Many believers in Jesus Christ consider the Apostle Paul’s teachings on grace among the most profound and sublime in all Christian literature. They know this fundamental doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ gives Christians hope of a better life through the grace of a merciful and just God.
Yet members of the Church sometimes have difficulty understanding Paul’s teachings in light of the restored gospel’s emphasis on individual effort and righteousness as requirements for eternal life.
On the road to Damascus, Saul, the Pharisee, scholar, and persecutor of the Saints, received a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ and, “trembling and astonished” (Acts 9:6), was persuaded to acknowledge his error. The scriptures evidence that after “certain days” in Damascus, Paul was a changed man (Acts 9:19; see also Acts 9:20–22). He had tasted of the power of the Atonement through the grace of a merciful God and had received a remission of his sins through the ordinance of baptism (see Acts 20:26). Paul often bore witness of the grace of Jesus Christ he had personally received. He had been born of the Spirit, had been tutored by authorized servants of God, had come to understand the great plan of redemption, and as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ had become acquainted with Him in a manner few in mortality are privileged to enjoy. Thus when Paul taught of grace, he did so with both personal knowledge and authority.
The doctrine of grace is better understood when we distinguish between grace and mercy, even though the words are often used interchangeably in the scriptures. The mercy of God might be defined as His compassion or forbearance. God displays or extends His mercy by granting grace to His children. This grace is an extension of divine help or enabling power.
Latter-day Saints believe that the same apostolic power and authority Paul enjoyed is evident within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through modern-day prophets and apostles. The Prophet Joseph Smith declared, “Paul perfectly understood the purposes of God in relation to His connection with man.”1 It would therefore be logical to suppose that the Latter-day Saint view of grace, as taught by modern-day prophets, and the teachings found in the writings of the Apostle Paul, when properly understood, are the same.
Some years ago, President David O. McKay (1873–1970) related a story which illustrates the relationship between works and grace. He told of a group of boys who were learning to swim when one fell into a treacherous hole in the stream. The boy would have drowned but for a quick-thinking companion who extended a branch to him and helped pull him to shore.
“There are those who claim that no one will sink and be lost if he will look to Jesus on the shore and say, ‘I believe.’ There are others who declare that every one must by his own efforts swim to the shore or be lost forever. The real truth is that both of these extreme views are incorrect. Christ redeemed all men from death which was brought upon them through no act of theirs, but He will not save men from their personal transgressions who will put forth no effort themselves, any more than the young rescuer on the river bank could have saved the drowning lad if the latter had not seized the means provided him. Neither can man save himself without accepting the means provided by Christ for man’s salvation.”2
President McKay’s illustration of the relationship between grace and works is similar to the teachings of the Apostle Paul on the subject.
Whenever the gospel has been present on the earth and administered by authorized servants of the Lord, the plan of salvation has been taught. The essence of this plan is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). Eternal life is typified by the kind of existence God our Eternal Father enjoys.
Yet without divine intervention, man remains sinful and unworthy to enter the presence of God. We are assured that “no unclean thing can dwell with God” (1 Ne. 10:21), or as Paul concludes, “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). However, a plan devised “before the foundation of this world” (1 Pet. 1:20) calls for a physical resurrection from death for all mankind (see 1 Cor. 15:21–22) and for a reconciliation of sinful and alienated mankind to God through the Atonement of Christ, that He might “present [us] holy and unblameable and unreproveable” (Col. 1:22) before the throne of God.
Because of mankind’s fallen condition, none of us could redeem ourselves from the effects of the demands of justice. Jesus was the only one who was perfectly obedient and thus able to comply with all of the laws of justice and satisfy its demands in our behalf. In the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross, by His power as the Son of God, He actually purchased us through the shedding of His blood. His grace is dispensed freely in the sense that we are not required to satisfy the demands of the law of justice. His Atonement reconciles us to God, subject to certain conditions.
The gift of resurrection is given unconditionally to all, whether they accept and obey the gospel or not. Both the wicked and the righteous shall rise from the grave, meaning that the spirit and the body shall once again be reunited in an immortal state. On the other hand, spiritual death, which is the separation of man from God, is overpowered by the Atonement on condition that we comply with requirements the Lord has set. These include having faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, repenting, being baptized by authorized servants of the Lord, and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, which we will use with a determination to serve Him all the days of our lives. These conditions were well understood and were taught by Paul (see Acts 19:1–6; Eph. 4:1–15).
