“Mormon Works vs. Evangelical Grace? Not So Fast” A Christian Response to Jana Riess

Christianity Today recently did a story titled, “What Can Christians Learn From the Surge in Mormon Youth Missionaries?” Three Christian experts, one of whom, is a former Mormon, were chosen to weigh in on how we as Christians can learn from how the LDS Church puts their youth to work in ministry. Each of the experts noted that one of the primary reasons for the willingness of Mormon youth to serve on missions is because of the work-based theology of Mormonism. The Christianity Today article to date has 70 comments, most of which are favorable to Mormonism.

Jana Riess, a Mormon blogger for the Religion News Service and author of a number of books including Mormonism For Dummies, takes exception with the observation of the three experts, particularly the observation made by John Divito, the former Mormon. In her response titled, Mormon Works vs. Evangelical Grace? Not So Fast,” she writes “On the works-grace continuum, most Mormons stand closer to the “works” end of the spectrum than most evangelicals do. But an eloquent (and polite!) LDS commenter to the CT post notes that the theology inherent in the Book of Mormon’s “by grace we are saved, after all we can do” mantra (2 Nephi 25:23) is indeed compatible with a theology [of] grace.”

She then quotes the Mormon commenter. “Those who quote this verse often misunderstand the meaning of the last phrase. It reads: “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” Alma 24:10-11 makes it clear that “all we can do” is repent. LDS beliefs are not a system of works-righteousness. LDS beliefs are in accord with the teachings of both Paul and James. We believe in salvation by grace through faith (Rom. 5:2; Eph. 2:8) but we also believe that faith without works is dead (Jam. 2:17). True faith will be accompanied by good works. Other portions of the Book of Mormon make it clear that our works in no way save us.” Riess, then states, “It’s good to understand the 2 Nephi quote in context, and it’s also important for evangelical writers to recognize that over the last two decades, Mormonism has been emphasizing grace more and more from the pulpit.”

There are a number of problems with both the Mormon’s comment and with Riess’ conclusion about that comment. First, is this Mormon commenter correct? When he says that 2ndNephi 25:23 is often misunderstood, is that true? Instead of accepting the unfounded opinion of a Mormon commenter, it might be wise to see how this verse is interpreted in official Mormon Church teaching manuals.

In Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, Chapter 3 we have this explanation of 2nd Nephi 25:23)

“The Lord will bless us to the degree to which we keep His commandments. Nephi … said: ‘For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.’ (2 Nephi 25:23.)

The Savior’s blood, His atonement, will save us, but only after we have done all we can to save ourselves by keeping His commandments. All of the principles of the gospel are principles of promise by which the plans of the Almighty are unfolded to us.

Each must do all he can to save himself from sin; then he may lay claim to the blessings of redemption by the Holy One of Israel, that all mankind may be saved by obedience to the law and ordinances of the gospel.(Emphasis mine)

Which comes first, doing all you can do or the Savior’s grace? That little word “after” is very important. The Mormon Church teaching manual teaches Mormons that Jesus will save them but only after Mormons do all they can to save themselves. What will Mormons need to do before they can be saved and how?  “By keeping His commandments.” Each Mormon must do all they can to be saved from sin, “then” they have a claim to the blessings of redemption. By what means does all mankind have the possibility of being saved? “By obedience to the law and ordinances of the gospel.”
If this is not a system of works righteousness, then I would like for Riess, the commenter she quoted or any other Mormon to please help me understand what is. This official Mormon teaching manual makes it unmistakably clear that the availability of grace is dependent upon the obedience of the person in need of salvation.

It is also interesting to note that Riess says it is good to understand the context of 2nd Nephi 25:23 when neither the Mormon commenter nor Riess actually looked at the context. Instead, the Mormon commenter quoted a verse from a completely different book within the Book of Mormon.

