Evangelical Questions: Do Works Work?
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
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 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.
Today, is Sunday evening, October 1. I hope you had a great conference weekend. I certainly did. And I’ve got a list of talks I need to go back and listen to again. You probably do too! I will not tell you how many Cinnamon Rolls I ate, but you can probably guess.
We are just going to jump right in with this week’s verse Eph 2:8-9:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
So, I remember grappling with this verse when I was an Evangelical, probably age 16 or 17. I grew up in a non-LDS church that tried to walk a fine line between Calvinism (God chooses whom he will save, and your choices don’t matter. Even if you want to be saved, you might not be) and Arminianism (People have free will to choose God or not therefore we should Evangelize around the world. And, for what they were trying to do, they did an okay job at it. “Spend your days like an Arminianist, but spend your nights like a Calvinist” – meaning, work hard to share the gospel but also go to sleep knowing God is going to do what God is going to do. But when we would come to verses like this I was rather confused because my church taught that in order to receive this grace what you were supposed to do was pray, “the sinner’s prayer” which means asking Jesus into your heart. And that was it. Pray the prayer, that’s all you have to do, and God’s grace does the rest. But, in my 16-year-old brain, I couldn’t quite work out why that sinner’s prayer was not considered a “work.” It’s something that the person does. If it was actually true that God’s grace is all that’s needed, then why do we even need to pray the prayer? Evangelicals do have answers for this, but none of them felt very satisfying for me. Eventually, I just moved on from the question.
And, this will not come as a surprise to listeners of this show, I was also taught that Latter-day Saints are trying to work their way to Heaven and if they made one small mess-up, their chances were ruined. Which is part of why I was so intrigued when I read the Book of Moses. If you haven’t heard me say it before, Moses was actually the first Latter-day Scripture I ever read. And there’s a lot contained in that little book – something I understand now way more than before – so when I talk about it I usually say something like, “I really didn’t even know what I was looking at yet.” And that’s true. I didn’t. But there is also this. Literally, by verse 4 I’m confronted with ideas about works. In vs. 4 God tells Moses that his work is vast – and that he is still not done working. He’s got more to say and more to create. Well, hmmm, this is not something that Evangelicals ever taught me. But by Moses 1:6 we see God telling Moses that he has a work to do as well, just as Jesus Christ had a work to do. Huh. If you had asked me even a few weeks earlier to guess what a verse like this would say I probably would have guessed something like God telling Moses: I have a bunch of work for you to do, and if you do it well enough you can earn your way back into my presence. But that’s not what happens in Moses 1. Even by Verse 4 we know that God is calling Moses, “son” – and presumably Moses hasn’t even done anything yet. He is assured of his sonship and then given work to do. I’m not even sure if I articulated any good questions about that at the time. So, right from the beginning, I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around this concept. And I think that most Evangelicals who are baptized into our church have to go through a version of the same puzzle. People who have been members of our faith for their whole lives often get really confused here as well. The questions Evangelicals ask here don’t really make any sense and we all talk right past each other. So, what I want to do today is try to fairly explain why Evangelicals are in the place they are on this, and hopefully some ideas on how to have a better conversation.
About 6 weeks ago the magazine Christianity Today (which has long been considered the Evangelical’s magazine) published an article called, “Mormons Expect More of the Next Generation. Why Don’t We?” And the whole point of that article is basically that Evangelical kids don’t fair as well because they’re given far lower expectations – counterintuitively to some, high expectations (coupled with high levels of support) are good for kids. CT actually publishes articles like this roughly every decade. The most recent one I could find before the article in August was back in 2013. What is fascinating though is that all these articles, every decade or so, praise the works of Latter-day Saint youth – they talk about the goodness of their service and how the missionary program helps in young adult development. They talk about the humanitarian work, and all other good things our church does. But they divorce it from our beliefs. The logic goes something like this…We Evangelicals believe the Latter-day Saints are doing really good works – those works end up being meaningless because they think they’re earning salvation with them – but at least some people are getting some benefit out of them. In these articles, you get statements along the lines of, “Mormon culture is founded on a worldview requiring works in order to gain eternal life.” And, “Trying to earn God’s favor through human effort is not going to help any teenager, whether Mormon or Protestant.” One more, “Christians have a unique core that motivates our service, a core that separates our religion from others, including Mormonism. That core is grace.”
