The Problem of 2 Nephi 25:23

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.

Comments

  1. SC Taysom says:

    Very interesting. Complicating the matter is the ambiguous nature of the term “saved” in Mormon theologica discourse. After the revelations on the various kingdoms of glory, the term “saved” was sometimes used to refer to all but the Sons of Perdition. The Book of Mormon, of course, lacks any sych explicit references, and we often read the scripture you cite here as using “saved” to refer to those in the Celestial Kingdom.

  2. I like the exhortatory reading. Theological exposition seems not only out of place, but fairly anachronistic (at least to me).

  3. Great post. While I like the idea of an exhortatory reading, I think putting it in context with the Law of Moses in the same chapter has real merit.
    I have never understood why this verse is pulled out so randomly and often in GD class to beat down the protestants while 2 Nephi 31:19 is completely ignored.
    I thingkwe should be examining what “after all you can do,” means. Couldn’t it just mean repenting, constantly?

  4. I agree with the last sentence. I have always thought the verse meant if we do our best we will be saved through grace. I didn’t realize there was a possibility of such a complicated discussion.

  5. I had a few classes from Stephen E. Robinson while I was a student at BYU and I remember him talking about this scripture a couple of times. He pointed out Alma 24:11 as a way of defining “all we can do”, that being – to repent. He seemed to like it, and I tend to agree with him.

  6. Thanks, JNS. I’ve always been bothered by the Bible Dictionary’s definition. That first paragraph you quote is not only self-contradictory, it also seems to misunderstand what exactly grace, as per Paul, is.

    Robinson, I think, gets it, but scraps too much else of Mormonism in order to make his definition work.

  7. There is a common linguistic technique that can clarify lots of statements that use parenthetical comments (including those that are written with commas) – simply switching the phrases and adding the appropriate qualifiers. Often the shorter version is used when the author wants to say it as concisely as possible – which fits Nephi’s oft-stated space constraints.

    Switching the phrases in 2 Nehpi 25:23 gives us:

    “After all we can do, we know that it is by grace that we are saved.” Adding appropriate qualifiers makes it, “(Even) after all we can do, we know that it (still) is by grace that we are saved.” This final construct is a perfectly reasonable reading of the original – not the only possibility, but certainly a reasonable one.

    That fits Mormon theology perfectly, since it says that even though we are required to exert our all, that effort doesn’t save us without God’s grace. That message is repeated over and over and over again in the rest of the Book of Mormon, including Nephi’s other words.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    I like your paraphrase and the idea of not placing so much theological weight on the precise construction. People have a tendency to turn Paul’s letters into systematic theology rather than the ad hoc advice for particular circumstances that they in fact were. We should be careful about doing the same thing to the BoM.

    I like what Robinson was trying to do, but I can never remember what the revisionist reading is supposed to be without looking up an explanation of it somewhere, which is a pretty good clue that his reading is grounded more in his own cleverness than a clear articulation of what the text says. Ultimately I think Mormon thought on salvation (if we are talking about exaltation) has to be synergistic in some sense.

  9. Steve Evans says:

    Thanks JNS. I hadn’t considered these issues as carefully as you, but I love the analysis. My gut instinct is simply to say that God will save those who try – but I don’t know what this means.

  10. Another reasonable reading with different qualifiers would be, “After (considering/weighing) all we can do, we know that it (still) is by grace that we are saved.” My point: We don’t have to change the inherent meaning in order to have it make perfect sense. I try to parse all the time, but part of parsing is being open to what possible definition(s) of each word are reasonable. In this case, “after” has all kinds of possibilities, especially in a medium where brevity is extolled repeatedly.

  11. Nicely done as usual.

    Does it make sense to think that a revisionist reading combined with the idea that it is salvation, and not necessarily exaltation, that is being addressed?

    There is often danger in taking one verse on its own and neglecting other things. But it can make for good discussion.

  12. My gut instinct is that God will save all those who don’t actively reject him. But I’m much more of a universalist than most.

  13. Fwiw, I have written quite a bit about grace on my personal blog. Anyone who is interested, feel free to take a look. The latest one is related, and there are others in the archives.

    (I don’t want to make Steve break one of his resolutions, so I won’t give a link in the comment. You can get there through my name.)

  14. Pres Faust handles this issue well.

    “The Atonement advances our mortal course of learning by making it possible for our natures to become perfect. 2 All of us have sinned and need to repent to fully pay our part of the debt. When we sincerely repent, the Savior’s magnificent Atonement pays the rest of that debt. 3″

    http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=f318118dd536c010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=69cf8d00422fe010VgnVCM100000176f620a____&hideNav=1

    footnote #3 is the same 2nd Nephi 25:33. I find that the scripture nicely condenses our position on grace and works.

  15. What Ray (7) and Steve (9) said.

    I like to analyze scriptures and parse words as much as the next person, but my thoughts skew far more toward the intuitive subjects like grace and works and forgiveness. Some come from instances where I’ve messed up yet been made whole far sooner than I thought I’d deserved; with the early forgiveness came the understanding that, indeed I didn’t deserve forgiveness but I was getting it that time anyway. (Then there’s converse, when I’ve felt like forgiveness would never come; these were the times when the Lord was likely waiting for me to present a broken heart and contrite spirit.)

    2 Nephi 25:23 makes me think of Matt. 7:21-23, where those who did all the outward works are rejected of the Lord. His “I never knew you” response I believe says volumes about grace and works and, as Steve mentioned, the whole aspect of “trying.” Those who truly try to keep the first great commandment will have access to His grace, and the works (and at some point, ordinances) will be a natural part of one’s ongoing relationship with Diety.

    In light of my own understandings of grace, I can understand JNS’s discomfort with the “works proceed grace” method of parsing Nephi’s words. But I have no idea how else Nephi could have phrased them.

  16. I disagree with the interpretation here; I think that there is a significant theological point to be made, one perhaps more alligned with the ‘sunday schoool’ approach. This verse really does suggest a signficiant difference between the LDS view and both the Catholic and Protestant views.

