I know it's different than most Christian faiths' beliefs, and I know the missionaries teach it... I know it's a big part of Mormon curriculum and doctrine, and this site is replete with questions about seemingly every part of it, but would someone connect the dots and piece it together here in an overall summary? Why is it needed in LDS doctrine, what questions does it answer?
The LDS Plan of Salvation can be found on the official LDS website here.
In summary, the following are the main points:
- We all once lived as spirit children of God in our premortal life. While we were in our Premortal life, our Heavenly Father presented us with his plan of happiness, as described in Abraham 3:22-26
- We chose, in our premortal life, to come to this earth, this existence, to follow the plan of Eternal Progression. We are now in our Mortal Life. During our mortal life, we are able to grow in ways we couldn't in our premortal life. The purpose of our current life is to grow, to prepare to be worthy of eternal life, to prove ourselves worthy, and to help others to know of God's plan.
- When we die, we will be judged and received into a Kingdom of Glory. The level of glory we inherit will depend on the depth of our conversion and our obedience to the Lord's commandments
This, of course, only scratches the surface, and the LDS Plan of Salvation encompasses not only salvation, but exaltation.
The most basic LDS explanation of what Salvation is:
In the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the terms “saved” and “salvation” have various meanings. As used in Romans 10:9-10, the words “saved” and “salvation” signify a covenant relationship with Jesus Christ. Through this covenant relationship, followers of Christ are assured salvation from the eternal consequences of sin if they are obedient. “Salvation” and “saved” are also used in the scriptures in other contexts with several different meanings.
There are actually six definitions of Salvation in LDS theology, all defined here. (Click the "view more" link.)
- Salvation from Physical Death
- Salvation from Sin
- Being Born Again
- Salvation from Ignorance
- Salvation from the Second Death
- Eternal Life, or Exaltation
A somewhat shorter version than the one linked to at the beginning of the article can be found here.
As for how one achieves Salvation, the teaching differs from mainstream Christianity. Whereas the vast majority of Christianity believes that salvation is by Faith alone, with no works attached, LDS teaching is different. In LDS theology, only General Salvation is attained through Faith in Christ alone.
Assistant to the Council of the Twelve July 1972:
As I listened to the radio a few days ago, I heard a minister tell his listeners: “Confess Christ and you shall be saved. Admit Christ into your heart and he will save you.”
Then he quoted Ephesians 2:8 for his clinching argument: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” [Eph. 2:8]
Then he gave his final advice: “Is this too much to ask of you? Thousands and hundreds of thousands have found lasting peace and happiness by accepting Christ as their Savior. Join with us in Christian faith and you shall be saved.”
I wonder how many people have been lulled into a false sense of security by such teaching. As a missionary knocking at the doors of people, I had literally hundreds of people tell me that they were not interested in learning more about Jesus Christ, for they were already saved. The shocking thing about this is that they were right. What that minister said was true, but the difficulty is that it was not the whole truth.
The true value of the sacrifice of Christ means much more than this general salvation which comes to all mankind. There is an additional salvation that God has planned for his children. This additional salvation is an individual salvation and is conditioned not only upon grace, but also upon obedience to gospel law. One of the prophets in the Book of Mormon explained why he and his associates were so concerned about teaching more about Jesus Christ, as he wrote:
So the general salvation is through faith in Christ alone, but that's just the beginning. There are, in Salvation, more than one level of Glory, which is, as stated above "conditioned not only upon grace, but also upon obedience to gospel law.".
However, this is not seen within LDS teaching as a works-based salvation, even at this level. There is somehow, in LDS theology a difference between obedience, and earning your way in. More from the article quoted above expands upon this.
Exaltation comes as a gift from God, dependent upon my obedience to God’s law. No works I do solely of my own power can bring this to pass. Only by the grace of God has this course been opened to me, but only through obedience to the laws of God can I claim my inheritance in the celestial kingdom of my Heavenly Father as a son within his family. I cannot be exalted in my sins, but must work until I overcome them.
Amulek the prophet explained this most clearly as he said of God:
“And I say unto you again that he cannot save them in their sins; for I cannot deny his word, and he hath said that no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore, how can ye be saved, except ye inherit the kingdom of heaven? Therefore, ye cannot be saved in your sins.” (Alma 11:37.)