Now, Latter-day Saints, I know you’re minds are full right now of verses from the Book of Mormon, or from modern Prophets, explaining that we do not believe our works save us. But no matter how much you talk about those verses, Evangelicals have not budged on this, as evidenced by the simple example of the decade-after-decade articles from Christianity Today that we are a works-based religion.
Remember when we did the “Different Jesus” episode? Evangelicals have a deep worry that getting Jesus wrong, even a little bit, means that no matter how strong your faith it won’t really matter because you don’t believe in the “correct” Jesus. And that comes into play here. It’s not so much that they don’t believe in doing good. They do, and they can cite the Bible verses which support this. The problem is that because, in their view, we don’t believe in the “correct” Jesus whatever good works we do have to stand on their own as just nice things people are doing. They can’t see our works as an expression of our faith in Christ because they can’t see that we have faith in Christ.
Now, it’s conference weekend, so heavily in my mind was the number of times that speakers mentioned Jesus Christ. I thought I’d keep a tally, but quickly lost my ability to keep up. The text of those talks is not available yet, so I went to last Conference, April 2023, to see how many times Jesus Christ was mentioned. There are over 500 times, and if you take out all the mentions of the name of the church (“Welcome to the annual conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) you still have well over 400 times. Elder Gary Stevenson, in that conference, talks about him the most, 25 mentions in a 14-min talk. He mentions Jesus Christ on average every 30 seconds. And in fact it’s rare to have a speaker not mention Jesus Christ multiple times. You and I all know this. But our Evangelical friends won’t accept those 400 times because to them it doesn’t matter how hard you believe or how big your faith is if it is invested in the wrong thing. And here, “the wrong thing” essentially means that we don’t accept the things written about Jesus by a committee 400 years after he was gone – the basic Trinitarian conceptualization. You don’t believe in the Trinity, the object of your belief is false, therefore your works are not a product of faith – they’re you trying to earn your way to Heaven.
The only way that I really see out of this corner is to speak more specifically about what you believe regarding Jesus Christ with your Evangelical friends. “I believe in Jesus Christ,” is met with, “But you believe in the wrong Jesus.” That’s an expected reflex. But something like, “I believe Jesus Christ is the eternal Savior of the world and no one can return to God except through him,” would certainly get you some agreement and understanding with them.
I’ll say one other thing about getting out of this corner. If you want to have credibility, you have to live up to what you’re saying. You actually have to be the kind of person who embodies the teachings of Jesus Christ. This is why I don’t personally participate in conversations about Christ with people I don’t know online. There is a spot for that – and if you are gifted in the area, God bless you – I think many of our missionaries are gifted this way as they knock on doors of strangers or start discussions with people they don’t know well at all. But I am not one of those people, at least in part because the biggest piece of credibility I have is the fact of who Christ has led me to be. You can’t really communicate that to someone you don’t know well. But occasionally an Evangelical friend will say something like: “I don’t believe a thing your church teaches you, but I can see that it’s working for you because you’re happier than I’ve ever seen you.” Said by a friend who has known me for more than 30 years. How you live your life and what makes you happy really actually matters. And my life is certainly not perfect, and neither am I, but my friend was right, I am happier than I’ve ever been, despite some real challenges. And if you’re like most Latter-day Saints I’ve met, you’re that way too. You conduct your life in a way that is what Jesus described as letting them, “see your good works and glorify your father who is in Heaven.” Who you are, and how you live your life – the good works that you do – actually gives you more traction with people who know you in getting them to want to listen to you about Jesus.
Okay, that’s about it for today. Next week we’re going to talk about something called Gnosticism which Paul fought hard against – and why proxy work is a perfect antidote to Gnosticism. See you then.
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.