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The First Step in Becoming: Embracing Grace

“I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me – confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me.”

I have been struck recently by how little we discuss grace in the Church. We talk about the Atonement and faith and hope and works and love and forgiveness and so many other things, but we rarely talk about grace. I understand why, but it disturbs me, nonetheless.

Our understanding of “grace” is found in the Bible Dictionary – linked here. It is obvious from this definition that grace is the heart of the Gospel – that it is the “Good News” that encompasses Jesus’ love for us and is the ultimate gift He gives us. It is, in reality, another term for the Atonement, which is why we don’t use it much. (We use “atonement” instead.) We believe in grace fully and deeply, but we tend to break it into more easily discussed sub-sections – like those listed in the last paragraph. Again, I understand why we do this, but when we fail to connect the pieces back into the original, complete framework, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of pieces and lose sight of the fact that they really comprise only one full concept – the grace that underlies the Atonement of Jesus.

So, why do we do this?

This will be a simplification, but at the time of the Restoration, the dominant doctrinal argument was over faith vs. works. One camp defined faith by saying, “Confess His name and be saved; works are just what He does through you after that confession,” or the other, more extreme denial of works, “God has chosen the saved (applied His grace) and the damned (denied His grace) prior to their birth, and nothing can be done to affect that outcome.” The other side hearkened back to the Law of Moses and said, “Grace is a gift that is given to all who earn it.”

Since both of these definitions of grace represent the extremes, and since each of them depends on a classic Heaven/Hell split, the Restored Gospel rejected each. In reality, however, the repudiation of works was stronger in the Christianity of that day, so the focus within the Church naturally tended to emphasize what was missing “the most” – the need for obedience to commandments, often translated as works. (There is an important distinction between “works” and “fruit” – but I will discuss that in a different post.) In restoring the concept of multiple, differentiated glories, Joseph Smith correctly focused on those things that are required of God’s children in order to reach the highest level of glory – again, often translated as our works. In practical terms, however, this effectively eliminated grace from our active vocabulary. This left us floundering for an answer to the age-old Christian question, “Have you been / When were you saved?” – since our goal is not “salvation” but rather “exaltation”.

My answer: We have been saved by the grace of God. Period. That salvation started when Jesus voluntarily offered Himself as our Savior prior to the creation of the world, continued when He was born of Mary, was extended by His exemplary life, deepened in the Garden of Gethsemane and on Golgatha when He hung on the cross, declared “It is finished,” and “gave up the ghost” – and culminated on that Sunday morning when He rose from the tomb, appeared to Mary, ascended to His Father, and became the first fruits of the resurrection. The implications of that grace are enormous and too often misunderstood.

Let me say it again, more plainly. **We have been saved by the grace of God.** It has happened already, completely independent of what we do – except in the case of Sons of Perdition. For all of the rest of us, we have, through His grace, been freed from the bonds of physical and spiritual death and inherited a degree of glory in the presence of God. Even those who inherit the Telestial Kingdom have “inherited” a kingdom of glory and can enjoy the presence of the Holy Ghost – a member of the Godhead. Even they will be resurrected and have been saved from endless torment in the presence of Lucifer. That gift, promised to all but a few who accepted The Father’s Plan of Salvation and Jesus as their Savior in the pre-existence, has been purchased already – and all of them have, in a very real sense, “confessed His name and been saved by His grace” prior to being born.

So why do we not discuss this? I believe it is because all the other Christian religions of the day already taught a limited version of this, and the Restoration was about adding more to what they taught – restoring a knowledge of the potential that had been lost. It was all about going beyond the Telestial Kingdom (with the Holy Ghost) and the Terrestrial Kingdom (with Jesus, the Christ) and working toward the Celestial Kingdom (with God, the Father). We stopped talking about grace simply because of how that term was misunderstood by the rest of Christianity – as a way to focus on the ultimate purpose of the gift of grace (becoming like The Father) rather than the prevailing interpretation (praising The Son).

Why is this important to us – and why did it take me so long to get here?

