All Christians believe the Bible is the word of God. As such, they all believe everything the Bible says. But they don't all believe the same thing about what the Bible says
Take for example what the apostle James wrote when he said, "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... But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?" (James 2:18-20)
There are two ways to look at this scripture. One states that without works, there is no proof that we really have faith in Christ. Thus, works are important to salvation because it is our evidence that we love God. The other states that, if our assurance in Christ is a living, rather than a dead faith, there is no effort needed on our part to perform good works. Good works occur automatically, as an outgrowth of our love for Christ. In other words, it will be a natural by-product of our faith. But if our faith is not a living one it won't produce any works. Thus, it is our faith that saves us and not the works we do.
To rephrase the argument, as one pastor put it, one side says, "God's grace is based on what we do. God saves, but only in response to our initiative." To him such a belief seems to indicate that God's grace is a result of "human merit, rather than the work of Christ." Since he believes that God's grace saves us strictly by faith alone, he therefore considers the concept of salvation by works a "dangerous and unbiblical theology". As such, he therefore refers to such doctrine as "heresy."
On the surface, it may seem that both groups have opposite opinions about faith and works, but, in reality, they are actually saying the same thing. It's like the argument over how to pronounce a word. Although the word may be spelled the same, it can sound different, depending on where and how we put the emphasis. Take the word "tomato." Some pronounce it "to-may-toe" while others call it "toe-mah-toe". But regardless of how you say it, we're still talking about the same red, round, juicy vegetable that grows on a green, vine-like plant.
In the argument over faith and works, each side agrees that both of these elements must go hand in hand in the Christian life, but one group puts emphasis on works, while the other puts emphasis on faith. Yet, in reality, whether we argue that doing good works shows our faith, or claim that our faith produces good works, each side is actually saying the same thing while arguing that they're saying something different.
Even those who say that works don't produce salvation concede that our good works are necessary to "shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light" (1 Peter 2:8). Peter even listed what some of these good works are: submitting ourselves to authority, honor all men, love the brotherhood, servants are to obey their masters, masters are to treat their servants kindly, and we're to suffer persecution patiently. According to James, without performing these kinds of good works our faith is not alive, but dead, and a dead faith can't save us. This much both sides of the argument agree on.
Where the disagreement really lies is over who does the good works -- man or God.
Those who teach that salvation comes entirely through faith believe, "For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13). In other words, it is God who actually performs the good works, using the willing and accepting Christian as His instrument. As such the Christian can't claim credit for any good they do, because it is God, not they themselves, who perform the works.
Those who believe that works are necessary to salvation point to the words of Christ where He said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). They argue that Jesus didn't say, "If you love me I will keep my commandments through you without any effort on your part." In fact, the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible translates this verse as, "If you love me, you will obey what I command" (italics added). That clearly states that the Lord expects us to do the work ourselves, rather than sitting passively by while God does it all Himself through us.
Yet, even these believers acknowledge that they need God's help keeping His commandments. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe in receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost after our baptism. That gift is understood to be the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost, whose job it is to give us guidance in doing what's right. Furthermore, we depend on His help to bring to our remembrance the commandments of God when we stray from them. So, even when we do perform any good works, we admit it is God who is assisting us in that effort, echoing Pauls words: "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." (Philippians 4:13)
On the other hand, those who believe that God does all the work Himself through us acknowledge that we still have our free will to let God use us or not. They further admit that our own will often is in conflict with that of God's will. In fact, they define "Christian growth" as learning how to submit our will to God's. Yet, that doesn't happen easily, and they confess it is a constant struggle for us to accomplish this. In other words, it takes work on our part to let God do His work through us.
So the question can be more accurately asked, does God do it all, or do we have a part to play in performing good works? In other words, what exactly does God expect of us concerning works? Are we required to become puppets or robots, acting mindlessly as God does His work through us? Not even the most die-hard supporter of salvation through grace alone believes in such a notion. Rather, they teach that, since we voluntarily choose to let God use us, we are not robots but are willing servants to our Master. However, servants perform tasks and accomplish work at the direction of their master. Does God, therefore, merely give us direction and we are expected to fulfill our assigned duties? Those who believe in salvation without works also disagree with this concept. Then exactly what is God's role and what is our responsibility in doing the work of the Lord?
To those who believe that works are necessary for salvation, the answer is simple. We are expected to do good works with assistance and help from God. Those who believe that doing good works is up to God alone without any effort on our part, find themselves in a contradictory situation. They teach that we are saved, not because of any works that we perform, but simply and purely through the atoning grace of Jesus Christ. Yet, the word faith is an action noun. Faith is not passive; it's active. It is associated with the verb "to believe", which is also an action word. And activity is one of the definitions of work. Thus, in order to discredit the need for personal works as a condition of salvation, they have to define "faith" and "belief" in a passive sense, otherwise the very act of accepting Christ is a work.
As stated before, one pastor, in defining what he believes is the doctrine of salvation through works said that, "God's grace is based on what we do. God saves, but only in response to our initiative." But the same can be said of salvation through grace! We have to take the initiative to have faith in Christ and then take the action to accept Him. Without doing that, we won't be saved by grace. But accepting Christ is an action we consciously take. When we believe in Christ, it's not a passive conviction, but something we do with all of our heart, mind and soul. Thus, it is true that "God's grace is based on what we do."
