The use of 2 Nephi 25:23 as raw material for theological reflection about the relationship between grace and works creates no end of trouble for Mormons, although many of us seem unaware of the difficulties. Two theological interpretations, one traditional and one revisionist, are widespread. Neither is satisfactory, and, indeed, either is corrosive of Mormon theological positions if really taken seriously.
2 Nephi 25:23, of course, contains the famous verbal formula, “we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” Latter-day Saints of varying theological stripes frequently treat this formulation as providing a resolution of debates regarding grace and works, although the resolution they see the text as pointing toward varies. In fact, if taken seriously, most existing readings of this text in the end produce no resolution but rather simply restate one position or the other in the overarching debate.
One exceptionally common reading of this passage treats the text’s “after” as chronological and adopts the theological hypothesis that a full exertion of all possible effort by the individual is needed logically and temporally before any grace related to the atonement becomes available to that person. While a wide range of different texts could be offered as exemplars of this position (provide your own personal favorite example in the comments!), one clear and widely available presentation can be found in the LDS Bible Dictionary entry on grace:
It is through the grace of the Lord Jesus, made possible by his atoning sacrifice, that mankind will be raised in immortality, every person receiving his body from the grave in a condition of everlasting life. It is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means. This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts.
Divine grace is needed by every soul in consequence of the fall of Adam and also because of man’s weaknesses and shortcomings. However, grace cannot suffice without total effort on the part of the recipient. Hence the explanation, “It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25: 23).
Here, not only is a “total effort” necessary to obtain grace, but the “enabling power” of grace only allows people to obtain God’s greatest gifts chronologically after that effort has been expended. The theological hypothesis would seem to be: (a) women and men are responsible for completely overcoming all sins on their own, to the fullest extent of their capacity; (b) grace consists of an after-the-fact making up for that which is outside each person’s capacity, but only for those who did in fact overcome sin to the fullest extent of their capacity.
This position seems to offer a theology in which grace and works both play a role in exaltation. However, that is not the case. In fact, if thoroughly considered, it would seem that this reading of 2 Nephi 25:23 forecloses on all possibility of grace for sinners.
The problem is as follows. Sin, in Mormon thought, only arises when a person has a meaningful choice and knowingly chooses a bad (or otherwise less than optimal) alternative. When a good alternative is logically conceivable but utterly outside the power of a particular person, that person does not in any way sin by failing to bring about that desirable but impossible condition. Thus, for example, I can coherently imagine a world in which there is no pornography. Yet, because I seem to lack the capacity to bring that world into being, it is not a sin for me that pornography continues to exist.
So, sin can only occur when a person has the capacity to make a good choice (or fail to make a bad choice) but nonetheless does not. That is, sin happens only when people fail to make the maximum moral effort of which they are capable. Every time we sin, we in fact do less than “all we can do,” and make less than a “total effort.” Hence, the existence of a single actual sin anywhere in our life histories means that, at the moment we die, our full life’s moral effort will have been less than all we had the capacity to do. We will have failed to meet the preconditions for the traditional reading of 2 Nephi 25:23, and so no grace will be forthcoming. All who have ever sinned are damned.
A revisionist reading of 2 Nephi 25:23 has been offered to overcome this nontrivial obstacle. This reading, most notably associated with Stephen E. Robinson but advocated by many others, suggests effectively replacing Nephi’s “after” with the phrase “in spite of,” yielding the following New Revised Version of the original text: “we know that it is by grace that we are saved, in spite of all we can do.” That is, no matter how hard we try at our moral lives, and no matter what we accomplish in the world or how we change our characters, our salvation is always and entirely accomplished by grace.
Robinson’s reading has the obvious defect of working best when the actual text is changed. Richard C. Russell offers a variant that relies instead on tone of voice. Placing an emphasis on the word “we,” and using an ironic tone for the closing clause, achieves the same message: our efforts are trivial and irrelevant, and grace does the whole work of salvation.
