Mormonism and Christianity/Grace and works/Mormon perspective

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Mormonism and the relationship between grace and works

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Question: How do Mormons see the relationship between works and grace?

Differences in terminology

Two LDS authors insightfully described the LDS doctrine of grace and salvation, and compared it to the schema used by many Protestants, as follows:

(1) Latter-day Saints believe that our individual sins (not just the original sin introduced by Adam) are forgiven as a result of God's grace. (2) Latter-day Saints believe that salvation (in the Protestant sense of that term—salvation from death and hell, coupled with immortality in the presence of God) is graciously and unconditionally granted to all but sons of perdition; (3) For Latter-day Saints the real issue of salvation has to do with the individual's continued growth into God's likeness (sanctification) and exaltation, which are the synergistic outcome of divine grace and human striving. It is the Latter-day Saint degrees-of-glory eschatology that does not fit nicely with Protestant models of grace, grafted as they are to a heaven-or-hell eschatology...

Salvation is an all-or-nothing affair for most Protestants, making the distinction between "born again" and "unregenerate" correspond exactly to that between "saved" and "damned." For Latter-day Saints, though, most of the "unregenerate" receive a degree of glory—one which passes all earthly understanding (DC 76:89)—for having chosen to come to earth and for deciding not to deny the Holy Spirit. Moreover, Latter-day Saints hold that the life led by those receiving lower degrees of glory is substantially different than that supposedly enjoyed in Protestant heaven or hell. Those in the telestial kingdom for instance (and thus some of those that are "saved") do not enjoy the full presence of the Godhead as they would in Protestant versions of heaven. However, the absence of the Father and the Son (which in this respect would equate to Protestant notions of hell) is a far cry from the Protestant notion of eternal torment, as they still enjoy the presence of God, the Holy Spirit, and a glory beyond human comprehension. Similarly, the residents of the terrestrial kingdom are neither clearly "saved" nor clearly "damned" according to Protestant definitions: they have accepted the testimony of Jesus (corresponding to "saved") but have not been valiant therein and receive only the "glory" and not the "full presence" of the Father (corresponding in this sense to "damned"). Clearly, given these and other differences, the Latter-day Saint understanding of salvation cannot be directly correlated to Protestant soteriology and eschatology...

Latter-day Saints do not accept the Protestant assumption that faith/grace and human agency/actions/works constitute two separate grammars of discourse. To the contrary, we believe that it is false and that James and even Paul, as well as living prophets, make it clear that faith/grace and human agency/actions/works are actually inseparable.[1]


Question: Do Mormons believe that salvation is based upon works?

For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, belief and faith in Jesus Christ is absolutely essential for salvation

Evangelical Christians claim that salvation comes through "faith alone" (sola fide) and they accuse Latter-day Saints of holding to an un-Biblical belief of "works-based salvation."

For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, belief and faith in Jesus Christ is absolutely essential for salvation. Just like our Evangelical brethren we may say, "faith without works is dead," and inversely, "works without faith is likewise dead." These two principles are undeniably connected as means to salvation. The conflict for both groups arises from a misunderstanding.

Unfortunately, this misunderstanding demonstrates how very far apart Mormons and Evangelicals are in coming to understand each other and each other's beliefs. The irony of this accusation is that there really shouldn't be any controversy. Because of differing jargon and built-in mistrust between Mormons and other Christians, both sects are generally confused as to exactly what the other sect believes.

The Evangelical position: While each denomination varies slightly in how they define justification by faith, a common place to start is that good works stem from faith

Contrary to what many Mormons believe, justification by faith alone does not mean that one can profess belief in Christ and then run amok with one's life. It is much more intricate than what its title suggests.

While each denomination varies slightly in how they define justification by faith, a common place to start is that good works stem from faith.[2] In other words, if one has the appropriate amount or type of faith, then they will be driven by their love of Jesus Christ to keep His commandments and ordinances.[3]

This position is well supported by scripture:

If ye love me, keep my commandments. (John 14:15)

Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. (James 2:18)

To an Evangelical Christian the word "works" has a negative connotation and is often associated with "works of the law" which Paul roundly condemns (see, for example, Galatians 2:16). In fact, many go so far as to prefer the word "deeds" over "works" because the former is nowhere mentioned in connection with the law.

