Grace and Works in Martin Luther and Joseph Smith

John Dillenberger, “Grace and Works in Martin Luther and Joseph Smith,” in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 175–86.

Grace and Works in Martin Luther and Joseph Smith

John Dillenberger


A burning issue during the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation which continues to our time is the relationship of divine grace and human works in the process of salvation. Because Mormonism insists on the universal and exceptionless requirement of Christ’s ordinances and the absolute prerequisite of his authority in their performance, it has sometimes been called sacerdotal and even Catholic. Because it stresses the vital priority of faith and repentance through Christ before his ordinances can have any validity whatever, it is sometimes called Protestant and even occasionally identified with movements that speak of “faith alone.” Because Mormonism stresses the power of man to respond to or to reject Christ’s law both during and after conversion, it is sometimes called Judaic and even Mosaic in its legalism. To attempt to bring witness to these insights under a prophetic as well as a priestly mode has occasioned continuous misunderstanding. It can be shown (and has been recently by Helmut Kuhn in his dissertation comparing Luther and classical Catholicism) that disagreements may be less profound than similarities. In any case, the Mormon believes his position is not a convenient eclecticism but a repossession of a New Testament understanding that reconciles Paul and James.

Professor John Dillenberger, distinguished Reformation scholar, has published studies of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. Here he identifies the subtler relationships of grace and works in the Book of Mormon, Mormon teachings generally, and the Reformation. He objects to the hasty polarizations which obscure the Christocentric Mormon view of salvation and redemption as also the modes in which power and grace are manifested. Toward the end of his paper Professor Dillenberger speculates that in its kinships to certain elements of Puritanism “Mormonism does not believe that redemption exists without atonement or grace. But it does believe that there are empowering capacities of the human spirit which are essential for the appropriation and essential for the living out of the spiritual life.” Dillenberger concludes that perhaps Mormonism is not only an American religion but the American religion if “American” be defined as having a direct English pedigree.

T. G. M.

While the issues surrounding grace and/or works can be said to define the central atmosphere of living a religious or Christian life, terms in and of themselves are not clarifying apart from the total context in which they function. Indeed, such is the case with key concepts in any field. Such concepts provide focus precisely because they relate to a totality, but become sterile when attention shifts to them in their own right. They are instructive precisely when and because they focus the whole at the pivotal point.

In Christianity, grace and works focus the totality at the critical juncture where life is lived. Hence, every version of Christianity affirms both grace and works, though the understandings may diverge almost 180 degrees; that is, the understandings may be almost totally opposite to each other. Understood, however, in terms of the perceived misunderstandings which had to be corrected, nearly opposite expressions frequently, at different historical junctures, may express a shared intentionality. Originally, the trinitarian formulation was meant to express the unity of God in the polytheistic setting of the Roman empire. The unitarian impulse was born when changes in conceptions of personality made the Trinity appear polytheistic. Because of the heavily rationalistic character of the unitarian developments into the early nineteenth century, the orthodox development did not recognize that contribution. Except for occasional theological work, the trinitarian issue has been observed and preserved by liturgical formulae but not as a conscious life issue. Hence the nineteenth-century Mormon development, which on biblical and revelatory grounds accepted the full development of personality as constitutive of God to the point of what, to the traditional orthodox, might look like the pluralism of gods, hardly created a ripple. The focus of concern had shifted elsewhere, which is another way of saying that the trinitarian issue was no longer the place where the forms and vitality of faith were at stake. Or to put it still another way, when the theological formulations no longer impinged on the existential question of life—defining existential here as the issue of the fundamental life beat of one’s life rather than as a particular view of that existence—they survive in benign, no longer constructive ways, though at some future juncture the issue with which they dealt may be triggered again.

Unlike the trinitarian issue, the grace/works question, for the mentioned reason that it deals directly with human life, has continued as a more critical and lively problem, though current popular interest in mysticism and the contemplative disciplines bypasses much of the traditional formulation (though not the issue itself). Our purpose here, however, is not to deal initially with the contemporary scene or to range throughout history. It is rather to take a comparative look at Luther, the most radical exponent of grace not without works, and Joseph Smith, one of the most radical exponents of works not without grace. Both are fascinating prophetic figures for whom the ultimacy of their visions was full of implications not amenable to easy bending or facile both/and answers. In each, a both/and answer demanded a logic of faith that disclosed the inadequacy and wrong-headedness of a simple “and.” Both set currents of belief going that had dramatic visual historical consequences only partially under their control. Both were robust in disposition and makeup and, in the light of their faith, were fearless, the one escaping death several times, the other being martyred for the faith.

Luther challenged the dominant theological and ecclesiastical forces of his time by claiming that the ancient heritage was on his side, accepting his newly won view of faith and scripture only in the light of purer historical antecedents rather than from his contemporary world. Joseph Smith faced the bewildering Protestant sectarianism of his time in terms of fresh vision, which led to a new scripture and the formation of a church based on archetypes and parallels more ancient than those the historic Christian church had claimed. Luther looked to the word of God disclosed through a scripture interpreted in the church, as the constant source of continuity. What was new was what already also had been perceived. Joseph Smith, also finding all that was around him inadequate, was led through visions to the new realities and perceptions available through revelations, freed from their historic props and given credibility in their own right. Indeed, the stress on new revelations meant that, in principle, such new sources were to be honored in the emerging tradition. But the emergent instituted church would have been shattered had all visions and revelations been given official sanction. Already Brigham Young had to warn against undue accents on visions and healing, both so characteristic of Joseph Smith. Empirically and structurally, the office of the First Presidency determined what of the newly emergent perceptions should have status and, in recent history, no individuals or groups have succeeded in establishing radical departures or creating new schisms. The situation is not too different from the early church where episcopacy, the canon of scripture and philosophy served to test the spirits, opinions and directions. In Luther’s time, the papal episcopal office and the dominant philosophy stood in the way, and the logic of scripture was his only recourse. To Joseph Smith, a new revelation led to a religious vision, related to the historic Christian community, but with the essentials built on foundations considerably different, including a new scripture.

The formal similarities between Luther and Joseph Smith are here entered into not for the sake of indicating similarities when they obviously do not exist, but because the usual notion from the sight of Mormons and Protestants alike is that they are irreconcilable. Further, if one looks at the church rather than the two individuals, the analogies may indeed be as great if not greater between Mormonism and Roman Catholicism as between Mormonism and Protestantism. The concept of authority and priesthood is central to both churches, though in Mormonism the priesthood is considerably extended and “laicized.” Rites and ordinances, as, for example baptism, binding and loosing, regular participation, and clearly spelled-out moral requirements, are more characteristic of both than of Protestantism generally.

The focal point of innovative difference is essentially theological, the points at which Mormonism diverges from both Catholic and Protestant traditions. The nature of that difference can be delineated, but explanation of the source and reasons for the difference are elusive. There are two extreme answers: sheer revelation and societal-historical determination.

The authority and authenticity of visions and revelations do not rest on their “sheerness” but on a compelling vision which is instructive to and validating of one’s existence. Indeed, Mormonism above all stakes its claim on the conviction that its faith claims are particularly commensurate with the natural springs of the human psyche, that the compatibility rests on foundations older than creation, namely, in the eternal, timeful structure of things. On the other side, the fact of the emergence of several new religious groups in the contending religious ambience of the revival beat of New York State, later known as the Burned-Over District, provides a context for understanding the possibility of Mormonism; but in itself it provides no clue for understanding the core of its faith unless one were to engage in the dubious claim of using such settings as disclosing that it was all a hoax. But similar arguments could be used in the emergence of religious movements in general. Regrettably, we do not have enough information to provide the kind of illumination which an analysis of the social context could provide.

Such questions, focused on illumination rather than on explanation, could be enriching to our understanding. Again there is a positive, self-reliant attitude in Mormonism, characteristic as well of other groups, but not until later related directly to its theology. Is its source the American need for self-reliance, related to newer currents of affirmation from abroad stemming from the Enlightenment, or is it itself an independent vision? Perhaps Mormonism, rather than the Protestant evangelical movement, is the authentic American theology, for the self-reliance of revivalist fundamentalist groups stood in marked contrast to their inherited conception of the misery of humanity. Such groups, too, began to accent the powers of humanity in making the appropriate faith decision, even though their conception of humanity came near to calling such possibilities into question. In stressing human possibilities, Mormonism brought things into line, not by abandoning the centrality of grace but by insisting that the powers of humanity were real and that they reflected the actual state of humanity as such. From such a perspective, Mormonism brought understanding to what had become an untenable problem within evangelicalism: how to reconcile the new power of humanity with the negative inherited views of humanity, without abandoning the necessity of grace. That issue takes us directly into the grace/works problem.

The world of Luther was not noted for its optimism or for its emphasis on the natural powers of humanity, though the Renaissance currents were just entering the life of the church. That in that setting Luther stressed the vitalities of humanity is a point usually missed. But the same vitalities were considered powerless, not in the sense of the absence of power but in the incapacity to change the alienation between humanity and God. Hence, Luther affirmed the natural vitalities over against many of his contemporaries—as, for example, his considering the idea that one could be too fervent in love to be a pagan notion. But for Luther, man’s natural vitalities cannot deliver the human spirit into a positive and easy relation with God. Indeed, no theologian in the history of the Church has been more rigorous at this point than Luther, for he effectively forestalled the role of humanity accepting grace or being so transformed by it that the resultant powers were solely and properly directed to God and neighbor. In that setting, total depravity meant that the total had reference, not to the lowest state of depravity, but to the experiential conviction that no part of humanity escaped alienation—body, spirit, will, reason, religious experience. Not infrequently, Luther used language very derogatory of humanity before God, like being nothing but dung. But such language must be understood not in metaphysical terms but in terms of the rhetoric of Luther’s use of language. For Luther, humanity was grander than most of his contemporaries believed, but bound to itself in opposition to God, a self from which the self could not deliver itself. That is the setting for the concrete explication of grace and works in Luther.

Luther’s great contribution centers in the recovery of the biblical meaning of the righteousness of God. Generally the medieval church defined the righteousness of God as the demanding justice of God; for the mature Luther, by contrast, the righteousness of God was fundamentally the mercy of God. This transformation in understanding was made in three stages. In so far as the medieval view interpreted the righteousness of God as his demanding justice, the fundamental problem was how humanity could stand before such a God.

The medieval church did not believe that humanity could do this in terms of its own righteousness. Rather, in the prevailing medieval view, humanity hoped to stand before the righteousness of God by virtue of a combination of serious intentions, righteous works whose imperfections are met by grace, and the sacramental realities which covered all the situations of humanity. It was a combination of grace and of the best acts of humanity.

The second stage in the transition is that found in Luther’s first lectures on the Psalms and to some extent in his lectures on the letter to the Romans. Two significant shifts in the emphasis of Luther’s thinking are apparent at this stage. In the first place, the righteousness of God is no longer seen as just a demanding justice before which humanity may stand by virtue of its own good works and the forgiving grace of God. The righteousness of God is now primarily the grace which transforms and makes humanity righteous. The righteousness of God is no longer encountered in terms of a transaction in which satisfaction is made to God. In the second place, human activity no longer has any part in the ultimate determination of humanity’s destiny. Grace alone enables humanity to stand before the righteousness of God. This general view was shared to some extent by figures who represent the Augustinian tradition in the Middle Ages. But Luther gave it a more classical and evangelical expression.

The third position is Luther’s full-blown Reformation conception. Formally, it bears similarities to his earlier understanding. The righteousness of God and his grace are identified, though now more emphatically than before. Grace alone is decisive, though now in an entirely new way. The crucial difference is that the emphasis is no longer on God’s grace in enabling humanity to be righteous. God’s grace, which is his righteousness, is shown in his treating humanity as righteous whatever the state of its life. Still utilizing the medieval language in which humanity needed to stand in righteousness before the demands of God, Luther declared that acceptability is imputed to humanity; righteousness is ascribed to humanity. Humanity now stands before God in the light of his grace alone, and that righteousness of life and humanity’s activity, so important in other contexts, are irrelevant here.

This understanding gave birth to the Reformation in its radical character. On its basis, the medieval sacramental understanding was challenged at its best. Gone was any idea that humanity’s relation to a righteous God depended on works and the infusion of actual righteousness. In its place stood grace alone.

In faith, humanity stands before God in the light of grace. For humanity, even at its best, there is no other possibility. Hence, for Luther, good works are not determinative of one’s relation to God; they follow from faith as day follows night, as good fruit comes from a good tree. Where there are no works, there is no faith; the seriousness and joy of belonging to God are not known. But the temptation of the believer is to look at the works which are done in faith and suddenly to reinstitute works and merit as a new form of slavery in the very citadel of the freedom of the gospel. For Luther, the ethical rigor of the New Testament teachings and of the law should convince the Christian that he is still sinner. Moreover, the very looking at one’s works spoils them. Genuine works point to God, not to self. This is why Luther can declare that, apart from faith, all works are nothing but “truly wicked and damnable sins.” On the external, moral level, they may be better than other courses of action. But in terms of their total orientation, that is, in terms of one’s status before God, they are of no effect. On that level, everything is a matter of relationship, a relationship into which humanity enters by virtue of God’s unaccountable activity. Confronted by God, humanity cannot depend on a combination of works and faith, or faith and works, but only on faith not without works, or of faith active in love. The Christian is to live and to struggle, to be a Christ to his neighbor, and above all to trust God.

In the light of God’s imputation of righteousness to humanity, humanity is totally sainted; aside from this, the actuality of humanity’s situation is that humanity is totally sinner. Humanity is at once saint and sinner. The recognition that humanity is still sinner is a description of humanity’s life before God. The sin in humanity’s position before God is reflected in the sins of humanity’s life. But to look at the latter in isolation is to misunderstand the problem of sin. This would be an anthropological rather than a theological view and would obscure the fundamental issue, humanity’s trust or lack of trust before God.

The scriptural commandments and teachings disclose humanity’s lack of an adequate relation to God, but also serve to give direction to humanity’s responsibilities.

The setting and theology of Joseph Smith are so different as to make comparison with Luther virtually impossible; yet the accents, if one accepts that the angle from which the vision emerges is as important as the vision itself, may place them in a more congenial relationship. For Joseph Smith the vitalities of life have meaning alike for the affairs of humanity and for humanity’s destiny. Indeed, the two form a unity. The fall of Adam and the necessity of atonement and grace for humanity are central concepts in the Book of Mormon and in the writing of Joseph Smith. But their settings and configurations are distinctive. That for Luther no part of humanity escapes the burden of the Fall has fateful consequences; for Joseph Smith the Fall has led to the necessity of God’s redeeming work, but essentially it has not affected our powers; rather, it has sanctified them in terms of our destiny to the point that, in analogy to the church fathers, though for different reasons, the Fall has had good consequences.

For Joseph Smith, the Fall does affect all of mankind but not all of man. As intelligence and spirit, we are “given”—as eternal as God—as is the stuff or “given” matter formed in creation. The consequences of the Fall are physical bodily death—though we will be restored to our bodies, glorified indeed—and that we are all called upon to live in our bodies as if we were in heaven, that future state in which our spirits will dominate our bodily existence. Hence it is as if the Fall put spirit on trial, not in itself, but in terms of its relation to and its dominance over the body. In this sense there is a haunting similarity to Swedenborgianism. More fundamentally, it explains the simultaneous puritanical view of the sins of the body and the glorification of the body in spiritual expression. No religious tradition is more harsh for flaunting the moral sexual code than Mormonism; no religion is more positive about the body as a joyous temple, for spirit is expressed in body. That some of us may not look that positively upon Mormonism’s particular spiritual expression in bodily incarnation should not blind us to the fact that bodily existence is seldom seen religiously in more positive terms than by Mormonism.

For Joseph Smith, the Fall does not essentially affect the spirit; that central essence, primordial and eternal, is not affected at its core. Nevertheless, the redemption of humanity in its totality, in bodily humanity, is dependent upon the atonement, that loving, suffering act of God in his Son Jesus. That act and love are the reality we must accept and act out in our lives. Without it there is no hope; in the light of it, as did God and Christ, we can face all things. Joseph Smith, a martyr himself, did not take a Pollyanna stance toward the human scene. The evil with which we wrestle is real. But the power inherent in humanity is that of accepting such grace, incorporating it in our lives, and living in the light of that empowering grace. Such work would have no possibility without grace, but it is the conjunction of our abilities and powers and the reality of grace. The appropriation and expression of grace in deeds of life and in sacramental ordinances for ourselves and others, comprises the God-intended life. It means that the correlation between this world and the next is genuine; that there is no radical disjunction, the temple life being already the direct paradigm of heaven itself. Our empowered lives live already in the life to come, where the foretaste of the fulfillment needs extension rather than transformation. The vision of Joseph Smith is the heavenly life already manifest in this worldly existence.

Some attention has been given to the total sweep of the views of Luther and Joseph Smith. Both were obviously conditioned by the cultural ethos and perceptions of the time, and the visions, while not caused or determined by the culture, were certainly filtered by it and they in turn transfigured the created ingredients. That is why it does not seem to me to be too helpful to try to understand Mormonism as the product of the liberal movement, of the Enlightenment, and so forth. Indeed, one could as easily make the case that it is similar in its sanctification strain to Methodism, or in its sacramental ordinances, to Catholicism. The elements of truth in such parallels or connections are but a shadow compared to the more fulsome vision.

One final comparison may be made between Luther and Joseph Smith. Both dealt with scriptural translations, with a freedom to place accents in the light and in the logic of faith by which the scripture was read. For Luther, justification by grace or faith became grace or faith alone, long before sola scriptura. For Joseph Smith, his inspired vision meant that Romans 7 is recast to show that Paul was carnal under the law but spiritual under Christ. Hence, his Inspired Version reads: “For we know that the commandment is spiritual; but when I was under the law, I was yet carnal, sold under sin. But now I am spiritual; for that which I am commanded to do, I do; and that which I am commanded not to allow, I allow not” (Romans 7:14–15). That certainly solves the problem which has plagued critics by using a theological position to influence the translation. The more traditional translation reads:

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.

Certainly a harmonization between Paul, or Luther’s interpretation of Paul—even if Paul and Luther are not the same—and Joseph Smith is not possible. Yet both Luther and Joseph Smith may have something to say to the respective traditions which they represent. Luther saw that the people of faith still had the residuals of sin within them, and that therefore their trust was in a gracious God beyond all they did or were. Could Mormonism be brought to see that there may be more ambiguity in the religious life than it knows; that it troubles others to see that its spirituality is so much on the side of man’s present condition, which remains tainted. Joseph Smith knew that the vitalities of life belong to faith, that this life and its religious arena are one and positive, even in the face of death. Such a healthy regard for creation and its future stands over against all puritanical spiritualities that denigrate the body. The puritanical streak within Mormonism is not essential to its theory, and perhaps it has prevented it from making the contribution it might have.

I, and all of us in one way or another, have touched on the social context or history of Mormonism. Let us accept that Mormonism, as other religions, is based on revelatory experiences. But visions and revelatory events occur in contexts, with colorations unique to them. Delineations of such contexts do not provide explanations, but may provide illumination. My own historical hunches, based on some evidence, is that historically, Mormonism belonged to an English type of Christianity, as compared with a Continental type, north or south of the Alps. English Christianity, even in its reformed form, differs markedly from its Continental cousins. Theologically, the religion of Israel and of Christ, seen in positive relation to each other by John Calvin, on the Continent, took the form of a culture formed by religious perceptions, as contrasted with the forming of a total society analogous to Israel in England. From the medieval Lollards to the Puritans—and they are more connected than Calvin and the Puritans—the identification with Israel, the creation of a new Israel, the identification of the land and people with Israel, has been constant, and no Continental would have thought of himself or herself in that way. The impossibility of creating such a society in England led, of course, to New England, the real new Israel. The Puritan experiment in New England was more successful in its ethos than its theology, which increasingly divided and fragmented the very society it was intending, in analogy to Israel, to create. It was the Mormons who found and made the place a society in genuine analogy to Israel. The religious-social experiment which was frustrated in London, and abortive in Boston, succeeded in Salt Lake City. The New Testament message, supplemented by fresh revelations, was given form in a society analogous to the religious and social intermixture known as Israel.

Mormonism is a new and ancient religion, once banking everything on the newness of its revelation and more lately in an increasing crescendo, buttressing its credibility by the wealth of ancient, historical analogies and allusions.