Sometimes belonging to a religion that people avoid like the plague has its advantages. One of the disadvantages, however, is that we are so out of the mainstream that we don't even realize how strange we are to other Christian sects. Something that I have heard with my friends of other faiths is that there is an entire debate about faith and works that Mormons aren't aware of. The main question is this: are we saved by works or by faith? To be saved, do we only have to confess that Christ is our Savior (faith), or do we gain salvation by doing certain things that signify repentance (works)? What is the Atonement and what does it mean to us? What do we have to do?
The facts are less than clear from The Bible. James tells us that faith without works is dead, making works invaluable. Paul tells us almost the opposite. Given the situation, the confusion is understandable. Here's what I think:
To put it bluntly: I would think that in order to truly accept Christ as your Savior, you'd have to do what He tells you to do. It's as simple as that. Saying it isn't enough; there's something that you have to do. Something you have to become. The Atonement won't force itself on you, you have to let it change you inside and out. It has to change the way you think, act, and feel. It has to change how you treat and relate to others. Essentially, it has to change you into something else. But, of course, we know that faithless people of all creeds go through the motions and get nowhere. You can tell a difference between someone who has the Atonement working for them, changing them, no matter what church they go to. You can see it in their eyes. And from experience, from what I have seen in others and what I have seen in myself, the absolutely same works can produce completely different results. Some have the light in their eyes; others don't. The works are the same. What does it mean? Faith is the only factor that's different, so does that mean that faith makes the Atonement work for you?
The problem with a faith-focused theology is that in its extremest forms, it turns into this idea that Christ's death gave us some kind of cart blanche on sins. It's like He suffered all of everything so we could just do whatever we want, and I just have a hard time seeing that in The Bible. How many stories do you know where God tells people to say some combination of words to be saved? Even when Israel was lost in the wilderness and attacked by snakes, He required them to look upon the serpent on the staff. It was simple, and it was easy, but it was doing something. It was proving faith by exercising it. The scriptures essentially give us a blue print on how to build a perfect world, and thinking that saying words will just produce some miraculous change is wasting precious time. We need to build that world. We need to be what the scriptures tell us to be. Otherwise, we wouldn't need the scriptures at all; we'd just need a sentence to repeat over and over.
Of course, the problem with a works-focused theology is evident throughout the scriptures, and especially in the stories about the life of Christ. Sometimes when people focus on doing things instead of doing things because of faith, they start to think that salvation is like some kind of Caribbean cruise you can win if you collect enough bottle caps. When you think that you can earn salvation, the glory of God and Christ is all but forgotten, and we forget that They do everything that They do out of love. We forget that They have no obligation to do anything for us at all. We forget what They have sacrificed. We forget that without Them, we have nothing. And when that starts to fade away, worship becomes empty, and life becomes a series of check marks on some heavenly list and any personal relationship with God and Christ is gone forever.
In the end, I think that James is absolutely right. Faith with out works is as lonely and dead as Ebeneezer Scrooge' doornail. But I think that James meant something more with these simple words, and it's that works is just as dead if it's not accompanied by faith. Faith and works aren't whole by themselves, and alone they are completely useless. It has to mean something; it has to change something. I know that faith and works together could change the world quicker and better than anything else at our disposal, and that we are eternally indebted to God and Christ for providing us with a way to fix every single problem we have. You can change. You can repent. The Atonement can soothe you, heal you, and change you into a person that can in turn go out and heal the world. But nothing we have is ours, and everything good comes from God. It's as simple as that. And just as wonderful.
Regard, best wishes, and Light,