Saturday, February 9, 2008

Saved by Grace After All We Can do

One common criticism of the Book of Mormon is that it (supposedly) teaches that we are saved by grace only after we do all we can do for our own salvation. This criticism is based on this scripture:

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. (2 Nephi 25:23).

While it is true that some LDS have interpreted this scripture to mean we must first do all we can if we expect grace to operate in our behalf, critics have noted that no one really does all he can in order to qualify for grace. On this, I agree with the critics with one qualification: I don't think that's what the passage means.

One possible interpretation put forth by Stephen E. Robinson, Robert Millet and others is that this scripture means that we are "saved by grace" even after all we can do or apart from what we can do. The preposition "after" here should not be used in its temporal sense alone (referring to time order) but in the sense of "notwithstanding" such as in this sentence: "even after the policeman's warning he continued to speed" or "after all [id est, notwithstanding everything] he continues to speed."

Understood this way, the verse means we are saved by grace notwithstanding our best efforts. No matter how close to perfection my personal efforts may be, it is still only through grace that I can be saved since I will always be tainted by sin.

Another possible interpretation is that "all we can do" has reference to some specific thing we can do, namely repent and be forgiven. I like this interpretation best. Believing that all scripture is inspired by God, I believe one important way to interpret scripture is to look for common phrases or terminology throughout all scripture. This is one where doing so seems to bring out new meaning to this verse.

In the Book of Mormon, a few miraculously converted Nephites go and preach the gospel to some Lamanites who are also miraculously converted. These Lamanites gave up their past blood thirsty traditions and covenanted with God to no longer shed man's blood. Their leader, Anti-Nephi-Lehi, gave a rousing speech before they buried their weapons of war which is recorded in Alma 24.

8 And behold, I thank my great God that he has given us a portion of his Spirit to soften our hearts, that we have opened a correspondence with these brethren, the Nephites.
9 And behold, I also thank my God, that by opening this correspondence we have been convinced of our sins, and of the many murders which we have committed.
10 And I also thank my God, yea, my great God, that he hath granted unto us that we might repent of these things, and also that he hath forgiven us of those our many sins and murders which we have committed, and taken away the guilt from our hearts, through the merits of his Son.
11 And now behold, my brethren, since it has been all that we could do, (as we were the most lost of all mankind) to repent of all our sins and the many murders which we have committed, and to get God to take them away from our hearts, for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain—
12 Now, my best beloved brethren, since God hath taken away our stains, and our swords have become bright, then let us stain our swords no more with the blood of our brethren.
13 Behold, I say unto you, Nay, let us retain our swords that they be not stained with the blood of our brethren; for perhaps, if we should stain our swords again they can no more be washed bright through the blood of the Son of our great God, which shall be shed for the atonement of our sins.
14 And the great God has had mercy on us, and made these things known unto us that we might not perish; yea, and he has made these things known unto us beforehand, because he loveth our souls as well as he loveth our children; therefore, in his mercy he doth visit us by his angels, that the plan of salvation might be made known unto us as well as unto future generations.
15 Oh, how merciful is our God! And now behold, since it has been as much as we could do to get our stains taken away from us, and our swords are made bright, let us hide them away that they may be kept bright, as a testimony to our God at the last day, or at the day that we shall be brought to stand before him to be judged, that we have not stained our swords in the blood of our brethren since he imparted his word unto us and has made us clean thereby.

Ultimately, all we can do as mortals is "to repent of all our sins...and to get God to taken them away from our hearts" "through the merits of his Son."

If we were to return to 2 Nephi 25:23 and insert this meaning it would read:

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 [we repent of all our sins and get God to take them away from our hearts through the merits of his Son].

To insist, as some critics have, that the Book of Mormon teaches salvation by works apart from grace is based [at best] in a misunderstanding of the Book of Mormon or [at worst] is based in purposeful deception.

"Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves—to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved. Wherefore, may God raise you from death by the power of the resurrection, and also from everlasting death by the power of the atonement, that ye may be received into the eternal kingdom of God, that ye may praise him through grace divine. Amen" (2 Nephi 10:23-25).

"[T]here 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" (2 Nephi 2:8).


Anonymous said...


Great post. This is an important issue, and I agree with your approach.

Your blog is looking good, congradulations on the traffic you are getting. I am not very worried about getting lots of traffic right now at my blog. I simply don't have lots of time to devote to my blog this semester, and so I couldn't keep up with much traffic anyway. For now, in it's infancy, my blog serves mainly as a place for me to consolidate some of the work I have done and am slowly doing. I use it as a resource for myself. One day when time is my friend I plan on expanding my blog or perhaps ditching the blog and making a bona-fide website!

Thanks alot!


Andrew I. Miller said...

Thanks for stopping by, James!

Aaron S said...

Unfortunately, LDS leaders have, in Mormonism, far more authority to interpret scripture than you do, and the last 50 or so years of LDS interpretative tradition coming from the Salt Lake hierarchy doesn't support the Robinsonian revisionism.

Andrew I. Miller said...


It's unfortunate that I just now saw your comment. Thanks for it.

As you know, LDS believe canonized scripture over any teaching of the general authorities. This is the position of the church. Since the Book of Mormon so clearly contradicts the idea that we must do everything we can before grace is applied, I reject any such interpretation whether by Thomas S. Monson or Bishop John Doe.

“It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear. We have accepted the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man’s doctrine. You cannot accept the books written by the authorities of the Church as standards in doctrine, only in so far as they accord with the revealed word in the standard works.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3:203)

“If anyone, regardless of his position in the Church, were to advance a doctrine that is not substantiated by the standard Church works, meaning the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, you may know that his statement is merely his private opinion. The only one authorized to bring forth any new doctrine is the President of the Church, who, when he does, will declare it as revelation from God, and it will be so accepted by the Council of the Twelve and sustained by the body of the Church. And if any man speak a doctrine which contradicts what is in the standard Church works, you may know by that same token that it is false and you are not bound to accept it as truth.” (Harold B. Lee, European Area Conference of the Church, Munich, Germany, 1973)

“If it is not in the standard works, we may well assume that it is speculation, man’s own personal opinion; and if it contradicts what is in the scripture, it is not true. This is the standard by which we measure all truth.” (Harold B. Lee, Improvement Era, January 1969 p.13)

“The Church has confined the sources of doctrine by which it is willing to be bound before the world to the things that God has revealed, and which the Church has officially accepted, and those alone. These would include the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price; these have been repeatedly accepted and endorsed by the Church in general conference assembled, and are the only sources of absolute appeal for our doctrine.” (B. H. Roberts, Deseret News (23 July 1921) sec. 4:7.)

“One of the reasons we call our scriptures The Standard Works [is that] they are the standard of judgement and the measuring rod against which doctrines and views are weighed, and it does not make one particle of difference whose views are involved. The scriptures always take precedence.” (Bruce R McConkie, “Finding Answers to Gospel Questions,” an open letter to all “honest truth seekers,” dated 30 October 1980)