Works and Grace

February 20, 2008

Some find the doctrines relating to works and grace to be an intimidating topic in the world of religion, particularly as it relates to the LDS faith. It needn’t be. It is a simple doctrine.

We do not believe, as some do, that Christ’s grace will save us independently of our actions.  His sacrifice on the cross did not eliminate our personal responsibility. That is not to say that His grace is not sufficient for all, because it is. However, were we saved by grace alone, what would be the point in living a lifestyle of obedience and sacrifice? We could do whatever we desired and still obtain salvation by accepting Christ. Yet God requires that His followers obey Him, whether or not we know (or understand) His reasoning.

The problem here is that we simply cannot be perfectly obedient. Only the Savior could fulfill the demands of justice and be perfectly compliant with the Father’s will. That is why works alone will not suffice. None of us would be able to achieve the expectations placed before us by only our own efforts. We are all dependent on Christ for our salvation. Thus, we need His grace. And we need repentance. We must do our part, which consists of both continuous efforts for improvement and proper repentance.

Let me share part of the explanation from the Bible dictionary:

“It is . . . 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.”

Christ invites all men to “Come unto me . . . and I will give you rest . . . For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28,30) But we must first come; He will not simply bestow His lighter burden on all. We must first knock in order to enter in to His rest. We need both to act and accept His divine grace.

Suggested readings on this topic:

The Atonement: Our Greatest Hope
by President James E. Faust (Liahona, Jan. 2002, 19-22)

Words of the Early Apostles: Grace
by Elder Christoffel Golden Jr. (Ensign, Oct. 2003, 48-52)

Beauty for Ashes: The Atonement of Jesus Christ
by Elder Bruce C. Hafen (Liahona, Apr. 1997, 39)

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15 Responses to “Works and Grace”

  1. Eric Nielson

    I agree that this does not need to be complicated, but many outside the church make it that way. Something that might help Mormons and Evangelicals see eye to eye better is what is the definition of works?

    One definition of works is to say that Paul was referring to the rites and practices of the law of Moses, and saying that those works are dead. Some Evangelicals and others may point at Mormon ordinances like baptism and the Gift of the Goly Ghost as ‘dead works’.

    Another definition of works might be charitable service. This seems to be what James is talking about. This might beg the question of how much charitable service ‘works’ one must do.

    Some may look at the repentance process (as you seem to – and I agree) as ‘works’ required for salvation. To me repentance takes choice and effort and constitute ‘works’ in this context. Others might disagree.

    Another important thing is to determine what is meant by salvation, and what we are talking about especially with respect to Mormonism. The Telestial Kingdom can be looked at as salvation. Since all will be resurrected, and all but the sons of perdition will qualify for the Telestial Kingdom at least, then Mormonism might be looked at as almost a ‘Universalist’ religion or believing that all will be saved by grace alone. Saved from death and hell in the Telestial Kingdom.

    Or, if we look at anything less than the highest levels of the Celestial Kingdom as a type of damnation, then only those who make it there can really be said to be in ‘Heaven’. If this is your outlook then only the best of the best will be there.

  2. Megan

    Thanks for your comment. I think you made some good (and important) points.

    I would say “works” are demonstrations of obedience, submitting our will to God’s. Keeping the commandments, staying true to our covenants and repenting are all works that show our obedience.

    As for the view on salvation . . . I would say that would make a wonderful article in and of itself. Consider that one “pending”. 😉

  3. Megan

    And now, I have a question. I was reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity the other day. On the topic of works, he says:

    “That is why the Christian is in a different position from other people who are trying to be good. They hope, by being good, to please God if there is one; or–if they think there is not–at least they hope to deserve approval from good men. But the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us . . .”

    Now, I haven’t studied C.S. Lewis extensively, by any means. But I do know that he was a good man and a good Christian. I also know that he was not LDS.

    My question is this: how do you feel this quote applies specifically to the LDS faith? Would you agree or disagree with Lewis?

  4. Eric Nielson

    At some level I disagree with Lewis. God does not play favorites, and choose who to save and who not to save base on arbitrary whims. Those whom God helps to improve merit his help in some way. By what they have chosen to do and try and become.

  5. Jon 'Cra-Z' Mahoney

    I enjoyed the post. I just thought I might suggest the use of more links. Especially for the articles referred to at the bottom.

  6. RTC

    Can a person repent after a life of sin and still go to the Celestial Kingdom? Let’s say I’m 85 and just diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. I have 13 months to live. I take the discussion and am baptized in 2 weeks, survive another 52 and go through the temple 2 weeks before I die. Prior to my conversion, I spent my life smoking, drinking, womanizing, and running casinos and the mafia – but I never killed anyone or denied the holy spirit. How important are works, really? Are you going to deny me my place in the Celestial Kingdom?

    And what about grace? Isn’t the whole idea of sin a social construction made up by religions to justify their existence?

  7. Megan

    Repentance is certainly always an option. God wants us to return to Him. However, God will not tolerate the mentality that “I can do this bad thing this week and repent and still go to church on Sunday like everything is fine.”

