To many of our Protestant brethren the subject of justification is very important. And I confess it is not as central in Mormon beliefs as it is in many Protestant denominations.
Protestants generally view justification as “a legal act, wherein God deems the sinner righteous on the basis of Christ’s righteousness” (Justification, theopedia.com). This understanding of justification is part of their view of salvation by grace and the belief that good works have noting to do with salvation.
In the Mormon view good works cannot be ignored and are seen as essential to how we “put on Christ.” I always felt the Mormon repose to the Protestant belief about justification was lacking. So I thought I would weight in on the subject. As such this post includes a lot of my own interpretation.
In the Mormon view having faith in Jesus Christ does not include an unconditional promise of salvation.
Though we may “attain unto faith” (Mor. 7:40) we are not yet saved. We must add “to faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity” (2 Peter 1:5-7). This is the diligence that Peter taught is necessary “to make your calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10).
Paul wrote that we are “justified by faith” (Rom. 5:1-2) and also “a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ…for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:16). But Paul also taught that “[the] doers of the law shall be justified” (Rom. 2:13).
I believe that justification comes by faith, not obedience. Nevertheless, the scriptures teach that doers or the law shall be justified. In other words, while justification comes by faith obedience is still required. Justification is comes only through Christ but our obedience opens the gate to let Him in. My sinful stubbornness blocks God’s justification and can be overcome only by humility and repentance. If Jesus is the UPS delivery guy then only He can deliver the gift. But I must open the door.
So, what is the relationship between justification and obedience?
The term justification comes from the courts. For example, if the outcome of a trial is decided in your favor you have been justified. This is the context which Isaiah uses:
All the nations have gathered together so that the peoples may be assembled…Let them present their witnesses that they may be justified, Or let them hear and say, “It is true.” (NASB, Isa. 43:9)
The opposite of justification is condemnation: “By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matt. 12:36-37; See also Alma 41:15). In this sense justification is in the context of a trial. The innocent are justified and the guilty condemned.
The justification I am considering has two kinds. One could be called the final justification which happens at the final judgment where God says, “Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matt. 25:23). The righteous are then eternally free from the law’s judgment.
The other type of justification is the kind we receive in this life. This type of justification is continually present. We are being “now justified.” But to correctly understand earthly justification we must start with the idea of probation.
There is “a space granted unto man in which he might repent…a time to prepare to meet God” (Alma 12:24). Each person born into mortality is in this probationary state (2 Nephi 2:21; 9:27; 33:9; Alma 12:24; 42:10; 42:13). Though we are all guilty of sin, because of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection the demands of justice are held at bay so that we may have time to prepare to meet God. We are therefore free from immediate punishment (2 Nephi 2:21; Alma 34:16). We are on probation. But we are not yet treated as innocent. Probation implies guilt.
Paul says that we are “being now justified by his blood” (Rom. 5:8-9). To be justified is in some way or other to be innocent before the law. Being now justified is the provisional justification we receive when we enter into a special relationship with God.
In this relationship Christ is our advocate.
Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him—Saying: Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified; Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life. (D&C 45:3-5).
This special relationship comes through baptism. Having entered into the baptism covenant Christ continually pleads our case before the Father. It is through this covenant relationship that we are being now justified by his blood; Christ is now pleading our cause. The word “justified” is past tense, it describes something that happened in the past, namely, at baptism our sins are washed away and we are totally innocent before the law. But because we sin every day this justification doesn’t end with baptism. The words “being now” also indicates present activity; our justification continues so that we are “being now” justified of our past sins.
Why are we not expelled from God’s church because of our sins? We are being now justified. When we take the sacrament we witness “that we do always remember [Christ]” (Mor. 5:1-2). But I often forget. Why am I not cast out? Christ is pleading my cause. We know that the wages of sin is death. So why am I not in Satan’s power when I fail to completely live up to every temple covenant I made? I am being now justified in Christ’s blood. A bishop is God’s representatives in his calling. A judge in Zion. But bishops are imperfect and guilty of sin too. How can they be permitted to act in God’s name? They are being now justified in the blood of Christ. The apostle James taught, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10). Why aren’t we condemned as though we have broken each and every commandment? Christ is our advocate. “Being justified” (Rom. 3:24) never stops. It endures from baptism on through to the present.
Because of our covenants “[we] are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19) and “no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ” (Gal. 4:7). Our probation provides a temporary reprieve from the demands of justice and gives us time to “prepare to meet God” (Alma 12:24). Through covenants we become perspective sons and daughters, candidates for salvation. Once baptized we join God’s household and Christ becomes our advocate. Without the justifying power of Christ’s atonement we could never hope to be born again, “changed from [our] carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness” (Mosiah 27:25-26). In this preparatory relationship we can become “sanctified by the Holy Ghost” and made “pure and spotless before God” (Alma 13:12). So long as we are standing in this special relationship which is granted to us by the grace of God we are being justified (Rom. 5:2).
To maintain a state of justification requires effort. It is true that even after baptism we sin—Peter did when he denied Christ. “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23); “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I [Paul] am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15). The Book of Mormon teaches that by remembering the greatness of God and our own nothingness and by humbling ourselves before the Lord we will “always retain a remission of [our] sins” (Mosiah 4:11-12).
