Grace is at the core of the gospel, part 2

Like the talk I wrote about two days ago, I can’t find enough positive to say about President Dieter Uchtdorf’s talk. He preached grace in a way that has never been taught so strongly in General Conference:

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Grace is at the core of the gospel

I’ve long been a fan of Brad Wilcox’s “His Grace Is Sufficient” talk at BYU, mostly because of the way it so forcefully teaches grace without resorting to the sort of cheap grace that turns Jesus’ suffering and death into little more than a cosmic get-out-of-jail-free card. The more I’ve studied LDS Christianity, the more I’ve become convinced that grace is at its core — despite a culturally powerful “worthiness narrative” that tells us only our extensive efforts can make us qualify for grace. There’s almost a fear in the church (including among many leaders) against shouting “Grace!” too loudly lest we become among those Christians who believe there is nothing for us to do.

But as Wilcox makes clear, grace is more than the unmerited favor that it is so often described as. It is also an empowering force — a force that not only allows us to hear the invitation of Christ but also to act on it as we follow His example. It is at the core of becoming like Christ and, ultimately, in becoming able to enjoy the everlasting life we call exaltation.

All of this is merely a roundabout way of introducing what I thought was the most outstanding talk of this weekend’s General Conference. Like Wilcox, Elder Dale G. Renlund gave a talk that “gets grace” (although he often uses the word “mercy”). I can’t recommend it highly enough:

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Church’s article on religious liberty gives wrong impressions of legal cases

There’s no question that American society is becoming more secular, and it’s understandable why leaders of the LDS church (and other churches) are concerned that our legal system and social structures will place less value on the practice of religion than they have in the past. As someone who believes in freedom of expression for people of all faiths (or none), I share those concerns.

I would hope that in promoting the cause of religious liberty that the church would present the issues at hand in a truthful manner worthy of emulation by all sides. Sadly, the church’s Newsroom fails to meet that standard in its latest foray into the issue, an article called Other Examples of Attacks on Religious Conscience and Free Exercise. Not only does the article get some major facts wrong, it also is misleading by leaving key facts out or describing events inaccurately. I’m not in a position to say whether the false directions the article takes were intentional — I certainly hope not — but, regardless, the misdirection to readers isn’t helpful to the cause. Most importantly, as an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”), this use of tactics that appear less than honest makes me sad.

The article lists five examples of court cases described as attacks on religious freedoms and includes brief comments on their significance. I’ll briefly explain the problems with each of those examples.

Employment Example 1: The article says: “A Baptist-affiliated organization that places at-risk children in adoption or foster care terminated an employee because her admitted homosexual lifestyle was contrary to the organization’s core values. Accusing the organization of sexual orientation discrimination, she brought a federal lawsuit that the organization is still defending against more than a decade later. … Businesses that publicly operate according to religious beliefs should have the freedom to hire based on religious criteria they deem necessary to ensure that the working environment is supportive of those beliefs.”

The article’s description of the dispute (Pedreira v. Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, Inc.) is correct as far as it goes. What is left out is that the child-services institution received a substantial amount of its revenue from taxpayers, about $12.5 million per year from the state of Kentucky. Certainly, there’s no question, at least to me, that a sectarian institution fully funded by a church and/or private donations should be able to set hiring policies informed by the church’s beliefs. But it’s a different matter when taxpayers are footing the bill.

Employment Example 2: The article says: “A New York City restaurant was ordered to pay $1.6 million to a lesbian chef and manager for allegedly discriminating based on sexual orientation and religion because the restaurant held weekly prayer meetings and the owner expressed the view that homosexual conduct is sinful.”

The best that can be said is that the description of the case (Salemi v. Gloria’s Tribeca, Inc.) substantially understates what the jury found, even though it was instructed that “[d]discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or religion must be beyond what is considered petty slights and trivial inconveniences.”

