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Doesn’t the book of James say that “faith without works is dead”?

By Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson

The following is from chapter 19 in Answering Mormons’ Questions (Kregel, 2013). To get additional help in answering LDS questions, we recommend purchasing the book. Click here to see more

Leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint throughout the years have stressed the importance of good works in order to become exalted and attain the celestial kingdom. One church manual used by LDS missionaries explains,

Eternal life is a gift of God given only to those who obey His gospel. It is the highest state that we can achieve. . . . It is exaltation, which means living with God forever in eternal families. . . . However, Jesus did not eliminate our personal responsibility. He forgives our sins when we accept Him, repent, and obey His commandments. . . . We must show that we accept Christ and that we have faith in Him by keeping His commandments and obeying the first principles and ordinances of the gospel. . . . We can return to live with God the Father only through Christ’s mercy, and we receive Christ’s mercy only on condition of repentance. . . . As we patiently, faithfully, and consistently follow this path throughout our lives, we will qualify for eternal life.[1]

 It is important to understand that the word salvation is defined in two unique ways. Joseph Fielding Smith explained, “Salvation is twofold: General—that which comes to all men irrespective of a belief (in this life) in Christ—and, Individual—that which man merits through his own acts through life and by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.”[2]

General salvation, or resurrection from the dead, is also called salvation by grace and is provided to all people. It is synonymous with immortality, since the resurrected person lives forever. The problem with this definition is that Jesus taught in John 5:29 that there are two resurrections, one to life and one to damnation. It seems odd that a resurrection to damnation is somehow made synonymous with a salvation of any kind. In fact, even in Mormonism it has been taught that “all those who do not gain eternal life, or exaltation in the highest heaven within the celestial kingdom, are partakers of eternal damnation.”[3]

Bruce R. McConkie stated that the “mere fact of resurrection” does not give “a hope of eternal life, or any of the great spiritual blessings which flow from gospel obedience. These blessings are not free gifts. Except for the free gift of immortality (which comes by grace alone and includes bodily or physical perfection), all rewards gained in the eternal worlds must be earned. That perfection sought by the saints is both temporal and spiritual and comes only as a result of full obedience.”[4]

Brigham Young University professor Clyde J. Williams also stressed the importance of obedience when he wrote,

The perfect relationship between the atoning grace of Christ and the obedient efforts of mankind is powerfully stated by Nephi: “We know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). Furthermore, we are invited to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him.” When we deny ourselves “of all ungodliness,” then and only “then is his grace sufficient” for us (Moroni 10:32).”[5]

Naturally, the goal of a faithful Latter-day Saint is to achieve eternal life in the celestial kingdom. President Thomas S. Monson stated that it is “the celestial glory which we seek. It is in the presence of God we desire to dwell. It is a forever family in which we want membership. Such blessings must be earned.”[6] In what appears to be a confusing maneuver of semantics, Brigham Young University professors Joseph Fielding McConkie (the son of Bruce R. McConkie) and Robert L. Millet claim that

people do not earn eternal life—there is no scriptural reference whatsoever to anyone earning the right to go where Gods and angels are. Rather, according to the words of the prophets—it is so attested in the scriptures almost a hundred times— people inherit eternal life.

Proceeding to describe this “inheritance” by using a language of works, they write,

After we have done all that we can do, after we have denied ourselves of ungodliness and worldly lusts, then is the grace of God sufficient for us; then we are sanctified in Christ and eventually made perfect in Christ (see 2 Nephi 25:23; Moroni 10:32).[7]

 To do “all that we can do” and to deny “ourselves of ungodliness and worldly lusts” (see Matt. 16:26 in the Joseph Smith Translation) certainly sets an incredibly high bar for a Latter-day Saint to reach.

Some Latter-day Saints like to say 2 Nephi 25:23 means that we’re saved by grace “in spite of what we can do.” To see more on this, click here

Salvation According to the Bible

When the subject of God’s grace comes up in a conversation, it is not uncommon for a Mormon to reference James 2:20 and 26, both of which say that “faith without works is dead.” Their implication is that Christians do not value good works in their theology. However, the immediate context names Abraham and Rahab as examples of how good works follow true faith in a believer’s life. James is criticizing those who profess to have faith but whose actions do not support this claim. A living faith is not devoid of good works; instead, a living faith will produce good works. Pointing out the play on words in verse 20 (it literally means, “Faith without works does no work”), Christian theologian James White writes,

Deedless faith, being an anomaly by nature, is unproductive. It cannot, and will not, produce the fruit of true faith, that being salvation. . . . Faith that exists only in the realm of words (deedless faith) is useless.[8]

Protestant theologians have long recognized the difference between what justifies sinful man before God and what sanctifies, or sets him apart for service unto God. The distinction between justification and sanctification is extremely important. According to Christian theologian J. I. Packer, justification “is thus a forensic term, denoting a judicial act of administering the law—in this case, by declaring a verdict of acquittal, and so excluding all possibility of condemnation. Justification thus settles the legal status of the person justified.”[9]

Romans 6:23 says all people deserve death because the very best of sin-tainted works, in themselves, are, as Isaiah 64:6 says, like “filthy rags” in God’s sight. Thus, the gift God bestows on His people is given by grace and received by faith. In Acts 13:39 Paul says, “And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.” And in Romans 3:28 and 5:1, Paul adds, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. . . . Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Legally, Christians are exonerated by God because Christ’s atoning work has made them righteous in His sight. Sanctification, on the other hand, is synonymous with holiness. Good works are the result of faith and a life lived out of love for God. Jesus said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). First John 3:23 explains what these commandments are: “That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another.”

