Evangelical Questions: Grace and Works
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
If ye love me, keep my commandments. (John 14:15)
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about Grace and Works. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
Before we get started I want to remind you about the FAIR Conference and tell you about another one of the talks that will be happening. Stephen Smoot is a young scholar who was at Book of Mormon Central for a while and is now working at the BH Roberts Foundation, and his area of specialty is the Book of Abraham. Recently BYU Studies put out a 300-page guide to the Book of Abraham and I think Smoot co-authors every chapter in that publication, or just about. There simply are no serious conversations going on these days about the Book of Abraham that Stephen is not somehow involved in. He’s spoken at FAIR several times and is just incredibly insightful and well-studied. You can come and join us in person in Provo, Utah August 2-4, or you can stream online for free – we just ask that you go to the website and register for access for planning purposes. Stephen is speaking on Wednesday, I am speaking on Friday. The schedule is up on the FAIR website if you want to see who else is speaking.
Today we will (finally) get into one of the topics that has come up probably more than any other in the last 50 years of conversation between Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints: Grace vs. Works. Maybe the only thing that comes up more is, “You worship a different Jesus.” But Grace v. Works is right up there. We touched on this a tiny bit back in Episode 6 when we talked about, “What must I do to be saved?’ but today we go in a bit deeper.
The traditional argument goes something like this: Evangelicals say Latter-day Saints are trying to earn salvation through good works – and Latter-day Saints say Evangelicals are practicing a cheap grace where all they do is pray a prayer and never have to become like Jesus. I think, as we go through this, you’re going to see that the questions aren’t even really formed in a helpful way and there’s probably a better way to look at it.
Both the Latter-day Saint listeners and the Evangelical listeners to this episode will probably be surprised to know that one of the most hotly anticipated books coming out this year in the Evangelical press is called, “The Doctrine of Good Works: Reclaiming a Neglected Protestant Teaching.” Baker Academic is putting it out and its 3 authors are all Phd’s with impeccable Evangelical credentials. They are serious scholars who write about serious topics. Unfortunately, the book isn’t out until the end of July. I was able to read about 30 pages of it online and was fascinated by the beginning. “To say that Christianity has a crisis of credibility is an understatement…..people are hardly interested in the truth claims of Christianity unless and until they see that it matters….They will not be inclined to give serious consideration to the truth claims of Christianity until there is something about it that makes them hope that it might be true.” They point out that good Christians are constantly told things like, “If you’ve said a sinner’s prayer, your salvation is guaranteed,” and “Rejoice in the fact that there is nothing you can do to help your salvation along. Only Christ can do that for you.” They go on to set out their case that the thing that gives people hope that it might be true is in fact good works. “God is a working God,” they say, “and we are made in his image.”
All of that to say, there is movement on this topic. A lot of the discussion you can find online about this topic has not moved much past the over-simplified works-grace debate that was happening 50 years ago. The old version of this debate oversimplifies things to a point that kind of doesn’t make much sense. And actually conceptualization of “Grace vs. Works” is sort of misleading as if one side believes we are saved through grace alone, and the other side believes we are saved through works alone. And while there are lots of groups who affirm salvation through grace alone, I don’t know of any group that affirms salvation through works alone. Further, part of the problem here is that Protestants, especially Evangelicals, would have a very different concept of what we are being saved toward.
In the Evangelical world the question of, “Are we saved by faith alone, or does faith require action as well?” is something very different than what Latter-day Saints are asking when they say, “Why wouldn’t faith require action – faith without works is dead.” But we’re talking about 2 different things here. The Evangelical is talking about eternal salvation – and remember, as we talked about in a previous episode, for them salvation is a binary choice. You either go to Heaven (they have 1 conceptualization of Heaven) or you go to eternal torment in Hell. So when they say, “Faith alone is required for salvation,” they are saying, “Only faith in Jesus Christ can save you from eternal damnation.” And when they hear us say, “Faith without works is dead” in the context of talking about salvation what they hear is, “You’re trying to add to the work Jesus already did on the cross, therefor you are saying his work was not enough to get you into Heaven.” This is hard for Evangelicals for 2 reasons, both of them pretty understandable….1) They feel very loyal to Jesus and are sensitive to anyone saying what he did is not enough. But also 2) They have a hard time wrapping their minds around the fact that we conceptualize eternity so differently than they do.