According to the appeals court, “[t]he record evidence, which is extensive and corroborated by multiple witnesses, amply supports the jury’s verdict that, in violation of the New York City Human Rights Law (City HRL), plaintiff’s employer, defendant Edward Globokar, the principal of Gloria’s Tribecamex Inc., which owned the restaurant where plaintiff worked as chef and manager, discriminated against her based on her religion and sexual orientation by, amongst other things, holding weekly prayer meetings at the restaurant where plaintiff worked which the staff viewed as mandatory, fearing that they would lose their jobs if they did not attend, repeatedly stating that homosexuality is ‘a sin,’ and that ‘gay people’ were ‘going to go to hell’ and generally subjecting her to an incessant barrage of offensive anti-homosexual invective.” Is that really the kind of employer “religious freedom” we want to be defending?

Employment Example 3: The article says: “A Minnesota health club, owned by Evangelical Christians and operated in light of biblical principles, was ordered by the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1985 to stop hiring only employees who shared their religious beliefs in order to comply with state nondiscrimination laws.”

I doubt whether anyone in the Newsroom even read this case (Blanding v. Sports & Health Club, Inc.), which didn’t have anything to do with employment discrimination. The case involved whether the health club could, in effect, apply different standards of conduct for gay members than it did for its straight members. And even if this were an employment case, do we really want to be arguing that it’s OK for a nonreligious business to hire only evangelical Christians?

Housing Example 1: The article says: “A private Jewish university in New York City was sued by a lesbian couple for its policy of reserving its married student housing for male-female couples. The state’s highest court ruled that the university’s policy could be challenged as violating the city’s ordinance barring housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. … Religious schools should have the freedom to establish values-based regulations for student housing, including regulations separating male and female housing and protecting values of privacy, modesty and sexual morality.”

I can’t disagree that religious schools should be free to base policies regarding school-owned housing on their religious standards. But is that what this case (Levin v. Yeshiva Univ.) was about? Apparently not. The school conceded from the outset that its housing was subject to city antidiscrimination law. And, according to the appeals court, “All parties agree that Yeshiva’s religious affiliations have no bearing on this appeal. Also, plaintiffs did not plead claims based on either the State or Federal Constitution.”

It also should be noted that while the court did indeed rule that the school’s policy could be challenged, the lesbian plaintiffs’ challenge was not successful.

Housing Example 2: The article says: “In 1996 the California Supreme Court ruled that a devout Presbyterian widow with traditional Christian morals violated state law when she desired to rent one of her properties only to couples who are married. The court explained that the widow could avoid compromising her religious beliefs by getting out of the rental business altogether. … Small landlords and landlords renting units closely associated with their family living arrangements should have the freedom to determine who will occupy such units.”

The description of the case (Smith v. Fair Employment & Housing Com.) is technically accurate. But the wording here would suggest to the average reader that this widow’s property was “closely associated with [her] living arrangements.” The article’s author apparently wants readers to believe that this situation was something like that of a person who wants to rent out an apartment in her basement and doesn’t want the tenant unduly influencing her children. But that was not the case here. The widow did not live on the premises and visited the buildings only for purposes of maintenance and operations. By any legal standard, she was operating a typical, although small, housing business.

Final comment: It should be obvious by now that the results of these cases don’t portend the type of constitutional doomsday scenario that the Newsroom apparently wants us to think they do. As such, they’re not helpful to the debate over religious liberties. These accounts may even be counterproductive in that their implicit dishonesty presents the Church in less than a positive light.

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What is revelation?

“The Church is so invested in a narrative of obedience to authority that there is very little room to acknowledge that leaders are flawed, that revelation is messy, and that sometimes we just plain get it wrong.” So wrote my friend Katie L. in a blog post recently at Feminist Mormon Housewives, where she essentially called on the Church to repent of the idolatry of holding up its leaders as de facto infallible representatives of God.

