Photo by Alan Levine/CC BY 2.0

The paradox of good works

This is the final draft of the talk I gave in sacrament meeting today.

Life is filled with paradoxes. If you need something to get done, whom do you call? The person who’s already the busiest. And if you’re running a business and want to increase your profits, what should you consider? Reducing your prices in hopes of getting more customers.

“Paradox” refers to a statement or belief that, at least at first, defies common sense and may in fact be self-contradictory. Paradoxes can be found almost anywhere. One of the most well-known paradoxes of science involves two hypothetical twins, one of whom leaves Earth and travels near the speed of light, and when she returns is younger than her sister. [1]

Paradoxes can be found even in the gospel, perhaps especially in the gospel. We believe in prophets, yet we also need to get our own confirmation of what they say. We believe that God is one, yet we also believe that God is three. We believe this church is the one true church, yet we also can find truth in other religions and practices. We are organized in a hierarchy, yet we believe we all stand equal before God. Jesus himself taught in paradoxes: The first will be last, and the last will be first. He who loses his life for my sake will find it. He who wants to be great must be a servant. The kingdom of God is like the employer who pays his employees the same wages regardless of how late they start work. The one who humbles himself will be exalted,and the one who exalts himself will be humbled. Prostitutes and tax collectors, Jesus once told religious leaders, would see the kingdom of God before they do.

What I would like to do today is to discuss one of greatest paradoxes of all. That paradox is this: Our good works have nothing to do with our salvation. Yet there is no salvation without good works. Now, salvation has several different meanings. But whether we’re talking about living a Christian life during our mortality or whether we’re talking about exaltation to godhood, the paradox is the same. We are not saved by our good works, yet we are not saved without good works.

I think that most of intuitively sense that at some level none of us are capable on our own of attaining the purity that God demands of us. Long before the birth of Christ, the prophet Isaiah lamented that even what we think are righteous acts are nothing more than filthy rags [2]; and truth be told, the term “filthy rags” used in the King James translation is a euphemism for something we usually don’t discuss in sacrament talks. Isaiah couldn’t have used starker terms to describe the gap between our so-called righteousness and God’s righteousness.

Hundreds of years later, the apostle Paul put it another way, telling us that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. The apostle John said much the same thing, telling us that if we say we have no sin we are deceiving ourselves. The solution, of course, is the Atonement, and words can barely describe what it has done for us. Said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland about the Atonement [3]:

“Indeed the Atonement of the Only Begotten Son of God in the flesh is the crucial foundation upon which all Christian doctrine rests and the greatest expression of divine love this world has ever been given. Its importance in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cannot be overstated. Every other principle, commandment, and virtue of the restored gospel draws its significance from this pivotal event.

Yes, indeed, it is the Atonement of Christ that saves us and nothing that we do. The Apostle Paul put it clearly in his letter to the Ephesians: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” [4]

It isn’t just Paul who tells us that we are saved through faith in Jesus and his work of the atonement rather than what we do. In the book of 2 Nephi, Lehi tells his sons that “Redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth. Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.” [5] In other words, nothing else, not even whatever good we do, pays the price,only the sacrifice of Christ. We couldn’t even pay for the Atonement if we wanted to.

As King Benjamin said in his famous sermon, we could serve God with our whole souls and we still would be unprofitable servants – in other words, that whatever we pay back be of less value than what has been given to us. This thought is put in a different way by Nephi, when he tells believers: “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.” To rely wholly on the work of Christ includes acknowledging that our own works aren’t saving us.

We know, of course, that not everyone receives all the blessings of the atonement, that our actions have something to do with something. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. The point is that our works don’t earn us what we are freely given. As Elder Jeffrey Holland put it: “Of course neither the unconditional nor the conditional blessings of the Atonement are available except through the grace of Christ. Obviously the unconditional blessings of the Atonement are unearned, but the conditional ones are not fully merited either. By living faithfully and keeping the commandments of God, one can receive additional privileges; but they are still given freely, not technically earned. The Book of Mormon declares emphatically that ‘there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah.”

In 2011, BYU professor Brad Wilcox presented a devotional that is destined to become a classic [6]. All the missionaries in our son’s mission and their families were asked to read or watch the devotional, and parts of it were recently reprinted in New Era. It’s a great talk. In that talk he told a story that relates to what happens when we start thinking that our good works are what save us, even in part. It’s fairly long, but I believe it tells the story well, so let me share:

A BYU student once came to me and asked if we could talk. I said, “Of course. How can I help you?” She said, “I just don’t get grace.” I responded, “What is it that you don’t understand?” She said, “I know I need to do my best and then Jesus does the rest, but I can’t even do my best.” She then went on to tell me all the things she should be doing because she’s a Mormon that she wasn’t doing. She continued, “I know that I have to do my part and then Jesus makes up the difference and fills the gap that stands between my part and perfection. But who fills the gap that stands between where I am now and my part?” She then went on to tell me all the things that she shouldn’t be doing because she’s a Mormon, but she was doing them anyway. Finally I said, “Jesus doesn’t make up the difference. Jesus makes all the difference. Grace is not about filling gaps. It is about filling us.” Seeing that she was still confused, I took a piece of paper and drew two dots—one at the top representing God and one at the bottom representing us. I then said, “Go ahead. Draw the line. How much is our part? How much is Christ’s part?” She went right to the center of the page and began to draw a line. Then, considering what we had been speaking about, she went to the bottom of the page and drew a line just above the bottom dot. I said, “Wrong.” She said, “I knew it was higher. I should have just drawn it, because I knew it.” I said, “No. The truth is, there is no line. Jesus filled the whole space. He paid our debt in full. He didn’t pay it all except for a few coins. He paid it all. It is finished.”

