Confused About Grace and Works

January 16, 2004 | 22 comments
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I recently had a conversation with a self-described Christian, who was eager to teach me about the doctrine of grace. When I quoted 2 Nephi 25:23 (“We know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”), my companion scoffed. He said this was similar to saying, “We fly from India to the United States on an airplane, after all we can do.” In other words, Jesus does so much and we do so little that our part is not worth mentioning.

What follows is a stylized version of the ensuing dialogue.

Gordon: Given your comment about the airplane, I am interested in your views on the relationship between grace and works. Are you suggesting that we don’t need to do anything to be saved? [As you can see by my use of the word "saved," I am trying to play on his turf here.]
Friend: We need to accept Jesus as our Savior and repent of all of our sins. You seem to think that you can earn your way into Heaven.

Gordon: Not exactly. I believe that no one — except Jesus — merits eternal life. [Again, trying to get the terms right.] But your reference to repentence intrigues me. What does that entail?
Friend: Repentence requires that we give up our sins and act in a Christlike manner. Our goal is to become more like Him.

Gordon: So it seems that we have similar views on grace. We both believe that everyone except Jesus is sinful and in need of repentence. We all do the best that we can, and grace makes up the difference.
Friend: There you go again! You keep talking about this gap between your performance and where Jesus is, but the fact is that everything you do is tainted. It’s like Pope John Paul II said, even when we do “good” works, we are tainted by pride and other worldly concerns. [No, I am not making that up. He paraphrased the Pope.] In my view, our works do not have the power to save us, and we need to acknowledge that.

Gordon: So why do good works? Why give to the poor if that is, in essence, an evil act?
Friend: We strive to do good works as an expression of our love for God.

Gordon: So how is it that doing evil deeds shows your love?
Friend: Your twisting my words.

You get the idea. I have had similar conversations with all sorts of Christians. This one actually held some promise at the beginning, but it quickly deteriorated into cordial misunderstandings.

This is very frustrating to me because I feel like there is something essential that I am missing about the doctrine of grace. My “Christian” friends claim to understand it, but they can’t seem to put it into words that I can understand. Either I am hopelessly caged by my Mormon world view or the Christian doctrine of grace is incoherent.

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22 Responses to Confused About Grace and Works

  1. Logan on January 16, 2004 at 8:09 pm

    I sometimes think that as Mormons we don’t appreciate the concept of grace as much as we should. I don’t know that I’m qualified to comment on it in an informed manner, but when has that stopped me before?

    I don’t think we give to the poor because it directly affects our salvation (perhaps inderectly in some way). We do it because we find that as we give to others, we become more like God and have a greater sense of peace.

    When I think of “all we can do,” I think of the symbolic (and otherwise intrinsically nearly arbitrary) ordinances of baptism, temple marriage, etc. that the Lord has designated as the way we make covenants with him — covenants in which He promises that we will be brought back to return with Him, and we promise to live laws and keep commandments.

    I don’t think that it’s so much a balance-sheet sort of process by which we’re judged. It’s about accepting Christ. We just do it through covenants and ordinances, rather than saying “I believe.” It really is Christ who does the saving.

  2. Jim F. on January 16, 2004 at 8:36 pm

    I don’t think there is a brief answer to your question, but I’m sympathetic to your interlocutor’s position: we don’t do good works to earn salvation; our works cannot save us. However, in spite of the difficulty of giving a brief answer, let me try to say something brief.

    It doesn’t follow from the fact that we are saved by grace alone (a theme in the Book of Mormon more than in any other scriptures, including the New Testament), that we needn’t do works.

    One reason for works is that they can glorify God. As Luther said, “works [. . .] cannot glorify God, although they may be done to the glory of God if faith be present” (“On Christian Liberty”).

    Another is that good works imitate Christ and it would be contradictory to assert that I have faith but I refuse to imitate Christ.

