

Scott Hinrichs said...

May God bless you in your struggles. I know that as you turn to Him He will help you.

You may also find some value in reviewing Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf's October 2013 general priesthood address You Can Do It Now, where he said that "our destiny is not determined by the number of times we stumble but by the number of times we rise up, dust ourselves off, and move forward."