Some of our fellow Christians misunderstand LDS teachings regarding grace, feeling that our choice to obey God and respect His commandments somehow means we think we earn our salvation and thereby deny the mercy and grace of Christ. That confusion sometimes becomes frenetic when our critics discuss the Temple, which to them epitomizes Mormon emphasis on works and self-righteousness rather than relying on the merits of Christ. The concept of having to keep specific commandments in order to have a Church leader give you a temple recommend can be especially foreign and irritating, and is easily misunderstood. To our critics, it is a sign that Mormons have abandoned grace and emphasize mortal works instead of the Atonement of Christ.
In reality, the temple is a place of turning our hearts to Christ, using teachings, symbols, and covenants to help us focus our lives more fully on Him and recognize the power of His sacrifice and mercy to transform, bless, and save us. It is, however, a foreign place to us modern people, for it is rooted in ancient Middle Eastern concepts that are a far cry from the mundane world we live in. Recognizing its ancient roots, though, helps us to better appreciate its imagery and meaning. (See my LDSFAQ page on the LDS Temple and Masonry.)
On the issue of grace and obedience in a temple context, the teachings of early Christianity help shed light on modern LDS concepts, as I argue, for example, on my LDSFAQ pages on covenants and on grace and works. But useful insights can be found even earlier that that, going back to the ancient Jewish temple itself. The connection between God’s grace and our obedience in the context of temple worship was noted by Jewish scholar Jon D. Levenson in his book, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985).
Early in his book, Levenson discusses the six ancient steps of the covenant formulary, the archetypal pattern of covenant making that scholars only recently recognized in ancient Middle Eastern documents, and which is also found in the LDS temple and in King Benjamin’s covenant-focused speech at the Nephite temple. In discussing how the covenant between God and man was repeatedly renewed, and how God’s requirements for keeping his commandments were recalled, Levenson reminds us that the basis for the required obedience is God’s past grace, and His desire to transform us into more holy beings:
His past grace grounds his present demand. To respond wholeheartedly to that demand, to accept the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, is to make a radical change, a change at the roots of one’s being. To undertake to live according to Halakhah is not a question of merely raising one’s moral aspirations or of affirming “Jewish values,” whatever that means. To recite the Shma and mean it is to enter a supramundane sovereignty, to become a citizen of the kingdom of God, not simply in the messianic future to which that term also refers (e.g., Dan 2:44), but also in the historical present. (Levenson, p. 85–page numbers are for the 1985 printing.)
Later, Levenson discusses Jeremiah 7:1-5, Jeremiah’s speech at the temple where Jeremiah challenges the Jewish reliance on the temple as a place that will protect them. The potential grace available from that Holy House will not be afforded if the people do not accept the moral code that goes with it and rely on the temple as a place instead of a sacred tool to build their relationship with deity. Jeremiah opposes the disconnect between our morality and the grace God affords.
As you read this next passages from Levenson, consider it in the context of the misleading grace versus works argument so often levied against LDS religion. I suggest that Jeremiah’s critique of those who claimed “we are safe” because of the temple is not unrelated to some of our critics who say “we are saved” because of their belief in the Bible while claiming that Christ’s call therein to “keep the commandments” somehow cannot mean what it says, and that those who teach that doctrine actually deny God’s grace.
What Jeremiah does oppose is the idea that the divine goodness so evident in the Temple is independent of the moral record of those who worship there, in other words, the effort to disengage God’s beneficence from man’s ethical deeds and to rely, as a consequence, on grace alone. To the complacent cry of his audience that “We are safe” (v 10), the prophet responds by noting that the Temple is not “a den of robbers” (v 11). The grace of God does not mean exemption from the demands of covenant law, from ultimate ethical accountability. Grace and law belong together. In separation, they become parodies of themselves. For Jeremiah, this means that one cannot ascend into the pure existence of the Temple with his impurities intact. He cannot drag his filth into paradise and expect to benefit from paradisical existence. Mount Zion is morally positive. It does not accept the moral debits of those who seek only protection there. Rather, the protection follows naturally from the relationship with God which is appropriate in that place. Such a relationship excludes the practice of the sins prohibited in the Decalogue (v 9). (Levenson, p. 168; emphasis mine)
Brilliantly stated! The temple is about the relationship between God and man. It is a cosmic mountain intended to pull us higher, but we must seek to climb toward the ideals that are before us. We must seek to shed, or rather, allow Him to rip away, the impurities that weigh us down and hold us back from God’s presence. We cannot cling to Him while clinging to our dross. It is in a covenant relationship with Him in His holy temple where we can most fully receive of His grace. As Levenson puts it, “Grace and law belong together.” Levenson continues:
For them [Jeremiah’s audience], the delicate, highly poetic image of the cosmic mountain has become a matter of doctrine, and the doctrine can be stated in one prosaic sentence: In the Temple one is safe. The Temple does not thrill them and fill them with awe; the vision of it does not transform them. For them, the appropriate response to sight of the Temple is anything but the radical amazement of a pilgrim. Instead, the Temple in their eyes is simply a place like any other, except that there the long arm of moral reckoning will not reach. Hence, they approach Zion in the stance of one about to take possession of what he deserves, not in the stance of one humbly accepting a miraculous gift which no one can deserve. Jeremiah’s audience seeks to profit from the Temple without committing themselves to the moral dynamic that animates it. (Levenson, pp. 168-9; emphasis mine)
Ironically, it may be that some of our critics–some, not all!–who speak of the security of grace reach for that gift with the same flawed attitude that Jeremiah condemned in the Jews who misunderstood God’s work and failed to grasp why they needed to repent in order to obtain the true blessings available through the temple of their day. The greatest miraculous gifts of the Gospel, gifts that we cannot possibly deserve, are offered with conditions in covenant relationships, not that earn us anything, but allow God to transform us into the people He wants us to be as we strive to follow Him and seek to enter His presence.