    Still another is that we owe Christ our obedience, and thus our works, for his saving work. I see this idea in Romans 12:1: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” Given what Paul has taught in the previous chapters about salvation by grace and about the covenant, he begs those who hear his letter to offer their bodies as a sacrifice to God because they owe it to him. The sacrifice of our bodies, our reasonable service, is the good work he commands.

    There are other reasons as well, but these should be enough to show that salvation by grace alone and the necessity of works are not only compatible, they complement each other.

  3. Gordon Smith on January 16, 2004 at 10:07 pm

    Logan suggests that in doing good works “we become more like God and have a greater sense of peace.” I think this is the conventional Mormon view. Becoming like God is an iterative process, and doing good works is central to the enterprise. We participate in our own salvation, even if that participation would be insufficient, standing alone, to merit the ultimate reward. In this view, we do not earn salvation, but we are active participants in the conversion process. Grace allows us to avoid the penalty for our mistakes, thus enabling us to progress. This role for grace is conditioned on repentence.

    The view of grace just described implies a different role for works than the role envisioned by Jim. (This may be a caricature of Jim’s position. For all I know, Jim shares some of Logan’s sentiments. After all, Jim’s list was not intended to be exclusive. But bear with me and I think you will see the point in the end.) Jim says that we do good works, among other reasons, to (1) glorify God; (2) imitate Christ; and (3) sacrifice ourselves to Christ. These reasons sound very much like the reasons offered by my Christian friends. To which I respond: But why are any of these things important? Does God really care if we glorify Him? (Yes, but not because he needs the support.) We might imitate Christ or offer our lives as a sacrifice to Him because we love him, but that merely describes our motivation. It does not explain why God would expect these things of us and encourage us in doing these things. What is lacking from this account is the notion that works contribute to the process of Christlike development. My Christian friends trivialize our efforts (see the airplane analogy). In their desire to praise Jesus, they turn grace into the end-all, be-all. Jesus becomes a magician, who waves His wand and turns all of His passive followers into saveable beings. This does not comport with my view of Christ’s role.

  4. chris on January 16, 2004 at 11:53 pm

    I am really glad this thread got brought up. I have been tossing around this idea the last couple of weeks. I think part of the mis-understandings that arise may be due to a marked difference on motivation, free agency, and acceptance. In particular the key to the debate, as I see it is how both sides interpret acceptance of God in our life.

    In spiritual growth I think both sides can agree on needing to accept God in order to start to put his power into play in our lives. But what is required to accept God’s power? Well from a Christian view, probably a basic idea of Christ, and a desire to do what he wants. I think the same is also true of Mormons. Both sides agree that this will probably let us be “born again”.

    From a Christian perspective (as I see it), once we have been born again, we have opened the door to God. His influence must then be felt in our lives. If his influence is not in our lives, we haven’t been born again. With God’s influence in our lives, the works we do are more in line with Christ’s example. The only way good works can come about is through the influence of God’s power. If God’s power is in your life, it must necessarily act. If it is not acting, it does not exist.

    Compared to my Mormon perspective, I would say that God’s power in our lives is more biased towards an idea of potential than action. Once we are born again, we have the choice to do good works or not (or from the Christian perspective, to choose between two lesser imperfection works). God’s influence will let me know which one is better, and may even help me achieve it (use different adjectives here depending on how “hands on” you view God as being). Once I start working towards a choice, God’s power becomes manifest. Thus I basically actualize the potential of God’s power by starting down along the road. I have made a choice whether or not to use God’s power.

    I think this last point is where Christians tend to not understand Mormons. To them it seems to put us above God’s power. When I look at things from their perspective I can totally see this complaint. The escape I use is one that was mentioned on a post a while back, “logical impossibilities”. To Mormons, it is logically impossible that God can over ride free will. ie our ability is to choose is not something over which God has power. If he did, he would be following Satan’s plan. I don’t think Christians, for one reason or another, have this “out”. Their view of God’s omnipotence requires that it supercedes all our choices. How else could he cause us to act for the better once we have accepted him?

