What is salvation in Mormon doctrine?

July 16, 2008

I have been a little frustrated in recent years by the various ways in which knowledgeable Latter-day Saints use the term “salvation.” Since joining the Church as a high school senior in 1963 before my 18th birthday, I have always used it to mean “eternal life” or “exaltation” which means receiving a fullness of the Father and a “continuation of the seeds” in the highest of three degrees in the Celestial Kingdom which is the highest of three kingdoms of glory. (See D&C 76 and 131). Every other reward or punishment in the next life is some form of “damnation.”

I use my definition for salvation because of my studies of the scripture, the writings of Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie, the writings of Robert L. Millett of the Religion Department at BYU, and the official Church manual True to the Faith which has been through correlation and is distributed to new members of the Church.

Other knowledgeable members with an interest in doctrine insist on using the term “salvation” to mean any inheritance in a kingdom of glory whether it be be telestial, terrestrial or celestial. They reason that any “kingdom of glory” must be considered a form of salvation regardless of whether or not it involves exaltation and eternal life. After all, only the Atonement of Jesus Christ makes such a reward possible, and the Prophet Joseph Smith is reported to have said that the telestial kingdom is so glorious and so much better than the life we live here in mortality that we would commit suicide to get there if we could see what we are missing. What the prophet’s actual words were, and whether or not they were reliably recorded, I cannot say.

While I have never read anything in True to the Faith that I clearly disagree with, and I accept it as an authoritative statement on official Church doctrine, I also believe the Book of Mormon to be the Word of God and the “most correct book on earth” as proclaimed by Joseph Smith. And the other day I ran across this passage which I found interesting because of my frustration over the varying and sometimes conflicting definitions of salvation used by Latter-day Saints. Here is the passage, and it clears things up for me:

40 And he shall come into the world to redeem his people; and he shall take upon him the transgressions of those who believe on his name; and these are they that shall have eternal life, and salvation cometh to none else. (Alma 11:40)

What does this mean for us? In the vast majority of cases where the words “saved” or “salvation” are used in scripture, it is a reference to eternal life and exaltation. There are a tiny number of instances where these words are used to mean something else. But those instances are so few that when we use these terms to mean anything other than eternal life and exaltation, we ought to carefully explain our definitions. Otherwise, many will be confused. Our meaning will not be clear. We must not use these terms willy-nilly and just assume that others understand. Remember, even the Sons of Perdition will be “saved” in the sense of being restored to resurrected, physical bodies before they are cast into Outer Darkness with the devil and his angels. And the resurrection could never take place without the Atonement of Jesus Christ either. But no one would suggest that the Sons of Perdition are “saved” or inherit “salvation.”