The State of Grace

This past week I gave a lesson to the young men on Christ’s grace. I enjoyed preparing for the lesson and hope my comments sparked some thought among the young men.

The Greek word used by Paul in the New Testament, and particularly in Romans, where he really digs into grace, is χάρις, which means grace, but in greater context means a gift freely given to someone, even though they may not have earned it, and where no payment is expected. It is the root of our word charisma or charismatic, which allude to gifts someone inherently possesses. Paul, when referring to Christ’s grace, is referring to the gift Christ gives us - a gift we have not earned and for which we cannot repay him.

We Mormons, I think, misunderstand grace. We tend to think of grace according to 2 Nephi 25:23, which reads:

23 For 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.

That verse is often used as proof that we must do all we can to “earn” our salvation, ultimately falling short, with Christ making up the difference. I believe that understanding to be incorrect and damaging to faith.

First, let’s consider the phrase, “after all we can do.” I think we could replace the word after with despite, making it read, “despite all we can do.” To illustrate my point, assume I buy a really junky car. It’s got 400,000 miles, has a delapidated interior, smells, and is breaking down in numerous ways. Now assume I place new tires on it and repaint it. Now I bring it to you to show it off and you recognize that, after all I’ve done to it, it’s still a pile of junk.

The use of the word after in my illustration is, I think, how it is being used in the translation of Nephi’s comment, and despite is a perfectly good substitute. In short, I’d read 2 Nephi 25:23 as:

23 For 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, despite all we can do.

If we read it that way, Nephi appears to be saying that, despite all the work we do, it is ultimately by grace that we are saved by Christ and, if we look at the surrounding verses for context, we see that is very likely what he means, for he is comparing the deadness of the Law of Moses (“the law”) with the life-giving grace of Christ:

23 For 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.

24 And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled.

25 For, for this end was the law given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments.

26 And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.

27 Wherefore, we speak concerning the law that our children may know the deadness of the law; and they, by knowing the deadness of the law, may look forward unto that life which is in Christ, and know for what end the law was given. And after the law is fulfilled in Christ, that they need not harden their hearts against him when the law ought to be done away.

To my understanding, Nephi appears to be contrasting the deadness of the law with the atoning gift of Christ’s mercy and grace. This seems to go hand-in-hand with some earlier comments in 2 Nephi 2:5-8:

5 And men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil. And the law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever.

6 Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.

7 Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.

8 Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.

Verse five is especially instructive in alerting us to the fact that we all know and understand the law, or the requirements to return and live with God, yet none of us is justified by the law for we all fail to keep it. All of us are sinners and thus cannot claim the law as our justification in inheriting our Father’s kingdom.

If you are wondering where you have heard this doctrine before, it is because it is so powerfully taught by Paul in his letter to the Romans. Many Christians have misinterpreted Paul’s comments as an either-or type of situation, but that is not what Paul states; he does not state that it is works vs. grace, rather he states that works will follow he who understands the role of Christ’s grace in saving him. A person goes from realizing the insufficiency of the law, to bemoaning his miserable state because of his violation of the law, to realizing he may cast himself upon Christ’s mercy, to finally becoming a changed man in Christ, with Christ-like works to follow.

Really, Paul’s letter to the Romans is fantastic scripture but I’ll just quote a bit here to illustrate my point:

Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), Romans 3:19-24

I used the NRSV because it provides a more clear reading of the Greek text than does the King James Version, but Paul seems to be trying to demonstrate that we have the law, for which we owe thanks to God and his grace in providing the law to us. However, we are also condemned by the law, for by knowing the law’s requirements and then sinning against that law (we are all sinners, falling short of the glory of God), we condemn ourselves. It is only through the gift of Christ’s grace that we receive redemption. In other words, we cannot earn or merit what is freely given to us by Christ.

This understanding of grace differs from the typical Mormon understanding and is empowering. The typical Mormon understanding of grace is damaging to faith, for it creates a tendency to think in terms of earning salvation. Someone who struggles with sin may feel that they are falling short, providing some small percentage of overall salvific effort, thus making Christ suffer more for their failings than if they had been stronger.1 The reality is that we all are sinners, all falling short of the glory of God, and all requiring redemption by Christ. There are no exceptions and no checklist by which we will be measured. We don’t have to hope we have enough good deeds to outweigh our sin in order for Christ to make up the difference, for by violating the law even once you have doomed yourself. It is only through the mercy and grace of Christ that we can be redeemed. He suffered to redeem us all from sin and death, allowing us to return to the Father’s presence, and that is his gift to us if we will seek his mercy.2 That truly is grace, a gift freely given to one who does not merit such a gift.

  1. This is often done in an attitude of comparison, which is an easy trap in which to fall, where one compares their “righteousness” with someone else’s, concluding in error that they caused more suffering for Christ. ↩

  1. See Luke 7:36-50, Matthew 18:23-35, Paul’s redemption on the road to Damascus, and Alma 36 as examples of how quickly and thoroughly Christ forgives those who cast themselves at his feet and seek his mercy. We need to quit beating ourselves up and move forward in the confidence afforded us by Christ’s grace. ↩