Cover image: To live and work, detail of stained glass window by Sieger Koder in St. James church in Hohenberg, Germany.

I grew up in a faith-filled and faithful Latter-day Saint family in Salt Lake City, Utah. At the then-appropriate age of 19, I was called to serve a mission in America’s Bible belt. I remember one evening on my mission when my companion and I were invited to attend a Bible study at the local Baptist church. We went with high hopes for sharing our message of the Restoration.

We were disappointed. After greeting us, a group gathered around us and rather pointedly peppered us with passages from Paul.

For 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)

We replied with familiar verses from James:

Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.

But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:19, 20, 26)

They quoted more Paul; we retorted with James. We continued thus until we had all had enough. Neither side was persuaded or refined by the sharp exchange.

Faith Alone

It would be years after my mission before I ran into the phrase “sola fide.”

The doctrine of sola fide or “by faith alone” asserts God’s pardon for guilty sinners is granted to and received through faith alone, conceived as excluding all “works”. . . . Faith is seen as passive, merely receiving Christ and all his benefits, among which benefits are the active and passive righteousness of Jesus Christ . . . The divine verdict and pardon of the believing sinner is based not upon anything in the sinner, nor even faith itself, but upon Jesus Christ and his righteousness alone, which are received through faith alone.

“Faith alone” is foundational to Protestantism, and distinguishes it from other Christian denominations. According to Martin Luther, justification by faith alone is the article on which the church stands or falls. (“Sola Fide” in Wikipedia, downloaded October 5, 2012)

I am certain that some Protestants would chafe at the idea that sola fide, as described above, perfectly expresses their belief. I allow that there is variation among Protestants in the faith/works discussions. But Luther started a revolution.

Luther’s conception of faith and the gift of God’s righteousness was not of course new. . . . What was new was the claim that salvation comes through faith alone, and the raising of this principle as the linchpin of the Christian faith. (Hill, 2003, p. 193).

To the extent that Protestants agree with Luther that faith alone saves, the Latter-day Saints are quite different. We do not understand God’s law through the prism of Martin Luther’s understanding.

Getting the Question Right

If we posed the question, “Does faith in the Lord Jesus Christ save us?” we, with our Protestant friends would gladly answer; “YES!” But if the question is changed to ask, “Is it faith alone that saves?” our answer would be different. We believe that our earnest striving must accompany our faith just as the contributions of both a man and a woman are necessary to create life.

Of course the very real danger for Latter-day Saints is that we will think that we earn our salvation through our works. That is mistaken. The magnificent testimony of the Book of Mormon, the teachings of the Brethren, and the glorious book Believing Christ, are great latter-day gifts that keep us from falling into that misunderstanding. We must exercise faith—but not faith by itself.

The doctrine of salvation through faith alone, sometimes called solafidianism, is not a biblical doctrine: there are no instances in the New Testament of the phrases “grace alone” or “faith alone.” The philosopher-theologian Frederick Sontag argues that Jesus himself was interested not in words, and not even in theological dogma, but in action: For the Jesus in Matthew, he says, “Action is more important than definition.” Richard Lloyd Anderson shows that even in Paul’s major treatments of the doctrine of grace, particularly in Romans and Ephesians, there is a balancing element of works as well. Other New Testament writers, most notably James, make it clear that saving faith can only be recognized through works: “Faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” (James 2:17.) (Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, Comparing LDS Beliefs with First-Century Christianity, Ensign, March 1988.

Latter-day Saints believe that Paul stressed faith for an audience that had depended for centuries on exacting obedience to the Law of Moses. But Martin Luther took Paul’s instruction out of context and created a foundational doctrine for Protestantism. Luther misunderstood Paul and ignored Jesus to arrive at a doctrine that is theologically indefensible and behaviorally dangerous.