It is true that when we enter Christ’s church through baptism Christ becomes our advocate. Yet, even so, our relationship is even more intimate than that. Christ has symbolically taken us into himself. We are baptized into Christ’s church, and those who have been “baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). The baptized are therefore “members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones” (Eph. 5:30). They are “one body in Christ” (Rom. 12:5). Though the baptized are now “in Christ”, Christ has not yet been fully formed in them. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). The saints still need to fully “put…on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:14).
Paul speaks of them being sanctified in Christ (1 Cor. 1:2), “yet the inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). We are changed into Christ’s image “from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). And in this way our sins are hidden “with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). We are taken into Christ to become like Christ. In so many ways we are treated as if we were clean so that we may become sanctified. We are pronounced clean (provisionally) so that through our faithfulness we may become clean.
Naturally God knows our sins and it is possible to commit grievous sins and loose one’s standing in the church. In cases of excommunication one must go through the repentance process and be rebaptized to return to that state of justification in Christ, the probationary justification within God’s church.
Do we earn salvation?
We do not earn salvation! No. That is impossible. There are several reasons why. The first is that we are unsteady.
AND thus we can behold how false, and also the unsteadiness of the hearts of the children of men; yea…how quick to do iniquity, and how slow to do good, are the children of men,…how quick to boast, and do all manner of that which is iniquity; and how slow are they to remember the Lord their God. (Hel. 12:1-5)
Second, obedience cannot remove the stain of sin. If we live our entire lives righteously and commit only one sin we cannot be saved, “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). If I do fifty bad things and fifty-one good things the scales of justice do not tip in my favor. This is also true if I do one bad thing and a million good things. Only justification and repentance put me in the right relationship with God. Thirdly, “I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them” (Mosiah 4:29). The law can’t list every possible way to sin, so even when strictly obeying the law we can fall into error. Think of all the ways it is possible not to love thy neighbor. Lastly, supposing (arguendo) that we do earn salvation. What works would we do to earn it? Feeding the hungry? Clothing the naked? Visiting the sick? Loving God and neighbor? Redeeming the dead? Paying tithing? These are already commandments which we are obligated to obey. We can’t earn something by doing what the law requires us to do. It would be like the city of Logan giving me five dollars every time I don’t run a red light. I’m obligated to obey the law and Logan owes me nothing for it. We cannot earn salvation because the very things we would do to earn it are the very things the law obligates us to do. The law condemns. It doesn’t reward. “By the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off” (2 Nephi 2:5); “the strength of sin is the law” (1 Cor. 15:56).
So we cannot buy our way back to heaven by obedience. We are not justified by the law because the law cannot make us innocent of wrongdoing. We must look to Christ for our salvation, “Redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:6).
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour. (Titus 3:5-6)
What about merit?
But if it’s not possible to earn salvation can we somehow merit it? We must be careful about how the idea of merit is used. Salvation is a gift, after all; the Lord “has granted salvation unto his people” (Mosiah 15:18). But it is a gift granted only to the faithful and obedient. God freely blesses those who heed his commandments. God may be seen as a master who, being pleased with his faithful servants, grants them blessings because he loves them: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant…enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matt. 25:21).
Our efforts can please God. And God saves those with whom he is pleased. In that sense there is merit toward salvation. With a sincere heart, by faithfulness and obedience, and through repentance we place ourselves at the mercy of God, and with Christ as our advocate, we cannot fail. It is possible to place ourselves in a position where God is pleased with our efforts and blesses us—as he said he would. The Lord has said, “blessed are those who come unto me” (3 Nephi 9:14). Sincere repentance, mercy, obedience with love, charity and repentance, these please God. But because of our imperfections, because we are obliged to obey the commandments, “it is [only] by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23).
If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love. (John 15:10)
Through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel. (AoF 1:3)
The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom. 6:23)
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Eph. 2:8-9)
 Justification can also mean vindication. “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” (James 2:21). What this means is that Abraham’s act of nearly offering his son as a sacrifice was a work and that Abraham did this because of his faith. Abraham was justified in the sense the his actions were later shown to be right. The sense of justification=vindication is also how it is used in this passage. “Rahab the harlot [was] justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?” (James 2:25).
 Notice the past tense “justified” coupled with “being now” brings it into the present. It happened in the past but continues today. So “a man is justified by faith” (Rom. 3:28). It doesn’t read that he “was justified.” Likewise, “no man is justified by the law” (Gal. 3:11).
 We know that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). We are commanded to “do all his [the Lord’s] commandments” (Deu. 30:8). James taught that “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10). We are told to “Keep all the commandments and covenants by which ye are bound,” and if we do then God shall, “cause the heavens to shake for your good, and Satan shall tremble and Zion shall rejoice upon the hills and flourish” (D&C 35:24), and “If thou lovest me thou shalt serve me and keep all my commandments” (D&C 42:29), and “Be sober. Keep all my commandments” (D&C 43:35).
 President Kimball taught,
[The bishop] will hear the problems, judge the seriousness thereof, determine the degree of adjustment, and decide if it warrants an eventual forgiveness. He does this as the earthly representative of God…If repentance is sufficient, he may waive penalties, which is tantamount to forgiveness so far as the church organization is concerned. (Faith Precedes the Miracle, p.181)
 The new missionary manual Preach my Gospel reads,
When converts are baptized and confirmed, they make sacred promises to obey and serve God and others for the rest of their lives. They become candidates for salvation in the celestial kingdom. To receive the promised blessings, they must endure to the end with faith in Jesus Christ. (p. 213)
 Remember the publican “smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus said of him, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified…he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14).