Alma 24:10-11 does state that, “all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain,” but does that somehow mean that we do not need to do all we can before we are saved? The problem here is that neither Riess nor the Mormon commenter defined their terms adequately. Riess does mention a portion of the LDS definition of grace (help or strength), but she does not quote the parts of that definition which will give a clearer understanding of how the LDS Church interprets this term. The Mormon definition of grace also states, “To receive this enabling power, we must obey the gospel of Jesus Christ, which includes having faith in Him, repenting of our sins, being baptized, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and trying to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ for the rest of our lives (see Ephesians 2:8-9; James 2:17-22; 2 Nephi 25:23; 31:20).”

As shown here, the prerequisites to grace are obeying the gospel, having faith in Him, repenting of sin, being baptized into the Mormon Church, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and following the teachings of Jesus Christ… for the rest of our lives. The enabling power, or grace, comes only after the recipient meets the requirements for it. Let’s look at another official Mormon Church teaching manual which defines grace and interprets 2nd Nephi 25:23 in the light of that definition.

“Exaltation in the celestial kingdom of God is obtained as a gift from God, by grace, after all we can do (see 2 Nephi 25:23; D&C 6:13). Regarding grace, the Bible Dictionary states:

 ‘The main idea of the word is divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ.

‘… It is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means. This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts.

‘… However, grace cannot suffice without total effort on the part of the recipient” (“grace,” 697; see also 2 Nephi 25:23; Moroni 10:32–33). (Pearl of Great Price Student Manual, The Book of Moses 7:59)

The two phrases that jump out at me are that, first, we can lay hold of this enabling power, i.e. grace, only “after we have expended our own best efforts” and second, that grace is insufficient without “total effort on the part of the recipient.”

When Mormon leaders speak of grace in regards to being forgiven and living with God in the afterlife, the primary understanding of grace is that it is an “enabling power.” This power helps me to do what I cannot do without it, but only on the condition of obedience. This definition of grace is so diametrically opposed to the Biblical definition of grace that I can’t help but wonder, what is the difference between the Mormon concept of grace and their concept of works? If I receive grace only after I do my best and that grace is insufficient without my “total effort,” then how can a Mormon state that 2nd Nephi 25:23 does not mean exactly what it says? We can only be saved after all we can do.

This leads to another term that was mentioned in Alma 24:10-11 which deserves our attention. What is the Mormon definition of repentance? If all we can do is repent, then we should know how Mormonism defines that term. Let us refer back to the Harold B. Lee Teaching manual.

“We hear much from some of limited understanding about the possibility of one’s being saved by grace alone. But it requires the explanation of another prophet to understand the true doctrine of grace as he explained in these meaningful words:

‘For, said this prophet, ‘we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.’ (2 Nephi 25:23.) Truly we are redeemed by the atoning blood of the Savior of the world, but only after each has done all he can to work out his own salvation.

The third great distinctive principle in the plan of salvation was the provision that “all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” (Article of Faith 3.) These fundamental laws and ordinances by which salvation comes are clearly set forth:

First, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Second, repentance from sin, meaning the turning away from the sins of disobedience to God’s laws and never returning again thereto. The Lord spoke plainly on this point. Said he: “… go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth [meaning, of course, returning again to the sins from which he has repented] shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God.” (D&C 82:7.) (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee pp. 4-5)

Although the above quote does not refer to repentance until the last section, I wanted to quote the proceeding paragraphs to show the context and exactly how 2nd Nephi 25:23 relates to the Mormon idea of repentance. One of the aspects of repentance often cited by the LDS Church is the necessity for the abandonment of sin. As Harold B. Lee put it, repentance includes, “never returning again” to sin. What happens if you do? The quotation of D&C 82:7 is double-damning. Your former sins return back to you. It is also interesting to note that Mormonism’s third article of faith clearly states that “all mankind may be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” How is this not a system of works-righteousness?

To summarize, I once spoke with a representative of the Mormon Church who informed me that before we can be forgiven, we must do all we can do, which is completely in line with all we have looked at here. I asked if that included keeping commandments. I was answered in the affirmative. I asked, “Which commandments?” I was answered that I must keep all of them. “How often,” I asked? “All the time.”

