Monday, June 2, 2008

"Upon Further Review": Faith and Works BOTH play a part


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.

16 comments:

Amanda said...

Wow, you definitely have a gift for clarity. Those are all things that I understand in my heart and mind, but somehow on the way to my mouth, they get all mixed up. Thanks for your clear explanation!

Clean Cut said...

Thanks Amanda. It's nice of you to share some feedback!

Eric Nielson said...

Well done my friend.

Clean Cut said...

I appreciate that Eric.

paul maurice martin said...

It's absolutely true, if one simply reads the NT, that we're exhorted to both faith and works.

Ms.Green said...

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.

Actually the Bible is very clear that it is grace alone through faith. Take Ephesians 2:8-9: "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."

or Romans 11:6: "And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work."

Paul doesn’t give us a definition of faith. He doesn’t need to. Faith is already defined. And “faithfulness” is not a definition of faith. The two are not the same thing.

Paul, who wrote Galatians, was clearly admonishing those who had been saved and then thought that they somehow had to “work” to keep their salvation, thus becoming part of the salvation equation. Our works are as filthy rags in God’s eyes (Isaiah 64:6). Works play no part at all in our salvation. They are only an evidence of our salvation.
Paul said “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?”

Ms.Green said...

By the way...you've got a great looking family. That's one thing I really admire about LDS - the importance of family - which is something that has been to a great degree lost in our present society.

Clean Cut said...

Thanks for stopping by Ms. Green, and for charitably sharing your belief about salvation by grace. And thanks for the compliment about my family. They really are a joy.

I sincerely appreciate hearing from people whose perspective differs from mine. It's enlightening and I hope I can encourage positive interfaith dialogue whenever possible. It's possible that we may actually believe more similarly than you think, but we might be conversing about it differently, and giving a different impression.

One thing I'd like to understand, or to have you clarify, is if you're implying that we can be saved without any effort, obedience, commitment, or response on our part.

Naturally justification/salvation by grace through faith is fully scriptural. But justification/salvation by faith ALONE, without any effort, obedience, commitment, or response on the part of the believer is not.

I just want to know if you're stating that God requires nothing of us after our conversion; that He will lovingly accept any lifestyle the saved may subsequently choose to wallow in?

Surly you're not saying that God will accept our talking the talk without our walking the walk, right?

I've already said that our works don't amount to anything--it's Christ's works that save us--not our own. But God does require things of us. It's part of the covenant. He certainly requires our hearts and our wills.

To use the fishing analogy, He fully intends to "reel us in", but we can't cut the line and expect to be saved.

I think that we agree that OUR works don't save us. Our efforts as we "endure to the end" merely affirm our decision to remain in the saving covenant.

Like I said, we can't choose to ignore Paul or James--both were apostles and both were right. Faith without works isn't very strong faith at all. (James even says that it's "dead".) And faith without the grace of Christ leaves us without any hope at all.

As you said, works are evidence of our faith. From my experience, it is those who are truly converted who do the most works. But you're right that they don't save us. I stated that earlier as well. Our works, our best efforts, only confirm our loyalty to the Savior and our desire to continue being justified by His grace. Our obedience to His commandments are an imperfect token of our love for HIm and of our desire to remain in the saving covenant.

We might not share the same understanding of the importance of or how we enter into the covenant relationship with the Savior--how we truly accept Christ's grace--but I don't think we disagree here as much as some might think.

Ms.Green said...

One thing I'd like to understand, or to have you clarify, is if you're implying that we can be saved without any effort, obedience, commitment, or response on our part.

The Bible says was are saved by repenting of our sins and believing on Jesus Christ for our salvation - there is nothing else that we have to "do" to be saved. We don't have to do good works, be baptized, join a church, tithe, or any other "work".

Once we are truly saved, we are born again in the Spirit. Our works are the result of our new nature and our thankfulness for what Christ did for us, but they in no way play a part in our salvation.

