After getting the chance to clarify that Latter-day Saints believe in salvation by grace and not that our own works save us, several people (one LDS and one from another faith) have questioned whether I'm giving the full story. Something that I originally felt was pretty clear cut can come across to others as more complex, and some actually accuse us of dishonesty as if we're holding something back.
In making the case that Latter-day Saints believe in salvation by grace I never said we don't have to do any works--that's obviously false. My whole premise was who's works should we rely on for salvation? That's obviously Christ. It's His merits (works), mercy, and grace that we rely on--not our own. However much we bring to the table, whether a dollar, fifty cents, a quarter, dime, or penny--it falls far short of the perfection required to enter the kingdom. God can't tolerate even a tiny bit of sin. Thus, we rejoice in the message of Redemption that comes only through Christ and his infinite atonement.
A la Stephen Robinson, I sometimes think of it as a mathematical equation in which I am a negative number and Christ is a positive infinite number. What is a negative number plus a positive infinity sign? A positive infinity, of course. (-x + infinity=a positive infinity). So we teach of coming unto Christ and forming a covenant relationship with him through baptism (by Priesthood authority, of course) so that when we are judged, we are not judged individually, but judged as one with Christ. In other words, we are made perfect in Christ. Our faith in Him leads us unto repentance.
A "works based gospel" that our critics accuse us of seems to denote that we can practically save ourselves once we've finished checking off all the "boxes" of obedience. Again--blatantly false.
Granted, he has still made it very clear that we must enter into covenants and ordinances with Him--that covenant relationship with the Savior is fundamental. The ordinances allow us to access Christ's full grace; to actually form the covenant relationship. I've already been promised the Celestial Kingdom because of my covenant relationship with Christ--on the conditions that I continue to keep, or stay in, the covenant--being willing to follow Him as best I can.
When Latter-day Saints take the Sacrament each Sunday to renew our baptismal covenant with Christ, we promise that we are "willing" to keep His commandments, not that we actually keep all His commandments. I would be a hypocrite if I promised that I always keep His commandments. ("If ye love me, keep my commandments" John 14:15). But I can in good faith say that I am definitely willing to do so! My heart is in the right place. I truly hunger and thirst after righteousness. I strive to love Christ more than anyone or anything else.
So He expects much more than belief in Him--He expects faithfulness to Him. Both Paul and James made that clear, though with alternate definitions of "faith". (Paul's definition of "faith" includes "works", ie: "faithfulness", where James' definition of faith was closer to "belief", hence the need to add that "faith (or belief) without works is dead".
We do works BECAUSE of our faith in Christ and BECAUSE of our love for Him--he has already blessed us with grace beyond measure. We DO NOT do works in order to merit his grace and to ultimately be "saved". Nobody merits or deserves his grace--that's what is so marvelous about the gospel, or good news, of Christ.
Then there's the whole perspective that only Latter-day Saints understand, that being "saved" is not the ultimate goal. Exaltation--the kind of life God lives--is the ultimate goal. But even that wouldn't be possible except through Christ.
It seems to be enough for some Christians to just get on the train--to be "saved"--but we want to ride the train all the way to the end of the tracks. As the "offspring" of God, we want to be "joint heirs" and become like Him. He wants us to become like Him too--we are his work and glory! (Moses 1:39). Now that is grace indeed!
So we also do works in order to become like Him--to close the gap--and to posses the same attributes of goodness and godliness and love. Again, that too is only possible through the atonement and grace of Jesus Christ. Our critics seem to want to jump to false conclusions and read into that far more than is even taught in Church. Mostly, I feel people rush to judgment based on their own limited understanding instead of setting aside judgement in order to reach a more full understanding.
In the interest of full disclosure, the question that a fellow LDS blogger asked me was:
"So when you say that nobody deserve's his grace, does that mean that his grace is universal - regardless of our behavior or choices? Thus all will be saved? I guess my point is to say that things are really not so simple sometimes. When we Mormons are asked:
Are we saved by grace?
Are we saved by works?
Simple yes or no answers do not give the whole story. The plan of salvation as we understand it is a lot more complex than how others understand it."
My response was:
"I understand what you're saying about not having simple yes or no answers. Of course, to be able to answer the question you have to first understand if we're talking about universal salvation from physical death (the Resurrection), which would be "yes", or universal salvation from spiritual death, which would be conditional. (Of course, that's another discussion unto itself, ie: faith, repentance, baptism--the first principles and ordinances of the gospel).
I would imagine that this isn't a clearly understood point by a majority of Christians today--and perhaps even among many of our own."
As for the salvation by grace or works--that's not even a question. It's not one against the other, because "both" have a role--they're two sides of the same coin. If anyone believes that they can be saved without any effort, obedience, commitment, or response on our part, then we would disagree. And a life of good works will naturally follow being consumed by the grace of Christ. In other words, not every one that says "Lord, Lord" will get into the kingdom, but he that "doeth" the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21)--or at least do our best while relying on Christ. That's "all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23). The good news is that whatever we manage to "do", it's done while we're already safe in the gospel harness.
The Bible is very clear on faith and works. In fact it seems so obvious to me that I can't understand how there can be so many different interpretations. (FYI: The phrase that we are saved "by grace alone" doesn't exist anywhere in the Bible). Both faith and works play a role. When Paul says that by "faith alone" we are saved--he's right, but its also clear that his definition of faith is not "belief alone" but "faithfulness". Both Paul and James were right. Both were apostles.
Just as a marriage covenant requires faithfulness to each other, so the gospel covenant requires faithfulness. Sure, I might not make the bed all the time (or at all), and I might forget to put the toilet seat down--I might even say a curse word once in awhile. But that doesn't end the marriage covenant. In other words, I don't have to be perfect alone, I just have to be faithful to my covenant relationship with Christ--"perfect in Christ" (Moroni 10:33-34)--loving him more than anyone or anything else.
Mercifully, there's always the blessing of repentance.