Evangelicals are targeting SLC for a two week mission this summer. They will tell any Latter-day Saint who will listen that (1) LDS are not Christians because they don’t confess the (arbitrarily conceived) trinitarian creeds; (2) LDS are going straight to hell because they believe some kind of “work” is necessary in addition to faith; (3) Jesus Christ did not visit his followers on the American continent (although they will have no authority for such an assertion save their word only); (4) Joseph Smith was a false prophet from the devil. I have been proselyted by Evangelicals targeting Latter-day Saints before and have some preparatory thoughts in anticipation of this event.
Nearly six years ago, Baptists showed up on BYU Campus proselytizing and explaining to the BYU students how Mormons are from the devil and are bound for eternal damnation, together with billions upon billions of innocent men, women, and children who have died without having “accepted” the trinitarian Christ of the committee-created creeds in their hearts. They also had plenty to say about Joseph Smith–how he was from the devil and a liar and a seducer, false prophet, etc. (the usual Evangelical frothing at the mouth). They approached me as I ate lunch on the grass near the HFAC, after a summer-term philosophy class in the JKHB. Our discussion was unfruitful, as can be imagined, because I agreed with everything they said about Jesus Christ, but demanded honesty from them that they also believe in at least one salvatory work: accepting Jesus Christ in one’s heart. Absent that “work,” the grace spoken of in the New Testament is not exactly the “free gift” that they wanted to make it seem.
They came back to Martin Luther over and over and ironically ascribed to him some kind of authoritative voice that they denied to Joseph Smith (their basis for doing this was dubious and seemed to resort merely to the fact that ML believed in the creeds whereas JS saw them as unauthoritative given their genesis and speculative content). Their reliance on ML was interesting to me given their parallel insistence on biblical inerrancy. After all, in order to maintain his teachings on grace, ML needed to reject the Epistle of James. He very much disliked the Book of James precisely because its teachings were inconsistent with what ML wanted the Gospel of Jesus Christ to say exclusively.
In particular (aside from a general disdain for the Epistle of James), ML felt that James 2:24 (actually James 2:14-24) was inconsistent with his own interpretation of Romans 3:28, a doctrine of Paul which ML preferred over the doctrine of James, and thus ML desired to reject the Epistle of James. He settled for dismissing it intellectually as “an Epistle full of straw” (“eine stroherne Epistel“), and did not consider it scripture (so much for the tired and forced Evangelical interpretation of Revelation 22:18-19), together with Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation.
James 2:14-24 reads as follows (with an emphasis on James 2:24):
14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
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 how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
ML could not reconcile this selection with his preferred doctrine of Romans 3:28:
Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.
The Romans verse is obviously referring to the Law of Moses, to which centuries of apostacy had added numerous needless proscriptions, such as the elaborate rules on Sabbath observance etc. It is true that such can be compared with what could be termed “dead works” of the Catholic tradition of ML’s time, such as purchasing indulgences or obtaining absolution by performing some bizarre task (after paying the determined sum of money) such as climbing a certain number of steps in Rome while reciting hail marries on each step. Thus, ML was justified in over-emphasizing Romans 3:28 to the extent of missing the obvious–that the doctrine there refers to the Atonement of Jesus Christ, by which and through which alone all mankind can be saved. But Romans 3:28 does not mean that people can simply cease to live righteous lives or cease striving to emulate the countenance and teachings of Jesus Christ in their daily lives. Failure to do this requires repentance of such failure and renewed effort towards that end. Thus, understanding that true followers of Jesus Christ need to continually strive to live righteously and repent for their shortcomings in the process relieves the tension ML saw between Romans and James. That is, James is speaking of the need to lead righteous lives in addition to having faith in the saving power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
The Epistle of James was very important to the prophet Joseph Smith (but not, like ML, to the exclusion of doctrines elsewhere in the New Testament). Rather, JS taught that leading a righteous life included following the Principles and Ordinances of the Gospel: (1) faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; (2) Repentance; (3) Baptism by Immersion for the Remission of Sins; and (4) the Laying on of Hands for the Gift of the Holy Ghost. All of this is strictly biblical. Other “works” are included in leading a righteous life, such as building up Christ’s Church and helping the needy, caring for one’s family, honoring one’s spouse, honesty in one’s dealings with others, purity of thought, chaste living, etc. Failures on any one of these points or many others constitutes sin, and that is where repentance fits into the picture. When we commit a sin, we repent to show God that we are sorry for what we did and that we accept the price Jesus Christ paid for that sin we have committed in his Atonement. To take advantage of the Atonement in our lives, we need to have a broken heart and a contrite spirit with regards to our sinful behavior. James is very clear that such righteous living is a part of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ–that the idea, apparently even around at that early time (likely before approx. 62 A.D.), that faith alone is efficacious, is a false doctrine. In truth, all people with a true faith in Jesus Christ (speaking here of all Christians and not just Latter-day Saints) will naturally exhibit such righteous living and will feel remorse at their sins and repent internally for them, making use of Christ’s Atonement in the process.
(Additional insight that was revealed to JS was that only one who has received the proper priesthood authority through the laying on of hands by one who possesses such authority may so baptize and give the Gift of the Holy Ghost. God restored this authority to the earth when he sent the resurrected John the Baptist and Apostles Peter, James, and John to JS to lay their resurrected hands on his head and pass that authority straight to him.)