“It Is by Grace That We Are Saved”

Brant Gardner

We concentrate on the second part of this verse because of its doctrinal significance. We should not slight the first part, however, because it serves as the reason Nephi mentions the teaching of Christ. Nephi has just declared that these writings will stand as a judgement bar for those who receive them. It is this great responsibility and weight of judgement that causes Nephi and his generation to teach diligently the doctrine of the Christ, for his people will be judged as having access to that knowledge. They teach to assure that their children will understand the doctrines and principles upon which they will be judged.

Narrative: Nephi broaches the subject of grace versus works in a very casual and off-handed manner. Rather than the major discourse one might expect of a nineteenth century religious tract, Nephi slides into the thick of theological controversy almost as an aside. If we may rightly assume that Nephi is pronouncing for his own purposes, and not for resolution of modern theological argument, in what context does he provide this gem of brevity?

The direct context is one of the efforts made to teach their children. In Nephi's original context, he is emphasizing the work that they must do, but very specifically the work required to diligently teach their children of the Messiah. It is this reference to the Messiah that trips his mind to grace, because his context has been those efforts required to teach. In Nephi's discourse, he and his leaders and teachers diligently teach, and expend effort in so doing because their children will be judged by the knowledge available to them. Because the weight of that judgement is heavy upon the parents, they work to fulfill their obligation to teach in such a way that their children will understand the message, and be enlarged through the gospel rather than condemned by it. It is the message of the Christ that leads Nephi to declare his grace. It is the responsibility of their understanding that informs the work that they do.

Scriptural: It is very difficult for a modern reader to approach Nephi's text without bringing to it the tension of theological argument concerning the relationship of grace and works. Modern theological debate has separated the concepts of grace and works into two mutually exclusive concepts rather than Nephi's complementary pairing. Understanding grace and works in Nephi requires that we better understand the nature of Grace in the Old Testament, which most directly informs Nephi's connotations for the term.

The Old Testament meaning of Grace is one of benefit or favor given to a person. As a favor or gift, it may be given of God, or by man:

Gen. 6:8

8 But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.

Gen. 34:11

11 And Shechem said unto her father and unto her brethren, Let me find grace in your eyes, and what ye shall say unto me I will give.

Gen. 39:4

4 And Joseph found grace in his sight, and he served him: and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand.

In these three verses, a person is finding "grace in the eyes/sight" of someone who holds. or could hold power over them. Genesis 6:8 has the Lord as the bestower of grace, but in the other two cases, the bestowal of grace comes at the hands of a mortal. Thus the idea of grace in the Old Testament has more to do with the grace itself than the giver. It is a gift, regardless of the person who bestows it. This creates an important distinction between a concept that is representational, and one that is operative.

A representational concept is one where the term stands for a meaning, it represents that meaning or concept. Generosity is representational of an attitude and relationship between people. On the other hand, some terms become operational - or indicative of a function performed or effected. The word "emancipate" is not only a concept, but represents a functional action that creates a change. One's generosity might lead one to emancipate another, but the generosity is only descriptive of the attitude, not the result. One might also be generous, and desirous to emancipate, but not have the legal ability to do so.

Grace suffers from a conceptual confusion between representational and operational terms. In the Old Testament clearly, and in the New Testament demonstrably, Grace is representational. Grace is a description of a quality or attitude of God and the Savior. We have problems in understanding Grace when we attempt to make the term operational, which can occur when we misunderstand the idea that we are saved through Grace. The phrase makes it appear that Grace is operational, that Grace is a term for something that actually makes a change. It is not. Grace is always representational.

Notice how the representational and operative concepts can approach the use of grace in Ezra:

Ezra 9:8

8 And now for a little space grace hath been shewed from the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant to escape, and to give us a nail in his holy place, that our God may lighten our eyes, and give us a little reviving in our bondage.

The usage in Era come closer to the New Testament uses that appear to use grace as an operator - something that has effect in and of itself. The problem with seeing grace as operational in Ezra is that the effect of this "grace" does not match the salvific grace of the New Testament. In other words, if grace is operational, it has different effects.

It is best to see grace, even in this case, as representative of the care and concern of the Lord, whose actions are effective and motivated by his bounty or good favor (grace) toward man. It is God who is operative, not a concept of grace.

The representational meaning of grace is the only one that fits the following passages in Psalms:

Ps. 84:10

10 For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.

Ps. 84:11

11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.

In the case of Psalms, grace is provided by the Lord, but is again representational rather than operative. The Lord gives "grace and glory" as examples of the goodwill he shows to man. The following phrase makes this clear, as the "no good thing will he withhold from the that walk uprightly" is the cumulative phrase for which "grace and glory" is the specific example.

The New Testament also shows that grace is best used as representative of God's favor toward mankind:

Luke 2:40

40 And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.

We might presume that grace shifts connotations in the New Testament, being representational in the Old Testament, but acquiring an operational meaning in the New Testament. This is not the case. The use early in Luke is clearly best translated by "favor". Jesus is given a gift of wisdom and grace is referring to that privileged position Jesus enjoyed with the Father.

Similarly, we find in John:

John 1:14

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

What does it mean to be full of grace? It is the same as Luke's statement that the grace of God was upon him. This is the favor of God, and the fullness refers to the quantity that Jesus possessed. This is still a representation of the favor of God, directed to his only begotten. There is no room in this usage for a functional aspect to grace. It remains representational.

It is in Paul's writings that grace begins to appear as an operational term:

Rom. 3:24

24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:

In this passage it appears as though grace really is a term of operation because we are justified through the medium of Christ's grace. Rather than a technical definition, or an alteration of mode, Paul's use of grace can yet be seen as representative of a gift or favor. In the same epistle to the Romans we find:

Rom. 1:7

7 To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Grace is here both a greeting and a gift. When the beneficence comes from Christ, it is his love that allows the expiatory action that effects our justification. The justification comes directly from the atonement, not from "grace," but it is the grace of Christ that allowed him to go through with the atonement in our behalf.

If grace is representational rather than functional, how should we understand the relationship between grace and works? In one sense they are not comparable, for works is inherently operational, whereas grace is representational. They connote entirely different aspects of our walk before the Lord. Grace is a motivation, work is an action. The beneficent motivation of God is an enabler. Grace does not save us, it enables salvation to be accomplished. Seen thus, there is no conflict between them.

Wherein then, is the classic theological contradiction? The problem comes in the question of merit. This is precisely the focus Paul gives the issue:

Rom. 4:4

4 Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.

Rom. 4:16

16 Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all,

Paul is not contrasting the difference between something that one does and an external "grace," but rather that which may or may not merit salvation. Paul is clear that our salvation comes not because we earn it, but because of the grace and good will of God. Grace does not save us without or in spite of works, because the works cannot effect our salvation. We are incapable of earning that salvation, and therefore we are saved through "Grace" - through the benevolent gift. As a representation of attitude or character, Grace is descriptive of God and Jesus. The actual salvation, however, is enacted by Jesus through the events of the atonement.

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon