In my last post I brought up the point that we as a church spend nearly all of our energy helping people (both non-members and inactive members) become active members of the church. That is a worthy effort, to be sure. My concern is that I hear very little talk about the gap between being an “active” Latter Day Saint and a Celestial-natured person worthy of exaltation. So the question of this post is whether there really is a gap between being (and remaining) Active and being Exalted.
Active until Death = Exaltation?
Kim Siever suggested some interesting things:
We have a tendency to think that if someone is active (i.e. paying tithing, going to church, attending the temple, going home teaching, etc), then they will receive exaltation for their obedience.
He may be right that Mormons tend to think this. But is this an accurate doctrine? I have serious doubts. My primary doubt has to do with my understanding that in order to be Celestial persons we must live the Celestial law. As far as I can tell, that includes actually consecrating 100% of our time, talents, and everything else to the Lord. While one needs to be an active member to do that, very few of us active members actually keep our promise to live the law of consecration as far as I can tell. Therefore I seriously doubt that simply being an active member until death will automatically lead to exaltation.
The Old Grace vs. Works Debate
Those that are big on grace might disagree. Mormons in what I’ll call the Grace School of thought would probably say that all we need to do is stay active and committed and Christ will do all the heavy lifting for us. They might say that all we have to do is meet the basic requirements of discipleship in the true church and the atonement will exalt us from there. The modern Parable of the Bicycle preaches this; most Protestants preach this; and many Mormons like our dearly departed ‘naclite Jon Max Wilson was very fond of bringing up the parable of the laborers to support this position.
Others (and I am among them) in what I’ll call the Works School of thought favor the position described by Elder John A. Widtsoe:
It is clear also that, as with every other being, the power of God has resulted from the exercise of his will. In “the beginning” which transcends our understanding, God undoubtedly exercised his will vigorously, and thus gained experience of the forces lying about him… We may be certain that through self-effort, the inherent and innate powers of God have been developed to a God-like degree. Thus, He has become God… Self-effort, the conscious operation of will, has enabled man to attain his present high position. However, while all progress is due to self-effort, other beings of power may contribute largely to the ease of man’s growth. (Rational Theology, 25-27)
In other words, it is self-effort that leads to exaltation and the atonement is primarily in place to help us in that repenting and changing and improving process. In this theological view the atonement primarily enables us to progress if we choose to do so.
The ammo of the Grace School includes the scathing remarks by Paul against those that thought grace was unnecessary for salvation and that strict obedience would do the job for them. Further, they appeal to the burnout that most Mormons inevitably face as they try to be perfect Mormons and realize that doing so is an impossible task.
The Works School responds with lots of modern scriptures and say that they know one cannot be saved without grace, but grace enables our repentance and that without repentance grace has no effect. Further, many in the Works School believe in some form of progression between kingdoms after this life. Therefore they contend that the goal of this life is to repent and leave more God-like than we entered. That trajectory will then help us in the progression possible in the eternal worlds to come. Therefore the actual goal is not necessarily to be perfect now, but to make as much progress toward perfection here so we can have “so much the advantage in the world to come.” As many modern prophets have said, the goal of the church is to “make bad men good and to make good men better.”
If the Grace School were right, it would admittedly be logical to assume that all one must do is become an active member and stay that way until death and, as the Parable of the Bicycle preaches, after one thus save up a few pennies Christ does the rest and voila! — Exaltation.
As a Works School guy I don’t buy it. And beyond that I think this is a risky model to follow.
Interestingly, one of the primary complaints that many in the Grace School levy against the idea of progression between kingdoms is that it removes the useful fear-based incentive to avoid procrastinating the day of one’s repentance in this life. They point out that if progress is possible after this life then we might procrastinate repenting until some future eternity. (There are lots of things I could say about that, but I will save that for another time.) But do they realize that the same basic complaint could be levied against their model?
Let me explain. If someone believes that becoming an active Mormon and staying that way until they die will lead to exaltation as a free gift from Christ, that person has little or no incentive to continue repenting and improving after meeting the minimum requirements to be considered an active Mormon. In other words, a deep belief in the grace model engenders the pernicious “all is well in Zion” attitude that Nephi warned against. That means the grace-focused and other no-progression-between-kingdoms models could lead to procrastinating repentance at least as much as the various progression between kingdoms models do.
If the “endure as an active Mormon doctrine until death and Christ will exalt us” doctrine is not a true doctrine (and clearly I think this is the case) then it is a dangerous doctrine. It causes the Saints to think they have arrived at their desired destination long before they actually have. It potentially leads to spiritual stagnation and apathy for those that think that doing the basics – holding a current temple recommend, paying 10% tithing, doing an adequate job in their church assignments, etc. – will lead them to exaltation.
I have focused on the Grace School vs. the Works School and made the assumption that most in the Grace School lean toward “no progression between kingdoms” and most in the works school lean toward “progression between kingdoms”. This is admittedly not an assumption I can defend very well. It just anecdotally seems that way to me. If you are a crossover person please let us know and explain why that works best for you.
Well done thou good and faithful servant
I will say that being “active” is not enough to be exalted as a result of our efforts in this life. However, I also believe that each soul is in a different phase of eternal progression. For many saints, being active may be a major act of faith and repentance and soul-improvement. As the parable of the talents teaches, the trajectory one takes in this life is the most important factor. For others, being simply “active” is the equivalent of burying their talents. They must be much more than active in order to hear those beautiful words “well done thou good and faithful servant”.
In my next post I’ll talk about what I think some of that additional work might entail and what the current organization does to help even those born with five talents to turn them into ten.