    Hence from a Christian perspective, our effort comes in being able to accept God. For Mormons, it comes in applying that acceptance. I would say that philosophically, this makes Christians more inclined a view of knowledge based on observations, for Mormons, a much more empirical bias.

    At any rate those are my two cents. I just find it interesting that the results of this philosophical difference lead Christians to a more “hands on” God, yet it is Mormons who tend to view God as acting so much today. Perhaps there is still a balance in how involved we view God as being. For Christians it is manifest as being more in control of our works, for Mormons it is manifest more through revelation and direction.

    (note after the discussion on Mormons and Christians last week, I feel guilty about the terminology I used. I would have changed it, but I wasn’t quite sure what to use. I just consider Christians to be a subset of Mormons. Thus Mormons are Christians, but not all Christians are Mormons)

  5. lyle on January 17, 2004 at 12:12 am

    Chris said that “To Mormons, it is logically impossible that God can over ride free will. ie our ability is to choose is not something over which God has power. If he did, he would be following Satan’s plan.”

    To be provocative, and to push the point, I think Chris hit on the exact answer. Most evangelical/conservative Christians I know feel that we are some type of construct of God’s…much as Aule created the dwarves in Middle Earth. However, Mormons take the Father distinction literally. E/C Christians thus see God as controlling them, while Mormons reject this. One logical conclusion that stems from this, although not one I believe/advocate, is that E/C Christianity is simply a plot ‘inspired’ and encouraged by the enemy, a la C.S. Lewis/Screwtape letters. They may reject MOs as non-Christian because the false “christ” MOs believe in is the (gasp) brother of Lucifer. However, by this line of MO logic, Mormons should reject e/c Christians as believing in a false God who seeks to “control” his followers…i.e. the adversary. To hijack Gordon’s words…this would make God a “magician” who waves the wand of his power/glory to save everyone…or those he chooses. Sounds, literally, awful, to me.

    Note…someone mentioned that God can’t take our agency away from us. This is where Nate’s research/discussion on intelligences would come in handy. I think an intelligence is simply an ‘agent’ who can exercise ‘agency.’ However, LDS Conference talks are littered with quotes that say that God has given his children their agency. If something is given…it can be taken away, right?

  6. chris on January 17, 2004 at 1:36 am

    Lyle – “If something is given…it can be taken away, right”

    I don’t know if that is true. My professors have “given” me a good education. Can they take that away? I don’t know if we can view agency as a switch that gets turned on or off. I think God has “enabled” our progression by making us aware of options we can take.

  7. Kristine on January 17, 2004 at 9:54 am

    It’s hard to understand the Protestant/evangelical understanding of grace without some discussion of original sin. Many Protestants teach that human beings are so tainted by the Fall that they are literally incapable of doing good without the intecession of grace. So getting started doing something good and then having God’s power help your efforts along doesn’t make sense in their view. No matter what a human being undertakes, it won’t be “good” until God intervenes with grace.

  8. Renee on January 17, 2004 at 11:33 am

    My experience has been that other Christian faiths want to make sure to state that there is no obligation to good. Just as the plane conversation, I have been told many times that what we do as humans is totally insignificant to God.

    This is amazing to me as the Bible compares our relationship with God as that of a family. Surely, even when we know more than our children, we would never diminish or discredit our children’s efforts. Yet that is exactly what these people are saying that God does to us.

    If our families operated that way, children would do whatever they wanted, even to their detriment because their parents would always bail them out and never expect them to improve because the parents view them as utterly incapable idiots. Exactly how much respect would you have for your parents if they thought you were a total fool with no abilities?

    In short, the view of others is that it’s nice if we do good but it’s not at all necessary in the eyes of God. Makes you wonder why they believe in a hell at all.