But later on in the article, Burton again teaches that works are a result of faith. But the fact remains that in LDS theology, works are required. Perhaps not as a way of "buying" our way in, but as a sign, in that, if we don't have works, it's a sure sign that we don't have faith. Often, the following is quoted as support for this belief.
James 2:14-26 (KJV)
14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your[a] works, and I will show you my faith by my[b] works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?[c] 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”[d] And he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.
25 Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?
26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
And also, the lack of good works/righteousness as a sign of not really being Faithful is stressed in Matthew 15:8, which is heard in almost every Sunday School class I attended when I was attending the LDS Church.
These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
Burton goes on to define those works:
Those works, which follow the true exercise of faith, include repentance, baptism, receipt of the Holy Ghost, and continued righteousness to the end of our lives.
Burton expands a bit on those who do not obey the Law in full:
God said of those who were not willing to pay the full price of exaltation through full obedience to his whole law: “Therefore, when they are out of the world they neither marry nor are given in marriage; but are appointed angels in heaven, which angels are ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory.
This is the opposite of Mainstream Christianity, which believes that as imperfect beings, we cannot be fully obedient, and thus is the distinction - the splitting of hairs between the "mainstream" understanding of "by faith alone". Mainstream Christianity says "I can never be good enough to add a single iota to my salvation. I am miserable and wretched, and I rely solely on God's mercy because even my righteousness is as filthy rags to Him." The LDS teaching, on the other hand, is that we must be fully obedience, and we are able to be fully obedient, and those that achieve this attain the highest form of exaltation.
It's hard to follow after David's very good, exhaustive answer, but here is a different approach, which emphasizes more the procedural flow of it as a literal "plan" (David's first few bullet points).
My answer is a summary, or in some cases, a re-statement, of what is found in the LDS missionary manual, Preach My Gospel (Chapter 3, Lesson 2). All references and/or quotes would point there.
The Plan of Salvation is God's plan for the salvation of His children (us). The Plan of Salvation has been on the earth whenever the Gospel of Jesus Christ is revealed in its fulness. It answers three main questions:
- Where did I come from?
- Why am I here?
- Where am I going after I die?
LDS theology teaches that the fulness of the Plan of Salvation is in the Bible and Book of Mormon together: that one without the other is, in a sense, incomplete.
We are God's children. We lived with God as spirits before we came to earth. We weren't like God, because we didn't have the glory, experience, and power that He has. Since God loves all His children, and is in fact our heavenly parent, He wants us to "grow" and become like Him.
In the center of God's plan is Jesus Christ, who would suffer the Atonement to redeem each of us so that we may return to live with God, and be like Him, to have immortality and eternal life. We chose to accept this plan before we came to Earth.
Of course, Satan (the devil) is an enemy to God's plan. He rebelled and was cast out. We were given agency in our pre-mortal dwelling, which is the free will, or power, to choose. We must choose to follow Christ or follow Satan. Since we chose to come to earth and accept God's plan, we would be separated from His presence for a very important purpose.
To carry out the plan, Jesus Christ created heaven and earth, as a place for us to come and be separated from God's physical presence, where we would forget our pre-earth life, gain experience and learn to walk by faith and not by sight. The creation was for us (and God's joy), and it is one of the most glorious events of eternity.
Adam and Eve
God placed Adam and Eve on the earth, in the Garden of Eden, as the first two of His children to obtain physical bodies. They had agency, and lived in God's presence, but were innocent while in the garden. They did not know good from evil.
They were commanded to multiply and replenish the earth. God also commanded Adam and Eve to not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. While they obeyed this commandment, they could live in God's presence, but they could not progress by experiencing opposition. They couldn't be happy because they couldn't be sad in contrast.
Well, we all know what comes next. Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan to eat the forbidden fruit, and they did so. They were cast out of God's presence, and became subject to death: physical death, which means that their bodies would eventually die, and spiritual death, or separation from God. This is called the Fall, and it is vital to God's plan, and was no surprise to God. (The Atonement was prepared to redeem men from it.)
Adam and Eve could now choose between good and evil (they now had moral agency), which means they could learn and progress spiritually, and continue to carry out the plan. They could also have children, so the rest of God's spirit children could obtain bodies and come to earth.
