Grace and Works

An interesting discussion by Jeremy Pierce on Grace. Basically it delves into the historic divide between Protestantism and Catholicism that’s been around since the days of Martin Luther. (Jeremy is a Calvinist, so his take on the divide and the recent “healing” between Lutherans and Catholics under John Paul II is interesting) That divide is over Grace and the relationship between works and Grace. It’s quite interesting to a Mormon since our view is fairly close to the Catholic one. Thus seeing how Protestants and Catholics start to come to some agreement might be of help for LDS discussions with our Evangelical friends. (Where there is often a divide as great as the historic one between Catholics and Protestants, if not worse)

A select quote to perk ones interest.

For Catholics, justification has generally been thought to be a being declared righteous at the end of one’s life, on the basis of those works that were graciously bestowed on us by the work of God’s Spirit. What’s Pelagian about this is that the works do earn merit, on the basis of which God declares people righteous. What’s Augustinian about it is that the works are a product of the grace of God and not something anyone can do without God’s grace. This is something almost all Protestants fail to grasp about Catholicism. There is no such thing in Catholic teaching as salvation by works in the sense most Protestants talk about when they use that expression. It’s salvation by grace, but that grace saves through the Holy Spirit’s producing of works.

Later on Jeremy gets to a point that is apt. He says,

At the same time, I do think the official Catholic catechism is easily deceptive, and that’s its real danger. I think it’s easy to misunderstand what that catechism teaches and thus think that it really is works that save. I wonder how many thousands of Catholics believe that works will save them. I’m sure I know at least a hundred myself who believe that and are therefore not trusting in Christ but in their own works. Of course, this danger arises from the people who teach that faith saves as well. Those who believe that believing saves you run the danger of giving people the idea that they can earn their salvation by trusting in God hard enough, by having the hope with all their heart that they might have enough faith to be saved. That’s just as much salvation by works as the other, and Protestants run that danger if they don’t teach grace as the foundation of God’s declaration of our righteousness.

Now I think that some attacks on Catholic (or Mormon) conceptions of faith and works simply because some might misunderstand is rather questionable. Sure it happens, but, as Jeremy (as well as both Catholics and Mormons) point out, the simplistic description of salvation by faith in Evangelicalism seems to lead many astray. Probably far more, in my opinion. But then perhaps I’ve just had the misfortune of meeting many people who simply say they believe, have a hope God will save them, and then seem to cut off God’s grace from transforming their lives. It’s hard to take seriously the idea that these people aren’t significantly misled. Further, I think those people are far worse off than someone who is perhaps a tad conceptually muddled on what God does and what we do, but who otherwise recognizes they they ought to live a good life trusting in God.

I do wish to turn all this back to Mormonism. One critique, somewhat justified but highly exaggerated, is that Mormons have a failing of trying too hard. That is, we sometimes get caught up in a mode where we try to do everything – be the perfect Mom, the perfect homemaker, the perfect wife, the perfect person in ones church callings, have the perfect lawn, etc. etc. Now I think I can safely say that most Mormons I know don’t fit into that category. Indeed I think I can safely say that most of us probably could do with a bit more effort in many things, such as helping ones neighbors, being more social, taking care of the poor and so forth. But the fact is that some people get so caught up in “appearances” and appearing righteous that I do think they fall victim to the works fallacy. They forget that the point of the gospel is to turn us to Christ because no matter what we do, we’ll fail on our own. Further, when we are in tune with Christ, we’ll be able to properly prioritize and not be so caught up in the world.

Because that is exactly what I think people who fall into that trap are doing. They’re too caught up in the world. Maybe it isn’t being caught up in the world in the sense of being caught up in a selfish world of partying, sex, drugs, and monetary gain. But it is still viewing religion and the gospel from a worldly perspective. Instead of having ones heart set on why one is doing what one is doing, one is caught up on having things or doing things. One has taken ones focus off that “for the sake of which” that allows us to be our own true self and instead are lost in a world of things. We’ve lost the spirit of the gospel for a fallen technology of the gospel.

Now, as I said, I think this is far more rare than I think many portray. But of course to some degree or an other we all do it. After all we all are fallen people. That’s the point of needing a savior. But it is a point that I think we can agree with the Protestants on – in the sense that some misunderstand. But, on the other hand, if we don’t worry about acting in terms of what God provides us, I think we are putting a dam up against the grace of Christ working through us.

(Note this is cross-posted from my blog. I figured it was general interest enough to be worth posting here.

9 thoughts on “Grace and Works

  1. The LDS view on justification might be similar to the Catholic one, but I think it’s the issue of the Trinity that forms the greater division with LDS teaching for most Protestants.

  2. Clark, this is something that really does need more discussing. Most LDS church members I know don’t understand Grace. They think Grace is the antithesis of Faith for some reason, or that we believe in only works, not grace. This is a common misconception that needs to be addressed more often if we’re ever going to be able to have any sort of relationship with our evangelical neighbors.

    You are also spot on about “appearing righteous”. I think sometimes members of the church get caught in the trap, and it always seems to lead to becoming offended by others in the church (“how could my bishop tell me that?! I’m a better member than him!”).

