Robert E. Parsons, associate professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University and a stake patriarch. To understand these three scriptures from Paul’s writings, we need to understand that what Paul referred to as “works” is different from what we mean by “works.” To Latter-day Saints, “works” refer basically to two things:
1. Accepting and complying with the principles and ordinances of the gospel of Christ which admit us to membership in his church and qualify us as candidates for the kingdom of God.
2. Enduring to the end of our probationary period by striving to live the commandments that Christ has given us. When our lives fall short of this goal, we repent and again endeavor to keep his commandments. As we do so, going from “grace to grace,” receiving “grace for grace,” the Savior sanctifies us through the ministrations of the Holy Spirit. (See D&C 93:11–20; 2 Thes. 2:13–17; Titus 2:11–14.)
The scriptures are very explicit on the need for the ordinances of the gospel and for obedience to God’s commandments. The Lord himself said, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5.) And “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.” (Matt. 7:21.)
Those who quote such scriptures as the three mentioned in the question above usually do so to argue that faith alone is sufficient to save us. All we need do, they explain, is to confess verbally or mentally that we accept Christ as our Savior. Since Paul is the principal writer they use to support this idea, let’s look at some other statements Paul makes which teach that salvation depends on more than confession of faith. Consider the following statements by Paul.
On the nature of faith:
“Without faith it is impossible to please [God]: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Heb. 11:6.)
“Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
“Why tarriest thou? [Ananias told Paul after Paul’s vision of the Savior on the road to Damascus] arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” (Acts 22:16.)
To those Ephesians who had been baptized “unto John’s baptism” but had not been given the gift of the Holy Ghost, Paul said:
“John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.
“When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
On the need for righteous activity following faith in Christ:
“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.
“For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.
“And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” (Gal. 6:7–9.)
“[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:
“But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath.” (Rom. 2:6–8.)
When discussing a gospel concept, we must read all that is written about the subject and not just quote an isolated verse or concept. Isolating verses this way has led to the multiplicity of doctrine taught by the numerous Christian denominations in the world today.
The confusion in Paul’s writings about whether works are necessary for salvation stems from a widespread misunderstanding of his use of the word works. Throughout Paul’s ministry, he waged a constant fight against false doctrine. In the early years of his ministry, most members of the Church were Jews; hence, the false doctrine he had to contend with was largely Jewish. Predominant among these doctrines was the idea that, even though Christ had come, obedience to the “works” of the law of Moses was still necessary for salvation. These works involved the outward performances of the Law, such as circumcision and animal sacrifice.
A similar idea involved the Jewish notion that salvation depends on the treasure of good and bad works one lays up for himself during his life. If there were more good works than bad in your store, you were considered righteous; but if you had more bad works on the ledger than good, you were condemned. Furthermore, your good works could be supplemented by the surplus of good works performed by the patriarchs in their lives; this “credit” of works could then be transferred to you in order to tip the balance in your favor. “It was taught that the whole transaction was a matter of contract, God owing a debt to man for goodness.” (Dictionary of the Bible, ed. James Hastings, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944, p. 693.)
The controversy stemming from these false notions about works and the law of Moses raged for years, even though it had been officially settled by a council of the Apostles in Jerusalem in A.D. 50. The great challenge Paul had was to convince the Jewish converts that they were not saved by the dead works of the law of Moses, nor that salvation was payment owed them by God because of their good works. Salvation, he taught, was a gift made possible only through the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Later in his ministry, as more and more Gentiles joined the Church, Paul also had to contend with pagan—mostly Greek—philosophies and religious ideas. As the Cambridge Bible dictionary points out, the Greeks were “gifted by race with a keen sense of the joys of physical existence, with a passion for freedom and a genius for rhetoric and logic, but reared in the midst of the grossest moral corruption, undisciplined and self-conceited.” (LDS edition of the King James Bible, p. 744.) In New Testament times, most of the world was steeped in Greek culture and practices.
Although gentile converts became deeply conscious of their sins when exposed to the gospel, Greek philosophy often led them into errors similar to the ones the Jewish converts struggled with. One error was the belief that one could “attain moral perfection by mechanical means, the careful observance of external ordinances and ascetic restrictions, coupled with special devotion to a host of angelic mediators.” (Ibid., p. 746.)
