There has been a long debate between Mormons and those of other denominations, most notably Evangelical churches, about grace and works. It is a debate that I am beginning to believe is more a question of definitions than actual differences in beliefs. This is not a new discovery. A book called How Wide the Divide published back in 1997 finds that at times we are saying the same thing in different ways. It addresses the question of Grace and Works as well and is likely a far better discussion that what I will give here.
In my missionary days, I would often face this question and defend the value of works and how it is upheld in the scriptures. I have had debates a plenty. I was one of the few who looked forward to such discussions, fruitless though they were. It showed my arrogance back then and should have purged long ago.
Grace and Works
For any who don’t know what I am talking about the point/counterpoint goes something like this: Evangelicals believe in the grace of Christ’s suffering as the only way to salvation. So far Mormons are on the same page. They believe nothing else matters except the acceptance of Christ as your savior. Nothing else matters, not even works. They quote a few scriptures to support this, the most common being Ephesian 2:8-9.
And from here our paths diverge. Our belief that simply accepting Christ as your Savior is not sufficient is often a point of argument and sufficient reason at times for us to be called non-Christian. For if we believe in works, we don’t believe Christ can save us. Now I could go on for hours about the fallacy of this argument. I know this because I have done it. Suffice it to say, that not only do I not believe that all we need to do is accept Jesus as our Savior, I don’t believe even Paul believed or taught that, nor any of the other apostles. In fact not only do I not believe it, I do not believe most evangelical churches believe that.
Obedience is part of any faith and whenever I question an accuser using this argument I have to ask what they mean by works, and obedience to commandments is always what they mean. While we may have more commandments to obey, all faiths of any virtue have commandments.
Even though I do believe deeply in the teachings of faith and obedience in our church, which is the chief reason I attend addiction recovery meetings, I do see the validity in the evangelical frustration of our focus on works. In fact, I would dare say the Mormons may in misunderstand their own doctrine on this subject.
After All That We Can Do?
Just as Evangelicals rely on Ephesians 2:8-9 for thier strength, Mormons rely on 2 Nephi 25:23:
“For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”
It’s that last clause that gets all of us, Mormon or not, in a tizzy. I believe Ephesians 2:8-9 is perhaps the most misinterpreted scripture in Christendom. I also believe 2 Nephi 25:23 may be the most misinterpreted in Mormondom. “After all that we can do,” what does that mean?
Traditional interpretation suggests that it means that we have to do all our part and only then, does the Grace of God intervene. I have heard spoken using analogies similar to this one given by a peer. It’s like we are running a 10k marathon. We have to go 5k to a marker and then turn around and come back. Once we hit that marker then the Lord will help us but we must get to that marker first. It seems logical; it plays well; and I totally disagree with it.
This interpretation suggests that we are, for a period, on our own until we prove ourselves. Only then will God be with us. I reject this view fully and completely and if anybody says this is the meaning during church, my hand goes in the air.
The first problem with this interpretation is that it has no validation in any other scriptures and is contradicted in the Book of Mormon repeatedly. Don’t believe me? Just go search on the word “merit” in the Book of Mormon and see. Then go read Alma 24:11 and see how Ammon interprets the phrase “all we could do.”
The second problem with this interpretation is that it is a no win. Who among us really does all we can do? Then, how can we expect God’s grace. I don’t know how many interpret this scripture consciously, but I can tell you that many women in the church behave according to this interpretation. They simply cannot feel they are loved because they are not perfect. They haven’t done all they can do.
If this is our belief, that we do not warrant any of God’s grace because we haven’t done all we can, then the evangelicals has a point. We may not fully understand what Christ has done for us.
My continuing journey through the addiction recovery program has given me not only scriptural references to interpret 2 Nephi 25:23 differently, but my own experiences that reinforce a different interpretation. Like Ammon, I have to say it was all I could do to repent. I could do no more. When I started attending meetings. I had no ability to commit to anything. I could not promise I wouldn’t relapse, I couldn’t say it will never happen again. I could not make any promises regarding my future except one. I could commit to go to meetings and participate in them.
Now could I have done more that that? My physical body had the capacity, my strength of will had been demonstrated many times. I could have done more, everybody told me I could. But I did what I thought I could do. I attended meetings. Then I read the manual and answered the questions. Then I did added, little by little, pieces to my committment. Each time the Lord was with me. Each time I felt the peace and strength of the spirit. Each time I knew and felt the love of God. I still do so now.
I do believe that we have to move forward. I believe we have to act. I know we must take steps to feel the blessings of God. But I do not believe I am left alone until I have filled my quota. I believe God is with me from the first step I take. He is right beside me. If I sin, I can repent and turn to him and he will be there. Again and again and again.
The reality may be that compared to God, even the absolute most that I can do is so little anyway that even what little I do each day is enough for him to join me in my doings. God’s grace is there for all.
The Broad Reach of God's Grace
If the evangelicals have reason to disapprove of our view of grace, it may be not that it is too narrow but that it is too broad. My whole reason for this post came from a reading of D&C 76:44:
Wherefore he saves all except them—they shall go away into everlasting punishment, which is endless punishment, which is eternal punishment, to reign with the devil and his angels in eternity, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched, which is their torment.
I have read this many times before, each time focused on the imagery of punishment created and the hollow, sadness it conveys. This time I got stuck on the first line, “he saves all but them.” The “them” referred here are those with an absolute understanding of Christ who can feel his glory, love and compassion but openly, knowingly, reject it. Who are those people? I have yet to meet one. In fact Mormons can only come up with one name that is not debatable, Cain, the brother of Abel.
Everybody else is ultimately saved. Everyone else ultimately gets at least a portion of the glory of God. Even the least of this glory is described as surpassing all understanding (D&C 76:89).
Let’s make this clear, Mormons believe that even the vilest of sinners will have a portion of God’s glory. They will suffer for their sins, there is a punishment for them, a hell, but afterwards they will join others in having a kingdom of glory. Only those few, those who reject every portion of the light of God after understanding it, are cast into hell forever.
Yeah, we totally believe in grace and the extent that it works reaches out to even the unbelieving; those who will not accept Christ. That is love beyond measure. We believe in salvation well beyond what the traditional Christian claims. The idea that we do not believe in grace or that is it too narrow is actually the opposite. In fact it may be more accurate to claim that the traditional view of grace is simply too finite compared to what the Lord has revealed in these latter days.