Sunday, May 8, 2011

What is the point of our (Christian) works?

Recently I was reading a post on the Mormanity blog about perfection, and down in the comments came up the discussion of whether or not Mormons believe that they are saved by their works. The implication was that if Mormons believed they are saved by their works, then that would preclude us from relying on the grace of God for our salvation. Although the discussion also focused on other things the question of the status of our works, and whether or not they are necessary for salvation, was mentioned briefly. At one point someone insisted that, "Your salvation (which means living eternally in the presence of God) is NOT dependent on what you do." To which the natural response would be, "Then what is the point of our works? What is the point of having commandments to follow?"

The person who made this statement then insisted that, "What you do [in response to being "saved"] will be your love response for what God has done in your lives--NOT a prerequisite to salvation." Then continued to explain that, "Good works are the response of a saved soul, and are works God has already ordained for us to do to glorify Him." The central idea being expressed here is that all (good) works come from God and if someone does something good then it is only because God has given that good work to us to do. According to this way of thinking Christians, or anyone else for that matter, cannot do anything good unless by the grace of God they are given that good work, and even then that good work is not theirs but God's. This doctrine is an offshoot of the concept of the depravity of man, which insists that because of the fall man can do no good thing because they are enslaved by the original sin which prevents them from partaking in the goodness of God. There are many variations and degrees of this doctrine in Christianity, of which the version expressed above is just one. The expressions of the depravity of man range from complete (man can never do any good thing, and can never receive any good thing from God) to the more moderate (overall we tend to be bad people, but everyone can do good things) to the rejection of depravity (men are not holden on God for anything, and can do any thing of their own free will).

As the doctrine of the depravity of man is so prominent in Christianity it is natural to ask, "Where do Mormons fit on the spectrum of belief? Do they consider man to be depraved and wholly reliant on the grace of God for every good thing? Or do they reject depravity and think that their good works do not come from God?" The problem of asking the question, where do Mormons fit on the spectrum, is that it necessarily assumes that we fit on the spectrum in the first place. If Christians are used to thinking of good works as originating only from God and are given to man through the grace of God, then it is natural to assume that anyone that emphasizes the good works of individuals would be guilty of rejecting the grace of God. That is, anyone who insists that "doing good" is necessary for salvation runs the risk of being accused of rejecting the grace of God and the Atonement of Christ, because if we must "do good" to receive salvation then we are not relying on the works of Christ, but our own works.

This all of course assumes the depravity of man to some degree as the basis of insisting that we can do no good thing. The reasoning goes something like this, because of the fall of Adam we are all made partakers of sin and thus fall short of the grace of God. Because we are all made sinners we cannot receive salvation through anything we can do and thus we must rely on a savior, and it is only through the grace of God that we can receive any good things from God. The good that we receive from God includes being able to do good works, and because of our fallen state we would not be able to do anything good because we are sinners.

From this perspective if anyone, such as Mormons, suggest that not only can we do good things (without the intervention of God) but also that we are required to do good things to receive salvation creates a catch-22 for Christians who hold to a strong sense of the depravity of man, because man cannot do anything good yet they are required to do good. This usually leads them to rejection of the idea that we must do something to receive salvation (hence the statement, "Your salvation is NOT dependent on what you do."), and by extension they reject LDS theology as valid Christian doctrine because we heavily emphasize the need for personal action (i.e. doing good works) in order to receive salvation.

But the only problem is that LDS theology, in regards to the fall of Adam and our sinful state does not fit onto the standard spectrum used by Christians to measure their doctrine of the depravity of man. Because on the one hand we strongly state that we cannot merit salvation through any actions of our own (see Mosiah 2:21) yet on the other hand we are commanded to do good works so that we may be saved (see Mosiah 5:15). Many Christians (and some Mormons) would see this as a contradiction but if we consider the rest of LDS theology regarding the fall of man, the atonement and salvation we can see this problem from a different perspective, and then we can see why I said that Mormons do not even fall on the spectrum of the depravity of man.

