I’ve updated this post with a new section and handout, after the overview. It treats the definition of “faith” in the NT.
Let me open by saying, this is a wide-ranging and complex subject; I may well prove to be wrong on this or that point. You may well quibble with some of what I’ve written, and I may be missing important nuances here or there, and it’s a bit scattered and repetitive. Let’s get those disclaimers out of the way.
I have, however, read a bit, and I think sharing some of that can help our Gospel Doctrine classes, as we see these ideas pop up again and again in Paul, and in LDS discussion. Moreover, there is a variety of LDS views, and while I don’t necessarily endorse any of them, I wish LDS to be aware of these ideas and discussions that are happening. There is much to read and explore on these points, and more informed discussion is better, more edifying discussion. Better doctrinal understanding leads to better discipleship, I firmly believe.
If you’re short on time, read the overview and bullet points. Otherwise, read the whole thing and note how the ideas are interrelated, and certain terms and ideas occur again and again.
Christianity began as a Jewish subgroup. The primary difference between the two before they really differentiated was not grace or legalism. Rather, both functioned more or less the same way, generally speaking: You enter into a covenant relationship with God (whether at birth or baptism is largely irrelevant.) The terms of the covenantal relationship were that God promised hugely disproportionate blessings in return for your faithfulness to the covenant.
The primary difference was how God’s grace was mediated, and the terms.
In Judaism, God’s grace was mediated through the Torah, and it was the Torah’s requirements/laws/rules that were the terms to be followed.
In Christianity, God’s grace was mediated through Jesus, not Torah, and it was Jesus’ requirements/laws/rules that were the terms to be followed. The New Testament has nothing bad to say about “standards to be followed,” it just disagrees on which requirements/laws/rules are the ones through which God’s grace flows.
To restate, the main initial difference between Judaism and the Judaic schism which became Christianity was how it answered the question, “How do we access God’s grace?” For Judaism, it was through the Torah (KJV “law”). For Christianity, it was through Jesus.
Both the Torah and Jesus made requirements on people, commandments, laws, whatever term you like. Rules and regulations are not bad per se, in the New Testament. That view of the New Testament and Judaism as legalist is largely a historical misunderstanding.
What is Faith in the New Testament?
Words change meaning over time, and we read our scripture in translation, which adds another layer.
A recent book by an Evangelical scholar argues that “faith” (Gr. pistis) in the NT should often be understood or even translated as “allegiance.” Being “saved by faith,” then, would not mean “Salvation for mere intellectual acceptance of Jesus” but for a relationship which requires action, i.e. allegiance. He makes this argument on the basis of linguistic context and contemporary usage.
In his autobiographical recounting of the events of the Jewish-Roman war in AD 66, [Josephus] reports an incident where he urged a rebel leader to “repent and believe in me,” using language nearly identical to what we find in the Gospel of Mark with respect to Jesus’s proclamation to “Repent and believe the good news” (1:15)… So, what “repent and believe [pisteuo, the verbal form of pistis] in me” means for Josephus in this context is “turn away from your present course of action and become loyal to me.
In a letter, King Ptolemy speaks of Jews installed in positions requiring pistis in the royal court (Ant. 12.47); King Antiochus praises the pistis of the Jews for their allegiance to him during a time of revolt (Ant. 12.147); pistis and the related verb pisteuō are used with reference to matters of sworn allegiance, loyal commitment, and treason in battle (Ant. 12.396)
This helps us make a good bit of sense of Ephesians 2:8, Romans 3:3 (the pistis of God), and 1:5 (“the obedience of pistis“)
What ties these all together is this: accepting Jesus as Patron (see below), King, Lord (Luke 6:46, Matt 7:21), Messiah. The usage of “Christ” repeatedly with Jesus in the NT is not a last name nor mere formality, but emphasizing this position in a relationship. In other words, because we (as clients) enter into a relationship with God (as patron), he offers us charis or grace (salvation from sin and death), and in return we owe him pistis “faith/faithfulness, allegiance”, which includes doing erga “works”.