It is in this context that Paul wrote his letters. They were written to solve local Church problems and were not intended to present a detailed picture of the plan of salvation. His letters were sent to members of the Church, Saints of God who had already been introduced to the gospel and the doctrines of salvation, many of whom were struggling with false doctrines and traditions. In countering those doctrines which centered on the outward works of the law of Moses or on the belief that a man can save himself through his own works, Paul used the doctrine of faith in Christ as a focal point in his explanations.
1. “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.” (Eph. 2:8–9.)
This verse was written to the Saints at Ephesus, which was heavily under the influence of Greek culture. There was also a Jewish element there which emphasized the necessity of keeping the law of Moses. We have previously explained some of the problems Greek culture and Jewish teachings presented for the Church, among them the tendency to glory in one’s abilities and to trust in the law of Moses for salvation. These verses were apparently written to counter the idea that we can save ourselves by our works independent of Christ. As Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote: “No man has power to save himself anymore than he has power to resurrect himself. …
“No matter how righteous a man might be, no matter how great and extensive his good works, he could not save himself. Salvation is in Christ and comes through his atonement. God through Christ reconciles man to himself. But building on the atonement man must perform the works of righteousness to merit salvation, as verse 10 [Eph. 2:10] and the whole passage testify.” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–73, 2:500.)
2. “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.” (Titus 3:5.)
Rather than supporting the idea of salvation by faith alone, this scripture actually stresses the necessity for the ordinances of the gospel. To Titus, a former missionary companion, Paul mentions again the fact that it is Christ who saves us, not our works. Then he describes how Christ’s mercy is made operable in our behalf—through “the washing of regeneration” and by the “renewing of the Holy Ghost.” The Reverend J. R. Dummelow’s commentary refers to the former as baptism and says that “the baptism to be efficient must be both by water and by the Spirit. It is not a mere outward act.” (A Commentary on the Holy Bible, New York: Macmillan Co., 1936, p. 1008.) That’s familiar doctrine to Latter-day Saints.
3. “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” (Rom. 4:5.)
This verse is part of a long letter Paul wrote to the members of the Church in Rome, a city that was truly a melting pot of nations and beliefs. To the members there, mostly Gentiles but also a Jewish minority, both familiar with Jewish law and history (see Dummelow, A Commentary, pp. 855–56), Paul explains that God’s love and justice are extended to all men, Jew and Gentile alike, and that it is not the law of Moses that saves us, but our faith in Christ, which moves us to righteous works. (Ibid., pp. 858–60.) As an example, he refers to Abraham, who found favor with God by his faith, not by his observance of any outward ordinance.
“For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.
“For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.
“Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.
“But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.
“Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works,
“Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.” (Rom. 4:2–7.)
Verse 4 probably refers to the old Jewish belief that a person’s storehouse of good works exacts payment from God in the form of salvation as if God owed the man a debt. If that were so, Paul says in verse 2, Abraham would have something to boast about. But the truth is, “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23; italics added.) We are all “ungodly,” therefore, and must rely on the mercy of God to justify us, to be forgiven of our iniquities. As we have already discussed, this great gift comes to us as we exercise faith in Christ, repent of our sins, submit to the ordinances of the gospel, and thereafter endure to the end in living a Christlike life.
Those who teach that faith or confession is sufficient for salvation usually teach that those who die without hearing of Christ and having an opportunity to confess faith in his name are consigned to an eternal hell. Justice and the whisperings of the Spirit manifest that such doctrine cannot be true or God could not be a God of mercy and love. Likewise, the whisperings of the Spirit manifest that mere confession without the fruits of righteous living cannot save a person, or God could not be a God of justice.
The Book of Mormon teaches the doctrine clearly:
“Unless a man shall endure to the end, in following the example of the Son of the living God, he cannot be saved.
“Wherefore, do the things which I have told you I have seen that your Lord and your Redeemer should do; for, for this cause have they been shown unto me, that ye might know the gate by which ye should enter. For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.
“And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life. …
“And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay. …
“Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ. … Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.” (2 Ne. 31:16–20.)
“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 Ne. 25:23.)