And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray (Matthew 24:11 ESV)
There is an interesting thread on Mormon Coffee, the blog page of the Mormonism Research Ministry (a great ministry by the way!). The question has turned in part to the relationship between grace and works. More specifically, is grace alone sufficient with works as a result or is grace dependent on the obedience to works of the law to save? The mormon position is that faith alone is insufficient to save (keeping in mind that mormons have degress of salvation, it is not a heaven or hell duality but rather a gradient with some people getting a mediocre heaven, others a better heaven, mormons a great heaven and faithful mormon men get to become gods. But I digress). The Christian position is that not only do works not save you, but reliance on and pride in your own good works is an impediment to salvation. The Christian life is one of surrender, of bowing the knee and declaring our own helplessness, of calling on and turning to Christ and Him alone to save us. This is not intended to be an authoritative declaration on the sufficiency of the Cross, but rather it is designed to spur discussion of the relationship between grace and works, specifically do works add to salvation or do works result from salvation?
First, let's look at a few of the common Scriptural objections to justification by faith alone, sola fide. What of the seeming commandment towards perfection in Matthew 5:48 "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."? Doesn't that mean that we need to perfect ourselves, or at least strive towards perfection to be saved? Well not really. That isn't really much of a hurdle, unless you can find me a perfect person. So, the question comes up, the Bible is commanding to do something that the Bible also tells us it is impossible to do? Quite right! God is not here to be fair, He is not fair but rather He is just. His law reflects His nature, and as such requires perfection. Our sin has caused us to be at enmity with God, yet it is God who saves us.
There are a number of Scriptures that point to the fact that it is impossible for men to save themselves, or even assist with salvation and that only through Christ alone can a sinner be reconciled to God. If there is one theme that addresses this throughout the New Testament, it is summarized in the idea that when it comes to salvation with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. The disciples, trying to figure out what they had to do to be saved finally asked in exasperation how in the world could anyone be saved, and Christ gave this wonderful, humbling answer: When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, "Who then can be saved?" But Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (Matthew 19:25-26 ESV) The Bible commands perfection, which is indeed impossible with man. If there were no way to be saved because of an impossible standard that would indeed be unfair and more importantly be unjust. But in the person and work of Christ, in His perfect obedience and the faith of His sheep in Him, His righteousness and perfection is imputed to the sinner, the great exchange of my sin for His righteousness.
What of then that old bastion of works based salvation, the Book of James? This is where the "grace plus works" crowd always turns, plucking a few verses out of context and declaring victory without a valid examination of the comprehensive Biblical message.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. (James 2: 14-18 ESV)
Case closed, right? Well slow down a minute, what is James saying here? What the message is, I believe, is one of self-examination. There is all sorts of faith out in the world. Muslims have a very strong faith, the kind of faith that causes some of them to beat themselves bloody with chains, send mentally retarded people into markets and blow them up by remote control and fly airplanes full of innocent people into buildings full of innocent people. Secular humanists have faith in themselves. Pagans have faith in all manner of gods and goddesses. But those sorts of faith do not save. It is the faith in the risen Christ, a faith that comes from being regenerated into a new creation by the power of the Holy Spirit, a faith that results in the performance of good works because of the change of heart wrought by God that saves. A dead declaration of faith, one that allows you to ignore the plight of your brother, is not Christian faith, it is not a living, saving faith. We ought to examine our faith to ensure that it is genuine faith in Christ, especially given a world of easy believism and decisional regeneration that we live in.
What is at issue here is a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature and scope of sin, not just among mormons but also among many Christians. Far too many people look at sin like this. Action A is a sin, action B is a good work, so if I avoid doing A and concentrate on doing B I will be OK. As long as the teeter-totter has more good works than sins, you get into heaven. But sin is not, and never has been, an issue of particular acts that must be avoided to be justified. Rather our sin is an issue of a state of being, of a human nature. Scripture is replete with references to the sinfulness of man. Of all the five points of Calvinism, the one that is the easiest to prove from Scripture is the first one, the total depravity of man.
So how then can we ever be saved? It is pretty easy to point out man's sin, but what of salvation? How can a wicked, depraved sinner ever hope to please and be reconcilled to a holy God? There is a Latin saying attributed to Martin Luther that captures the strange union, Christians are: simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously just and sinner). We are, at once, both a sinner and justified. Jesus didn't need to die to be perfected, He was already perfect. He gained no holiness, no righteousness on earth that added to his nature. So why did He come? Paul puts in succinctly and best in this declaration: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. Jesus came to save His sheep by laying down His life for them. His death on the cross served one purpose, to fulfill all righteousness and form the basis of salvation for His people: faith in Christ, and Christ alone, for justification.
When you seek to add your own works to grace, you stand up and say to Christ that His death on the cross was helpful but ultimately insufficient. His sacrifice made salvation possible for all people (ignoring the Biblical doctrine of election), but it was because of your own righteousness that you were saved. That guy over there is not wise enough, not holy enough, not worthy enough or hasn't worked hard enough on their own to be saved. It is the ultimate in arrogance, an arrogance that says that Jesus is not your Lord, not your Savior but instead your partner in your salvation. That arrogance brings to mind a parable told by our Lord:
"Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18: 10-14 ESV)
Don't let yourself be the Pharisee who relies on his own righteousness. Rely on Christ and His righteousness, for that is in the end your only hope.