Salvation by Grace Alone?
by John A. Tvedtnes
Traditionally, Christian churches have believed that salvation comes through the grace of God but that God expects us to demonstrate our faith by performing good works, including baptism. Though the concept of works was challenged by some of the Reformers, most Protestant churches nevertheless continue to admonish good works and to practice baptism and confirmation. In recent decades, more and more Christian groups have come to rely on grace alone, believing that baptism, while permitted, is unnecessary for salvation, and that good works are a gift of the Spirit that comes to believers after they have accepted Christ.
By contrast, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues to follow the beliefs of the early Christian community, that salvation comes by a combination of grace, faith, obedience to God’s will, and the ordinances of baptism and confirmation. The Church’s beliefs are summed up in the third and fourth of the Articles of Faith:
3. We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.
4. We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.
These beliefs, though based on teachings found in the New Testament, are often challenged by those Christian groups who believe that grace alone brings salvation. It is this concept that is examined in this article.
Book of Mormon Teachings
The Book of Mormon is unequivocal on the issue of salvation by the grace of Christ. Nephi wrote that “there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead.”1 His brother Jacob admonished, “remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved.”2 The last of the Nephite scribes, Moroni, wrote, “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…then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ.”3 Moroni, like Nephi before him,4 wrote of the importance of “relying alone upon the merits of Christ.”5
A famous Nephite missionary, Aaron, noted that “since man had fallen he could not merit anything of himself; but the sufferings and death of Christ atone for their sins, through faith and repentance, and so forth.”6 That works, without the grace of Christ, cannot save us is indicated by the words of Aaron’s grandfather, King Benjamin, who told his people, “I say, if ye should serve him [God] with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.”7 Nevertheless, while the Book of Mormon stresses that only Christ brings salvation, like the New Testament, it also clearly affirms the responsibility of individuals to repent and come unto Christ and afterwards endure unto the end in keeping the commandments of God.
When Nephi taught that “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do,”8 he had a specific meaning in mind for the words “all we can do.” Lamoni’s brother, Anti-Nephi-Lehi, described the situation well:
And I also thank my great God, that he hath granted unto us that we might repent of these things…which we have committed, and taken away the guilt from our hearts, through the merits of his Son. And now behold my brethren, since it has been all that we could do, (as we were the most lost of all mankind) to repent of all our sins…which we have committed, and to get God to take them away from our hearts, for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain.9
So when Nephi spoke of “all we can do,” he was not referring to individual perfection on our own, which is impossible in mortality, but rather of being reconciled to Christ by exercising our faith unto repentance and by entering into a covenant with God through baptism to keep his commandments and being faithful to that covenant.10 When we fall short, we can repent. The important thing is that we keep trying within the grace that Christ gives us. Mormon also taught this principle, saying, “And may God grant, in his great fulness, that men might be brought unto repentance and good works, that they might be restored unto grace for grace, according to their works.”11
The Apostle Paul
The confusion over grace results principally from the writings of the apostle Paul. But if Paul really taught that grace alone was sufficient for salvation, we must consider a number of questions:
- Why did Paul write so often to Christian congregations admonishing them to abandon their sinful ways?
- Why did Paul have to tell believing Christians that those who committed various sins could not be saved in the kingdom of God?12
- Why did Paul teach that Christ is “the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe?”13
- Why did Paul say that “godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation?“14
- Why did Paul tell the Philippians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling?”15
- When discussing “the grace of God that bringeth salvation,” why does Paul say that it teaches “that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world?”16
- Why does the epistle to the Hebrews say that Jesus was “the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him?”17
Each of these passages suggests that grace alone is not sufficient for salvation. Consequently, when reading the epistles of Paul, one must keep a much broader picture in mind. For example, Paul told the Romans,
That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.18
From this passage, it is clear that grace alone is insufficient and that it must be coupled at least with faith and with one act, confession.
