Mormonism and Early Christianity:

Faith, Grace, and Works

by Barry Bickmore

©1997 Barry R. Bickmore. All Rights Reserved.

Reference Info - glossary of ancient Christian writers and documents, guide to abbreviations, bibliography.

Quick Index


When a person has the Gospel of Christ preached to him, the ball is in his court, so to speak, and he can accept it in faith or reject it. Jesus preached that "whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."1 But what does this "saving belief or faith" imply? Conversations on this subject between Mormons and others, especially Protestants, often end up being futile exercises because many Protestants mistakenly think that Mormons believe in salvation by good works, rather than grace through faith, and many Mormons mistakenly think that all Protestants believe good works are completely unnecessary and superfluous to one's salvation. Therefore, in this section we will carefully describe the interplay of faith, grace, and works as seen by Mormons, Protestants, and the earliest Christians. (The LDS view is very similar to the Catholic belief, so I have neglected to say anything about that.)

All are Sinners

The scriptures make absolutely clear several facts about this subject. First, every person is a sinner, and therefore cannot by his own merits attain the glory of heaven. "All have sinned, and come short of the glory of god,"2 says Paul. Similarly, John indicates that, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."3 And The Book of Mormon informs us that "if ye whould serve [God] with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants."4

Only the Grace of Jesus Christ Can Save Us

Consequently, everyone is in need of the atoning blood of Jesus Christ to bring them back to the presence of God and cleanse them of their transgressions. This freely given gift of Christ Jesus is part of his "grace" or divine assistance, and no amount of good works on our part can save us without Christ's help. Paul preached that, "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."5 And Nephi wrote, "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."6

We Must Have Faith in Jesus Christ

Third, this saving grace is accessed by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul told the Galatians that, "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified."7

True Faith Produces Good Works

Fourth, saving faith is not mere belief or intellectual assent. True faith in Christ requires a change of heart - and a change of lifestyle. We must not only believe in Christ, but believe Christ concerning all the blessings promised the righteous. "Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?"8 Therefore, true faith carries with it the motivation to do good works. Such "good works" are not to be compared to the "dead works" Paul spoke of9, any more than living faith is to be compared to the "dead faith" James preached against.

So far, Mormons and most Protestants would agree. While there are a few Protestants who believe faith does not entail any moral responsibility, nearly all of them consider good works as an essential product of faith. For instance Henry Halley:

    Paul's doctrine of justification by faith, and James' doctrine of justification by works, are supplementary, not contradictory.... Paul preached faith as the basis of justification before God, but insisted that it must issue in the right kind of Life. James was writing to those who had accepted the doctine of justification by faith but were not living right, telling them that such faith was no faith at all.10

Eternal Security? The Bible Says "No!"

Where do we differ? For one thing, many Protestants believe in "eternal security". That is, after one truly accepts Christ into his life, he is saved and cannot ever become "unsaved". Misinterpreting Paul's assertion that no outside force "shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord,"11 they are persuaded that not even they themselves can give God the heave-ho once they have accepted Him. Not only is this doctrine contrary to the New Testament, however, but no Christian writers can be found advocating it for centuries after the apostolic era.

Paul insisted that salvation could be lost:

    If we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.... Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God,and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?12


    It is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame."13

Paul entreated the Philippians to "work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling,"14 and Peter exhorted the Saints to "give diligence to make [their] calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall."15 Peter also critisized certain Christians who had forsaken the faith: "They had once escaped the world's defilements through the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; yet if they have entangled themselves in these all over again, and are mastered by them, their plight in the end is worse than before."16 Indeed, Paul did not consider himself to be automatically saved:

    It is not to be thought that I have already achieved all this. I have not yet reached perfection, but I press on, hoping to take hold of that for which Christ once took hold of me. My friends, I do not reckon myself to have got hold of it yet. All I can say is this: forgetting what is behind me, and reaching out for that which lies ahead, I press towards the goal to win the prize which is God's call to the life above, in Christ Jesus.17

Even more to the point, the Lord told Ezekiel:

    But when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth, shall he live? All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned: in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die.18

Eternal Security? The Early Christian Fathers Say "No!"

