Mormons generally describe salvation as consisting of two parts: physical and spiritual. Simply put, physical salvation is immortality, and spiritual salvation is eternal life with God.
A common modern view is that physical salvation is free through the grace of God, whereas spiritual salvation requires a combination of grace and human work. All humans, moral or otherwise, will eventually attain physical salvation: the living will be transfigured and the dead resurrected to immortality, without any work on our part. Almost all humans will eventually attain spiritual salvation, through the grace of God; however, the degree of our spiritual salvation depends on the morality of our works.
Regarding physical salvation, the common modern view contrasts with a more complex view expressed by early Mormon authorities. Joseph Smith taught that physical salvation, like spiritual salvation, would be attained to varying degrees, and Brigham Young taught that some humans would not attain physical salvation whatsoever – instead returning to “native element”. Furthermore, Smith taught that transfiguration of the living to immortality would be a religious ordinance that we would perform, and Young taught the same concerning the resurrection of the dead to immortality. Whereas the common modern view holds that physical salvation is inevitable and uniform; the early view holds that physical salvation is evitable and diverse.
Despite the contrast in these views, the common modern view provides a mechanism, already incorporated in its position on spiritual salvation, for reconciling itself with the early view. The common modern view, although holding that spiritual salvation requires human work, tempers that position by acknowledging the necessity of grace. If not for God’s willingness to forgive us for our moral failings, and if not for our willingness to forgive each other for our moral failings, no amount of work would suffice in pursuit of spiritual salvation, because it depends inherently on relationships of love. Furthermore, if not for God’s willingness to educate us in morality, and if not for our willingness to evangelize morality among ourselves, no amount of work would suffice in pursuit of spiritual salvation, because it depends inherently on knowledge of morality. This grace, manifest in willingness to forgive and educate, is necessary to enable spiritual salvation. It is also congruent with the idea of grace as a necessary enabler of physical salvation: no amount of work is sufficient for achieving physical salvation if God does not provide the possibility. However, simply because God freely enables a possibility does not necessarily imply that God freely grants the outcome without any effort on our part, as illustrated by the common modern view of spiritual salvation. By applying to physical salvation the logic of its position on spiritual salvation, the common modern view can reconcile itself with the early view expressed by Smith and Young.
Should the common modern view reconcile itself to the early view of physical salvation? There are at least two ways to go about answering this question, both of which are important to most Mormons. First, we may seek emotional confirmation of one view or the other, as inspiration from God, through meditation and prayer. Second, we may seek rational confirmation of one view or the other, also as inspiration from God, through study and pondering. Regarding the second, we may begin by asking ourselves this question: what practical difference does it make to believe one way or the other? The answer is that faith in inevitable and uniform physical salvation is passive, whereas faith in evitable and diverse physical salvation is active. If we do not believe we can make a difference in our physical salvation or that of others in our community, we probably will not try. If we believe we can make a difference, we are more likely to try. Thus, unless we know infallibly that we cannot make a difference, it seems wise put our faith in evitable and diverse physical salvation, thereby increasing the likelihood that we will try to attain it – and a more desirable form of it. If physical salvation is inevitable and uniform, it will not matter that we tried to attain it. However, if physical salvation is evitable and diverse, our efforts could certainly matter.
In my experience, faith in the possibility that our efforts can make a difference in physical salvation has led me to experience that which I identify as the confirming inspiration, both rational and emotional, of God. I see a world of possibilities, by the grace of God, presented to us. One of those possibilities is that we may learn to be more like God, acting on possibilities to become creators of both spiritual salvation and physical salvation.
“God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. He has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences, that they may be exalted with himself, so that they might have one glory upon another, and all that knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence, which is requisite in order to save them in the world of spirits. This is good doctrine. It tastes good. I can taste the principles of eternal life, and so can you. They are given to my by the revelations of Jesus Christ; and I know that when I tell you these words of eternal life as they are given to me, you taste them, and I know that you believe them. You say honey is sweet, and so do I. I can also taste the spirit of eternal life. I know it is good; and when I tell you of these things which were given my be inspiration of the Holy Spirit, you are bound to receive them as sweet, and rejoice more and more.” – Joseph Smith