As for the notion of standards of worthiness being connected to entry into the temple, the LDS concept may not be as innovative and foreign to the Bible as our critics would like to think. In the paragraphs shortly after the previous quotation, Levenson makes further points about the temple as he discusses Psalm 24:
This psalm [Ps. 24], chanted by Jews today on Sunday mornings, opens with a cosmic perspective. The first stanzas (vv 1-2) reminds us that the earth rests upon the waters of chaos and owes it endurance to the power of the creator who so established it. This image of God’s putting the earth upon a foundation resting over the waters is, once again, a reflection of the idea of the Temple as cosmic capstone, holding back the waters of anti-creation. [Note: I would add that this resonates with the creation story that begins the LDS Endowment and with the LDS concept of the baptismal font in the lowest part of the temple, which may be symbolic of the waters of chaos and death conquered by Christ and His Resurrection.] The term “all that it holds” (v 1; literally, “its fulness”) reminds us of the chant of the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision in the Temple:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, The fulness of the whole earth is his glory (Isa 6:3)
In Isaiah 6, the “fulness of the earth” is God’s glory; in Psalm 24, it belongs to God, who is the king of glory. In both instances, the term indicates the cosmic scope of the Temple. Thus, the second stanza of the psalm (vv 3–6) does not change the subject significantly. We have simply moved from a description of the cosmic rooting of the universe to the question of who shall be admitted to the mountain shrine which still incarnates that original creative energy. In this and in the last stanza (vv 7–10), there seems to be an antiphonal structure. One group of worshippers asks the questions, and another answers. It is not readily evident how the roles were divided, who said what, but one can imagine that vv 3, 8a, and 10a were recited by worshippers seeking admission to the Temple complex and that vv 4–6, 8b–9, and 10b–c are the answers of the priests who guarded the gates. Alternatively, it may be that the priests asked the questions by way of examining the congregation to determine whether they indeed met the qualifications for entry, and that the answers were supplied by the congregation to demonstrate their mastery of the requirements. In either case, the issue in the second stanza (vv 3–6) is, what are the ethical characteristics of life within the Temple precincts? What must one be like to reach the top of the sacred mountain? The last stanza (vv 7–10) makes it clear that the presence of God enters the Temple only after the ethical prerequisites of vv 3–6 have been met. It may be that these verses accompanied a procession of some sort, with the Ark, perhaps, symbolizing YHWH. At all events, it must not be missed that the second and third stanzas are parallel. Each records an entrance to the Temple complex, one by visiting worshippers and one by YHWH the king. In light of the first stanza, it is clear that YHWH might have chosen to dwell anywhere. The world is his. His presence in the Temple, as I have argued, does not imply his absence elsewhere. Rather, he intensifies his presence and renders it most dramatic at the cosmic center. It is there that his power and his sovereignty are most vivid, for it is there that we see the palace he founded upon the tamed body of his primal challenger, the seas. Similarly, according to the second stanza (vv 3–6), those who enter there must represent the apex of ethical purity. They must be people of “clean hands and a pure heart” (v 4). In no way could the cultic and the ethical be more tightly bound together. They are two sides of the same experience. The cult celebrates the glorious victory of God the king, through which he established order in the universe. The ethical tradition, as it appears in Psalm 24, celebrates the order and lawfulness of man, through which he qualifies for entry into the presence of God in the palace he has won. It is significant that in Hebrew the same term (sedeq) can indicate either victory or righteousness/justice. The Temple represents the victory of God and the ethical ascent of man. (Levenson, pp. 170-172; emphasis mine)
The victory of God and the ethical ascent of man are linked, reminding us of what the Gospel is all about. “For this is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). God’s victory, Christ’s victory, is about enabling our righteousness and eternal life through the power of the Atonement, enabled by the transformational covenant relationship offered therein.
When Christ was asked what we must do to obtain eternal life, His answer was unmistakably clear in Matthew 19:16-21: “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” Christ followed that with a request, carefully tailored for the needs of the rich young man He spoke to with love, to go and sell all that he had in order to follow Christ. To sell all for the Kingdom of God was not an impossible request intended to sarcastically mock the notion of keeping the commandments, but was what many early Christians actually did, and what this rich young man needed to do. It’s also what modern Christians in the temple covenant to do, potentially, in consecrating themselves and all that they have to the building of God’s kingdom. In this way, the wealthy can let go of that dross which weighs them down and hinders their climb on the temple mount, a climb in which God reaches down to us in grace and pulls us into his presence in a sacred grip of grace, if only we will let Him.
- Related LDSFAQ pages at JeffLindsay.com, including “‘Mormon Answers’ to Questions about Salvation and Exaltation,””Mormon Answers: How Are We Saved By Grace? Are ‘Works’ Required for Salvation?“, and “Questions About the LDS Temple Ceremony and Masonry“
- Donald W. Parry, Temples of the Ancient World (Salt Lake City: FARMS and Deseret Book, 1994), http://publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/book/temples-of-the-ancient-world/
- Donald W. Parry and Stephen D. Ricks, The Temple in Time and Eternity, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1999), http://publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/book/the-temple-in-time-and-eternity/
- John Tvedtnes, “Early Christian and Jewish Rituals Related to Temple Practices,” FAIR Conference, 1999, http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/fair-conferences/1999-fair-conference/1999-early-christian-and-jewish-rituals-related-to-temple-practices
- Matthew Brown “The Israelite Temple and the Early Christians,” FAIR Conference, 2008, http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/fair-conferences/2008-fair-conference/2008-the-israelite-temple-and-the-early-christians