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(This article is excerpted from Robert Starling’s new book “Really Inside Mormonism: Confessions of a Mere Latter-day Christian”, available on Amazon.com and soon in LDS and other Christian bookstores.)
As a Mormon I believe I am redeemed by the blood of my savior Jesus Christ. I am saved by grace. I do NOT believe I can “earn” salvation by my good works, despite what some of the critics of my faith may claim. But neither do I believe I will be saved by faith or grace alone. I believe that my salvation is a free gift of grace from my savior Jesus Christ but it is a gift that comes with instructions on how to use it, and those instructions must be followed if I am to benefit from the gift as Christ intended. I have to cooperate with Jesus and respond to his grace in the way he has taught us if I’m to be saved.
The Bible has some apparently conflicting statements on the subject of salvation, grace, faith, and works. And while “Mormonism’s” means of resolving them may be different from that of Protestants, Catholics, or other Christians, I believe our teaching is a Biblical Christian belief. As the Bible says, “Come, let us reason together”. (Isaiah 1:18)
Okay, so how is it that we are saved? Is it by faith or works? There’s not very much at stake: only our eternal salvation, right? And the answer is ……. (wait for it … ) Yes.
There are three of the LDS Articles of Faith that speak of salvation:
- We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.
- We believe that through the Atonement of Christ all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.
- We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Our Common Ground
Again, despite what critics of “Mormonism” say, we believe that it is ONLY “through the atonement of Christ” (see #3 above) that we can be saved. In that regard we are in complete agreement with other Christians. Where we differ is in how we believe we must apply the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf. As LDS writer Jana Riess put it in a response to an article in Christianity Today. She wrote: “It is a gift, yes, but it’s one we have to unwrap and put into play.” [i]
There is no way we mortals can live without sinning. The Bible says that “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) And there is no way we can pay for our own sins, no matter how good we try to be or how many good works we do. As Nephi says in the Book of Mormon, “after all we can do, it is by grace that we are saved.” (2nd Nephi 25:23) Okay, I turned the words around a bit in that verse, but it means the same thing and I like it better that way. Another way of putting it that may be easier for my Christian friends to understand is like this: It is only after we surrender our lives to Jesus that it is by grace we are saved. Right? Really, that’s “all we can do”.
Here are some comments from critics of Mormonism describing their (mis)understanding of our beliefs about grace, works, and salvation:
This Mormon concept of salvation being a result of works is vastly different from the commonly held Christian understanding of Salvation as an unmerited, unearned gift of God’s grace.[ii]
– Watchman Fellowship website
“Grace alone!” was the resounding cry of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation … Unfortunately, Mormons do not understand the biblical teaching of justification. Instead, they seek to be righteous by their own works and keeping the law.[iii]
– Dave Johnson, Midwest Christian Outreach
When Mormons talk about salvation by grace, they’re referring to what they themselves call “general salvation.” By this, Mormons mean that everybody is going to be resurrected, after which they will be judged according to their works. In other words, everybody gets an entrance pass to God’s courtroom, but once inside, they’re on their own! This, of course, adds up to nothing more than salvation by works.[iv]
–Hank Hanegraaff, Christian Research Institute
So let’s take a look at what true Christianity REALLY teaches about faith, works, and salvation.
The Theology of Soteriology vs. the Apostles of God
A Lutheran friend of mine invited me to attend his Sunday school class where the topic was going to be Armenianism. I didn’t want to seem ignorant, so I decided to do a bit of research on the topic. I’ve found a number of theological discussions on the internet about Armenianism, Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism and lots of other ”isms”. Many of them were centered around the fine points of the roles that grace and works play in a person’s salvation, or what they call “soteriology” (that was a new word for me).
I must admit that for me it seemed as though there was a great deal of “philosophies of men mingled with Scripture”. There were many references to the writings of Armenius and his friends, of John Wesley, of John Calvin, and others who seem to have had a great deal of influence on the development of Christian theology. One of the most quoted was Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo about 400A.D, who was known as St. Augustine.
