I wrote this to answer a friend's question in 2011.
I have been thinking about when members of the Church talk about grace and works, and I agree that it can be confusing. On one hand they stress the necessity of ordinances and good works, but when you ask whether they believe they can be saved on their own merits, they are shocked.
I think what is happening here is a lack of common background. Most Christians have centuries of shared struggle as great, good men have wrestled with interpreting the scriptures. There have been many councils and reformations. Though the resulting sects do not agree on all things, there is a shared awareness of difficult issues and defining terms.
Since the Church is based not on tradition and interpretations, but on the gospel as it has been revealed from Adam through Abraham, Moses, Our Savior, and the Apostles in both the early days of the Church (Peter and Paul’s time) to the present day (this is why we are called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints to distinguish us from them), we lack the common Protestant background. Many of the terms we use to discuss principles do not mean the same things to members of the Church as they mean to most Christians. I think as Church members we either forget this, or don’t understand the questions others are actually asking.
For instance, I have never met a Church member who has any concept of “earning salvation”, though that impression, I think, is often given. We have such a strong belief in the power of the atonement that it is incomprehensible to imagine that anyone could possibly think they could reach heaven by themselves. This faith is the basis of all we do. It is through the power of our Savior alone that we can be saved. In fact, this is the power we hope to access through living righteously. As we keep the commandments, we can have the sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost to be with us. The covenants and ordinances are opportunities for us to make greater commitments to living righteously which permits the Holy Ghost to be with us more and help us to grow and become more Christlike. Living a more righteous life is a manifestation of our faith in Christ and will bring peace and happiness in this life.
Is this some great “To Do” list where we can earn our own our way to heaven – NO! It doesn’t matter what we do if we do not have charity which is a gift of God. If we do not have FAITH in Christ, repent, and allow the Holy Ghost to purity our hearts, NOTHING we do will gain us SALVATION.
What Church members are saying when they discuss the necessity of good works and complying with ordinances is they are trying to show the PROCESS by which we can become more perfect, more like our Savior. Could we ever become good enough to earn our own Salvation? Of course not! We can’t do anything on our own without the Savior’s constant help.
Not only does the atonement of our Savior give us the free gift of the resurrection, but it provides the power to change, the power to purify our hearts. This is something I am so grateful for! If we access this power and become a better person, it is not something of which we can boast, but something for which we need to give grateful thanks to our Savior, humbly admit our weakness, and accept His strength. It is ONLY through His power, grace, and love for us that we can be saved.