This past Sunday, the topic of grace & works came up in Sunday School. I think it’s always a little unsettling when that happens. The subject is hard for we Mormons to understand ourselves, let alone explain to those of other faiths. It’s no wonder we’re confused, since the Bible and Book of Mormon seem to contradict each other when it comes to how we gain salvation.
On the one hand, we hear Paul declaring, “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” (Eph. 2:8-9). On the other hand, Nephi’s popular verse is continually ringing in our ears: “by grace we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). So which prophet is right, Paul or Nephi? If judged by which scripture is cited more frequently, we certainly seem to prefer the latter. But preferring one verse over another doesn’t do anything to address the seeming conflict between two very powerful men of God. So what do we believe on this subject? Are we saved by grace and not works as Paul said? Or does grace only come “after all we can do” like Nephi said? How in the world can we reconcile these two incredibly important scriptures?
I remember encountering this debate in a Philosophy of World Religions class I took several years ago at BYU-Idaho. We were assigned to read a book by LDS philosopher Sterling M. McMurrin where he attempted to explain what Mormons believe about how we gain salvation. First, McMurrin sited the traditional Christian view from the Augsburg Confession that declares, “men cannot be justified before God by their own powers, merits, or works, but are justified freely [of grace] for Christ’s sake through faith.” He then proposed that, “Mormon theology is not without a doctrine of grace, but it undertakes to conform that doctrine to the belief in merit that is consistent with its denial of original sin.” In other words, because Mormons don’t accept the idea of original sin, “there follows a denial of the traditional dogma of salvation by grace only” in favor of the idea that “salvation is the reward for merit” (The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, p. 69-74).
I’ll admit that McMurrin’s premise really bothered me. He appeared to be saying that Mormons completely reject salvation by grace, and instead believe that we earn it through our “merit” (or our good works). Though the idea seemed to align itself somewhat with the “after all we can do” from Nephi’s verse, I couldn’t help but think of all the scriptures I’d read on grace, not just in the Bible, but in the Book of Mormon and other restoration scriptures. Over and over the questions continued to haunt me: Is McMurrin telling the truth? Do Mormons really reject salvation by grace in favor of salvation by works? All I knew to do was throw myself into the scriptures to look up everything I could find on the subject. And to my surprise, what I discovered completely demolished any possible view of salvation by merit.
For starters, just look at the way the word merit is used in the Book of Mormon. I think the best example is Ammon’s declaration that, “since man had fallen he could not merit anything of himself” (Alma 22:14). That’s exactly the opposite of McMurrin’s premise of salvation by merit. I also found many other Book of Mormon writers who focused, not on man’s ability to earn salvation by his works, but on our need to rely solely on the “merits” of Jesus Christ.
Think about how Samuel the Lamanite preached salvation and remission of sin “through his merits” (Helaman 14:13). Or how Lamoni’s father spoke of repentance and forgiveness “through the merits of [God’s] Son” (Alma 24:10). Or how Moroni begged his readers to “[rely] alone upon the merits of Christ” (Moroni 6:4). Nephi even tried to persuade his brothers to “[rely] wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save” (2 Nephi 31:19). To me, words like “alone” and “wholly” leave no room for salvation through my own merits, but instead provide powerful evidence that salvation really does come “through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:8).
I’ll admit that, the more I studied this subject, the more I began to realize that all the verses I was reading fit more in Paul’s “saved by grace” camp rather than Nephi’s “after all we can do” camp. In fact, I couldn’t come up with one single reference that told me I had to do all I could on my own before I could qualify for the grace of Christ. A perfect example is found in the counsel Jesus gave His disciples on the night before He was crucified: “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Did that verse sound anything like, “Do your best, and I’ll make up the difference”? Or “work as hard as you can on your own, and then you can earn access to My grace”? Not even close. Instead, Jesus made it excruciatingly clear that, on our own, we can do absolutely nothing without Him. There is no “all we can do” apart from His sustaining grace. Either we’re connected to Him and relying wholly on His life-giving power, or we’re like a dead branch lying in the dirt, completely cut off from the nourishment and strength of the True Vine.
By the way, that’s another idea I found all throughout the scriptures . . . that on our own, there’s nothing we can do without the grace of Jesus Christ. I love the simple, straightforward way Moroni puts it: “and all things which are good cometh of Christ; otherwise men were fallen, and there could no good thing come unto them” (Moroni 7:24).
