Almost all Christian religions, including those who believe we are saved solely by grace, believe that at the great and last day of judgment each of us will be rewarded for the things we have done. In fact it was Jesus who further elaborated on this subject when He declared, "But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give an account thereof in the day of judgment" (Matthew 12:36).
Everything we do is being recorded in heaven, and from these books will every person be judged and rewarded according to the works they have performed (Revelations20:10). Every action we commit, whether good or bad, every word we utter, whether clean or filthy, every opportunity we're presented with, whether used or ignored, will help determine our ultimate reward. Everything we do in life affects our eternal destiny.
Fortunately, true repentance helps erase many of our shortcomings, nevertheless, as Latter-day Saints "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam's transgression" (second article of faith). The Lord told Joseph Smith, "That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment" (D&C 101:78; emphasis added).
One of the bedrock doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that each of us are responsible for our own actions. Once we have reached the age of accountability, we can no longer excuse or blame our sins on the actions of others. Nephi explained it this way to the people of his day: "And the Messiah cometh in the fullness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon" (2 Nephi 2:27).
The plan of Satan in the great council in heaven was to force us to be righteous, but the plan of the Father, which Jesus fulfilled, allowed us the freedom to choose for ourselves how we want to behave. We are free to act for ourselves and cannot blame our sins on others who have acted upon us.
Or can we?
After Moses had led the Israelites out of Egypt, the Lord commanded them saying, "And these words which I have commanded you this day shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up" (Dueteronomy 6:7).
We are commanded to teach our children the words of God, but what if we don't? What about parents who don't know the words of God, or don't believe in God, or don't care about God? What happens to the children of such parents?
As we look at a new born infant, it's extremely obvious that the child is completely helpless and totally dependant on others to teach it to eat, walk, talk and behave. Without anyone acting upon it, a child would learn very little. And that which it would learn would be those things that are according to the natural desires of the body.
Our physical bodies are deliberately designed in a way that they are not naturally inclined to do what is righteous. When a righteous spirit from the pre-mortal world enters its physical body, it experiences something never before felt - selfishness. Everything about the mortal body is made to cater to itself. Biologically, emotionally, spiritually, the human body's primary concern is for self preservation. It has to be taught how to put the needs of others first. Yet it is in the struggle against the self-seeking tendencies of the physical body that the spirit within it grows stronger.
But what happens to that spirit - who also has to cope with having a veil of forgetfulness placed over the memory of its prior existence - if no one teaches it how to behave properly? The answer is all too well known. The child grows up behaving in ways that are not proper.
Everything a child does it learns by being taught. If a child throws a tantrum and the parents give in to the outburst, the child is being taught how to get what it wants. If a child is told to do something but doesn't get disciplined when it disobeys the order, it is being taught that it's all right to be disobedient. When a child sees others smoking, drinking, or using foul language, it's being taught how to behave. All of these methods of teaching are acting upon the impressionable child.
As the child grows into adolescence, the normal psychological behavior is for them to start exerting their independence. This happens to every child. At this stage of development there is the natural tendency of children to question everything they've been told. The parent's approval no longer matters, and what is important now is the approval of their peers. Even for children who have been raised in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, this is a very difficult time for both child and parents.
By this time, the child has definitely reached the age of accountability, but both psychologists and prophets warn us that parents must exert a strong guiding influence at this point in their child's development if they are to keep them from straying into unrighteous ways. Without parents acting upon their children, in the great majority of cases, the child will naturally follow an unrighteous course of action.
If parents don't act upon their children in a way that teaches them to live righteously, who's fault is it if the child commits sin? If a child has been taught right and wrong and then deliberately refuses to follow the teaching of their parents, then the child must take full responsibility for it's actions. But, since a child must be taught everything it does, and if the parents - either through ignorance, neglect or design - teach a child that it's all right to act unrighteously, how can the child be held completely responsible when it sins? Reason would dictate that in such cases the parents should also share part of the responsibility for their children's actions.
Indeed, the Lord has declared, "Inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents" (D&C 68:25).
And what happens when these children, who have been taught to behave unrightously, grow up and have children of their own? How will they raise the next generation? The only way they can; by following the example taught to them by their parents. In 4 Nephi we read, "And it came to pass that they who rejected the gospel were called Lamanites, and Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites; and they did not dwindle in unbelief but they did willfully rebel against the gospel of Christ; and they did teach their children that they should not believe, even as their fathers, from the beginning did dwindle. And it was because of the wickedness and abomination of their fathers, even as it was in the beginning. And they were taught to hate the children of God, even as the Lamanites were taught to hate the children of Nephi from the beginning" (v. 38-39; italics added).
Like ripples in water, the sins of the parents are perpetrated and expanded as they affect more and more helpless spirits born into mortality, dependant on their parents for guidance. This doesn't mean that the child is totally blameless for their actions. Every person born into life is given the light of Christ to guide them, and all spirits have the freedom to choose right from wrong. Regardless of what we learn from others, we are still responsible for the way we behave. We have it in our own power to follow the light of Christ or ignore it. Nevertheless, parents do play an important and vital role in the development of their children and cannot escape sharing in the blame if they fail to properly guide and influence their children.
If it's true that the sins of the children are upon the head of parents who don't teach their children to walk in righteousness, imagine what it will be like for such parents when "the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works" (Matthew 16:27)? They will not only be rewarded for the wrongs they themselves have done, but for the sins which their children have committed due to being improperly taught, and possibly for the sins of their grandchildren and beyond, which are a direct result of their failure to properly train those spirits who've been entrusted to them.
