“By his grace ye may be perfect in Christ”: Some LDS thoughts on Grace and Commandments

Martin Luther dismissed the Sermon on the Mount as “the devil’s masterpiece” (ein Meister Stuck des Teuffels, German spelling as in original) (“Das heißt ein Meister Stuck des Teufels”, D. Martin Luthers Werke (Weimar, 1906), vol. 6, pg. 10). Luther called the Sermon on the Mount “the devil’s masterpiece” because, as he surmised in the essay, “the devil so masterfully distorts and perverts (verdrehet und verkeret) Christ’s true meaning through his Apostle [Matthew] especially in the fifth chapter”. (See the discussion of this, which includes the above quote, in John W. Welch, The Sermon on the Mount in the Light of the Temple, pg. 36 (London: Ashgate, 2009)). Martin Luther appears to have believed that Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (as recorded by Matthew) weren’t compatible with what he (Luther) wanted the Gospel to mean, based on his own selection and elevation of a few verses from Paul over the rest of the corpus of scripture.

In taking this approach, and also in dismissing James as an “Epistle full of straw” (ein rechte stroern Epistel) because it teaches the importance of works together with faith for the disciple of Jesus Christ, Martin Luther is treading in very dangerous territory. Luther’s posture on this matter assumes that Jesus contradicts Paul. If that is the case, one should follow Jesus, not Paul. But Jesus doesn’t contradict Paul. Instead, Luther was misinterpreting Paul — Paul’s writings, when understood properly, don’t actually contradict Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. But the content of the Sermon on the Mount, which Latter-day Saints find enlightening and view as a “constitution” of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, does indeed seem to contradict Luther’s preferred interpretation of Paul. My conclusion as a Latter-day Saint is that Luther was in error, not Jesus Christ or Matthew.

Luther did not see it this way, however, and because he perceived that the Sermon on the Mount contradicted what he wanted the Gospel to say, his solution was to conclude that the Matthew had distorted Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount. In reality, Luther incorrectly saw a conflict between Paul’s writings and the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. But this conflict isn’t really there.

In my studies of the Old and New Testaments, the Latter-day Saint interpretation of Paul’s teachings shines as the interpretation that most fully incorporates Paul’s actual message into a whole or unity with the teachings of Christ and the other Apostles contained in the New Testament. (I mention the Old Testament here because I have found the study of the Old Testament to illuminate Paul’s writings.) Not surprisingly, in my Latter-day Saint interpretation of Paul’s writings, those writings do not conflict with or contradict Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or James or Peter. Rather, they are in harmony one with another, and with the Acts as well.

The Latter-day Saint interpretation of the New Testament adequately incorporates the teachings and doctrine found in James, which, from my point of view, many or most Protestant approaches (that I am aware of) fail to do. The “works” that James mentions, and without which James teaches that faith is dead, include the commandments that Jesus gives those who would be his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere in the Gospels. They also include the specific acts required by Jesus as a sign of one’s faith — baptism by immersion for the remission of sins and the laying on of hands for the Gift of the Holy Ghost, acts that are specifically discussed in the Gospels and in the Book of Acts.

But, as Paul correctly notes in his writings, it is not these acts themselves that save anyone but rather Christ’s grace (lest anyone give those acts themselves actual saving power, as the Jews had been accustomed to, and as Roman Catholics would later be perceived to do, which is what led Martin Luther to militate against “works” in the overzealous way that he did). Latter-day Saints understand and believe that Christ’s grace is the only power that saves us but we also understand that we must choose whether to accept Christ or not and thereby whether we receive that grace. As children of God, we are autonomous individuals who live in the fallen world in which mankind has become as God, “to know good and evil” (Genesis 3:22). As such autonomous children of God, we must choose for ourselves whether to accept Christ’s Atonement in our lives.