And that, brothers and sisters, is the gospel truth. Jesus paid the full price. But be honest now. If you heard the good news in that way for the first time, what would your reaction be? It very well could be the reaction of the BYU student. Allow me to repeat the last few lines of what Brother Wilcox said so you can capture the flavor of the student’s  reaction:

“Jesus filled the whole space. He paid our debt in full. He didn’t pay it all except for a few coins. He paid it all. It is finished.” She said, “Right! Like Idon’t have to do anything?”

The Apostle Paul faced the same question because of his emphasis on grace. In fact, one of the heresies in the early church was antinomianism, the belief that there are no rules of conduct for Christians because, after all, we have already been forgiven. It’s a falsehood that continues today in some segments of Christianity.

But the question remains, why do we, why should we, do good works if everything we receive from God is freely given to us anyway? I would answer the young woman’s final question in much the same way that Brother Wilcox did. If you’d like to read or hear his words, his talk is easy to find online.

And now I have a confession to make. Earlier in this talk when I quoted the apostle Paul, I quoted him out of context. Unfortunately, many people quoting from Ephesians 2 stop at the same place I did. Let me repeat the quote with the verse that follows [7]: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” In other words, we were created by God in order to do good works, and the reason God has saved us by grace, by the Atonement, is so we can do them. We don’t get saved by our good works, but we are saved to bring about our good works. Or as an online friend of mine [8] put it: “Grace is the path to doing all we can do, not the prize.”

Anglican author C.S. Lewis once wrote that the gates of hell are locked from the inside. If I were to expand his statement a bit further, I’d say that the gates of heaven aren’t locked at all. So we don’t do good works to unlock the heavenly gates but to prepare ourselves to enter them — and that’s whether we’re talking about living in the kingdom of God here on Earth or after we’ve passed onto the next life. The reason we’re asked to do good works isn’t to earn us a spot on the rolls of heaven or because God is like the police officer hidden behind the trees watching to see if we follow the law. Instead, a key reason we do good works is because they are God’s tool for us to become like Him. And it is those who become like him, those who are becoming like him, who will want and appreciate his presence in their lives, both now and in eternity. I like the way that Elder Dieter Uchtdorf explained this in the October 2005 General Conference [9]:

To follow Christ is to become more like Him. It is to learn from His character. The Savior invites us to learn His gospel by living His teachings. Ancient and modern prophets described it with three words: “Keep the commandments” — nothing more, nothing less. … Having faith in Jesus Christ and in His Atonement means relying completely on Him—trusting in His infinite power, intelligence, and love. When we have faith in Christ, we trust the Lord enough to follow His commandments—even when we do not completely understand the reasons for them. In seeking to become more like the Savior, we need to rely, through the path of true repentance, upon the merits of Jesus Christ and the blessings of His Atonement.

As President Uchtdorf suggests, faith by its very nature, faith in the scriptural sense of the word, isn’t an intellectual belief only. When Paul said we are saved by grace through faith, he wasn’t talking about mere belief, but by a faith that trusts in Christ, that trusts in him enough to let him change us into celestial creatures. As James told us, faith, real, genuine, living faith is always accompanied by good works. In what is perhaps the most eloquent section of scriptures written on the matter [10], the author of Hebrews doesn’t expound on faith by telling us what the great men and women of the Old Testament thought, but by what they did.

The danger of talking about faith and works in this way is that it’s easy to fall back into the old mentality of relying on our own actions rather than upon the merits of Christ. Instead of asking ourselves, “Have I done enough good works to be loved by God?,” we unfortunately can end up asking “Do I have enough faith to be loved by God?” But to repeat what Brother Wilcox said in his talk, if we start judging ourselves in this way we don’t understand grace.

Part of the good news is that God doesn’t ask us to have a lot of faith. Jesus himself said faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. What is important is to rely on Christ with whatever faith we have and trust that his grace will be sufficient not only to save us but to change us and to expand our faith. The great prophet Alma said as much: “But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can do no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you,” [11] and he goes on to describe how faith can grow.

As we trust in Christ, as we express gratitude for what he has done for us, we will gain an increased desire for doing good works. And while it’s not those works that save us – that’s what the gift of the Atonement is for — they are an essential part of God’s plan for us to become like our father in heaven and to become the divine creatures he created us to be. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


1. See Twin Paradox.

2. Isaiah 64:6

3. The Atonement of Jesus Christ.

4. Ephesians 2:8-9.

5. 2 Nephi 2:6-7.

6. His Grace Is Sufficient

7. Ephesians 2:10.

8. Tim at LDS & Evangelical Conversations.

9. Becoming Like Jesus Christ.

10. Hebrews 11.

11. Alma 32:27.

Photo by Alan Levine/CC BY 2.0

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