  9. chris on January 17, 2004 at 2:40 pm

    Seems lilke in that case, you would need a hell. If what you do really doesn’t matter to anyone but yourself, a strong idea of punishment would be needed to prevent people from getting too wild.

  10. Gordon Smith on January 17, 2004 at 3:52 pm

    I was writing another post (see “Does God Need Us?” above) when I found this from Joseph F. Smith:

    “We will not finish our work until we have saved ourselves, and then not until we shall have saved all depending upon us; for we are to become saviors upon Mount Zion, as well as Christ.”

    My experience with evangelical Christians is similar to Renee’s. The above quotation would send them into orbit, but it suggests that Mormons have a much grander notion of individual worth. Also, talk about a work ethic! The Protestants have nothing on us.

  11. Russell Arben Fox on January 17, 2004 at 6:25 pm

    “The above quotation would send them into orbit, but it suggests that Mormons have a much grander notion of individual worth.”

    Or a much weaker concept of submissive dependency. Or can both notions exist simultaneously?

  12. Clark Goble on January 17, 2004 at 8:41 pm

    Russell, I think the related topic of how God depends upon us and vice versa answers your question. In the divine economy service is always outward directed. Until that happens we are not part of the divine economy. God can give the gift, but we must accept the gift. Where I think we differ from Protestants is more in regard to the meaning of “accepting.” They sometimes wish to have both will and non-will simultaneously. (IMO)

  13. Clark Goble on January 17, 2004 at 8:43 pm

    Just to add to the above, the problem of “the gift” is not at all obvious. For instance to complicate my comments, can we say that God has given a gift unless we accept? A gift is only a gift when there is both a giving and a receiving. One can reject a gift, but presumably only after a certain kind of giving and accepting. I think that issue is where the Protestants take a different route from us.

  14. Jim F. on January 17, 2004 at 11:08 pm

    It seems to me that we have to be more careful in talking about what Protestants believe than many of us are. It is wrong to characterize their beliefs unfairly, as wrong as it is for some of them to characterize our beliefs unfairly. There may be Protestants who believe that it doesn’t matter what they do or who don’t believe in free agency, etc., but those certainly aren’t standard Protestant beliefs.

    Gordon says, “We might imitate Christ or offer our lives as a sacrifice to Him because we love him, but that merely describes our motivation. It does not explain why God would expect these things of us and encourage us in doing these things. What is lacking from this account is the notion that works contribute to the process of Christlike development.”

    I don’t see what that is lacking. God expects us to imitate Christ out of gratitude for his saving work. To imitate Christ is to be like Christ–by definition. If you accept that, then it seems that your question is “Why does God expect us to become like Christ?” I’m not sure what kind of answer would suffice that couldn’t be followed by another “why” question that is equally unanswerable. For example, if I were to say “Because that is the best way to be,” someone could ask, “Why is that the best way to be?” That process could go on forever, but it seems to me that the answer “in order to be like Christ” is sufficient.

    Can we refuse the gift of God’s grace? Of course, and we do so when we don’t offer ourselves as a “living sacrifice.” If I accept Christ’s sacrifice, then I imitate it, doing good works. If I don’t do good works, then I don’t accept it. That is compatible with LDS doctrine as I understand it–and it is also a doctrine that many Catholics and Protestants accept. Perhaps there are Protestants who think of Christ as waving a magic wand to save, but I don’t think that is a very good description of what most Protestants believe.

    So, is grace conditioned on repentance? Not really. Clark is right to point out that the notion of gift-giving is complicated, but I think we can ignore those philosophical complications for this discussion. The gift is offered whether I repent or not. God stands ready to accept me, to save me, if I will repent, but I don’t accept the gift unless I repent because I CANNOT accept the gift without repentance. I cannot because I cannot accept the gift unless I recognize its necessity, and I can’t recognize its necessity unless I recognize that I am a sinner who does not have the power to save himself and that God has offered me a way out of that predicament. So grace doesn’t have its effect on me unless I repent and endure to the end, but grace isn’t conditioned on repentance. It isn’t offered only if I repent; it is offered from the beginning. In fact, my recognition of that offer is the beginning of repentance.