In several of his epistles, Paul wrote that salvation came by grace, not works. For example, he wrote of Christ “Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.”19 He told the Romans that “if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.”20 He asked his readers, “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.”21
Was Paul teaching that good works were not the basis of salvation? If so, how are we to understand passages like Revelation 20:12-13, which say that God will judge men “according to their works”? The answer lies within Paul’s epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, in which he clearly explained what he means by “works.” He declared that “Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because [they sought it] not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone.”22 He also wrote,
We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.23
From these passages, it clear that Paul was saying that salvation did not come by the “works of the law,” meaning the law of Moses, but by the higher law brought by Christ.24 He did not teach that good works in general were not necessary for salvation, only that the law of Moses “was added because of transgressions…Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster [to bring us] unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.25
It is ironic that those who preach salvation by grace alone typically cite the apostle Paul’s writings but ignore the teachings of Christ himself. While the Book of Mormon teaching that we are “saved by grace after all we can do”26 may conflict with the theology of some modern Christian groups, it is consistent with Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament.
The Savior spent three years teaching people the principles by which they should live their lives, never once mentioning grace. His principal message was “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,”27 (which was the same message taught by John the Baptist.28 He upbraided certain cities and said they were under condemnation because they did not choose to repent.29
Christ taught that it was necessary to keep the commandments, both in reality and in thought, in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.30 When the rich young man came to Jesus asking how he could gain eternal life, Jesus began by telling him to keep the ten commandments, then added that he should give his wealth to the poor and follow him.31 He required his disciples to follow his teachings and commandments32 and said that they would be rejected at the judgment day if they did not do so.33 He declared that “not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven,”34 suggesting that confession of his name, while necessary, is insufficient for salvation.
Jesus also commanded that baptism be performed35 and was himself baptized.36 He told Nicodemus that “except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”37 He taught that those who were baptized were considered “justified,” while those who chose not to be baptized were not justified and were under condemnation.38Prior to ascending to his Father, he instructed the apostles to go to all the world, baptizing in his name and teaching their converts to keep all of his commandments.39 According to Mark 16:16, he declared that “he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.”
Baptism Essential for Salvation
Paul asked the Romans,
Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin.40
To the Colossians, he explained that they were “buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses.”41
Paul is not alone in writing of forgiveness through baptism. Several New Testament passages indicate that baptism was for the remission of sins.42 On the day of Pentecost, when people asked the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”, Peter didn’t say, “Oh, just believe in Jesus and everything will be OK.” Instead, “Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”43 Similarly, when Christ appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, he told him, “arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.”44
The earliest Christians believed that baptism was essential for salvation. One of the Church Fathers, Tertullian (ca. 150-240 A.D.), wrote a treatise “On Baptism,” in which he declared, “Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life!”45 He also wrote, “the prescript is laid down that ‘without baptism, salvation is attainable by none.’”46 St. Cyprian (200-258 A.D.) wrote that “one is not born by the imposition of hands when he receives the Holy Ghost, but in baptism, that so, being already born, he may receive the Holy Spirit.”47
Grace, Works, and Confession
Latter-day Saints do, in fact, believe in salvation by grace through faith, coupled with confession of Jesus Christ, repentance and baptism. This is the thrust of Articles of Faith 2 and 3. Some critics deny the necessity of repentance and baptism for salvation, despite abundant New Testament evidence that these are necessary for remission of sins and for entrance into the kingdom of God. They point to passages like Ephesians 2:5 that speak of being saved by God’s grace. But they also rely on other scriptures, such as Romans 3:28, to prove that faith alone saves, despite the fact that this passage says nothing about grace. Similarly, they cite Romans 10:9 to show that one is saved by confession of Jesus’ name; but here, too, the passage does not mention either faith or grace. Some cite John 6:28-29, where we read that the Father wants us to believe in his son Jesus. But in the same discourse, Jesus noted (verses 53-54) that eternal life comes by eating and drinking his flesh and blood! If this isn’t literal (and few outside the Catholic Church would argue that it is), then it appears to refer to the sacrament of bread and wine, in the context of the last supper. If that be so, one cannot conclude that faith alone is all God requires of us.
Most critics rely most heavily on Paul, perhaps because Jesus makes much stronger statements about other requirements for salvation, such as repentance and baptism. To quote a Pauline passage that says that faith alone is sufficient for salvation is to ignore a larger picture that includes at least grace and confession. To stop with these three also ignores the larger picture presented by both Paul and other New Testament writers. For example Paul counseled the Philippians (2:12), “As ye have always obeyed…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Furthermore, Paul, in two of his epistles, listed sins that he says can keep us out of the kingdom of God, and which he admonished his readers to avoid.48These don’t sound like the kind of statements a man would make if he believed that faith alone could save.