    What I see this verse expressing is that grace is minimally conditional. That is, we must try to repent and make amends for our sins. I don’t agree with the statement that
    “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.” ”
    because I don’t agree that a sin must be intentionally committed to be a sin; some acts, whether or not we realize them at the time as such or not, are or can be sins. They may be more minor, they may be excusable because of this, but we as humans and moral men cannot entirely trust our judgment of such things; we must admit our sorrow to god for the event or the failure and hope he will understand. Indeed, I would argue that to in fact live a sinless life is beyond the mortal effort of any human aside from Christ (who is of course not just man).

    Accordingly we must all make an effort to repent. This duty to repent and try to atone (which does not mean necessarily succeeding, or indeed even coming close to ‘making up for it,’ since we know that isn’t really p[ossible) makes us different from the typical protestant view of unconditional grace–it makes it conditional on trying to atone.

    Relatedly, in the sacrament prayers, we covenant to always remember (water), but only covenant to be _willing_ to take upon ourselves his name and keep the commandments (bread; promise to be willing to remember superceded by water prayer).

    It also makes us different from Catholic tradition because there there is an expectation that grace is conditional on the accomplishment of specific works associated with specific tasks (assigned as penance in the rite of confession). Hence the difference here is that while mormons have a duty to try in order to recieve grace, catholics believe that specific tasks must be accomplished to fully recieve grace.

  17. As a caveat to my catholic comments, in cases where either general absolution or indulgence are invoked, the necessary works credited are actually those that have been performed by others, drawing on the bank or storehouse of merit accrued through the works of Christ and the saints throughout the ages, above and beyond what was necessary for their own salvation.

  18. I don’t know–I think it’s pretty straight forward. In the end, those who are saved will have done all they can do–even if a it takes a long while after this life to get there. But that doesn’t mean that grace isn’t present as an enabling force during our preparations. It is–and will one day be sufficient to save us as we learn to position ourselves to receive a full measure it.

  19. Don’t have a lot of time at the moment, but I find the best way to understand this is to look at the same author, same book, similar statements. No one has raised this passage yet.

    2 Nephi 10:24 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**

    This suggests that for Nephi all we can is be reconciled unto God.

    I tend to use that passage when a brief clarification (without full unpacking) is needed of 25:23.

  20. “For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men.” (2 Ne. 31:3.)

  21. Larry O., best ironic use of that scripture EVAR.

  22. Hi J.,

    Excellent post. I think an exhortatory reading is the obvious solution. In a similar vein, it’s worth noting that D&C 19 suggests that God and his apostles sometimes intentionally utilizes misleading theological statements in order to produce right behavior:

    “…it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment. Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men…Wherefore, I will explain unto you this mystery, for it is meet unto you to know even as mine apostles…Endless is my name. Wherefore— Eternal punishment is God’s punishment. Endless punishment is God’s punishment…And I command you that you preach naught but repentance, and show not these things unto the world until it is wisdom in me. For they cannot bear meat now, but milk they must receive; wherefore, they must not know these things, lest they perish. “

  23. I’ve always thought of these verses as talking about how works and grace are both necessary in the atonement. It seems to me that many people who side heavily on either grace or works in this perennial argument are not basing their thoughts so much on scripture as they are on their own personal strengths and weaknesses.

    If there was no grace through Christ, then it wouldn’t matter how hard we worked, how many good things we did, how much faith we exercised, we’d be out of luck. Because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Without the grace of God, we would all die because of Adam’s transgression. All the work in the world will not save us from death, nor save us from its grasp once it has occurred.

    In an all-grace world view, we would be saved by the mere confession of our faith. We would be resurrected, but to what purpose? If there was nothing required of us–no obedience, no ordinances, no repentance–then we would not progress in our purpose of life, becoming more like our Father in Heaven.

    I love these lines from Rock of Ages. “Not the labors of my hands can fill all the law’s demands. Could my zeal no respite know, should my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone. Thou must save and thou alone.”

    By both grace and works are we saved.

  24. Eric Nielson asked a question in #11 that really drives at the heart of the difference between the Mormon and non-Mormon concepts of grace. The issue of salvation is thornier for us, since we view “basic salvation” as different than “exaltation” – and we view God’s grace as accomplishing something different than other Christians.

    In our eternal view, nearly all who have been born into mortality have “confessed the name of Christ and been saved” (into *some* degree of glory in the presence of a member of the Godhead) by the grace of God – based on their acceptance of the Father’s Plan in the pre-existence. The only exception to that rule is the Sons of Perdition – an incredibly small percentage of God’s children, according to every statement we have. Therefore, in a very real way, we view this life very differently than other denominations. Essentially, the mainstream Christian “goal” (progress-less existence in the presence of God) is what we claim has been rewarded already in either the Telestial or Terrestrial kingdom. Iow, grace gets us a degree of glory in a kingdom of God, but our acceptance of what God asks us to do (our “fruits” – which I prefer over “works”) qualifies us for a higher degree of glory in a different kingdom of God.

    Given that position, when we talk of “salvation” we generally mean “exaltation” – since within Mormon theology “salvation” as the rest of Christianity defines it essentially is a given. Our “problem” in articulating how we view grace is that the very concept of “going beyond grace” is anathema to other Christians.

  25. I’m taking Stephen E. Robinson’s New Testament: Acts–Revelation class right now, and on the first day he raised this very issue (the “after all we can do” clause in the Book of Mormon). He cross referenced 2 Nephi 25:23 with Alma 24:11, which says:

    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.

    Even though theoretically it is possible for us to never sin, in practice it is all we can do to repent, and as I understand it that’s the only thing that God holds us to. I personally felt the witness of the spirit quite powerfully when Brother Robinson taught us this principle, and it makes a lot more sense to me than any other approach to grace and works that I’ve heard.

  26. No offense, but this sort of theology makes me glad we don’t really have one. Taking what seems to be a reasonable statement completely literally and thus following a logical set of steps to a ridiculous end – seriously?

