Q: Do Mormons believe that good works are also required in order for our souls to be saved? That Jesus' death on the cross is not enough?
A: Mormons believe in doing good works to demonstrate our faith in Christ and establish a covenant with Him. We do not believe that these good works will save us. And, we certainly don't believe that that Jesus’ death on the cross is insufficient. Your question implies that we somehow believe that Christ will only get us so far and that we must “earn” the rest of our way to heaven. This is not what we believe.
The Infinite Atonement of Jesus Christ
We believe that Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane and His agony and death on the cross produced infinite power to save all men and women. In Mormon theology, we refer to Christ’s sacrifice, his death and resurrection, and the gift of salvation to those that believe, as the Atonement of Christ. We agree with Paul (Romans 3:10) and John (1 John 1:8) that no person is without sin, and that no individual, no matter how many good works they do, can earn their own salvation. “All mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all . . . are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement.” (Book of Mormon: Alma 34:8-10) Christ alone has power to save. This infinite power of salvation is a free gift of God to all who will receive it. (John 3:16)
So, with the infinite, saving power of the Atonement available, what do we have to do to receive the gift and be saved? The answer: “Believe on the Lord, Jesus Christ.” These are the words of Paul (Acts 16:31), but they are echoed over and over throughout the Bible and the Book of Mormon. (See Book of Mormon: Alma 34:15)
Faith is a Principle of Action
So, what is faith? What does it mean to believe? This, I think, is where our opinions diverge with some Christian groups. Mormons feel that to believe and have faith constitutes more than simply saying “I believe.” For Mormons, if you have faith, you take action. Faith is more than simply believing in Him, it is believing Him—believing what Christ says we must do. Jesus Himself described this principle best when he said, “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) We demonstrate our faith by our actions. Frankly I think that most mainstream Christians would agree with this statement. People who truly have faith in Christ will attempt to change their lives and follow him.
The Apostle James also agreed when he said,
“Even so, faith, if it hath not works is dead, being alone. 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 . . . For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” (James 2:18, 26 – see verses 14-26).
As always, the perfect example of teaching this principle comes from the life of Jesus Christ himself. In the scripture record, whenever someone approaches Christ, or has a conversation with Him, Jesus always tells them to do something—He tells them to do works. For example, when the rich young man came to Jesus and asked what “good thing” he should do to inherit Eternal Life, Jesus did not tell the youth that no good works were necessary for salvation. On the contrary, He said, “if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:16-21). The young man replied, “all these things have I kept from my youth up, what lack I yet?” Again, Jesus replied with an action: “go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” The gospel of Jesus Christ is not passive; it is a gospel of action. In order to receive the power of the atonement in our lives, we must turn to him “with full purpose of heart,” which means to do our very best to follow and obey Him. (Book of Mormon: 3 Nephi 10:6)
As a result, Mormon’s put a great deal of attention on good works—not because we think they will save us, but because they are a manifestation of our faith in Christ and they are necessary to establish a covenant relationship with Him and apply the power of the atonement in our lives. These actions include: repenting of our sins, receiving ordinances such as baptism, receiving the Holy Ghost, and striving throughout our lives to keep His commandments. Further, we work to keep the commandments because doing so brings us joy in this life and qualifies us for the love of God and the companionship of the comforter, the Holy Ghost. (See John 14:23-27)
Faith vs. Works
At this point, you might be saying, “wait a minute, William. If you say that all of these things are necessary, aren’t you actually admitting that Mormons believe works are required for salvation?” Well, if you count faith, repentance, baptism and obedience as works, then I suppose we do. But, these are not “works” in the sense that Paul was talking about when he said, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and not of yourselves; it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9, See also Romans 3:28) Paul was talking to former Jews who had converted to Christianity, but had retained their Jewish obsession with the rules of “the law” and who believed that they could save themselves through good works. Paul is not saying that no action is required to become a Christian. He is simply rejecting the notion that we can save ourselves through the works of the Law of Moses, without Christ. The Book of Mormon sheds additional light on this issue. 150 years before Christ, an ancient American prophet said, “Salvation doth not come by the law alone: and were it not for the atonement, which God himself shall make for the sins and iniquities of his people, . . . they must unavoidably perish, notwithstanding the law of Moses.” (Book of Mormon: Mosiah 13:28, see also 2 Nephi 25:24-30)
This question of faith vs. works (or Paul vs. James as some have phrased it) has been around a long time and was debated by Christians long before Joseph Smith and the Mormons. Some groups, including our Catholic friends, have maintained that ordinances (or sacraments) coupled with good works are required for salvation. Others, notably Martin Luther and John Calvin, have argued that salvation is by grace alone, without works, and that God unilaterally chooses those on whom he bestows the gifts of faith and grace. Christian apologist, C. S. Lewis wrote that this dispute “does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary.” (Mere Christianity p. 115) Mormons take a balanced approach between faith and works, which we believe is a restoration of the original Gospel of Jesus Christ. For Mormons, our faith results in actions which establish a covenant relationship with Christ wherein we do all we can to follow and obey him, and He saves us.
