Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Are We Saved By Grace or By Works?

In 1999, I prepared some thoughts about this topic and handed it out to the members of my gospel doctrine class. Sixteen years later, my son Joe is now teaching gospel doctrine, and updated my original writing recently. When I read it again, I decided it was worth sharing with everyone who reads this page:

Saved by Grace or by Works? 
What Paul Taught
Joe Goates
September 27, 2015

I recently spoke with a friend about his sister, who has been struggling with her testimony and lacking hope. She feels that all the effort to live the gospel is not worth it, after all, only a relative few will make the highest degree of the celestial kingdom, and she isn’t living up to what she would need to do to obtain that kingdom anyway. My friend asked me if I had any suggestions on some reading material that could restore her hope in the gospel and help her understand how she can obtain this kingdom, which is greatest of all the gifts of God (D&C 6:13). I gave him some suggestions and I hope these thoughts are also helpful for this good sister, and anyone else who has struggled with the same thoughts of inadequacy and lack of hope.

The World Teaches About Paul

Millions of people throughout time have asked the question, “What do I need to do to be saved?” Preachers in churches everywhere proclaim the answer to that question, and it usually involves something like “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Savior.” Almost all these Christian persuasions have a common thread in their preaching. Each preacher declares his or her version of what they think the Apostle Paul meant in his New Testament epistles.

Joseph Smith
Paul’s teachings about “grace” and being “born again” are often confusing and difficult to understand for many Latter-day Saints. Joseph Smith simply declared, “Being born again comes by the Spirit of God through ordinances.” (see TPJS, p. 162). Lacking a knowledge of the restoration and the ordinances of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost, most other Christian evangelists rely heavily upon Paul’s letters to the churches in his day. The missing link in their sermons is that the leaders of the branches of the church to whom Paul wrote (along with their followers) had already received the ordinances of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. That is why Paul rarely speaks of the preparatory ordinances.

Paul never mentions temple marriage and only makes vague references to the three degrees of glory. He focuses instead on the requirements for salvation after the ordinances of salvation have been received from legal administrators who have the authority “to preach the gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof” (Fifth Article of Faith). Paul presumes his readers already know about baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost, the priesthood and the temple.

What We Think We Believe

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who have possession of the fullness of the gospel, the priesthood and all its ordinances (including temple ordinances) are often unsure about their doctrinal position on salvation by grace and being born again.

Some Mormons, especially those raised in the Church think that salvation means only resurrection, a free gift, but that exaltation must be earned by performing good works and by keeping all the commandments. I believe we can trace this common belief back to the legacy of our Pioneer ancestry.

The notion of earning our own way is a cultural bias rooted in the fabric of Mormon history. Nobody gave our ancestors anything. His neighbors beat my great-great-great grandfather James Munns nearly to death the night before he left his hometown of Orwell in Cambridgeshire, England, to sail to America with the Mormons. He went to his grave in Lehi, Utah, bent over and scarred from the wounds he suffered that night for his faith.

We are the descendants of people who were chiseled out of the rock of adversity when they were forced to leave their homes in New York, Kirtland, Jackson County, and then Nauvoo. They eventually conquered the desert wilderness of the Utah territory. They earned everything they got.

This attitude of having to earn our stripes and prove ourselves before God often carries over when it comes to our view on salvation. I have heard many people say, “I’m just not good enough to be a Mormon.”  They end up staying outside the doors because they have an incorrect view of how salvation really works. Thinking you have to “prove yourself” to God is like cancer patients who feel they must cure themselves of the disease before they seek medical attention.

Church programs tend to perpetuate the perfection myth. The problem is that measuring the relative behavior of disciples of Christ and comparing their performance to each other seem completely contrary to the gospel. Perfection presumes that some are better than others, when in reality, all disciples of Christ are, by definition, sinners and fallen beings (Romans 3:23). If salvation was all about what you could accomplish on your own, then why would there be a need to come to Christ?

What is Grace?

If we immerse ourselves in the teaching of the prophets of The Book of Mormon there will come an assurance that we are truly saved by grace, and not by our “good works.” Grace and being born again are topics we should speak more freely of in the Church. (See Mosiah 27: 24-26; Alma 7:14; John 3: 1-5).

On Resurrection Morning
Bible Dictionary’s Definition of Grace:

"It is through the grace of the Lord Jesus, made possible by His atoning sacrifice, that mankind will be raised in immortality, every person receiving his body from the grave in a condition of everlasting life. 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 that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts.

