Is Salvation by grace through faith or by grace plus works

Is Salvation by grace through faith or by grace plus works?

An Open Letter to Mormon Friends


      James 2:20-24 20 But wilt thou know, o vain man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham, our father, justified by works, when he had offered Isaac, his son, upon the altar? 22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? 23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the friend of God. 24 Ye see then now that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.

Dear Mormon friends, my first dialogue with a Mormon missionary was a disaster.  Several years ago I met a soon-to-be released missionary in China Town, Sydney. I said that we are saved by grace through faith alone, and he agreed. I was confused and became agitated. I thought that Latter-day Saints should not believe in the same thing as we evangelical Christians do. But later I learnt what the missionary meant: “salvation by grace alone” means “resurrection” and salvation in the fullest sense (exaltation) is attained “by grace coupled with obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel”(Mormon Doctrine p.671). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church) teaches the two levels of salvation: general salvation (resurrection) and individual salvation. All people will be resurrected thanks to Jesus’ atonement. Then, there is the salvation that is to be earned (Individual salvation).  At the Final Judgement people will be sent to one of four places: the celestial, terrestrial or telestial kingdom or outer darkness.  In Mormonism eternal life is ‘exaltation’ which means living as a god in the highest level of the celestial kingdom, right? 1  But, the Bible equates salvation with eternal life.

Can you see the frustration and confusion we face when communicating our beliefs with Latter-day Saints, largely due to uniquely Mormon definitions of the same biblical words, like salvation, sin and grace?  When we tell your missionaries of passages like Ephesians 2:8-9 or Titus 3:5 etc. to show that we are saved by grace through faith alone, almost every one of them turns to James 2:20 or 2:24. We, evangelical Christians, also appreciate apostle James’ teachings as well as apostle Paul’s. Did two apostles, Paul and James clash on the issue of how to get right with God? Let’s read the Bible together, shall we?

Where to start? We should start by considering the different meanings given to the same words by Mormonism and by the Bible, like sin and grace, before we together compare the two apostle’s teachings.


1. What is sin?


The Mormon Church teaches that “sin is the transgression of the divine law” but we are not held responsible for sins against a law that we have not had an opportunity to know.

(The Life and Teachings of Jesus & His Apostle, 1979, p.410 - An official Mormon teaching manual)


According to the Mormon Church, Sin consists in willful wrong deeds. “… he cannot commit sin unless he knows better than to do the thing in which sin consists. One must have a conscience before he can violate it2. Sin is not man’s basic nature. Children are innocent until they reach accountability at the age of eight (Doctrine & Covenants 29:46-47).

By contrast, the Bible teaches that we are dead in sin and by nature objects of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3, Colossians 2:13).

Human beings are born into the world with sin (Psalm 51:5).  Sin is sin regardless of a person’s awareness. David prays, “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse thou me from secret faults” (Psalm 19:12). Sin is not just what we do, but how we are. Outward sinful acts are merely symptoms of how sinful we are (Mark 7:21-23).  Both inner thoughts and external acts render a person guilty (Matthew 5:28). No sin escapes God’s notice (Matt. 22:18, Luke 6:8). See I John 1:8-10.

1 John 1:8-10 8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Sin is an attitude of rebellion against God. We may know Mr. Nice, who is a loving, thoughtful, kind, generous, non-Christian person.3 From a human perspective, he is a better person than I am. I sometimes find it hard to see this person as a sinful person who is in need of repentance.4 Mr. Nice’s good works are commendable. However, he is not right with God, as he fails to acknowledge God as God. Sin is not to be seen as what other people think of as wicked or unpleasant, but it is a matter of failure to love, honour and serve God (Matt.22:37-39).

We can still do good works, but our good works, are tainted by less than perfect love for God.  The Bible tells us that we may do right things for wrong reasons and motives, fulfilling the letter of the law, ignoring its spirit (Matt.6:2,5,16).5 Sinners are unable to do what they ought (Hebrews 6:1,9:14). The author of the Letter to the Hebrews urges Jewish Christians to repent from dead works, from their futile attempt to gain eternal life by good deeds.6

We may change our external actions to some extent, but we cannot change our inner hearts by our determination, self-discipline or education. The Bible tells us that we are dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1-3, Colossians 2:13). The dead cannot call out for help. Neither medicine nor surgery can save the dead.7 God must initiate the plan of salvation. The plan of salvation originates totally and completely with God (Ephesians 1:3-12, 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14). Outside the work of the Heavenly Father in drawing people to Him, no one would believe in Christ (John 6:37,44-45). From the beginning to the end God is in charge of salvation. God is the initiator and the finisher of the plan of salvation. So adding anything like “obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel” to God’s perfect and completed plan of salvation misses the point. Why do we need to refine what God has already completed? 

2.  What is grace?

Where is the place for grace in Mormonism? 