It is a misconception that Mormons don't believe faith is important for salvation

Because Mormons consider works separate from faith, many Evangelicals assume that Mormons don't believe faith is important for salvation. The implication here is that the atonement is not necessary since a "righteous" enough person can make it to heaven without it.

This misconception does not take into account Latter-day Saint scripture which emphatically states this is not true:

They are they who received the testimony of Jesus, and believed on his name and were baptized after the manner of his burial, being buried in the water in his name, and this according to the commandment which he has given — Wherefore, all things are theirs, whether life or death, or things present, or things to come, all are theirs and they are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (D&C 76:51,59).[4]

But wo, wo unto him who knoweth that he rebelleth against God! For salvation cometh to none such except it be through repentance and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ. (Mosiah 3:12)


Question: What can the writings of early Christians tell us about how to receive salvation in Jesus Christ?

Here are a few examples of what the early Church fathers taught on salvation:

Justin Martyr

Justin (110-165 A.D.) said:

“works deliverance from death to those who repent of their wickedness and believe upon Him.” (Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:249, chap 100, Dialogue with Trypho)

“by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation.” (Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:185, chap. 65, First Apology of Justin)

"But there is no other [way] than this,-to become acquainted with this Christ, to be washed in the fountain spoken of by Isaiah for the remission of sins; and for the rest, to live sinless lives." (ANF 1:217, chap. 44, Dialogue with Justin)

“Christ has come to restore both the free sons and the servants amongst them, conferring the same honour on all of them who keep His commandments” (Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:267, chap 134, Dialogue with Trypho)

Irenaeus

Irenaeus said:

“But He taught that they should obey the commandments which God enjoined from the beginning, and do away with their former covetousness by good works, and follow after Christ.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 4, chap. 12, Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:476)

“God has always preserved freedom, and the power of self-government in man, while at the same time He issued His own exhortations, in order that those who do not obey Him should be righteously judged (condemned) because they have not obeyed Him; and that those who have obeyed and believed on Him should be honoured with immortality.” (Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:480, Against Heresies 15)

“God, who stands in need of nothing, takes our good works to Himself for this purpose, that He may grant us a recompense of His own good things, as our Lord says: "Come, ye blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you. For I was an hungered, and ye gave Me to eat: I was thirsty, and ye gave Me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took Me in: naked, and ye clothed Me; sick, and ye visited Me; in prison, and ye came to Me."[Mat. 25:34]” (Irenaeus Against Heresies, book 4, Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:486)

“And when we come to refute them, we shall show in its fitting-place, that this class of men have been instigated by Satan to a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God, and thus to a renunciation of the whole[Christian] faith.” (Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:331, Irenaeus Against Heresies, Chap. 21)

Clement of Alexandria

Clement said:

“Being baptized, we are illuminated. Illuminated, we become sons...This work is variously called grace, illumination, perfection, and washing. Washing, by which we cleanse away our sins. Grace, by which the penalties accruing to transgressions are remitted. Illumination, by which that holy light of salvation is beheld, that is, by which we see God clearly.” (Clement of Alexandria, Ante-Nicene Fathers E 2:215)

“Straightway, on our regeneration, we attained that perfection after which we aspired. For we were illuminated, which is to know God.” (Clement of Alexandria, Ante-Nicene Fathers E 2:215)

Theophilus

Theophilus said:

“The things proceeding from the waters were blessed by God, that this also could be a sign of men being destined to receive repentance and remission of sins, through the water and bath of regeneration-as many as come to the truth and are born again” (Theophilus, Ante-Nicene Fathers E 2:101)


Question: Does the Bible teach that individual works are unnecessary?

The Bible does not teach that salvation comes by faith alone

Critics of the church claim that the Bible teaches that individual works are completely unnecessary, in contrast to the doctrine of the LDS church that an individual's obedience to the commandments of God matters in his salvation.

The Bible does not teach that salvation comes by faith alone, with no dependence on an individual's obedience to the commandments. Granted, several passages in Paul's letters, taken alone, seem to be teaching that our works do not matter in our salvation. These passages, however, are badly misunderstood. They have been carefully clarified by other of the ancient apostles, notable James, and this false interpretation is contradicted by Paul himself in other places in his writings. Most importantly, the Savior is clear that works are critical to determining who will be able to enter his kingdom and who will not.