The offer of salvation is free, but it absolutely does come with strings attached. Obedient loyalty to the king is required as a condition of acceptance….the modern notion of the “pure gift” requiring no reciprocation… does not align with the ancient evidence pertaining to grace….we should not set grace at odds with the required behavioral changes (good deeds) associated with allegiant union to Jesus the king. In short, we cannot say in an unqualified fashion that final salvation is by grace and by faith apart from embodied obedience, for this misunderstands the nature of both charis (“grace”) and pistis (“faith”) in antiquity and in Paul’s Letters.
These quotes come from Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King
Further information found below, and also in
- Richards/O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes
- DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture
- Rohrbaugh, The New Testament in Cross-Cultural Perspective
Grace is an LDS Concept Found in Our Own Scriptures; Protestantism doesn’t “own” it.
We often hear about 2 Nephi 25:23, “we are saved by grace after all we can do” but misunderstand and misinterpret that latter half in a perfectionist way. Rather, we should read with 2 Nephi 10:24- “after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved.” This suggests that “all we can do” is “be reconciled unto God”, that is, commit to doing God’s will and trying to change when we fail to do so. That sounds a lot like the baptismal covenant, doesn’t it? More on covenant and relationships below. ( On 2 Nephi 25:23, see Joe Spencer’s article here.)
Other LDS passages- 2 Nephi 31:19; 3 Nephi 27:16, D&C 45:4-5 (D&C 38:3-4); Alma 33:11, 13 (Alma 41:6); 2 Nephi 2:3 (By whose righteousness is Jacob redeemed?), Moroni 10:32-33;
JST on Romans 3:24, 28 (not found in LDS quad) adds a significant word- “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith alone without the deeds of the law.” (On making sense of this JST passage, see Kevin Barney’s article here.)
D&C 20:30- “we know that justification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true.”
In the New Testament, “the law” means “the Torah” and the “works of the law” are its ritual requirements. It does not inherently imply legalism in general or specific, and Judaism was far less legalistic than most people think.
99% of the time, when you see “law” in the New Testament read “Torah” instead of “law” or even “law of moses.” The “works of the law,” we know now, are those ritual requirements of the Torah, most usually abbreviated in the New Testament as “circumcision” and/or the Kosher food rules. How do we know this? There is a Dead Sea Scroll called Miqsat Ma’aseh ha-Torah (abbreviated MMT), or “Some Works of the Law.”
Some scholars have suggested that Paul misunderstood the Jewish teaching of his day or, at the very least, that he created a straw man to bolster his own teaching regarding faith versus law. In the past, this view was supported by the fact that the phrase “works of the law” nowhere appears in the foundational books of rabbinic Judaism. MMT, however, provides the “smoking gun” for which students [had] been searching for generations, not from the pages of rabbinic literature, but from the sectarian teachings of Qumran. MMT demonstrates that Paul was not jousting with windmills, but was indeed squared off in a dramatic duel—not with mainstream Judaism but with a sectarian theology—that ultimately defined Christianity. If I have understood rightly, the importance of MMT for New Testament research is nothing short of revolutionary.- Martin Abegg, “Dead Sea Scrolls, Paul, ‘works of the Law’ and MMT”- Biblical Archaeology Review 20:06 1994.
That was in 1994. Twenty years of research has largely confirmed this view.
MMT gets quoted below.
On a related issue, to repeat myself, Judaism wasn’t inherently legalistic, nor does “law” imply legalism. Any religion is susceptible to legalism, and certainly some Jews were legalistic, but the common equation that Judaism in the New Testament= Legalism we know to be flatly wrong. (See below)
In Galatians, for example, the problem when Paul keeps talking about “the law” is not legalism vs. grace, but Torah vs. Christ.
Grace was a Jewish concept Predating the New Testament, not a Christian/New Testament Innovation.
Grace is found throughout the Old Testament. I don’t want to expand on this too much, so see here.