"Divine grace is needed by every soul in consequence of the Fall of Adam and also because of man’s weaknesses and shortcomings. However, grace cannot suffice without total effort on the part of the recipient. Hence the explanation, 'It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.' (2 Ne. 25:23). It is truly the grace of Jesus Christ that makes salvation possible."

Because of Paul and Alma, we know that grace is not a gift that we must qualify for by virtue of righteousness initially, but it is also true that we may grow from “grace to grace” as we obtain “grace for grace.” (See D&C 93:1-20). It is not something you can earn on your own. Grace comes as a gift from God and is showered in doses over all his creations without discrimination.

No one summarizes the idea of what grace is better than Nephi:

"Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves -- to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life.
"Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved.
"Wherefore, may God raise you from death by the power of the resurrection, and also from everlasting death by the power of the atonement, that ye may be received into the eternal kingdom of God, that ye may praise him through grace divine. (2 Nephi 10: 23-25).

So, What are “Good Works?”

Simply put, the “good works” are part of the covenant relationship we enter into as members of the Church. We are to do the works of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This faith leads us to truly repent of our sins. Then we can accept the ordinances of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, the laying on of the hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. In time we receive priesthood ordinations and temple covenants. Enduring to the end of mortal life in those principles and ordinances to the best of our ability.

Those good works built on symbolic covenants are all inspired by obedience to the power of God and his Spirit in us. They are acts of grace growing out of the goodness of God within us. Jesus taught that only God was “good” (Mark 10:18). So did Paul. (Romans 3:10-12). Eternal life is attainable only because of our faith in Christ’s atonement. We earn nothing as fallen beings, because any good in us comes from God. The Holy Ghost either inspires our good works, or our works are merely the works of men and they perish. (3 Nephi 27:10-12). We love and serve others as He loves and serves us — not in an effort to deserve grace, but to accept it and offer it to others as freely as it is offered to us.

Do I Have to Keep the Commandments?

You will not find one latter-day Prophet who stood at the head of this Church in this dispensation who has not admonished the saints to keep the commandments of God.  But we all should realize that the ideal is never achieved in perfection in this life. The long list of commandments and outward ordinances is not unlike the “preparatory gospel” of the Law of Moses, designed to give Israel a “type and shadow” of the spiritual blessings they would ultimately attain through the atonement of Christ. The Law of Moses was never designed to produce salvation (see Mosiah 13: 30-31; 16: 14-15; 2 Nephi 2: 4-7; Romans 3: 20-24), but as sin in the world escalates we zealously admonish one another that not one must be lost. We learn to measure performance and compare relative compliance. We must remember to feed the sheep and not be satisfied with merely counting them. A “real” Mormon, who has been converted from the inside out, may not be praised by man, but he will be praised of God. (See Romans 2: 25-29).

Does Grace or Works Save Us?

The answer is “yes.” When we commit sin and we die a spiritual death we separate ourselves from the companionship of and constant influence of our Heavenly Father’s love and Spirit. When we repent of our sins and come unto Christ, we are rescued and become new creatures. This matter of being saved from sin and being rescued by the Redeemer, is not a one-time confession with our lips only. It takes a lifetime of persistent faith to achieve – but it must be the right “good works” that we do to “retain a remission of our sins” (see Mosiah 4). The works required for salvation are simply accepting, with a pure heart, the covenants and ordinances that give us access to Christ’s atonement and His grace that changes us.

“And of tenets thou shalt not talk, but thou shalt declare repentance and faith on the Savior, and remission of sins by baptism, and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost.
“Behold, this is a great and the last commandment which I shall give unto you concerning this matter; for this shall suffice for thy daily walk, even unto the end of thy life.” (D&C 19:31-32).

"And now, my beloved brethren, I would that ye should come unto Christ, who is the Holy One of Israel, and partake of his salvation, and the power of his redemption. Yea, come unto him, and offer your whole souls as an offering unto him, and continue in fasting and praying, and endure to the end; and as the Lord liveth ye will be saved." (Omni 1:26).

"And again I would exhort you that ye would come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift, and touch not the evil gift, nor the unclean thing....
"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." (Moroni 10: 30, 32-32).

Sometimes this matter of being saved by grace takes a lifetime of learning and a quiet, but persistent overcoming of temptations and habits. We recognize our own feeble efforts will meet with frustration and failure week by week.  That is why we partake of the emblems of Christ’s atonement – the bread and water — each week in the sacramental covenant. The grace of God is the enabling power that makes possible our continued attempts to do better in the works of righteousness as we grow from “grace to grace.” We truly receive more and more as we give more and more grace. Salvation and exaltation is really that simple.

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