The apostle Paul wrote, “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).
The foundation of the Protestant faith is that we are saved by faith alone and not because of any works we do. Today’s Protestant churches understand this doctrine to mean that we are saved at the moment we place our faith and trust in Christ by accepting Him as our Savior. They further teach that our salvation is not dependant upon any good work we might do (and they include baptism to be a work), but is solely a result of God’s unmerited favor toward us. As such, the idea that we have to do anything to either attain or maintain our salvation is something they strongly disagree with. Instead, they say that any good works we might perform is simply an automatic result of our saved condition rather than it being something we produce by our own effort.
One minister has explained it this way: “Man-centered religion always works to improve self in the hope that we will reach the level of salvation. Man driven works is either the attempt to become a god or an attempt to become acceptable to God, but God never accepts man-driven works. The most important thing about works that you should understand is that you do not produce good works. God produces it through you when you are walking with Him. No longer am I looking for something to please God, instead I have the desire to do the work He has already put within my heart to do. We may do good things and these may be very honorable by human standards, however, God only honors and rewards what He produces.” (Eddie Snipes, pastor of Exchanged Life Ministries, “Understanding Works”)
This doctrine of “saved by grace alone” is said to have come from a man named Martin Luther. From the very dawn of the Catholic Church, they taught that works was an essential part of salvation, however, it is said that in the 1500’s a Catholic theologian by the name of Martin Luther began to take exception to this teaching when he discovered from his study of the Bible that the word of God said we are saved by faith, not by works. And it is because of his efforts to reform the Catholic church that gave impetus for the entire Protestant movement. Thus, he is credited as being the father of the “saved by faith alone” doctrine.
But what did Martin Luther actually teach about faith and works? On March 29th 1520 he wrote a letter to John Duke of Saxony entitled “A Treatise on Works” wherein he sought to clarify what he believed the Bible taught about the relationship between these two elements of the Christian faith. The following is an abbreviated portion of that letter.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
We should first realize that there are no other good works except those which God has commanded, just as there is nothing which is sinful except that which God has forbidden. Therefore, whoever desires to know and wishes to do good works needs to know nothing else except the commandments of God. This is what Christ said in Matt. 19:17: “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” And when the young man asks Jesus what he should do so that he might inherit eternal life, Christ sets before him nothing else but the Ten Commandments. Therefore, we must learn to distinguish the good works that are found among the commandments of God and not think that [genuine] works consists of [performing] the appearance of works, or doing a great number of works or following the laws or customs of men as we have seen people do in the past and are still doing today, because when we do that we become blind to and despise the divine commandments.
The first, highest, and most precious of all good works is faith in Christ, as he says in John 6:28-29 when the Jews asked Him, “What shall we do that we may work the works of God?” He answered, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent.” When we hear or preach this doctrine we tend to pass over it quickly and think it’s a little thing that’s easy to do. Instead, we should pause here for a long time and ponder it very carefully, for it is from this good work that all other good works must flow and from which they receive their goodness, like a loan. We must put this doctrine forth bluntly so that all men might understand it.
We see many people who pray, fast, establish endowments to the church, or who lead a good life in the eyes of men but if you should ask them if what they are doing pleases God, they will say, “No,” or they do not know, or they doubt. And there are some very learned men who mislead them saying that it is not necessary to be sure that what you do pleases God. But then, on the other hand, these same men do nothing else except teach that we must do good works. Now, if all of these good works are done outside of faith in Christ, then they are nothing and all of them are dead works. Whatever their conscience is toward God and whatever they believe, then the works they do will grow from this belief. Now, if they have no faith or no good conscience toward God then their works lack any power and all that they do throughout their life, including all their goodness, is meaningless. But when I exalt the need for faith and reject those works which are done without faith in God, my critics say that I am forbidding people to do good works, when in truth, I am trying hard to teach people to do the real works of faith, which are the only good works.