Jews believed that they were in a covenant relationship with God. The terms of this relationship were that Jews would keep the requirements of the Torah, and in return God would bless them disproportionately to their obedience in this world and the next, i.e. grace. It was not a legalistic quid pro quo. The problem is that LDS have absorbed the view of Judaism put forth by Luther, who drastically misunderstood it. Alas, from the reformation onwards, Martin Luther’s interpretation of Paul has been heavily influential.
Luther interpreted Paul and Judaism in light of his own conflict with the Catholic Church and its indulgences. He took that kind of salvific legalism, and read it back onto the Jews in Paul’s day, interpreting “works” in Paul’s letters as actions, instead of “the prescribed works of the Torah.” For Luther, Paul taught salvation by grace alone, no works.
In the last 40 years, however, as scholars have matured in their knowledge and understanding of the Dead Sea Scrolls (discovered 1947) and other relevant Judaic material from the time, many scholars have argued that Luther got it very wrong. Sure, some Jews were legalist, but Judaism as a whole was not, nor did it predicate salvation on such. Paul’s discussion of works is about the works required by Law of Moses. Salvation comes from a covenant relationship with God in which he grants humans grace, and obedience is the maintenance policy to that relationship. That was both the Jewish and Christian view of salvation, and differed only on the roles of Torah and Jesus within that formula.
Protestants are split between a New Perspective on Paul (which has the strength of being better scholarship, discussed below) and the traditional view from Luther (which has the immensely powerful force of tradition, as well as weaker scholarship, in my view. Not technically my field, but that’s how I read things.)
In short, Luther got Paul very wrong because he anachronistically read Paul as if he lived in Luther’s time, as if Paul’s Jews were Luther’s Catholics. The rediscovery of non-anachronistic contemporary Jewish views helped show that such an equation was incorrect. So, we now have scholarship on Judaism, law, and legalism based on the Dead Sea Scrolls, like this (my emphasis, again)
The scrolls indicate in a number of passages that, although obedience to the divine law as properly understood was crucial, the Qumran [ or Dead Sea Scroll] community also had a strong sense that their election and salvation came through God’s grace. No less a person than the Instructor confesses in column 11 of the Rule of the Community his own sinfulness and inadequacy and the need for divine mercy. He acknowledges that he belongs among the company of wicked humans and that justification and atonement come not by works, but through God’s loving-kindness and righteousness:
“Surely a man’s way is not his own; neither can any person firm his own step. Surely justification is of God; by His power is the way made perfect. All that shall be, He foreknows, all that is, His plans establish; apart from Him is nothing done. As for me, if I stumble, God’s loving-kindness forever shall save me. If through sin of the flesh I fall, my justification will be by the righteousness of God which endures for all time. Though my affliction break out, He shall draw my soul back from the pit, and firm my steps on the way. Through His love He has brought me near; by His lovingkindness shall he provide my justification. By His righteous truth has He justified me; and through His exceeding goodness shall He atone for all my sins. By His righteousness shall He cleanse me of human defilement and the sin of mankind—to the end that I praise God for His righteousness, the Most High for His glory.” (1QS 11.10–15)
Similar sentiments appear frequently in the Thanksgiving Psalms. Naturally the ways out of the human predicament differ in the two literatures, but the recognition of human need for God’s grace is common to both.
But what was the purpose of the law? E. P. Sanders concludes that the place of obedience in Qumranic literature, as for other branches of Palestinian Judaism, “is always the same: it is the consequence of being in the covenant and the requirement for remaining in the covenant.” In other words, obedience to the law is not the entrance into a relationship with God, but rather the maintenance policy to that relationship.
In the light of MMT, then, several scholars are rethinking and rejecting the traditional Protestant understanding that by phrases such as works of the law Paul was challenging the theological teaching that salvation is earned by good works. Of Gal. 2:16 (“Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law”), J. D. G. Dunn says:
“This [verse] has traditionally been understood as a denial that human beings, even the most religious of individuals, can achieve salvation by their own “works”; they cannot “work” their passage to heaven; they cannot earn salvation by their own efforts. Valid as that is as a theological insight of tremendous importance, it is doubtful whether it quite catches Paul’s meaning here. Paul was evidently objecting to a current Jewish conviction. But so far as we can tell, the typical and traditional Jewish view of the time was not that anyone could earn God’s favour.”
