“We Know That It Is by Grace That We Are Saved”

Brant Gardner

Narrative: The theological debate of grace versus works influences modern readers to concentrate on the last part of verse 23 that provides an apparent response to that issue. While it is nice that we can find in the text an answer to a question that concerns us, the narrative question is: What it is doing at this point in the text? What is it about Nephi’s introduction that causes him to give us that one sentence “response” to a complex theological issue?

The statement is created by the context of the preceding part of the verse and verse 24. In the first part of verse 23, Nephi discusses the importance of teaching about the Atoning Messiah in his city-nation. In verse 24 he tells us that even though he (and presumably Jacob and Joseph) teach the doctrine of the Atoning Messiah and look forward to his mortal ministry that is expected to create great changes, they nevertheless follow the law of Moses. It is the juxtaposition of their type of Messianism and their inherited Mosaic traditions that creates a tension in the way they see religion. The nature of that conflict is reconciled through that one statement, that they understand that it is “by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”

This statement is couched in modern Christian terms that represent the way Joseph Smith understood what was on the plates. We do not know what word on the plates led to the English “grace”; however, there is no reason to suppose anything special, for the concept of grace is found in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, “grace” is the translation of the Hebrew chen and means a benefit or favor given to an individual, either by God or by another individual:

Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord. (Gen. 6:8)
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. 34:11)
And Joseph found grace in his [master’s] sight, and he served him: and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand. (Gen. 39:4)

In these three examples, a person finds “grace” with someone who wields, or could wield, power over the individual. In the first example, the Lord bestows grace; in the next two, a mortal does. Thus, “grace” is a gift, regardless of who bestows it. This fact creates an important distinction between a concept that is representational and one that is operative.

What would the Nephites have understood as grace in the context of their belief in the Messiah? That belief centered on the atoning aspect of the Messiah rather than the eschatological triumphant entry of the Messiah. This created a conflict with the law of Moses, for there was already a prescribed method of atonement through animal sacrifice. Thus, to accept the Atoning Messiah, Nephi’s people had a theological conflict that had to be reconciled. It was not the New Testament grace versus works as a means of obtaining salvation, but rather a question of how they would achieve a remission of sins—through the grace of the Atoning Messiah or through the sacrifices of the law of Moses? Nephi’s reconciliation was to indicate that both were required. They should understand that their ultimate freedom from sin would come through the mission of the future Atoning Messiah. In the meantime, however, the sacrifices were required. These were “all they could do.”

Scripture: The concept that we are saved by grace, after all we can do, is important in modern LDS theology in a slightly different way than it was for the Nephites. Where the Nephite conflict was between the two modes of achieving atonement, for modern readers the issue cannot be removed from the sectarian issue of how one achieves salvation. This situation is perhaps ironic, for Paul’s most frequent contrast to grace, “works,” refers to the particular restrictions of the law of Moses which is similar to the situation Nephi faced. The difference is that Nephi continued the law of Moses, while Paul argued that it had been superceded and did not need to be followed (at least by Gentile converts).

Unlike Nephi’s solution, Paul’s replacement theology created a question about the discontinued function of the law. Of course, one did the “works” of the law; but if those works actually saved, then there would be no need for Christ’s atonement. If it is Christ’s atonement that actually saves, then of what use were those works? This led Paul to state: “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work” (Rom. 11:16). To create a more modern version of Paul’s idea, we can contrast a gift of money and wages. Using those terms in Paul’s sentence we have: “And if by a gift of money, then it is no more wages: otherwise, the gift is no more a gift. But if it is by wages, then it isn’t a gift; otherwise, the gift isn’t a gift.”

The concept is absolutely correct. Where we have difficulty is when we suppose that, since the atonement actually happens through the grace/gift of God, therefore nothing is required of us. Paul understood that some might make this grave mistake, and warned us against it in Romans 6:14–16: “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?”

Paul describes the situation he envisions for Christian converts from Judaism. They are now under grace (the law of Christ) rather than the law of Moses. Because grace is a free gift, he notes that some might decide that they could freely sin because the free gift had already taken care of those sins. Paul’s answer is couched in his understanding of a patron/client relationship. The patron provides benefits to the client, but the client has responsibilities to the patron as well. If the patron does not perform those responsibilities, the “contract” between them is broken. Hence Paul notes that “to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are.” We have entered into a contract with our patron, and we owe him service as a result.

Of course, the patron/client image is not a common one in modern western society, so we need other reasons to understand the relationship between the things that we do and God’s grace. Lowell Bennion provided a beautifully enlarged view of the grace of God:

According to Mormon doctrine, life as we know it is the creative work of God. In our pre-earth or pre-existent state, he took the eternal, uncreated, self-existent intelligence of man and gave it a spiritual birth, through which man in a very real sense became a child of God (a divinity in embryo), partaking of God’s spiritual nature, hungering and thirsting to realize the attributes received of his Maker. This pre-earth, spiritual creation—belief which is unique (in Christian circles) to Latter-day Saints—is, as far as we know, the gift of God, born of his love and his desire to share with others his own spiritual life.
Our faith is that mortal life also comes by the grace of the Father and the Son. We Latter-day Saints have been taught that we were permitted to come to earth as a reward for keeping our first estate, and by implication we have sometimes felt that we earned mortality. There is some truth here, but too often that truth is shallow and distorted. It is more accurate to say that we were, at best, prepared to profit from an experience in mortality. How does one earn the precious gift of life? As surely as there is a Creator in the universe, creation is an act of grace. Who knows what suffering, what effort, what powers of mind, what love went into the creation of man? How could man obligate his Maker to acts of creation?