2 Nephi 25:23 is the most quoted verse about grace in Mormondom. It says, It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do. ? Many people believe that this means we are only saved if we do all that we can do – if we obey every commandment to the best of our ability. That simply isn’t in line with the rest of our scriptures and, more importantly, it leads to unnecessary stress and anxiety about whether or not “I am doing enough.” I see this all the time in my discussions with Michelle and as I listen to and read the blogs of many women, especially. Rather than seeing the grace of God as a freeing, enabling gift that already has been given, they often internalize it as a reward dangling enticingly in front of them, ready to be withdrawn if they screw up too badly and fail to repent immediately. That leads to guilt and pain and lack of self-confidence, instead of the rest that is promised so beautifully in Matthew 11:28–30.

When I read 2 Nephi 25:23, I explain it by employing a common linguistic technique – switching the phrases to reflect the proper emphasis. In this case, the sentence becomes, “(Even) after all we can do, it is (still) by grace that we are saved.” Of course, we are to try to do all that we can do, but exactly what we can do pales in comparison to what He has done – saved us by His grace regardless of what we can do. It takes the pressure off of us and puts the focus where it should be – on His incomprehensible grace that so fully he proffers us.

Understanding and truly accepting God’s grace occurs when you realize that all of your inherited weaknesses (your temper, your judgmental nature, your fatigue, your lack of self-worth, your never-ending battles with whatever drives you crazy) – everything that keeps you from becoming who you desperately want to become – has been bought and paid for already. He fought that fight for you, and He won. Yes, you were born with things that keep you from being perfect (complete and whole), but He paid for those things – meaning that you truly can take His yoke upon you and walk confidently at His side as a brother or sister with the same eternal potential. It occurs when you realize that, because of the grace that so fully He proffers you, you aren’t required to pay for those things; rather, you are freed to pursue those qualities and characteristics you want to acquire to become perfect (whole and complete) – regardless of the tangible outcome of that effort. Repentance becomes an exciting, forward looking progression toward wholeness, rather than a depressing, backward-looking, guilt-inducing attempt to beat the bad out of you and never again make any mistakes. Bad habits and painful characteristics will disappear as they are replaced by good ones, not as they are “subdued and repressed by sheer force of will.”

The Anti-Nephi-Lehis became who they became NOT when they stopped fighting their fellow man, but rather when they stopped fighting God – when they “laid down the weapons of their rebellion“. I believe it was fully realized when they stopped fighting God’s grace – when they realized that all He wanted was their willing minds and hearts – when they simply laid it all at His feet and said, in essence, “I know you understand my weakness; I know you know my struggles and pains; I know you know how I feel about myself; I know you love me and have bought me, anyway. From now on, I will trust your promise and, despite my continuing frustration and my continuing weakness and my continuing failures, I will bounce back each time and continue to grow. I will not despair; I will endure; I will accept my weakness and imperfection and failure, knowing you don’t care, because you love me, anyway. I will get back up each time I am knocked down and continue to walk toward you, until you embrace me and say, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant’ – knowing I don’t deserve it and being eternally grateful for the grace that so fully you proffered me.”

{ 11 comments… add one }

  • mlinford January 15, 2008, 3:05 pm

    Got a knot in my throat. Like I said elsewhere, grace is becoming one of my favorite concepts.

    When I ‘get it’ I call that being in the arms of safety.

  • missbrown January 15, 2008, 3:59 pm

    Beautiful! I do, however, wonder if you’ve been peeking in my windows: (your temper, your judgmental nature, your fatigue, your lack of self-worth, your never-ending battles with whatever drives you crazy). ;)

  • jendoop January 15, 2008, 4:06 pm

    Thank you.

    I still struggle with my imperfections, especially when I see the pain my sins cause those that I love. Sometimes grace doesn’t feel enough (is that a lack of faith?). Understanding the concept isn’t the same as making it work in my daily life.

    Once someone said that Mormon women know just enough about the gospel to feel guilty. When we delve into the gospel deeply the misery can be replaced with joy.

  • Ray January 15, 2008, 4:18 pm

    Grace isn’t “enough” for what we want, ultimately – but it’s enough to take away the obstacles that otherwise would keep us from what we want. Too many of us don’t realize that those obstacles have been purchased already – that we’ve been “redeemed” from their natural effects -that they no longer are on our tab that we otherwise couldn’t pay.