  27. onelowerlight, that was the reference I was going to add. I think connecting these two scriptures is very, very powerful way. I especially like it when we consider what repentance entails. It’s not just about not sinning — in its fullest sense, it’s about turning to Christ, turning our lives and our hearts and our everything over to Him. The more we trust Him and seek to come to Him, the more we invite His grace into our lives.

    This also gets to Nephi’s earlier declaration about being reconciled unto God. We turn to Him and He seals the gap between where we are and where we need to be.

  28. The problem here is that observers are trying to use an ambiguously worded proof text to answer a theological question that the Book of Mormon doesn’t really address.

    Robinson’s attempted substitution of “in spite of” for “after” is theological wish fulfilment. It is positively ridiculous – I cannot recall any attempted interpretation of a scriptural passage less likely than that one.

    There is no textual basis for such a conclusion. It runs directly contrary to the thrust of the Book of Mormon commentary on the topic, which universally suggests that a righteous life is a prerequisite for salvation – no unclean thing can dwell in the presence of God, endure to the end, wicked perish, everlasting torment, etc.

    I think the best solution here is to simply say that it is extremely unlikely that the original intent here was to provide a definitive statement on the relationship between grace and works. There is no support for total depravity theory here.

  29. As long as we’re engaging in “theological wish fulfillment”, we can arrive at universalism from this verse if only we’ll accept determinism. Since under determinism the only thing we can do is what we do do, everyone does all they can do. Therefore everyone gets grace.

    Theology is fun. Play with words long enough and I’m sure we can get Nephi to command us to go have a big BCC party at Starbucks.

  30. Chris,

    I don’t think that follows. We could read it like this – those people that are saved are saved by grace after all they did. Even allowing for determinism, that does not imply that grace saves everyone, only that those that are saved are saved by grace.

  31. Kevin # 8, People have a tendency to turn Paul’s letters into systematic theology rather than the ad hoc advice for particular circumstances that they in fact were. We should be careful about doing the same thing to the BoM.

    Bingo. JNS’s post is worthwhile if for no other reason than prompting that statement by Kevin.

    JNS, as to your alternative reading (the exhortation approach), I agree that it is very plausible and very attractive. Exhortation is what Mormonism is about, not systematic theology. I also like how seriously you take the text here and how deeply you consider it in this analysis. We all benefit from such efforts to delve deep into the text of the Book of Mormon to consider the meaning of doctrines and exhortations found in it.

    I have a minor disagreement, however, with your characterization of the “exceptionally common” reading of 2 Nephi 25:23 (as opposed to the “revisionist” reading you attribute to Robinson). You state that the common reading results in the following conclusion:

    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.

    I can’t imagine many, if any, run-of-the-mill Mormons actually believing this, whether from the text of the Book of Mormon or otherwise, although this is how creedalist Christians mischaracterize Mormon beliefs. This result does not necessarily follow from 2 Nephi 25:23.

    A more straightforward reading of the verse has the opposite result. We learn from that verse that because no human is perfect, it is grace that saves us. Ray makes this point very nicely in his comment # 7. Despite this verse’s deeper point, it also teaches that God still expects people to do all they can in following Christ’s commandments. This, of course, ends up at the same result you point out in the original post — specifically that the verse is one of exhortation, particularly given the context of the rest of the chapter where Nephi explains that the people needed to continue following the Law of Moses at that time because Christ had not yet come to fulfil that Law, even though the mere statement reveals awareness that the Law itself does not save. But it comes to your point about exhortation without a problematic characterization of the common reading of the verse.

  32. If the passage is taken in context, it is pretty obvious what is being said:

    Christ: for we know that it is by grace that we are saved,

    Law of Moses: after all we can do.

    The entire chapter is about how Nephi preaches Christ, Christ, Christ to his people so they may know whom to look to for a remission of their sins (v. 26) but they have to live the Law of Moses now, which even though it is dead, must be observed (v. 27).

    The Grace of Christ expiates your sins (i.e., Justification) but you still have to do the works (in this OT context it is the Law of Moses) to participate in Sanctification. This is totally standard soteriology people, cf. D&C 20:29-31. Doing the works of the Law doesnt get you forgiveness of sins, its the Grace of Christ that does that, which is totally standard Paul.

    Why Mormons cannot get this into their heads is beyond me.

  33. Ray # 24, I still think that it is only by the grace of Jesus Christ — specifically the acceptance and application of his Atonement in our lives through receiving the mandated ordinances — that anyone can be transformed into the type of being that can endure exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom. I think grace therefore places just as central a role in LDS views of exaltation as of salvation.

    Also, in considering differences between salvation and exaltation, I think it is essential to bring the conditional and unconditional aspects of the Atonement into the discussion. Latter-day Saints believe that all people, both those who have done good works and those who have done manifestly evil works, will be resurrected for the purpose of standing before God to be judged. This is the unconditional aspect of the Atonement and already represents a level of salvation — salvation from the grave.

    Those who have accepted Christ and his Atonement through receiving the mandated ordinances (either here on earth or by proxy) will then be cleansed from their sins by the Atonement as they continue on the process of “becoming” celestial beings who can endure life in the presence of God. This is the conditional aspect of the Atonement — freely offered to all who will simply accept Christ and do what he asks to show this acceptance.

    There is a good argument, in my opinion, that Nephi might not have even been aware of much of this material that was revealed in Doctrine and Covenants 76. My sense is that most Old Testament prophets, which for Mormons include those who migrated to the Western Hemisphere as far back as the Jaredites at the time of the Tower of Babel as well as the Nephites beginning after 600 B.C., had a simple heaven/hell concept of the afterlife, not knowing much, if anything, about the three degrees of glory or even how or when the resurrection fit into the picture of ultimate salvation. We see a hint of this in Alma’s confusion about resurrection and its relation to consignment to heaven and hell. This knowledge was gradually revealed over time to successive prophets ultimately being laid out very clearly in D&C 76 and other revelations of this dispensation.