While this reading is attractive in that, unlike the traditional reading, it makes salvation at least potentially available to people who have actually sinned, it is problematic in other ways. Specifically, it leaves little if any meaningful role for works. Indeed, in most readings, it belittles the efficacy of works. In a sense, this is appropriate within the Mormon tradition, and finds some resonance in Benjamin’s discussion of how we can never do more than the bare minimum and thus can never generate any kind of personal merit for salvation. However, this reading is in a good deal of tension with the thrust of Nephi’s remarks through the rest of 2 Nephi 25. In particular, consider verses 24-25 and 29-30:
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. 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…. And now behold, I say unto you that the right way is to believe in Christ, and deny him not; and Christ is the Holy One of Israel; wherefore ye must bow down before him, and worship him with all your might, mind, and strength, and your whole soul; and if ye do this ye shall in nowise be cast out. And, inasmuch as it shall be expedient, ye must keep the performances and ordinances of God until the law shall be fulfilled which was given unto Moses.
Here, Nephi offers a conditional defense of the appropriateness and even temporary necessity of “works” in Paul’s sense: the performances of the Mosaic law were needed for salvation “because of the commandments.” This idea is an awkward fit at best with the notion that human effort contributes either nothing or nothing worth mentioning to the process of salvation. Even more awkward for a reading that claims that we can’t really do anything of importance for salvation is Nephi’s insistence that worship “with all your might, mind, and strength, and your whole soul” plays some role in salvation — for salvation is the alternative to being “cast out.” If Nephi really thinks in verse 23 that our best mortal efforts are trivial, frivolous, or altogether inefficacious in salvation, then these later comments seem to reflect a deep change of heart. Because of this serious local textual inconsistency, I think the revisionist readings of 2 Nephi 25:23 are no more successful than the traditional readings.
What, then, are we to do with this scripture? One plausible answer is actually pretty easy: change our expectations. Both the traditional and the revisionist readings assume that this text is intended as theological commentary, as a description of the mechanics of the process of salvation. Yet theological reflection is certainly not the only mode of religious writing. What if, as seems at least plausible, the mode of writing in 2 Nephi 25 is better characterized as exhortation? Exhortation, like homiletics, is a mode of religious discourse with the primary and often near-exclusive aim of producing change in the behavior and attitudes of the audience. An exhortation need not contain detailed theological argumentation to achieve this aim, and in fact may be successful in changing behavior and attitudes even if it contains theological imprecisions.
If 2 Nephi 25:23 is read as an exhortation rather than a theological datum, its content becomes both clear and unobjectionable: “Do your best, and always be thankful for God’s grace.” The difficulties that arise when trying to provide a precise account of what theology this passage adopts regarding the relative importance of grace and works vanish altogether if we instead adopt the hypothesis that the passage doesn’t adopt any detailed theology on grace and works at all, simply seeing them both as generically important.
How does this reading of 2 Nephi 25:23 as exhortation rather than theology fit with the broader text? Certainly, the Book of Mormon contains a number of explicitly exhortatory passages, so there is no reason to see the genre as out of place in the text. Furthermore, the chapter itself contains several phrases that proclaim explicitly exhortatory purposes. The first part of verse 23 describes Nephi’s goal as one of exhortation:
For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God…
That goal of persuasion, of creating the urge to believe and be reconciled, is a hallmark of exhortation. Other passages have explicit echoes, in terms of verbal formulation, of the 19th-century Methodist camp meeting exhortations that early Mormons knew well and that Joseph Smith may even have delivered. The best example here is verse 28:
And now behold, my people, ye are a stiffnecked people; wherefore, I have spoken plainly unto you, that ye cannot misunderstand. And the words which I have spoken shall stand as a testimony against you; for they are sufficient to teach any man the right way; for the right way is to believe in Christ and deny him not; for by denying him ye also deny the prophets and the law.
The phraseology here is explicitly exhortatory, especially the language describing the audience as stubborn and stiffnecked; the testimony against the audience; and the warning against denying Christ.
So, there is some reason to at least provisionally regard 2 Nephi 25 as an exhortation, rather than something like a theological treatise. With that understanding, we are free to surrender the fraught and largely unsuccessful quest to extract rigorous theological insight about grace and works from verse 23. The verse may simply lack such rigor. It may fail to answer the deepest questions about grace and works because that wasn’t why it was written. Perhaps, at least, it was simply written to encourage the audience to behave better and be more grateful to God.