    Do Protestants believe that God controls us? As far as I know, not even Calvinists believe this, and not all Protestants are Calvinists. Perhaps Lyle has Calvinism in mind, but if so, this is an unfair characterization of Calvinism.

    Kristine has a point when she reminds us that Protestants believe in original sin and we don’t (though the difference is often more subtle than it seems at first–consider, for example Mosiah 3:16, among other scriptures, which teaches that we are fallen by nature). Neverthless, it seems to me that in Moroni 7:6-10 Mormon teaches something very similar to what Kristine describes as Protestant belief: an evil person cannot do that which is good. Mormon follows that in verse 11 by saying that a person who follows Christ cannot be a servant of the devil, i.e., cannot be evil. So Mormon seems to me to say something very similar to what the Protestants say. To quote Kristine: “No matter what a human being undertakes, it won’t be ‘good’ until God intervenes with grace.”

    I converted from Protestantism to the Restoration more than 40 years ago and I have never regreted doing so or been nostalgic for my former life. But Protestants as well as Catholics have thought about these issues in ways that might be helpful to us as we try to think about them. Though we differ from them both, there’s no reason to set up an artificial divide on this issue.

  15. Gordon Smith on January 18, 2004 at 12:18 am

    Jim,

    My prior comments suggest more certainty than I have about the doctrine of grace, and you taught me some things here. If I am reading you correctly, the takeaway lesson is that our views on the doctrine of grace are not as different from Protestants as some of the comments imply. This sounds right to me, and I gladly embrace that idea. Neverthless, I think a few minor comments are in order:

    1. You refer to “Protestants,” but others have been writing about “Christians” or “evangelical Christians.” I can’t speak for others, but my point of reference is the latter group, which is smaller than Protestants.

    While I was growing up, my family attended the United Church of Christ – Congregational. In my small town, almost everyone attended that church, or the Lutheran chuch on the other side of town (a few blocks away). When someone inquired about our religion, none of us gave “Christian” as the first response. I would have responded in that way only if I had been in a group of non-Christians (e.g., Hindus, Muslims, etc.), which never happened in Osseo, Wisconsin. In my experience, people who answer “Christian” to that question are almost always a special brand of Protestant, which some refer to as “evangelical.”

    2. You wrote: “If I accept Christ’s sacrifice, then I imitate it, doing good works. If I don’t do good works, then I don’t accept it. That is compatible with LDS doctrine as I understand it–and it is also a doctrine that many Catholics and Protestants accept.”

    When I read these comments, I find myself nodding my head in agreement, and you may be right that “many Catholics and Protestants accept” this view of grace. But I have yet to meet a “Christian” who would agree to this. Indeed, the impetus for my original post was yet another conversation in which a Christian described his views on grace and I suggested that we held very similar views, a claim that he roundly rejected. Increasingly, I have the suspicion that these reactions are aimed not so much at the substance of the doctrine of grace, but at the idea of agreeing with a Mormon about this doctrine. Almost every Christian I have encountered is well-versed in anti-Mormon teachings, and my professed confusion about their views on the relationship between grace and works might be explained by their unconvincing attempts to distinguish their beliefs from mine.

    3. “So grace doesn’t have its effect on me unless I repent and endure to the end, but grace isn’t conditioned on repentance.” Maybe I am missing something, but aren’t you tilting at windmills here? My comment about grace being conditioned on repentence was preceded by the statement, “Grace allows us to avoid the penalty for our mistakes, thus enabling us to progress.” Whether “grace” is “grace” before we accept it is exactly the kind of “philosophical complication” you were purporting to avoid. In short, I think we are on the same page here.