First, how do we view the fall? In the 6th chapter of Moses, Enoch is teaching the people and tells them:
48 And he said unto them: Because that Adam fell, we are; and by his fall came death; and we are made partakers of misery and woe.
49 Behold Satan hath come among the children of men, and tempteth them to worship him; and men have become carnal, sensual, and devilish, and are shut out from the presence of God.
50 But God hath made known unto our fathers that all men must repent.
51 And he called upon our father Adam by his own voice, saying: I am God; I made the world, and men before they were in the flesh.
52 And he also said unto him: If thou wilt turn unto me, and hearken unto my voice, and believe, and repent of all thy transgressions, and be baptized, even in water, in the name of mine Only Begotten Son, who is full of grace and truth, which is Jesus Christ, the only name which shall be given under heaven, whereby salvation shall come unto the children of men, ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, asking all things in his name, and whatsoever ye shall ask, it shall be given you.
53 And our father Adam spake unto the Lord, and said: Why is it that men must repent and be baptized in water? And the Lord said unto Adam: Behold I have forgiven thee thy transgression in the Garden of Eden.
54 Hence came the saying abroad among the people, that the Son of God hath atoned for original guilt, wherein the sins of the parents cannot be answered upon the heads of the children, for they are whole from the foundation of the world.
There are several important doctrines here but I want to focus on just a few of them. First we see that because of the fall we (meaning the human race) exists. Without the fall we would not even be alive. That fundamental understanding immediately changes the way Mormons are disposed to think of the fall.

Because our lives depend on there first being a fall we are more likely to view the fall and what happened in the Garden of Eden as a good thing. Thus our first introduction into the world is not a mistake, but is dependent on what Adam and Eve did in the garden. It is quite common among other Christians to view the fall as having only negative effects. As some Christians put it, "If it weren't for the fall we would all be living in paradise!" Thus it is natural for other Christians to view the fall as having robbed us of our paradisaical state. For them it was a mistake, and it was a mistake that banished us to live in a world that is imperfect and undesirable.

On the other hand the LDS view is that the fall was not a mistake but is a necessary part of our existence on the earth. This causes Mormons to have a more optimistic view of what happened in Eden. This optimistic view means that for Latter-day Saints they fundamentally approach the world in a different way. Rather than view the world as an evil thing that must be escaped, the world is a testing ground where we grow and become good. There is nothing inherently wrong, evil or depraved about our existence, or the things that we do. We do acknowledge that because of our fallen state we will do things that prevent us from returning to the presence of God, but these actions are not guaranteed or inescapable. This is to say that we do not sin by merely existing in this world, as some would suggest (as one person put it, "I sin every day, even without realizing it."). We will not be punished for any sin we do in ignorance, nor will we be eternally punished because of the corruption of this world.

With this in mind, let us return to the concept of works. According to LDS doctrine, all men, women and children who have lived on this earth will be redeemed from the death of the mortal body and any corruption that we might have experienced in this life. This is only just as the corruption of this world is something that we did not create and could not control. So God will not punish us eternally, nor leave us to our inescapable fate that came because of the fall. This is what is meant by the scripture when it says, "the Son of God hath atoned for original guilt". This is the power of the atonement of Jesus Christ. This redemption will come upon everyone regardless of what they have done in this life, whether good or bad, or nothing at all.

Because of this redemption it is not inevitable for us to tin and our fate is not inescapable. We have been given an opportunity to act for ourselves and just as everyone is capable of doing evil, so are we all capable of doing good, and it is given unto us to act for ourselves.
26 And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given. (2 Nephi 25:26)
It is up to us to keep the law and the commandments and it will be the judgements of a just God that will reward us for our actions (see Prov. 24:12). And this is just, because we will be judged according to our own actions, and not the actions of others, or the effects of mortality, ignorance, or accidents of history (see D&C 137:7-10).

Because we are free, and we know good from evil, we are commanded to work righteousness. Only those who choose righteousness and love Christ will enter into the kingdom of God. And to do this we must keep the commandments (see John 15:10-12 and surrounding verses). Thus from an LDS perspective, our salvation is dependent on whether or not we keep the commandments, because that is precisely what God has told us in the Bible, and other scripture. Which means that contrary to what was asserted by the commenter on the Mormanity blog, our salvation IS dependent on what we do, because this this what Jesus taught, as recorded in the Bible, and what is taught to us by His personal representatives.

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