If you further ask them whether they consider it a good work when they work at their trade, or when they simply walk, stand, eat, drink, sleep, or any other kind of work that we must do for the nourishment of our body or for the common welfare of man, and you ask these people if they believe that God is pleased with them because of such works, you will find that they say, “No.” Instead, they define the term “good works” so narrowly that it consists only of praying in church, fasting, and almsgiving. Any other works they consider to be vain and think that God cares nothing at all for them. So, because of their damnable unbelief they curtail or lessen their service to God who is served by whatever we do that is done, spoken, or thought of in faith.
Christ says in John 8:29 “I do always those things that please Him.” And John says in 1 John 3:19-22 “Hereby we know that we are of the truth, if we can comfort our heart and we have confidence that whatsoever we ask we shall receive of Him because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.” Do you see now why I exalt faith so greatly and include all other works in it and reject all works that do not flow from it?
Now, everyone can tell when he does that which is good and that which is not good, because if, in his heart, he is confident that what he does pleases God then that work is good, even if that work is just as simple a thing as picking up a straw. On the other hand, if that confidence is missing or if a person doubts that what he does pleases God then that work is not good, even if he should raise all the dead and he should give himself over to be burned. This is the teaching of Paul in Romans 14:23 “Whatsoever is not done of or in faith is sin.” Faith is the chief work and without it there is no other work. That’s why we are known as “believers in Christ.”
These words may seem strange and it is because of them that some people call me a heretic, but that is because men have followed blind reason and heathen ways and have set faith, not above but beside all other virtues and have considered it a work of its own, separate from all other virtuous works, even though it is faith alone that makes all other works good, acceptable, and worthy. And it is this faith which then brings forth love, peace, joy, and hope because God gives His Spirit to those who trust Him, as Paul said to the Galatians 2:3, “You received the Spirit, not because of your good works, but when you believed the Word of God.”
It is faith that makes all works equal, where one work is just as good as any other. Therefore, all the distinctions between every work, whether those works be great, small, short, long, few, or many, disappears because whatever works we do [in faith] are acceptable to God. That’s not because the work itself is good but only because of the faith we have in those works is what makes it good. Therefore, no matter how numerous or different our works may be, they are all the same [in the sight of God]. Just like the head cannot live without the other parts of the body, so every part of a person’s body is no more important than another to the well-being of the entire body.
If this is true then it follows that a Christian who lives his life with faith in God doesn’t need someone to teach them to do good works. Instead, whatever he seeks to do he does it [with faith in God] and therefore everything He does is pleasing to God.
We see this same principle commonly used with humans. For example, when a man and a woman are in love and find pleasure in being with each other, that is because they thoroughly believe in their love. Who teaches them how to behave lovingly towards one another? Who tells them what they are to do, what they are to leave undone, what to say, what not to say, what to think? It is their confidence that such things are pleasing to the one they love that tells them all these things and nothing more. And it makes no difference whether what they do for each other is great and numerous, or small and infrequent. And they do these works with joy, having peace and confidence in their heart. But when they begin to doubt if what they are doing is pleasing to the other then they begin to look for what the best thing to do is. That’s when they begin to make a distinction between their works, as they try to figure out which works will win the favor of the other. But when a person does this, they often go about performing this work with a heavy heart, not relishing what they are doing. So, instead of feeling free to do whatever they want, they are in despair half the time, afraid that they will make a fool of themselves.
In the same way, a Christian who lives with confidence in God does everything cheerfully and willingly. And he does this, not so that he can take credit for the good he has done but rather he does all these things simply because he takes pleasure in pleasing God. Therefore, he serves God for no other reason than to know that his service pleases God. On the other hand, he who is not one with God or who doubts whether what he does is pleasing to God, worries about if he is doing enough work to please God and so he strives to gain God’s favor by doing a multitude of works.
He runs to St. James of Compostella. He runs to Rome, to Jerusalem, and to this place and that so that he can make confession here, there, and everywhere. He prays St. Briget’s prayer, he rests on that day, and fasts on this day, he asks questions of this man and that and yet, for all of these works, he finds no peace in his heart. He puts forth all of this great effort but he does it with great toil and despair, and without any joy in his heart. In Hebrew the scriptures rightly call such works “Avenama” which means, “with labor and travail.” And it is because they are performed this way that they are not considered good works, in which case they have all been done for nothing.