The Biblical Answer

The great scholar of the parables, Klyne Snodgrass, has challenged his fellow Christians:

God requires productive and obedient living from his people. . . . How did people ever get the idea that obedience to the will of God is optional? Many parables, and especially [the parable of the two sons in Mathew 21:28-32], push for an integrity of life before God. Talk and external appearance are cheap; what counts is actually doing the will of the Father from the heart. Any separation of believing and doing is a distortion of the gospel message and is directly confronted by this parable. A person cannot believe apart from obedience. (2008, p. 275)

Everything about Jesus’ ministry and teaching calls for action. He raised the standard of behavior far above the Law of Moses by making people accountable not only for their actions but also for their intentions—the acts of the heart. He constantly made demands on His hearer’s lives; He never hinted that mere belief in Him would save. Rather, faith starts a journey of discipleship that involves steep climbs and persistent demands. We will not become true disciples without steady effort over time.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matthew 25:37-40)

Returning to the South

Two decades after my mission, I returned to the South to work at Auburn University. One day I sought out a minister at the local First Baptist Church. I approached with no intent to debate; I wanted simply to understand their doctrine. One of the questions we discussed was the requirements for salvation. As expected, he suggested that it is faith alone that saves us. I posed a dilemma. If three people made earnest confessions of Christ, but one promptly returned to a life of crime and immorality, a second coasted in cool indifference, while the third earnestly sought to do the works that Jesus did, are all three saved?

The minister sighed. “I guess you would have to ask if they were true confessions.”

Exactly! We couldn’t agree more. It is simply impossible to separate faith and works.

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)

Taking the Discussion to the Next Level

Brad Wilcox brilliantly raises a question that takes this discussion beyond just the issue of faith alone or combined with our own efforts.

I have born-again Christian friends who say to me, “You Mormons are trying to earn your way to heaven.”

I say, “No, we are not earning heaven. We are learning heaven. We are preparing for it (see D&C 78:7). We are practicing for it.”

They ask me, “Have you been saved by grace?”

I answer, “Yes. Absolutely, totally, completely, thankfully—yes!”

Then I ask them a question that perhaps they have not fully considered: “Have you been changed by grace?” They are so excited about being saved that maybe they are not thinking enough about what comes next. They are so happy the debt is paid that they may not have considered why the debt existed in the first place. Latter-day Saints know not only what Jesus has saved us from but also what He has saved us for. As my friend Brett Sanders puts it, “A life impacted by grace eventually begins to look like Christ’s life.” As my friend Omar Canals puts it, “While many Christians view Christ’s suffering as only a huge favor He did for us, Latter-day Saints also recognize it as a huge investment He made in us.” As Moroni puts it, grace isn’t just about being saved. It is also about becoming like the Savior (see Moroni 7:48).

The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can live after we die but that we can live more abundantly (see John 10:10). The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can be cleansed and consoled but that we can be transformed (see Romans 8). Scriptures make it clear that no unclean thing can dwell with God (see Alma 40:26), but, brothers and sisters, no unchanged thing will even want to. (Brad Wilcox, “His Grace is Sufficient”, Brigham Young University Devotional, July 12, 2011)

The issue is not simply whether or not we have achieved the credentials to qualify for entrance into heaven. Jesus asked us to follow Him—to change ourselves to become like Him.  Latter-day Saints understand that we came to earth to prepare for our eternal life with Heavenly Father and that this preparation would entail practicing for heaven by becoming more like Jesus. Our confession of Christ is a first and necessary step. Our coming unto Christ through our actions and thoughts is the evidence of our confession and the vital element in our preparation to come unto His presence for eternity.  

Getting the Balance Right

While it may be true that I pay only a few dollars towards my salvation while Jesus pays millions of dollars of my personal debt, still I must invest my few dollars. (See the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Matthew 18:23-35.)

Not surprisingly, the Lord Himself summarizes the situation best through His latter-day prophet:

Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed. (D&C 123:17)

We gladly do all we can do knowing that it is the great love and atonement of Jesus Christ that save us. That is the happy marriage of faith and works. Does faith save us? Yes, in company with its faithful companion, works. Together they also change us to be more like Him.

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful contributions to this article.

References and recommendations:

Hill, J. (2003). The history of Christian thought. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Robinson, S. E. (1992). Believing Christ. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book.

Snodgrass, K. R. (2008). Stories with intent: A comprehensive guide to the parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing.