I Have a Question


Questions of general gospel interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy

I am confused by the gospel principle of justification by faith. Can you explain it to me?

S. Michael Wilcox, instructor, Institute of Religion adjacent to the University of Utah. The words justification and faith are often misunderstood, not only by many people from religious backgrounds other than our own, but even by some Latter-day Saints. It is important to understand the doctrine of justification by faith, however, because it lies at the heart of the gospel.

Let us begin by defining justification as the scriptures define it. The Book of Mormon is particularly helpful because it often substitutes other words for the term. One of these words is guiltless. Another is blameless. These terms are usually used to identify a person or a group who have been forgiven of sins. In Mosiah, for example, King Benjamin speaks of “retaining a remission of your sins … that ye may walk guiltless.” (Mosiah 4:26.) Alma asks, “Have ye walked, keeping yourselves blameless before God?” (Alma 5:27.) And Jesus promises those who repent, are baptized, and faithfully endure to the end, “him will I hold guiltless before my Father.” (3 Ne. 27:16.)

The Bible often uses the term justification when describing the same doctrine. Paul explained to the Roman Saints that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;

“Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:

“Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins.” (Rom. 3:23–25.)

Justification, then, as defined by the Bible and the Book of Mormon, is the process by which guilt is taken away through faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ. Most students of the scriptures would agree with that definition. The confusion comes in understanding how the process of justification works.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words Just, Justification, and Justice come from the same root word that, theologically, refers to the action by which a person is “accounted or made righteous by God.” This process is described in detail by the Book of Mormon prophets. Appropriately, they often discuss the process of justification by referring to the law of justice.

The law of justice states simply that when a person breaks a law, he or she is punished. Alma identifies this punishment—or at least one aspect of it—as “remorse of conscience.” (Alma 42:18.) King Benjamin adds that one who breaks divine law suffers “a lively sense of his own guilt, which doth cause him to shrink from the presence [or Spirit] of the Lord.” (Mosiah 2:38; see also Mosiah 2:36.) The scriptures sometimes call this spiritual withdrawal “spiritual death.” (See Hel. 14:16–18.)

Fortunately, there is another divine law that goes hand in hand with the law of justice that can bring about a spiritual rebirth. The Book of Mormon refers to it as the law of mercy. This law allows us to escape the punishment justice demands if a Savior will accept the punishment in our place. This person must meet two conditions, however: he must be willing, and he must be sinless. Furthermore, a propitiation for divine laws broken must be rendered by one who is divine.

Jesus Christ met all these conditions and accepted the punishment for our sins. In some way—ultimately incomprehensible to mortals—the Son of God took upon himself the punishment for the sins of all mankind. And since his sacrifice was “infinite and eternal” (see Alma 34:10–14), he satisfied the demands of justice and mercy and can offer forgiveness to those whose sins he has borne. This offer is a gift—the scriptures often use the term grace—that the Savior extends because of his great love for us.

But how is this gift given and received? The scriptures are explicit: it is received by exercising faith in him who can give the gift. An angel explained to King Benjamin that Jesus Christ “cometh unto his own, that salvation might come unto the children of men even through faith on his name.” (Mosiah 3:9.) And Paul taught that “man is justified by faith” in Christ. (Rom. 3:28.)

A recent article in the Ensign describes how that process works: As we come to Christ in faith, repenting of our sins, and covenant with him in the waters of baptism to keep his commandments, he justifies us—treats us as though we are guiltless—even though we are not yet perfect. He does this so that we might receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, which will cleanse us of sin as we repent and work out our salvation “with fear and trembling.” (Philip. 2:12; see also Morm. 9:27.) As we progress from “grace to grace,” receiving “grace for grace” (see D&C 93:12–20), we will eventually be perfected and be able to stand before the Father fully justified as one who has become like him—guiltless, perfect, and holy. (See Colin Douglas, Ensign, Apr. 1989, p. 12.)

In the scriptures, the process by which we are cleansed and perfected is often called sanctification. Those who are justified by Christ and receive the Holy Ghost are sanctified, or “reborn.” (See Mosiah 3:19; Alma 5:14, 19.) Of those who continue to the end of their mortal probation in this state, John said, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” (1 Jn. 3:2.)

This is the fulfillment to which the Savior urges us. He is pleased with every step we take, with every act of faith and every prayer of repentance, but he will not be satisfied until we become as Paul stated, “a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” (Eph. 4:13.)

Unfortunately, much of the Christian world has been confused by this doctrine. Many believe that justification comes by faith in Christ’s grace alone, that an acceptance of him as their Savior is all that is necessary. But is it consistent with reason and the testimony of the scriptures and the Spirit to think that Christ would extend the full measure of his atonement, having suffered all that he has suffered, to those who merely give lip service to him? The Lord himself taught otherwise:

“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21.)

The truth is, the Lord requires a deeper commitment than simply confessing that he is the Christ. Moses taught that God “will not justify the wicked.” (Ex. 23:7.) And James declared, “By works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” (James 2:24.)

Part of the confusion about the doctrine has been created by a misreading of what Paul meant when he wrote about the doctrine. In the passage from Romans cited above, for example, the entire verse reads, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” (Rom. 3:28; italics added.)