I asked one final question. “Are you telling me that if I don’t keep all of the commandments all of the time, then I am not forgiven? The answer? “I like it better the way I say it.”

As we have seen in this rebuttal, Mormonism’s definition of grace is much more than what Jana Riess stated in her piece. The explanation of the Mormon commenter she quoted is not helpful in the least. The official Mormon Church teaching manuals are clear. Grace is insufficient without the total, best effort on the part of the recipient. This effort must precede salvation and endure until life’s end.

The three key words in 2nd Nephi 25:23 are “after”, “all” and “do.” Mormons are not taught that they will be saved before their part is completed. Neither are they taught that they can get by with less than maximum effort. They are taught that being forgiven by God depends upon what they do. That is a system of works-righteousness. That is not a caricature of Mormonism. That is what Mormonism has stated about itself.

19 Thoughts on ““Mormon Works vs. Evangelical Grace? Not So Fast” A Christian Response to Jana Riess

  1. IMHO Jana Riess is simultaneously a cause for hope and a cause for concern on the Mormon side of the divide.

    She married a Mormon and converted from Presbyterianism (Fred a Charismatic Presbyterian shudders at the very thought of such a thing!). However, from what I’ve surmised from her story the Presbyterian Church that she was in was VERY liberal which meant that her theology was compromised from the “get go”.

    Her story can be heard here:
    http://mormonstories.org/305-306-flunking-sainthood-with-jana-riess/

    She’s a cause for hope because she’s leavening the Mormon side of the divide (Relief Society in particular from what I can tell) with some good Evangelical Theology and Culture. I especially loved this article having experienced what it’s talking about myself:
    http://blog.beliefnet.com/flunkingsainthood/2010/07/five-reasons-why-mormon-church-meetings-are-the-dullest-youll-find-anywhere.html

    She’s a cause for concern because she tends to filter Mormonism through an Evangelical “soundbite” filter that makes it sounds Evangelical and borderline Biblical. As a result, were a liberal and/or theologically weak Evangelical to listen to her they could easily conclude (a la Richard J. Mouw) that Mormonism is really no big deal and that Christians that grouse about it and call it heretical are engaging in unfair hyperbole.

    This is simply not so. Now it WOULD be true if LdS Leaders were teaching and practicing the type of uncorrelated, liberal cafeteria Mormonism that Ms. Riess does but they don’t. All one need do is review the correlated materials and recent General Conference addresses to see this this.

    Thank you for bringing this latest example of this behavior and doing such a nice job of exposing Ms. Riess’s errant means and methods so well.

    • Thanks Fred! My main concern with Riess is that she is so well respected in her field that people will just take her word for it instead of contrasting what she says with what the Mormon Church actually teaches. Our research should NEVER stop.

  2. Jim Cook on May 28, 2013 at 10:13 pm said:

    The CT article offers a false premise: “one of the primary reasons for the willingness of Mormon youth to serve on missions is because of the work-based theology of Mormonism.” It is true that there is a strong work ethic in Utah, but it is based more on heritage and community standard than on theology. In my experience working with Mormon youth there are three primary reasons for “the willingness of Mormon youth to serve on missions” and these are not related to theology. In fact, while the works vs grace issue in LDS theology is correctly delineated above, it is beyond the interest or understanding of most Mormons, adult or youth. While they will debate the issues, the real thrust of Mormonism today is about community and family–salvation is an expectation so long as one’s behavior meets the expectations of the church. Godhood is a further expectation for the pious. Theology is an esoteric for most.

    For most (not all) youth the motives for going on a mission are:
    1/ It is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that takes teenagers away from home to another part of the country or the world for a limited period of time;
    2/ It is a prestigious activity that essentially guarantees employment after returning home;
    3/ It is a guarantee of a good political standing within the local LDS ward or stake.
    Further, Mormon youth are told from childhood that this is their duty.

    • As I posted under the CT article, the purpose is a mixture of converting the world, and converting the missionaries.