  34. I find it useful to check the readings given by General Authorities to this passage over the years in General Conference.

    Two examples:

    Marion G. Romney (Apr. 1979):

    “As we sift the ways of the world let us reject the commonly accepted attitude of expecting the government to supply us with the necessities of life. This practice, if fully adopted, will change any society from one of freedom to one of slavery. Let us contend for the gospel of work. Let us be self-reliant. Salvation is an individual matter. There will be no mass salvation. Some have mistakenly concluded from Paul’s statement—’For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works’ ( Eph. 2:8–9)—some have erroneously concluded from this statement that works are not necessary.

    The truth was spoken by Nephi when he said, ‘We are saved [by grace], after all we can do’ ( 2 Ne. 25:23).

    It will require maximum effort for us to bring ourselves within the reach of the atoning blood of Jesus Christ so that we can be saved. There will be no government dole which can get us through the pearly gates. Nor will anyone go through those gates who wants to go through on the efforts of another.”

    Dallin H. Oaks (April 1998):

    “Some Christians accuse Latter-day Saints who give this answer of denying the grace of God through claiming they can earn their own salvation. We answer this accusation with the words of two Book of Mormon prophets. Nephi taught, ‘For we labor diligently … to persuade our children … 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 Ne. 25:23). And what is ‘all we can do’? It surely includes repentance (see Alma 24:11) and baptism, keeping the commandments, and enduring to the end. Moroni pleaded, ‘Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ’ ( Moro. 10:32).”

  35. Bro. Jones says:

    #15:

    2 Nephi 25:23 makes me think of Matt. 7:21-23, where those who did all the outward works are rejected of the Lord. His “I never knew you” response I believe says volumes about grace and works and, as Steve mentioned, the whole aspect of “trying.” Those who truly try to keep the first great commandment will have access to His grace, and the works (and at some point, ordinances) will be a natural part of one’s ongoing relationship with Diety.

    I agree with the comparison to the verses from Matthew, and I believe it also seems a reasonable fit to aspects of the temple endowment. In my view, there seems to be an emphasis in Mormonism of God meeting His mortal children halfway–He does not expect them to climb to heaven unaided, but neither will He remove every choice or trial from their lives. The Final Judgment allows God the opportunity to weigh each individual’s course between those two extremes, and reward/punish/withhold accordingly.

  36. The problem with the view that we get grace after all we can do (in the subsequent sense thus) is this: who has ever done all s/he can do? Even the most heroic have more in them. Isn’t it simpler to understand the “all we can do” as a broken heart and contrite spirit? Because we can do that—a simple recognition that we not only fall short but that we don’t even do all we can do? We intend with “all you can do” that you just do your best, God will do the rest. Yet because we also have that belief about divine potential within us we REALLY mean that we in fact can do everything just right! Yet to me doing our best implies not always doing our best, sometimes just having no more in us. Not doing all we can do is part of being human, and prompts us to seek the help of Christ, as Paul suggests. The law (and any law, not just Moses’) served a great purpose: in trying to live it, he realized he couldn’t completely, and so it caused him to turn to Christ. I think it’s the same with us: we’re heaped with all these new laws, and yes should try, but we’re going to fall short, and the broken heart and contrite spirit makes us turn to Christ for help. By falling short or not doing our best I don’t mean deliberately slouching, because in that case there’d be no broken heart and contrite spirit. To me this is the heart of the gospel, yet I don’t hear much talk of it, except in passing. It always turns back to being more righteous and raising ourselves to perfection.

  37. ED (or anyone):

    Should repentence be considered a ‘work’ or not? To me it seems it requires choice and effort, and thus might qualify as ‘work’

    What is the definition of religious ‘work’?

  38. 37. Depends on what your definition of repentance is. I once asked a close friend and relative, the 40 year old daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher, if she felt guilty living with her boyfriend. She told me she really didn’t. Jesus had died for her sins. She just accepted his gift and repented after each act of fornication. Unbelievably, she said her father was also OK with this interpretation of repentance. I don’t think she regarded the process as a “work.”

  39. john f (#33) – You said:

    “Ray # 24, I still think that it is only by the grace of Jesus Christ — specifically the acceptance and application of his Atonement in our lives through receiving the mandated ordinances — that anyone can be transformed into the type of being that can endure exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom. I think grace therefore places just as central a role in LDS views of exaltation as of salvation.”

    I agree completely. It’s just that our theology assumes the *unconditional, universal* application of grace (salvation from physical death and separation from all God’s glory) and, therefore, speaks in practical terms only of the *conditional* application of grace (the specific degree of glory attained). Of course, grace still makes the required growth (repentance) possible, so the Celestial Kingdom still is unattainable without that grace, but our resultant focus on reaching for a higher kingdom of glory is what brings our preponderance of “fruits of repentance” references over “grace of God” references.

    Rather than repeating what I have written elsewhere, I am going to go ahead and provide the link I mentioned in an earlier comment. Here it is:

    http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2007/11/embracing-grace.html

    Personally, I believe one’s view of grace affects one’s view of repentance in dramatic ways – but that’s a discussion for another thread.

  40. Thanks for the excellent comments, one and all. I don’t have time to fully engage with everyone, unfortunately. So let me selectively respond to John F. from #31. John objects that rank-and-file Mormons certainly do not believe that nobody can be saved due to the traditional reading of 2 Nephi 25:23. I agree. What I offered was an attempt at disproof by contradiction; because the traditional reading, when taken seriously, leads to a conclusion that none of us would accept, the traditional reading must be flawed.