If grace is not applicable without faith and confession–which are clearly works of men–how can we exclude other important works, such as repentance and baptism? Indeed, in Hebrews 6:1, as in Articles of Faith 4, some of the “principles” of the gospel are said to be faith, repentance, baptism, and laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. In 2 Corinthians 7:10, he wrote of “repentance to salvation.” Jesus himself taught that God “shall reward every man according to his works.”49
The danger of using isolated passages from Paul’s epistles is that these writings were not intended to be doctrinal treatises, and therefore were not meant to elucidate all of the principles of salvation in a sentence or two. Rather, they are letters (which is what “epistle” means), sent to people who had already been taught the principles of salvation. There is a pattern throughout the scriptures, especially in the New Testament epistles, for the writer to dwell on only one at a time of several elements of the plan of salvation (for example, Romans 1:16). Peter wrote that faith leads to salvation,50 but later in the same epistle he notes that baptism saves us.51 Paul wrote that salvation came through grace, not works,52meaning the works of the law of Moses. He said the same in Titus 2:11, though verses 12-14 speak of good works.
Early Christians understood that, by their very nature, the epistles could not convey the whole story. Tertullian wrote,
We believe that the apostles were ignorant of nothing, but that they did not transmit everything they knew, and were not willing to reveal everything to everybody. They did not preach everywhere nor promiscuously…but taught one thing in public and another in secret: some things about the resurrection they taught to everyone, but some things they taught only to a few.53
St. John Crysostom declared, “Paul did not divulge all his revelations, but concealed the greater part of them; and though he did not tell everything, neither was he silent about everything, lest he leave an opening for the teaching of false apostles.”54
To understand the plan of salvation, we must look at the context of Paul’s comments. In Romans, for example, he contrasts the older law of Moses with the law of Christ. It is to the law of Moses that he has reference in Romans chapters 2-4. Note the following passages in particular: Romans 2:14-17 (where, in verse 14, he says that the Gentiles don’t have the law), 17-29; 3:1, 19-21, 27-31. The “law” by which “shall no flesh be justified” is specifically the law of Moses. Romans 4 is a continuation of this discussion, as is evidenced by Paul’s reference to Abraham’s uncircumcised state (verses 9-12). Thus, the “works” mentioned in reference to Abraham (Romans 4:2, 4-5) are the same as “the deeds of the law” mentioned in Romans 3:27-28, with Abraham foreshadowing the law of Moses.
Latter-day Saints agree that the works or deeds of the law of Moses are insufficient for salvation.55 This is clearly stated several times in the Book of Mormon56 and in D&C 22:2. But it is necessary to obey the law of Christ, and even Paul taught this. In Romans 1:29-2:5, he lists sins worthy of death and subject to God’s judgment. This is immediately followed by the statement that God “will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life.”57. Paul wrote that those who do well and who “seek for glory and honour and immortality” will be rewarded with “eternal life,” which is clearly part of salvation.
The apparent contradictions on the question of salvation in New Testament result from the fact that Christ brought the means of redemption from two types of death, temporal (physical) and spiritual, which are described in D&C 29 and elsewhere, and are termed, respectively, “death and hell” in Revelation 20:13-14. Salvation from temporal death is through grace alone. But salvation from spiritual death is attainable, through grace, only on conditions of repentance, baptism, and continuance in good works.
If faith in Christ were sufficient to wipe away our sins, would the Bible specify that baptism is for the remission of sins?58 Jesus indicated that rebirth by water and the Spirit were necessary to enter into the kingdom of God.59 Jesus stressed that good works must conform to what God wants us to do: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”60
Mark cites Jesus last words to the twelve as “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”61 In order to be saved, according to this passage, belief must be combined with baptism. The passage does not mention confession or grace, though these are part of the plan of salvation.
During the Pentecost assembly, when the people asked what they should do, Peter did not say “believe and confess.” Instead, he declared, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”62 Peter also said, “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out.”63
Paul likewise listed the elements that bring salvation, in these words:
But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. And this is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works.64
The importance of good works is also noted in James 2:14-20, where we read that “faith without works is dead” and that we must demonstrate our faith by our works.