The Mormon Church teaches that grace is God’s enabling power that allows people to “lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts”(LDS Bible Dictionary, p.697- The Holy Bible 1987 LDS edition)


Grace is granted after our deeds demonstrate our worthiness.

“ is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”(2 Nephi 25:23)


“Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, 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”(Moroni 10:32) (emphasis added)

Grace is granted to men proportionately as they conform to the standards of personal righteousness that are part of the gospel plan (Mormon Doctrine, Bruce R. McConkie.p.339- Non official Mormon source)

By contrast, the Bible teaches that grace is “undeserved blessing freely bestowed on man by God.”8


Romans 11:16 And if by grace, then it is no more works: otherwise grace is no more grace

Grace and meritorious works are mutually exclusive (Romans 11:6). Graphically it would look like this.9    

 GRACE <………………………………………………………………………………………………………….> WORKS


According to Moroni 10:32,before grace is granted you must become sinless on your own. If you could become sinless on your own, why would you need grace? 10

According to late Mormon Apostle McConkie, the more righteous you are, the more grace will be granted, and the less righteous you are, the less grace will be given. This teaching directly opposes biblical teaching (Romans 5:20).

Romans 5:20 Moreover, the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.

Friends, grace is terribly misunderstood in Mormon thinking. Many Mormons say, “Other Christians say that they are saved by grace alone then do all sorts of wicked things.” Apostle Paul anticipates that sort of objection. “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead into sin, live any longer therein?”(Romans 6:1-2) (See Galatians 2:17). A person who has died with Christ (Galatians 2:20) is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). So we must not continue to live under sin’s dominion. God saves us but does he leave us as we are? No. God has a plan and purpose for our lives.

Ephesians 2:8-10 8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of your yourselves; it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

Paul tells us, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Please note words  “Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Good works will be the result of God’s grace to us, not the cause of it.

Titus 2:11-13 11 For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, 12  Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world. 13 Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.

 Now we should turn to James 2:20, and 24.


3. Is Salvation by grace through faith or by grace plus works?

I hope that you wouldn’t mind our reading the passage from context, as reading a passage out of context is a pretext for error. James was probably addressing scattered Jewish-Christian congregations (1:1).11 Please note that the whole letter was not written to unbelievers. The letter is a practical letter about the Christian life.  The context of James 2:14-26 is that some of his readers, through misunderstanding Paul’s teachings, were reducing faith to a mere verbal confession of faith (2:19) and empty, insincere wishes (2:15-16), giving lip service to Jesus.  The purpose of the letter is to show what saving faith is and how we can recognise it, not how it saves.12 James here does not discuss how we are justified (declared righteous before God) but how we recognise other people’s faith: either living or dead.


1). Start with James 2:18


James brings in an imaginary opponent to argue with him (2:18), who sees faith and works as if they were separate gifts from God.13“Shew me thy faith without works, and I will shew thee my faith by works.” James says that he will demonstrate his commitment to God or faith through his deeds. He cites Abraham, and his most honoured acts of obedience to God, the offering of Isaac to the altar (2:21). James quotes Genesis 15:6. “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God” (James 2:23).


Can you tell me:


V When was Abraham made righteous? When was righteousness imputed to him?

V What made Abraham righteous, his works or his faith? 14

V Which came first- Genesis 15:6, God’s imputation of righteousness to Abraham, or his offering of Isaac on the altar? Which  came firstThe proper relationship with God or the demonstration of Abraham’s faith in God?”15


2). The story of Isaac in Genesis took place 20-40 years after Genesis 15:6.


God credited Abraham’s faith as righteousness before Isaac was born. Genesis 15:6 took place hundreds years before the law was given. Abraham was made righteous by faith. Genesis 15:6 says,” And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” Second, God’s imputation of righteousness to Abraham (the proper relationship with God) came first. The story of Isaac in Genesis 22 took place 20-40 years after Genesis 15:6.16 ”And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.”  God spoke these words before Isaac was born!  His willingness to sacrifice his son came from his confidence in God who could actually resurrect his son’s body from literal, physical death (Hebrews 11:17-19).  The offering of Isaac was the end of a long period of continued obedience beginning in Genesis 12:1.17 Abraham’s act of offering made his invisible faith completed (perfect) (James 2:22). The Greek word suggests development and maturation.18His faith was strengthened and matured by works! 19


3). “Faith without works is dead, but you are still saved by a saving faith alone”         (Wally Tope)                                                                                                                                                           


True faith produces works, which then become visible evidence of faith’s invisible presence. James was using the word ‘justified’ regarding demonstration of faith before men. 20 For men to see our faith, it must result in visible works, but not for God. God can see hearts of men. Paul says that justification before God (in the sight of God) is by faith and not by works (Romans 3:20, 4:2, Galatians 3:11).21So we conclude, “Faith without works is dead, but you’re still saved by a saving faith alone.” 22


Romans 3:20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight.

