Saturday, October 6, 2012

Grace and Faith in History and Within the Context of Mormon Soteriology



This is the formal, written version of a presentation I gave at an interfaith dialogue held at the UNT Institute building on Dec. 10, 2010. This was done with Brad Eggerton, a member of Denton Bible and the director of Religion & Redemption: A Documentary of Mormonism. It has been posted elsewhere and even cited at FAIR. While a bit amateurish, I nonetheless thought it was worth posting here. The clip from Les Miserables (1998) was inspired by one of Loyd Ericson's blog post on grace.

When Martin Luther nailed his now famous Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church, it was not meant as an act of rebellion. Contrary to popular belief, Luther was merely following the standard method for proposing a theological debate. The door itself was used as a kind of “bulletin board” by the faculty of the University of Wittenberg, of which Luther was a member. While his intent was academic in nature, Luther eventually found himself theologically opposed to the Pope and fleshing out the doctrine known as sola fides – salvation through faith alone: what sociologist Rodney Stark sees as the “slogan” of the Protestant Reformation.[1] It must be remembered that Luther’s reformation technically failed. It did not reform the Catholic Church, but instead created a new one with new (or at least adjusted) interpretations of scripture. Lutheranism’s popularity in large part gave way to Calvinism, but Protestantism was alive and well and remains so today. What also remain are the concept of salvation by grace through faith alone and the rejection of salvific deeds or rituals. This is one of several doctrines that continue to drive a theological wedge between modern evangelicals and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One particular aspect of Mormonism that receives heated criticism is the belief that works are a necessary factor for salvation, thus denying sola fides and supposedly the sufficiency of Christ’s grace. With absolutely no apologies, we as Latter-day Saints 1) declare the necessity and salvific nature of both deeds and rituals, 2) reject the Protestant doctrine of sola fides as it is commonly understood, yet 3) embrace the complete sufficiency of Christ’s grace (as paradoxical as that may sound at first).

The third of our Articles of Faith reads, “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.” In plain fashion, Joseph Smith laid out a system in which both grace and personal obedience bring about salvation. In response to this position, many critics turn to the words of Paul the Apostle:

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...Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. (Romans 3:23-24, 27-28)*

Put more simply, Paul wrote to the Ephesians,

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

These verses as well as others are often used to object to the idea of good works being necessary in fully achieving salvation. Good works are instead hailed as the products of salvation. To be clear, Mormon theology has not, does not, and will not ever claim that eternal life is attainable outside the grace of God. As one of the prophets found in the Book of Mormon, Lehi, says, “Know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah.” (2 Nephi 2:8) There is no LDS concept of earning salvation in the sense of obligating God as one would an employer. This is made quite clear by another Book of Mormon prophet, King Benjamin:

I say, if ye should serve [God] with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants…And now, in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him. And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast? (Mosiah 2:20-24)

Though commandment keeping is mentioned, it is established beyond doubt that mankind is unable to repay God. It is difficult to obligate one to whom you are “eternally indebted.” (vs. 34) Bruce R. McConkie, one of the most well-known leaders of the LDS Church, explained, “God’s grace consists in his love, mercy, and condescension toward his children. All things that exist are manifestations of the grace of God. The creation of the earth, life itself, the atonement of Christ, the plan of salvation, kingdoms of immortal glory hereafter, and the supreme gift of eternal life–all these things come by the grace of him whose we are.”[2] This view expands grace to encompass the entire aspect of existence.

The prophet Lehi’s son Jacob provides us with one of the clearest explanations regarding salvation:

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved. (2 Ne. 10:24)

Here we are told that it is only by God’s grace that we are saved, yet we must reconcile ourselves to God’s will (i.e. repent). Jewish scholar and philosopher Rabbi Byron Sherwin notes, “To effect complete reconciliation, the return must be mutual. Therefore, repentance requires both a human initiative and a divine response. The corollary of human contrition is divine grace (hesed).”[3] The Book of Mormon prophet Nephi more famously proclaimed, “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled unto God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” (2 Nephi 25:23) This verse has been a controversial element in Mormon/Evangelical discussions. One of the main points that plague the discussion is the emphasis on “after all we can do.” Unfortunately, the plain meaning of “it is by grace that we are saved” is too often ignored. The verse reads more after the fashion of an exhortation rather than a rigorous theological treatise; a call to repentance and a recognition of God’s loving-kindness.[4] It is similar to the aforementioned words of Jacob as well as that of another Book of Mormon figure, Anti-Nephi-Lehi: “And I also thank my God, yea, my great God, that he hath granted unto us that we might repent of these things, and also that he hath forgiven us of those our many sins…and taken away the guilt from our hearts, through the merits of his Son…for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain.” (Alma 24:10-11; emphasis mine)