Performing good works outside of a relationship with the true God of the Bible does not result in salvation. As Jesus said in Matthew 7:21, “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.” The will of the Father, Jesus said in John 6:40, is to believe in Him. All who do, He declared, will “have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.” The claim that Christians believe they have the freedom to sin with passion after initially coming to faith in Christ is a straw man.

Contrasting the “works of the flesh” with the “fruit of the spirit” in Galatians 5:19–23, Paul explained that good fruit should be evident in every believer’s life. After all, believers are those who have “crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” (v. 24). To believe that one could freely sin makes no sense. As Paul wrote in Romans 6:15, “What then? Shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.” Yet living a consistent Christian life will be a struggle because, as Romans 7:15 puts it, “what I hate, that do I.”

In verse 18 Paul wrote, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” Ephesians 2:8–9 very succinctly packages the relationship between faith and salvation. It says, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”

When this passage is considered in light of the “twofold” definition of salvation offered by Mormon leaders, it is clear there is no logical way the Mormon understanding can fit the passage. For instance, suppose Paul was talking about “general” salvation (resurrection of the dead). Substituting the word resurrected for the word saved would result in this rendering: “For by grace are ye resurrected through faith.” But Mormonism says faith is not a requirement for general salvation, or resurrection. It is provided to all who have ever lived, regardless of their faith or actions. This, then, could not fit an LDS interpretation.

Was Paul, then, referring to “individual” salvation, or exaltation? When the word saved is replaced with exalted, it says, “For by grace are ye exalted through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God: not of works lest any man should boast.” As the leaders and church manuals quoted above demonstrate, however, Mormonism teaches that many works are required for exaltation, which is inconsistent with Ephesians 2:8–9.

The following verse, Ephesians 2:10, needs to be considered as well. It says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” It would be illogical to say that Paul was contradicting himself right after he said salvation is “not of works.” He is certainly not advocating a sin-however-you-want mentality. Instead, he explains that Christians were created to do good works. Paul taught in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that a converted believer becomes “a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”

In essence, the Christian possesses a different spiritual DNA. Also crucial to properly understanding what James was talking about is grasping the context in which he was writing. Talking about passages that seem contradictory, New Testament scholar Mark Strauss explains,

Paul says that a person is saved by faith alone, apart from works (Rom. 3:28). James insists that “faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26), so that faith plus works saves you. These differences can be resolved when we recognize that Paul and James are addressing two different situations. Paul writes against legalists who are claiming that a person can earn salvation by doing good works, or who perhaps are claiming that salvation has come through the “works of the law”—the hallmarks of Judaism such as circumcision, dietary laws, and Sabbath observance. James, on the other hand, is writing against those who are abusing the doctrine of free grace by claiming that once you are saved by faith, you can live any way you want. James rejects such libertarianism and insists that authentic faith will always result in actions, so that the two work hand in hand.[10]

A Christian who catches a glimpse of what Jesus Christ did on his or her behalf will quite naturally have a desire to serve God. Consider what your attitude would be if a kind couple gave you a gift of $10 million, an outrageous amount that most people will never earn in a lifetime. Would you naturally respond by wanting to spray-paint graffiti on your benefactors’ house, throw lye in their grass, and kick their beloved family dog?

Or, since you were given a gift that could never be repaid, would you be ever grateful? If you found out they needed someone to mow their grass and feed the dog while they were away on vacation, wouldn’t you be the first to volunteer? The answers are obvious. Jesus said, “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you” (John 15:14). He is a Friend who sticks closer than a brother and offers a life that benefits His people both temporally and spiritually.

We value His friendship and willfully follow His directives, knowing they are for our good and not meant for harm. When it is understood that God justified His people freely through no act of their own and gave them a gift that can never be repaid, then the role of good works in the Christian’s life becomes clear.

[1] Preach My Gospel, 53, 61, 62, 66. Ellipses mine.

[2] Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 1:134.

[3] McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 234.

[4] Ibid., 641.

[5] Clyde J. Williams, “Plain and Precious Truths Restored,” Ensign, October 2006, 53.

[6] Thomas S. Monson, “An Invitation to Exaltation,” Ensign, May 1988, 53.

[7] McConkie and Millet, Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 2:258.

[8] White, The God Who Justifies, 344–45

[9] J. I. Packer, “Justification,” in Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 593.

[10] Strauss, How to Read the Bible in Changing Times, 35–36.

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