Katie’s essay was a well-written and provocative post. While I wouldn’t go as far as she did in using the term “idolatry” — I wouldn’t say she’s wrong, but I’m more timid than Katie is — it did get me thinking about the nature of revelation. In her essay, Katie called for a “major paradigm shift” involving the abandonment of leader worship. While I agree that is a temptation that is easily succumbed to, I’m not sure that’s where we need the paradigm shift initially. The shift may need to come first in how we view revelation.

revelation from God to us with a cloud between themI think a common view is that revelation in the Church works like this: God has something he wants to tell the Church’s leaders. If the leaders are receptive and worthy, God will in effect dictate the words of the revelation. Indeed, this is possible — Joseph Smith talked about receiving some of the text of the Book of Mormon in such a fashion.

But is this the norm? I believe it is not. The norm, for regular folks like me as well as church leaders, seems to be that revelation comes through mental and spiritual impressions as much as anything else. While those impressions may be strong, and here’s the key, we interpret them through our own shortcomings and limited knowledge.

The problem with the traditional model is that it leads to what Katie talked about. If we believe that revelations are in fact dictations from God, there seems to be little room for the recipient’s personality, culture and other factors to play much of a role. This can lead to some either-or thinking — either the prophet (or other leader or regular person, for that matter) understands the words of God or he doesn’t. So if we find that the leader has committed an error, that becomes a reason to toss everything he says, or that the Church says. That’s a story that seems be common among many who have left the Church.

But couldn’t the process be a lot more dynamic than that? Doesn’t it make more sense that God would give someone a strong impression and then allow the individual to fill in the details?

Former Church President Gordon B. Hinckley suggested as much in an interview with Larry King a few years ago. Here’s a part of that interview:

King: So if you change things, that’s done by an edict given to you.

Hinckley: Yes, sir.

King: How do you receive it?

Hinckley: Well, various ways. It isn’t necessarily a voice heard. Impressions come. The building of this very building [the Conference Center] I think is an evidence of that. There came an impression, a feeling, that we need to enlarge our facilities where we could hold our conferences. And it was a very bold measure. We had to tear down a big building here and put this building up at great cost. But goodness sakes, what a wonderful thing it’s proven to be. It is an answer to many, many needs. And I think it’s the result of inspiration.

King: And that came from something higher than you.

Hinckley: I think so.

It’s quite clear from this interview that President Hinckley was claiming he received revelation — but he implies that based on his knowledge and background he (and certainly other church leaders) filled in the details, such as the site and design. If someone else had been the prophet at the time, perhaps the building would have ended up far different.

To me, that’s how revelation seems to work. It’s a process that’s subject to human limitations and, yes, even error. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons we need continuing revelation.

Let me give a few of examples of how this may have worked in practice:

  • Paul the Apostle received an impression that a church gathering should be a time where people act with dignity. But based on his own culture, he applied that impression by telling women that they shouldn’t braid their hair or wear pearls — adornment that at the time and place was undignified at best.
  • Upon inquiry, Joseph Smith received an impression that members of the church take care of their bodies. To that impression he filled in the details based on the best health advice of the day. Had he been the prophet in 2014, perhaps the Word of Wisdom would have recommended getting exercise and avoiding fatty foods, and it probably wouldn’t have said anything about using tobacco to treat bruises.
  • Similarly, President Hinckley was impressed that we should treat our bodies with outward respect. To that he filled in the details based on his own background as someone growing up at a time when tattoos and multiple earrings were acquired only by lowlifes.
  • More than a year ago, church leaders were impressed of the need to expand the missionary program. Based on their own knowledge of the capabilities of the Church’s young adults and other factors, they filled in the details with the changes that are now in effect.

To be clear, these are just educated guesses about how things came about. But I do find it interesting that we seem to give Paul the freedom of applying his own culture to the impressions he received, yet with modern church leaders we seem to assume that all they say came directly from God. We seem to be denying them the right to be human, to apply their own knowledge and backgrounds to what God conveys to them. As a result, rather than God’s direct revelations alone being engraved in stone, we take the fallible extrapolations of men and treat them as more than what they are.