As revealing as these verses may be to those unfamiliar with our faith, they do not do justice to how faith and grace are understood within the LDS community. In an attempt to paint a clearer picture, I will draw on some of the most recent scholarship regarding these terms. Grace (Greek charis) in New Testament times was not a uniquely religious term, but one of secular usage also. In the Greco-Roman world, reciprocity was a key component to society and operated by means of client-patron systems. When one was unable to access a particular need, individuals who did have access were petitioned. David DeSilva, Professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland University, provides this overview:

If the patron granted the petition, the petitioner would become the client of the patron and a potentially long-term relationship would begin. This relationship would be marked by the mutual exchange of desired goods and services, the patron being available for assistance in the future, the client doing everything in his or her power to enhance the fame and honor of the patron…, remaining loyal to the patron and providing services whenever the opportunity arose.[5]

While God is never directly called the patron of the Christian church, the language of New Testament writers (like Paul) carries “a strong patronal tone.”[6] It is worth noting that the patron and the client did not hold an equal status due to the former’s ability to provide necessary resources that the latter was incapable of acquiring on his own. “It was this state of dependence…that formed one’s identity as a client. In exchange for receiving these needed goods from the patron, the client was expected to give back to the patron.” Since he was unable to provide his own necessities, “a client could hardly give something from himself, and therefore could only give of himself to the patron.”[7] The concept of giving of ourselves resonates with the words delivered by LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks in a 2000 address to the Church: “[T]he Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.”[8]

Given this context we can discern that grace in antiquity was not only the initial gift of the giver, but also included the response of the receiver. DeSilva confirms, “Grace thus has very specific meaning for authors and readers of the New Testament, meanings derived primarily from the use of the word in the context of the giving of benefits and the requiting of favors.” This

The Three Graces in Sandro Botticelli's
Primavera
suggests implicitly what many moralists from the Greek and Roman cultures stated explicitly: Grace must be met with grace; favor must always give birth to favor; gift must always be met with gratitude. An image that captured this for the ancients was the picture of three goddesses, the three “Graces,” dancing hand in hand in a circle…From [many] ancient witnesses, we learn that there is no such thing as an isolated act of grace…Only a gift requited is a gift well and nobly received. To fail to return favor for favor is, in effect, to break off the dance and destroy the beauty of the gracious act.[9]

This reciprocal nature of grace fits quite comfortably into LDS scripture:

For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace. (D&C 93:20)

And may God grant, in his great fulness, that men might be brought unto repentance and good works, that they might be restored unto grace for grace, according to their works. (Helaman 12:24)

Warren Zev Harvey of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem defines “grace” in Judaism (the native religion of the New Testament authors) as follows:

The Hebrew hesed (plural hasadim) is usually translated as "grace" or "loving-kindness," but sometimes also as "mercy" or "love." An act of hesed is an act of kindness done neither to repay a debt nor for the sake of gain, but freely and purely out of love.[10]

Judah Goldin (one of the most prominent Jewish scholars of the 20th century) defines hesed as a “word expressing the phenomenon of “loyalty”, “devotion”,” corresponding “fairly closely to the Latin pietas [piety]…” He further explains that an “act of grace” or gemilut hasadim is an “act by means of which one demonstrates his response to someone, in obedience to him or out of loyalty to him. In short, it really is an act of piety. And strictly speaking, any action...which an individual carried out as a fulfillment of a divine command, was an act of gemilut hasadim.”[11]

This review of the historical uses of grace also makes it easier to comprehend Paul’s mentioning of those who have “fallen from grace” in Galatians. (Galatians 5:4) Peter’s warning to “beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own stedfastness” becomes more understandable as does his exhortation to “grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:17-18) The author of Hebrews speaks of those who “fall away” after being “enlightened,” having “tasted of the heavenly gift,” and having been “made partakers of the Holy Ghost” (Hebrews 6:4,6) and thus reminding his readers that “we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end.” (Hebrews 3:14)

