I grew up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), and while growing up I held to the maxim taught in 2 Nephi 25:23 which says: "...for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do." As a faithful LDS adult I held many positions in my local ward and taught this truth to teenagers and children, as well as attending the temple regularly. I also read LDS scriptures faithfully, reading the Book of Mormon many, many times, as well as the Doctrine and Covenants, Bible, and Pearl of Great Price.
One day while reading in the Bible, I was reading about individuals who apostatized in 2 Thessalonians and 2 Timothy, and realized that in both instances the key Paul gave them to avoid apostasy was to hold on to what was found in the Bible (2 Thessalonians 2 and 2 Timothy 3). I found these verses intriguing, and as I thought about this further, I realized that as LDS people we do hold the Bible to be true as far as it's translated correctly. And further, Joseph Smith did have a chance to translate it, and his changes are in my LDS Bible in the footnotes from Genesis to Revelation. (I even highlighted them so I wouldn't miss them.) So then, I realized that since Joseph Smith was able to make any changes that he thought should be in there, then I should be able to look to the Bible with certainty for doctrine as the Bible itself tells me I can (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
So the question that struck me next was: Is the doctrine taught in the LDS church about salvation (and I'm going to define salvation as being reconciled to God both now and in the eternities) consistent with what is taught in the Bible? This started a Bible study that took me on a journey in which I've been blessed like never before. My hope in sharing this study with you is that you, too, will see what the Bible has to say about salvation.
The very first Bible verse we think of as LDS people--and one that seems to justify our belief in works being a necessary portion of our salvation--is James 2:14-17:
"What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? . . . Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone."
At first glance this passage seems to agree with 2 Nephi 25:23, but one of the basic principles of biblical hermeneutics (the interpretation of scripture) is that scripture within the Bible (and in LDS theology and scriptures, if it is true) cannot contradict itself. The reason we can say that is that God Himself does not change--He isn't wishy, washy. James knew this and said:
"every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning" James 1:17
Malachi also taught this truth about God when he quoted God saying:
"For I am the Lord, I change not." Malachi 3:6
The reason this is important to know is that God Himself inspired the writers of scripture to write exactly what He wanted them to write. Second Peter 1:21 tells us that in writing the scriptures, or what we know of as the Bible, holy men of old wrote what God spoke as inspired by the Holy Spirit and not their own words at all. Paul adds to our understanding when he wrote:
"All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine,...That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works."
So in investigating the Bible for truth, we need to know, from beginning to end, what the whole Bible teaches about salvation. And we need to know that the Bible--God's Word--cannot contradict itself, just as God cannot contradict Himself.
The first thing, then, the Bible teaches is that we have a very real problem. The book of Genesis teaches that Adam and Eve were created perfectly (Genesis 1:31) and that they had a close, intimate relationship with God (Genesis 3:8) but through their choice to disobey God they were separated from Him physically and spiritually. This separation in scripture is called death (Genesis 3:23).
Scripture also teaches that all mankind inherits from Adam this separation from God and because of this spiritual separation we are born with a propensity to sin--a sin nature (Psalm 51; Romans 5:12-21). This sin not only keeps us separated from God, but scripture says this sin deserves the wrath of God. Romans 1:18 tells us:
"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;"
Of course we humans tend to minimize sin by thinking there are degrees of sin and that our sin isn't so bad. But this is not what the Bible teaches. Instead it teaches that any sin separates us from God. Romans 3:23 teaches:
"for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God."
And, Galatians 3:22 says:
"But the scripture hath concluded all under sin"
And, Ephesians 2:1-2 talks about how we are before we are saved: It says unbelievers are "dead in trespasses and sins" and walk according to the Spirit that now works in the "children of disobedience" and that unbelievers are, by their very nature, "children of wrath." Note too in Ephesians 5:3-6 where Paul gives a list of sins that will keep us out of heaven and which deserve the wrath of God. These sins include:
- foolish talking
- jesting (in an immoral way)
Is there any of us who is not guilty of some of these sins: covetousness, speaking foolishly, or otherwise? The clear teaching of the Bible is that no human being has ever been innocent before God!
Also, we human beings tend to think that our good works will somehow counter the balance for our bad or sinful works. Again, this is not taught in the Bible. Isaiah 64:6 says:
"But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags;"
Or, as found in the Amplified Bible (a Bible containing in-line notes on the nuances of the Hebrew words):
"For we have all become like one who is unclean [ceremonially, like a leper], and all our righteousness (our best deeds of rightness and justice) is like filthy rags or a polluted garment; we all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away [far from God's favor, hurrying us toward destruction]"
And Romans 7:18 teaches:
"For I know that in me (that is in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing."
So we know from these verses that we have a sin problem that separates us from God. So, the question is, can we be reconciled to God? And how do we become reconciled to God?