Ephesians 2:8-9  8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.

James does not believe that the law can bring man into eternal life. James 2:10 says, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” One cannot decide to keep part of God’s law and ignore other parts. We must not measure ourselves against someone else, but against God’s perfect and holy standard.  So it is not right to keep some of the law or do “all you can”(2 Nephi 25:23).23 None of us can keep the whole law. There is no difference between one man and another in that we all fall short of the glory of God. The way of salvation is the same for all. Anyone who will inherit eternal life will stand on the same ground. Salvation is based entirely upon God’s grace.


4). The story of Little Orphan Andy24


Mark Cares, a Christian teacher and pastor in Idaho, gives us a useful illustration regarding the tremendous difference in motivation that exists between Christians and Mormons.


   Little Orphan Andy lived in an orphanage. He desperately wanted to be adopted. One day a couple came to the orphanage and told Andy that they wanted to adopt him, provided that Andy demonstrated how wonderful he would be during a month trial period.

    “Naturally, Andy was ecstatic. But he was also quite fearful.” That entire month he felt like he was walking on eggshells as he tried not to do anything to displease his potential parents.  In fact, he was so careful that much of his shining personality didn’t come out.  It was one of the toughest months of his life.”

   There is another scenario. “Suppose a second couple had come to the orphanage and told Andy that they had already adopted him. He was now their son; no ifs, ands, or buts about it. No trial period-it was already final. He was already part of their family.”

   “Andy would still be on his best behaviour - but probably would do more because he would be liberated from his fear of being rejected.”


Friends, Latter-say Saints are like Andy in the first scenario. Out of fear of rejection, they strive to please God.  Christians fit the second scenario. We are so grateful for being accepted by God that we are willing to please God by completely trusting in him and following Jesus in everyday life. Outwardly, the good works of Mormonism and Christians might appear the same, but what separates us is our confidence that Christians have eternal life as a present reality. 

Conclusion   Grace in the Bible is “undeserved blessing freely bestowed on man by God.” Salvation (Spending eternity with God) is based entirely upon God’s grace. God is sovereign in the plan of salvation. It does not depend upon the works of man. We appreciate James’ teachings as well as Paul’s. Their teachings are complementary. The purpose of James’ letter is to show what saving faith looks like practically, not how it saves. James does not believe that the law can bring man into eternal life. Both apostles agree that good works are a vital part of our Christian walk after we receive eternal life as a gift. If we are forgiven, the way we live will be changed. Works must follow faith, so lack of works is evidence of the lack of true faith. “Faith without works is dead, but you are still saved by a saving faith alone” My good works are the evidence of my salvation, not the means of it. I do good works to show my love for what Jesus did for me. In other words, my good works proceed from gratitude. Jesus said, “Why call ye me Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?”(Luke 6:46, but also see John 14:15,1 John 2:3-4).



1.Gospel Principles(Salt Lake City, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997)p.302.

2. The Life and Teachings of Jesus & His Apostles, (Salt Lake City, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)p410

3. Millarrs Erickson, Christian Theology(Grand Rapids, Baker House,1986)p.629

4. Ibid.


6. Raymond Erickson, The Message of Hebrews, BST(Leicester,IVP,2000)p.106

7. James White, Letters to A Mormon Elder (Minneapolis, Bethany House, 1998) p.263

8. P.H.Huges, ed. Walter Elwell, “Grace” in “Evangelical Dictionary of Theology”(Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1994) p.479

9. James White, Letters to A Mormon Elder, p.270

10. John Farkas & David Reed, Mormons- How to Witness to Them, (Grand Rapids, Baker House, 1997) pp.107-108

11. Peter Davids, JAMES, EPISTLE OF in “The Illustrated Bible Dictionary”(Leicester, IVP, 1994) p.733

12. Mark Cares, Speaking the Truth in Love to Mormons (Milwaukee, Northwestern Publishing House, 1993) p.192

13. Peter Davids, JAMES in “ New Bible Commentary” (Leicester, IVP, 1994) p.1361

14.  James White,SectionVII” Salvation in “Verse Memorization System Verses Relevant to Sharing the Gospel With Mormons”  (Jan.22, 2000)(

15. Ibid

16. Ibid.

17. Peter Davids, JAMES in “New Bible Commentary”, p.1361

18. Zone Hodges, ”Justification By Works”(2:20-24)” (

19. James Adamson, NICNT The Epistle of James (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1976) p.130

20. Zone Hodges, “What is a dead faith?”(

21.  Zane Hodges, “Justification By Works (2:20-24)”

22. James White, “Section VII Salvation” in “Verse Memorization System Verses Relevant to Sharing the Gospel With Mormons”  (Jan.22, 2000)(

23. James White, Ibid.

24. Mark Cares, pp.193-194


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