Is there any conceivable way in which what we do merits our own creation—“merits” in the sense of “earns”? No. However, is there anything we can do to justify the grace of God in creating us? Yes. God clearly believes that, for it is the reason behind his creation. “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). God has a purpose, and his grace has a purpose. That purpose is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” If we are to understand our part in this process, we can only understand it in this larger context in which God sees our part in his work. God has provided for us an opportunity that we cannot provide for ourselves, an opportunity that transcends this world and includes both the premortal and postmortal realms.

What does God expect will happen because of his great grace? Jesus told the Nephites in Bountiful: “Therefore I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect” (3 Ne. 12:48). (See commentary accompanying that verse for more information on the meaning of “be perfect.”) Jesus was mortal. He was one of us. Our inheritance is to be like him. Paul reminds us: “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Rom. 8:16–17). We are to be joint-heirs with Christ. What he inherits, we inherit. What he became, we may become.

The conceptual problem we frequently have is that we consider heaven a place rather than a state of being. We assume that our goal is to get to heaven to be with God. Were that the purpose, we need never have left the premortal life, for we were already with God. We are not seeking a place: we are seeking a transformation. Note how Paul uses the imagery of the “old man” and “new man” in combination with a transformation in qualities:

Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry:
For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience:
In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them.
But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth.
Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds;
And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him:
Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.
Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering;
Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.
And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. (Col. 3:5–14)

Here is the same set of verses in the more modern language of the NIV:

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.
Because of these the wrath of God is coming.
You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived.
But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.
Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices
and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Paul is not defining the result of the gospel as one in which certain acts earn rewards, but rather that the gospel requires and assists in a change in nature, a change sufficient that it may be described as “put[ting] off the old man” and “put[ting] on the new man.” Unless we completely understand the transformational nature of God’s plan, we will misunderstand both the grace of God and the atonement. Why are we saved by grace and not works? Because we can never merit or earn all that God has done for us. Why is faith dead without works (James 2:17)? Because we cannot transform the old man into the new man without correctly exercising our agency (which agency is another of the gifts or grace of God).

Because most analogies given for the atonement focus on models of payment, they limit the grace of God to this single gift of forgiveness of sin. By focusing on the issue of sinfulness and how it is removed, they limit the scope of God’s total gift, and therefore cloud the role of our efforts in the process. Analogies are useful to provide a way to see a problem differently, but they nearly always fail at some point when analyzed carefully. Understanding that there is no completely accurate analogy, I venture to offer the following explanation for grace, atonement, and “all we can do” as they relate to God’s purpose.

Suppose that a man has a goal of becoming more physically fit. Understanding the natural laws, this person understands that this will happen only through proper exercise over time. The problem is, he doesn’t know what exercises to do, nor how to do them. He doesn’t seem to have time, and he certainly doesn’t have any of the equipment that he might need to achieve his goal. Into this situation comes a benefactor who provides a marvelous and completely stocked gym. This person provides training manuals, the right equipment, and even instructions on how to find the time—all of the things that the man did not have.

Let’s apply this analogy to ourselves in mortality. We now have a purpose, which is to become fit. This parallels God’s purpose that we become perfect. We now have a gym full of weights. This is agency, the opposition against which we are to strive on this earth. We have the instruction manual, the scriptures. We even have a personal trainer, the Holy Ghost. Everything is here that we might possibly require to achieve our goal. It is given freely. This is God’s grace, and the atonement unlocks the front door. What happens if we never enter? What happens if we pick up a weight or two and get bored and leave? What happens if we love the gift and sit inside the gym marveling at the wonder of the gift but never actually use the training manual or the weights?

The work and glory of God is to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). The atonement’s reconciliation for physical death supplies immortality. However, eternal life requires our transformation. Brigham Young put it this way:

All intelligent beings who are crowned with crowns of glory, immortality, and eternal lives must pass through every ordeal appointed for intelligent beings to pass through, to gain their glory and exaltation. Every calamity that can come upon mortal beings will be suffered to come upon the few, to prepare them to enjoy the presence of the Lord. If we obtain the glory that Abraham obtained, we must do so by the same means that he did. If we are ever prepared to enjoy the society of Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or of their faithful children, and of the faithful Prophets and Apostles, we must pass through the same experiences, and gain the knowledge, intelligence, and endowments that will prepare us to enter into the celestial kingdom of our Father and God.… Every trial and experience you have passed through is necessary for your salvation.

Because the purpose of this life is to transform us into celestial beings, our active participation in the process is essential. God’s grace provides us the opportunity to become what we could never become on our own. However, God cannot make us into celestial beings. We must use agency to perform that task ourselves.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 2