When people perform these kinds of works it shows that their faith is small and weak. This is why I have always praised “faith” and have rejected any work that is done without such faith. And I have said this in order to lead men away from the false, pretentious, unbelieving “good works” that the Pharisees of old used to preach. This is the kind of false belief that churches and homes, both of the rich and the poor are overfilled with. I seek to lead people to the true, genuine, good works which are based on a belief in Christ. Those who oppose me on this are those who want to make a distinction between works. They say that those works which are better than others are to pray, fast, establish church endowments, go to confession and that if we do enough good works only then will God be pleased with us. Yet they think that they can gain God’s grace and approval by doing all these things without any faith in God. They think that the best works are those which are great and take much effort, even though they have no confidence that it pleases God. Instead, they look for God’s divine favor only after they have done many great works. They place their confidence in themselves rather than in God. Such works are built on sand and water and from which they must eventually take a cruel fall, as God says in Matthew 8.
The first commandment is first for good reason and it is this: “Thou shalt have no other gods," which means: "Since I alone am God, thou shalt place all thy confidence, trust and faith on Me alone, and on no one else." This is the first work which God commands us. It does no good to have a god if you call Him God only with your lips or worship Him with the knees or other bodily gestures. To be God, you must trust Him with your heart and look to Him for all that is good and for His grace and favor with whatever we do, whether it is our works or what we suffer, whether in life or death, or in joy or sorrow. It is this faith, deep in the heart, that is the true fulfilling of the First Commandment for without this there is no other work we can do that is able to satisfy this Commandment. And this commandment is not only the very first but is the highest and best commandment from which all other commandments spring. Compared to this work, all other works would be as though there is no God. If we see this commandment in the correct light, it is all about love, for if I could not trust God and I did not think that He wished to be favorable toward me and love me, it would not lead me, in turn, to love Him and to look to Him for all good things.
As you can see for yourself, all those who do not trust God at all times, who do not put their trust in God in all of their works or in their suffering, in life and death, trusting in His favor, grace, and good-will, but who seek His favor in other things or in themselves, are not keeping this commandment. They are the ones who are practicing real idolatry, even if they were to do the works of all the other commandments, in addition to all the prayers, fasting, obedience, patience, chastity, and innocence of all the saints combined. If this chief work of faith in God is not present, all other works are but mere shams, show, and pretense with nothing to back them.
If righteousness consists of faith, then it is clear that faith fulfils all commandments and makes all works righteous, since no one is justified except he keeps all the commands of God. But works can justify no one before God without faith. The apostle Paul so utterly and roundly rejected works and praised faith that some people have taken offence at his words and say: "Well, then, we will do no more good works," although Paul condemns such men as erring and foolish.
And men still do the same thing today. When we reject the great, pretentious works of our time, which are done entirely without faith, they say: “Men are only to believe and not to do anything good.” When we are dressed up and bow, kneel, pray the rosary and the Psalter, and all this not before an idol, but before the holy cross of God or the pictures of His saints, this we call honoring and worshiping God, thinking we are keeping the First Commandment, "having no other gods." However, usurers, adulterers and all manner of sinners can do all of these thing too, and, in fact, do them daily.
Of course, if all these things are done with faith, believing that they please God, then they are praiseworthy, not because they have any virtue in and of themselves, but because of our faith. But if we doubt or do not believe that God is pleased with us, or if we presumptuously expect to please Him only through and after our works, then it is all pure deception. We are outwardly honoring God, but inwardly we are setting up our self as a false god. This is the reason why I have so often spoken against the display, magnificence and multitude of such works and have rejected them, because it is as clear as day that they are not only done without faith. There is not one person in a thousand who does not put his confidence in the works he does, expecting that by doing them he will win God's favor. And so they make a great show of doing them, which is something God cannot tolerate.
