The Christian doctrine of sola gratia says that salvation comes alone through the grace of God. This doctrine dates to the 529 Council of Orange, and is nearly universal within Christianity—from Catholics to Protestants to Orthodox. It says that faith, works, and salvation are made possible only through God’s grace, as a result of the atonement of Jesus. It is a separate issue from sola fide (“faith alone”), about which Protestants disagree with Catholics and Orthodox Christianity. Sola fide is the subject of another post.
By all rights, the doctrine of sola gratia should be one of the fundamental tenets of Mormonism. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was most aligned with Methodism prior to his founding of the new faith, and that alignment is not surprising in view of the earliest Mormon scripture, the 1830 Book of Mormon. In general, this book is conventionally Methodist in its its views about salvation and grace. After the speaker indicates that his people labor diligently to convince people to believe in Christ, he nevertheless notes that “we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all that we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23). Similarly, other passages state that “it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved” (2 Ne. 10:24), and “there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Ne. 2:8). The 1830 Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ, which served as the “constitution” of the church Joseph Smith’s founded, notes that both justification and sanctification are through “the grace of our Lord.” (D&C 20:30-31).
However, most Mormons alive today would disagree with the statement that we are saved by “grace alone.” At some point in Mormon history, the idea of salvation by grace became suspect to Mormons. This apparently happened during the 20th century, because as late as 1899, a Mormon apostle felt comfortable stating from the pulpit at the church’s annual General Conference that: “When we are in favor of the doctrine of Christ we manifest our faith by our works, and consequently are saved by grace and are justified by faith, because we manifest our faith by our works.” (George Teasdale, 1899 Conference Report, p. 33). This was not only an endorsement of sola gratia, but an endorsement of sola fide (salvation by faith alone). As late as 1954, Joseph Fielding Smith seemed to endorse sola gratia in his book Doctrines of Salvation (2:308-11).
I have not been able to pinpoint the moment when the idea of sola gratia began to lose favor within Mormonism. However, Bruce R. McConkie might have had something to do with at least popularizing the idea that Mormons are saved, at least in part, by their works. In 1958, McConkie identified two types of redemption: an unconditional type that comes by grace alone (Mormon Doctrine, pp. 623-24), and a conditional redemption that “comes by the grace of God coupled with good works” (Ibid., 623.) This “unconditional” redemption, according to McConkie, consists of resurrection of the body, but not eternal life. McConkie’s views on this and all topics were very influential among generations in the latter half of the 20th century. However, his signature book Mormon Doctrine has recently been allowed by the LDS Church to go out of print, in part because of its controversial and sometimes offensive content.
Since McConkie, other Mormon publications have followed suit in rejecting sola gratia. Spencer W. Kimball’s 1969 Miracle of Forgiveness calls the doctrine of sola gratia “one of the most fallacious doctrines originated by Satan and propounded by man.” The 1979 LDS Bible Dictionary states that “grace cannot suffice without total effort on the part of the recipient.”
Around the 1980s, however, a number of Mormon writers such as Stephen Robinson, Robert Millet, Gerald Lund, Donald P. Olsen, and Hyrum Andrus—so-called Mormon neo-orthodox writers— have begun to revisit the issue of “saved by grace.” An 1981 work by Lund, for example, was published in the LDS’s church’s flagship magazine The Ensign. Olsen and Andrus have presented what are perhaps the most Protestant explanations of grace within the context of Mormonism. For example, Olson states:
[T]hose who truly have the grace of Christ have faith unto repentance, receive baptism and the Holy Ghost, are justified, are in the process of becoming sanctified, have received salvation from sin, and may have received eternal life. These blessings will be theirs so long as they do not fall from grace by trusting in good works or by attempting to earn, merit, or deserve these blessings. (Sunstone, issue 44, Augumn 1984, pp. 21-25.)
So the answer to the question, “Do Mormons believe in ‘saved by grace’?” is: it depends on the Mormon.