Question: Do Mormons ignore the doctrine of grace at the expense of "works"?

Some claim that the Church ignores the doctrine of grace at the expense of "works." Critics argue that Church leaders do not teach this doctrine, and as a result most members of the Church do not expect to be saved, since they are not "good enough."

Prophets and teachers must emphasize different parts of that message, depending upon their audience. The repentant sinner needs to hear about Christ’s grace and mercy, so that he or she does not fret about his or her inability to be ‘perfect.’ The arrogant and proud sinner (who does not really believe he or she needs repentance or Jesus) needs to hear about the consequences of continued disobedience. In that moment, a message emphasizing grace may be misplaced, since despite the eventual salvation offered to almost all, the suffering of the unrepentant wicked is terrible beyond understanding.

But, the doctrine of grace is a key part of the gospel of Jesus Christ and, like the Bible prophets, His modern servants teach it. The vocabulary used may vary from other Christian faiths, because the Church does not wish to adopt other aspects of grace theology (such as TULIP) which they do not wish to endorse.

The Book of Mormon teaches the doctrine of grace clearly, and repeatedly

The Book of Mormon teaches the doctrine of grace clearly, and repeatedly. It insists that it is one of the most important of all:

Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that 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, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise. (2 Nephi 2:8.)

And, the Book of Mormon's final verses teach a similar key doctrine:

32 Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and 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; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.

33 And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot. (Moroni 10:32-33.)

Joseph often taught about the principles of mercy and grace

Joseph often taught about the principles of mercy and grace. In one address to the Nauvoo Lyceum, he was recorded as saying:

Joseph said...that...the Lord apointed us to fall & also Redeemed us—for where sin a bounded Grace did Much more a bound 3—for Paul says Rom—5. 10 for if—when were enemys we were Reconciled to God by the Death of his Son, much more, being Reconciled, we shall be saved by his Life[5]

Bruce R. McConkie: "if you’re working zealously in this life—though you haven’t fully overcome the world and you haven’t done all you hoped you might do—you’re still going to be saved"

Elder McConkie is not known for his "soft" take on doctrinal issues, yet he teaches this doctrine clearly and full of hope:

Everyone in the Church who is on the straight and narrow path, who is striving and struggling and desiring to do what is right, though far from perfect in this life; if he passes out of this life while he’s on the straight and narrow, he’s going to go on to eternal reward in his Father’s kingdom.

We don’t need to get a complex or get a feeling that you have to be perfect to be saved. … The way it operates is this: you get on the path that’s named the ‘straight and narrow.’ You do it by entering the gate of repentance and baptism. The straight and narrow path leads from the gate of repentance and baptism, a very great distance, to a reward that’s called eternal life. … Now is the time and the day of your salvation, so if you’re working zealously in this life—though you haven’t fully overcome the world and you haven’t done all you hoped you might do—you’re still going to be saved.[6]

And, elsewhere, Elder McConkie taught:

As members of the Church, if we chart a course leading to eternal life; if we begin the processes of spiritual rebirth, and are going in the right direction; if we chart a course of sanctifying our souls, and degree by degree are going in that direction; and if we chart a course of becoming perfect, and, step by step and phase by phase, are perfecting our souls by overcoming the world, then it is absolutely guaranteed—there is no question whatever about it—we shall gain eternal life. Even though we have spiritual rebirth ahead of us, perfection ahead of us, the full degree of sanctification ahead of us, if we chart a course and follow it to the best of our ability in this life, then when we go out of this life we'll continue in exactly that same course. We'll no longer be subject to the passions and the appetites of the flesh. We will have passed successfully the tests of this mortal probation and in due course we'll get the fulness of our Father's kingdom—and that means eternal life in his everlasting presence.[7]

Many recent conference talks address this doctrine specifically

Finally, many recent conference talks address this doctrine specifically. (See below). For example, after describing the many ways in which the term 'saved' is used in LDS theology, Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught:

...all should answer: “Yes, I have been saved. Glory to God for the gospel and gift and grace of His Son!”[8]

Often members of the Church do not use the same type of theological language to speak about grace

Two LDS authors noted that often members of the Church do not use the same type of theological language to speak about grace, because such language also includes concepts with which they do not agree:

