This is the key scripture in the argument against the sectarian, “by grace ye are saved” doctrine. The sectarian doctrine teaches that as soon as one accepts Jesus Christ as their Savior, the individual is saved. Being saved, then, is a single event in time and space which takes place when one accepts Christ. The reason why this doctrine is so unacceptable is not because of the words used, for it truly is “by grace that we are saved.” Rather the doctrine is unacceptable because of how the sectarians have interpreted it and the implications of the interpretation. If salvation comes as easily as that—by a cursory acceptance of Christ—it implies that an individual has no responsibility to follow God after being saved. Theoretically, one could accept Christ today, then return to a wicked life tomorrow and still expect salvation. On the other hand, the individual who accepts Christ and then devotes the rest of his/her entire life to following the Master can expect no greater reward than the former individual. Such a doctrine denies the justice of God.
In reality, the individual who “accepts Christ” and then returns to living a wicked life never really accepted Christ in the first place. A cursory acceptance and a few monetary donations do not make a disciple of Christ. This Nephi passage makes it clear that we have some responsibility in the relationship—it guarantees salvation by grace after all we can do. After one has started on the path of discipleship, Nephi clearly teaches what must take place next, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay…ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: ye shall have eternal life (2 Nephi 31:20).
There is a doctrinal spectrum with faith on one end and works on the other. Paul was teaching people who thought that salvation came through the works of the Law of Moses, so he emphasized faith and grace. Many latter-day saints respond to the sectarian emphasis on grace and faith with an emphasis on works. In doing so, their teachings become reactionary—they overemphasize the importance of works. The best place to be in the Faith-Works Spectrum is right in the middle. We need to understand that faith without works is dead (James 2:17), but also that works without faith are dead. Indeed, the more we understand about the process of salvation, the more we understand that it is not our righteousness that gets us there. This is beautifully taught by Stephen E. Robinson:
"At first glance at this scripture (2 Nephi 25:23), we might think that grace is offered to us only chronologically after we have completed doing all we can do, but this is demonstrably false, for we have already received many manifestations of God’s grace before we even come to this point. By his grace, we live and breathe. By grace, we are spiritually begotten children of heavenly parents and enjoy divine prospects…The grace of God has been involved in our spiritual progress from the beginning and will be involved in our progress until the end.
"It therefore belittles God’s grace to think of it as only a cherry on top added at the last moment as a mere finishing touch to what we have already accomplished on our own without any help from God. Instead the reverse would be a truer proposition: our efforts are the cherry on top added to all that God has already done for us.
“Actually, I understand the preposition ‘after’ in ”2 Ne. 25:232 Nephi 25:23 to be a preposition of separation rather than a preposition of time. It denotes logical separateness rather than temporal sequence. We are saved by grace ’apart from all we can do,‘ or ’all we can do notwithstanding,‘ or even ’regardless of all we can do.’ Another acceptable paraphrase of the sense of the verse might read, ’We are still saved by grace, after all is said and done.’
"In addition, even the phrase ‘all we can do’ is susceptible to a sinister interpretation as meaning every single good deed we could conceivably have ever done. This is nonsense. If grace could operate only in such cases, no one could ever be saved, not even the best among us. It is precisely because we don’talways do everything we could have done that we need a savior in the first place…
“Thus, the correct sense of ”2 Ne. 25:232 Nephi 25:23 would be that we are ultimately saved by grace apart from whatever we manage to do. Grace is not merely a decorative touch or a finishing bit of trim to top off our own efforts—it is God’s participation in the process of our salvation from its beginning to its end." (Stephen E. Robinson, Believing Christ: The Parable of the Bicycle and Other Good News, p. 91-2)
Bruce R. McConkie
"Man cannot save himself. He cannot be saved by the works of the Mosaic law; he cannot be saved by the works of the gospel. Man cannot resurrect himself; neither Mosaic works nor gospel works can bring him forth from the grave. The resurrection comes by the grace of God; all men are resurrected, and in that sense all are saved by grace alone. And further: No man can raise himself unto eternal life; he cannot create a state of salvation and provide the means to obtain it. Man cannot create the kingdom of God, nor can he save himself in such a kingdom. If it were not for the grace of God, as shown forth in the redemption of his Son, there would be no eternal life. Neither the works of the Mosaic law nor the works of Christian righteousness, standing alone, without the grace of God as manifest in the sacrifice of his Son could save a man. Salvation does not come into being by the works of men; it comes because of Christ and his atonement. Because there was such an atonement, man can have faith, perform the works of righteousness, endure to the end, and ’work out [his] own salvation with fear and trembling.’ (Philippians 2:12.)
“Nephi‘s teachings accord with Paul’s. ’Believe in Christ,’ the American Hebrew exhorts, ’and be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.’ (2 Nephi 25:23.) His brother Jacob also accords: ’Reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved.’ (2 Nephi 10:24.) But perhaps no one has ever expounded the doctrine of salvation by grace better than Moroni did in these words: ’Come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ.’ Hear it, O all men: the grace of God, in the full sense, in the sense of salvation, is manifest only to those who, through righteousness become perfect in Christ. ’And if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ,’ Moroni continues, ’ye can in nowise deny the power of God. And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.’ (Moroni 10:32-33.) God be thanked and God be praised for his goodness and grace unto the children of men.” (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, p. 150)