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?
One of the things Mormons struggle with is grace. It is important to understand how Mormons teach grace, how they think we understand it and how to explain what the Bible teaches in a way that answers their questions. Let’s look at two familiar statements that describe 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, i.e. “saved, by obedience” and “saved, after all we can do”. Mormons believe 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 so are incapable of earning or proving worthy of it. 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 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. 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. He explains, “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin dwelling in me”. He is not excusing sin but explaining its hold on the sinner. 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” 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 law but a Saviour. Back in Romans 3 we read:
“For there is no difference, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood…”
Because all have sinned and because none can keep the law salvation comes “freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”. Now the Mormon article of faith would have us believe that “through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel” But Paul writes that we are saved “through faith in his blood”. Further, he makes clear in his letter to the Galatians that no law has been given, nor can be by which we may be saved. Our salvation is obtained through a simple confession of faith in the blood of Jesus spilled on the Cross to atone for our sins.
If we are “saved, by obedience” then the Cross becomes redundant; if we are “saved, by obedience” then Paul was deluded or lying when he wrote to the saints in Rome; if we are “saved, by obedience” then James has completely misunderstood the way God looks on sin. If, on the other hand, we are saved by grace, through faith in Christ then we can say with Paul:
Then where is the boasting? It is excluded. Through what law? Of works? No, but through the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the works of the Law”
Mormons ask, isn’t James contradicting Paul when he writes, “faith without works is dead”? Not at all, since they are addressing two different subjects altogether. Paul is setting out a carefully reasoned argument in Romans in which he shows that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace”. James is addressing the conduct of Christians in their meetings (Js.2:2) and carefully arguing that the faith of a Christian issues in correct conduct; “faith without works is dead”. Paul is writing about how we are saved and James is writing about how a saved people live.
Mormons speak as though Christians can get saved and then live as they please because they have their ticket to heaven. It is as though Christians are blind to all the texts in the Bible that demand obedience; this is not so. Christians are acutely aware of their duties and obligations towards God and take them very seriously. If anyone doubts this you need only think of the countless acts of charity, great and small, performed by Christ
ians every day: churches, missions, charities, financial giving, acts of service, sacrifices of time and resources, etc. So how does God expect us to be good when we are already saved?
“Saved by grace” doesn’t mean that God overlooks our sins and says, “Oh, alright, I will let you into my heaven anyway.” The Bible makes clear two very important things:
1. Our sins are not overlooked but atoned for.
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly…While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Ro.5:6-8)
The apostle John wrote that, “the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7) Some 700 years before Christ this was prophesied:
“He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5)
Jesus, on the Cross, has settled accounts with God and paid for our sins. But there is more to it than that. Paul describes Christians in this way:
“It is because of [God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’” (1 Cor.1:30-31) So:
2. Christ is our righteousness.
Christ has paid the price for our sins but he has also become our righteousness. A transaction has taken place in which he takes on himself our sinfulness and we receive his righteousness. Paul describes it like this:
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor.5:21)
Jesus spoke in John’s gospel of being “born again”, or “born from above” (John 3:5-6). This is what he was talking about, i.e. the work of the Spirit who gives new life to the believer. It is the atonement of Jesus that cleanses us from sin and the righteousness of Jesus that qualifies us for glory and the new life we have in him that equips us to do the works that God requires. Of course it is impossible for the sinner to do the works of God, as Paul clearly teaches in Romans, and it is impossible for Mormons to understand how God can expect us to “make the effort” if God has just let us “get away with it”. But the deal is not that we “get away with it” but that our debt to God is paid in full by Jesus and we receive a new life that equips and motivates us to obey gladly because that is what God has made us.
Now we don’t obey perfectly because God, having saved us and renewed us, is now working in us to sanctify us and, while salvation is a step of faith, sanctification is the walk of a lifetime. Having been saved we must now learn, with God’s help, to live like a saved people. God’s people are saved by grace, through faith in Christ and we live the same way. Paul writes to the Ephesians:
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…but because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph.2:1-10)
Writing to the Philippians he said:
“Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philip.2:12-13)
Note he writes that we should “work out” our salvation and not work for our salvation; that it is God who works in us “to will and to act”. So here is the reason why God can expect us to obey if we are already saved. As a saved people our will is that we should act as he would wish because of his work in us. That does not absolve us of responsibility but it means that we act in tandem with God’s indwelling Spirit to obey because that is what we want (remember Paul writing that he wants to do right and agrees with the Law but can’t? Now we are empowered to will and to act) As this is a process of sanctification then we are not perfectly obedient but because of Jesus we can walk in obedience as we grow in him and walk in repentance as we are aware sin. But either way we walk in grace as saved.
“This is how God showed is love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins…We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (1 John 4:9-13)
Basic Christianity – John Stott
The Cross of Christ – John Stott
Knowing Christianity – JI Packer
Making Sense of the Cross – Alister McGrath
Does grace mean I can do what I like and still go to heaven?