  • davidson January 16, 2008, 10:37 am

    May I offer another viewpoint, Ray? I’ve spent the last few days thinking about this article. I am grateful for your insight, and also so very grateful for the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ! and I fully recognize that without Him, I could not work my way to salvation or exaltation; it wouldn’t be possible.

    That said, I’ll tell you some things I truly believe.

    “The gospel is to comfort the disturbed, and TO DISTURB THE COMFORTABLE.”

    “PRAY as if everything depended on the Lord; ACT as if everything depended on you.”

    “Verily I say, men should be ANXIOUSLY (not casually) ENGAGED in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; for the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.”
    (D & C 58:27)

    “And we know also, that sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true, to all those who love and serve God WITH ALL THEIR MIGHTS, MINDS, AND STRENGTH. But there is a possibility that man may fall from grace and depart from the living God; therefore, let the church take heed and pray always, lest they fall into temptation. YEA, AND EVEN LET THOSE WHO ARE SANCTIFIED TAKE HEED ALSO.” (D & C 20:31-34)

    “When we love our Heavenly Father with all our heart, might, mind, and strength, we follow Him joyfully. When we love our Heavenly Father, we leave behind the grudging have-to ? and embrace the enthusiastic can ?t-wait-to ? attitude. In thanksgiving we joyfully walk the path of the Lord the path of discipleship that leads to Him. Why must we love the Lord? Because as we do so, we become refined, pure, and holy. When we love the Lord, the benefits of the Atonement can wash away our earthly stain and, though our sins be as scarlet, we can become new creatures filled with new life, new thoughts, and a desire to do good continually.” (Joseph B. Wirthlin)

    No, we can’t save or exalt ourselves. But as we grow in love for the Lord, we find ourselves wanting to DO ALL WE CAN to serve Him, worship Him, further His kingdom here on the earth. No, we don’t run faster than we are able, but we run AS FAST as we are able; we push ourselves a little; we do our very best. We don’t run against each other; we run against our own best selves, and He is constantly encouraging us to improve our best, incrementally. We live in a Church that actively promotes physical and spiritual and mental self-reliance, and that is not a bad thing, to work toward self-reliance, within a framework of recognition of and ultimate reliance on Him.

    I worry that too many in the Church say, “All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth,” and feel content to sit back, not at all concerned about loving God with “all our heart, might, mind, and strength.” We are told to follow the Brethren; if you look closely at the lives of the Brethren, or any stake president or bishop for that matter, they are VERY anxiously engaged in a good cause. Their lives are busy and consecrated. As they grow in faith and responsibility, they become BUSIER. Same is true of missionaries. They are “heavy-laden”, if we consider the responsibilities they have. Where is their promised “rest”, as they surely come to the Savior through their efforts? I submit that the rest isn’t physical. The rest is freedom from FEELING heavy-laden or burdened, even though they have so many good things they must do. Rest isn’t feeling LESS tired; it is feeling MORE tired, but feeling good about being tired, and feeling tired from doing needed and worthwhile things. Rest in the Lord is feeling sustained through the necessary busy-ness, feeling they CAN do all they have to do, with God’s help and approval. “I can do all things, through Christ which strengtheneth me.” Even though we can’t save ourselves with works, work is still a ruling principle in His kingdom, hard work. He expects it of the faithful.

    Know what I suspect, Ray? I suspect you and your sweet wife are hard workers in the kingdom of God, and you do it because you love Him and want to worship Him through the way you live.

  • Ray January 16, 2008, 12:36 pm

    I agree completely, davidson. Remember (or go back and read again), I am saying that our effort in the Church should be directed at striving for exaltation (the Celestial Kingdom) – not at “worrying if I am good enough to be saved”. (the Telestial or Terrestrial Kingdom) That has happened already. I believe absolutely in the need to give our all; I just don’t agree with the emotional way that too many members internalize that effort.

  • delmar January 18, 2008, 5:04 pm

    What bothers me about grace is that the mainstream Christian believes that they are saved by grace alone. How completely wrong. I have a friend (actually its many non-member friends) who believe that they will be saved/resurrected in Heaven because they believe in Christ and the grace he so fully offers us. Sure Jesus died for our sins and its nice that they understand that part. Unfortunately they don’t understand the fullness of the gospel or of grace and what ruly being resurrected means and how much work (works/fruits) must be done to acheive what we believe to be our full resurrection in Heaven. I actually gotten into arguments with friends….about how doing good deads doesn’t make us “Mormons” any better than anyone else, just due to the fact that we are supposed to be saved by “grace alone”. Blah!

    Did I make any sense?

  • facethemusic January 18, 2008, 7:02 pm

    When you’re talking with your friends, there’s a simple way to put it Delmar– saved by grace, judged by works.
    Yes, His grace DOES save us. But there’s a judgment AFTER we’ve already been saved (using their definition of ‘”saved”.) So if someone’s already been saved, then what’s the point of the judgment? What do they think He’s going to judge?

    The problem with the ‘saved by grace alone’ theory is the connecting belief that “once saved, always saved” which is not a Bibical teaching. If there’s a judgment to determine worthiness to enter the kingdom of God, then what is he judging if we’ve already been saved? What purpose does judgment have if our deeds don’t mean anything in the first place? There are several Bibical scriptures that say that believers can fall from grace BY their works. Just a couple;

    Romans 11:22
    Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.

    Hebrews 3:12-14
    12. Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God.
    13 But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.
    14 For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end
    ;

    Clearly, we WILL be judged on whether or not we stay faithful, which equals “works”.

    Ray– this was very well written. It reminded me of Stephen Robinson’s “Believing Christ”- which is one of my all time favorite “basic” gospel principle books. (And I hope you don’t take my comparison as an accusation– I mean it as a compliment)
    It’s very true that even too many LDS members don’t appreciate the doctrine of grace.
    The drive to be the “good and faithful servant” is too often a cause for distress and feelings of futility because of that.
    On top of that, unfortunately, the more “evangelical” part of the Christian world and it’s misunderstanding of grace, plus it’s nullification of works has affected OUR membership. There’s been a tendency within the church to cringe at the use of the word “grace”, (completely believing in the doctrine, but disliking the word “grace”) because it’s been so tied to it’s misuse and misunderstanding within other faiths.
    It really isn’t too different from the reaction most people have to the Swastika, which was a symbol of strength, a representation of the sun, a symbol of luck/blessings, etc among many cultures dating all the way back to shortly after Adam and Eve. It didn’t develop into the loathed symbol it is now until Hitler began to use it as a symbol of his “empire”. Now, as soon as someone sees a swastika it’s automatically associated with Nazi’s and the death of 6 million Jews, Poles– anyone Hitler felt was inferior.
    Unfortunately, the dominance that much of the Christian world has had on the meaning and use of the word “grace”, sort of poisoned it’s use among the saints.
    I HAVE noticed though– over the past 6-7 years or so, a change in that. I don’t think it’s nearly as avoided as it once was. I’ve heard and read several talks by Church leaders on the subject- trying to bring us back to accepting the use of the word. ANd more and more, members are including the word in their volcabulary.

  • Ray January 18, 2008, 7:14 pm

    ftm, excellent observation about the pendulum swinging back to a discussion of grace. I have come to believe that a large part of the role of prophets is to comment on the general beliefs of the world in their time – to draw distinctions for the members that allow them to remain free from the effects of apostasy that affect their own day and age. Therefore, different prophets have emphasized works or grace more than the other – in opposition to whichever is being preached in isolation by others.

    At the time of the Restoration, it was grace alone being preached; now, we have moved as a Church too far in the works alone mentality, so prophets have been inspired to focus on and preach more about grace. At least, that’s my impression.

  • mlinford January 18, 2008, 11:51 pm

    I have come to believe that a large part of the role of prophets is to comment on the general beliefs of the world in their time – to draw distinctions for the members that allow them to remain free from the effects of apostasy that affect their own day and age.

    That deserves a post in and of itself, Ray. Fantastic.

  • missbrown January 20, 2008, 2:22 pm

    “I have come to believe that a large part of the role of prophets is to comment on the general beliefs of the world in their time – to draw distinctions for the members that allow them to remain free from the effects of apostasy that affect their own day and age.”

    I loved this too… THIS is why we have Latter-day Prophets. THIS is why our loving Heavenly Father continues to have a prophet on His earth… because we need a spokesman of God to talk to us NOW about what is going on NOW in our world. I am so grateful for a prophet!

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