Evangelical Questions: How Do ‘Works’ Work?

by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC

Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about more about grace and works. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.

Before I get started I just have to say….It was so fun to meet so many of you at the FAIR conference last week. So many of you have lived lives of long-term faithfulness to this gospel and yet you are kind enough to embrace a newcomer like me. I have never once felt unwelcome or unloved in this church – and to me that is a testament to the gospel. We have all these people who have just lived lives of patient faithfulness and it shows up in all parts of who they are. And, you know, I’ve got to do a lot of really cool things in our church over the last few years, and sometimes people are surprised that I’ve been in the church less than 5 years. But, I will tell you what, almost all of that has been through people I met at FAIR. I’m so grateful. My understanding is that the talks will be available online sometime this week. I gave a talk on my research into how the church handles sexual abuse on Friday afternoon and I encourage you to take a listen when it’s available. It’s totally outside of the scope of what we’re doing here – so I’m not going to recap any of it – but if that topic interests (or worries!) you at all, find my talk and take a listen. I’m sort of embarrassed to tell you this, but also so incredibly proud – every year FAIR gives out an award called the John Taylor Defender of the Faith Award to a person who has made a significant effort toward the work of apologetics and this year they gave it to me. I’ve read the list of recipients from years past – I consider many of them friends and all of them colleagues in the Gospel. It’s a huge honor to be listed with them. And I feel so grateful for being honored like that.

Okay, so today we’re going to talk about grace and works. This is the third of, I think, 6 times we will address it – each time from a slightly different angle. Today’s scripture jumping off point is Roamans 3:23-24:

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

Now, I don’t know any Latter-day Saints who read that verse and say, “No, absolutely not. This is not how it works.” And in recent years there have been a number of General Conference talks and other teachings about the importance of grace. If we were just tracing Latter-day thought on this topic there isn’t very much interesting in the way of debate. We believe Paul when he says we are saved by grace. Which is part of why conversation about grace gets difficult with Evangelicals. The traditional line would be something like, “You guys don’t believe in grace.” And Latter-day Saints get confused and say, “No, I’m pretty sure we do…” Sometimes they can quote statements from the past that are not part of our teachings to “prove” we don’t believe in grace. And the conversation goes downhill from there.

Evangelicals here are very similar to other Protestants – and there is history here. We have to go all the way back to the 5th century and talk about Pelagius. He wrote about how to be a Christian while the Roman Empire is disintegrating. He came from Briton to Rome and is actually the first known British author. He was condemned as a heretic in 418 in a complicated series of trial that were trying to hold him responsible for things he said – as well as things that were said in his name. This might sound like ancient history but even in 2018 there was a major book, 400 pages, called The Myth of Pelagianism, so its still alive and well in theological circles. Anyway, the main charge against Pelagius is that he denies grace – while the opposite camp Augustinianism says that grace is all you need. What happened was Pelagius is a British Monk and he travels to Rome. While living there he observes the lax moral standards of the Christians living there. Sometimes this period is called “Late Antiquity” and during this century there are lots of wars between the Goths and Byzantines. It’s essentially the last vestiges of the Roman Empire as it once was and morals have mostly collapsed in all of society, including among the Christians. So, Pelagius shows up, sees the moral decay, and starts to preach and teach that people need to use their will to choose to do things as God would have them do. Neither the political leaders nor the religious leaders like what he is saying – and there was a lot of moral corruption in the Catholic church at that time – so they have him declared a heretic. They actually find him guilty at 3 different trials – one while he was alive, and then after he died they were still so mad at him that they had 2 more trials and found him guilty again, even though he was already dead.

Now, Pelagius was actually wrong about plenty of things, and I’m not here to defend him. Im telling you all of this because this is the history that is playing in the background. Many – maybe most – Evangelicals are not going to know this history in specifics. But they have been handed down a tradition for 1600 years that says they shouldn’t ever say anything except that grace is all one needs and putting out effort toward good works doesn’t really matter.

Evangelicals also went through a repeat of history in the 20th century on this. I covered this in one of my earlier episodes but Evangelicals used to be called Neo-Fundamentalists. The term fundamentalist was coined in the 1920’s around the time of the Scopes Monkey Trials which had to do with the increasing acceptance of evolution in science. But by the 1940’s the fundamentalist movement had really fallen apart. And after WW2 there were a number of younger leaders who had grown up in the fundamentalist heyday who wanted to revive the enthusiasm of those days. They initially call themselves neo-fundamentalists, then later neo-evangelicals, and then later they drop the neo and just call themselves evangelicals.

And what this early group of Evangelicals really wanted was to not be seen as they saw their grandparent’s generation -as a bunch of old fuddy-duddies who had all kinds of rules for church that had to be followed. Billy Graham rises in fame during this period in part because of this cultural mix – people who were interested in the saving grace of the gospel, but none of the rules for behavior. They wanted people to preach to them that Jesus would save them – without also telling them that their behavior needed to reflect the fact that they had been saved. It was kind of late-Rome all over again. And while those details are probably too many decades past for most current Evangelicals to know, the culture they have is steeped in this.

So, whether they know it or not, Evangelicals have been taught that grace is good and works are bad. Never mind that the New Testament teaches over and over about what kinds of behaviors Christians should have. “Works” is a trigger word for them – its not based in the Bible, it’s based on their own history. I’m not saying that as an insult, but rather as a way to maybe help you think through other ways to talk about this stuff. If they’re using the word “works” with you, you now know what they mean by it. You might be able to shift the conversation toward a different way of saying the same thing out of respect for the amount of baggage that word carries for them.

Latter-day Saints are sometimes told by Evangelicals that we must “pray to accept Jesus into our hearts” and not rely on grace at all. But if you tell an Evangelical that you absolutely have Jesus in your heart they will tell you that you have the wrong Jesus so it doesn’t count. In other words, you must have the absolutely correct understanding of Jesus and if you err even a tiny bit, the whole thing doesn’t count. How are you to gain this perfect understanding of Jesus? You must be taught by the right kind of teacher and accept their teaching before your prayer will be accepted. The whole thing is based on the actions – or works – of the individual. If the correct actions, the correct beliefs, the correct prayer do not take place then the person is denied salvation. If this weren’t true they would easily accept us as Christians too, but they generally don’t because we have not done their version of works. They can’t see it as works, but that’s what it is.

Here is my suggestion if you want to have this conversation with an Evangelical loved one….skip the works/grace language. It’s so culturally and historically loaded that it’s really hard to get to the actual meaning of what’s being said. The reality is that both Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals believe grace is important, and believe works are important. They don’t necessarily see their works as “bad” works – they see our works as “bad” and it’s all just a muddle. Maybe instead try to talk about all of this in their language. If you wanted the video from last week about testimonies this is a good place to start. When an Evangelical gives their “testimony” they’re telling you the story of what their life was like before they found Jesus, how they put their trust in him, and how their life is different now. If you can “borrow” that language it might put them more at ease to see that you too are a believer in Christ who might have something to offer them. I actually had a conversation last week with someone who didn’t know I’m a Latter-day Saint and he was going on about “those Mormons” when he stopped himself and said, “you know, I’m sure that at least some of them must know about Jesus and love him – how could you not love Jesus if you really knew him?” And I thought that was a beautiful bridge because as it turns out there are an awful lot of members of our Church who know and love Jesus.

Well, that is what I have for you this week. If you’re interested go check out the FAIR Conference videos this week. Would love to hear what you think – there’s a little bit of something for every level of geeky interest. Come back next week and we’ll do some more.

More Come, Follow Me resources here.


Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.

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