I should point out that I have no problem with following the Word of Wisdom (I even eat meat sparingly), I would never punch holes in my ears or ink up my skin, and I welcomed the changes in the missionary program. My point isn’t that the way the “details were filled in” is wrong so much that details were filled in by fallible humans rather than dictated by God — and thus they can be subject to scrutiny and change, perhaps even without the need for new revelation.

How far am I willing to take this idea? I’m not sure. But one of the things that got me thinking about how revelation works was an written interview recently done by historian Richard Bushman, a patriarch and active, faithful member of the church. In the interview, Bushman was asked about the role that Sidney Rigdon played in the development of the Church’s theology. Bushman’s answer was fascinating, and I’m surprised it hasn’t received more attention. He said:

Joseph Smith was very eclectic. He drew upon ideas from all over, including Masonic ritual. I am not aware of source criticism of Rigdon’s influence, but I am inclined to think it was fairly large. It is quite possible that the idea of Restoration came from him. Restoration in the Book of Mormon refers to the restoration of Israel, the return of Israel to its favored place in God’s eyes, not the restoration of the New Testament church. Rigdon who was a restorationist along with Campbell could very well have turned Joseph’s thinking in that direction. I also think he may have been responsible for the phrase “creeds are an abomination.” That was hobby horse of Alexander Campbell’s. Since Rigdon was involved in writing Joseph Smith’s 1838 history, he may have been one to introduce that language into the account of the First Vision.

That’s a radical statement for a faithful historian to make, especially since it touches on a foundational account. But as someone who sees a huge human role in even the writing of Scripture, I find it a tentative conclusion that is plausible.

Since the Church’s recent statement that placed the former exclusion of black males from the priesthood in the context of the racist culture, a question commonly asked in the bloggernacle has been: “Well, if church leaders were wrong then, why should we trust them now?” But perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask. Perhaps the question should be: “Since church leaders are human and thus subject to error, what can I do to ensure that I am following the guidance of the Holy Spirit?” We are tasked no less than Church leaders are in discerning God’s will for us.

Graphic courtesy of Ben Bernards.

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My response to the YSA bishop

I wrote the following as a much-too-long Facebook comment in a discussion on “A YSA Bishop Talks to the Sisters About Intimacy.” The person who started the discussion labeled the article using a common barnyard epithet and asked: “Like, is this really what my daughters are going to be taught? … I can’t even handle it and I am not sure I want them exposed to it.”

I just completed reading the article in its entirety. Now it’s time to take a shower.

There’s so much to say, I’m not sure where to begin. My first reaction: If my daughter were in his ward, I’d advise her to never be alone with this guy. Actually, I wouldn’t limit that advice to just my daughter. He strikes me as creepy.

I agree with the bishop on several things: The law of chastity (the real law, not his version of it) is God’s law. I agree that men and women were made to be attracted to each other. I agree that it is appropriate to set boundaries in our behavior. Finally, I agree that the Atonement provides forgiveness.

Beyond that, it’s hard to find much redeeming in this article. I think the word K. used to describe it is too mild.

I think most of the problems with the article are obvious. He sees sexual attraction as something God-given, yet he also apparently sees it as evil. He relies on negative stereotypes of male behavior — and if I were a female and took him seriously, I’d be asking myself why I’d ever want to have anything to do with men. He seems to think that the only virtue of women worth paying attention to is their beauty. I could go on and on; it’s just warped.

There’s also an implicit message to men in that article: If I’m not a creep in the way that bishop is, there’s something wrong with me. I’m actually capable of respecting women as my sisters in Christ, so what’s my problem?

Fortunately, to answer K.’s question, no, I don’t see this extreme view as mainstream. But I don’t see it as uncommon either.

Here’s a problem, as I see it, and it gets to what T. brought up. [One of the participants in the conversation had written: “I’m by no means going to defend the article. I’m wondering if you can explain how you balance personal responsibility with Paul’s admonition to refrain from eating meat if it causes a brother to stumble?”] This sort of talk by the bishop, the similar rhetoric we sometimes hear, and the overemphasis on “modesty” (where modesty = covering skin) are all a pushback against a society that has run off the rails in matters of sexuality. So one extreme is replaced by another extreme, one that has taken us to the point where we’re even painting sleeves on pictures of preschool girls. Ugh.

So now there’s a pushback against the pushback, one that denies that the way someone dresses or otherwise behaves has any effect on anyone else’s thoughts or behavior. I’ve seen some of the anti-pushback posts in the bloggernacle that almost suggest that women dressing provocatively is a good thing.

I want to be careful not to be misunderstood here, because this is a nuanced view. As I see it, in a Christian community, we have a mutual responsibility to foster a climate where healthy relationships and, yes, healthy sexuality can exist. One way we do that is through positive actions, such as seeing persons of the opposite sex as total people rather than merely objects or potential marriage partners. We can do that through developing genuine relationships with people of both sexes. But we can also do that to some extent through self-restraint, perhaps even by not sending inappropriate sexual messages in our dress or comportment. How we dress and behave does send out messages and does affect (not control, but affect) others’ behavior, and I think it’s reasonable to recognize that. It also affects the way we perceive ourselves.

I’m not interested in codifying that sort of thing, and I think we’d be better off teaching principles rather than writing rules for everyone. I’m just concerned that in (rightfully) condemning talks such as the one the bishop gave, we don’t also ignore the mutual responsibilities we have toward each other.

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Does ‘after all we can do’ = ‘despite all we can do’?

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 [1]: “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 [2]. 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.

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The paradox of good works

This is the final draft of the talk I gave in sacrament meeting today.

Life is filled with paradoxes. If you need something to get done, whom do you call? The person who’s already the busiest. And if you’re running a business and want to increase your profits, what should you consider? Reducing your prices in hopes of getting more customers.

“Paradox” refers to a statement or belief that, at least at first, defies common sense and may in fact be self-contradictory. Paradoxes can be found almost anywhere. One of the most well-known paradoxes of science involves two hypothetical twins, one of whom leaves Earth and travels near the speed of light, and when she returns is younger than her sister. [1]

Paradoxes can be found even in the gospel, perhaps especially in the gospel. We believe in prophets, yet we also need to get our own confirmation of what they say. We believe that God is one, yet we also believe that God is three. We believe this church is the one true church, yet we also can find truth in other religions and practices. We are organized in a hierarchy, yet we believe we all stand equal before God. Jesus himself taught in paradoxes: The first will be last, and the last will be first. He who loses his life for my sake will find it. He who wants to be great must be a servant. The kingdom of God is like the employer who pays his employees the same wages regardless of how late they start work. The one who humbles himself will be exalted,and the one who exalts himself will be humbled. Prostitutes and tax collectors, Jesus once told religious leaders, would see the kingdom of God before they do.

What I would like to do today is to discuss one of greatest paradoxes of all. That paradox is this: Our good works have nothing to do with our salvation. Yet there is no salvation without good works. Now, salvation has several different meanings. But whether we’re talking about living a Christian life during our mortality or whether we’re talking about exaltation to godhood, the paradox is the same. We are not saved by our good works, yet we are not saved without good works.

I think that most of intuitively sense that at some level none of us are capable on our own of attaining the purity that God demands of us. Long before the birth of Christ, the prophet Isaiah lamented that even what we think are righteous acts are nothing more than filthy rags [2]; and truth be told, the term “filthy rags” used in the King James translation is a euphemism for something we usually don’t discuss in sacrament talks. Isaiah couldn’t have used starker terms to describe the gap between our so-called righteousness and God’s righteousness.

Hundreds of years later, the apostle Paul put it another way, telling us that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. The apostle John said much the same thing, telling us that if we say we have no sin we are deceiving ourselves. The solution, of course, is the Atonement, and words can barely describe what it has done for us. Said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland about the Atonement [3]:

“Indeed the Atonement of the Only Begotten Son of God in the flesh is the crucial foundation upon which all Christian doctrine rests and the greatest expression of divine love this world has ever been given. Its importance in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cannot be overstated. Every other principle, commandment, and virtue of the restored gospel draws its significance from this pivotal event.