    The problem for traditional readings revolves around the specific content of “all we can do.” The local context of 2 Nephi 25 provides answers, and they aren’t restrictive. (Comparisons to other parts of the Book of Mormon strike me as unhelpful; in particular, the assertion by the Anti-Nephi Lehis that repentance from murder, etc., was all they could do should not be seen as a universal philosophical definition of the words “all we can do.” It’s a specific statement by a particular group of people about a very distinct experience that none of us has directly shared.) All we can do includes obeying the Law of Moses and other commandments, and also worshiping Jesus with all our heart, might, mind, soul, etc. If the statement is taken as an assertion of logical fact, rather than an exhortation, then any failure to do these things to the full extent of our capacity would permanently disqualify us from grace. Since this contradicts core Mormon doctrines, I think we must conclude that the traditional reading is problematic — not that Mormons actually believe that salvation is unavailable to anyone who has ever sinned.

  41. “Every time we sin, we in fact do less than ‘all we can do,’ and make less than a ‘total effort.’”

    This is an incredibly flawed statement which consequently leads to a flawed conclusion.

    It does not follow that when one succumbs to sin that he has simply not been valiant enough, which I think is the entire point of the scripture cited. Many sins, for example, represent physical addictions which can be very hard to overcome even for the truly penitent.

    This really makes that entire argument fall apart in my view.

  42. Miles, I can’t quite figure out your comment. When people have no choice, there can’t be sin. When people do have a choice and they sin, then they obviously could have done better. Right? Addiction doesn’t change this; even addicts logically have the choice to break their addictions, don’t they? How hard a sin is to overcome is ethically relevant, but not in this discussion — all that matters is that overcoming the sin is possible, even if the possibility is 0.00001%. If there’s no possibility of overcoming the temptation, then there’s no sin.

  43. “it does not follow that when one succumbs to sin that he has simply not been valiant enough”

    Miles, I’m sorry but I think you are mistaken. Sin is by definition disobedience to the laws of God. Those persons who do not have control over their acts also do not have accountability for those acts; there is no sin without choice to commit the sin. It does, therefore, follow that when one commits sin he has not been valiant enough. That’s the point of it all.

  44. Not to pile on, Miles, but if there truly are things that are so deeply ingrained genetically / physiologically as to make it impossible to overcome them, those things are covered in the Atonement through God’s grace. “Own sins, not Adam’s transgression” covers the unchosen effects of Adam’s transgression – or it would have no real power.

    I have no idea whatsoever if there are genetic tendencies that are so strong that they truly cannot be overcome by a particular individual, but I suspect there are such constraints for nearly all of us – if not all. Isn’t that the whole point of grace – forgiveness of those things that are outside of our control that otherwise, according to a strict Law of Moses application, would condemn us?

  45. JNS, thanks for addressing my comment # 31 in your comment # 40.

    You will see in my comment # 31 that I agree that the verse is one of exhortation. I was only disagreeing substantively with your view that the traditional reading results necessarily in the conclusion that you posit. Ray’s conclusion in # 7 also follows — in my opinion more readily.

    Justin, I see a difference of degree between Marion Romney’s interpretation and Dallin Oaks’ view, although both retain the Mormon core of requiring people to do their best at actually following Christ’s injunctions, which includes receiving the mandated ordinances and repenting. I think that, based on Oaks’ view, we have made progress in our understanding of this verse as we have put more emphasis on the Book of Mormon as a Church following President Benson’s challenge to do so.

  46. What? I can’t believe no one has brought up the Story of the Bicycle!

    Just as well. =)

  47. CraigH, I totally agree. Even though in theory we can live without ever breaking the commandments, we all know that the only perfect person to ever live was Jesus Christ, and that all of us fall short. So, practically speaking, “all we can do” doesn’t mean keeping all of the commandments all of the time. It means repentance. And repentance is not an excuse to break the commandments–it is a Christ centered, and not a law centered, state of mind.

    In my experience there are two kinds of guilt. The one kind is depressing and heavy and monotonous, and just kind of sits on you no matter what you do. It demotivates you and makes you feel worthless. It comes about whenever you forget to do the little things, like read your scriptures every day, or get angry at someone while driving, or have a fleeting inappropriate thought. The other kind of guilt is sharp, painful, but quick and hopeful, doesn’t weigh you down, but motivates you to get up and change. I know now that the first sense of guilt comes from Satan, and the second comes from Heavenly Father. Jesus Christ didn’t sacrifice his life to weigh me down with heavy, inescapable guilt.

  48. RE #37, repenting does not merit you forgiveness, but it does work towards your sanctification. In other words, your sins are not expiated by virtue of your good works of repenting. Your sins are expiated by the virtue of the undeserved gift of Christ’s grace. That is what grace is, something you dont deserve. We dont deserve to have the consequences of eternal mitigated, because we sinned. Stopping sinning, or trying to make up for past sinning doesnt change the fact that we sinned. The only thing that gets us off the hook for our sins is something we dont deserve, which is the Grace of Christ. We dont work for it, it is an undeserved gift. The works are for our sanctification, not for the expiation of sins. And if we keep on the straight and narrow until we die then we have endured to the end and we will be exalted.

  49. fwiw–a couple of brief thoughts:

    1. I have learned that the 1st rule to understand the scriptures properly is to be careful about reading a scripture in isolation. There is safety in reading many scriptures on the same subject.

    2. Some scriptures are primary, and others are secondary in importance. IMHO the phrase drawn from 2 Nephi 25:23 fits in the secondary category. Therefore it is supportive of a primary scripture.

    3. A primary scripture on the subject of grace is found in 2 Nephi 2:6-7

    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.

    So I would interrupt the phrase “we are saved by grace after all we can do” to mean: after all we can do to obtain forgiveness of our sins by pleading with the Father to apply the atoning blood of Christ so that we can be clean.

    The Book of Mormon gives us examples of people who have been saved by grace. Both Alma the older and younger. The 4 sons of Mosiah, Lamoni are a few examples that illustrate the idea that offering up a broken heart and a contrite spirit is the key to being saved by grace.

