For those of us who believe fully that Latter-day Saint scriptures are filled with teachings of empowering grace and see that as conflicting with a common cultural (and, I must concede, even quasi doctrinal) view that grace must be earned, 2 Nephi 25:23 sometimes turns out to be a bit of a stumbling block. The verse, familiar to anyone active in the LDS church, says this: “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.”
I don’t intend here to get into a full discussion of the role of grace vs. works; my best current understanding can be found in my thoughts on the paradox of good works. My intent here is much more limited: to show the plausibility that “after” in 2 Nephi 25:23 can reasonably be interpreted to mean “despite,” and that in fact such was likely the intended meaning. In other words, its intended meaning runs contrary to a popular interpretation, that the grace of Christ “kicks in” only subsequent to our doing everything we can, a view that actually can deny grace because none of us really does all that we can do.
I am far from the first to suggest that “after” here means “despite,” although as far as I know most others who have done so have argued from the context. And, indeed, the view of an incomplete grace, one that doesn’t kick in until we’ve lived the perfect life, runs contrary to stated intent of the full passage, which Nephi says is to teach that “there is none other name given under heaven save it be this Jesus Christ, of which I have spoken, whereby man can be saved.”
Popular writers such as Stephen Robinson and Robert Millet have been among those advocating for a “despite” approach. And at least one apostle, M. Russell Ballard, came awfully close to saying almost the same thing in a 1998 Institute talk : “It is only through the infinite Atonement of Jesus Christ that people can overcome the consequences of bad choices. Thus Nephi teaches us that it is ultimately by the grace of Christ that we are saved even after all that we can do.” (Emphasis not in original.)
But there’s a problem, at least in the minds of some, with such an interpretation. J. Nelson-Seawright, writing at By Common Consent, put it this way:
A revisionist reading of 2 Nephi 25:23 has been offered to overcome this nontrivial obstacle. This reading, most notably associated with Stephen E. Robinson but advocated by many others, suggests effectively replacing Nephi’s “after” with the phrase “in spite of,” yielding the following New Revised Version of the original text: “we know that it is by grace that we are saved, in spite of all we can do.” … Robinson’s reading has the obvious defect of working best when the actual text is changed.
Tim, the evangelical host of LDS & Evangelical Conversations, put the issue more colorfully:
All of the ways I’ve heard “Grace Mormons” get around 2 Nephi 25:23 makes me fear they’ll use the same methodology on all of scripture and just brush the entire Bible aside. … Robinson’s interpretation is gobbledygook. He might as well say “I’m going to make words mean what they don’t mean in order to get the passage to say the opposite of what it says.” I REALLY like the destination Robinson is aiming for, but his textual analysis is mind boggling. I don’t think it’s fair to the passage, to pre-existing Mormon thought, or to the English language.
And now the point of this post: Here’s where Nelson-Seawright and Tim are wrong — it’s the interpretation that grace occurs subsequent to our doing everything possible that changes the words of the original. That understanding adds a word, changing “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” to “it is by grace that we are saved, after doing all we can do.” The word “doing” isn’t in the original.
If “after” here means “subsequent to,” well, that just doesn’t make grammatical sense. “All we can do” isn’t an event. “All we can do” isn’t something that happens at some time, after which something else can happen.
So that raises the question: Logically, grammatically, can “after” mean something else here? Indeed it can. To say it means “despite,” “in spite of” or “notwithstanding” isn’t a stretch at all.
In fact, we find such a use frequently with the phrase “after all.” A few examples: After all we’ve done for him, he doesn’t care. After all she did to destroy me, I still love her. The child drowned, after/despite all he did to try to rescue her. While there is indeed a time element in those sentences, “despite” is the main meaning of “after.”
Similarly, the phrases “after all” and “after all is said and done,” which usually function as an adverbial phrase rather than being used in the way “after all” is in the 2 Nephi passage, carry the idea that something happened despite what would be otherwise expected. Example: We left the house late but arrived on time after all.
Granted, “despite” isn’t the meaning usually associated with “after.” But it’s a meaning that was recognized at least as early as 1900 in dictionaries, when Webster’s gave “subsequent to and notwithstanding” (emphasis added) as a possible meaning of the word.
I’ve looked for passages contemporary to the translation of the Book of Mormon that use “after” in the same way that Joseph Smith did in 2 Nephi 25:23, and I haven’t had much luck, probably because I haven’t devised a way to limit my digital searches to 19th-century documents; this is an area for further research. But I did find one: It came in an 1857 book, “Rollo in Holland,” by Jacob Abbot . In a passage discussing the making of harbors, he writes: “In this way a passage is secured, by which, when the tide is high, pretty good sized vessels can get in; but, after all that they can do in such a case, they cannot make a harbor which can be entered at low tide.” Undoubtedly, “after all that they can do” here is synonymous with “in spite of all that they can do.”
Such a reading for “after all” in 2 Nephi 25:23 makes plain, although in my view the context does already, that the grace we receive through the Atonement isn’t earned. (Just to be clear, I’m not advocating “cheap grace.” There’s still plenty for us to do, but its purpose isn’t to earn grace.) I hope that as we study the words of Nephi, we come to a fuller understanding and appreciation of the love that Jesus showed us through his life, suffering and death.
1. Building Bridges of Understanding.
2. The text is available thanks to Project Gutenberg.