The Way Evangelicals Understand Grace, You’d Think They Had Read The Book of Mormon

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God touching Adam

During a cordial religious discussion with a close friend and well-read Assembly of God minister, the topic of grace came up.

He said, “The Mormon notion of salvation by grace is completely different from ours.”

My response was, “I’ll challenge that assumption and I will do it using only the Book of Mormon.” I then asked him to tell me what he understood about salvation by grace. When he finished, I told him that there was no difference from what he believed and what the Book of Mormon taught.

What is Grace?

Jehovah creates the earth
Painting by Walter Rane, via LDS.org

Grace is everything given to you over and above what you deserve. This is a more difficult concept for millennials to grasp due to a general sense of entitlement.

In fact, you do not even deserve to be here on earth with a body and agency let alone your birth into highly privileged, even elite circumstances. Those are a gift from a God that is full of grace and truth.

So grace begins before you were born. You have done nothing to “earn” your way into earth experience. It was offered to you entirely out of His love for you as a gift so that you could become something greater and enjoy far greater happiness similar to what He enjoys.

This is important: He did not love you in the pre-mortal world because you are inherently lovable. He loved you in the pre-mortal world because He is overflowing with love. In fact John says that He is love (1 John 4:8).

Our reception of grace continued at your entry into this world. We did not deserve to come here. We did not deserve our bodies, our families, our amazing living conditions and on and on. In fact, the scriptures are clear that the very possibility of anything good at all coming to us is an act of the grace of Jesus who also overflows with love toward us regardless of what we have done to deserve it (1 John 4:19, Moroni 7:24-25).

So far, we, as both very good and very evil people are on the same standing. God’s grace gave all of us life plus a lot of really good stuff.

What our Works Do for Us

Two Boys rake leavesWe would end up deserving some things in life because of our good works, but as King Benjamin points out, He has given us life and therefore He has paid us and we will forever be in His debt (Mosiah 2:24).

This is why grace is operative even when we ARE righteous. We are still undeserving and therefore, anything good thing we get comes to us as an act of grace.

Now we get to the real meat of the situation. Moroni 10:32-33 reads,

Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God. And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.”

Notice the intentional passive voice used in the phrase “be perfected in him.” It does not say, “perfect yourself in him.” Then he says that if you deny yourself of all ungodliness…by His grace you can become perfect in Him. Your denial of ungodliness and serving God with all your heart does not make it so you deserve anything. The act of you being perfected is an act of grace.

This is where you separate yourself from evil people. They are not given grace that will perfect them. That would be impossible because God would not force perfect nature on a being who wills its contrary.

To illustrate further, Jacob, brother of Nephi, gives a lofty description of what he and others were capable of doing:

Wherefore, we search the prophets, and we have many revelations and the spirit of prophecy; and having all these witnesses we obtain a hope, and our faith becometh unshaken, insomuch that we truly can command in the name of Jesus and the very trees obey us, or the mountains, or the waves of the sea (Jacob 4:6).

That is significant power! Jacob then emphasizes the source of that immense power.

Nevertheless, the Lord God showeth us our weakness that we may know that it is by his grace, and his great condescensions unto the children of men, that we have power to do these things (Jacob 4:7).

Jacob knows that he is not the source of power to perform miracles. He knows, trusts and loves the actual source of the power—which is Jesus Christ. “Condescensions” is a wonderfully descriptive word. It means literally “to go down among.” Jesus did this, does this, in countless ways and will yet do this for us.

We Can also Offer Grace

Woman works with children in AfricaThe invitation to extend grace to God’s children comes in scriptural form as becoming One with Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. He is inviting us to participate in a gracious overflow of our own love. We call this charity. We become beings overflowing with love and light who are so grateful for what Jesus offers us that we extend grace as a matter of necessity and not need—of overflow and not emptiness.

Joseph Smith said, “A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.”

Grace is the grounding principle upon which the entire tapestry of our origin and destiny is founded.  The way we become like Him is to extend His and our loving overflow and grace to as many of God’s children as possible.

Grace and Works in Perspective

Jesus, Mary, and Martha.Bruce R McConkie taught,

Does salvation come by grace, or grace alone, by grace without works? It surely does, without any question in all its parts, types, kinds, and degrees. We are saved by grace, without works; it is a gift of God. How else could it come? In his goodness and grace the great God ordained and established the plan of salvation. No works on our part were required. In his goodness and grace he created this earth and all that is on it, with man as the crowning creature of his creating—without which creation his spirit children could not obtain immortality and eternal life. No works on our part were required. In his goodness and grace he provided for the Fall of man, thus bringing mortality and death and a probationary estate into being—without all of which there would be no immortality and eternal life. And again no works on our part were required. In his goodness and grace—and this above all—he gave his Only Begotten Son to ransom man and all life from the temporal and spiritual death brought into the world by the Fall of Adam.

Evangelical criticism of how we as members of the Church speak of grace is accurate to the degree that we deviate from the way the Book of Mormon teaches it. 2 Nephi 25:23 reads,

“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.”

The “all we can do” is not an ‘also saved by works’ statement. It means that we come to know, after all we can do, that it is by grace that we are saved. The nuance is important.

So if I cannot earn anything, why am I asked to do it?

Our insistence on accounting and ledger-type metaphors to understand Jesus’ atonement, and therefore grace, has led to some un-Book of Mormon sanctioned misunderstandings.

One of the most problematic is what is known as the parable of the bicycle. A story is told about a young girl who wanted a new bicycle. Her father agreed that if she saved money and fell short, he would make up the difference. She ends up saving less than one percent of the money necessary to purchase the bicycle. Her father steps in and bridges the funding gap.

The problem with this is that the girl (us) cannot earn anything toward the purchase of the bike (salvation). The very fact that she has a body that can do labor and that there is a system of exchange, and there are raw materials that can be made into a bike is all a product of grace.

Back to Moroni 10:32, consider two married couples, one has fidelity, love, and trust in their marriage; the other has contempt, infidelity, and suspicion.

Did the happy couple gain love, trust, and faith as an act of grace? Yes! They did not earn it. They are not entitled to it due to their effort and fidelity. As for the second couple, God will not pour out his grace on those who cannot receive it. That is why we “deny ourselves of all ungodliness,” because “then is his grace sufficient…that [we] may be perfect in Christ.”

Moroni 7:24 is clear on this, “there were divers ways that he did manifest things unto the children of men, which were good; and all things which are good cometh of Christ; otherwise men were fallen, and there could no good thing come unto them.” It means that the possibility of any positive relationship, of any good thing is a function of Jesus’ grace.

Did this article change your view of grace? How do you feel about your righteousness checklist as your view of grace matures? Let us know in the comments.

Mauricio Cabanillas grew up in Bakersfield, California, the son of immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic and Mexico. He served a mission in Chile and currently owns a small media company.