We aught to believe that all things please God. So says St. Paul: "Dear brethren, all that ye do, whether ye eat or drink, do all in the Name of Jesus Christ, our Lord." Now it cannot be done in this Name except it be done in this faith. Therefore, when some say that good works are forbidden because we preach only about faith, that would be as if I said to a sick man: "If you had health, you would have the use of all your limbs; but if you do not have health, then all your limbs are useless." Someone might want to infer that I was telling the sick man that I forbid him to work all of his limbs. But that is contrary to what I am telling him. What I mean is that he must first gain his health back, which, in turn, will cause of all his limbs to work better and be more useful. And the same is true of faith. It also must be in all works that we do or our works are nothing at all. Thus they are good, not by their own nature, but by the mercy and grace of God.
You might say: "Why then do we have so many laws of the Church which urge men to do good works if all it takes to please God is faith?" I answer: Because we do not all have faith or else we do not heed it. If every man did indeed have faith then we would need no more laws, because every one would do good works all of the time by himself without anyone telling him what to do, just as God teaches him.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Martin Luther then expounded on nearly every one of the Ten Commandments, explaining the work we need to do to fulfill each one. And, as he would conclude his remarks with nearly every commandment, he would say, “Now if you had nothing else at all to do, would you not have enough [work] to do with [just] this [one] Commandment alone?”
Instead of teaching that works are not important to our salvation, Martin Luther taught the necessity of performing works. In fact, he calls faith itself a work, identifying it as “the chief work,” and “the first, highest, and most precious of all good works.” What he condemned were those “works [which] consists of [performing] the appearance of works,” meaning those that are “mere shams, show, and pretense with nothing to back them,” such as outwardly “praying in church, fasting, and almsgiving” but having no faith in God. He points out that even “usurers, adulterers and all manner of sinners can do all of these thing too,” but they are not saved. However, he then declares that if “all these things are done with faith, believing that they please God, then they are praiseworthy.”
Whereas he did say that it is our faith that saves, rather than the performing of the work itself, yet he also taught that if we don’t do what God commands it shows that we have no faith in God. In fact, he says that those who do not keep God’s commandment “are the ones who are practicing real idolatry.”
Instead of saying that we need not do good works, Luther “condemns such men [who teach this doctrine] as erring and foolish.” But those who do good works with faith in God, Luther says, “this faith [is that] which then brings forth love, peace, joy, and hope because God gives His Spirit to those who trust Him.”
Interestingly, this is the same doctrine that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches. Although they teach the necessity of doing good works, when Joseph Smith was asked to define what it is we believe, he listed thirteen articles of our faith. The third one states, “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.”
But what are those “laws and ordinances” that we must obey in order to be saved?
The fourth Article of Faith answers that question when it states, “We believe that the first principle and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.”
Notice, that the very first principle and ordinance of the gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and that’s because it is the foundation upon which all other works are based, which is the very point that Martin Luther made. Without faith in Jesus Christ, the ordinances of repentance, baptism, and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost would be meaningless. As Luther explained, “it is from this good work [of faith] that all other good works must flow and from which they receive their goodness.” “It is faith alone that makes all other works good,” “because whatever works we do [in faith] are acceptable to God. That’s not because the work itself is good but only because of the faith we have in those works is what makes it good.” “This is why I have always praised faith and have rejected any work that is done without such faith.” “If righteousness consists of faith, then it is clear that faith fulfils all commandments and makes all works righteous, since no one is justified except he keeps all the commands of God.”
That is the doctrine of faith and works that Martin Luther taught, and that is the same doctrine that Joseph Smith taught.