James C. VanderKam and Peter W. Flint, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity, 1st ed., 351–352.
This new view of Judaism and Paul is called the New Perspective on Paul, and it’s really interesting. It includes something called covenantal nomism. Grace and God’s promises come through the covenant, but there is also law (Greek nomos) and requirements. You got in through the covenant, offered to you freely by God and not through any merit of your own. You stay in through keeping the covenant.
That is ‘covenantal nomism’: now that you’re in the covenant, here is the law to keep. Of course, it is a bit more complicated than that. – Tom Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, 53.
E.P. Sanders was one of the pioneering scholars of the New Perspective.
According to Sanders, rather than demanding a perfect “works-righteousness” as the basis of one’s salvation and as the prerequisite for entering into the covenant, the “covenantal nomism” pervasively found throughout Palestinian Judaism “is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression” (Sanders, 75). Thus, for Palestinian Judaism at the time of Paul, “the intention and effort to be obedient constitute the condition for remaining in the covenant, but they do not earn it” (Sanders, 180, emphasis his).- Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 673.
Torah observance, for Sanders, does not lead to a status that is not already possessed by the Israelite. Its function is to maintain the position in the covenant that God has already granted. Nomism, then, is not the means to salvation. Deeds are certainly not, on this scheme, weighed so that salvation and condemnation are awarded on the basis of works. It is the covenant, with its components of divine election and promise, which guarantees the salvation of all Israelites, with the exception of a small minority of egregious apostates…. Judaism, on Sanders’s account, emphasizes the priority of grace over the commandments. The replacement of a deeds-based judgment by a merciful judgment also meant that Sanders could undermine the old picture of Judaism as a religion of anxiety, in which each individual Jew would nervously await his or her works being weighed in the balance. Given God’s promises and his provision for atonement, the disposition of rabbinic religion was not fear but “the joy of the Torah.”- “Covenantal Nomism,” ed. John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism.
Does that sound familiar? It might, if you’ve read Stephen Robinson’s books. Too many LDS who have made covenants wonder at the end of the day if they’re “good enough.” The answer of course, is “no, of course not. But that’s not how it works. ”
What I want to emphasize in this regard ought to be self-evident, but apparently a lot of us miss it. For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, these critical steps, which are equivalent to entering into the kingdom, are already behind us. They are history. Therefore we are not waiting to see what some future verdict will decide. If we are in the covenant, the verdict is already in, and so are we. Since having faith, repenting, being baptized, and receiving the Holy Ghost all take place before we are counted members of the Church, those who are already members in good faith are already in the kingdom. We are in it now. For most of the readers of this book, the glorious threshold has already been crossed, and the doors of the kingdom have already closed gently behind us! If we are truly in his church, then we are truly in his kingdom.
Yet many of the Latter-day Saints who already believe in Christ, have already begun their repentance, have already been baptized, and have already received the gift of the Holy Ghost—in short, have already entered into the covenant—many of these people continue to think and act as though the determination of whether they are in or out of the kingdom; saved or damned; celestial, terrestrial, or telestial is somehow still in the future. They have been influenced by the common traditions of the world. Too many of the Saints see their mortal lives in the Church as a kind of porch or anteroom outside the kingdom doors. If they work hard enough in this life, they feel, the doors will eventually open up and admit them at some future time. Horsefeathers! Having been handed the good news of salvation, these people decline to open the envelope but continue to twist in the wind, wondering from day to day if they are being “good enough” to qualify for what they in fact already possess. They are like defendants in a court case who have been found innocent but who weren’t paying attention when the verdict was read and somehow missed it. So hours later they’re still sitting alone in the courtroom, wringing their hands and praying for acquittal—long after the judge and the jury have rendered their verdict and gone home.- Stephen Robinson, Following Christ, chapter 1.
