Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Faith v. Works

Some time ago I received the following question on the blog:

Why do Mormons believe the Atonement is not enough for our salvation, that it must be earned by "good works" to reach a "higher level of heaven?"

To begin, Mormons do believe the Atonement is enough for our salvation.

However, before we discuss this question, I will apologize to the asker of the question that it's taken me forever and a day to post a response. The full answer to this question is not short by any means simply because we do not have the advantage of a discussion. Therefore, I attempted to cover everything that I thought this question may encompass so that you are satisfied with the answer. But before you read the rest of this post, read the following articles first:

As Latter-day Saints, “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel” (Articles of Faith 1:3). The Atonement is enough for salvation; in fact, there is no other way to receive salvation except relying on the merits of Him who is mighty to save (see 2 Ne 2:8; 31:19; D&C 3:20). King Benjamin taught his people that, “salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:18).

Jesus Christ hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, He was oppressed and He was afflicted. With His stripes we are healed (see Isaiah 53:4-7). He suffered pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind, He took upon himself the pains and sicknesses of His people, and he took upon Himself death and our infirmities, “that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; . . . that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (see Alma 7:11-12). Christ suffered to the point where He “sweat as it were great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44).

We do not deny the grace of God and we certainly do not undermine the importance of the Atonement, which is the single most important event in all of human history. President Gordon B. Hinckley, fifteenth prophet in this dispensation, described the Atonement as, “the keystone in the arch of our existence” (“The Things of Which I Know,” Ensign, May 2007, 84).

Commandments and Laws

Yet works do play a part in our salvation; the Lord gives us commandments for a reason. God is perfect and no unclean thing can dwell in the presence of God (see Alma 11:37; 3 Nephi 27:19; Isaiah 52:11). He commanded Adam and Eve to multiply and replenish the earth, He gave the children of Israel the Ten Commandments, He commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Later, He fulfilled the Law of Moses and gave a higher law and taught of repentance, forgiveness, fasting, and other things that that we must do and commandments by which we should live. We also have the law of tithing (Malachi 3:8-10), the Word of Wisdom (D&C 89), and more. God does not do things just because or without a purpose. He knows what actions produce true, lasting happiness, which actions only provide temporary enjoyment then misery, and which actions only provide misery. Therefore, He gives us commandments as guideposts so that we may know how to be happy. None of His teachings are mindless. His work and His glory? To bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man (see Moses 1:39).

Jacob, in the Book of Mormon, taught this of the relation between laws and our eternal happiness:

And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away. (2 Nephi 2:13.)

Commandments provide us with the knowledge of how to obtain happiness and avoid sorrow. They are not suggestions, they are commandments and we are commanded to live by them. The reward? A place on the right hand of God with our Elder Brother Jesus Christ.

Now, the commandments themselves do not save, just as the law of Moses did not provide salvation in its time. In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Abinadi taught that, “salvation doth not come by the law alone; and were it not for the Atonement, which God himself shall make for the sons and iniquities of his people, that they must unavoidably perish, notwithstanding the law of Moses.” (Mosiah 13:28.) Works alone do not provide us with eternal life; only the saving power of the Atonement can make us clean and living the laws of God qualify us for the cleansing power of the Atonement.

Justice and Mercy

So how do works and mercy and justice all work together in relation to the Atonement? Alma the younger helps us understand the relation between mercy and justice in the forty-second chapter of Alma and I encourage you to read the chapter in its entirety. We know that God is just; He gave us commandments and when we break the commandments, we must suffer the related consequences. This is most unfortunate for all of us because no one is perfect—we all sin and are unclean and therefore cannot dwell in the presence of God. The scriptures refer to the effects of sin as a spiritual death. “If it were not for the plan of redemption, (laying it aside) as soon as they were dead their souls were miserable, being cut off from the presence of the Lord” (see verse 11).

Where is the hope with a plan like that? There is none.

Alma continues, “mercy could not take effect except it should destroy the work of justice. Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God” (see verse 13 and remember 2 Nephi 2:13).

Yet Our Heavenly Father loves us and He is a God of hope. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of hope. Therefore, before the foundation of the world, a plan was created that God may be both Just and Merciful. “The plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (see verse 15).

Thus we see our great need for the Atonement of Jesus Christ, for on our own accord we can do nothing to make ourselves clean. How great a hope this marvelous plan of salvation gives us! “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). How loving is our Father in Heaven that He would give His Son that we may become clean and return to live with Him again! How unselfish and loving is Jesus Christ to willingly volunteer to experience all the pains and sickness and transgressions of all of His brothers and sisters!

Faith Without Works is Dead

Faith is an action word. When we have faith in Jesus Christ and the saving power of His Atonement, we desire to repent and live better. We do as Luke teaches and, “bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). When you have faith in Jesus Christ, you trust the Lord enough to follow His commandments (see Preach My Gospel, ch 6, p 116).

Faith is more than just merely saying that you believe; those who say that they have faith yet continue to live contrary to God’s will and teachings do not understand the principle of faith. King Benjamin taught that we should, ”Believe in God, believe that he is, . . . believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive you; and now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them” (Mosiah 4:10-11).

Do you see? Faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement leads to desires of repentance and becoming clean. If we truly believe that Jesus Christ died for us, we recognize the infinite love that He and our Father in Heaven have for us. When we recognize and feel that love, we desire to do as the ask and keep the commandments and serve others. Desires lead to action and action satisfies God’s stipulation that we confess and forsake our sins that we may become clean.

Therefore, by doing works meet for repentance (Acts 26:20) we are not denying the cleansing power of the Atonement and underemphasizing the principle of faith; rather, we are showing God that we sincerely believe in Him and His plan and are willing to show our faith by making the sacrifices necessary to apply the Atonement in our lives.

I realize that the Bible contains numerous scriptures stating that faith not works saves, etc., and there are numerous others that “prove” that works are required. These verses that seemingly contradict each other can be confusing. That’s the wonderful thing about the Restoration of the Gospel—we don’t have to speculate and try to interpret God’s mind on our own! Instead, we have the added blessings of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the words of the living apostles and prophets. God isn’t trying to keep anything secret from us; on the contrary, His teachings are all very straightforward and with the help of modern revelation, the ancient revelations become clear.

Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, Our Redeemer. Because He and our Heavenly Father love us, they created a plan in which we can choose to follow them in faith and return to them or not. They knew that we would fall once in a while as we are tried and tested and thus prepared a way that we may become clean again. Jesus Christ did atone for the sins, afflictions, and sufferings of us all and we can choose if we want to accept the cleansing power of the Atonement. In order to apply the Atonement in our lives, all we must do is continually repent and strive to keep the commandments and not sin again. Of course, God is patient and understanding and will forgive us as many times as we sin and repent so long as we are sincerely striving to do better and are always striving to improve our lives and bless the lives of those around us.

The Book of Mormon is God’s word, the Church of Jesus Christ is restored on the earth today and contains the fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ along with the fulness of priesthood keys and authority. President Thomas S. Monson is God’s living prophet today.

I leave you with the words of Moroni, from the last verses of the last chapter of the Book of Mormon:

Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.

And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.

This is true.