In addition to that, the Book of Mormon likewise teaches the same doctrine. At the beginning of the Book of Mormon we read of a man named Lehi who was commanded by the Lord to take his family and flee into the desert. To aid them in their journey, the Lord provided a compass-like ball that had two spindles that would point the way they should go. Concerning this ball or director, the Book of Mormon explains “And it did work for them according to their faith in God; therefore, if they had faith to believe that God could cause that those spindles should point the way they should go, behold, it was done; therefore they had this miracle, and also many other miracles wrought by the power of God, day by day. Nevertheless, because those miracles were worked by small means it did show unto them marvelous works. They were slothful, and forgot to exercise their faith and diligence and then those marvelous works ceased, and they did not progress in their journey” (Alma 37:40-41).
Faith in Christ is the central theme of the Book of Mormon but so is the doctrine of works. It teaches, “See that ye have faith, hope, and charity, and then ye will always abound in good works” (Alma 7:24). Luther taught, “for it is from this good work [of faith] that all other good works must flow and from which they receive their goodness.” The Book of Mormon states, “Yea, he that repenteth and exerciseth faith, and bringeth forth good works, and prayeth continually without ceasing—unto such it is given to know the mysteries of God; yea, unto such it shall be given to reveal things which never have been revealed” (Alma 26:22). Luther says that it is to those whose good works are based on faith in Christ that the Lord gives His Spirit.
The Book of Mormon tells us, “But behold, I say unto you that ye must pray always, and not faint; that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul” (2 Nephi 23:9) Luther explains that nothing can be done in the name of Christ “except it be done in faith.”
The Book of Mormon warns us, “If ye have not faith in him then ye are not fit to be numbered among the people of his church” (Moroni 7:39). Luther warns us that any works “done outside of faith in Christ are nothing.” The Book of Mormon says, “Behold, I say unto you that whoso believeth in Christ, doubting nothing, whatsoever he shall ask the Father in the name of Christ it shall be granted him; and this promise is unto all, even unto the ends of the earth” (Mormon 9:21). Luther taught “if a person doubts that what he does pleases God then that work is not good, even if he should raise all the dead.”
On the subject of faith and works what Martin Luther taught is nearly identical with what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches. But more and more, what Martin Luther taught is becoming less and less what contemporary Protestant churches teach, even though they still honor him as the father of the Reformation.
NOTE: Most Protestant churches today teach that although baptism is important, it is nonetheless a work and therefore has nothing to do with our salvation. However, Martin Luther taught that such an idea was false. He noted that “the world is now so full of sects clamoring that baptism is an external thing, and that external things are of no benefit.” Speaking of those who “esteemed [baptism] as nothing. [he said] Therefore it is pure wickedness and blasphemy of the devil that now our new spirits, to mock at baptism.” He said that the scriptures “most solemnly and strictly commanded that we must be baptized or we cannot be saved.”
He asked the question, “for what purpose is it [baptism] instituted?” He then answered his question by saying, “we cannot discern better than from the words of Christ above quoted: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. Therefore stating it most simply thus, that the power, work, profit, fruit, and end of baptism is this, namely, to save. For no one is baptized in order that he may become a prince, but, as the words declare, that he be saved. But to be saved we know is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil, and to enter into the kingdom of Christ, and to live with Him forever.”
He said to those who “assert that faith alone saves, and that works and external things avail nothing, we answer: It is true, indeed, that nothing in us is of any avail but faith, as we shall hear still further. But these blind guides are unwilling to see this, namely, that faith must have something which it believes, that is, of which it takes hold, and upon which it stands and rests.. . here we have the words: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. To what else do they refer than to baptism, that is, to the water comprehended in God's ordinance? Hence it follows that whoever rejects baptism rejects the Word of God, faith, and Christ, who directs us thither and binds us to baptism. . . For it is determined that whatever is not faith avails nothing nor receives anything.
“But if they say, as they are accustomed: Still baptism is itself a work, and you say works are of no avail for salvation; what then, becomes of faith? Answer: Yes, our works, indeed, avail nothing for salvation; Baptism, however, is not our work, but God's. . . If I am baptized, it is promised me that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.” (Luther’s Catechism).
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also teaches this same doctrine, once again making us closer to the teachings of him who started the reformation than those who claim to honor him as their father.