A close reading of the verses immediately before and after verse 28 makes it clear that Paul was speaking of the law of Moses. In the early church there was a considerable amount of controversy concerning the need for Gentile converts to live the law of Moses and observe its rituals and feasts. The references in Paul’s writings to the “law” or to “works” almost always refer to this misconception. He was not teaching that the works of the gospel (specifically repentance and the expression of Christlike love) were unnecessary, only that the law of Moses had been fulfilled and that the works of the law of Moses were now unnecessary. What was necessary was faith in Christ, and faith in Christ was manifested by repentance and other gospel works.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul explained:

“We have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

“But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid.

“For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.” (Gal. 2:16–18.)

Let us now discuss the term faith. It, also, is a term easily misunderstood. A thorough search of the scriptures reveals that faith is much more than mere belief; it involves action. Throughout the scriptures we are constantly invited to examine the doctrines and teachings of the Savior and his prophets and then exercise faith in their counsel by living the principles they teach.

Many Christians don’t understand that faith and good works are really two sides of the same coin; speaking of the one is impossible without including the other. Paul says as much in 1 Corinthians 13: “Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. … And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” (1 Cor. 13:2, 13; see also Moro. 7:42–47.)

Ultimately, our justification before God is a product of faith in the grace of Christ. As Nephi said, “It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” (2 Ne. 25:23.) But the Lord does expect us to do all we can—to repent of our sins, to covenant with him in the waters of baptism, to keep his commandments, and to follow his example of love. (See 3 Ne. 27:16, 21–22.) After all, he gave everything—his blood, his body—to remove our sins from us; is it too much to ask that we give him in return our hearts, minds, and strength? And yet, characteristically, he desires this devotion of us only so that he can justify and sanctify us before the Father. To the ancient Nephites Jesus said:

“No unclean thing can enter into [the Father’s] kingdom; therefore nothing entereth into his rest save it be those who have washed their garments in my blood, because of their faith, and the repentance of all their sins, and their faithfulness unto the end.

“Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day.” (3 Ne. 27:19–20.)

May we all Come unto Christ and be justified and sanctified by our faith in him.

How can we teach our children about the importance of the temple?

Eula Denny, recently released as matron of the Salt Lake Temple. To understand the meaning of temple work, our children must first understand the plan of salvation. The human race was “in the beginning with God” (D&C 93:29); and the purpose of life is to return to live with him. Temple work is an integral part of achieving that purpose.

Much of what we learn about the temple and the purpose of temple work is learned within the walls of that sacred building and cannot be discussed outside the temple. But we can do a few things to prepare our children for future temple experiences.

First, we can explain the reasons for temple attendance. Most people go there initially to receive their own endowments. Some go to be sealed for eternity to a companion. If parents were not sealed in the temple before children were born, families can attend the temple to be sealed. Many attend the temple to do vicarious work (baptisms, endowments, marriages, and other ordinances) in behalf of those who are dead.

These temple ordinances are sacred, not secret, blessings. We do not discuss the temple ordinances outside the temple. Elder Boyd K. Packer wrote, “The ordinances … are simple. They are beautiful. They are sacred. They are kept confidential lest they be given to those who are unprepared. Curiosity is not a preparation. Deep interest … is not a preparation. Preparation for the ordinances includes preliminary steps: faith, repentance, baptism, confirmation, worthiness, a maturity and dignity worthy of one who comes invited as a guest into the house of the Lord.” (The Holy Temple, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980, p. 26.)

We can also explain to our children the meaning of unfamiliar words used in connection with temple ordinances.

For example, all who enter the temple must have a recommend—a passport for entrance into the Lord’s holy house. Interviews with your bishop and stake president, conducted in confidence, determine your worthiness for a recommend. You personally sign your recommend, indicating to the Lord that you are worthy to enter the temple.

To endow means to enrich, to give to another something of long-lasting worth. The temple endowment is a blessing the Lord desires his children to receive. “Your endowment,” Brigham Young explained, “is to receive all those ordinances … which are necessary for you after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, comp. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977, p. 416.)

A temple covenant is a binding and serious agreement or promise made between God and a person. The endowment contains covenants. Each person promises to maintain obedience and devotion to the gospel and devote talents and means in order to advance the work of the Lord.

Exaltation is eternal life—life as God lives it. Celestial marriage is the gateway to exaltation, allowing us a continuation of the family unit in eternity. Those who obtain it gain an inheritance in the highest of three degrees of glory within the celestial kingdom. (See D&C 131:1–4.) Salvation in its full meaning is synonymous with exaltation, or eternal life.

Ordinances are a specifically limited number of priesthood-related steps required by God that, in a general sense, signal one’s spiritual progression. Within this circle of specific ordinances is a smaller circle that might be called temple ordinances. Often people think that temples are only for marriages. This is not true. In the temple, eligible Church members can participate in the most exalted of the redeeming ordinances revealed to mankind.

There are other ways we can point our children toward the temple. We can involve them in family history and research so they understand the challenging nature of finding and teaching all the Lord’s children. We can hang pictures of temples in our homes. And when our children are old enough, they can go to the temple to be baptized for the dead. We can also mention the temple in family prayers and encourage children to ask in their individual prayers that Heavenly Father will help them to live to be worthy to attend the temple.

Everything we do in the temple is beautiful, sacred, and necessary if we are to achieve the great goal of returning to our Heavenly Father.