In the comments of my last post there was some discussion of faith vs. works. Mormons have always been accused of being too works-focused by other Christians. They like to say things like: “Sorry guys, your works don’t save, Jesus does. Works are how we serve Jesus; they are pathetically puny compared to the gift of the atonement, which cannot be earned.” Interestingly, some Mormons like to say these very same things.
A few BYU religion professors like Robert Millet and Stephen Robinson have been leading the ecumenical charge by insisting, among other things, that true Mormon doctrine is really very much like Protestant doctrine when it comes to Christ. They play up the nothingness of humankind and the greatness of God and emphasize the immense gap that separates the two. Brother Robinson’s parable of the bicycle is now quite famous among Mormons. The basics of the parable are that if pathetic humankind can come up with a few coins of works then Jesus Christ will pay the remaining $198 for the “bike” we so desperately want. In the analogy the bike is apparently exaltation (though it is not clear to me if he delineates between salvation and exaltation or not…) The implication seems to be that we can get full exaltation as a result of our efforts in this life because Christ gives it to us as free gift. My problem with it all is that I think he is wrong.
He is not entirely wrong with the analogy; it is just that some of the implications that come from the parable are inaccurate in my opinion. First, the entire model seems to be based on an assumption of a single probation. As I have written, I think this is an inaccurate model of eternity. Based on that inaccuracy, compensation must be made to explain how anyone like us could ever become like God. We look around and see that it will take a lot more time than we have in mortality to change our character to be like God. Yet, He tells us it is possible. So if we assume that this life is our only probationary state we must find doctrines to bridge the gap. That is where doctrines like the parable of the bicycle come in. Brother Robinson concludes that if we do our tiny part, God will somehow transform us into a being that is just like him because of the atonement.
Of course, there are all sorts of problems with this assumption. First, it assumes that our agency will be obliterated because of the atonement. If we are to be changed that much after this life not as a result of our personal choices but as the result of the atonement, how is that effectively different than the plan Lucifer proposed where he would give all a free ride? Since when does the atonement change our natures rather than provide an opportunity for us to do so ourselves? In the parable of the bicycle was the child suddenly an equal peer with the parent upon receiving the bike? Absolutely not. Becoming like God will require agency to the last. It requires a constant state of repenting through eternity until we have decided (as did Christ) that it is what we truly want.
The problem with the parable of the bicycle and the entire movement to suppress the importance of works/repentance is that it assumes Godhood is cheap. It wants Godhood to in fact be nearly free to us and only expensive to Christ. I suggest that in the end it will be no cheaper for us than it was for Christ and that to imply otherwise is to underestimate the reality of the nature of God. A doctrine like this parable undervalues that very savior it attempts to exalt.
Placing a much, much higher premium on Godhood is one of the results of the concept of what I have called the Heber C. Kimball model of the eternities (aka multiple mortal probations). It undercuts the doctrine that implies that in one short life we can suddenly become exactly like our God and implies it will take concerted effort through eternities to achieve such a character.
The irony is that accusations generally fly in the opposite direction. Those who believe that it will take progress in each of many probations to actually repent and change our natures sufficiently to become a true peer to God are accused of not believing in the atonement and trusting in works too much. But it is the atonement that allows for repentance. It is the atonement that allows us to transform our scarlet red sins and make the white as snow through repentance. But without repentance Christ says we have to pay for our own sins and as a result we may be regressing instead of progressing. If there was no atonement there could be no progress in any probation. The atonement of the Savior is always the engine that makes the progression machine go.
It seems to me that there is never a danger of repenting too much. However there is always a danger of assuming someone else, including God, will somehow do our repenting for us in the eternities. That doctrine sounds an awful lot like the problem of carnal security the Nephi warned us about to me.
[Update: I tried my hand at writing a better parable to describe the atonement. The first attempt was called the Parable of the Mortgage by I don’t think it was quite right either. My second attempt was called the Parable of the Pianist and I was much happier with that.]