I just want to know if you're stating that God requires nothing of us after our conversion; that He will lovingly accept any lifestyle the saved may subsequently choose to wallow in?

I'm not saying that at all. God promises that He will chasten His children if we are disobedient - even to the point of causing us to die if we continue in unrepentant sin. If someone who claims to be a Christian is living in unrepentant sin and there are no signs of chastening from God, then there's a good chance they aren't really saved at all.

One thing that comes to mind as an example are those who are in unrepentant homosexual sin and claim to be Christians - but there is no chastening in their lives for their sin. There is no fruit.

Works are not a part of the salvation equation in any way.

Clean Cut said...

Ms. Green, as you said: "Works are not a part of the salvation equation in any way." I think you're right. They're not part of the equation for salvation, but they certainly are a part of the equation in our life AFTER our conversion. As you write on your own blog, "God demands faithfulness".

So I can properly say that faith and works both play a part. Faith in Christ is what justifies us or saves us--it's how we enter the covenant. Our works play a part AFTER we've already entered the saving covenant--as we focus on STAYING in the covenant.

Stephen E. Robinson masterfully dealt with this in his wonderful books "Believing Christ" and its sequel "Following Christ" The former book dealt with believing Christ and coming to Christ; the latter deals with following and worshipping Christ.

He writes: "If being truly converted is to accept Christ as Lord and to make him the Lord of our lives, then this must somehow be reflected IN our lives--but how? How does being born again translate into behavior AFTER our conversion?"

As you said: "Once we are truly saved, we are born again in the Spirit. Our works are the result of our new nature and our thankfulness for what Christ did for us." This is getting to the heart of what I believe when I talk about works. So thanks for providing the impetus for clarification.

In "Following Christ", Robinson writes: "For those who have been born again, the critical question is not one of getting into the kingdom but of staying in the kingdom--of enduring to the end. For we must choose on an ongoing basis to remain, and that choice must be reflected in what we love and in what we seek. That is why enduring to the end is [a key] principle of the gospel. Daily, our question shouldn't be 'Have I made it to the kingdom yet?' but rather, 'Do I still want to stay?'". I highly recommend the books.

For me, there is no question but that I not only want to stay, but I want to be like Christ in word and in deed. I certainly have a long ways to go in my imitation of Him, especially in being full of charity and truly loving others. But true worship is emulation.

Clean Cut said...

One more thing I'd like to add when you said: "The Bible says was are saved by repenting of our sins and believing on Jesus Christ for our salvation - there is nothing else that we have to "do" to be saved. We don't have to do good works, be baptized, join a church, tithe, or any other "work".

I agree with you all except for the part about baptism. The Bible makes it perfectly clear that "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. (Mark 16:16). This in not because there is any saving power in baptism itself, but that through baptism we (among other things) enter the covenant with Christ, who saves.

Just like a dam stops a river from progressing, we are damed up until we enter that covenant with Christ. Without Him, and without being linked to Him through the covenant, there is no hope for us and for our salvation. No matter how good we try to be on our own, there is no hope until we become one with Christ through the baptismal covenant and begin a new life in Him. This is how we are "made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood" (Doctrine and Covenants 76:69).

Everything else you mentioned above I could very well expand to say that not only the Bible says this but also The Book of Mormon!

"Now I say unto you that ye must repent, and be born again; for the Spirit saith if ye are not born again ye cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye may be washed from your sins, that ye may have faith on the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, who is mighty to save and to cleanse from all unrighteousness." (Alma 7:14)

"And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance. And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, [one of my favorite phrases--in the arms of safety!] while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption" (Alma 34:15-16)

Notice it doesn't say we have to tithe, join a church, or do good works to be saved. It does seem to say that we must believe on the name of Christ and have enough faith to constantly repent.