Yes, indeed, it is the Atonement of Christ that saves us and nothing that we do. The Apostle Paul put it clearly in his letter to the Ephesians: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” [4]

It isn’t just Paul who tells us that we are saved through faith in Jesus and his work of the atonement rather than what we do. In the book of 2 Nephi, Lehi tells his sons that “Redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth. Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.” [5] In other words, nothing else, not even whatever good we do, pays the price,only the sacrifice of Christ. We couldn’t even pay for the Atonement if we wanted to.

As King Benjamin said in his famous sermon, we could serve God with our whole souls and we still would be unprofitable servants – in other words, that whatever we pay back be of less value than what has been given to us. This thought is put in a different way by Nephi, when he tells believers: “Ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.” To rely wholly on the work of Christ includes acknowledging that our own works aren’t saving us.

We know, of course, that not everyone receives all the blessings of the atonement, that our actions have something to do with something. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. The point is that our works don’t earn us what we are freely given. As Elder Jeffrey Holland put it: “Of course neither the unconditional nor the conditional blessings of the Atonement are available except through the grace of Christ. Obviously the unconditional blessings of the Atonement are unearned, but the conditional ones are not fully merited either. By living faithfully and keeping the commandments of God, one can receive additional privileges; but they are still given freely, not technically earned. The Book of Mormon declares emphatically that ‘there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah.”

In 2011, BYU professor Brad Wilcox presented a devotional that is destined to become a classic [6]. All the missionaries in our son’s mission and their families were asked to read or watch the devotional, and parts of it were recently reprinted in New Era. It’s a great talk. In that talk he told a story that relates to what happens when we start thinking that our good works are what save us, even in part. It’s fairly long, but I believe it tells the story well, so let me share:

A BYU student once came to me and asked if we could talk. I said, “Of course. How can I help you?” She said, “I just don’t get grace.” I responded, “What is it that you don’t understand?” She said, “I know I need to do my best and then Jesus does the rest, but I can’t even do my best.” She then went on to tell me all the things she should be doing because she’s a Mormon that she wasn’t doing. She continued, “I know that I have to do my part and then Jesus makes up the difference and fills the gap that stands between my part and perfection. But who fills the gap that stands between where I am now and my part?” She then went on to tell me all the things that she shouldn’t be doing because she’s a Mormon, but she was doing them anyway. Finally I said, “Jesus doesn’t make up the difference. Jesus makes all the difference. Grace is not about filling gaps. It is about filling us.” Seeing that she was still confused, I took a piece of paper and drew two dots—one at the top representing God and one at the bottom representing us. I then said, “Go ahead. Draw the line. How much is our part? How much is Christ’s part?” She went right to the center of the page and began to draw a line. Then, considering what we had been speaking about, she went to the bottom of the page and drew a line just above the bottom dot. I said, “Wrong.” She said, “I knew it was higher. I should have just drawn it, because I knew it.” I said, “No. The truth is, there is no line. Jesus filled the whole space. He paid our debt in full. He didn’t pay it all except for a few coins. He paid it all. It is finished.”

And that, brothers and sisters, is the gospel truth. Jesus paid the full price. But be honest now. If you heard the good news in that way for the first time, what would your reaction be? It very well could be the reaction of the BYU student. Allow me to repeat the last few lines of what Brother Wilcox said so you can capture the flavor of the student’s  reaction:

“Jesus filled the whole space. He paid our debt in full. He didn’t pay it all except for a few coins. He paid it all. It is finished.” She said, “Right! Like Idon’t have to do anything?”

The Apostle Paul faced the same question because of his emphasis on grace. In fact, one of the heresies in the early church was antinomianism, the belief that there are no rules of conduct for Christians because, after all, we have already been forgiven. It’s a falsehood that continues today in some segments of Christianity.