In the book How Wide the Divide?, written with New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg, BYU professor Stephen E. Robinson argues, “Latter-day Saints enthusiastically endorse the validity of salvation through grace by faith…but insist that 'faith' not be totally divorced from its Semitic origin meaning “faithful” (Hebrew aman) and become watered down to mean mere mental assent…To have “faith” in Christ must in some degree imply subsequent “faithfulness” to Christ as Lord...”[12] A favorite among Mormons is the epistle of James, in which “pure religion” is defined as visiting “the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep [one's self] unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27) “Faith,” James states, “if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” (James 2:17) According to James, “by works” faith is “made perfect” (vs. 22) and man is justified by works, “not by faith only.” (vs. 24; oddly enough, this is the only place in the New Testament where “faith alone” is mentioned) The prophet Joseph Smith defined faith as a “principle of action,” a “principle of power,” and “the moving cause of all action…”[13] LDS apostle Richard G. Scott recently summarized this description by noting that “faith and character are intimately related.”[14] Zeba A. Crook of Carleton University has found that the Latin fides and Greek pistis (from which we translate the English word “faith”) functioned “in many aspects of political life in the Roman Empire, such as friendship, love, obedience, power, fellowship, benevolence, patronage and tutelage.”[15] Drawing on a number of ancient sources, he concludes that the terms should be defined as “faithfulness, steadfastness, and trustworthiness, all in the sense of loyalty between parties.”[16] Even Raymond E. Brown, one of the most prestigious scholars on the Gospel of John, defines the Greek as “an active commitment to a person” that “involves much more than trust…The commitment is not emotional but involves a willingness to respond to God’s demands as they are presented in and by Jesus…for to have faith implies that one will abide in the word and commands of Jesus.”[17] Therefore, we can more fully understand why the author of Hebrews describes Christ as “the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him.” (Hebrews 5:9)

Returning to Robinson, he further explains, “[T]he LDS concept of being “in Christ” (Paul’s term) or being “perfect in Christ” (Moroni’s term) is one of covenant relationship. While there are no preconditions for entering in the covenant of faith in Christ to be justified by his grace through faith, there are covenant obligations by so entering. Those who have been justified by faith are obliged to serve Christ and to make Him their Lord by imitating him in their behavior and keeping his commandments.”[18] It is here that we begin to understand the LDS perspective more fully. Mormon doctrine is seen through the paradigm of covenants, which were also the centerpiece of the Jewish faith as well as early Christianity. Even the familiar terms “Old and New Testament” are more accurately translated “Old and New Covenant.” In Galatians, Paul exhorts us to have “faith which worketh by love.” (Gal. 5:6) The term love was understood to have covenant implications within the ancient Near East as demonstrated by its usage in a variety of ancient treaties. This was not some romanticized emotion, but a declaration of loyalty and brotherhood.[19] Thus Christ declares the two greatest commandments to be “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (see Matthew 22:36-40) To the apostles, He says, “As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love…Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.” (John 15:9-10,14) Even more straightforward, He states, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) By loving God, we come to intimately know Him. If to “know God” is eternal life (as the Savior says in John 17:3), then it is noteworthy that John writes, “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.” (1 John 2:3)[20]

But doesn’t Paul state emphatically, “if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace” (Romans 11:6)? Did he not say, “Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt” (Romans 4:4)? This is quite true. The subtle, but important distinction between what has been explained and what Paul condemns is that of reciprocal and contractual systems. Contractual relationships differed in that they formally laid out in advance “precise evaluations of favors,” thereby calling for an “even exchange” rather than an “ongoing exchange.”[21] The key is realizing that “we love [God], because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) No one obligated God to act; hence the debt or legal obligation spoken of in Romans 4 would not apply. Rather, God is who initiated the process to begin with.[22] The only reason good works are salvific is because of God’s grace. He could have easily left us to our hell-bound fate, but instead provided a framework in which redemption could take place and salvation could be attained. This was an act purely out of love and in no way earned by us. As E.P. Sanders pointed out decades ago in his groundbreaking book Paul and Palestinian Judaism, according to the Jewish people in Paul’s day, “salvation is by grace but judgment is according to works; works are the condition of remaining ‘in’, but they do not earn salvation…The point is that God saves by grace, but within the framework established by grace he rewards good deeds and punishes transgression.”[23] Thus, the Book of Mormon prophet Samuel the Lamanite was correct when he said that the atonement of Christ “bringeth to pass the condition of repentance.” (Helaman 14:18) Paul did not discover some abstract principle of “grace” in contrast to “works.” He instead reinterpreted Israel’s salvation history in light of the resurrection of Christ.[24] Yet, Paul still maintains (as did Jesus and the Psalmist) that “[God] will render to every man according to his deeds: to them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: but unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath.” (Romans 2:6-8) By doing so, Paul continues to hold his Jewish view of judgment and grace. As one scholar put it, “One need but consult the rabbinic morning prayers to recognize that while responding to God’s call to responsibility, Jews also look to God's loving kindness, grace, and forgiveness. The actions undertaken, just as for Christians, are in grateful response to God's kindness and the covenant relationship into which this people have entered.”[25]

In conclusion, I will summarize using both modern philosophy and modern scripture. Blake Ostler, one of the greatest contemporary LDS philosophers, explains,

There is no sense of earning the relationship by keeping the commandments. We keep the commandments to maintain our fidelity with God...One is justified when one enters into the relationship, for acceptance into the relationship is justification…Through faithfulness to the covenant conditions, one is thereafter sanctified in the sense that the Holy Ghost makes the person over in the image of God which was lost through the fall…Through grace, persons are made “partakers of the divine nature” by being purified and becoming pure as He is pure...Thus, the Mormon doctrine of divinity entails that divinity is humanity fully mature in the grace of Christ.[26]