    To answer the question: what does it mean to offer up a broken heart and a contrite spirit see Ezra Taft Benson, “A Mighty Change of Heart,” Ensign, Oct 1989, 2

  50. John F., I don’t really understand how the traditional reading could lead to any other conclusion than the one I offered, if the reader doesn’t equivocate. Ray, for example, is offering a reading that is either very loose with 2 Nephi 25:23 or is actually in opposition to traditional interpretations. The problem is that, in traditional interpretations, as in the Marion G. Romney quote Justin offered, the most a mortal can do is be perfect. Hence, grace is only available to the perfect on this account, if taken seriously. People don’t take this conclusion seriously, of course, yet they sometimes nonetheless treat the reading that implies this conclusion as a valid datum for theology.

  51. JNS, I just deleted a LONG comment. How is my reading “either very loose with 2 Nephi 25:23 or is actually in opposition to traditional interpretations?” The linguistic technique is used all the time, and the conclusion is perfectly in harmony with core Mormon theology.

  52. Ray, yes, your conclusion is in harmony with several versions of core Mormon theology. What is not in harmony with that theology is the traditional interpretation of 2 Nephi 25:23.

    Commas and punctuation are broadly inadmissible as interpretive tools for the Book of Mormon, of course, since they were substantially added by non-Mormon workers in a New York publishing house. So your suggested revision of the text really isn’t drawn from the text; it’s a change, in the Robinson spirit, that adds language not otherwise present and alters the order of the words. Your reading certainly also seems to presuppose that grace is available even for those who have failed in some way to fully live up to “all we can do.” In its theological sense, then, your reading is quite in opposition to traditional readings like those of the Bible Dictionary, etc.

    These comments suggest that your reading fits more comfortably in the category of revisionist readings like those of Stephen Robinson, etc., than with the more traditionalist readings. “Revisionist” here isn’t a word of condemnation; I fully understand what the revisionists are trying to accomplish, and support their goal of rescuing us from a theological untenable position. But your reading, like those of Robinson and others, doesn’t really come from the text itself; it’s a (clever) way of saving the text, rather than an interpretation that the text itself commends.

  53. JNS, please quote the exact part of the Bible Dictionary that is opposition to what I wrote – with why it is in opposition. Frankly, I base part of my reasoning on the Bible Dictionary – to get the “Mormon” view of grace. I just re-read it, and I don’t see the conflict.

    BTW, I do NOT think less than our all is required for exaltation, nor do I downplay or diminish the need to produce the “fruits of the Spirit” (which I like much more than “works” when discussing grace and 2 Nephi 25:23). I am NOT arguing against the need for works; in a very real way, I am distinguishing between “our best efforts to do it by ourselves sans grace” and “allowing grace to magnify our best efforts” and change them into what we only can do with the strength provided through grace – as stated in the BD.

  54. BTW, I agree that my view is not in harmony with “the traditional interpretation”. So what? Are you arguing that the traditional interpretation (as you describe it) is the “right” interpretation? If so, we probably need to agree to disagree.

  55. BTW, I agree that my view is not in harmony with “the traditional interpretation”.

    Great! That’s all I was saying. John F. had offered your comments as an instance of the traditional interpretation, and I was disagreeing with that. I won’t get into your #53, which I can’t quite understand; your #54 is sufficient here.

  56. “I won’t get into your #53, which I can’t quite understand.”

    That’s probably a good place to stop then. :-)

  57. ED (48):

    Would you agree that it is a conditional undeserved gift? And that condition is based on something we must both choose and do? So do we not bring some merit to the forgiveness table (even if it is small in comparison to the gift)?

  58. It might also be useful to remember Paul’s statement that it’s either by grace or by works, not both. We keep trying to insist that it’s both. Why isn’t the broken heart and contrite spirit good enough, or in other words the acceptance of grace? Maybe because we fear that by saying this, people will think anything goes in their behavior. That’s not what a broken heart and contrite spirit implies at all; it’s possessed by someone who is trying, and still falls short, and recognizes a need for help. If we don’t feel that need, we don’t have the broken heart and contrite spirit. And it’s hard to find that state of broken heart and contrite spirit if we feel that we are justified because we are doing everything that makes up the current law, or contrarily if we feel that we can just do whatever we please. It’s not about the doing, I think, but about a state of being: namely a state that accepts God’s grace. If you really accept that, I don’t think you’re out sinning callously.

  59. I’ve been working on an article on this very issue. You can click on my name to see it. Lots of quotes from Mormon authorities. Sorry if this is a triple-post, I wasn’t sure if it was going through.

  60. Razorfish says:

    “We know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”

    Most Christians: Grace = Salvation (works nice but not necessary)

    Mormons: Grace + Works = Salvation (ie Exaltation)

    Mormons Works = covenants & ordinances (baptism, priesthood, temple rites, endowment, sealings, sacrament) + service (callings, home teaching) + commandments (tithing, WOW, chastity, attending Church, temple work, etc)

    My experience is that we spend 90% or more of our time and attention on the “works” aspect of this equation and 10% on the grace side.

    Why do we stress the works and not the grace? Maybe We like to stress works because they are measurable, and quantifiable. The works in theory provide a basis for outwardly trying to measure an inward spiritual commitment. Think about your meetings, assignments, and reminders at church – they are almost always drilling on the works.

    I would like to see more emphasis on the grace (atonement) as a means to change behavior in our hearts. If we really understand the grace, the works will take care of themselves. But just focusing on the works, will not necessarily help us understand the grace.

  61. Reformation or Repentance? This answer to this question is a key to acquiring grace. Click my name for more info if you’re interested.

    Great post. I enjoyed revisiting this subject.

  62. #57, Conditional undeserved gift? Sounds like splitting hairs to me. Justice demands we be punished, Jesus’ Mercy is the only way we can escape the demands of Justice. One might argue there are conditions imposed on the dispensation of Mercy (i.e., Jesus says you must accept him and repent), but there are plenty of cases where Mercy is granted to the unrepentant, although not necessarily in the form of expiation of sins (e.g., Holy Spirit encouraging people to repent, an obvious act of Mercy to the unrepentant). When it comes to Mercy’s expiation of sins, there do appear to be conditions upon its application (e.g., children less than 8 automatic, or accept Jesus). But, fulfilling these conditions would not in any way constitute “works” in any sense in the soteriological context, Pauline or no.