For Latter-day Saints there is a reality called “outer darkness” but very few people end up there. While for Evangelicals, it depends on who you talk to, but they would believe a pretty good percentage of people end up in Hell. So, you can see why this conversation bugs them so much – for them having the wrong beliefs about Jesus means you’re risking eternal torment. For them, the question is, “Will you even make it to Heaven?” While for us the question is, “Okay, you’re going to spend eternity in one of the areas of Heaven, how do you want to prepare for life there?” And those are 2 really different questions. Latter-day Saints are not trying to win God’s favor, we’re trying to get ready for eternity. So the grace-works question is really a hard conversation sometimes.
If the conversation can most past that initial roadblock, it actually can get kind of interesting because the question becomes, “In what way do Latter-day Saints believe in grace?” and, “In what way do Evangelicals practice good works?” And when it’s put this way you start to see how in which we might learn from each other. Interestingly Terryl Givens has an article about this in the BYU Studies Quarterly magazine (I think it’s from last year, it’s volume 60 titled, “Yet to be Revealed: Open Questions in Latter-day Saint Theology) And he starts out by pointing out that there has been an increase in the material produced by Latter-day Saints talking about Grace – from General Authorities all the way down. And that this has caused some Evangelicals to wonder if Latter-day Saints are making a course correction toward a more Protestant theology. But from Givens’s point of view, and I agree with him, the term “Grace” must be given a, “uniquely Restorationist point of view. He says, “Restoration doctrine asserts that it was this act of setting his (God’s) heart upon man that constituted the majesty and miracle of God’s grace….Deep in the primeval past when God found himself in the midst of numerous spirit intelligences before the earth was formed or the first man or woman organized, grace irrupted into the universe. We might consider grace the name of his relentless, inexhaustible, and ultimately irresistible invitation.”
In this sense, grace is like the invitation to the party. You get to attend! But the point isn’t to just get an invitation, the point is to go to the party and talk and dance and eat. To do the actual things. The invitation is how you get to go and do the things. It’s like our invitation to live this life – God placed us here, and we got invited to this great party, this life on Earth, so what activities will we get to do at the party? In the Evangelical view, grace gives you an invitation to a party – but that party happens in eternity, not as much here. And instead of figuring out what you want to do at the party, you are trying to figure out if you’re going to be allowed to go to th party – or if you’re going to be thrown into a lake of fire. I don’t say that to be glib, but to show that we’re answering very different questions.
As for what it’s like for Evangelicals, with everything I said still being true, there is quite a bit of variety in how they approach the issues of works. In the last 20 or so years the Evangelical groups who seem to care more about works are the ones who are more interested in social issues. For example, they see the “work” of caring for the poor to be an important expression of faith. They would be very careful to distinguish that from a “saving faith” but it is still important to them to live out their faith in such a way that it makes a difference in the lives of the vulnerable. And most Evangelicals would have no problem seeing the goodness of something like that.
Where they start to wring their hands and worry though is when something like the, “American Worldview Inventory” study came out in 2020. This is a study that surveyed 2,000 Americans and found 30% of them called themselves Christians. And of that 30% half also said, “Good works will get you into Heaven.” Now, they worry about this because they think this is what we’re saying, “Good works will get you into Heaven.” Which is of course not at all what we’re saying. We believe just about everybody gets an invitation to the party, and ask, “what are you going to do at the party?”
Another major influence in how Evangelicals think about grace and works comes through the Methodist Church. The Methodist Church was started in the late 1700’s by the Wesley brothers essentially because they were eager to go do some good works. They had been Anglicans and things were a bit stifled for them, so they create “the Method” (Methodists) which is also called their “Rule of Life” and it’s number one rule is to avoid evil, and the number two rule is to do good. So their tradition developed in a way that deeply cared about good works. And they have had a great deal of influence over what Evangelicals become.
The Pew Research Center also tells us that about 75% of Evangelicals believe helping the poor and needy is an important part of their faith. But at the same time, it is a somewhat optional practice, less than 25% of them believe in tithing through their local church, and even those who do are most likely to be in a church where the congregation is just covering its own expenses for staff, property and programming – without much left over for doing good works.
We will get into this topic again, we’re almost out of the gospels in Come Follow Me. We’ve got about another month, and then we get to the letters which give us some deeper levels to talk about. I actually really love that we spend 6 months studying the gospels. That’s as it should be. But it will be fun to get into some other things as well. Thank you for being with me today. Come back next time and we’ll do some more.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.