Salvation is free according to Paul. Ephesians 2:8-9 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast”. That may be true, but just because something is free it does not absolve us of any responsibilities. One of my daughters took piano lessons and she did not have to pay a single penny. No amount of practicing on her part would compensate me for the money I handed over to her teacher. It was a free gift. What she did with the gift, however, was entirely up to her. The degree to which these free piano lessons blessed her life was dependent upon how much she worked.
This is why there is no contradiction between the notion of salvation being free, and Jesus requiring us to do and not just speak his words (Matt 7:21). This is why James teaches us that faith without works is dead (James 2:17-18). No, we do not buy our way into heaven. I am not aware of a list of duties one must follow in order to pass through the pearly gates. ‘Sorry’, says Peter, ‘You are short three prayers, and two polite words’. The gift of salvation provides us the tools to learn the lifestyle of heaven, and there are some who simply are not interested. Sure, they accept Jesus as their Savior, but believing is not enough. Many know smoking is a killer but they smoke their way into cancer anyway. Even Satan knew Jesus was the Son of God. We are judged based on what we do with it. In Revelation 20:12 we learn that we will be judged out of the book of life.
The Works of the Law
The bible is full of examples of how works play a role in our salvation. The danger Paul was warning against, I suspect, was the notion of buying our way to heaven, of performing a set number of religious rituals to bypass the need to show charity. These were referred to as the works of the law that the Jews of the time loved so much. The work that is required, however, is “To preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound” (Isaiah 61:1). This is what the parable of Good Samaritan is teaching.
In the LDS faith, all the programs we have in place are focused on giving service to others. Home teaching puts us into the homes of members each month to give service. Fast offerings go to provide food and shelter for the poor, young women and young men leaders provide engaging activities for the youth, the perpetual education fund provides opportunities for people in third world countries to get an education, the addiction recovery program is staffed by volunteers who are helping those struggling with drug or other addictions. Certainly there are religious rituals we perform, but rituals serve a part of covenant making. But as Jesus warns, we do not just speak the words, we live them.
There are numerous verses that extol the importance of obedience in our salvation, such as Luke 10:25-37 to have eternal life, love your neighbour; Philippians 2:12 work our your salvation with fear and trembling; Revelations 2:12, 14 rewarded according to works. But there are also numerous verses that warn us that simply following the law is not what saves: Romans 3:24, 27-28 “justified by grace, not works but the law of faith”. Those who argue works are necessary mock those who believe in grace along by arguing ‘all I have to do is accept Jesus and I can go murder and steal and I will be fine’ and those who argue for grace say ‘you fill your life with rituals because you reject the atonement’. Both extremes are missing the mark. Both grace and works are involved. The obvious problem with relying entirely on works is that there are those who are not capable of performing them. Prisons are filled with people with mental illnesses or extreme case of trauma who are not able to ‘do good’ according to normal standards.
There is a danger when we make the comment ‘I need the blessings’ or ‘I am doing this to make sure I am good with God’. We should not obey because we need blessings or to avoid the displeasure of a maniacal supreme being. We do good because we want to be that type of person. We do good because we love our fellow being and want to give them a hand up. When people ask us to help, we should not do it out of duty. We should have the mindset that by giving this help, we are lightening their load. I suspect that when we arrive in heaven, many who are expecting a siesta will be sadly disappointed. We are here learning how to serve because heaven is a place of Christ like service. Those who do not like giving service will not be happy there. There does not need to be a chasm between how evangelical Christians and the rest of the Christian world perceives salvation; we are just looking at it from a different end of the stick.
The Proverbial Jogging Club
Christ stands at the door and knocks and any who open the door are invited in (Rev 3:20). There is no bouncer at the door of heaven, and there is no balance sheet. There is more likely a list of activities and many will look it over and say no thanks and find a place that they will be happiest. As Jesus says, in his Father’s house there are many mansions (John 14:2). Imagine if a group of people join a jogging club because they are told that if they jog every day for a year, they will be rewarded. Some love it, others hate it. At the end of the year, the reward is announced: you all get to enter a race – your choice 5 k, 10 k or a full marathon and the club is covering all the cost! It is all free! Some will be delighted, others will be (to put it mildly) completely unimpressed. The question I would have to ask the disenchanted: what the heck did you expect the reward would be when you joined a jogging club!!
I get the impression that many church goers are engaged in a proverbial daily jog because they are expecting to be rewarded with a Disney vacation and cupcakes and no more jogging. As I said, we are here to learn the lifestyle of heaven and not to earn points. I think it fundamentally comes down to a misunderstanding of the expression ‘rest from all your labours’. Resting is not napping, it is presiding. It is putting all your hard work and training to good use. We rest once we complete a university degree because we can get a job in our chosen field and start making money off our studies. God rests on the seventh day because his labour of creating a place for us is complete, and now he can get to work helping us through the marathon of life.
We all have different challenges so it is not how much good we can do but rather it is about striving with all our might to overcome our challenges and seeking to help others do the same. Some of us will live our lives always requiring help, others will be giving the help. We all work together because this is where we find the greatest joy.