    The issue with “works” in the soteriological context is that doing the Law of Moses (or the Laws of any dispensation) does not get you forgiveness of sins (Justification), it only helps you avoid sins (Sanctification). Paul’s argument was to the Jews that without Christ the works of Law were not going to get them Justification so they were doomed without the Messiah. Which is precisely what Nephi was saying in 2 Ne. 25. We are Justified by Christ postmortally at Judgement after we keep the Law of Moses in this life.

  63. ED, just for fun, let me throw D&C 20:31 into the mix (the only reference to individual sanctification in distinctively Mormon scripture):

    And we know also, that sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true, to all those who love and serve God with all their mights, minds, and strength.

  64. #61, Thanks for helping me out here.

    My problem (and yes, it’s me) is if grace is 100% unconditional then God is just choosing favorites and that pushes us towards Calvinism, no? If we must DO something in order to qualify (even if it is comparably small) is this DOING not a type of work. Is this splitting hairs? Yes, I suppose it is. But if it weren’t for this there would be less blogging.

    I think getting to the definition of ‘works’ in the grace and works debate, and determining if repentence fits in to this definition of ‘works’ would probably help me and many Mormons like me.

    When I get into these grace/works discussion I place repentence clearly in the required ‘works’ category. Perhaps this is wrongheaded of me.

  65. Even Evangelical Christians believe that the grace is contingent on something: accepting Jesus in your heart. Without doing this, you do not qualify for the grace.

  66. Eric, there are obviously a lot of possible definitions of “works.” For Paul, as I understand current scholarship on his writings, “works” almost certainly meant the ritual requirements for membership in the Jewish community — i.e., circumcision and the dietary code — only. Paul probably thought of himself as a Jewish Christian and probably thought of Gentile converts as being the same. The grace/works debate in Paul’s writings was evidently about the conditions under which Gentiles could become part of God’s chosen people; did they need the formal entrance rituals and baptism, or just baptism? Paul says just baptism — but his argument probably wasn’t really about soteriology in a full modern sense, because becoming part of God’s chosen people is different from (in another Pauline phrase) winning the race.

  67. It seems to me that the Book of Mormon views the ability to choose to be a gift or grace from God. Adam and Eve were given their agency in the garden. The very power to act for one’s self, according to 2 Nephi 2:16, is a gift that is effectuated by the atonement: “wherefore God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.” So God gave Adam and Eve freedom to act for themselves by giving them a choice. Further, it is because of the redemption that “they have become free forever, knowing good and evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon.” (2 Ne. 2:26)

    When 2 Ne. 25:23 states that “we are saved by grace after all we can do,” the “all we can do” is not doing everything humanly possible to be saved before we are saved. No one could be saved if that were the case because no one does all that is humanly possible. What I take it to mean is this: we are saved by grace after all that we do because our freedom to do anything at all is a matter of grace. Thus, the gifts of the atonement include the very ability to choose among good and evil. Thus, grace is necessary even before we can repent. Thus, even after all that we do, it is the grace given to us in the first place that is the basis of our salvation.

  68. Great perspective in # 65, JNS. I couldn’t agree more.

  69. John F. Even Evangelical Christians believe that the grace is contingent on something: accepting Jesus in your heart. Without doing this, you do not qualify for the grace.

    Some evangelicals don’t believe this (in fact, probably the majority). Calvinists don’t believe that. The faith to choose is a gift from God and how it is exercised is a causal result of the election of God according to Calvin. We are saved by grace alone because we are unable to even form the will to accept the grace. Thus, God must do it all. Only those he causes to receive grace by irresistible grace are actually saved and the rest are damned according to God’s predestination.

  70. Re: 65: J. is right it seems to me that Paul is not addressing the grace/works dichotomy the way that Luther and Calvin did or that evangelicals still want to in dialog with Mormons. It seems to me that Ed Sander’s work and the “New Perspective on Paul” scholars have demonstrated that Paul was addressing the issue of God’s dishonor that arises if the Christians rather than the Jews are God’s chosen people. If God’s chosen people are not defined by their identity as “Israel”, then God seems to breach his covenant with Israel. Paul explains that membership in the chosen people is no longer a matter of national election as Israel, but is defined by those who are “in Christ.” One is “in Christ” by having faith in Christ rather than the Law or other systems that don’t recognize the primacy of Christ.

    However, Paul never rejected the necessity of works to remain in the chosen remnant. One may enter the people who are God’s elect or chosen people as a matter of grace through faith in Christ, but one must maintain that status by keeping the commandments. However, the commandments are no longer defined by the Jewish Law, but by the new law of love given by Jesus. Further, the reward that one received in the judgment is a matter of works. So the works/grace debate as it usually progresses using Paul as a proof-text is largely a misunderstanding of Paul.

  71. re # 68, The faith to choose is a gift from God and how it is exercised is a causal result of the election of God according to Calvin. We are saved by grace alone because we are unable to even form the will to accept the grace. Thus, God must do it all. Only those he causes to receive grace by irresistible grace are actually saved and the rest are damned according to God’s predestination.

    I agree with your description and have often pointed this out to Evangelicals and Calvinists, and Evangelical Calvinists, to the point of being entirely tiresome. Under this view, if there is a single soul in hell it is God’s fault, i.e. God chose that person to go to hell before that person was even born. The doctrine of election to salvation forces this result. It is, of course, un-Biblical and even inimical to the teachings of Paul, from which they claim it derives.

  72. JNS:

    Thanks for your response #65. Thanks also to those who have addressed my concerns.

  73. #66 – “Who” said what I have been trying to say much better. Rather than “grace”, I like “God’s gracious gift(s)”. It avoids the theological spats that have arisen over the years and puts things in an interesting light.