We've already studied out that:
- We all sin and that sin keeps us eternally separated from God and
- We can't do anything that will reconcile us to God because all of our righteous deeds are as filthy rags
The next thing that scripture teaches us about salvation is that God provides it. It seems simple enough; God has to provide our salvation because we are utterly incapable of providing it for ourselves, and this doesn't just apply to us, but applies to all human beings throughout all of time. No human being has ever been good enough to reconcile themselves to God, let alone do anything that will reconcile the rest of mankind.
"But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed." Isaiah 53:5
"But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life." Romans 5:8-10
Scriptures teach us, therefore, that we can't save ourselves because:
- We are sinners and
- Because all of our righteous deeds are of no consequence to God (filthy rags).
So God had to provide salvation by sending Jesus Christ, who was not only fully human, but also fully God; and who came and died on the cross so that we could be reconciled to God. This is why the Apostle Paul could say:
"But God forbid that I glory, save in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ." (Galatians 6:14).
On the cross immediately before Jesus died He said "It is finished" (John 19:30). In these few words Jesus summed up the totality of His sacrifice. A sacrifice for all of mankind, which paid for all of our sins; past, present, and future (1 John 1:7, Isaiah 53:11-12). And, by resurrecting Jesus, God indicated that this payment for sin, and only this payment, was sufficient for all of our sins (Romans 1:4).
So far we've learned the following about salvation:
- We have a very real problem in that we are separated from God by our sin.
- We are unable to perform acts which can reconcile us to God since all of our righteous acts are like filthy rags, or of no value, before God.
- Because of our helplessness, God has provided the way for us to be reconciled to Him by sending Jesus Christ--God with us (Matthew 1:21, Isaiah 9:6)--to die on the cross.
- God resurrected Jesus as a sign of His approval for this final sacrifice which paid for all of our sins; past, present, and future.
The next question, then, is: What is our responsibility in salvation?
At the conclusion of his gospel, the apostle John tells us exactly why he wrote it. He said:
"But these are written, that ye might believe Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and that believing ye might have life through His name" (John 20:31).
Given his purpose in writing the book, it's interesting what John writes again and again and again. Here's a sampling:
"...believeth on His name" John 1:12; "...whosoever believeth on Him..." John 3:16; "He that believeth..." John 3:18; "He that believeth on the son..." John 3:36; "Woman, believe me..." John 4:21; "...believeth on him..." (will pass from death to life) John 5:24; "...ye believe on him..." (hath everlasting life) John 6:29; "...believeth on him..." John 6:29; "...believeth on me..." John 6:35; "...believeth on Him..." (everlasting life) John 6:40; "He that believeth on me..." (has everlasting life) John 6:47; "He that believeth on me..." John 7:38; "...followeth me..." John 8:12; "...believe not..." (die) John 8:24; "...dost thou believe?" John 9:35; "...and believe...." John 10:38; "...believe in the light..." John 12:36; "...believeth in me..." John 12:44; "...believe in me..." John 14:1
While these brief citations don't give us the full context of each verse listed, a careful study of these verses quickly points out that John's gospel is written to tell us that the way to be reconciled to God is to believe in Jesus.
In Matthew 7:21 Jesus issued a stern warning:
"Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my father which is in heaven."
And John 6:40 tells us what, exactly, the Father's will is:
"And, this is the will of him that sent me, that everyone which seeth the son, and believeth on him may have eternal life."
On this point the scriptures are consistent. Every single New Testament author tells us that our responsibility in salvation is to believe.
Here are some examples (words in brackets mine):
"Who are kept by the power of God through faith [believing] unto salvation" 1 Peter 1:5
"For without faith it is impossible to please him, for he that cometh to God must believe that He is." Hebrews 11:6
"For by grace are ye saved, through faith [believing] and that not of yourself, it is gift of God; not of works lest any man should boast" Ephesians 2:8-9
"But that no man is justified [saved] by the law in the sight of God is evident, for the just shall live by faith [believing]" Galatians 3:11
"To declare, I say at this time his righteousness, that He might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus." Romans 3:23
So then what we've learned so far is this:
- We are eternally separated from God by our sin. All of us sin and by our deeds we cannot be reconciled to God.
- God provided the only way for us to be reconciled with Him through Jesus Christ and His death on the cross.
- The requirement that God has set up for us to meet in order to be reconciled with Him is for us to believe in Jesus and in His finished work on the cross. This belief is not a work (Romans 11:6), but instead is simply believing (or faith).
So what about good works, and what about James 2:17, and ultimately 2 Nephi 25:23? Is James teaching the concept of being saved by grace, after all we can do?
Immediately after the passage in Ephesians 2 that stated emphatically that man is saved by grace--by faith (believing) alone--we read Ephesians 2:10 which says:
"For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them"
Nearly every book in the New Testament ends with a teaching on the proper ways for a Christian to live. These are good works, and they definitely do have a place in a Christian's life. Romans 6 deals with this issue when it says:
"What shall we say then? Shall we continue to sin that grace may abound? God forbid!"