Similarly, the Church Fathers of the second century with one accord proclaimed that one must continue in righteousness or be condemned. Clement of Rome, for example, told the Corinthians to: "Take heed, beloved, lest His many kindnesses lead to the condemnation of us all. [For thus it must be] unless we walk worthy of Him, and with one mind do those things which are good and well-pleasing in His sight."19 Later he asked: "For what reason was our father Abraham blessed? was it not because he wrought righteousness and truth through faith?"20 Likewise, Ignatius of Antioch entreated the Magnesians: "Lay aside, therefore, the evil, the old, the sour leaven, and be ye changed into the new leaven, which is Jesus Christ. Be ye salted in Him, lest any one among you should be corrupted, since by your savour ye shall be convicted."21 And Polycarp instructed the Philippians: "If a man does not keep himself from covetousness, he shall be defiled by idolatry, and shall be judged as one of the heathen."22

Barnabus also exhorted the Church to: "... be ye(11) taught of God, inquiring diligently what the Lord asks from you; and do it that ye may be safe in the day of judgment."23 He also added: "The way of light, then, is as follows. If any one desires to travel to the appointed place, he must be zealous in his works."24 The author of 2 Clement made the same point:

    But in what way shall we confess Him? By doing what He says, and not transgressing His commandments, and by honouring Him not with our lips only, but with all our heart and all our mind. For He says in Isaiah, "This people honoureth Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me." Let us, then, not only call Him Lord, for that will not save us. For He saith, "Not every one that saith to Me, Lord, Lord, shall be saved, but he that worketh righteousness." Wherefore, brethren, let us confess Him by our works....25

The angel in Hermas' vision explained that he must "endure to the end" to sit at the right hand of God:

    While I was thinking about this, and feeling vexed that she did not let me sit on the right, she said, "Are you vexed, Hermas? The place to the right is for others who have already pleased God, and have suffered for His name's sake; and you have yet much to accomplish before you can sit with them. But abide as you now do in your simplicity, and you will sit with them, and with all who do their deeds and bear what they have borne."26

Paul made the same point in the apocryphal Acts of Paul: "Blessed are they who have kept their baptism pure, for they shall rest with the Father and with the Son."27 Irenaeus also emphasized the essential nature of good works: "[N]ow, to believe in Him is to do His will; but He shall righteously shut out into the darkness which they have chosen for themselves, those who do not believe, and who do consequently avoid His light."28 And Jesus, in The Epistle of the Apostles, proclaimed that:

    But if any man believe on me and do not my commandments, although he have confessed my name, he hath no profit therefrom but runneth a vain race: for such will find themselves in perdition and destruction, because they have despised my commandments.29

Therefore, it is perfectly clear that when Joseph Smith laid out the doctrines of faith, grace, and works, he was restoring the beliefs of the earliest Christians. [Note: Another difference between the Protestant and LDS view of salvation is that Latter-day Saints believe God requires certain specific works, such as baptism. For more information, read my article on baptism in early Christianity.]


1 John 3:16.

2 Romans 3:23.

3 1 John 1:8.

4 Mosiah 2:21.

5 Ephesians 2:8-9.

6 2 Nephi 25:23.

7 Galatians 2:16.

8 James 2:19-20.

9 Hebrews 6:1.

10 Halley, Halley's Bible Handbook, p. 659.

11 Romans 8:39.

12 Hebrews 10:26-29.

13 Hebrews 6:4-6.

14 Philippians 2:12.

15 2 Peter 1:10.

16 2 Peter 2:20 NEB.

17 Philippians 3:12-14 NEB.

18 Ezekiel 18:24.

19 1 Clement 21, in ANF 1:11.

20 1 Clement 31, in ANF 1:13.

21 Ignatius, Magnesians 10, in ANF 1:63.

22 Polycarp,Phillippians 11, in ANF 1:35.

23 Barnabas 21, in ANF 1:152.

24 Barnabas 19, in ANF 1:148.

25 2 Clement 3-4, in ANF 7:518.

26 Pastor of Hermas, Vision 3:1, in ANF 2:13.

27 The Acts of Paul, in ANT, p. 273.

28 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:6:5, in ANF 1:468.

29 Epistle of the Apostles, in ANT, p. 494.

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