    The very ability to choose right from wrong is a gift of grace (a gracious gift from God), promised before the Fall for our condition after the Fall when the Father rejected Lucifer and chose Jehovah. It was activated by our choice to reject Lucifer, and became active in our individual lives at that point – before we entered mortality. Becoming “free” to choose was the first fruits of grace – a gift that made it possible for us even to have this discussion. In that sense ONLY, God’s grace is a result of our works – our first choice to accept His plan which included the gracious gifts that would be given within it.

    The next gift of grace was the promise that we will not be condemned because of the natural tendencies we inherit as a result of the Fall when we are born – that we will be judged by our sins and not by the natural results of Adam’s transgression. This means that God’s grace frees us to pursue perfection (completeness, wholeness, full development) without having to expend enormous energy worrying about whether we are “good enough” to be saved (avoid eternal damnation). We are, and we have been – at the very least in a kingdom of glory in the presence of a member of the Godhead. It frees us to focus on becoming godly / Christ-like – of channeling our efforts toward the Celestial Kingdom.

    It changes repentance from the process of beating ourselves up over our weaknesses and imperfections into the process of acquiring the characteristics Jesus articulated (in the Sermon on the Mount, for example) as the pathway to perfection – defining our “works” as the repentant result of what we strive to **become** rather than the laundry list of what we *do*. Of course, it includes our actions, but it points those actions toward those things that turn us into the people God has commanded we become. It changes repentance from a review of our daily and weekly mistakes into an evaluation of our progress toward perfection (becoming complete, whole, fully developed). It changes repentance from an effort to suppress or repress natural tendencies (never making mistakes) to an effort to develop characteristics that will eliminate those tendencies. For example, it goes from “controlling my temper” to “developing patience and becoming poor in spirit” – which, when accomplished fully, eliminates the tendency to lose one’s temper as a direct result. All of that stems from the recognition that “I don’t have to change my life and THEN turn to God for His gracious acceptance of MY effort, but rather I can work my hardest to become what He has asked me to become because I know he won’t condemn me for the weaknesses that get in my way as I strive to do so.”

    The Bible Dictionary defines repentance as “a change of mind, i.e., a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world”. I find that absolutely fascinating and extremely thought-provoking.

    One final point, then I’ll shut up:

    We decry deathbed repentance for those who choose to dismiss God’s help until they “need” it right before they die. Denying that grace can be an active, enabling power in our lives that can “save us” from a whole lot of crap in this life and mold us into who we are commanded to become without regard to our “worthiness” or “works” or “membership” or any other qualifier other than our sincere effort might not be the same as deathbed repentance, but it certainly is the same basic attitude – since each person is saying, in essence, “Leave me alone until I need you. I’ll put in my best effort, THEN you can take care of the rest, when I am almost dead or simply exhausted.”

  74. So (especially re. #43 & #44), how do we tell if, in any given situation, we are doing “all we can do”?

    How are we able to judge our capacities in this way? Do we ultimately need confirmation of HG?

  75. amber, most of us can’t, imo. Often we are the worst judges of our own actions.

    In the end, I believe this is a matter of faith – holding tightly to the belief that our sincere efforts will be accepted, pitifully inadequate as they might be. If everything we do is what we believe He wants us to do, that, imo, is all we can do.

  76. That’s why we should exercise faith in the Atonement and repent every day. If we have been baptized and we are doing this, then every time we partake of the Sacrament we renew our baptismal covenants and thereby draw closer to God. It is still the grace of Christ that cleanses us, but we have to believe that this will actually happen despite our imperfections.

  77. What is Stephen Robinson doing these days? It’s been ten years since he’s published anything and you never hear from him anymore except his past work.

  78. He’s teaching New Testament (first and second half) at BYU, but as far as projects he’s working on, I don’t have any idea. He has had a lot of health problems in recent years, though.

  79. I hadn’t the time to read every comment so I hope I’m not being redundant:

    I see a lot of the Book of Mormon – especially the parts that talk about the afterlife – as exhortation rather than theology. Alma 34:33-34 is a good example: to take those verses as theology would seem to contradict Doc&Cov 138:31-37. The teachings about life after death in the Book of Mormon are usually a bit simplistic, and only fit in vaguely with the doctrine given in Doc&Cov 76 and other places. At one time I thought that this was because the prophets in the Book of Mormon just hadn’t received the detailed revelation that Joseph Smith did. Whether or not that’s so, I’m now comfortable thinking that pretty much all of the passages in the Book of Mormon that mention life after death are exhortation and not strict theology.

    After all, it wouldn’t be very effective to call people to repentance by meticulously laying out the varying degrees of salvation. How many of us have secretly thought to ourselves: well, even if I only made the Telestial Kingdom that still woudn’t be so bad?

  80. David Smith says:

    This entire verse is taken out of context by all the explanations above, every commentary, and controversial work about the church I have read concerning this verse. Follow this line of reasoning. The preceding verse 21 says “…things I write shall be kept and preserved, and handed down from generation to generation…(verse 22) shall go from generation to generation as long as the earth shall stand..” Who labored to hand it down from generation to generation? Our predecesors! Who is laboring to hand it down now? We are! Who is going to labor and hand it down as long as the earth shall stand? Our posterity! The correct conclusion: eventhough “…we [believers] labor diligently to write, to persuade our children…brethern, to believe in Christ…” even “after all we do” we all (predecesors, us, and posterity alike) are saved by grace. None of us can take any credit for our diligent labor or provide any redemptive power to the people we bring to Christ. It is grace that saves us as well as those we labor to who believe no matter what generation we are in that bring people to Christ! I repeat, you cannot take any credit for your “labor” to save people or bring them to Christ “even after we can do” “for it is by grace that we are all saved.” It’s that simple.

  81. #80 – If you say so, although going back one more verse (v.20) doesn’t support how you get to your conclusion. It supports your ultimate conclusion, just not the overall interpretation of the passage as a whole.

    It’s an interesting interpretation – that fits very well with many of the previous ones in this thread.

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