This message of salvation by the grace of Christ — which grace we choose of our own free will to accept or reject — is straightforwardly the message of the Book of Mormon from beginning to end: despite any and all works that we could possibly do, it is only by the grace of Christ that any of us are saved (2 Nephi 25:23) because, when we accept Christ and love God with all our heart, might, mind and strength (as commanded), then his grace is sufficient for us and this grace makes us perfect in Christ (Moroni 10:32). The Book of Mormon teaches that the grace of Christ, and not anything that we ourselves do, perfects us in Christ. However, consistent with what Jesus and the Apostles taught in the New Testament, the Book of Mormon teaches that we must choose for ourselves whether to accept this grace and in so doing, allow it to perfect us in this manner by the choices we make. We show the choice we’ve made to accept Christ by doing certain things that Christ commanded us to do. Grace and commandments, Paul and Jesus — and the other writings of the New Testament — are brought into harmony through the Gospel as understood by Latter-day Saints, with the Book of Mormon as a God-given aide in understanding the message of the New Testament.

For Calvinists, it’s the idea that we choose for ourselves whether to accept or reject Christ that is objectionable. For some Lutherans, it is the idea that Jesus Christ does indeed require some “works” on our part in order to show that we have accepted him and that we’ve become his disciples. For many creedal Christians, all talk about Jesus’ actual teachings actually seems irrelevant because the message of the Bible for them seems to be reduced to only one key point: the existence of the One-Substance Trinity, the belief in which is really the only thing that fundamentally matters.

But on the most basic level, the works that figure into the teachings of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, and which are discussed at length in the writings of the New Testament, include accepting Jesus Christ in our hearts. The New Testament does not require acceptance of a philosophical abstraction such as the One-Substance Trinity but rather it requires us to have faith that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. Even those Lutherans or other creedal Christians who believe that they are saved by “faith alone” believe that this step (of accepting Jesus Christ in one’s heart) is required. This acceptance of Jesus Christ as one’s Savior is itself a work; Latter-day Saints refer to this as having faith in Jesus Christ. Other fundamental biblical works that Latter-day Saints believe, based on the Bible, are required are baptism by immersion by one holding proper authority and receiving the Gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands by one holding proper authority. It is my conviction that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints alone puts the correct emphasis on these biblically required works and how they relate to our faith (which is itself also a work).

The New Testament does not give us license to sin and feel absolved from accountability for those sins. It is true that we obtain forgiveness for our sins when we accept Christ’s Atonement in our lives and have a broken heart and contrite spirit about the sins we have committed (because our sins have contributed to the suffering that Christ endured in his atoning sacrifice). But it is also very clear that the New Testament requires a posture of repentance of those who claim to be disciples of Christ and, although someone living a repentant life still messes up and commits plenty of sins, for which one can rely on the healing power of the Atonement, someone living such a life as a disciple of Christ does NOT have the attitude that there is no “law” for them. That is simply a misunderstanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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The basis of this post stems from a comment I made elsewhere in a discussion with a Lutheran about Paul’s writings and Luther’s views.

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8 Responses to “By his grace ye may be perfect in Christ”: Some LDS thoughts on Grace and Commandments

  1. annegb says:

    I love the term “posture of repentance”—that’s sort of how my beliefs have evolved. I believe that Mormons misunderstand God’s expectations of perfection and while, yes, faith without works is dead, focus far too heavily on works. We neglect the spirit dreadfully in our task oriented lives as latter day saints.

    Yes, I echo Eric, nicely done.

  2. john f. says:

    Thanks Eric and Anne!

  3. Jordan F. says:

    I’m glad to see you maintaining this. I have not been around MY OWN JOINT BLOG in several months! Hopefully I will have a post or two soon.

    I like this post- I think it eloquently lays out some very important biblical points that are often overlooked by other Christian theologies.

  4. Aaron F says:

    Nice post, and a very enlightening read. It reminds me of so many arguments I have heard in my life.

    Perhaps one of the hardest things is the high standard that most of the other religions hold us to is. I don’t mind being held to the higher standard, but I am only mortal, and make mistakes too often. Part of the posture of repentance certainly includes the humility to recognize that you make mistakes and not hold others to high(er) standards.

  5. I think it is not a matter of grace or works, but of surrender and reliance.

    This message of salvation by the grace of Christ — which grace we choose of our own free will to accept or reject — is straightforwardly the message of the Book of Mormon from beginning to end

    That is so true, and it makes more sense when looked at as surrender to God as a power greater than ourselves that can do what we can not, and of accepting and relying upon God’s grace.

    “posture of repentance” — annegb really focused on the take away point from your essay, the one that harmonizes everything.

    Well done.

  6. Very interesting, thanks!

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