Saturday, May 23, 2009

Faith Without Works is Dead?

Yesterday I was visited again by two Mormon "missionaries". I launched the discussion by asking them whether they could be certain, right now, that they would enter the "Third Heaven", which is the LDS church's expression of salvation. After much side-stepping, I finally got them to admit that they weren't certain at all, that there was no way they could be certain. Then I showed them 1 John 5:13 which says:

"These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life."

I pointed out to them that in the Greek, the word "know" there is in the perfect tense, which means that it's an event that happened in the past with results that continue forever. And that "have" is present tense, meaning right now. We can know that we have eternal life, and looking forward, there's absolutely no reason for us to ever doubt it.

This took us into a discussion about what it means to believe in Christ, and about Grace. And in a fashion typical of the cults (Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses) they claimed to believe in God's Grace, that they are saved by Grace, etc. But I asked them what it was that God was going to look at in their lives to determine whether they can enter that "Third Heaven". And their answer was that God was going to examine their works. That their entrance to Heaven would be determined by their obedience, keeping the commandments, etc. Of course, with that admission, they betray their belief in Grace. They don't believe in Grace at all. They believe in earning their salvation.

I pointed this out to them and I used my skydiver illustration to demonstrate that their reliance on their works means that they don't trust Jesus Christ; that they trust themselves instead. Their works, their performance. They're wearing a reserve 'chute when God wants them to jump out of the plane with only one 'chute. I explained to them the concept of eternal security and that, while God doesn't want me to be a schmuck the rest of my life, He wants me to obey, He wants me to do work in this life, the fact is that I'm saved whether I'm a schmuck for the rest of my life or not. That's Grace. I said "Some people hear that and say 'That's not fair!'" and I said "They're right. It's not fair. That's what Grace is. We don't earn it, we don't deserve it. By definition, Grace is not fair." It would be a contradiction in terms to say that Grace had to be "fair".

But here's where we get to the real issue… One of the "missionaries" feigned agreement on much of that but revealed his disagreement by whipping out James 2:17. He said "Yes, but James says that 'faith without works is dead.'" In other words, if you don't do works, you can't be saved. And if that's what James meant, he would be contradicting many other passages in the New Testament which clearly state that salvation is not of works.

We have a huge problem within Christianity today, and that problem is that many Christians' understanding of salvation works out to be indistinguishable from how Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons understand the concept. I've had JWs and Mormons both deploy James 2:17 to assure me that works have to be in there somewhere… that shouldn't surprise anyone. But I also have CHRISTIANS using James 2:17 to make exactly the same point!! Does anybody else see a problem here? If the cults are using James 2:17 to teach that works are actually required for salvation, and Christians are using the same verse in the same way, then don't you think we should look at James 2:17 a little closer? If the cults are using it to teach their works-based salvation, shouldn't that tell us that we should not use it that way and that maybe that's not even close to what James meant when he wrote it?

Recently I've been trading e-mails with the hosts of a call-in Christian radio show, "The Don Johnson Show". I heard a show they did where they make it very clear that they believe that works are required for salvation, even as they claim to believe that salvation is by Grace and not works. So I sent them a polite e-mail asking for clarification and, well, they confirmed to me that, while they claim to believe in salvation by Grace apart from works, they do believe that we must do works to be saved. That doesn't really clarify anything, now does it?

The host of the show, Don Johnson, sent me his book entitled "The Road to Heaven: A Traveler's Guide to Life's Narrow Way" and I received it a few days ago. The chapter in which he discusses his view of "work" as it relates to salvation leads off with… guess what verse? That's right: James 2:17.

This is a major problem because "popular" Christianity has abandoned Grace and has a gospel message that is essentially no different than that of the cults. This is a disaster, I'm afraid.

Grace means "undeserved, unmerited favor." The only concept of salvation that is consistent with Grace is a salvation that happens even if we do diddly-squat. And again, in order to be consistent with Grace, salvation cannot be something that we can lose. If we can lose it, then we're doing something to keep it and it no longer depends upon Christ, but rather on our own works. That is not Grace.

In my next post, I'll explain what James 2:17 actually means and how we should use it.


  1. Anonymous10:18 PM

    I think most Evangelicals have a fundamental misunderstanding of LDS theology. Don’t confuse the LDS doctrines of salvation vs. exaltation.

    You see, Mormons believe ALL mankind is SAVED by the GRACE of God, that even Hitler will end up in a degree of glory, which will only be Hell relative to having missed out on the higher glory where God dwells and family units are eternal. This LDS salvation requires NOTHING, not even accepting Christ. In this way the LDS view of God is one of great mercy, consider all of the many people who died never hearing the message of Christ. Protestant belief damns them.

    However, Evangelicals believe a person must perform the WORK of actually “accepting Jesus” to be saved. If you don't perform the "work" of accepting Christ you are not saved.

    Therefore, mormons believe in being saved by grace and Evangelicals believe in salvation by works (work of being born again).

    Also, the question isn't whether Mormons are Christians. The question is whether Christians are Mormon. Truly, there are many doctrines presented by Joseph Smith that have now become adopted by every wing of modern Christianity. These are teachings that Smith was ridiculed for and were not known then. Now they are common among Evangelicals. For a list see:

  2. Thank you for your comment, Jenner. I do understand what you describe regarding LDS doctrine on salvation vs. exaltation. One liability with the LDS view of universal salvation is that it violates God's justice. Another liability is that "salvation" implies that there is something to be saved from. And yet if everyone is saved, then there truly is nothing to be saved from.

    I take issue, however, with your statement that faith in Christ is "work". Actually Romans 4:5 specifically removes trust in Christ from the category of works:

    "But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness"

    The person Paul describes here does not work, BUT believes (trusts in, relies upon) Jesus Christ. That means that belief is not work… or Paul would not be able to say that this person does not work.

    Therefore a Christian who properly understands God's grace as it relates to salvation understands that once they have decided to place their trust in Christ's person and Christ's work and Christ's promises, that person can have 100% assurance that they have eternal life right then and there, and "eternal" life, by definition, means that it cannot be lost for if eternal life could be lost, it would not be eternal.

    If you'd prefer that characterize LDS doctrine as "Exaltation by works" I'm fine with that. No Mormon can have 100% assurance that they will be exalted, that they will enter the third heaven, the celestial kingdom. This is because their exaltation depends upon their own performance in this life and not on God's grace.

    I agree that many ideas pertaining to salvation within Christianity have become polluted and that many popular Christian teachers teach things (specifically pertaining to salvation) that seem to align very well indeed with both LDS doctrine and Watchtower doctrine. That is, these popular Christian teachers (who ought to know better, but apparently do not) end up teaching a works-based salvation rather than a by-grace salvation which is what the Bible actually describes.

    Thank you again for your contribution.