  3. As a former Catholic (became Mormon w/ family at ~ age 12), I honestly believe the Faith/Works debate thing whether Protestant, Catholic or LDS is largely an argument in semantics for which I lost patience long ago. We use different religious jargon and emphasize certain things to the effect of intentionally talking past each other, when we’re all saying essentially the same thing. Some Mormons often put up artificial differences with other denominations because the essence of Mormonism (the message of the protestant reformers combined with restored priesthood authority) isn’t sufficiently different for them. As far as the evangelical’s slogan “saved by faith alone in Christ alone” message they like to get in your face and upset ignorant Mormons with, they’re really on the same page as us as revealed by their children’s Sunday school ditty, “if you’re saved and you know it, your life will truly show it.” There are some Mormons who think their salvation somehow rests on their works, but that is their ignorance, not a teaching of the church. If you want further evidence we’re really on the same page, I attended a non-denominational Black church recently because they were holding services near a hotel I was staying at, from what I could hear from the outside it was a very entertaining service, so I went in. Anyway, the minister was talking about baptism and he said, “……………now some will say baptism is a work, not needed for salvation. But Jesus was baptized as a example to us, and I say anyone who refuses baptism just because it’s symbolic and a work has a bad attitude, doesn’t know Jesus and isn’t saved…………….”. The Lutherans may be an exception here because Luther wanted to throw out the Book of James, which the Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Mormons, etc, couldn’t possibly go along with. But in general, I’m sick and tired of these bogus arguments when we’re generally all on the same page on this.

  4. Aaron — I know what you mean about the word Grace and Mormons. Once as ward mission leader in a mid-south town, the local full time missionaries conveyed to me after the fact they had attended a meeting at the largest Southern Baptist church in town to answer questions about Mormonism. I told them I should have been told beforehand so as to attend, and I said “sounds like it was a very important meeting, I assume your Mission Pres was there”. They said no, they hadn’t even thought to invite him! Anyway, they said the meeting consisted of two full Ministers and three assistance Ministers. The Elders told me the meeting ended in short order after the first question — “Describe your concept of Grace in the context of the BofM”. The Elders ignored the question, told the ministers they were there to baptize them with proper priesthood authority and when the ministers said there is only one faith, one lord, one baptism, our Elders abruptly left. Neither Elder knew what the guy meant by Grace, and both thought it was some kind of Pharisee type trick question. After getting over my shock and embarrassment for our church, I patiently explained the question seemed like a sincere inquiry to me and for someone better prepared it was a hanging curve ball waiting to be hit out of the park. I told the Elders their fundamental mistake was not bringing in bigger guns such as their Mission Pres, a GA if possible, Stake Pres, etc into such an important meeting. I can laugh about it now, but it took me sometime to get over the lost opportunity.

  5. Steve, I think J. Golden Kimball’s old saying has merit. The Church must be true or otherwise dumb missionaries would have destroyed it long ago. From what I understand Elders are supoosed to have Mission President permission to get involved in such meetings just to avoid these sorts of problems.

    In hindsight, I think many missionaries read about Wilford Woodruff’s mission in England and get delusions of gradeure. (And I plead guilty to that myself)

  6. I should add that I think one great consequence of some of the investigations in the BYU religion department the last two decades has been a re-emphasis on Grace. Robert Millet, who has written a lot on the subject, earns a lot of the credit. While I think that whole movement earns some criticism for downplaying traditional theology regarding the nature of man and God, the fact is that Mormons from the move to Utah onward tended to neglect discourse about Grace. I think in the 80’s that changed, partially due to the re-emphasis on the Book of Mormon. One main theme in that text is the notion of being Born Again. So we owe a lot of debt to Pres. Benson as well.

  7. It’s worth remembering that the folk theology of the LDS church is actually the one that most people have the most intense contact with. The BYU religion department has been preaching the good stuff about Christ and the atonement, and so have some of the general authorities–but it sometimes doesn’t get through to people on the ground.

    The last time I had to teach Alma the Younger in Gospel Doctrine back home in California, this came through quite clearly for me. Alma’s Pauline conversion experience involves a moment in which he invokes Christ and is immediately transferred from the sufferings of Hell to spiritual bliss. Obviously, he lived a pretty good life from that point onward–but the thing that I think is often of most value for us sinners is the knowledge of that moment when Alma turned to Christ. It seems really valuable to me to remember that, when we are in pain for our own mistakes, we can turn to Him and be immediately healed. (Repentance may be an ongoing process, but the scriptures suggest that Christ’s forgiveness is an immediate event.)

    Anyway, after making some comments along these lines and arguing that our real task, in terms of works, is to live so as to retain forgiveness–not to live so as to earn it–I got bonked. One of the class members started lecturing me about how, even if his son wanted to repent, it would take years, YEARS, before that miserable SOB could have done enough good to merit Christ’s forgiveness. A bunch of the other class members seemed to more-or-less agree.

    While our high theology certainly does teach grace, our folk theology often does not.

  8. RoastedTomatoes — If you’re correct then the evangelicals who bash us aren’t misguided after all and should be listened to by more LDS. I thought one would have to be a theological moron to think we somehow earn forgiveness and eternal life, and I just figured every denomination had a few such ignorant people. But from what you’re saying the LDS church is full of them.

    On the issue that preaching you can’t earn salvation might cause some to self justify continued intentional sinning, in my Catholic upbringing that issue was addressed with the warning that when we backslide (intentionally sin) we’re nailing Jesus to the cross all over again, but this time with full knowledge of what we’re doing.

  9. Steve, just to be clear, I think the view of that minister at the black nondenominational church does not reflect that of most evangelicals, who would consider him heretical for saying that baptism is necessary for salvation. It might be that someone stubbornly resisting baptism as a bad thing has demonstrated no genuine work of grace, but someone treating baptism as a mere symbol and simply putting it off as less significant is saved according to most evangelicals, even according to those who insist that genuine works of grace will produce works. Whole denominations (e.g. the Salvation Army) won’t even practice baptism or communion for fear that people will take it as more than a symbol. Most evangelicals consider them genuinely saved even if they disagree with that practice. They don’t view it as stubborn resistance to the gospel but as over-worrisomeness about a true principle, leading to a wrongful practice.

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