In the category of torts, we have shown how it might be that Christ can and does offer to us mercy: to the transgressor and the transgressed against, because of what He suffered and took upon himself. The application of mercy can restore us to our initial state- one of neutrality, with neither injuries scarring our souls nor sin staining them. However, a merely innocent condition (like that of Adam and Eve in the garden, or of each of us individually when we are born on this earth), is quite different from a condition of exaltation. Does the atonement help us bridge the gap?
We came to this earth with a primary purpose: to progress toward exaltation. The two-fold means of this progress can be generally categorized by learning through experience and choice-making away from God’s presence on the one hand, and gaining a body on the other. In that choice-making prong we all sin and fall, as did Adam: yet the Atonement can restore us, as we’ve shown, to a guiltless and uninjured condition. However, there is a gargantuan gap between exaltation (a life like God lives), which includes possession of attributes such as virtue, patience, charity, humility, knowledge, and power, each in their fullness, and the mere condition of being both whole and guiltless. God’s mercy bridges the gap between our sinful, injured state to a guiltless and whole state; God’s grace bridges the gap between a merely guiltless and whole state to an exalted state.
Although the scriptures do seem to connect grace with sanctification, forgiveness of sins, and other “tort-level” functions, it does more, as may be concluded from the Savior’s parable of the vine and branches found in John 15:1-11, which speaks of bearing fruit in addition to being clean. Ephesians 2: 5-10, which speaks of our salvation by grace, connects grace with the “good works, which God hath… ordained that we should walk,” supporting this construct of advancing the ball from 0 to exaltation through grace. We also observe several passages which distinguish mercy from grace, such as “O the wisdom of God, his mercy and his grace” (2 Nephi 9:8) or “because of grace and mercy… seed shall not be destroyed” (2 Nephi 9: 53). Progress along the pathway to exaltation (that state of doing and being very good), is substantiated further by John, quoted in D & C 93, who notes that he “received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness.” Moroni teaches of the connection between perfection and grace: “then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ” (10: 32). That most famous grace verse, “by grace we are saved, after all we can do,” (2 Nephi 25:23) also joins this set of canonical passages in connecting grace with either our best efforts, perfection, or fullness. Why is this an important association?
If this connection is a strong one, we may deduce that these efforts or “pressing forward” consist of good works and endeavors to be and do like God, beyond merely repenting of sin. Nephi seems to describe this concept in 2 Nephi 31, using the imagery of an initial gate followed by a strait and narrow path: “the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.” Only after this remission of sins “are ye in the strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life.” Nephi notes that to attain exaltation we must “press forward” and “endure” by “following the example of the Son of the living God,” who was clearly full of good works and substantive divine attributes.
How do we bridge this gap from mere innocence to become individuals of power, knowledge, wisdom, and benevolence, like unto God? Can we make this progress on our own? Elder David A. Bednar taught that grace connotes “a strengthening or enabling power: the main idea of the word is divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ” (Ibid.). Further, “the enabling and strengthening aspect of the Atonement helps us to see and to do and to become good in ways that we could never recognize or accomplish with our limited mortal capacity.” It seems that divine grace is the specific means constituting the “enabling power of the atonement,” specifically enabling of us to do and become good, far beyond what we could do and be without that grace.
Thus, it is indeed only through the grace of Christ afforded by the Atonement that we can “do and endure and overcome all things,” that crowning description of the exalted condition. The atonement does more that enable a full measure of mercy to each of us, for that would simply restore us to zero: rather, it “allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation” (David Bednar, In the Strength of the Lord, Ensign, Nov. 2004, 76-78).
This post composed in September 2008