Finally, from modern revelation revealed by the Lord through the prophet Joseph Smith:

And we know that all men must repent and believe on the name of Jesus Christ, and worship the Father in his name, and endure in faith on his name to the end, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God. And we know that justification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true; And we know also, that sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true, to all those who love and serve God with all their mights, minds, and strength. But there is a possibility that man may fall from grace and depart from the living God; Therefore let the church take heed and pray always, lest they fall into temptation; Yea, and even let those who are sanctified take heed also. (D&C 20:28-34)

*All Bible references are KJV. Thanks to Tyler Andersen, Allen Hansen, Robert Boylan, David Larsen, Daniel McClellan, and David Bokovoy for their reviews and suggestions.


1. See Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 85. For an excellent treatment of Christian reformations, including that of the 16th century, see Ch. 1 “God’s Truth: Inevitable Sects and Reformations” in its entirety.

2. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1966), 338-339.

3. Byron L. Sherwin, In Partnership with God: Contemporary Jewish Law and Ethics (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 126.

4. This view was advocated by political scientist Jason Nelson-Seawright in the blog post “The Problem of 2 Nephi 25:23,” By Common Consent (Jan. 15, 2008).

5. David A. DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 97. Also see Jerome H. Neyrey, “God, Benefactor and Patron: The Major Cultural Model for Interpreting the Deity in Greco-Roman Antiquity,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27:4 (2005) for an informative layout of the patronage system.

6. Mark A. Jennings, “Patronage and Rebuke in Paul’s Persuasion in 2 Corinthians 8-9,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 6 (2009): 113.

7. Ibid.: 114.

8. Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” Ensign (November 2000).

9. DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, 105-106. For an LDS view, see John Gee, “The Grace of Christ,” FARMS Review 22:1 (2010).

10. Warren Zev Harvey, "Grace in Judaism," Encyclopedia of Love in World Religions, Vol. 1, ed. Yudit Kornberg Greenberg (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008), 268.

11. Judah Goldin, "The Three Pillars of Simeon the Righteous," Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 27 (1958): 45.

12. Stephen E. Robinson, Craig L. Blomberg, How Wide the Divide?: A Mormon & Evangelical in Conversation (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 145. See Ch. 4 “Salvation” for the full discussion.

13. “Lecture First,” Lectures on Faith, prepared by Joseph Smith, Jr. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book: 1985 [originally delivered to the School of the Prophets in Kirtland, Ohio: 1834-1835]), 1, 3.

14. Richard G. Scott, “The Transforming Power of Faith and Character,” Ensign (Nov. 2010).

15. Zeba A. Crook, “BTB Readers’ Guide: Loyalty,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 34:4 (Nov. 2004): 167. John Gee came to similar conclusions. See his “The Corruption of Scripture in Early Christianity,” Early Christians in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the Christian Apostasy, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2005). Others have noted that it takes the form of a pledge, covenant, or oath. See David M. Hay, “Pistis as “Ground of Faith” in Hellenized Judaism and Paul,” Journal of Biblical Literature 108:3 (1989).

16. Ibid.: 168.

17. Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible – The Gospel According to John (I-XII) (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 513.

18. Robinson, Blomberg, How Wide the Divide?, 145-146.

19. See Frank Moore Cross, "Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel" in his From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 7-11; William L. Moran, “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25:1 (1963); J.A. Thompson, "The Significance of the Verb Love in the David-Jonathan Narratives in 1 Samuel," Vetus Testamentum 24:3 (1974).

20. The late biblical scholar John L. McKenzie translates hesed as “covenant-love,” viewing it as a parallel to the “knowledge of God” in the book of Hosea: “[K]nowledge, to the Hebrew, was not a mere intellectual apprehension, but a vital union of possession. Knowledge of Hebrew morality did not mean ethical science, but a vital union with the traditional morality which qualified the whole human life; one knows this morality by having it, by living it.” See his “Knowledge of God in Hosea,” Journal of Biblical Literature 74:1 (March 1955): 27.

21. David A. DeSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 130.

22. See Ibid., 618.

23. E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 543.

24. For a recent discussion of this subject, see J.R. Daniel Kirk, Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008).

25. Mark Nanos, "The Myth of the 'Law-Free' Paul Standing Between Christians and Jews," Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations 4:1 (2009): 3. Paula Fredriksen’s brand new article “Judaizing the Nations: The Ritual Demands of Paul’s Gospel,” New Testament Studies 56 (2010) has a similar thesis.

26. Blake T. Ostler, “Re-vision-ing the Mormon Concept of Deity,” Element: A Journal of Mormon Philosophy and Theology 1:1 (Spring 2005).

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