    Thankfully, God makes these judgment calls and He is all-knowing and wise. He will be as fair as He can, judging by intents as well as actions, unlike man, who can only judge by what he sees outwardly (strictly the actions). There’s something to be said for doing the right thing, but even if you’re doing the right thing for the wrong reason, is it really a “good” thing? Only an omniscient God can sort that out!

    As for sin being merely a social construction created by religion, well, that I completely disagree with. There is a universal “right” and “wrong”. All men and women who have ever lived are given the light of Christ, or a conscience. You feel guilty when you do something bad. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not, you can tell when something doesn’t feel right in your soul. Do it enough and that guilt will go away, that’s true. That doesn’t change the nature of the action from bad to good.

    I know Christ suffered for our sins. I know my repentance will be accepted because of His sacrifice, or grace, provided that my repentance is genuine and I am truly trying to follow Him. Beyond that, I have faith that He will judge righteously for myself and for all mankind who has ever lived.

  8. RTC


    (1) How do you “know”, “God will not tolerate the mentality that “I can do this bad thing this week and repent and still go to church on Sunday like everything is fine.””

    Honestly, how do you “know” that? I’d like to “know” god’s will.

    (2) “Thankfully, God makes these judgment calls and He is all-knowing and wise.”
    I call “cop-out” on this one. By the standards of Mormonism, if someone is worthy to go through the temple, they are worthy to go to the Celestial Kingdom. Ergo, my hypothetical death-bed repenter is Celestial Kingdom bound.

    (3) You’re welcome to disagree about sin being a social construction, but the evidence is not on your side. Cannibalism was a common cultural practice in New Guinea for thousands of years. The natives who lived there felt no guilt for killing and eating other people. Billions of people around the world every day drink coffee and fell zero guilt as a result. But if you were to drink it, you would feel guilty. Why? Because you believe it is a sin. In your mind, it has been socially constructed as a sin. Sin is a social construct, designed by religions to justify their existence. There is no evidence of a “light of Christ.” Additionally, there are very few things that are universally right or wrong (there probably are some, but not many). Most “bad” things are contextually bad – killing isn’t always bad, just bad sometimes; sex isn’t always bad, just bad sometimes, etc.

    Megan, you don’t “know” Christ suffered for our sins. You believe that. You don’t “know” your repentance will be accepted, you believe that. You can only truly “know” something when you can share that knowledge with someone else and they can “know” it as well. Ergo, I “know” the sun comes up in the east, and so do 6 billion other people – it can be verified outside of me. I don’t “know” that there was a Jesus and I don’t believe there was. Unless you can provide evidence, solid, irrefutable evidence that there was a Jesus, you are claiming to know what is not knowable. It’s like me claiming, “I know Zeus lives on Mt. Olympus and watches over me.” Do I “know” that, Megan, or do I believe it?

  9. Bus Gillespie

    We need to be careful in our presentist translation of what Paul was writing about regarding works and grace. In most cases he was talking about the works or law of the jewish mosaic rule. What the Christians were trying to figure out at that time was how Jewish they had to remain. He was saying that by just doing the works as outlined in Leviticas and other Old Testament books wasn’t what would get you back to heaven, the grace or atonement of Christ was the key.
    Secondly the discussion about sin and repentence might be a little warped. We tend to still rely on the “typical” Christian, Jewish, Zoroastaian attitude that sin sends one to hell and not sinning sends one to heaven. I think the concept needs to be reviewed as progression.
    First of all the atonment was universal, everyone will be resurrected, have a body, and live in the next life…that’s salvation. The kingdom one inherets is one that matches the progression of the person, in this life and in the spirit world. A death bed repentence may be sufficient to start one on the path of progression and the opportunities for further progress may present themselves after death, that will be the true test of the sincerity of the repentence.

  10. RTC

    bus… First, arguing Jesus’s intent is kind of, well, silly to me considering I don’t believe he existed.

    Second, isn’t the idea of “progress” and “progression” just your pet interpretation of Mormon doctrine? Honestly, where’s the scriptural evidence for your interpretation?

  11. Anonymous

    Now, back to Grace.

    It is not difficult to understand why Mormons believe Grace is more earned than received when you read the third Article of faith (“may be saved through obedience”), the bible dictionary regarding grace and 2nd Nephi 25:23. Fundamentally, I believe we teach this doctrine incorrectly in the church.

    We are saved and exalted through Grace! There, that’s all that needs to be said about Grace. But, of course I’ll say more. Grace is a gift, it can only be received not earned, bartered for or legitimized through our works. We do not work to secure grace; rather we work to show our acceptance of it. When we say, it is after all we can do. What is being explained is that after all we have done we will discover that it was God’s grace that saved us and made us whole, not our works. We need to learn to be better receivers of God’s grace and not earners of it. Isn’t it amazing that one of the first principles we are exposed to when we become members of this church is the principle of receiving, “And I say unto you, receive the Holy Ghost”. Of course as my good friend once pointed out, “How can you expect Mormons to be able to receive such great gifts from God like grace and the Holy Ghost when they can’t even receive a compliment from one another”. So what should the proper orientation to this principle (Grace) be? First, recognize the gift, second, receive/accept the gift and third, show your gratitude for the gift through your faith and good works. What is the wrong orientation to this principle? First, work as hard as you can, second, hope you have done enough to lure grace from God and third, hold your breath on judgment day.