It is clear that the gift of salvation was provided by grace, while we were yet in our sins, but that the gift is available only to those who repent and are baptized. In Romans 2:6-7, as noted earlier, Paul wrote that eternal life is given as a reward for “well doing.” Jesus confirmed this in his answer to the rich young man’s question, “What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” The Savior replied, “Keep the commandments,” then began reciting the ten commandments.65 If faith and confession were sufficient, why didn’t Christ even mention them? Lest we begin to think that “eternal life” does not mean salvation, we should note what was said a few verses later in explanation of what had just happened, where there is specific reference to being saved.66
The earliest Christians believed that faith in Christ could be demonstrated by good works and that even confession required action. An epistle attributed to the first-century Christian writer Clement teaches,
For even He Himself declares, ‘Whosoever shall confess Me before men, him will I confess before My Father’ [Matthew 10:32] … But, in what way shall we confess Him? By doing what He says, and not transgressing His commandments, and by honouring Him not with our lips only, but with all our heart, and all our mind…Let us, then, not only call Him Lord, for that will not save us. For He saith: ‘Not every one that saith to Me, Lord, Lord, shall be saved, but he that worketh righteousness’ [Matthew 7:21]. Wherefore, brethren, let us confess Him by our works.67
The LDS understand not only the importance of confessing the name of Jesus Christ, but also the relationship of grace, faith, repentance, and baptism in regards to salvation. It is apparent that this understanding was also shared by the New Testament writers, the earliest Christians, and Jesus Christ himself.
1 2 Nephi 2:8.
2 2 Nephi 10:24.
3 Moroni 10:32-33.
4 2 Nephi 2:8; 31:19; see also Alma 24:10; Helaman 14:13.
5 Moroni 6:4.
6 Alma 22:14.
7 Mosiah 2:21.
8 2 Nephi 25:23.
9 Alma 24:11.
10 Alma 7:15-16.
11 Helaman 12:24.
12 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:3-5.
13 1 Timothy 4:10.
14 2 Corinthians 7:10.
15 Philippians 2:13.
16 Titus 2:11-12.
17 Hebrews 5:9.
18 Romans 10:9-10.
19 2 Timothy 1:9.
20 Romans 11:6.
21 Romans 3:27-28.
22 Romans 9:31.
23 Galatians 2:15-16.
24 See also Hebrews 7:11, 19.
25 Galatians 3:19, 24-15.
26 2 Nephi 25:23.
27 Matthew 4:17; see also Luke 12:3, 5.
28 Mark 1:15.
29 Matthew 11:20-24.
30 Matthew 5:19-28.
31 Matthew 19:16-22.
32 Matthew 7:24-27; Luke 6:46-49.
33 Matthew 7:21-23.
34 Matthew 7:21.
35 Matthew 19:19-20; John 3:3-5.
36 John 3:22.
37 John 3:3-7. If, as some contend, being “born of water” does not imply baptism (as the early Church Fathers understood the passage), just what does it mean?
38 Luke 7:29-30.
39 Matthew 28:19-20.
40 Romans 6:3-7.
41 Colossians 2:13.
42 Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3.
43 Acts 2:37-38.
44 Acts 22:16.
45 Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers.(reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 3:669.
46 Ibid., 3:674-67-5.
47 Ibid., 5:388.
48 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:21.
49 Matthew 16:27; see also 1 Peter 1:17.
50 1 Peter 1:5, 9.
51 1 Peter 3:21.
52 1 Timothy 1:9.
53 De Praescriptionibus, 25-26.
54 De Laudibus Sancti Pauli Apostoli Homilia 5.
55 Cf. Hebrews 7:11-12.
56 2 Nephi 11:4; 25:30; Jacob 4:5; Jarom 1:11; Mosiah 3:12-15; 12:31; 13:27-33; 16:13-15; Alma 25:15-16; 34:13-15; 3 Nephi 9:17.
57 Romans 2:6-7.
58 Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Acts 2:38.
59 John 3:5, 7.
60 Matthew 7:21.
61 Mark 16:15-16.
62 Acts 2:38.
63 Acts 3:19.
64 Titus 3:4-8.
65 Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-19; Luke 18:18-21.
66 Matthew 19:25; Mark 10:26; Luke 18:26.
67 2 Clement 3-4, in Roberts and Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, 7:518.