But the believers in salvation through grace alone contend that, even if this is true, it is God working through them that causes this action to be taken. Therefore, they say, it is God who is doing the work rather than ourselves. However, their ability to maintain this belief becomes increasingly more difficult as we compare their doctrine with their practices.
Let's examine one scenario. A Christian who's been saved through grace alone opens his heart to God and feels that they have been called to be a preacher. But for this to become a reality, such a person must eventually go to a theological seminary school for training into the ministry to receive their credentials for preaching. While there, they not only study biblical doctrines, but they also learn about preparing and presenting sermons, how to do missionary work, how do to family and individual counseling, how to do budgeting and other administrative church duties. Thus, when they graduate, they have some qualification for being an effective pastor overseeing the needs and growth of whatever congregation they may be called to serve in.
But what if this Christian takes the attitude that God will do everything, so they sit at home and wait for God to turn them into a preacher without any effort on their part? Or, let's say that someone takes this Christian to a seminary college, but once there they don't attend any of the classes on the grounds that God will do all the work through them without them having to do anything? Is this the proper application of what salvation through grace means? Of course not! Therefore, in order for even this kind of a Christian to demonstrate their faith that God has called them to the ministry, they have to do a whole lot of work. They have to attend a variety of classes, spend hours upon hours studying and memorizing a multitude of information, and practice and practice and practice developing their skills in a number of different areas. God doesn't do this work for them, and they readily acknowledge this fact.
And why are they doing all of this work? Simply because of their faith in God that He has called them to the ministry. Thus, they say it is their faith that saves them. But those who believe that salvation requires more than just grace use the same reasoning for why they do good works. Thus, in practice, both groups of believers are actually showing their faith the same way.
Here's another way to look at it. A pastor gets paid for overseeing a congregation. Why? Because they're performing work! This is his job. A pastor gets up each morning and goes to work. But why should the pastor get paid for working, if God's the one who's really doing all the work?
I don't know of one pastor who doesn't work hard every week preparing his sermon. But why should he put forth all this labor if God is the one who does all the work Himself, with no effort on our part? If a pastor really believes that God does it all, shouldn't they stand before their congregation each Sunday, without any prior preparation, and let God do all the speaking through them? The answer is obvious.
Even though both sides of the argument may say different things, in reality, they each live their lives as though we are expected to do our part with God's assistance, help, and guidance. Therefore, in order for us to show our faith, we ourselves must put forth some effort to believe in Christ, accept Christ, and then work for Christ. Thus, we see that, without some kind of work on our part there can be no salvation. To say otherwise is to say that we don't have to do anything, and that God does it all. Even though that's what some preach, that's not how they practice their belief.
But let's take a closer look at the doctrine of salvation through grace alone. What should we think about the saved condition of a person who deliberately decides not to do any work even though they feel led to serve the Lord? Would we call their faith a living one or a dead one? According to those who believe in salvation through grace alone, works are a natural and automatic outgrowth of our love for the Lord. Therefore, if a person performs no works, then it is a clear indication that there is no real faith in and love for Christ. And if there isn't real faith and love, then there can't be any real salvation for them. Thus we see that human works are necessary for salvation, even for those who claim that works don't save.
If that is the case, then we need to ask another very important but basic question. What kind of works are needed for salvation? Is going to church a saving work? Is reading the scriptures every day a saving work? Is doing genealogy a saving work? Is saying prayers twice a day a saving work? Those who believe in salvation through grace alone reject these kinds of works as having any saving influence. And they are absolutely right!
Performing any or all of the above mentioned works will not save us in and of themselves. They are merely tools to help us do the things that will save us. Going to church and reading the scriptures everyday helps us to understand what Christ wants us to do, but unless we put that knowledge to work in our lives, all of our church meetings and scripture reading will be for nothing. There are millions of non-Mormons who love doing genealogy work, but it's meaningless until those names are sent to a temple and the eternal covenants are performed for the deceased. Saying prayers twice a day can bring us closer to God if we do it properly, but it's how and what we pray for that makes us more Christ-like.
But what if we don't go to church, or read the scriptures or say our prayers or give financial support to the church? Can we truly develop the knowledge and skills necessary for us to do the real works of righteousness? Not nearly as easily, because all of these types of works are tools that help us cultivate the kind of Christ-like life that shows our love for God. They inform us, encourage us, strengthen us, guide us and keep us on the right path. However, we can have the best tools for gardening, but, unless we properly use them for hoeing, planting, weeding, and harvesting, there will be no crop. The same goes for using our spiritual tools. They are necessary to acquire only in so far as they help us produce an abundant spiritual life.
Then what are the works that do save? Jesus said, "A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another" (John 13:34). Love for our fellow man includes many, many things. Among them are caring for the needy, binding up the broken spirits, calming the troubled souls, uplifting the weary, and helping the Lord save His children.
"Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" (Matthew 25:34-40).
These and similar other acts of kindness and love are what truly shows our faith and demonstrate our love for Christ. As such, these are the works that truly bring forth salvation because they show forth the real work of the Lord.