They were taught the gospel, so they could know of Jesus Christ and the Atonement which would be to come. Thus, they were able to repent.
Here in mortality, we have great opportunities and blessings to learn, gain valuable experience which we could have no other way, and eventually become like our Heavenly Father.
Our experiences here should teach us and our righteous choices will bring us joy. Following God's path and commandments will bring us happiness, whereas following Satan's temptations will draw us away from God and bring us sorrow.
We have two major obstacles to overcome while here. One is physical death: God has a perfect, glorified physical body, and we must have one to be like He is, and it must never die. The other is spiritual death (sin): we make mistakes here on earth because we are tempted by Satan, and because we are out of God's presence, the flesh is subject to carnal nature. We cannot overcome either by ourselves.
We must follow and accept the gospel of Jesus Christ in its fulness, by having faith, repenting, being baptized, receiving the Gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end. But even that would not be enough without Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ came in the meridian of time to accomplish what is the most significant, important, earth-shattering (literally) event in all of history: the Atonement.
Since we cannot become like God on our own from our fallen state (with sin and death), we need not only a perfect example to follow, but we also need a Redeemer who can save us from both sin and death. Jesus Christ was chosen in the pre-mortal life to perform the Atonement.
To save us from death, Christ laid down His life on the cross and suffered (a vile form of) death. He was then resurrected, which loosed the bands of death and opened the gate for all others to be resurrected. All who have lived on Earth -- past, present or future, good or evil -- will eventually be resurrected and receive a perfect, glorified, immortal body of flesh and bone, thanks to the Savior's resurrection.
We also need to be saved from sin. The Atonement covers this as well. Christ paid the penalty of sin for all of us so that we can accept His terms and be forgiven, and made as new. Of course, it doesn't mean we don't have responsibility: we must follow His gospel, and then through the Atonement we can return to live with God.
As we die, our bodies and spirits separate. Our spirits go to a place known as the Spirit World. This is a necessary part of God's plan, since we must be transformed from mortality to immortality. It doesn't change who we are, our desires for good or evil, or our personalities, it is simple a change of state from physical to spiritual.
For those who lived good, respectable lives, it is a sweet experience, and they will live in joy and happiness, and have rest from their troubles and sorrows. Those who chose not to obey the gospel or lived lives contrary to it (and did not repent) will be consigned to a state of misery and pay for their sins. The gospel is preached to all who did not receive it on Earth. (This is the purpose for LDS temple and family history work.)
Resurrection and Judgment
Eventually, all will be resurrected: their physical bodies will re-unite with their spirits never again to be separated. This is a mercy of the Atonement, and will be given first to the righteous, then later to the wicked. Through this, we overcome physical death. This is immortality, but not necessarily eternal life, which is living immortally in the presence of God. (This is not re-incarnation.)
We will be judged and rewarded "according to our works and our desires." (to quote PMG). Eternal life is granted to those who do all that is required of them and live their lives such that they earn exaltation, which is living with God in eternal families. This is knowing God and Jesus Christ, and being like them.
Kingdoms of Glory
Depending on how we lived our lives, we will be given an eternal abode in one of the three kingdoms of glory. Essentially, our bodies will resurrect and inherit a glory compatible to how we lived and who we have become, thanks to Jesus Christ.
It's good to note that each individual will be comfortable with the kingdom which they obtain, since that is the quality of life they chose to live. (For instance, a beggar would not be comfortable in a mansion! -- that's not an LDS analogy, that's my own comment.)
The lowest level of glory is called the Telestial Kingdom. It is compared to the glory of the stars (which are nice to look at, but don't emit much light; they don't illuminate). People who "continued in their sins and did not repent in this life" will be rewarded here (which, it's said, is still more glorious than this earth is currently).
People who lived good lives but did not accept the fulness of the gospel will inherit the Terrestrial Kingdom, compared to the glory of the moon.
But those who lived good lives, and did accept the fulness of the gospel, who were washed of all their sins, will live with God and Jesus Christ in the Celestial Kingdom. Those who qualify for exaltation through the new and everlasting covenant of marriage (eternal marriage in a temple) will receive the highest degree in the Celestial Kingdom, and literally become like God, and have all that He has. This reward is achieved by making and keeping sacred covenants. These will receive a fulness of joy.