Our relationship to God
There are many ways to picture our relationship to God. He can be seen as our Father in Heaven (Jer. 3:19; Matt. 5:45); as a Judge and Lawgiver (Isa. 33:22), with Christ as our advocate (1 John 1:9). He has been pictured as the husband of a wayward wife (Isa. 54:5; Jer. 3:14), and as a great King or Lord (1 Tim. 6:15). He has been pictured as God the farmer (John 15:1; Jacob 5); God the shepherd (Psalm 23:1; Matt. 25:32); God the potter (Jer. 18:6); God the employer (Alma 3:27; Matt. 20:1); and as a fountain of righteousness giving refreshment to his followers (Ether 8:26). Also, he is often pictured as a master ruling over his servants (slaves): “For it is just like a man going on a journey. He called his own slaves and turned over his possessions to them” (ESV, Matt. 25:14). For this post I will use the master servant relationship to explore the concept of salvation by God’s grace.
Jesus said to his disciples.
Does [the master] thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’ (NKJV, Luke 17:9-10; compare Mosiah 2:21)
A servant is not considered profitable for faithfully obeying his master’s commands. Why? It is because he is obligated to obey and therefore cannot pay (or repay) his master with obedience. And because the servant is obligated to obey his master, the master is under no obligation to thank his servant: “Does [the master] thank that servant…I think not.” King Benjamin said, “all that [God] requires of you is to keep his commandments” (Mosiah 2:22). Since our obedience is not a request but an obligation we can view ourselves as God’s servants. And God is never indebted to us when we obey his commandments. Which is why they are called commandments.
By way of example, if you are in the army and your drill sergeant gives you an order, he is not indebted to you if you comply–but you’ll be in big trouble if you don’t.
Though we are his servants, God is loving, merciful, and generous towards us. Even though the master servant relationship does not obligate God to bless his servants, he will because he loves them. He “[shows] mercy unto thousands of them that love [Him], and keep [His] commandments” (Exod. 20:6). Note that mercy follows obedience. “Who am I, saith the Lord, that I command and am not obeyed? Who am I, saith the Lord, that I promise and do not fulfill?” (D&C 58:30-32).
When we obey, God “doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him” (Mosiah 2:24). Note, if “paid” meant God gave because of his indebtedness to us it would not be followed with “and ye are still indebted to him.” We are not indebted to people who owe us something. God is never indebted to us for anything. As King Benjamin said, “ye are eternally indebted to your heavenly Father” (Mosiah 2:34; italics mine).
We can also consider the gifts of God by examining punishment. Since we are God’s servants who are obligated to obey his commandments we are subject to his punishment if we do not. But if God were indebted to us for our obedience then “blessings” are a way for God to discharge his debt. It then follows that if we do not obey, God owes us nothing, thus making any punishment unjust. But that is not correct: “there is a law given, and a punishment affixed” (Alma 42:22).
Can God be obligated?
The only way that God can become obligated is through his word. If God says, “do A and I will give you B,” and you do A then God must give you B. As it says in the book of Alma: “the Lord did bless them, according to his word” (Alma 62:51; italics mine). And as God said, “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise” (D&C 82:10).
We can consider again the gifts of God in terms of covenants. A covenant is a contract between God and man. God writes the terms of the contract, and if we want “in” we do the required ritual: baptism, sacrament, temple covenants, etc. On the other hand, if God were ever indebted to us because of our obedience then he is bound by debt and not by promise and there would be no need for the binding power of covenants. Once a covenant is sealed on earth and in heaven God is obligated by his word, according to the terms he established.
Who is indebted to God?
Who is more indebted to God? A man who has accepted Christ and repents of his sins or a man who has never repented? The righteous are indebted to God and thus righteousness makes one a bond-servant of Christ. Obedience is not a way to “earn” salvation but a submission to God’s authority and will–it is an act of faith. And when we are striving to submit to God’s will he blesses us according to his wisdom, according to what we need, and according to any covenants we have made. All covenants and blessings come, and will come, because of God’s eternal love for us. He has condescended  to bless those who strive to keep his commandments; he has condescended to make covenants with those who are already required to be obedient. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.”
Given that obedience is an obligation and that covenants come to us by God’s condescension salvation is granted to us according to the mercy of God. In the words of Nephi: “the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance” (1 Nephi 1:20). “He saved us–not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (HCSB, Titus 3:5-6).
This is usually how I frame a discussion on salvation by grace: we are saved by God’s mercy. Though is perfectly correct to say we are saved by grace, but to avoid misunderstandings with those who have a different belief about the meaning of grace I prefer to say we are saved by God’s mercy.
Our works do not save us, nor are we saved by the merit of our works. Our obedience is an obligation and God’s blessing is a gift–a conditional gift. Conditional in that the Master does not give to a disobedient servant; but a gift in that the Master gives to us for doing that which we are obligated to do. But with the understanding that if the Master promises something he is obligated to keep his word.
Obedience is required
According to God’s word obedience is necessary: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15). This forgiveness is clearly conditional. Christ has declared that those who feed the hungry, cloth the naked, and visit the sick and afflicted are the “blessed of [the] Father,” and they shall “inherit the kingdom prepared for [them] from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34)–it is also important to realize that non-Christians frequently do these things, but that is another discussion. “[God] will render to every man according to his deeds: “To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life” (Rom. 2:6-7).
In the words of King Benjamin:
I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and if they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness. O remember, remember that these things are true; for the Lord God hath spoken it (Mosiah 2:41).
We believe that works are a vital part of God’s plan of salvation and our eternal salvation does depend on our obedience and repentance (Articles of Faith 3). But our obedience is an obligation; therefore blessings, covenants, and salvation are gifts.
Many Protestant Christians believe that obedience does not determine, in any way, one’s eternal salvation. One must only confess Jesus and believe in one’s heart to accept God’s free gift of grace. He is then guaranteed a place in heaven–he is saved.
 In Romans 1:1 Paul describes himself as a servant of Jesus Christ: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ.” A more literal translation reads, “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ” (Analytical-Literal Translation).
 Jesus will never say “Thank you” to any of us. He will, however, say “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things” (Matt. 25:21).
 “Can a man be of benefit to God? Can even a wise man benefit him?” (NIV, Job 22:2); “If you are righteous, what do you give to him, or what does he receive from your hand? Your wickedness affects only a man like yourself, and your righteousness only the sons of men. (NIV, Job 35:7-8).
 This invites the question: what then are covenants for? Why is their binding power necessary? Perhaps I will explore this in another post.
 Condescension: “Voluntary descent from rank, dignity or just claims; relinquishment of strict right; submission to inferiors in granting requests or performing acts which strict justice does not require.” (Webster’s 1828 Dictionary)
Condescend: “To descend from the privileges of superior rank or dignity, to do some act to an inferior, which strict justice or the ordinary rules of civility do not require. Hence, to submit or yield, as to an inferior, implying an occasional relinquishment of distinction.” (Webster’s 1828 Dictionary)