...Latter-day Saints reject all five principles of the Calvinistic doctrine of grace enunciated at the Council of Dort and represented by the acronym TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and the Perseverance of the saints). To the extent that Latter-day Saints avoid some traditional Christian locutions (such as being "born again" or "grace alone" or even "saved") for expressing their doctrine of grace, it is because objectionable theological baggage has unfortunately become associated with the terms. However, this avoidance does not constitute (nor has it ever constituted) an avoidance of a doctrine of grace nor the rejection of a resource on which church members can rely when they "feel themselves lacking." Any avoidance of "grace" has been merely nominal and not doctrinal...

Latter-day Saints do not accept the Protestant assumption that faith/grace and human agency/actions/works constitute two separate grammars of discourse. To the contrary, we believe that it is false and that James and even Paul, as well as living prophets, make it clear that faith/grace and human agency/actions/works are actually inseparable.[9]

Other Christians may misunderstand the Latter-day Saints because of different language, but the concept and doctrine of grace (as illustrated above) is a firm and vital part of the LDS doctrine of salvation.


Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb: Joseph Smith does not reject the efficacy or necessity of grace

Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:[10]

Two corrections of common misrepresentations of Smith’s theology need to be made at this point. First, Mormons are often charged with denying the efficacy of grace and thus making salvation dependent upon the exercise of the individual’s free will. All theologians use the language of effort, reform, and growth, so this is not a fair charge.... In any case, Smith describes the process of sanctification as being “from grace to grace.” Rather than replicating Pelagianism, Smith is siding with that aspect of the Christian tradition best represented by Thomas Aquinas, which says we can and must cooperate with divine grace in order to permit it to actualize our potential for divinization. [11]:96–97


Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb: Mormons reject the legacy of Augustine: especially of humanity's corruption due to original sin

Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:[10]

Mormonism is not the return of Eutyches, but it just might be a form of Christianity deprived of the influence of Augustine. This is true in a variety of ways....First, Mormonism’s optimistic view of humanity puts it firmly on the side against Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. [11]:89


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. David L. Paulsen and Cory G. Walker, "Work, Worship, and Grace: Review of The Mormon Culture of Salvation: Force, Grace and Glory by Douglas J. Davies," FARMS Review 18/2 (2006): 83–177. off-site wiki, italics in original, see footnote 11 for some of the quoted text.
  2. It should be noted that a few evangelicals do not espouse this view. They believe in "free-grace" which does not even require repentance. This view, however, is not common in Evangelicalism. See William R. Baker, ed., Evangelicalism and the Stone-Campbell Movement (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 76-77.
  3. An excellent summary is given here by one prominent, though not necessarily Evangelical denomination: Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, "Justification," lcms.org (accessed 22 September 2006). off-site
  4. Note this is for inheritance into the Celestial Kingdom, but belief in Jesus is likewise essential for the Terrestrial Kingdom: D&C 76:74.
  5. Joseph Smith, McIntire Minute Book, 9 February 1841, cited in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of Joseph Smith, 2nd Edition, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 63.GL direct link
  6. }Bruce R. McConkie, “The Probationary Test of Mortality,” Salt Lake Institute of Religion devotional, 10 January 1982, 12.
  7. Bruce R. McConkie, "Jesus Christ and Him Crucified," (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1977), 400–401.
  8. Dallin H. Oaks, "Have You Been Saved?," Ensign (May 1998), 55.
  9. David L. Paulsen and Cory G. Walker, "Work, Worship, and Grace: Review of The Mormon Culture of Salvation: Force, Grace and Glory by Douglas J. Davies," FARMS Review 18/2 (2006): 83–177. off-site wiki (Key source)
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Webb is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He is a graduate of Wabash College and earned his PhD at the University of Chicago before returning to his alma mater to teach. Born in 1961 he grew up at Englewood Christian Church, an evangelical church. He joined the Disciples of Christ during He was briefly a Lutheran, and on Easter Sunday, 2007, he officially came into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church."
  11. 11.0 11.1 Stephen H. Webb, "Godbodied: The Matter of the Latter-day Saints (reprint from his book Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (Oxford University Press, 2012)," Brigham Young University Studies 50 no. 3 (2011).