Does grace mean I can do what I like and still go to heaven?
How does God expect us to be good if we are already saved?
Where’s the incentive to be worthy?
The great advantage to being here, beyond the Zion curtain, is that, largely unencumbered by the historical and socio-political issues that prevail in Utah, we can get down to the fundamentals. Nothing is more fundamental than the message of grace.
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures...” (1 Cor.15:3)
Mormons struggle with grace. They don’t think so, indeed, they think Christians don’t understand grace at all. Mormons ascribe to us an “easy-believism” that demands nothing of us except utterance of the “sinner’s prayer” and a blind faith that, no matter how I live now, I have my ticket to heaven. It is important to understand how Mormons teach grace, how they think we understand it and how to explain what the Bible teaches. Let’s look at two familiar statements that demonstrate the Mormon understanding.
“We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.” (3rd Article of Faith)
“For we know that it is by grace we are saved, after all we can do”. (2 Nephi 25:23)
Note the emphasis, “saved, by obedience” and “saved, after all we can do”. Mormons have complained when I have emphasised these words like this but they are there in the text and I have yet to speak to a Mormon who can rationally place the emphasis anywhere else. Mormonism teaches that salvation is gained by a combination of grace and works. They will often appeal to James 2:20: “But will you know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?”
A Christian might appeal to Paul in his letter to Rome:
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it--
the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.
It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom.3:22-28; note again the emphasis)
The Mormon response is to insist, “Isn’t this unfair since we haven’t done anything to earn it and to prove our worthiness?” Yes! It is scandalous!
But you see the problem is that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” and are incapable of earning or proving worthy of God’s favour. Mormons tend to view this idea of falling short of the glory of God as representing a shortfall in our performance and therefore we need a mixture of grace and works, i.e. we do what we can and “after all we can do” Jesus makes up the shortfall.
Ironically, in the same chapter of James that Mormons love to quote James addresses directly what Paul means and the shocking news is much worse than a simple shortfall in performance. Just ten verses previously James describes how God views sin:
‘For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.’ (James 2:10-11)
Mormons subscribe to the popular but erroneous idea that our good deeds count while our bad deeds need to be sorted out. It is clear from James that God doesn’t look at it that way. It is not which laws or how many laws you break; if you break one law then you are a lawbreaker and that disqualifies you. It is not what you do but what you are that God looks at. It is not a question of keeping seven commandments out of ten but of being a lawbreaker.
Coming short of the glory of God is not disappointing, it is devastating! Paul describes the futility of our efforts to merit anything from God:
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.
So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.
For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.
Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.
For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom.7:15-24)
Note he writes that he “delights in the law of God in [his] inner being” but finds himself incapable of obeying it. Have you noticed that even among unbelievers most people mean well and often do well? People have consciences and act on them. Paul writes about the uncircumcised, those who don’t have the law, who still keep the law to some degree anyway. (Ro.2:26)
People care about things like the environment, their neighbour, justice and charity. They engage with issues through politics, local action groups, etc. and sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Paul declares it rare that someone would die for a good person (Ro.5:7) but recognises that, even so, someone might. In all this people are driven by a higher calling to live well. They seek to know the best way to live. Because of this Mormons produce this equation that includes the good that men do but…
Paul describes each of us when he explains, “If I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin dwelling in me”. With the best of intentions and after many works of sacrifice Paul is troubled that he cannot keep the royal law (James 2:8, cf v10) He is not excusing sin but explaining its hold on the sinner, the lawbreaker. Like Paul, we have the best of intentions and are certainly capable of doing individual good acts but, as James points out and as Paul affirms, we cannot do the good that we want and that God requires.
This is why “a righteousness from God [must] be revealed” (Ro.3:22) because we have none of our own. Paul, in another letter, observed:
“For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law” (Gal.3:21)
God’s solution to this problem is not more rules but a Saviour.
Next: Isn’t Paul contradicting James?
Then: But faith without works is dead; isn’t it?