Full Purpose of Heart
Now we come to the heart of your question. Are good works required for salvation? My answer is that in order to be saved by the atonement, God requires that we demonstrate our faith and commitment to Christ by doing all that we can to follow and obey Him. The important part of that statement is "doing all we can." For some of us, that means that good works are required. For others, they are not required. Infants who die before they reach the age of eight, for example, have no opportunity to do "works" in this life, so they are not required of them. (See Moroni Chapter 8 in the Book of Mormon) Also, those who do not have a knowledge of the gospel in this life cannot be expected to strive to conform their lives to teachings of which they are not aware. These individuals will have the opportunity to learn about the gospel in the next life, receive the required ordinances (such as baptism) by proxy, and choose to accept Christ and demonstrate their faith in Him at that time. But, for those of us who have received a knowledge of the gospel in this life, Christ requires that we do our best to follow Him and keep his commandments (which means do good works) as an indication of our faith in him.
No matter what our situation, whether we are able to do good works or not, as long as our hearts are firmly fixed on Christ and we are doing all we can to follow Him, He will save us. His atonement is a gift freely given, but He does not impose it upon us. He stands at the door and knocks, but we must open the door. (Revelations 3:20) His gift of salvation cannot be received by those who refuse to open the door. Christ said these words to those who witnessed and survived the devistating distruction that took place in the Americas at His crucifiction:
"And again, how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, yea, O ye people of the house of Israel, who have fallen; yea, O ye people of the house of Israel, ye that dwell at Jerusalem, as ye have fallen; yea, how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens, and ye would not. O ye house of Israel whom I have spared, how oft will I gather you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, if ye will repent and return unto me with full purpose of heart." (3 Nephi 10:4-5, emphasis added)Christ yearns to save us, but we must do our part. This is an appropriate analogy because hens do not run around the chicken coup gathering chicks under their wings. On the contrary, the chicks flock to the hen and gather under her wings for protection. Likewise, the atonement of Christ applies only to those who come unto Christ and strive to live his teachings with all of their hearts and actions.
Actions such as repentance and keeping the commandments, along with ordinances such as baptism, are not supplements to Christ’s saving power (as implied in your question) they are actions that connect us with Christ and apply His unlimited power to our lives. These actions would be empty and meaningless without Christ. (To use the example of electricity: these actions are not the electricity. They are simply the actions necessary to plug into the electricity. The electricity itself is free; we just need to take action to plug into it.) Mormons, believe that salvation is in Christ alone. Our actions (faith, repentance, baptism, receiving the Holy Ghost, and striving to keep the commandments) are necessary to establish a covenant relationship with Christ so that he can save us.
Baptism is an ordinance which initiates this covenant relationship with Christ. It is a formal agreement with God, in which we promise to do the best we can to follow Him and keep His commandments; and for His part, Christ applies the infinite atonement to remove the effects of our sins. We believe that Christ commanded all who would follow him to be baptized. (John 3:5) Mormons consider baptism as the beginning of this covenant relationship: it is the gate to the road to salvation.
“For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost. And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life; . . . after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save. Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure unto the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.” (Book of Mormon: 2 Nephi 31:17-20)
When this covenant relationship is established, we receive an instant remission of our sins and stand justified before God. And, so long as we maintain this covenant relationship with Christ, we retain a remission of our sins. (Alma 4:14)
Suppose a young woman believes in Christ, gets baptized and works tirelessly all of her long life to do good works as a manifestation of her faith in Christ. She dies an old woman having accomplished much good. By comparison, imagine a man who lives a life filled with sin, but who in the final year of his long life learns about the gospel, develops faith in Christ, sincerely repents, receives baptism and tries for a few short weeks to do his best to keep God’s commandments before dying. In Mormon theology, both are saved. It doesn’t matter that the one did more good works than the other. Although the woman undoubtedly developed more Christ-like attributes and had a happier, more joy-filled life than the man did, in regards to salvation, what matters is that they both met the requirements to accept Christ and the power of His atonement in their lives.