  16. Jim F. on January 18, 2004 at 1:07 am

    True, the evangelicals are a sub-set of Protestants, but evangelical doctrine on this point is not so different than non-evangelical doctrine. Nevertheless I think your explanation is right: though we and the evangelicals don’t disagree on this as much as it might at first seem, evangelicals are more likely than others to be looking at this through lenses colored by a presupposition that LDS beliefs are necessarily unlike their own and, so, by their desire to distinguish their beliefs from ours. (I think the same thing, however, is often true of LDS talking about the issue.)

    I think you are right that we are on the same page, and perhaps my response to the word “conditioned” was too philosophical. On the other hand, the claim that grace is conditioned on repentance is one of the kinds of claims that often get us into arguments–unnecessary arguments, I think–with non-LDS Christians (a term I am using broadly rather than to refer only to evangelical Christians). I think it also creates misunderstanding among us. So it is a way of talking that is, I think, problematic and should be avoided.

  17. Gordon Smith on January 18, 2004 at 1:44 am

    After this conversation, Jim, I think I am going to give up my inquiries about grace with evangelical Christians. As I said in my original post, I have long felt that I was missing something essential about the doctrine of grace because I could not connect with Christians. But our conversation here has convinced me that my failure to connect is mostly superficial, driven either by their desire not to connect with a Mormon or by my awkwardness in expressing our understanding.

  18. Gordon Smith on January 18, 2004 at 1:47 am

    Just to clarify, I did not mean to say that I would stop talking to evangelical Christians about grace. Only that I will stop raising the topic. If they want to discuss it — which they often do — I will happily oblige. My search for understanding is sincere, but I never seem to get much understanding from those conversations.

  19. Clark Goble on January 18, 2004 at 2:30 am

    Jim, you are quite right to keep me from descending into a focus on minutae, as I am too often want to do. However I phrased things the way I did because it seems to me that the issue of grace reduces to the issue of repentance. If we consider repentance as part of the way we accept the gift then the view of many Protestants towards the gift is key. Consider, for example, a Calvinist wherein God appears to pick who accepts the gift. We are, in a sense passive actors.

    The recognition that we must not paint with a broad brush is apt. Further one should recognize that, as with far too many Mormons, what individuals believe and what their religion teaches are not always in harmony. I found, for instance, many Protestants whose description of the Trinity was far more in accord with Mormon belief than Protestant belief.

    The issue to me is what it entails to accept and thereby receive grace. That God offers it unconditionally to all seems the one point both Mormons and Protestants agree upon. It is the second half of the relation where we frequently differ.

  20. Jim F. on January 18, 2004 at 1:31 pm

    Clark, your final point is an important one, perhaps the important one for this discussion. As for the “minutia,” I thought I detected some of Derrida’s discussions of the gift lurking behind your post, but I may have had my philosophical antennae up too high.

  21. Clark Goble on January 18, 2004 at 7:10 pm

    Looking back, I suppose it may have been. But I don’t think it need be. (Although I always took Derrida, even in his religious language, to be speaking of “the Given” more ala Sellars or in the neo-Cartesian mold)

    I think, however, that I don’t find any of the discussions of Grace terribly satisfactory. It seems like the reality is somewhere in between Pelagian (extreme works) and the Evangelical position. And that’s fine to me. I definitely come from the school where the real exists in an essential tension with irreconcilable statable positions. If you can state it unambiguously it probably isn’t the real thing discussed…

    So to me Grace is inherently paradoxical in discussion. However as I see it the Mormon perspective is as well – especially in our key verse of “by Grace we are saved after all we can do.” I’ve always thought that expressed the essential tension quite well.

  22. Adam Greenwood on January 18, 2004 at 9:03 pm

    I incline to Gordon Smith’s description of things. But a caveat is in order: I think something like Gordon described is an accurate description of our relationship from the outside. But I note that when I am at my holiest–when I am most active in pursuing God–I am also the least likely to see myself as a distinct person exercising individual will. Instead, I feel myself drawn up to the One.

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