Grace in the New Testament (General)
As pointed out, grace was a Jewish concept throughout the Old Testament and contemporary with the New Testament. Paul did not invent grace terminology or concepts in a vacuum, but borrowed and adapted Greek terms and concepts from the larger greco-roman culture.
In the New Testament, for example, the word charis means “grace.” Pistis means “faith.” What we didn’t know until recently—what went without being said in Paul’s day—was that those two words together described the relationship between a patron and his or her client.
In the Roman world of the New Testament, business was conducted through an elaborate system of patrons and clients. When we watch the movie The Godfather, we are seeing the modern remains of the ancient Roman patronage system. Like Marlon Brando who played the godfather in the movie, the ancient patron was a wealthy and powerful individual (male or female) who looked after his or her “friends” (clients). The complex world of Roman governmental bureaucracy, the far-reaching tentacles of the banking system (usually temples) and the pervasive and powerful grasp of the trade guilds made it impossible for ordinary craftspeople or farmers to conduct business on their own. They were entirely dependent upon their patrons. Like most unwritten cultural rules, everyone knew what was expected of a patron and a client, even though expectations weren’t engraved on a wall. Everyone knew a patron’s role was to solve problems for his or her clients, whether it was trouble with the local trade guilds, refinancing a loan or smoothing over tensions with city leaders. When Paul was staying in Thessalonica, it was reasonable to expect Jason to handle the “Paul problem,” which he did by asking Paul to leave town (Acts 17).In that world, an ordinary craftsman or farmer didn’t have the social skills or connections or wealth to negotiate with the various powerbrokers of a city. He would seek out an individual, a patron, to help. Marlon Brando captures the sentiment well. The local merchant wants help. The godfather says, “So you want me to do you this favor?” Both sides understand the agreement: the godfather solves the problem, and the merchant now must be loyal to the godfather and be ready to help if he is ever summoned. In the Roman system, likewise, the client couldn’t earn the “favor”; the patron showed “kindness” to help. Seneca, a philosopher from Paul’s time, said the patron and the client had a relationship, a form of friendship. The client was now a “friend” of the patron, but not a peer. The client was expected to reciprocate with loyalty, public praise, readiness to help the patron (as much as he could) and, most importantly, gratitude. This kind gift had strings attached. (All gifts in antiquity had strings attached.) Seneca called it “a sacred bond.” The recipient of the gift was obligated to reciprocate. Paul introduced Lydia to Christianity (Acts 16). She reciprocated by hosting Paul and his team at her estate.
The language of patronage permeated everyday life. We know well the Christian terms grace and faith, but these were common before Paul used them. They were part of the language of patronage. When the patron gave unmerited gifts of assistance, these were commonly called charis, meaning “grace/gift.” The client responded with faithfulness to the patron, called pistis, or “faith.” We see that when Paul explained our new relationship with God, he used something everyone understood: the ancient system of patronage. Taken together, this vocabulary—so central to the Christian faith—means something different than the sum of its parts.- Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (The two authors draw on, among others, the more scholarly Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture by DaSilva. )
Grace, then, was the term for the actions that patrons took on behalf of their clients.You have a problem, so you enter into a mutually beneficial relationship in which you owe loyalty and obedience (i.e. “faith” and “faithfulness”) to a powerful patron who takes care of the problem you can’t (i.e. “grace.”)
Let’s put this in LDS terms. You have a big problem, namely, sin. You can’t handle it on your own, you can’t make the problem go away. So you go to God as your patron. “Hi God(father), I have a problem. It’s too big for me. It’s killing me, and I need it to go away.” God in return, asks for your “friendship,” your loyalty and fidelity, for he will one day (every day actually) come to you and ask something of you. He asks that you support him and speak well of him. In return for those things… God will handle your problem, and make Sin go away. The handshake formalizing this relationship is baptism. That’s where you enter into this agreement, this relationship. You must maintain your friendship, your relationship, by doing what God asks of you (though he understands you may do so imperfectly.) He does and will perform grace on your behalf, provided you remain in good relations with each other.
