Elder Cornish’s talk participates in the LDS turn toward grace that’s come in the wake of Stephen Robinson’s Believing Christ. So, I’m going to reflect briefly on how exactly he understands the theology of grace. He begins with what superficially seems like a classic Calvinist moment of redemption, where an external force lifts him from utter despair about the adequacy of his own capacity and efforts. He was a young medical intern, faced with a case of pediatric pneumonia he had no idea how to address, when a senior resident came along and believed in him even when he didn’t believe in himself. The manner of salvation isn’t quite Calvinist, though: instead of affirming the election of an omnipotent God, the resident affirmed Cornish’s own capacities.
The talk continues in this kind of Arminian vein, as suggested by his quoting President Hinckley: “Brothers and sisters, all the Lord expects of us is to try, but you have to really try!” Cornish interprets Hinckley in a way that balances this emphasis on effort with the effects of grace:
“Really trying” means doing the best we can, recognizing where we need to improve, and then trying again. By repeatedly doing this, we come closer and closer to the Lord; we feel his spirit more and more; and we receive more of his grace or help.
It’s not that trying actually saves us so much as that it brings us closer to Jesus, who saves us. Cornish’s gloss of “grace” as “help” could be read in an Arminian sense as the magnification of some action on our part prior to the intervention of grace, but it could also be read in a Calvinist manner as God working in us to make our actions actually good.
A similar bifurcation occurs when Cornish quotes Elder Bednar: “Most of us clearly understand that the Atonement is for sinners. I am not so sure, however, that we know and understand that the Atonement is also for saints.” Put another way, the Atonement’s reach extends both to those in the church who self-identify as sinners—who feel that their actions alone could never save them—and to those “saints” who (perhaps a little smugly) feel fairly confident in their capacity to do good.
I want to suggest that such theological ambiguity isn’t just sloppiness. The Calvinist and Arminian options I’ve gestured toward here hardly cover the range of possible approaches to the theology of grace, and people listening to Cornish’s talk could well have read it differently than either of the ways I’ve proposed here. We all need the Atonement, but we all differ in how exactly it becomes a reality in our lives, and we consequently understand its workings differently, even if we may use similar language in our public expressions.
In other words, a kind of grace appears in the potential for reading Elder Cornish’s words in different ways—a grace that allows us to sit in the same pew with people who think differently. Saints and sinners alike, we need more of that grace.