However, parents aren't the only ones who teach their children. What about those who have the opportunity to teach others? Consider the words of Jacob which he wrote. "And we did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence; wherefore, by laboring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day" (Jacob 1:19).
King Benjamin expressed the same thought to his people when he said, "Therefore, as I said unto you that I had served you, walking with a clear conscience before God, even so I at this time have caused that ye should assemble yourselves together that I might be found blameless, and that your blood should not come upon me, when I shall stand to be judged of God of the things whereof he hath commanded me concerning you" (Mosiah 2:27).
Both Jacob and King Benjamin took upon themselves the responsibility of teaching their people to live righteously so that the sins of their people would not be held against either of them on the great day of judgment. King Mosiah explained, "For behold, I say unto you, the sins of many people have been caused by the iniquities of their kings; therefore their iniquities are answered upon the heads of their kings" (Mosiah 20:31). As such, Jacob and King Benjamin acted upon their people with all their might to help guide them and keep them on the path that leads to eternal life so that the sins of their people would not be held against them personally.
If the sins of people can be charged against those who are responsible for teaching them, then the righteous deeds of others must likewise be counted among the works of those who faithfully teach others. Consider the mission of Ammon to the Lamanites. Despite the training of their fathers to hate the Nephites, Ammon was able to influence hundreds of Lamanites to do good. As those people remained faithful to the gospel of Christ, they then taught their children to do the same, who then taught their children. It is only just that Ammon should receive a degree of reward for the good works which many others had done as a result of his influence, for without his help, those works of righteousness may never have happened.
We are social beings. It was never intended that we live separately, existing and growing only for and by ourselves. Rather, we are meant to interact with other people. We need each other to grow, to develop, to advance, to achieve. We can't make it to the celestial kingdom by ourselves. We need someone other than ourselves to baptize us, to confer the Holy Ghost upon us, to perform the temple ordinances for us, to teach us gospel principles, to encourage us to remain faithful, and help us when we become weak.
We often think of the presidents of the Church as being men of such righteousness that we can't imagine them needing our help. Yet many of our Latter-day prophets have often expressed gratitude for the prayers and sustaining power of the saints in their behalf. Without such help, these men would find it much more difficult to do the work they've been called to perform. Thus, by the prayers we offer, and the sustaining life we live, we are helping the leaders of the church to fulfill their duties to a greater extent, thereby helping them to achieve greater rewards for themselves and others.
We need to work together as a team. When one person fails, it affects the rest of us in ways we often can't see. All of us need help in staying on the strait and narrow path, some more than others. Each of us needs to be acted upon by others and each of us need to act upon others. In this way, we work together in our common effort to achieve salvation.
As with parents, there are many methods of teaching that act upon others in a positive manner. We can literally preach the gospel as the missionaries do, directly bringing the message of salvation to people. We can act upon others by sharing the Book of Mormon with strangers or by sharing our testimonies. We can act upon others by faithfully and conscientiously fulfilling our church callings. These are obvious and easily understood methods of helping people, but there are many other ways that are less obvious.
Since our actions often affect others, when we offer a helping hand out of kindness to a friend or a stranger, we provide them with a moment of love. Such thoughtful concern has often made a lasting impression upon the person receiving it. Many times we don't see the results of such little deeds, but frequently it provides something which the recipient can build upon to become a better person. The same goes for courteous behavior, such as holding a door open, being patient with someone, saying "thank you", or just greeting people with a warm smile. There are legions of stories told about people who have been influenced for good simply by observing the example of those who live righteous lives.
But mortal beings aren't the only source of help. Through our prayers we can call upon the services of angels to influence others. When Joseph Smith was fourteen years old, there was no one on earth to help guide him to the truth. Therefore, both God the Father and the Son came forth to teach him. When he was seventeen, the angel Moroni visited him with more instruction. During the rest of his life, John the Baptist, Peter, James and John and Elijah, among others, came to teach him. All of these non-mortal beings had a great influence upon young Joseph.
And what about opportunities that we don't take advantage of? What affect do we have upon people who could have benefited from our help but didn't because of our lack of effort? When "the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels... [to] reward every man according to his works" we may sadly learn too late about those whom we let down. And our sorrow will be even worse if shown what that person could have enjoyed had we taken the time to righteously act upon them.
The Lord revealed to Joseph Smith, "And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people and bring save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father. And now, if your joy will be great with one soul that you have brought unto me into the kingdom of my Father, how great will be your joy if you should bring many souls unto me" (D&C 18:15-16)!
If our joy will be great because we have helped bring someone into the celestial kingdom, will we not also feel a measure of joy knowing that our actions helped elevate someone to the terrestrial kingdom who was heading toward the telestial kingdom? We're told that in the telestial kingdom everyone's glory will not be the same, but will differ as one star differs from another (D&C 76:98). Will we not also receive a measure of joy knowing that our actions were responsible for someone gaining a brighter degree of glory in the telestial kingdom?
The actions of each person affects the lives of many others, for good or for bad. It seems only reasonable that our final reward will not only include our own works, but also a portion of the works which others have performed as a result of our influence. After Cain killed Abel, "the Lord said unto him, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not; Am I my brother's keeper" (Genesis 4:9)? Apparently we are.