What about James and Paul?
LDS missionaries are prone to countering Romans or other out-of-context quotes with James.
Since the Reformation James and Paul have often been viewed as having contradictory theologies, one focusing on works (see Works of the Law) and the other on grace. An examination of the critical texts shows, however, that in reality the two men used similar terms differently in separate contexts.- Dictionary of Paul and His Letters “Paul and James.”
That article goes on to look at four possible relationships between Paul and James, and concludes thus (my insertions and emphasis)
It is clear, then, that James and Paul are moving in two different worlds. In James’s world Jewish ritual [i.e. Torah or “law”] is not an issue (perhaps because all of those in his church are Jews), but ethics is. His problems are with those who claim to be right with God on the basis of their orthodoxy (i.e., adherence to the proper creed, including that Jesus is Lord), although they were ignoring issues of obedience, especially charity. Abraham and Rahab, in contrast to the demons, demonstrate that saving faith manifests itself in its deeds.
Paul, on the other hand, is concerned in Romans and Galatians with the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in the church; that is, his concern is that a Gentile does not have to become a Jew to enter the kingdom. Commitment to Jesus as Lord (including the obedience which flows from this commitment) is all that is necessary for salvation; those ritual deeds [ the “works of the law”] which marked out the Jews as a distinct people are unnecessary for Gentiles (although not prohibited for Jews). In the instances where Paul does address the issue of whether a person can enter the kingdom while living in sin, he emphatically denies that this is possible (1 Cor 6:9; Gal 5:19–21), agreeing with James (Jas 2:14, 17, 26).
Other scholars largely concur, e.g. the Catholic New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, who says
[there is a] presumption… that James and Paul were addressing the same topic. They were not. In Paul, the contrast between faith and works was one between the faith in and of Jesus, as a soteriological principle, and the observance of the commandments of Torah, with its promise of life. The contrast in James is one that was common among Hellenistic moral philosophers: between speech and action (cf. Epictetus II.1.31; II.9.21; III.22.9; Dio Oration 35.2).
James decries a merely verbal profession of faith that fails to be lived out in appropriate behavior. The Paul who called for “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6) would certainly agree, and indeed he makes the explicit declaration that humans are judged by God on the basis of their “works” (Rom. 2:6–8).” – The Writings of the New Testament, 508
Justification is a relationship word, when all is right between both parties.
Let me open by requoting these-
JST on Romans 3:24, 28 (not found in LDS quad) adds a significant (and maybe puzzling?) word- “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith alone without the deeds of the law.” (On making sense of this JST passage, see Kevin Barney’s article here.)
D&C 20:30- “we know that justification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true.”
What is justification? Translation obscures this a bit. It’s easy to see the relationship between the Greek adjective dikaios, the noun dikaiosunē, and the associated verb dikaiō but the respective English translations of “righteous,” “righteousness,” and “justify” have no such connection. That is, in the New Testament, to give a theological definition, to be righteous was to be living in a way that did not impede your relationship with God. It doesn’t mean perfection. Then we have the verb, meaning , technically, “to justify, vindicate, prove to be right, be declared innocent.” It meant something like, “to be dikaios.” When do we enter into a relationship with God? When we reconcile ourselves to live according to his will… which once again, gets us into baptism and covenant.
Mormons vs Protestants, or Talking Past Each Other
For (most) Protestants, the ultimate end is being redeemed from sin and death, whereas for Mormons, that is a vital step, but our eternal potential doesn’t stop there. We must continually make decisions to act like Christ, thus becoming more Christlike “until the perfect day.” Protestants see that focus on discipleship and becoming, and assume we are earning our salvation, working to save ourselves.
For (most) Protestants, being reborn and sanctified by the spirit naturally leads to performing Christ-like actions, ie. good works. Someone who doesn’t do so was never truly reborn. For LDS, being reborn means entering into a covenant with God, thereby promising to follow Jesus and repent while God for his part promises salvation through the grace of the atonement. In other words, Christ-like actions and repentance are necessary to remain within the covenant.
