Beyond Faith Versus Works: Exploring Frameworks for Dialogue
Discussions between Mormons and Evangelicals sometimes get snagged as to whether works are necessary to salvation or whether only faith is necessary. This particular debate, however, tends not to produce or enhance mutual understanding and therefore there is a need to move beyond the faith-works stalemate.
Sometimes, during these debates, Mormons try to finesse ‘works’ and explain that having faith is a work, or accepting a gift is a work. In their mind, since both sides agree that we need faith and need to accept the gift, then this should resolve the debate. The logic seems sound. However, for reasons below, this kind of explanation confuses more than enlightens, and probably should be substituted for something better.
For Evangelicals, having faith or accepting Christ is seen as something outside the power of fallen man. It isn’t something possible with an unregenerate heart (i.e. before being born again) and thus, it isn’t really man’s choice. The Mormon who argues that accepting a free gift or having faith is a work tend not to understand this theological nuance. In a strict form, man is totally depraved and therefore cannot even accept grace unless he is born again. What the Latter-day Saint wants to get across is that man’s choices matter, they have significance, they are not irrelevant, and man’s choices must somehow factor into whether man is born again.
I suspect that the faith vs. works debate is really the manifestation of the larger and more important debate as to whether salvation is ultimately God’s choice or man’s choice. This is the real crux of the matter.
For many, salvation is entirely God’s choice and God’s choice alone; human decisions have no bearing on the matter. Under this view, if a person desires to follow God, that desire was a gift given to her by God in the first instance. On the other side, many see God as making the first move but then waiting for man to step forward and respond to God’s call in some way that cannot be performed by God. In this scenario, man’s decision must, at least at some core level, be his own choice, otherwise man’s existence has no purpose and eternal punishments and rewards for behavior for which we are not even responsible would be unjust.
Framing the issue as faith vs. works essentially masks this fundamental debate. I should point out that I’ve described the two positions as mutually exclusive, but in reality, I suspect that many people fluctuate between these two views depending on life challenges, because we probably identify with both positions in different times of our lives. It’s in this space where dialogue and understanding can take place.
The way these positions are often understood (as either or) is probably flawed because it assumes man can neatly separate his choices independent from any divine influence. It isn’t clear, however, whether this is possible. Yet, I do feel that getting beyond the traditional faith vs. works framework and considering the issue of God’s choice vs. man’s choice, while not perfect, is a much improved framework by which to discuss these issues.