Recently I was watching a program on an evangelical Christian television network on "ministering to Mormons." The program was filmed in Utah and consisted mainly of the host walking up to Mormons on the street and asking them a series of questions to help them realize how much they needed salvation. The host first condemned the Latter-day Saints by going through the ten commandments with them one by one and showing them how they were breaking all of them in one way or another (interesting side note: the commandment on keeping the sabbath day holy was conspicuously absent from the host's list, but that's another matter for another time), then proceeded to give the cure for his condemnations: faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. When the Saints would protest, saying something to the effect of, "I already have faith in Jesus Christ. He is my Savior and Redeemer," the host would brush the comments off with, "Yes, but of course your Jesus is the brother of Satan," then proceed to proclaim their faith all but useless because they believed they were saved by works, or by keeping the commandments.
From my experience, these two arguments--Mormons believe Jesus is the brother of Satan and that they are saved by works, not grace--are the two most commonly used against Latter-day Saints by evangelical Christians. I will not get into the first argument at this time, but I would like to speak about the second argument. The argument that Mormons believe they are saved by works is so often given as a reason they are not Christians, but those who give it often have no idea what Mormons actually teach and believe about the relationship between grace, works, and faith.
First, the plain truth: Do members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that they are saved by works and not by grace and/or faith? Emphatically, no. To clarify, consider the fictional case of a man who lives the gospel admirably from day to day. He is the kindest, meekest, humblest, most charitable, faithful, and loving man anyone has ever known. He is entirely selfless and follows nearly every command of the Lord Jesus Christ. But, and here's the kicker, he doesn't actually believe in Jesus Christ. Still, he's a religious man and hopes to attain full salvation by his good works. According to our critics, since we believe that men are saved by their works, this man would be granted full salvation in our view. However, this is not the case. We believe that only those who accept the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and covenant to enter into His straight and narrow path by the necessary scriptural conditions (which we'll get into in a bit) are eligible for full salvation and exaltation. Only then can their works bring them closer to God, since because all sin to some degree or another, we need that Mediator to allow us to begin to return to our Heavenly Father.
We believe that the scriptures plainly demonstrate a logical balance of faith, grace, and works involved in one's obtaining of salvation. Let's evaluate this balance:
By Grace, through Faith, unto Works
In defense of their doctrine on grace, Protestants often quote Ephesians 2:8-9, which reads, "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." Do Latter-day Saints believe this scripture? Yes, we do, but Paul's thought is incomplete, for in quoting the scripture Christians often leave off the tenth verse, which adds, "for we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." So the entire scriptural idea presented here is, then, that we are saved by grace, through faith, unto works. This may sound complicated, but really it's quite simple: God offers us salvation by His Eternal grace, but in order to access it we must have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, which will lead us to the good works that God has always "ordained that we should walk in."
Jesus Christ is rightly called the Mediator, because it is His atoning sacrifice that allows us to access God's salvation by grace. Sin once created an impenetrable barrier between us and God, but when Christ performed His atonement, He created a way for us to overcome (or repent of) our sins and have them permanently removed from our record, so that on the Day of Judgment we may be found spotless (1 John 1:7; Isaiah 1:18). Part of this faith in Christ entails following His teachings and commandments. After all, Paul describes Christ as "the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him" (Hebrews 5:9), and the Savior Himself said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). And, just to really hit the point home, let's add this bold declaration of the Savior: "Not every one 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). It will not do to claim all of God's grace for ourselves without first meeting the conditions He has set for us in His holy writ. Can we really even claim to have faith in Jesus Christ if we do not follow the words He spoke?
Conditions for Grace
The conditions for God's grace (aka the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel) are set forth in the Church's Articles of Faith, "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" (Articles of Faith 1:4). This pattern is merely a repetition of the pattern of salvation throughout the New Testament, most clearly shown in Acts, chapter 2. In this setting, Peter gives an impassioned sermon to a large group of Jews on the day of Pentecost. Following the sermon, many in the congregation were "pricked in their heart" (v. 37), and, (1) having faith, asked Peter, "what shall we do?" Peter's response was thus: "(2) Repent, and (3) be baptized every one of you [note: that's EVERY one of them] in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and (4) you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (v. 38).
By contrast, what did the Evangelical preacher of the television show say were the conditions for God's grace, if any? Interestingly, he said that we must accept Jesus Christ as our personal Savior, and repent. His answer left me a little wanting. I couldn't imagine how one could repent without violating the ideas he was condemning Latter-day Saints for. Before telling them to repent, he spent quite awhile trying to counsel them how futile it was to repent. The impression he left me with was that it was silly to think we could be righteous, so why even try? And that reminds me of another conversation I was involved in with another evangelical preacher, in which he said after we accepted Jesus as our Savior, our repentance was covered by grace and we never needed to repent again. It logically follows, therefore, that we also could never sin again. What a dangerous doctrine! What possible good could it be to tell a man that he could not sin? I can think of only negative results. But anyway, in regards to repentance, I know we mortals can never be perfect in this life, but I refuse to accept the idea that that means God does not ask certain things of us. I, for one, will keep trying. And when I fall short, well, isn't that what the Atonement is all about, anyway?
So, do Latter-day Saints believe we are saved by our works? No. But do we acknowledge that we must do certain things the Lord has asked us in order to qualify for admittance into the kingdom of heaven? The Lord was quite clear that this was the case. It is hugely important to read all scriptures in context and remember the balance that is taught throughout the whole text, not just in one or two isolated verses.