So how do we differ from Protestants? They believe that good works naturally flow from being saved, and are evidence of having been redeemed and received the Holy Ghost. But they aren’t required, they don’t do anything… other than Good.
LDS on the other hand believe they transform us, helping us along the way to being as God is, perfect.
LDS and Protestants both agree that someone who has truly accepted Jesus will be doing good works. For us, they are necessary corollary of remaining in the covenant.
Both agree that if one simply proclaims one’s faith in Jesus and no good works follow, that proclamation is false.
So although why they are done, and for what purpose differ, both LDS and evangelicals agree that one cannot claim a covenantal Lord-servant relationship with Christ without performing good works. Or as Jesus himself said, “Why do you call me Lord and don’t do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46)
We need to be very careful in our classes asserting “Evangelicals belief this” and “Evangelicals believe that” because Protestants (of which Evangelicals are only a part) are a hugely diverse group.
Why didn’t LDS Hear about Grace More in the Late 20th Century?
As demonstrated both in our own scriptures (above) and by David Paulsen’s historical article (below, Resources), grace is definitely an LDS thing. So why did we go through a period in which we emphasized works? I’d posit two reasons.
First, for LDS, salvation is not an event, using salvation in the most general sense, not the technical LDS “salvation vs. exaltation” sense. Overcoming sin and death through the Atonement of God’s divine son and messiah Jesus, as momentous as it is, does not constitute the end for LDS. It is both a beginning (accepting Jesus and entering into a covenant relationship) and a means. That is, we believe that an individual’s choosing to keep God’s commandments changes that person, helps them become more Christlike. It may well take millions of years beyond the veil, as Joseph Smith said, but our goal eventually is to become as God himself is. That requires individual choice and will, millions of times over, with enabling grace. Grace that merely enables you to sit comfortably on your chair, not doing anything, is not transformative. Jesus will not point a wand at us, and zap us into perfection.
Let’s say you’re trying to motivate someone to achieve X, and X requires two things. One is already done for you, and the other requires your will and work, your heart and mind. You’ll naturally focus your encouragement, carrots, and sticks, on those bits you need to do, not the parts already done by someone else (as important as they might be). So if we focus on the individual choices necessary to become, it’s easy to view this as a Gospel of works. But we can’t forget the only thing that makes this possible, namely, grace and atonement.
Without those, none of our choices would matter.
The second reason we didn’t hear more about grace boils down to “theological cooties,” an overly strong counter-response to real or perceived abuses of the doctrine of grace among Protestants, e.g. “cheap grace” (as Bonhoeffer termed it.) Robert Millett tells this personal story.
One can fully appreciate why the Latter-day Saints would develop an attitude toward all others of “us versus them” and begin to erect a doctrinal fortress to protect themselves from any invading theological forces. Indeed, it seems that Mormons began to focus more and more upon their distinctions, those doctrinal matters that were either slightly or greatly different from Protestant and Catholic teachings.
This kind of doctrinal dialectic continued well into the twentieth century. Let me illustrate with a personal example. Just before leaving for a mission, I found myself reading and thinking about the gospel with a bit of trepidation. After spending several days browsing through some of the great doctrinal chapters in the Book of Mormon, I approached my father with a question. (I need to add at this point that my father had grown up in Louisiana as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, taught seminary to the youth for many years, and knew the principles and doctrines of the gospel well.) I asked, “Dad, what does it mean to be saved by grace?” He stared at me for a moment and then said ﬁrmly, “We don’t believe in that!” I responded with, “We don’t believe in it? Why not?” He promptly added, “Because the Baptists do!”
My father’s statement speaks volumes. We had grown up in the Bible Belt, where we were surrounded by many noble and dedicated Christians who loved the Lord and had given their hearts to him. Over the years, we had watched scores of revivals on television and spent hours listening to radio broadcasts in which the pastor had affirmed that salvation comes “by grace alone.” Knowing as he did that Latter-day Saints believed in the necessity of good works, my father had simply put the matter to rest by stating that we believed something very different.” -Robert L. Millet, “Joseph Smith’s Christology: After Two hundred Years” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith, ed. John Welch, p. 233.
