In my observation there are three fundamentally different views held by members of the Church regarding ordinances. I refer to these different views as telestial, terrestrial, and celestial, although those distinctions are arbitrary.
In the telestial view, the key to exaltation is having received the “saving ordinances.” In this view it is believed that God has effectively given His power to men, and that men thus hold the keys to exalt or damn in their role as saviors on mount zion. This belief is associated with the concept that “They can’t progress until we do their work for them.” According to this view, one is encouraged to stay busy completing as many of the vicarious saving ordinances as possible, as completion of the ordinances at least implies and probably insures personal holiness. Exaltation, in this view, is a function of having received the saving ordinances, combined with continued activity in the Church and the avoidance of major sins.
The terrestrial view understands that ordinances alone cannot save; they must be sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise to become effective, and the Holy Spirit of Promise is understood to be the Holy Ghost. This paradigm promotes the belief that if, for example, a couple is sealed in the temple and feels the spirit from time to time, in addition to staying active in the Church and not committing any major sins, they should expect to be sealed together forever in the celestial kingdom. For those who have already passed away, vicarious “ordinances take effect only when those for whom the ordinances were performed accept them, keep the covenants associated with them, and become sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise.” In summary, the terrestrial view is the same as the telestial paradigm (i.e. the “saving ordinances” view) plus the incremental requirement of intermittent interaction with the Holy Ghost. These are the keys to exaltation in the terrestrial paradigm.
The celestial view is very different from the previous two. It asserts that the “saving ordinances” do not save, but are merely symbols intended to point us toward heavenly ordinances/interaction that are the real manifestations of God’s approbation and power. These heavenly ordinances, controlled and administered by God and His angels, constitute the “mysteries of Godliness” because they remain a mystery to those of the telestial and terrestrial paradigms. It also asserts that the Holy Spirit of Promise entails more than just the Holy Ghost. Specifically, in the celestial view, the Holy Spirit of Promise is the Second Comforter, or the Savior himself, promising you a place in the celestial kingdom:
“Wherefore, I now send upon you another Comforter, even upon you my friends, that it may abide in your hearts, even the Holy Spirit of promise; which other Comforter is the same that I promised unto my disciples, as is recorded in the testimony of John. This Comforter is the promise which I give unto you of eternal life, even the glory of the celestial kingdom; (D&C 88:3-4)
The “testimony of John” appears to refer to His teachings in John 14, where our Savior declares:
16 And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;
18 I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.
23 Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.
To make sure there was no doubt as to what the Lord was teaching in that last verse, the prophet Joseph provided this interpretation:
“John 14:23—The appearing of the Father and the Son, in that verse, is a personal appearance; and the idea that the Father and the Son dwell in a man’s heart is an old sectarian notion, and is false.” (D&C 130:3)
The celestial view makes the role of earthly ordinances crystal clear: they have no power to save in and of themselves. They are useful inasmuch as they point us directly toward the heavens, and specifically toward the Savior. Ordinances “take effect” only when one comes to know the Savior. They do not, in and of themselves, have any inherent or automatic power to save. Are they necessary steps? Yes. But the power of Godliness is not manifest via earthly ordinances. That power comes once we learn to recognize and follow His voice in all things, after which He promises to come visit us face-to-face, eventually promise us a place in the Celestial life, and introduce us during mortality to our Father. Then They will take up Their abode with us. The only power to save comes directly from heaven. Without it we pursue a false and vain religion.
22 For strait is the gate, and narrow the way that leadeth unto the exaltation and continuation of the lives, and few there be that find it, because ye receive me not in the world neither do ye know me.
23 But if ye receive me in the world, then shall ye know me, and shall receive your exaltation; that where I am ye shall be also.
24 This is eternal lives—to know the only wise and true God, and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent. I am he. Receive ye, therefore, my law. (D&C 132:22-24)