Because we place importance on keeping commandments and covenants, Latter-day Saints have been accused of believing in salvation by works. Do we really believe in earning our way to heaven?
No. We believe that we must become qualified for eternal life, for what the Father has in store, and Jesus’s grace is vital in that process.
The difference between earning and qualifying is the difference between, say, wages and promotions. Earning is based on time served, on merit, on what one deserves. That sounds like justice, which is what will condemn us at the Judgment—unless mercy intervenes. Qualification is about development, about what a person has gained in knowledge, attributes, and capability.
I earned certain grades in high school. I could also say I earned admission to a university. But my classes, schoolwork, and study habits are really what qualified me to become a university student.
I earned certain grades and even graduation in college. But I qualified for jobs in my chosen field because of what I had learned and the skills I developed during my coursework.
In the Parable of the Orchestra Conductors, the retiring conductor explained to her protégé that more was needed for the job than merit. It was a matter of qualifying for the position—being what the orchestra needed.
I can see a hint of this in the Lord’s parable of the talents when the man traveling into a far country received the first two servants’ reports upon his return. They earned this commendation: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” They exhibited faithfulness and thus qualified for this: “I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” (Matthew 25:21.)
President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency of the Church has taught that the Judgment will not be so much about merits as about development. In an oft-quoted talk in 2000, he said: “the Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. … The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become” (The Challenge to Become—which includes a parable too).
Essential to that becoming is a covenant relationship with Jesus Christ and allowing Him to change us. But it is also essential that we place enough importance on keeping His commandments with a heart turned to Him and a desire to become like Him that we repent when we fail (which, I’ll speak for myself, I do frequently) and plead for God’s forgiveness. The Judgment will not be about our merits, because Jesus’s merits are the only ones that will allow us to escape condemnation; it will be about whether we have followed Christ on the covenant path, become more Christlike in our thoughts, words, and acts than when we started, and been cleansed from sin.
I can work all I want over my lifetime to be a better person. Read self-help books, attend classes, try behavior modification techniques. But at the end of it all, will I be more like Christ through efforts that were solely mine? Perhaps marginally and coincidentally. I need His help to truly become like Him, to become a person whom Heavenly Father can welcome home to His pure kingdom.
I once heard someone say that justice is getting what we deserve, and mercy is getting more or better than we deserve. Jesus is the only One of whom it could possibly be said that He earned His own eternal life by His works. By His works, He also made our eternal life possible. But He wants us to repent and change through His mercy and power and thus qualify for the higher state to which Heavenly Father wishes to lift us.
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