    If I was to re-write the third article of faith it would say, “We believe that all men are saved through the grace of Jesus Christ and we demonstrate our acceptance of the Lord’s gift through our faith and good works”

    So what is Grace? Simply stated it is God’s love to us. At the end of the day, even though we possess priesthood, perform ordinances and do great works, God’s Grace is ultimately responsible for all that we are and all that we accomplish. It was through His grace and love that the opportunity for good works and faith is made possible. Even if we do everything just right in this life (impossible) or wrong we are still beholding to God because He is the one that made that moment possible. Our responsibility is to recognize His grace and show our acceptance and gratitude of it through our faith, love and good works. When we try to work to earn God’s grace/love we only demonstrate our self centered, ego-centric arrogance. To try to explain Grace in terms of Grace/Plus or Grace/and or Grace/but only deflects our opportunity to receive and show God our gratitude for the marvelous gifts He has given us. Maybe one day Mormons will be able to say to their non-member friends and themselves, “I am saved and exalted through God’s grace” and really believe it, in the mean time we will continue to hear many grace/plus doctrines from the pulpit that only try to contrast us with other religions and not necessarily help to define us as believers and receivers of God’s love. We need not be afraid of receiving God’s gift and proclaiming as such.

  12. Megan

    Thanks to Bus and Anonymous for clarifying and expounding on this! I think both of you made excellent points that we need to remember when discussing this topic.

  13. Jeremy LaDuke

    I stumbled onto your blog from a link by Thaddeus. It is one I hope to be back to. In your article you quoted the Bible dictionary, “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” I would say that this isn’t grace at all because we have earned our right to come. Make sense? If I can’t say that my salvation is solely dependent upon my trust in Christ and His grace (even if I may not be a full temple Mormon or any other sin of omission) then it is not grace. The fact that you think grace only kicks in once someone has given it their best effort is silly. It’s like saying I have a free meal for you, but you have to work all day for it.

    I would balance my statement by saying that salvation is by grace through faith. Since faith is trust then it should show in how we live our lives, but the fruit of trusting is not pre-requisite to salvation.

    Also, to RTC – to know and to prove something are two different things. This is one of the reasons why post-modernism has taken a hold on our culture – we have equated knowing something with proving it is true. However, knowledge is believing something to be true and it actually being true. Proving something to be true is nearly impossible. You cannot even prove to me that you ate what you did for your last meal. There will always be other plausible reasons or excuses for the evidence you provide. However, that does not mean that reason is out of the picture. We must make the most reasonable choice we can. And I am not sure that believing that Jesus never existed is a very reasonable choice, historians inside and outside of the church testify of his existence. Whether you believe he did what the gospels say he did is another question, but to deny his existence is quite frankly a little silly.

    But back to reason… I am still waiting for a Mormon to debunk my paper I wrote on the Mormon fallacy of having eternal progression and an omnipotent god. You can download it at my site: Highways to Zion

    The rough part about Mormonism is that you have to swallow all the stuff that the prophets speak prophetically about. And they have said some pretty crazy, and not to mention contradictory, things. However with Orthodox Christianity you have a simple gospel and the freedom to disagree with the highest positioned person in the church. But with Mormonism everything hinges on this guy named Joseph Smith – not Jesus. It all stands or falls based on Joseph Smith, not Jesus.

    I really appreciate this blog’s efforts to educate. I look forward to reading more.

  14. Thaddeus


    The grace vs. works debate rages on, but I really believe most of us are on the same side; we just don’t realize it. Our terms get confused.

    For instance, you automatically equated faith with trust. Some define faith to be a belief in the existence of something. I think you would agree that merely believing in Jesus’ existence is insufficient for salvation. There are a variety of ways to interpret the phrase, “saved by grace through faith.”

    I personally find the grace/works debate unhelpful in its current state, precisely because of the confusion in terms. Check out another post on the restoration’s unique atonement doctrine. I’ll quote briefly:

    “…[Some] mistakenly think our Church is moving toward an understanding of the relationship between grace and works that draws on Protestant teachings.”

  15. Kassie

    Someone said that we try to “work our way to heaven rather than relying on grace.” I believe what Paul said that “grace without works is dead” but the converse could also be true! We need both!! As LDS members we also believe there is a DIFFERENCE between “salvation” and “exaltation.” I am no Bible Scholar but you guys are and I think it would make for an interesting discussion. (perhaps I missed it in my search through your hyperlinks!) How is the best way to tell a non–member the difference between salvation and exaltation. (short and sweet version please!) 🙂