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Judged by Works? How the Mormon Gospel Misses Salvation by Grace

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Judged by Works? How the Mormon Gospel Misses Salvation by Grace

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

A running theme through many of the chapters of Gospel Principles—and of our responses in this series—has been the issue of works and salvation. Evangelical Christians, who take the Bible as the sole doctrinal authority for defining and understanding the gospel of salvation, have some fundamental disagreements with the LDS view of salvation and works. Unfortunately, there is widespread misunderstanding (and not just among Mormons) as to what the evangelical view of works really is. The two chapters of Gospel Principles under discussion here, which discuss talents and obedience, provide an excellent opportunity to clarify this issue.


A. Judged by Works

It should come as no surprise that evangelicals agree with most of what Gospel Principles says concerning “Developing Our Talents.” We certainly agree that God gives people different talents and abilities (197), that we are responsible for developing and using our talents (197-98), and that people can overcome great handicaps or other obstacles and make great use of their abilities (198-99).

"The message of the cross is not a message of salvation by works; it is a message of salvation from the judgment we deserve because of our works."

One doctrinal disagreement that does not pertain directly to the main topic here is the LDS claim that we had our talents in heaven before our physical lives began and brought those abilities with us (197). Since the Bible does not teach that human beings preexisted as spirits in heaven, we do not accept the idea that we possessed talents in heaven before coming to the earth. Again, though, this disagreement, though important in other contexts, is somewhat beside the point here.

A crucial issue raised in chapter 34 of Gospel Principles, however, has to do with judgment and works. The manual states, “We are also told in the scriptures that we will be judged according to our works (see Matthew 16:27). By developing and using our talents for other people, we perform good works” (199). The manual goes on to say that using our talents wisely to do good works is “necessary if we are going to be worthy to live with our Heavenly Father again” (199). The message here is clearly that people need to do good works in order to become worthy enough to pass the judgment and live with the Father in the highest, celestial heavenly kingdom.

The Bible does indeed say that God will judge people according to their works. However, just as with any texts, context is all-important for understanding what the Bible means in these passages.

Consider, for example, the context of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16:27 which Gospel Principles quotes. The issue is not merely making it to the highest heavenly kingdom but avoiding the possibility of losing one’s very soul: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26 ESV). These questions do not really make sense if people who fail to produce sufficient good works will nevertheless live forever in a glorious if second-rate heavenly kingdom (the “terrestrial” kingdom in LDS doctrine).

Now, how does one avoid the danger of forfeiting one’s soul? “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24 ESV). This may be one of the most misunderstood sayings of Jesus. To deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ does not mean to deny yourself any pleasure or happiness in your life, accept whatever hardship comes your way (what people often call “the cross I have to bear”), and imitate Jesus’ behavior. Rather, it means to put your whole hope for salvation in Christ crucified and not in yourself. Jesus literally carried his cross and died on it for our salvation, to redeem us from our sins (Matthew 20:28; 26:26-28). For us to take up our cross means, figuratively speaking, to die with Christ—to trust in Christ and what he has done for us by dying on the cross. People who do that would rather die with Christ—literally, if necessary—than live without him. This is the same idea, then, as what we find in Paul’s writings, when he says that we who believe in Christ have died or been crucified with him (Romans 6:5-8; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 2:20; 3:3; 2 Timothy 2:11). A person who puts his life in Christ’s hands, trusting in him alone for eternal life, and considers his life of no value apart from Christ, has truly “denied himself.”

In this context, Christ’s statement that when he comes he will “repay each person according to what he has done” (Matthew 16:27) is not a promise of salvation to those who work hard enough or are obedient enough to a list of commandments. No one will be saved in that way. It is a warning to find salvation in Christ’s mercy now because when he returns he will be bringing judgment on the basis of works, and by that standard everyone deserves condemnation. The message of the cross is not a message of salvation by works; it is a message of salvation from the judgment we deserve because of our works.

We see the same thing in other places in the Bible that speak of the future judgment according to works. Famously, Paul states that God “will render to each one according to his works” (Romans 2:6). Many people quote this statement to prove that Paul taught salvation by works (in addition to faith). However, this is a grave misunderstanding. In the context of Paul’s teaching in this epistle, in Romans 1:18-3:20 Paul is not yet presenting the good news of salvation but warning about the bad news of condemnation. That is, he is explaining why no one can be saved on the basis of their works. It is not enough just to believe in the Bible and its commands; if one wishes to be just before God on the basis of the Law, one must do everything the Law says: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Romans 2:6 ESV). Again, Paul is not teaching here that the way to be justified before God is to do the Law. He means that if you want to be justified by the Law you must actually do what the Law says, not just listen and assent to it. Unfortunately, as Paul is in the midst of explaining, no one does this: “Both Jews and Greeks are all under sin” (Romans 3:9 NASB). No one really keeps the Law enough to be saved: “Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:19-20 NASB). That is, the Law doesn’t provide a way of salvation or justification; instead, it provides the knowledge that we are sinners and need forgiveness on the basis of grace, not works.


