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None of Them is Lost: Read a Book Excerpt
The English minister William Law found himself "incapable of thinking otherwise of God than as the one . . . who can will nothing else to all eternity, but to communicate good, and blessing, and happiness, and perfection to every life, according to its capacity to receive it. Had I a hundred lives, I could with more ease part with them all by suffering a hundred deaths than give up this lovely idea of God."
Law correctly apprehended the nature of the weeping God of Enoch, and with these words he has revealed the key to the whole question of a restrictive heaven. Why, in other words, can a merciful God not simply open the gates to all and sundry? Humans can remit a penalty out of compassion or mercy—even when wrong is not acknowledged and forgiveness not asked; why cannot God do the same? Because only a simpleminded conception of heaven, as an exclusive celestial club with literal gates and wary porters, admits of such a question.
Heaven is not a club we enter. Heaven is a state we attain, in accordance with our "capacity to receive" a blessed and sanctified nature. A nineteenth-century scripture dictated by Joseph Smith echoed Law's point in similar language. Describing the disposition of people after death, the visionary account reveals that some spirits "shall return again to their own place, to enjoy that which they are willing to receive, because they were not willing to enjoy that which they might have received." In other words, we acquire Heaven in accordance with a growing capacity to receive it.
What we conclude at this point is this: God cannot arbitrarily dispense a blanket "salvation" on the human race for two reasons. First, because heaven depends on our attaining a particular mode of being, a character and mind and will that are the product of lifelong choosing. Conforming to celestial laws, we become celestial persons. "That which is governed by law is also preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same," in the language of scripture. Salvation, in this light, is the imitation of Christ—or, to make the concept clearer, the imitating of Christ. One is only merciful to the extent one extends mercy. One is only honest to the extent one practices honesty. One is only truthful to the extent one speaks truthfully, and so on. That is why, all good intentions and Christ's grace notwithstanding, whosoever chooses "to abide in sin, . . . cannot be sanctified by law, neither by mercy." Heaven is a condition and a sanctified nature toward which all godly striving tends; it is not a place to be found by walking through the right door with a heavenly hall pass.
There is a second reason our salvation cannot be simply awarded by divine decree. Even if it were possible, imposing a heavenly reward on those who do not choose heaven would be just that: an imposition on the "unwilling" and an abrogation of the moral agency on which all human life and earthly existence is predicated. It is because of the sanctity of choice that "we have no claim . . . in relation to Eternal things unless our actions & contracts & all things tend to this end." We cannot expect heaven if we do not choose heaven, in simplest terms. This view of salvation does not preempt Christ's grace. The opportunity to follow in Christ's mold is utterly predicated upon a grace of which Christ's death on the cross is the most supernal, but neither the first nor the final, instance. All of which takes us back to our earlier question: how can God rescue us from the prison of our own damaged will, and help us transcend the condition our poor choices—and out and out sins—have brought us to, without abrogating our agency?