One of the commonly held misconceptions generated by a misunderstanding of Paul’s writing comes through his frequent references to the “law.” As an example, when Paul says, “we are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:15), we should know that he is referring to the law of justice as embodied in the commandments of the law of Moses and not to the higher law of God. Being under grace, or to put it more clearly, under the law of God, simply means that we are subject to the conditions He has set forth for this grace. Paul also teaches, “If righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain” (Gal. 2:21). The meaning is obvious: if man had the capacity to obey the law of justice perfectly, there would be no need for a Savior (Christ).
Another clear misconception is the notion that the Atonement of Jesus Christ saves us in our sins. On the contrary, the Savior’s Atonement saves us from sin while never abandoning justice. The Atonement satisfies justice with mercy, “that henceforth we should not serve sin” (Rom. 6:6). Paul, in fact, implored the Roman Saints to understand that the Atonement would allow them to be “made free from sin” and become “the servants of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). He understood that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18). Surely Paul understood the Savior’s commandment to be “perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). He accordingly counseled the Saints in Rome, “For not the hearers of the law are just [i.e., accepted] before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified” (Rom. 2:13; emphasis added).
Only the Atonement can rid man of sin, making one justified in the sight of God. Afterward comes the gift of sanctification—being made clean, pure, and spotless—which can only be dispensed through the power of the Holy Ghost on conditions of obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ.3
Paul himself testified that he had been baptized for a remission of sins (see Acts 22:12–16) and reminded Titus that we would be saved “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but … by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5).
In summary, forgiveness through the grace of the Lord is conditional and therefore dependent upon our compliance with all of His laws, ordinances, and commandments.
President McKay’s story of the swimmers illustrates the futility of faith without effort. It can be truly stated that faith without works is a misnomer; as James taught, it is “dead” (James 2:17). Likewise, Paul’s statement to the Ephesians “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8) is frequently misunderstood. That salvation is a gift of God—and thus a manifestation of His grace—has already been demonstrated. In this vein, the faith Paul subscribes to is a living faith in which men and women are able, through individual effort, to obtain “a good report” (Heb. 11:2). He teaches that it is only “by grace [we are] saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8) as we submit ourselves fully to the requirements of the gospel of Jesus Christ and “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philip. 2:12).
The fact that our faith must be accompanied by works is illustrated by a story from the Old Testament, the account of the battle between Israel and the people of Amalek. When confronted with Amalek’s army, Moses instructed Joshua to “choose us out men, and go out, fight with Amalek” (Ex. 17:9). Moses stood on a hill and held the rod of God aloft. As Moses maintained this position with his arms and his staff, Israel prevailed in battle. When he tired and dropped his hands, the tide changed against Israel. In order to assist him, as he sat on a stone, Aaron and Hur on either side held up his arms (see Ex. 17:8–16).
This passage of scripture is an excellent example of how the Lord expresses His power in grace when we express our faith. God could have defeated the Amalekites without the army of Israel if He so desired, but He required Israel to exercise faith in Him and His prophet and to do all that they could before He would intervene for them.
Paul wrote to the Saints in Corinth that “my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power:
“That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4–5).
He had received the gift of the Holy Ghost and taught his fellow Saints by its power; they in turn were in a position because of the gift of the Holy Ghost to “[compare] spiritual things with spiritual” (1 Cor. 2:13). As fellow recipients of the same grace of the Lord that Paul had received, they could understand the deep meanings of the doctrines he taught.
President Gordon B. Hinckley, the prophet of our day, provides this singular witness:
“I sense in a measure the meaning of his atonement. I cannot comprehend it all. It is so vast in its reach and yet so intimate in its effect that it defies comprehension. …
“When all is said and done, when all of history is examined, when the deepest depths of the human mind have been explored, there is nothing so wonderful, so majestic, so tremendous as this act of grace when the Son of the Almighty, the Prince of His Father’s royal household, … gave his life in ignominy and pain so that all of the sons and daughters of God, of all generations of time, every one of whom must die, might walk again and live eternally.”4
Ultimately, when fellow believers begin to feel what Paul felt, understand what Paul understood, experience what he experienced, and do what he did, his writings on grace will touch us with power and immediacy.