I had a wonderful conversation yesterday with a friend of mine who is an evangelical Christian. We talked about faith and works and grace and the need to rely on Jesus Christ for our salvation. He asked questions about some of my beliefs as a Mormon and I tried to answer to the best of my ability.
Afterwards, I had a lot to think about because my friend seemed to believe that Mormons trust in their works to get them into heaven. I found that interesting because I don’t believe that and I’m a Mormon. If there is any substance to that claim then I think that we Mormons haven’t been clear enough about our beliefs.
What do Mormons believe about faith, works, grace, and Jesus Christ’s role in our salvation? Are we saved by grace? Are we saved by works? Do faith and works conflict with each other? I don’t think they do if we understand what each is and what each is for.
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Christians, Mormons included, center their faith in Jesus Christ as the sole source of salvation. Faith, then, becomes the motivating force in the Christian’s life, driving him or her to seek to do God’s will in all things.
And what of works? Well, unfortunately this is a very loaded concept. But I don’t think it needs to be. Let’s turn to the Bible to see what is said about works.
Jesus, Paul, and James each teach the importance of works as an aspect of discipleship. (Matthew 5:16; Acts 26:20; Ephesians 2:10; 1 Timothy 2:10; 6:18; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Titus 2:7, 14; 3:14; James 3:17-26)
And Jesus, Paul, and John also teach that we are judged and rewarded according to our works. (Matthew 16:27; 2 Corinthians 11:15; 2 Timothy 4:14; Revelation 2:23, 26; 20:12)
But Paul says that “by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Is Paul contradicting himself on the issue of works? Is he contradicting his Master, Jesus, or his fellow servants, James and John? What are we to do?
Like the Christians in Joseph Smith’s day Christians today “of the different sects [understand] the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.” (Joseph Smith—History 1:12)
What are we to do then? Should we throw out the Bible entirely? God forbid, as Paul would say. What we need is some corroborating but clarifying testimony to support the Bible. “In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.” (2 Corinthians 13:1) We have such a testimony in the Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon was given for “the confounding of false doctrines and laying down of contentions, and establishing peace,” (2 Nephi 3:12) and for the intent that we believe in the Bible. (Mormon 7:9) So, let me turn to the Book of Mormon to examine the interplay of faith, works, grace, and our reliance on the Savior for salvation, and let’s see if we can shed any light on this matter.
On the title page of the Book of Mormon we read that one of its purposes is to convince the “Jew and the Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God….” Later we read that “all mankind [are] in a lost and in a fallen state, and ever would be save they should rely on [the] Redeemer,” (1 Nephi 10:6) who is Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, we Mormons rely “alone upon the merits of Christ, who [is] the author and the finisher of [our] faith” (Moroni 6:4; emphasis added); indeed, we rely “wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save” (2 Nephi 31:19; emphasis added).
What does the Book of Mormon say about grace and its role in our salvation? First, “redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth” (2 Nephi 2:6).
Second, “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” (2 Nephi 2:8)
Third, a plea: “….My beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God…and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved” (2 Nephi 10:24).
Fourth, “…We labor diligently…to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23).
This last verse is probably the one verse in all scripture unique to the Mormons that is misunderstood to mean that we believe that we are saved by works. But a careful reading of the rest of the Book of Mormon clarifies this completely.
Perhaps the best way about it is to understand our terms. What do we mean by works? King Benjamin captured it nicely when he taught his people that “all that [God] requires of you is to keep his commandments” (Mosiah 2:22). Is it work to keep the commandments? I should think so. Fortunately, keeping the commandments is not all drudgery: we experience joy, happiness, and success in our lives as we keep the Lord’s commandments.
“Well,” one might point out, “it is impossible for a mortal to actually keep all of the commandments all of the time. Something’s got to give.” This is true, and herein we see the mercy of God’s plan for his children. In providing a Savior to work out an infinite and eternal atonement, God could bring about the conditions of mercy and repentance.
As recorded in the Book of Mormon, one group of converted sinners understood best what the extent of their works was. They had been a vicious, wild, and wholly godless people. But they had come to know their Savior. They had repented of their sins. Their king related that “it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God” (Alma 24:11; emphasis added). After that, knowing their repentance was sincere and that God is mighty to save, their guilt was swept away. (See also, Enos 1:2-8)
Upon baptism, we enter into a covenant with God, a contract of sorts, wherein He promises to save us from sin and death and the devil, but He asks us at the same time to work in His kingdom to assist Him in bringing about “the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). We fulfill our obligations to God by following in the footsteps of His Only Begotten, Jesus Christ, and seeking to lead others of God’s children to Him.
So, let me recap a bit. We believe, unequivocally, that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The clause “after all we can do” refers to our obedience to God’s commandments (truly all He requires of us), and our ability to repent sufficiently. All this is made possible through the enabling power of the atonement, which is grace.
Joseph Smith stated it this way, “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel” (Articles of Faith 3).
Mormons do believe that God requires obedience of His children in order for them to receive His blessings. (See D&C 130:20-21) But it is inaccurate to say that Mormons believe that they earn God’s blessings. Blessings are gifts from God and cannot truly be earned by the merits of mortal, imperfect men and women; else, like impudent children, we might boast one to another of our achievements. Rather, God bestows His blessings on His own terms.
“Behold, the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favored of God.” (1 Nephi 17:35) Though God “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust,” (Matthew 5:45) only those who love Him and keep His commandments will be saved in His heavenly kingdom (Mark 16:16; John 3:5; 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1 Corinthians 2:9).
In the end, God will not force any of His unrepentant children to come home to live with Him in eternity. But as long as the earth stands, the invitation to “come unto Christ and be perfected in him” (Moroni 10:32) will remain extended.
I hope that I haven’t added to the confusion by what I have written here. I am grateful to be able to share my perspective on these very important concepts. They have brought me peace in this life and can do the same for you.