Even though there are some conditional aspects of the Atonement that require our adherence to gospel principles for the full realization of eternal blessings, the Book of Mormon makes clear that neither the conditional nor unconditional blessings of the Atonement would be available to mankind except through the grace and goodness of Christ. Obviously the unconditional blessings of the Atonement are unearned, but the conditional ones also are not fully merited. By living faithfully and keeping the commandments of God, we can receive a fuller measure of blessings from Christ, but even these greater blessings are freely given of him and are not technically "earned" by us. In short, good works are necessary for salvation, but they are not sufficient. And God is not obliged to make up the insufficiency. As Jacob taught, "Remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved."
The Book of Mormon is unequivocal in its teaching that fallen man "could not merit anything of himself," as Aaron taught King Lamoni's father. Lehi taught the same doctrine earlier when he declared, "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."
Among the earliest Book of Mormon sermons on Christ—one establishing for future Nephite generations the "doctrine of Christ"—was Nephi's concluding testimony to his people shortly before his death. In that valedictory message, he taught that through baptism we enter the straight and narrow path that leads to eternal life. But even in such outward ordinances, even by such "works," if you will, do we earn our way to salvation? Emphatically not, said Nephi:
"Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save."
That is a variation on what Abinadi later taught about the relationship of the law of Moses to the gospel, a form of the works vs. grace controversy that was observed even in ancient days. Said he, "Salvation doth not come by the law alone; and were it not for the atonement, which God himself shall make for the sins and iniquities of his people . . . they must unavoidably perish, notwithstanding the law of Moses."
As noted earlier, even the sometimes stern Jacob was brightened by the realization of God's grace. He taught, "Cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves—to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved. Wherefore, may God raise you from death by the power of the resurrection, and also from everlasting death by the power of the atonement, that ye may be received into the eternal kingdom of God, that ye may praise him through grace divine."
Moroni would close the Book of Mormon with his final reassurance of the grace of God, but noting it is a grace that requires our honest effort to claim and enjoy. To those of us who would live in the latter days, he wrote, "If ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; . . . then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ."
As summary, Nephi gave what surely must be the most succinct and satisfying resolution ever recorded in the history of the faith vs. works controversy. He said clearly and plainly for all who read the Book of Mormon to understand, "We know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do."