It is common to hear a Latter-day Saint say something like, “God will save everyone, but not everyone will live in the highest heaven.” This is because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches universalism regarding salvation, but a system of merit regarding exaltation.
It is absolutely critical that Christians recognize that the Bible never separates the concepts of salvation and exaltation. This is because in order for one to be saved, he must be perfectly righteous in God’s sight; and, if he truly is perfectly righteous, he will also be exalted. The same righteousness is required for both, and the results arrive simultaneously.
To “impute” means to credit or attribute something to someone. For instance, people will sometimes impute bad motives to others as an act of prejudice. On the contrary, God, as the perfect Judge, never wrongly imputes qualities to another. Therefore, when He states that man, because of his natural sin, has earned himself death (Romans 6:23a), all people should tremble. Yet God has made a way for man to be saved: through the death of His Son, Jesus Christ (6:23b).
A person is not fully saved if he has only had his sins paid for. It is true that in Jesus Christ, sins are forgiven (Acts 10:43), but Jesus taught that man needs righteousness, too. He told the Jews that they had to be extremely righteous to enter heaven (Matthew 5:20). Forgiving a debt may take a person out of the red— up to zero—but that doesn’t make him a rich person. God requires heaven’s entrants to be rich in righteousness. How, then, can a man be saved?
Second Corinthians 5:21 says, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Jesus became a curse in the place of sinners, taking the punishment man deserves (Galatians 3:13); it is only through faith in Jesus’ death that man can be forgiven of the sin that deserves judgment. Believing in Jesus also results in being credited with the very righteousness of God. This is full salvation. In the book of Romans, it is stated that by faith in Jesus’ finished work, God’s righteousness is imputed to the believer apart from his own efforts (3:21-26, 4:4-8, 5:18-21).
Exaltation for All the Righteous Ones
Upon faith in Jesus’ work, a person “become[s] the righteousness of God in Him.” This means that God considers believers to be fully righteous, and no greater status could be obtained. Christians are heirs with Christ and will be glorified with Him (Romans 8:17). This will take place when Christ returns and the dead are resurrected.
Yet, even now, God speaks of His people as being exalted in His sight. After Paul described the Ephesians’ former state of deadness in sin, he told them that they had been made alive with Christ (Ephesians 2:5), having been raised with Him and seated in the heavenly places (2:6).
It is important to notice the past-tense wording that the apostle employed. The Ephesians had been seated in the heavenlies with Christ. Paul was not denying the still-future glorification of believers at the resurrection; rather, he was telling the Ephesians that their exalted status was secure because they were placed in Christ by faith. Upon faith in the biblical gospel, one is permanently exalted with Christ in heavenly places. This exaltation is an instant act of God upon the believer.
Latter-day Saints must be encouraged to see salvation and exaltation not as two separate events, but as two sides of the same offer found in Jesus. Philippians 3:7–11 explains that through faith alone in Jesus’ work, righteousness is credited to the believer’s account from the outside.
Nobody earns righteousness; it can only be received from God by faith in the biblical gospel. The believer is then set on a course of worshiping God for all of eternity as a co-heir with Christ. Though he remains a creature who himself will never be worshiped by another, he is exalted with Jesus and will also reign with Him (2 Timothy 2:12a). This is biblical exaltation.