In the Mormon view, our deeds are not like a balance scale where good works can offset sins. It is more like two scales: one for good works, and the other for sins. No amount of good works can compensate for a single sinful deed. And, since “no unclean thing can enter into his kingdom,” (Book of Mormon: 3 Nephi 27:19) we are all doomed without Christ. If we will accept His infinite atonement, Christ pays the price for our sins. Then, once our sins are remitted through Christ, the deeds on the other scale, our good deeds, do contribute to our reward in heaven. Christ indicated that there would be many different rewards in heaven. He said, “in my Father’s house are many mansions . . . I go to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:2, See also Book of Mormon: Enos 1:27) Those who strive to do good and to improve themselves in knowledge, charity, patience, and all godly virtues, “will have so much the advantage in the world to come.” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:19, see also Matthew 19:29) So, in the example above, even though the man and the woman are both saved and enter into their exaltation, we believe that the woman may have progressed further on the path toward perfection than the man. We believe that in the next life, saved beings continue to act and progress and grow. The Lord Jesus commanded, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Without Christ, no one achieves this goal in mortality. But, we believe that those who are saved by Christ and inherit Eternal Life will continue to grow and progress in knowledge and Christ-like attributes, until they eventually become perfect like God.
The Parable of the Scholarship
Here is another way to look at it. (Please forgive me for using every day examples to illustrate holy things. I intend no disrespect. But, it does help us to wrap our mortal minds around religious concepts. I’m encouraged by the fact that Jesus also used everyday examples in his parables.)
Imagine if you will, a poor student wanting to attend an expensive University. With no savings, connections, or rich relatives, it is impossible for her to earn enough money to pay for college in advance. But a kind donor has established a scholarship for people in this situation. This full-ride scholarship pays for tuition, room and board, books, and even includes some spending money for incidentals. Everything is paid, 100%. But, in order to receive the scholarship, some things are required. First the student must find out about the scholarship and learn what requirements have to be met in order to apply. These normally include things such as a certain grade point average, a minimum grade on college entrance exams, demonstration of need, etc. Once the student has met these requirements, she applies for the scholarship. When the scholarship is awarded, the student signs an agreement in which she formally accepts the scholarship and agrees to the terms of the scholarship. These terms would normally include some minimum requirements to keep the scholarship in force. If the student was to quit attending school for no reason, and failed her classes, the scholarship could be discontinued. But as long as the student meets the minimum requirements to demonstrate that she is applying her best efforts, the scholarship remains in force and pays the entire amount.
This example could be compared to the atonement of Jesus Christ. Just like the scholarship, the gift of the atonement is free and pays for our sins 100%. But, as in the example, there are some requirements that must be met in order to apply the atonement. The requirements to get the scholarship, such as a certain grade point average, don’t actually pay for any of the tuition. These actions are required to demonstrate that the student qualifies for the scholarship, which then pays the full amount. Likewise, our actions, such as repentance and turning to good works, don’t pay for our sins or contribute toward our salvation. Rather, they are required to demonstrate our sincerity and our desire to follow Christ. The signing of the scholarship agreement is like baptism, a formal agreement which establishes the covenant with Christ. Maintaining the scholarship is comparable to maintaining our covenant relationship with Christ so that we can retain a remission of our sins. (See Book of Mormon: Mosiah 4:11-12, 26). Mormons believe that we must continue to strive to keep the commandments and live a Christ-like life in order to keep this covenant in force. Finally, just as the college student who diligently studies and applies herself will have more of an advantage after graduation, so we, to the extent that we work and apply ourselves to become more like Christ, will have an advantage in the world to come.
Saved through the Atonement of Christ
One of our articles of faith states, “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” Please don’t misunderstand this statement, which has been used by some to imply that Mormons rely on works to be saved. Note the comma after saved. We are not saved by obedience; we are saved “through the Atonement of Christ.” The “by obedience” refers to the way that we apply the power of the Atonement in our lives. The qualifying words “may be saved” indicate that proactive steps are involved in accepting the gift of the Atonement and applying it to our souls. Ours is not a passive religion. We believe the Lord expects us to take action.
We are Free to Accept or Reject Christ
Here is one more point that will help you to understand our beliefs in this area. We believe that the atonement of Christ redeems all mankind from original sin (the transgression of Adam). So, children are born innocent and each individual is responsible only for his or her own sins. Each soul is free, therefore, to choose to believe and follow Christ, or not. We do not believe that individuals are “predestined” for salvation or damnation. In Mormon doctrine, salvation is available to all who will choose to accept him. “Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves—to choose the way of everlasting death, or the way of eternal life.” (Book of Mormon: 2 Nephi 10:23, see also 2 Nephi 2:26-28)
So, in summary, Mormons believe that Christ has all power to save. All mankind are sinners and must rely upon the atonement of Christ for salvation. Those who choose to accept Christ demonstrate their faith in him and establish a covenant relationship through works such as Faith, repentance, baptism, receiving the Holy Ghost, and doing all we can to follow Him and keep His commandments, thereby reconciling ourselves to God and applying the atonement in our lives. Mormon beliefs about faith and works are beautifully summed up in this quote from the Book of Mormon, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved.” (Book of Mormon: 2 Nephi 10:24, see also 2 Nephi 25:23)