So why do those other things? As you said, out of love and thankfulness for what Christ did for us, and I would add, to help build up His kingdom.
"If ye love me, keep my commandments." (John 14:15)

Because we have been blessed by Christ's grace, we should want to do all that we can do to serve the Master, to know Him better. For the truly converted, it should follow that we should "have faith, hope, and charity, and THEN ye will always abound in good works." (Alma 7:24)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a vehicle which helps me come to Christ and serve Him better. Only in the restored church of Christ is found the restored priesthood authority to perform the ordinances which link us to Christ. Only in this church do I find the fulness of the gospel of Christ. I say this with deep humility, and not out of pride or out of disrespect for any other church.

It's just that I believe that it's not just any other church. It is the very kingdom of God upon the earth. We're called to be His saints. Although very imperfect people as we are, we are justified by our faith in Christ through our baptismal covenant and sanctified through the gift of the Holy Ghost (which gift we receive upon our confirmation by one in authority.)

Thomas Parkin said...

Great, great discussion.

I'd like to add a couple things. We sometimes speak as if grace were a single magical element of an equation that acitvates at some point in the future and before then is mute. Like a kind of magic dust that we get only after we have 'worked' ourselves to the utmost. We get this idea, I think, because we rightly talk about the importance of striving to be good, and to keep the commandments to the best of our ability. That is how we demonstrate our love for a decdication to Christ. But grace can be seen simply as the Lord strengthening us and enabling us beyond our natural capacities, and we need this always, not just at some future time.

So that even our works are enabled by grace. We have to try, but our own efforts are never sufficient, unless they are infused with the divine qualities that sanctify them. This is made explicit in a number of scriptures ... I would like to quote two.

Moroni, in Chp 10, after speaking about spiritual gifts, says the following:

24 And now I speak unto all the ends of the earth—that if the day cometh that the power and gifts of God shall be done away among you, it shall be abecause of unbelief.
25 And wo be unto the children of men if this be the case; for there shall be none that doeth good among you, no not one. For if there be one among you that doeth good, he shall work by the power and gifts of God.

Second, in John 15 we get the same lesson, with the metaphor of the vine and the branches.

5 I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.

Thanks a bazillion for this discussion.

Clean Cut said...

Great reminder Thomas. I love that you've drawn out such a great insight into those two scriptures as well.

I appreciate what our Bible Dictionary says about grace: "The main idea of the word is divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ."

So in addition to how His grace and His atonement will raise all mankind from the dead, "it is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means. THIS GRACE IS AN ENABLING POWER".

I certainly pray for His grace as I try to overcome various weaknesses and bad habits. I need His grace to be a better husband and father, and to become more like what He wants us to be--Christians in word and deed.

Elder Bednar addressed this aspect of grace in his first conference talk after being called as an apostle, "In the Strength of the Lord", as well as his BYU devotional speech I attended in the Marriott Center in October 2001.

Ryan said...

Elder Bednar's BYU devotional absolutely blew me away (I was there, too). Before then I had never understood or recognized the enabling, strengthening aspect of the Atonement.

Makes me wonder which really *is* more amazing -- for Christ "to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk?" (Matt. 9:5).

Perhaps that's the difference between Telestial/Terrestrial/Celestial -- do we let Christ make us into something more or do we merely let Him repair the damage we do to ourselves and call it good?

(BTW, thanks for the links on Mormanity -- never realized you had a good blog, too)

Elder Ballard said...

In the Christian world, there has been much debate regarding the relationship of grace and works. To The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints both are core doctrines. Just as a pair of scissors requires two blades to function, the Lord’s grace and our works of faith in Christ, personal repentance, and receiving saving ordinances are required for eternal life in God’s presence.

Our works consist of placing our full confidence and trust in Jesus Christ and then exercising our desire and willingness to live by His teachings. We do this by repenting of all our sins and obeying the laws and ordinances of Christ’s gospel. As we do this faithfully over our lifetime, we are sanctified by the Holy Ghost and our nature is changed.