Think for a minute about what Moroni just said. It appears that, because of our fallenness, we have no ability in and of ourselves to do good works. According to Moroni, if any “good thing” shows up in our lives, it’s only through the power of Christ that we’ve been able to do it. In a later chapter, he makes the same point, only with a slightly different twist: “if there be one among you that doeth good, he shall work by the power and gifts of God” (Moroni 10:25, see also Ether 4:12). So if Moroni’s words are true, there really is no “all we can do” on our own . . . because without the grace of Christ, there wouldn’t BE any good works in our lives in the first place.
After years of studying grace and works in the scriptures, I finally came to the conclusion that we’ve been interpreting Nephi’s “all we can do” verse all wrong. So imagine my shock when President Dieter F. Uchtdorf stood up in the April 2015 General Conference and made a similar assertion. After referencing 2 Nephi 25:23, he offered these insightful words:
“I wonder if sometimes we misinterpret the phrase ‘after all we can do.’ We must understand that ‘after’ does not equal ‘because.’
We are not saved ‘because’ of all that we can do. Have any of us done all that we can do? Does God wait until we’ve expended every effort before He will intervene in our lives with His saving grace?
Many people feel discouraged because they constantly fall short. They know firsthand that ‘the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ They raise their voices with Nephi in proclaiming, ‘My soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.’
I am certain Nephi knew that the Savior’s grace allows and enables us to overcome sin. This is why Nephi labored so diligently to persuade his children and brethren ‘to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God.’
After all, that is what we can do! And that is our task in mortality!”
I could hardly believe my ears. President Uchtdorf was preaching salvation, not by works, but by grace. And to my great delight, he wasn’t finished yet. Next came the kicker—a phrase so poignantly clear that my heart felt like it was going to jump right out of my chest. I’m guessing he wanted to say it so succinctly that he could not possibly be misunderstood, so to any who had believed that salvation came through works, he declared with great boldness and clarity: “Salvation cannot be bought with the currency of obedience; it is purchased by the blood of the Son of God (see Acts 20:28).” Then he hammered that truth home with this unsettling example: “Thinking that we can trade our good works for salvation is like buying a plane ticket and then supposing we own the airline. Or thinking that after paying rent for our home, we now hold title to the entire planet earth.”
I had tears streaming down my face as I listened to him speak on that wonderful day. It meant so much to hear President Uchtdorf reassure me that McMurrin’s premise of salvation by works was completely and utterly wrong. For as the great apostle put it,
“Even if we were to serve God with our whole souls, it is not enough, for we would still be ‘unprofitable servants’ (Mosiah 2:21). We cannot earn our way into heaven; the demands of justice stand as a barrier, which we are powerless to overcome on our own. But all is not lost. The grace of God is our great and everlasting hope” (“The Gift of Grace,” April 2015).
There’s such beauty and simplicity in that last sentence. Grace really is our great and everlasting hope. Especially for those of us who’ve spent so much time misinterpreting 2 Nephi 25:23 and trying to earn the Lord’s approval through our works. Life can be pretty tough if we believe we have to do all we can on our own before we can access the grace of Christ. It’s a mindset that just breeds insecurity, since we never really know if we’ve done enough. And we feel even worse whenever we sin, fail, or fall short. And yet, our insecurity just reveals a misunderstanding of the beautiful doctrine of grace. I love the way LDS author Sheri Dew explains it:
“If we think we have to conquer a bad habit or an addiction by ourselves, before we seek help, we most likely don’t understand grace. If we’re discouraged with ourselves because we feel weak and succumb too readily and too often to temptation, we don’t understand grace. . . . If we keep trying to suppress envy or anger that rises up at the worst moments, if we feel as though nothing ever changes and we can’t seem to get over unfairness of hurt, if we feel unworthy of the Lord’s help, we don’t understand grace. . . . In other words, if we feel as though we’re alone and must rely largely or even solely upon our own energy, talent, and strength—we don’t understand grace. Or better said, we don’t understand the enabling power of Jesus Christ” (Amazed By Grace, p. 24-25).
In the end, I believe the scriptures prove that Paul was right: we really are saved by grace and not by works. But I also believe Nephi was right too–we just haven’t been interpreting his words in the right way. So perhaps it’s time for us in the LDS culture to see Nephi’s “all we can do” in a whole new light. All we can do is love the Lord with everything in us. All we can do is need His grace more than we need breath. All we can do is turn to Him with all our heart, might, mind, and strength, and rely on HIS merits, not our own. For it’s only then we’ll truly understand the beautiful gift of salvation . . . a gift that’s given freely “through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:8).