The Christian doctrine of redemptive grace has been an enigma to me. And for more than 50 years my view of it has evolved. I wonder if my story is somewhat similar to what you have experienced.
My journey began as a young man during my full-time mission. I frequently encountered people who denied any interest in the message of the restored gospel by claiming they had already been saved. The reasoning behind this point of view went like this: God loves whomever He chooses to love. He calls us to His grace, saying, “I love you the way you are. Why can’t you learn to love yourself? I accept you as you are.” Thus a person who lives by grace becomes who he is truly meant to be, while a person who lives by law—seeking to be saved by his works—becomes a phony. He seeks to accelerate his own righteousness and achievement instead of God’s. It is wrong to expect God to save us because we are living by His law or to think that by changing our life we will merit the love of God and find happiness.
As a young missionary, I countered this view of grace by quoting James 2:14–26, which concludes, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (v. 26). Whereupon, my contacts often opened their Bibles and responded with a few scriptures of their own in support of their belief in unconditional grace. One verse they commonly used was the Apostle Paul’s statement, “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” (Eph. 2:8–9). They reasoned with me that grace is a gift of God that freely comes when we accept Christ.
For the first time in my life, I realized how easily we can become confused about any doctrine if we focus on a single verse and don’t take into account the whole of gospel teachings. I also formed the opinion that people gravitated to the doctrine of unconditional grace because it was so easy to accept. After all, life can appear a whole lot simpler when all one has to do for salvation is “accept Christ.”
Saved by Obedience?
I had taken a book written by a Latter-day Saint author with me on my mission. It stated a common understanding of grace embraced by many Church members at the time, that the grace of Christ brought to pass the Resurrection of all mankind, but that salvation from sin and exaltation in the celestial kingdom of God came primarily through good works and obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel. This doctrinal point is what I and many others of that day used to argue against the doctrine of unconditional grace.
During my mission I discovered hundreds of Bible references that I could use to show that obedience to the laws of God is necessary. For example, Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father, which is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). Jesus later told the rich young man, “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments,” including the Ten Commandments, love of God and neighbors, and giving all his wealth to the poor (Matt. 19:17; see also Matt. 19:18–21).
The clear and fundamental message of the New Testament is that we must repent, be baptized, and live the teachings of Christ. Furthermore, as the Apostle John taught, we must all eventually stand before God and be “judged every man according to their works” (Rev. 20:13).
Before returning home from my mission, I felt keenly that I had an understanding of the doctrine of grace, both what it is and what it is not. I received a powerful witness of the truthfulness of the Restoration. My mission truly changed my life and helped me come to know much about the Savior.
A Deeply Personal Topic
A significant change in my approach to the doctrine of grace came during my graduate studies at Brigham Young University. My roommate was a fellow graduate student who had digested the Book of Mormon more completely than anyone I had ever met. He helped me understand that the Fall of Adam was much more than an academic subject. He helped me see the impact it had on me personally. He also helped me comprehend that Christ’s Atonement was far more than an exercise in solving the problems caused by the Fall. I came to know the Savior in a very real and personal way from the Book of Mormon. The scriptures seemed to open up to me, and I was able to speak and teach the gospel with greater effectiveness.
This experience caused me to study more intensely, and I began to look at the doctrine of grace through different lenses. It was no longer a theoretical topic but a deeply personal one. I never questioned that the Resurrection was an unconditional gift from Christ, but I began to consider other aspects of grace.
I sought out opportunities to discuss my concerns with close friends and family. We searched for answers to such questions as: Is our obedience sufficient to cleanse us from sin and negate its consequences? How do we become clean from our sins? How does forgiveness come? What does it mean to suffer for sin?
We found several scriptures that seemed to answer our questions. For example, in 3 Nephi 27:19 [3 Ne. 27:19] the Savior offers this explanation of the balance between grace and works: “And no unclean thing can enter into his kingdom; therefore nothing entereth into his rest save it be those who have washed their garments in my blood, because of their faith, and the repentance of all their sins, and their faithfulness unto the end.” Furthermore, Lehi taught that Christ “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” (2 Ne. 2:7).
From the words of the modern prophets we found this insight from President Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918): “Men cannot forgive their own sins; they cannot cleanse themselves from the consequences of their sins. Men can stop sinning and can do right in the future and so far their acts are acceptable before the Lord and worthy of consideration. But who shall repair the wrongs they have done to themselves and to others, which seems impossible for them to repair themselves? By the atonement of Jesus Christ, the sins of the repentant shall be washed away.” 1
We concluded that the cleansing or forgiveness of sin always comes from a divine source. We discovered that while sanctification comes through Christ, the Holy Ghost is the actual cleansing agent and that the manifestation of this renewing power is conditional (see 3 Ne. 9:20). Our discussions expanded my perception of grace and deepened my feeling of dependence upon the Lord.
As I have studied the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of grace has become even clearer to me. He withstood every temptation and buffeting Satan and his legions could throw at Him. He showed His love for the Father and for us by living the perfect life, thus enabling Him to be the source of all divine assistance.
The definition and explanation of grace in our Bible Dictionary has been a great help to me: “The main idea of the word is divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ. … Divine grace is needed by every soul in consequence of the Fall of Adam and also because of man’s weaknesses and shortcomings. However, grace cannot suffice without total effort on the part of the recipient. Hence the explanation, ‘It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do’ (2 Ne. 25:23). It is truly the grace of Jesus Christ that makes salvation possible” (p. 697). And what is “all we can do” referred to in 2 Nephi? We can have faith, repent, be baptized, receive the Holy Ghost, and endure faithfully to the end (see 3 Ne. 27:19–21).
Recent teachings from our living prophets and apostles have also helped solidify my understanding. For example, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said: “No matter how hard we work, no matter how much we obey, no matter how many good things we do in this life, it would not be enough were it not for Jesus Christ and His loving grace. On our own we cannot earn the kingdom of God, no matter what we do. Unfortunately, there are some within the Church who have become so preoccupied with performing good works that they forget that those works—as good as they may be—are hollow unless they are accompanied by a complete dependence on Christ.” 2
I have thought many times of how I answered the people on my mission who claimed to have already been saved by grace. My answer today would be quite different from what I said 50 years ago. If asked, “Do you believe we are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ?” I would answer with a resounding yes.
If it were not for the Atonement, nothing mortal man could do would matter (see 1 Ne. 10:6; 2 Ne. 9:8–12). I have concluded that while works, such as obedience to gospel principles and ordinances, play a key role in accessing the full benefits of the Atonement, it is by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that we are saved.
After All We Can Do
“I am profoundly grateful for the principle of saving grace. Many people think they need only confess that Jesus is the Christ and then they are saved by grace alone. We cannot be saved by grace alone, “for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23; emphasis added). President James E. Faust, “The Atonement: Our Greatest Hope,” Ensign, Nov. 2001, 18.
Helps for Home Evening
Show family members a necessary item of food or water with its price tag. Ask them what they would do if they needed this item to survive but could offer only a few cents to pay for it. Discuss the relationship of grace to our works.
As you study the article, invite family members to share how and why the author’s view of grace changed over time. Discuss the importance of both grace and works in obtaining salvation through Jesus Christ.