by Ray DeGraw
I have been struck for some time by how little we have discussed grace throughout our history, although that has been changing in the past 10-15 years. We talk about the atonement, faith, hope, works, love, forgiveness, and so many other things, but we rarely talk about grace. I understand why, but it disturbs me nonetheless.
Our understanding of grace is found in the Bible Dictionary. It is obvious from this definition that grace is the heart of the Gospel, that it is the good news that encompasses Jesus’ love for us and is the ultimate gift He gives us. It is, in reality, another term for the atonement, which is why we don’t use it much. We use atonement instead. We believe in grace fully and deeply, but we tend to break it into more easily discussed sub-sections, like those listed in the last paragraph. Again, I understand why we do this, but when we fail to connect the pieces back to the original, complete framework, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of pieces and lose sight of the fact that they really comprise only one full concept: the grace that underlies the atonement of Jesus.
So, why do we do this?
This will be a simplification, but at the time of the restoration, the dominant doctrinal argument was over faith vs. works. One camp defined faith by saying, “Confess His name and be saved; works are just what He does through you after that confession,” or the other, more extreme denial of works, “God has chosen the saved (applied His grace) and the damned (denied His grace) prior to their birth, and nothing can be done to affect that outcome.” The other side hearkened back to the Law of Moses and said, “Grace is a gift that is given to all who earn it.” Since both of these definitions of grace represent the extremes, and since each of them depends on a classic Heaven/Hell split, the restored gospel rejected each.
In reality, however, the repudiation of works was stronger in Christianity of that day, so the focus within the Church naturally tended to emphasize what was missing the most – the need for obedience to commandments, often translated as works.
In restoring the concept of multiple, differentiated glories, Joseph Smith correctly focused on those things that are required of God’s children in order to reach the highest level of glory – again, often translated as our works. In practical terms, however, this effectively eliminated grace from our active vocabulary. This left us floundering for an answer to the age-old Christian question: “Have you been / When were you saved?”
My answer is simple:
We have been saved by the grace of God, and there is no time constraint on that salvation. That salvation started when Jesus voluntarily offered Himself as our Savior prior to the creation of the world, continued when He was born of Mary, deepened in the Garden of Gethsemane and on Golgatha when He hung on the cross, declared, “It is finished,” and “gave up the ghost” – and culminated on that Sunday morning when He rose from the tomb, appeared to Mary, ascended to His Father, and became the first fruits of the resurrection. It continued with his appearance to the early disciples and still continues today as he inspires, reveals and speaks to His and His Father’s children.
The implications of that grace are enormous and too often misunderstood.
Let me say it again, more plainly: We have been saved by the grace of God.
It has happened already, completely independent of what we do – except in the case of sons of perdition. For all of the rest of us, we have through His grace been freed from the bonds of physical and spiritual death and inherited a degree of glory in the presence of God. Even those who inherit the telestial kingdom have inherited a kingdom of glory and can enjoy the presence of the Holy Ghost – a member of the Godhead. Even they will be resurrected and have been saved from endless torment in the presence of Lucifer. That gift, promised to all but a few who accepted the Father’s plan of salvation and Jesus as their Savior in the pre-existence, has been purchased already – and all of them have, in a very real sense, confessed His name and were saved by His grace prior to being born.
So why do we not discuss this in such explicit terms?
I believe it is because all the other Christian religions of the day already taught a limited version of this, and the Restoration was about adding more to what they taught – restoring a knowledge of the potential that had been lost. It was all about going beyond the Telestial Kingdom (with the Holy Ghost) and the Terrestrial Kingdom (with Jesus, the Christ) and restoring a theology of the Celestial Kingdom (with and like God, the Father). We stopped talking about grace simply because of how that term was misunderstood by the rest of Christianity – as a way to focus on the ultimate purpose of the gift of grace (becoming like The Father) rather than the prevailing interpretation (praising The Son).
Why is this important to us – and why did it take me so long to get here?
2 Nephi 25:23 is the most quoted verse about grace in Mormondom. It says:
“It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”
Many people believe that this means we are only saved if we do all that we can do – if we obey every commandment to the best of our ability. That simply isn’t in line with the rest of our scriptures and, more importantly, it leads to unnecessary stress and anxiety about whether or not I am doing enough. I see this all the time in my discussions with lots of people and as I listen to and read the blogs of many women, especially. Rather than seeing the grace of God as a freeing, enabling gift that already has been given, they often internalize it as a reward dangling enticingly in front of them, ready to be withdrawn if they screw up too badly and fail to repent immediately. That leads to guilt, pain and lack of self-confidence, instead of the rest that is promised so beautifully in Matthew 11:28-30 – the “rest unto your souls” promised by the Savior.
When I read 2 Nephi 25:23, I explain it by employing a common linguistic technique – switching the phrases to reflect the emphasis I believe is consistent with the scriptures in their entirety. In this case, the sentence becomes:
(Even) after all we can do, it is (still) by grace that we are saved.
Of course, we are to try to do all that we can do, but exactly what we can do pales in comparison to what He has done – saved us by His grace regardless of what we can do. It takes the pressure off of us and puts the focus where it should be – on His incomprehensible grace that so fully he proffers us. Grace becomes the “truth (that) shall make (us) free” – the enabling power that makes “be ye, therefore, perfect” possible, rather than a depressing impossibility. It animates our Second Article of Faith, that says we will not be punished for the faults and weakness we inherit as a consequence of our mortal births. It emphasizes the core of the gospel – not what we do, but rather what we become.
A very insightful friend recently described the process of taking his yoke upon us as “feeling the purity and power of His sinlessness.” I love that construct, but I would add the following:
Understanding and truly accepting God’s grace occurs when you realize that all of your inherited weakness (your temper, your judgmental nature, your fatigue, your lack of self-worth, your never-ending battles with whatever drives you crazy) – everything that keeps you from becoming who you desperately want to become – has been bought and paid for already.
He fought that fight for you, and He won. Yes, you were born with things that keep you from being perfect, but He paid for those things – meaning that you truly can take His yoke upon you and walk confidently at His side as a brother or sister with the same eternal potential. It occurs when you realize that, because of the grace that so fully He proffers you, you aren’t required to pay for those things; rather, you are freed to pursue those qualities and characteristics you want to acquire to become perfect (whole, complete, fully developed) – regardless of the tangible outcome of that effort.
Repentance becomes an exciting, forward looking progression toward wholeness, rather than a depressing, backward-looking, guilt-inducing attempt to beat the bad out of you and never again make any mistakes. Bad habits and painful characteristics will disappear as they are replaced by good ones through accepting his gracious gift, not as they are subdued and repressed by sheer force of personal will.
I believe an understanding of grace is fully realized when one stops fighting God’s grace – when he realizes that all God wants is his willing mind, broken heart, and contrite spirit – when he quits worrying about his individual worthiness and starts focusing on his contribution to communal unity – when he simply lays it all at God’s feet and says, in essence:
I know you understand my weakness; I know you know my struggles and pains; I know you know how I feel about myself. I know you love me and have bought me, anyway. From now on, I will trust your promise and, despite my continuing frustration – and my continuing weakness – and my continuing failures, I will bounce back each time and continue to grow. I will not despair. I will accept my weakness, imperfection and failure, knowing you don’t care, because you love me, anyway. I will get back up each time I am knocked down and continue to walk toward you, until you embrace me and say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” – knowing I don’t deserve it and being eternally grateful for the grace that so fully you proffered me.
Images: (Jesus) (CC) Maylene Rapadas, statue of Joseph Smith, (Jesus with child) (CC) David Truman