Then Paul goes on to explain why we don't continue in sin and why we do perform good works after we are saved. The answer lies in what God has done in our lives:
"God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer in it?" Romans 6:2
"Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold all things are become new. And all things are of God." 2 Corinthians 5:17, 18a
So, a Christian does do good works, but the reason or motive for those good works is not so that we can obtain God's favor--we've already got that through Jesus Christ. Instead the Bible says that we do good works because God Himself has changed us into new creations, and these new creations, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, desire to be doing things that are holy, like God Himself is holy.
So, how do we take James 2:17 in light of what the rest of the Bible says? First we need to look at who James is writing to, and why he is writing. James was writing to Jewish Christians--people who were already saved--who were scattered from Jerusalem after it was attacked. They were going through extreme persecution and the book of James was written to encourage them to keep on keeping on, so to speak. James, then, is a book written about the day to day practice of Christianity.
What does it profit, my brethren..." James starts out in addressing the subject. In a different translation it says "What's the use of saying you have faith, if you don't prove it by your actions?" (New Living Translation) And, that's a pretty fair rendition of what James is saying. Of what use is it to anyone, practically speaking, if you don't back up your faith in Jesus Christ with your actions? It's a question we can all relate to.
Then James goes on to list two examples from the Old Testament of people who backed up their faith with their works. From the Old Testament stories James recounts Abraham's "work" when he was asked to sacrifice Isaac, and Rahab's "work" when she was ask to hide the Israelite spies who came to visit her.
The story of Abraham, and James' use of it, is particularly interesting because in the books of Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews we see Abraham used as an example of faith without works (Romans 4, Galatians 3, and Hebrews 6). But in looking at the chronology of the stories any seeming discrepancy is quickly resolved. When we look at Abraham's life we see that he met with, and believed in, God years before Isaac was even born (Genesis 12). So in our modern terms Abraham was saved, or reconciled to God, way before He was asked to sacrifice Isaac; but his obedience when asked to sacrifice Isaac showed to the world, or proved to the world, his faith (Genesis 22). Rahab also had put her trust in God before she met the Israelite spies, and showed her faith in God before the world when she hid them (Joshua 2 and Hebrews 11).
So, the passage in James agrees with the rest of the teachings of the Bible in that this passage is talking about our witness before the world, and not the act of placing our faith in Jesus Christ. The question then is what about the LDS belief that we are saved by grace after all we can do as it states in 2 Nephi 25:23 (and as all the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have reaffirmed)? How does this reconcile with biblical teaching? Once more let's review the biblical points we've learned in this study:
- We are sinners and incapable of doing any good work that can please God. Because of this we are eternally separated from God.
- Because of our inability to save ourselves, God has provided a way for us to be reconciled to Him: through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross which paid the penalty for all of our sins; past, present, and future.
- God's only requirement for us--indeed the only thing we can do--is to believe or place our faith in Jesus Christ and what He has done for us.
- Good works, or things we do, spring naturally from what God has done and is doing in our lives. They don't in any way impact the fact that God has provided our salvation and that our only responsibility is to have faith. Our faith in Jesus Christ and His finished work on the cross is what reconciles us to God.
Second Nephi 25:23 states, and LDS leaders have reiterated, that salvation comes only after all we can do--implying that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross did not pay the whole price for our sins, but instead that we must do all we can as a portion of the payment, and then, and only then, will Jesus' death pay for the rest of our sins. This is in direct contradiction to biblical teaching, which states that we must not rely on our own works--which are worthless, filthy rags before God--but instead must rely on what Jesus alone has done on the cross as the only means to our salvation.
In speaking to the Jewish people who also believed they must do good works for salvation, Paul said:
"And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work." Romans 11:6
Simply put, if we work for our salvation then we are not saved by grace.
For me, coming to see these truths changed my life dramatically. After much soul searching I left the LDS church and started attending a Bible believing Christian church. And my life was changed from inside out as I came to see the wonderful grace and love of Jesus Christ manifest itself in my life in so many ways.
This wasn't an easy process. It took many, many studies just like this one. And it took much soul-searching and prayer. But in the end I do believe coming to see who Jesus really is biblically, and what He's done for me, has been worth it.
And, in case you were wondering about my personal life, I still continue to do all the good works that I did as an LDS person, but my motivation is far different. I am not striving and working for a harsh taskmaster who demands I meet a certain standard, and go through certain rituals in order to please Him. Instead I serve a loving God who loved me, and sent His Son to die for me. Who, even when I make mistakes (and I do that all the time), still loves me.
In the end I'd like to put this challenge to you. I admit this challenge is not original but was first put to men and women in the first century by the Apostle Paul:
"Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith..." 1 Corinthians 13:5
May God bless your journey!