      • Jim Cook on May 29, 2013 at 1:17 pm said:

        Martin, I don’t see any disagreement here.

        The article talks about theology as a motivator for LDS youth to go on missions. My response is that for most youth it is more pragmatic and the theology is only vaguely understood.

        Your remarks are about the convoluted motivation of the LDS church to send them, with which I agree.

        A discussion of free grace vs Lordship salvation, Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism or Augustinian soteriology would just leave them shaking their heads. They have been taught a system of common grace that results in one of three degrees of glory (most likely borrowed from Swedenborgianism). Only “sons of perdition” do not reach one of these three degrees, but are cast into “outer darkness” instead.

        Exposure to an understanding of the true Grace of God is what leads Mormons to convert to biblical Christianity.

    • True, those are some of the reasons youth serve missions, but not the only ones. I served a mission and there were many who were not there for the right reasons and who should have never come. A few years ago the church “raised the bar” and has been really looking to properly preparing and teaching the youth. I’ve been for the most part optimistic about these changes.

      If you are looking at Utah specifically, there is such a high concentration of Latter-day Saints that there are strong cultural motivators at play that cannot be denied. I suppose you could say that for any area with a strong religious presence from a single faith. In larger groups the negative characteristics are always amplified, as are the good characteristic.

      As an observer, it seems to me that there is a general lack of spirituality in all faiths. Secularization has taken its toll and people are selfish and turned inward. When any group experiences this, the spiritual motivation for doing things becomes less about God and more about the “organization”. More about trying to achieve holiness by programs and deeds rather than by being holy.

      I really respect the Baptist minister Paul Washer in his stirring sermon where he addresses a mass gathering of youth in this problem that all faiths seem to be suffering from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=3wX_BPopbKI

      Of all the great religious traditions, you can find holy men and women who know God along with a great host of others who are trying but burdened down by the external forces that have always plagued mankind.

      I think our time would be better served by using our energy to help as many people as possible to find this holiness by first and formost finding Christ. As an Elders Quorum President in an Latter-day Saint ward, this is my first priority. I maintain a blog and seek to minister continually to the members on Sunday and during the week to ensure that they are “nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith.” (Moroni 6:4)

      • The context of Moroni 6:4 explains that these people had, “truly repented of all their sins” (Moroni 6:2) According to “Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith,” True repentance is defined this way.

        “Does repentance consist of sorrow for wrong doing? Yes, but is this all? By no means. True repentance only is acceptable to God, nothing short of it will answer the purpose. Then what is true repentance? True repentance is not only sorrow for sins, and humble penitence and contrition before God, but it involves the necessity of turning away from them, a discontinuance of all evil practices and deeds, a thorough reformation of life, a vital change from evil to good, from vice to virtue, from darkness to light. Not only so, but to make restitution, so far as it is possible, for all the wrongs we have done, to pay our debts, and restore to God and man their rights—that which is due to them from us. This is true repentance, and the exercise of the will and all the powers of body and mind is demanded, to complete this glorious work of repentance; then God will accept it.

        https://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-joseph-f-smith/chapter-7?lang=eng

        Do you know anyone who has truly repented?

  3. Nancy Nimmo on May 28, 2013 at 10:20 pm said:

    This is a very good article. What jumped out at me was the (partial) quote, “only after we have done all we can to save ourselves.” Save ourselves? There is nothing Christian about that.

    • You’ve got that right. If I can save myself, then what do I need Jesus for?

      • There is a lot of misunderstanding on this topic. First off, you cannot “save yourself”, it is impossible.

        But here is another question: does Christ save everyone? Evangelicals say that you must pray and accept Christ to be saved, correct? So aren’t all of these people praying to accept Christ saving themselves? You have to DO that to be saved correct?

        If you are drowning and someone throws you a life preserver and you reach out and grab it, did you just save yourself? The atonement of Christ is similar to this. He overcame sin and death, but he will not force salvation upon anyone. He offers it freely to all who will enter into a covenant with him.