But I began to wonder why anyone should accept their interpretations of scripture any more than I should trust my own? These men were not prophets or apostles and received no special inspiration or special revelations from God that would make them authorities on the subjects they wrote about. If their writings are accepted by “orthodox” Christianity today they can help to define that body of belief, but who is to say if their man-made conclusions were correct?
The Scriptures say in Amos 3:7 “surely God will do nothing except he reveal it to his servants the prophets.” These theologians upon whom so much “orthodox” Christian doctrine is based were not prophets. According to his contemporary Jerome, Augustine “established anew the ancient Faith.“[v] By what authority? The New Testament says that Christ’s Church will be built upon a foundation of apostles and prophets, not philosophers and theologians or bishops. Instead of “establishing anew the ancient faith”, was not Augustine instead preaching a “different gospel”?
We are told in Ephesians 4:14 that the reason God gave us prophets and apostles is so that we would be not “tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine”. The learned philosophers and theologians may babble all they want to about this or that particular verse but to me their words are as the sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.
Salvation by Faith Alone?
When Martin Luther wrote “Sola Fide” (“faith alone”) in the margin of his bible, he established a “declaration of independence” from what he perceived as the bonds of the sacraments and ordinances of the Roman Catholic church that he felt had shackled Christians for over a thousand years. Ever since that time around 1520 AD, a large segment of Christianity has had a sour taste in its mouth over the term “good works.” In sermons, tapes and broadcasts of evangelism today we are constantly reminded that “our righteousness is as filthy rags” and that it is “by grace that you are saved and not of works less any man should boast,” etc.
The example is frequently given of the thief on the cross who repented shortly before his death and was allegedly “saved” without performing any good works. But what if the thief had not died, but had been taken off the cross still alive? What if he had recovered and continued in his old lifestyle of thievery and sin? When he ultimately died would he still have a place with Jesus in “paradise”? I think not.
Certainly good works in themselves do not save us and do not earn our entrance into the kingdom of God. There are many ethical and good people, including Mormons or those of other faiths or of no faith at all who may perform many good works, but unless they truly accept Christ as their Savior they will not enter into the kingdom of Heaven.
There’s an old Protestant song that I learned as a child in Georgia (perhaps at the Baptist vacation Bible school I attended with my Baptist friends?) that went something like this:
“Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord,
Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.
Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord
And he landed high and dry.”
It was through the grace of God that Noah was told to build the ark to save his family from the coming flood. And it was through grace that he was instructed how to build it. It was the grace of God that brought the animals two by two to enter into the boat at the right time. But Noah still had to do the work that he was capable of and actually do the building of the ark. God did not magically build it for him. In order to be “saved”, Noah had to cooperate with God.
Likewise, it was through the grace of God that the firstborn of the Children of Israel were saved from the angel of death at the first Passover in Egypt, but they had to do the “work” of putting lamb’s blood on the frames of their doors, or else the grace would be ineffective for them.
But has much of evangelical Christianity fallen into teaching “another gospel”? As one prominent bible teacher asks, has “cheap grace,” or “easy believe-ism” become a popular doctrine taught by many pastors to those with “itching ears”? Let’s look at “The rest of the story” as news commentator Paul Harvey used to say…
Faith without Works?
In James 2:20 we read that “faith without works is dead”. James also says “shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works” (2:18). Admittedly this verse is unpopular with many Christians today (and unknown to many). In fact, Martin Luther wanted to kick the epistle of James out of the canon of the New Testament primarily because of this verse. He called it the “Epistle of straw” and felt that it should be deleted from the Bible. That was a bit presumptuous and arrogant on Luther’s part when you think about it.
Martin Luther himself is said to have coined this phrase (and I’ve heard a number of evangelical pastors and teachers repeat it,) that “Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone” The contemporary Christian teacher RC Sproul says it this way:
“if good works do not follow from our profession of faith, it is a clear indication that we do not possess justifying faith. The Reformed formula is, “We are justified by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone.”[vi]
I suppose it could be viewed as either a rhetorical cop-out and verbal gymnastics, or a sincere attempt to explain that true faith in Christ is never really “alone”. I like the latter better. And that’s what we Mormons believe.
End of Part One. Check back to Meridian for Part Two.