But the question remains, why do we, why should we, do good works if everything we receive from God is freely given to us anyway? I would answer the young woman’s final question in much the same way that Brother Wilcox did. If you’d like to read or hear his words, his talk is easy to find online.

And now I have a confession to make. Earlier in this talk when I quoted the apostle Paul, I quoted him out of context. Unfortunately, many people quoting from Ephesians 2 stop at the same place I did. Let me repeat the quote with the verse that follows [7]: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” In other words, we were created by God in order to do good works, and the reason God has saved us by grace, by the Atonement, is so we can do them. We don’t get saved by our good works, but we are saved to bring about our good works. Or as an online friend of mine [8] put it: “Grace is the path to doing all we can do, not the prize.”

Anglican author C.S. Lewis once wrote that the gates of hell are locked from the inside. If I were to expand his statement a bit further, I’d say that the gates of heaven aren’t locked at all. So we don’t do good works to unlock the heavenly gates but to prepare ourselves to enter them — and that’s whether we’re talking about living in the kingdom of God here on Earth or after we’ve passed onto the next life. The reason we’re asked to do good works isn’t to earn us a spot on the rolls of heaven or because God is like the police officer hidden behind the trees watching to see if we follow the law. Instead, a key reason we do good works is because they are God’s tool for us to become like Him. And it is those who become like him, those who are becoming like him, who will want and appreciate his presence in their lives, both now and in eternity. I like the way that Elder Dieter Uchtdorf explained this in the October 2005 General Conference [9]:

To follow Christ is to become more like Him. It is to learn from His character. The Savior invites us to learn His gospel by living His teachings. Ancient and modern prophets described it with three words: “Keep the commandments” — nothing more, nothing less. … Having faith in Jesus Christ and in His Atonement means relying completely on Him—trusting in His infinite power, intelligence, and love. When we have faith in Christ, we trust the Lord enough to follow His commandments—even when we do not completely understand the reasons for them. In seeking to become more like the Savior, we need to rely, through the path of true repentance, upon the merits of Jesus Christ and the blessings of His Atonement.

As President Uchtdorf suggests, faith by its very nature, faith in the scriptural sense of the word, isn’t an intellectual belief only. When Paul said we are saved by grace through faith, he wasn’t talking about mere belief, but by a faith that trusts in Christ, that trusts in him enough to let him change us into celestial creatures. As James told us, faith, real, genuine, living faith is always accompanied by good works. In what is perhaps the most eloquent section of scriptures written on the matter [10], the author of Hebrews doesn’t expound on faith by telling us what the great men and women of the Old Testament thought, but by what they did.

The danger of talking about faith and works in this way is that it’s easy to fall back into the old mentality of relying on our own actions rather than upon the merits of Christ. Instead of asking ourselves, “Have I done enough good works to be loved by God?,” we unfortunately can end up asking “Do I have enough faith to be loved by God?” But to repeat what Brother Wilcox said in his talk, if we start judging ourselves in this way we don’t understand grace.

Part of the good news is that God doesn’t ask us to have a lot of faith. Jesus himself said faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. What is important is to rely on Christ with whatever faith we have and trust that his grace will be sufficient not only to save us but to change us and to expand our faith. The great prophet Alma said as much: “But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can do no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you,” [11] and he goes on to describe how faith can grow.

As we trust in Christ, as we express gratitude for what he has done for us, we will gain an increased desire for doing good works. And while it’s not those works that save us – that’s what the gift of the Atonement is for — they are an essential part of God’s plan for us to become like our father in heaven and to become the divine creatures he created us to be. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


1. See Twin Paradox.

2. Isaiah 64:6

3. The Atonement of Jesus Christ.

4. Ephesians 2:8-9.

5. 2 Nephi 2:6-7.

6. His Grace Is Sufficient

7. Ephesians 2:10.

8. Tim at LDS & Evangelical Conversations.

9. Becoming Like Jesus Christ.

10. Hebrews 11.

11. Alma 32:27.

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