        Evangelicals do this through an “ordinance” that involves praying and specifically asking Jesus into their heart.

        Latter-day Saints do this by taking 30 seconds to be baptized and another few seconds by receiving the Gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands as described in the book of Acts.

        Both practices are essentially the same, the person is recognizing their sin and inadequacy, and sensing the need for the atonement and grace, they make a covenant with God and are reborn as a child of Christ.

        What follows after is where things get all messed up. Many Latter-day Saints and evangelicals get it right. They are truly changed by Christ, they faithfully follow him and are blessed. They love him and keep his commandments, not because they think they’ll be saved by them but because they LOVE Christ (John 14:15).

        Others don’t get it. Some evangelicals pray their prayer and never enter a church again. They think they’re saved so they live unbridled lives indulging in all the things forbidden by Christ. Some Latter-day Saints get the idea that making covenants guarantees them exaltation, they don’t develop true faith in Christ and end up focusing too much on “doing things” not necessarily thinking that this will save them, but perhaps that “not doing things” might damn them.

        Both of these groups have it wrong and aren’t really living according to the teachings of their faith. It is these extremes that often end up being the caricatures of the faiths and I think it is very dishonest to focus on them instead of the people getting it right.

        Here are 55 verses from the Book of Mormon, just a small sampling of teachings that would probably shock most evangelicals to find and what more Latter-day Saints would do well to read:

        http://oneclimbs.com/2012/02/26/the-book-of-mormon-really-teaches-this/

        As for the subject of grace as understood by Latter-day Saints, professor Brad Wilcox has a great article that is worth a read because it challenges the misconceptions that Latter-day Saints themselves have with understanding grace:

        http://oneclimbs.com/2013/01/20/his-grace-is-sufficient/

        Brother Keith, there’s no way around it, without Christ we’re all doomed except through the atonement of Christ, but he cannot save us if we don’t accept and follow him. We begin with belief. When we act on beliefs, faith is born; we are saved by grace through this faith (Eph 2:8).

        • Steve,
          If you think it is impossible to save yourself, I agree, but that only means you disagree with Harold B. Lee in the manual I quoted above. I’d like to hear your thoughts on that quote. I am familiar with Brad Wilcox’s speech and have watched it on YouTube. You have to remember, Wilcox is not a general authority. I am curious as to why you would believe what a BYU professor says and discount what a “prophet of God” teaches in a correlated manual.

          • You ask a fair and perfectly reasonable question and I will do my best to answer it for you.

            In isolation that Harold B. Lee quote is really gray in contrast to hundreds of other quotes and scriptures that are plain and clear. While I suppose that if you read it in context it may just barely be technically correct, I would have chosen different words.

            The truth, I believe, is a balance between extremes where some confess Christ and trample his commandments then others who are commandment commandos and have little if no relationship with Christ.

            At times where the people are too lax in their obedience to the commandments, historically, the prophets will call them to repentance and away from their sins. In Christ’s time, the Jews were too reliant on the law and though the works of the law saved them and the necessity of faith was heavily emphasized.

            Perhaps Lee’s words in a modern manual were an attempt to draw the membership back to a realization of the importance of keeping the commandments as part of being “all they can do”.

            It’s the “all you can do” part that seems to be the problematic phrase. What does it mean? What are people assuming it means. Well, I can tell you that it means two simple things: keeping covenants and commandments. If someone throws you a life preserver, you grab it and hang on while they pull you in.

            You must accept the life preserver by grabbing it and then endure to the end by hanging on. The Lord pulls you in with all his strength, he saves your life, you’d be dead without him.

            As for the second part of your question about believing a mere professor and ‘discounting’ Lee’s. Let’s look more at the quote from the manual. I’m glad you did the right thing by linking to the full manual for your readers, that shows that you care about context, so well done.

            If we continue the quote from Lee that you have above, he states:

            “Jesus also atoned not only for Adam’s transgressions but for the sins of all mankind. But redemption from individual sins depends upon individual effort, with each being judged according to his or her works.

            The scriptures make it clear that while a resurrection will come to all, only those who obey the Christ will receive the expanded blessing of eternal salvation. Speaking of Jesus, Paul explained to the Hebrews that “he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him.” (Hebrews 5:9.) …”

            We can’t forget the one teaching that every reader of the New Testament is familiar with: We are going to be judged for our works. Now, while works do not save us, they most certainly appear to be able to condemn us. It is in this context that I believe that Lee is speaking. We must denounce sin, follow Christ and endure to the end, this is I suppose what “all you can do” implies and these things are plainly taught all over the New Testament.

            So I’m not going to throw Lee under the bus completely, but if I were teaching a lesson on the subject, I would probably quote Wilcox over Lee in this case (In fact, I did use Wilcox’s talk in a lesson a few weeks ago ;).

            There’s still another level at which you would probably like me to address your question and that is “discounting the words of a Prophet of God”.

            No member of the church is obligated to believe or obey anything if they do not have a witness from the Spirit that it is true. Others may deny this fact but they are wrong and the evidence is well-documented.

            You might be interested to read this account of when a blatantly false statement appeared in one of our official magazines. A Unitarian pastor picked up on it and contacted the President of the church who was George Albert Smith to get the truth from the horse’s mouth.

            The pastor’s concerns were confirmed and the statement was denounced by President Smith. I posted the exchange with some commentary here on my site:

            http://oneclimbs.com/2013/05/26/when-church-leaders-speak-is-the-thinking-done/

            Between Lee’s words and Wilcox’s, I prefer Wilcox’s because although both are teaching the same doctrine, I think Wilcox’s words are more easily understood in this case. The Spirit is my ultimate guide to discern the words of men, angels, devils or apostles. I seek to follow truth wherever I find it because I believe that we are all children of God and he blesses all of us with wisdom, insight and truth.

          • And I’m terribly sorry that I’m so long-winded, I can be that way, I just haven’t learned how to be concise.

          • Steve,
            Harold B. Lee is hardly gray. It seems pretty black and white to me. He plainly states that you will be blessed to the degree that you keep God’s commandments and that the atonement saves you ONLY AFTER you do your part.

            You are correct that “all you can do” is referring to keeping commandments and covenants, but that just makes it worse. It would mean that you do not receive the blessings of the atonement until you keep the commandments and covenants you have made. How are you doing with that? 😉

            I’m going to skip a lot of what i wanted to ask you and get to the bottom line here. What good are prophets if you can’t trust them? Who made you the determination factor of whether or not they are telling you the truth?

            Essentially, you have become a prophet unto yourself. You prefer a BYU professor over a “prophet of God” and determine for yourself if you are going to believe him or not. I would advise that you re-familiarize yourself with the 14 fundamentals of following a prophet. If you don’t believe your own prophets, why should I?

  4. The discussion of grace/works between Christianity and Mormonism is moot when one considers that THE JESUS OF MORMONISM ISN’T THE JESUS OF THE BIBLE!!! The Christian Jesus isn’t spirit brother to Lucifer and the Christian God (in comparison to the Mormon god) didn’t have sex with Mary nor does He live on a planet by a star named Kolob, nor was He once a man as we are. To compare the theology of the two groups is like comparing apples and baseballs. As a great Christian apologist once said “a counterfeit Jesus with a counterfeit gospel equals a counterfeit salvation”.

  5. I wrote a couple of the (now) 88 comments on the CT article (look for Martin Jacobs on May 14). The reason I didn’t write any more was that I considered that this was not the place to butt heads with obstinate Mormons. I can’t speak for any of the other posters, but this might help explain why the Mormon posts might be a majority.

  6. Deb P on May 30, 2013 at 6:51 am said:

    I am, as always, profoundly impressed by your grasp not only of the true Scriptures, Keith, but also of the scope of the Mormon teachings within their own context. I know when you reason with these folks you do it not only out of love and concern, but also with full knowledge, and I thank God for that.

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