So between an overreaction to “cheap grace” and a focus on what grace enables us to do (namely, make those choices over and over which help us become more Christlike and Godlike), we didn’t hear much about grace. And when we did, it was often a caricature.
What Was the Point of Religion in NT Times?
This is something often lost on moderns. Greco-roman religion, as well as non-Israelite religion, had little to say about an afterlife. You did not worship the gods because of something coming later, and the gods didn’t really put any burdens or demands on you except to serve them with the proper prayers and sacrifices. One of the key differences between Israelite/Judaic religion and that of the surrounding nations, then amplified by Christianity, was that the God of Israel made ethical demands on his followers. Serving God meant changing your behavior, not merely offering the right sacrifices at the right times. This was a really really radical thing.
In summary, we tend to misread the New Testament, misstate what our Protestant or Catholic neighbors actually believe, and misunderstand our own scriptural teachings on the relationship between grace, works, law, and salvation. I’ll quote this again (see above for reference), and follow it with an LDS teaching.
“But what was the purpose of the Law [of Moses]?… the place of obediance in Qumranic literature, as for other branches of Palestinian Judaism, ‘is always the same: it is the consequence of being in the covenant and the requirement for remaining in the covenant.’
In other words, obediance to the law is not the entrance into the relationship with God, but rather the maintenance policy to that relationship.” Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls (p. 352)
“To Latter-day Saints, the words saved and salvation in this teaching signify a present covenant relationship with Jesus Christ in which we are assured salvation from the consequences of sin if we are obedient”–Elder Oaks, 55. (article linked below)
Resources, in no particular order or utility:
If this is all new to you, I’d recommend starting with the Ensign articles and Stephen Robinson’s books, with the caveat that they only represent one view, which has been contested by other faithful LDS scholars. Sanders’ book is also probably quite good.
- Robert Millett, “The Perils of Grace” in BYU Studies 53:2 (2014) LINK
- Joseph Spencer,”What Can we Do? Reflections of 2 Nephi 25:23″ in Religious Educator, LINK
- See also the podcast here with Joe and Adam Miller, below. (I haven’t actually listens to this.)
- Bruce Hafen “Grace” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism
- David Paulsen “Works, Worship, and Grace” which includes a historical survey on LDS usage and understanding of grace. It’s not a new thing in LDS scripture or thought. LINK
- Adam Miller’s book, Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans
- Grant Underwood,”REFLECTIONS ON JUSTIFICATION, THEOSIS, AND GRACE IN CHRISTIAN AND MORMON THOUGHT”- in the International Journal of Mormon Studies
- Elder Oaks, “Have You Been Saved?” Ensign (May 1998): 55-57.
- President Uchtdorf, “The Gift of Grace”, Ensign
- Elder Christofferson, “Justification and Sanctification,” Ensign (June 2001)
- Robinson, Stephen. Believing Christ: The Parable of the Bicycle and Other Good News, (Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1992), esp. 57-76. Cf. Following Christ (Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1995).
- Robinson, Stephen. Are Mormons Christians? (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991): 104-109.
- Robert Millet, Grace Works. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003). (Directed to an LDS audience)
- Robert Millet, A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints (directed to an Evangelical audience, from an Evangelical publisher): 95-104.
- Blomberg, Craig L., and Stephen E. Robinson. How Wide the Divide: A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation. (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1997):143-186.
- Responses to HWD:MEC in FARMS Review of Books 11:2 (1999), particularly Ostler (p. 165-176).
- Ostler, Blake. “The Concept of Grace in Christian Thought.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 23:4 (Winter 1990): 13-43.
- Ostler, Blake T. “The Development of the Mormon Concept of Grace.” Dialogue 24: 1 (Spring 1991): 57-84.
- E.P Sanders- Paul: A Very Short Introduction
- Brent Schmidt (LDS), Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis
- Tom Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision