Not Even Close to 95 Mormon Theses for Reformation Day

martin-luther3It’s Reformation Day yet again, number 498 with 500 coming soon, and to commemorate it yet again Craig H. (a professor of Reformation history) delivered the DeLamar Jensen lecture at BYU on Thursday, on the twin themes of 1) how a Mormon farm-boy like DeLamar Jensen (or for that matter a Mormon suburb-boy like himself) ever in the world got interested in the Reformation, and 2) what the youngish sixteenth-century monk Martin Luther might possibly have to say to other Mormons too. Jason K. was in attendance, squished among the Axe-sprayed hordes (as certain BYU colleagues affectionately call them), and asked Craig whether he might publish excerpts at BCC, especially Craig’s assorted Luther-style theses on what an infusion of Luther-style grace into Mormonism might possibly look like. Though Craig is a (very occasional) blogger at T&S, he, in good ecumenical spirit, agreed. And though he has written mostly about the Reformation, Craig is also the author of a missionary memoir, Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionarywhich is exactly as amazing as that title makes it sound (see Russell Arben Fox’s review here). We’re glad to welcome Craig as a guest at BCC.

The body of the talk went something like this: most Mormons (like most people) don’t know much about Luther, but plenty still tend to think of him as a sort of forerunner of their own religion. Maybe. But his big main point, that justification comes by grace, through faith, isn’t exactly the dominant Mormon way of thinking about salvation.

In fact, despite some recent flashes of something close to Luther-style grace in Mormonism (coming from Stephen Robinson, Elder Uchtdorf, or Adam Miller), Mormons are still more likely to believe the version of salvation Luther was protesting against: justification by grace, through doing every dang thing you can possibly do to earn that grace. Or more formally, doing all that lies within you.

That formula, said Luther, came straight out of Aristotle, not the Bible, and much as Aristotle was to be admired on some subjects and much as Luther understood the attractions of Aristotle’s thought for the scholastic theologians who after 1100 came up with the formula as part of their excitement to reconcile classical reason with Christian faith, Aristotle knew Jack Squat about Christian salvation (unquote). Good works don’t make you good, said Luther, contradicting Aristotle and speaking from his own millions of attempts to make himself good. No, he said, relying mostly on his reading of Paul, it was the other way around: a good person does good works—and a person is made good, or just, by God alone. Because saying that justification came through a combination of grace and doing every dang thing you possibly can never answers the question that plagued Luther all those years: how much is all? How many dang things are enough?

In 1518, Luther’s formula was still actually Catholic—sure, it was a minority tradition, but Luther wasn’t the only Catholic who thought this way. Still, most Catholics didn’t like it, saying too much belief in grace makes believers lax: they’ll think they can do anything as long as they say they believe. Luther said back, whoever says that doesn’t understand grace, and the desperation that precedes it, and the life-changing effect that follows it. Grace isn’t the easy way: it’s the way of the cross. Just as Christ’s glory emerged from the darkness of the cross, so the light of grace comes only through dark trials—and you never get to those trials as long as you think that things like indulgences will give you grace instead.

Critics said that an emphasis on grace lessens the importance of good works: Luther responded that he was thoroughly in favor of good works, in fact should be called the doctor of good works, he just wanted people to understand that grace doesn’t come from those works; instead good works flow out of grace.

So if everybody’s in favor of doing good works anyway, then why stir things up? Because, said Luther, how you think about works affects which works you do and how you approach them: doing good works to earn grace tends to make you obsessed with yourself and your purity, making for some cranky souls, as he knew firsthand. People whose works flow out of grace are more inclined to turn their works toward others, out of gratitude to God, plus the worry about earning credit is gone and you’re a far more pleasant person.

And so to Luther the key wasn’t to do more good works, or to preach more good works, but to deepen your belief that Christ really would do what he said and save you, if you just believe.

Then came the question: is there anything for Mormons in all this? Maybe the classic formula, justification by grace through doing every dang thing you can possibly do to earn that grace, is right. But maybe for people wired something like Luther, it doesn’t quite work. And maybe even people who like the classic formula might like a little Luther-style grace too. So how might an infusion of that sort of grace look in Mormonism? Like Luther, I’m a professor, and am supposed to profess things. So I decided to profess Luther-style, in the form of a mere 19 theses (disputations in Luther’s time might range anywhere from 3 to 380 theses), which like all such theses I advanced not as statements of absolute truth, or what should occur, but to raise points for discussion and clarification.

  1. An infusion of Luther-style grace would affirm that faith, not obedience, is the first principle of the gospel, just like the fourth Article of Faith says, which wouldn’t even need altering.
  2. Some Luther-style grace might require altering a couple of others, like the third, but some articles get altered in practice anyway, like the twelfth: we believe in obeying and sustaining kings and rulers and the law, except the King of England, rulers not in our political party, and any speed limit that is ridiculously too low.
  3. Telling people to do their best but also to obey rules with exactness can fast create a crisis of faith in anyone who is even close to being as sensitive as Martin Luther.
  4. Saying that all God asks you to do is keep His commandments isn’t entirely all, since God also says that whoever has to be commanded in all things is a bafflingly lazy someone.
  5. This is one reason why obedience can’t be the currency of salvation (à la Elder Uchtdorf) or even ultimate guide to life: there just aren’t enough commandments in the world to anticipate every situation you might possibly face.
  6. Another reason is that commandments are sometimes at odds and you therefore have to choose one or the other, like in the very first story of Adam and Eve; or maybe they don’t even fit the immediate situation, like in David’s followers eating the shew bread, and Jesus’s picking corn on the Sabbath, and Nephi lopping off Laban’s head.
  7. An infusion of Luther-style grace might help you pay less attention to visible behaviors that usually count for religion or irreligion, and pay more attention to the invisible quality of someone’s heart, including your own, that Jesus spoke so profusely about but that is so easy to ignore in religious societies defined pretty much entirely by visible behaviors.
  8. A little Luther-style grace might lead you actually to believe that the greatest commandments really are to love God and love your neighbor, even greater than not smoking, not cussing, not drinking, not cheering for the U, paying tithing, dressing modestly, etc.
  9. In fact, a little Luther-style grace can help you to see that when Luther said it was more important to do works of love for your neighbor than to buy indulgences, it would be akin in Mormonism to saying that it’s more important to do works of love for your neighbor than not smoking, not cussing, not drinking, not cheering for the U, paying tithing, dressing modestly, etc., all of which in Mormonism can easily take on some indulgence-style features.
  10. Some Luther-style grace might result in more and actually well-prepared sacrament-meeting talks on how people believe what Christ says about saving you, rather than on how to do even more of every dang thing you possibly can at an even higher level than you currently are.
  11. Putting the focus on talks about believing Christ might, though, mean changing the line in I Am A Child of God back to “Teach me all that I must know” instead of the famous 60s revision “Teach me all that I must do,” which might in turn make you think about how profound that can be.
  12. A little Luther-style grace might help you stress out less over being something less than perfect, and a little less shocked when you or others inevitably fall short, even way short, and realize that just as it’s easier to handle death by wholeheartedly and not just theoretically accepting that it’s real, and painful, and inevitable, it’s also easier to handle less-than-perfect by likewise accepting that it’s likewise real, and painful, and inevitable.
  13. That sort of acceptance also goes a long way toward helping us all to see that we really all are in the same boat: we are all beggars.
  14. We are all people of Walmart too.
  15. And we are all people of AA as well, because we can all use the 12 steps and benefit from the point that as soon as you think you can handle things on your own, without your sponsor, then you’re in trouble, because we probably all need a sponsor to help us keep an eye on our particular afflictions, or when we start saying “I am worthy” instead of “I am unworthy.”
  16. Saying you are unworthy like that doesn’t have to go with any flagellation or gloom and doom, but should actually lend some joy, because just like Luther said you become less obsessed with yourself, and turn pleasantly to help your neighbor, and be a home or visiting teacher or doing other things not for the classic reasons of getting the EQ or RS president off your back, or because “I need the [preferably tangible] blessings,” but because you realize you need help too—maybe not on this particular thing, but on something else for sure. Probably something big too. Certainly.
  17. But with a little Luther-style grace you again don’t despair but have hope, and you really believe the famous sermon of the Lutheran Paul Tillich: You are accepted, even though you are unacceptable–which is no easy statement to get your mind around, mind you, but when you finally do you actually believe both parts now instead of still secretly believing that you can only be accepted when you’re acceptable.
  18. Some Luther-style grace would keep you from constantly waiting for the day when you’re finally perfect, but instead help you find some joy and contentment right now.
  19. In fact some Luther-style grace would make you as relieved as the character in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, who said, “now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

These are just a few possible theses on the subject, of course. They could go on forever, even all the way up to 95, but there wasn’t time. Oh, more Luther-style grace might not solve everything: Luther himself had periods of horrible doubt his whole life, about whether he could really be saved. And maybe it doesn’t even all fit very well. But it might help some. It’s sure helped me.


  1. Wonderfully said, Craig. Thought you left out (perhaps purposefully, keeping your audience in mind?) what I assume has to be the first, even if unstated, thesis, the one which Luther’s whole notion of grace was premised upon: all you people are no damn good, and I’m pretty terrible myself too. A consciousness of sin is the sine qua non of Luther’s whole perspective, on my reading; after all, if you happen to (falsely) believe that you really are successfully, or even just mostly successfully, “doing every dang thing you can possibly do to earn” salvation, then who needs grace at all? It’s when folks manage to convince themselves that they’re actually doing fine, checking off the boxes, that they’re (we’re!) in trouble. It’s obviously implied by several of these theses (12, 15, 17, 18), but I kind of feel that sort thing needs to be stated strongly and plainly. But perhaps that just shows how I’m wired after all.

  2. Thanks Russell. I guess I assumed that “We are all beggars” took care of that, but maybe some people need even more explicit affirmation of their status. Plus the exact quote and correct theological terminology is, I think, “all you people are no dang good” (see usage supra).

  3. Wonderful, smart, funny and right on the money (not to be used for indulgences). Thank you, thank you for articulating much of why I, a formerly Protestant Christian, find the typical Mormon grace/obedience rhetoric jarring with a smidge of theological toxicity thrown in.

  4. This helps me understand the concept of grace a lot better. Too bad you didn’t post this last week before our 4th-Sunday third-hour lesson on Pres. Uchtdorf’s recent Conference talk.

  5. Thanks Linda and Villate, and am I to assume from your lamenting tone that the talk was interpreted as “of course you are saved by grace, as long as you do every dang thing you possibly can!”?

  6. I think the talk (at BYU) may have been interpreted that way because all the Axe spray in the air created a force field that wouldn’t allow the audience to let go of that insidious “do every dang thing you possibly can” mantra.

  7. Perfect. Thank you so much. I’ll be bookmarking so I can remember for me, and so I can help others know/remember.

  8. Ha ha, Linda, but in talking with many students afterward I actually heard that they heard it as intended, and got it. One even suggested they should nail the theses to the bulletin board in the Student Center, which was the equivalent of what Luther did: the church door he (maybe) nailed his theses to was just the bulletin board of the university, and by itself wasn’t any big deal. Students in my class decided that the only truly daring place to nail them, if you wanted to make a big non-normal statement, was in campus bathrooms, where signs everywhere loudly prohibit the posting of any other signs. But nailing them there would also mean cracking some tile, and I don’t want anything to do with that.

  9. Craig, this is wonderful, and you’re wonderful, and I’m so glad you write this up so we could all share in the wonder (and peace and hope and rest and putting off our natural selves as a relief rather than a fight).

    Thank you :)

  10. wrote*

  11. Clark Goble says:

    In fact, despite some recent flashes of something close to Luther-style grace in Mormonism (coming from Stephen Robinson, Elder Uchtdorf, or Adam Miller), Mormons are still more likely to believe the version of salvation Luther was protesting against: justification by grace, through doing every dang thing you can possibly do to earn that grace. Or more formally, doing all that lies within you.
    In fact, despite some recent flashes of something close to Luther-style grace in Mormonism (coming from Stephen Robinson, Elder Uchtdorf, or Adam Miller), Mormons are still more likely to believe the version of salvation Luther was protesting against: justification by grace, through doing every dang thing you can possibly do to earn that grace. Or more formally, doing all that lies within you.

    I think the more recent move to embrace the term grace owes as much to N.T. Wright’s battle against reformation theology in Paul and really being anything close to Luther style grace. I know Robinson and Millet sometimes sound like that. But (going by memory) my recollection is that even their views are significantly non-reformist. It’s more grace as an enabling condition prior to acts. (As opposed to how Mormons have sometime cast it as an enabling condition after acts) Of course once you get in the weeds everything gets messy.

    Reading the Erasmus versus Luther debates over the will to my ears have a certain echo of points Mormons make against Luther. For Erasmus salvation is the cooperation of God and man in will and works. Of course Luther didn’t like that.

  12. Clark Goble says:

    (Sorry – lots of typos there)

  13. I’m finding that Axe spray is like original sin: the smell won’t go away, do every dang thing though you will.

  14. Jason K., that’s two good jokes in one day, probably way over your quota I’m guessing. Clark Goble, “grace as an enabling condition” is sort of what Luther is saying; if by that you mean getting enough grace to do good things that earn you grace (which was something like one of the medieval formulations actually), then no. But if you mean that grace enables you to do good things, that is very Luther. Yes, Erasmus went along with grace plus doing every dang thing….

  15. Dying over the quota line, Craig. You have spoken a deep truth.

  16. Craig, our teacher last week tried valiantly to avoid that, but the women – most of them in their 60s – were having none of it. She told me (RS Pres) afterward that she felt she should have spent more time talking about this life as a “joyful rehearsal” instead of trying to hammer home the idea that no matter what we do, it still won’t get us to heaven, only the Atonement will do that (which is what folks were pushing back against).

    The thing she pointed out that really resonated with me was that we of ourselves can do nothing “good,” but sometimes we receive grace from God that enables us to do good when we don’t want to. There was more to it, of course, but I had never thought of it in those terms before, and it made sense to me in a way that the concept never had before.

  17. Villate, not a terribly surprising response from most of the class, but what your teacher said was right out of Luther: no one’s even apparently obvious good works are good works if they’re doing them to earn merit and favor with God; they’re only good if they’re done through grace received from God, because then they’re done out of love for God and for others. It’s a pretty interesting idea, and is maybe most apparent in those instances when you’ve been trampled on by somebody who is determined to do their good works even at the cost of violating “love your neighbor” (I have) or if you’ve ever done that sort of trampling yourself (I have).

  18. Craig, talk to me about the relationship between rules and faith crises. It seems to me that it’s multi-faceted: it’s not just the presence of rules but it’s a certain approach to those rules. Your recent memoir hit that theme a little. Care to expand that thought a little?

  19. Thanks oleablossom, I like how you put that (not the wonderful part, well okay that too, but the putting off your natural self as a relief part)

  20. Steve, No, it’s not the rules or ideals per se: every society, group, culture, religion, has those in some fashion (some in abundance), and they’re not necessarily crisis-inducing. Even failing at them isn’t necessarily crisis-inducing. It’s, as you say, the approach: if doing them all perfectly is the only acceptable outcome, then a sensitive and honest soul like Luther’s is going to feel a failure. And saying just do your best doesn’t relieve the stress if you’re also feeling like well if you’re doing your best then you’ll also do things just right. Another way of putting all this is: if you can accept that doing your best means that sometimes you really won’t do your best. It’s hard to get there; it was for Luther.

  21. Sorry, hit enter to soon Steve: but if you can do the rules and ideals with the assumption that you’ll do them better if you accept your need for help and then do them with some sort of grace, then those rules and ideals can actually be a sort of grace themselves, as Adam M. says.

  22. Thank you for this Craig. What a valuable contribution to our discourse here at BCC and in the Gospel more broadly!

    You ask, “is there anything for Mormons in all this?” And, of course, your answer in providing some theses speaks to that. But you’ve come to the right place to discuss it! We’ve made a start at such a discussion last year in the Mormon Lectionary Project through our discussion of Luther there:

    One thought I raised there that dovetails, I think, with your musings here was as follows:

    “The natural man is drawn to the principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. In this reasoning, everything functions in an exact quid pro quo according to the ‘law of the harvest.’ This seems logically consistent and therefore appealing to a carnal sense of justice. But this philosophy was the foundation of the immense artifice of false traditions that had been built up over more than a millennium in the Church of Luther’s day. Our ways are not His ways, we learn, and people soon discovered, at the core of revealed scripture once translated into their own languages, a counterintuitive Truth — that because of Christ’s condescension and Atonement, ‘the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith‘ (2 Ne. 25:25, emphasis added). Thus, like Martin Luther, ‘we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do’ (2 Ne. 25:22).”

    In any event, I think these considerations about Luther and his perspectives on the Gospel are timely and very important for LDS Christians. It has been nice to see President Uchtdorf and other General Authorities re-emphasizing classic Christian grace, walking us back a little from some of the teachings and opinions that pulled us away from that as a people in the mid to late twentieth century.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    Well, as I read this I happen to be sipping a Starbucks strawberry cream frappuccino, and that feels like an indulgence to me, so I clearly need to get with the program. (Enjoyed the post.)

  24. The only problem with the grace-first-good-works-as-consequence approach, in my experience, is that it sounds nice and heart warming on paper but in reality doesn’t change people any more than goal oriented striving. In my observation grit, determination, and discipline–uneven as those efforts are, go farther in improving character than being head over heals in love with Jesus.

  25. J.Law: There are several possible responses. I like to start with “it depends” on whether you’re ‘improvingi’ plow horses or saints. To quote C.SLewis: ““Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
    ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

  26. And thanks for the original post, Craig. I especially like the theses tailored to Mormon readers. I’d like more.

  27. John F., thanks for that, yes I knew about similar contributions and have found them interesting. I would say that new ideas from the Bible came especially from the improvements in collating the Greek manuscripts; most of the theologians who did the interpreting worked from either the new Greek version by Erasmus, or his improved Latin translation from that Greek.

    Kevin, thanks Starbucks is more a penance than indulgence, I think. At least in my forays there, ha ha.

    J. Law, yes, grace-first might be a problem for some people, but maybe not for others. If the classic system you prefer works, that’s great. But if the grace-first system didn’t work for some, there wouldn’t be so many in Christianity who prefer it, and I wouldn’t have bothered to suggest how it might be helpful. Your experience is perfectly legitimate, so is that of others of course. Luther of course would never say it was a matter of personality: to him if you’re not feeling grace, you can’t improve. And if you’re not feeling like you need grace, you’re being lulled into a false sense of security. But I get that some people respond differently.

    Interesting quote Christiankimball. That’s exactly the sort of dark trial that Luther believed preceded grace: it drives you to turn to Christ, and your relief at feeling grace changes everything.

  28. Clark Goble says:

    Craig I think the Luther view of grace goes beyond enabling condition. Even Pelagius allowed for that.

  29. “how you think about works affects which works you do and how you approach them: doing good works to earn grace tends to make you obsessed with yourself and your purity” Just so. I find it very depressing that so many in the church can’t seem to see just how backwards this is. The majority of those who are “religious” at least in the church and who attend consistently seem to think obedience is the currency of salvation (as Pres. Uchtdorf cautioned against).

  30. Craig h said “where signs everywhere loudly prohibit the posting of any other signs”

    These bathroom signs seem very religion-like with their message of singular privilege to post the truth. Posting these there sounds very appropriate indeed!

  31. Thank you Craig H. This was wonderful. I hope this attitude will become more prevalent throughout our church and the accompanying culture. Our EQ lesson last week was Pres Uchtdorf’s sermon on Grace. I was so disappointed. What could have been the lesson of the year was rushed through, touched on nothing close to what your post nails and ended 10 minutes early… I could have used your 19 theses!

  32. thank you! Such a great and useful piece. In my ward relief society today (I was in nursery, but heard through the grapevine) that the lesson was on getting young moms to get their kids to be quiet, nay, silent, in sacrament meeting because the older folks can’t feel the spirit. It didn’t settle well (obviously) and a lot of moms left in tears and a weird spirit permeated the lesson. So, #8 really resonated today. A group of us spent some time talking and came to the conclusion that the issue is not necessarily wiley children, but rather a lack of unity and love for one another in that space that is church, but could be zion.

  33. Bro. Jones says:

    Excellent and helpful piece. Going to be reading out of this in my Sunday School class. Thank you.

  34. Then how do the works of the law fit it? If I am striving to truly love my neighbor and looking to the grace of God for salvation, then what difference does it make if I smoke, dress immodestly, etc?

  35. Thanks for comments and anecdotes. Sara, Luther would say works, and striving, follow the receipt of grace; if you receive grace then you’re going to do good things. He was against making up lots of rules, though, or saying exactly what sorts of good works should result, because of Christian “liberty,” by which he meant your particular receipt of grace might lead you in a way somewhat different from that of others. So again, he was all for good works, they just didn’t earn you merit; they reflected your belief.

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