The scriptures inform us that Jesus grew from “grace to grace” until He received a fulness of the Father’s grace. What I understand that to mean is that He obeyed His Heavenly Father’s will and by so doing He received an increase of our Heavenly Father’s power. Thus He increased in the divine attributes of godliness until He was perfect in virtue and holiness like His Father. Jesus thereby showed us the path of holiness and then promised us: “If you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace” (D&C 93:20).

The doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regarding grace is forthright. We understand that since we have all become spiritually unclean because of sin (see 1 Jn. 1:8), and since “there cannot any unclean thing enter into the kingdom of God” (1 Ne. 15:34), no individual can receive eternal life solely on the merits of his or her own effort. We believe that only as we rely on the Savior’s grace and demonstrate our changed nature through obedience to His laws and ordinances may we receive eternal life. This principle is beautifully taught by Moroni in the closing chapter of the Book of Mormon. Please note the harmony and balance between the efforts we must make and the role of God’s grace in the process of perfecting ourselves.

“Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.

“And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot” (Moro. 10:32–33).

We believe that this should be the goal and striving for each of us.

It is only through the infinite Atonement of Jesus Christ that people can overcome the consequences of bad choices. Thus Nephi teaches us that it is ultimately by the grace of Christ that we are saved even after all that we can do (see 2 Ne. 25:23). No matter how hard we work, no matter how much we obey, no matter how many good things we do in this life, it would not be enough were it not for Jesus Christ and His loving grace. On our own we cannot earn the kingdom of God—no matter what we do. Unfortunately, there are some within the Church who have become so preoccupied with performing good works that they forget that those works—as good as they may be—are hollow unless they are accompanied by a complete dependence on Christ. It is this dependence that causes us to want to sing what Alma eloquently referred to as “the song of redeeming love” (Alma 5:26).

You remember that quote from the fifth chapter of Alma, in the Book of Mormon, in which he asks a series of powerful questions that are instructive in this matter. He asked members of the church at that time:

“Have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?

“Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body? …

“Or do ye imagine to yourselves that ye can lie unto the Lord in that day, and say—Lord, our works have been righteous works upon the face of the earth—and that he will save you? …

“I say unto you, can ye look up to God at that day with a pure heart and clean hands? I say unto you, can you look up, having the image of God engraven upon your countenances? …

“I say unto you, ye will know at that day that ye cannot be saved; for there can no man be saved except his garments are washed white; yea, his garments must be purified until they are cleansed from all stain, through the blood of him of whom it has been spoken by our fathers, who should come to redeem his people from their sins. …

“And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now? …

“Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you” (Alma 5:14–15, 17, 19, 21, 26, 33).

Let us never forget that it is by and through the grace of Jesus Christ and our coming unto Him through spiritual rebirth that the happy possibilities of eternal life are available to all of us.

A great demonstration of the love, mercy, and grace of our Heavenly Father is His preparing kingdoms of glory for His children’s eventual eternal residence based on the exercise of our personal agency relative to the commandments of God. Even the telestial glory surpasses our understanding. If we obey the laws of the gospel, we will receive a celestial glory. In other words, the Lord has said that we will be rewarded on the basis of “that which [we] are willing to receive” (D&C 88:32).

"Building Bridges of Understanding", by Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Clean Cut said...

See Grateful For Grace..."Those 61 cents should not be understood as a partial "payment", because salvation is a free gift. It should be understood as a representation of "giving our all"--our commitment--to the Savior (who does 100% of the saving). We give our hearts back to the Lord in gratitude.

For those who think I'm twisting what Stephen E. Robinson was teaching, he himself made a clarification in "How Wide the Divide?" when pressed on this issue by Craig Blomberg. He responds:
"In my parable of the bicycle, "sixty-one cents" is symbolic of our inability to earn our own salvation and also of the commitment in principle required of the saved. The believer who has only forty-one cents, or twenty-one, or eleven--or none--is still justified if he or she holds nothing back. It is not the quantity, but the commitment that matters. Without a commitment that translates into behavior, we are not saved. With such a commitment, be it ever so small at first, we are." (pp. 222-223)