B. Obedience and Eternal Life

There is also much with which evangelicals can and should agree in the Gospel Principles chapter on “Obedience.” It is basic to Christianity that God commands us to love him unconditionally and also to love other people (Matthew 22:36-40). It is a start to obey God because we fear God’s punishment, but it is better to obey God because we love him (Gospel Principles, 201). We should obey God’s commandments whether we understand them fully or not, whether they are great or small, easy or difficult (202-203). Of course, we believe that Jesus perfectly obeyed the Father and that without his obedience we would have no hope of salvation (204).

Our disagreement focuses on the idea that we must obey God’s commandments in order to obtain “eternal life” (202, 205). The LDS doctrine on this subject, as found in the LDS scriptures, is not only unbiblical, it is self-contradictory. For example, Gospel Principles (205) quotes the following statement: “If you keep my commandments and endure to the end you shall have eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God” (D&C 14:7). But if eternal life is contingent on keeping the commandments, it is not a gift but rather something one earns or deserves by one’s works. Paul makes it clear that we cannot have it both ways; we cannot affirm salvation as a gift of grace and also affirm salvation on the basis of works: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6 ESV).

We should note that “eternal life” in LDS theology means more than living forever in a heavenly kingdom. Practically everyone will do that, even people who reject Christ in this life, according to LDS doctrine. The LDS concept of eternal life is specifically life in the celestial kingdom, in the presence of the Heavenly Father, with the potential for exaltation to godhood. It makes sense, within the LDS doctrinal framework, to think that reaching this highest kingdom would be contingent on living the best, most noble and spiritual lives. However, it still does not make sense to claim that it is a gift if it is something that must be merited by one’s obedience to the commandments.

In the Bible, “eternal life” is simply the alternative to “eternal punishment” in the eternal fire where the devil and his angels will be consigned forever and ever (Matthew 25:41, 46; Revelation 20:10, 14-15). Eternal life is also contrasted with “perishing” (John 3:16; 10:28), suffering God’s wrath” (John 3:36; Romans 2:7-8), “condemnation” (John 5:24), “death” (Romans 5:21; 6:23), and “corruption” (Galatians 6:8). To miss eternal life is to miss salvation entirely; it is to suffer eternal loss under the righteous wrath of God. And the Bible is clear that eternal life is a free gift of God based solely on what Jesus Christ has done for us: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23 ESV).

By no means does this mean that God does not give us commandments that he expects us to obey. He certainly does, and we certainly should obey. Furthermore, genuine believers will be marked by a sincere desire to obey God and as they mature in their faith will mature in obedience. But we are not saved by doing good works of obedience to commandments. We cannot be saved in that way because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

The evangelical doctrine of salvation by grace alone is often misunderstood to mean that God does not expect believers to obey him or to do good works. That is simply false. Rather, the evangelical doctrine maintains that good works are the fruit of salvation, not the precondition or prerequisite for salvation. The balance is clearly presented in Paul’s statements in Ephesians:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10 ESV).

Notice that Paul states emphatically that we are not saved “as a result of works” but also affirms clearly that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works…that we should walk in them.” So we are not saved by good works, but we are saved for good works.

Evangelicals are commonly accused of believing that salvation is nothing more than a “get out of hell free card” that allows them to sin freely without consequences. This is simply not true. The historic evangelical doctrine of salvation is clear on this point: we are saved by grace, not by works, but that salvation produces a changed life in which we should and will do good works. Many people are especially confused about the evangelical doctrine of justification by faith alone. The word “alone” here must be taken in context. Justification by faith alone means that we are made right with God simply through faith in Christ—by trusting in Christ alone for our salvation. However, it does not mean that genuine faith is “alone” in the sense of having no connection to good works.

For example, John Calvin taught, “We dream neither of a faith devoid of good works nor of a justification that stands without them…. Christ justifies no one whom he does not at the same time sanctify” (Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.16.1). The Westminster Confession of Faith states that faith is “not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love” (11.2). Thomas C. Oden, a contemporary evangelical theologian, puts it this way: “Justification’s nature is pardon, its condition is faith, its ground is the righteousness of God, and its fruits and evidences are good works” (Life in the Spirit [1998], 109). This is what evangelical theology actually teaches about justification by faith.

Admittedly, sometimes evangelicals so emphasize the first half of the biblical, evangelical doctrine of salvation—that we are not saved by our good works—that they may give the impression that works aren’t important or expected. We say, rightly, that works are not required in order to be saved, but it is also true that works are “required” of those who are saved. That is, God does command believers to do certain things, and he expects us to obey those commands, not so we can be saved but because we are saved and want to obey and please the Lord who saved us. We need to keep both halves of this doctrine together and clearly articulate the whole truth so as to minimize misunderstandings of the important doctrine of salvation by grace alone.


For Further Study

Salvation God’s Way. Resources on the evangelical message of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone.