As a Mormon, I find the Calvinist doctrine of salvation by grace for the elect unappealing. It seems unfair that a person’s good behavior on earth doesn’t count. Not all birthright Mormons feel this way, of course. Todd, the leader of my first Buddhist sangha, said he left Mormonism because, “I could never be good enough, no matter how hard I tried.”
Our older son had a similar experience with Mormonism. A Calvinist church, which taught the doctrine of salvation by grace, reassured him of God’s love for mortals who fall short of perfection.
Our younger son, the opposite of his brother, flaunted authority and broke rules almost from day one. Mormon concepts of being good in order to merit blessings and avoid punishments struck him as manipulation by those in power. Oddly enough, he followed his brother into Calvinism. None of us thought it would last.
For several years, I’ve tried to understand the appeal of Calvinism to our sons. I recently gleaned some understanding from Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis in 1945. The foreword by Timothy J. Keller has the clearest definition of grace I’ve read. Keller dismisses as cheap grace the concept of being saved by God’s love no matter how a person lives. He defines as legalism the concept of being saved by laws and works: “God loves you because you have pulled yourself together and are trying to live a good, disciplined life.” Keller would likely place the Mormon doctrine, “by grace we are saved after all we can do,” (2 Ne. 25:23) in this category.
Keller credits Bonhoeffer with teaching costly grace—the idea that we are saved by grace alone, but “if we have truly understood and believed the gospel, it will change what we do and how we live.” True believers love and serve God out of gratitude for what they have already been given, not for what they expect to receive.
Like Mormons who believe those of the lineage of Israel will hear and accept the gospel message, Calvinists tend to believe that those elected to salvation will heed and live the gospel. Both my sons found the idea of having already received grace rather than needing to earn it appealing. Both have changed their lives—not from fear of losing salvation or missing blessings, but from love and gratitude to God who loves them unconditionally.
Certainly, I have heard many sincere testimonies from Mormons who have joined the Church and changed their lives. I believe a teaching that causes inner change in a person, which is manifest in outward behavior, is a true teaching for that person.
My own inner change has come mostly from Buddhist teachings of acceptance, mindfulness, and connectedness. Accepting myself as I am has made me more tolerant of others. Being mindful of the present moment helps slow me down to savor this life and to value the relationships I enjoy now rather than those I might expect to find in Heaven. Recognizing my connectedness to other people and to the natural world makes me want to for care the earth and all its inhabitants.