My best friend in jr. high was a born-again Christian. We would often share some of the unique doctrines that made our churches different. I explained the Godhead to her once and she said, “Oh yeah! We believe they’re three separate beings too! It wouldn’t make sense any other way.” The next day she came to school to confess that she’d talked to her mom and she had been wrong. Her church actually believed in the Holy Trinity, meaning God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are all one being.
On another occasion, it was my turn to be stumped. She asked me if I believed in grace. Honestly, I had no idea. I hadn’t really heard much about grace at church or with my family.
Grace is divine help or strength given through Christ’s Atonement and is often referred to as an enabling power. It is one of the most hopeful principles of the Book of Mormon and is grounded in the teachings of Joseph Smith and the restoration. It seemed strange to me that I never heard much about it growing up, but as it turns out, I was not alone.
Said Elder Bednar: “Most of us clearly understand that the Atonement is for sinners. I am not so sure, however, that we know and understand that the Atonement is also for saints—for good men and women who are obedient and worthy and conscientious and who are striving to become better and serve more faithfully. I frankly do not think many of us ‘get it’ concerning this enabling and strengthening aspect of the Atonement, and I wonder if we mistakenly believe we must make the journey from good to better and become a saint all by ourselves through sheer grit, willpower, and discipline, and with our obviously limited capacities.”
Sheri Dew put it this way, “If we feel as though we’re along and must rely largely or even solely upon our own energy, talent, and strength—we don’t understand grace.”
► You'll also like Sheri Dew's book Amazed by Grace.
President Uchtdorf spoke similarly, “It is a most wondrous thing, this grace of God. Yet it is often misunderstood. Even so, we should know about God’s grace if we intend to inherit what has been prepared for us in His eternal Kingdom.”
So Why Have Mormons Struggled to Understand this Marvelous Doctrine?
My dear born-again Christian friend knew she believed in the power of grace. She declared it in her everyday conversations and you could see her face light up when she spoke of Christ’s power. But she believed Jesus’ grace took care of everything and we don’t have to do anything. That we are saved by grace no matter what we do as long as we accept Christ into our hearts.
We also believe that all men and women will be saved from physical death and live forever as resurrected beings. Through the Atonement of Christ, everyone will receive this gift. But we are blessed to know there is so much more to our Heavenly Father’s plan of happiness for us. We know we have the potential to receive eternal life, or exaltation, which is to live in God’s presence and continue as families. We can become just like God, but this inheritance will require obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.
These requirements can be misinterpreted as a need to work our way to exaltation or earn eternal life. But this belief is negated in 2 Nephi 31:19: “for 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.” We are to rely wholly upon Christ to save us.
So where has some of the confusion come from?
One scripture in the Book of Mormon that is recited often in reference to works versus grace is in 2 Nephi 25:23. It says, “for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” Are we really to believe we cannot access God’s grace until we have completely exhausted all our efforts?
President Uchtdorf added his thoughts on this scripture, saying, “I wonder if sometimes we misinterpret the phrase ‘after all we can do.’ We must understand that ‘after’ does not equal ‘because’. We are not saved ‘because of all that we can do. Have any of us done all that we can do? Does God wait until we’ve expended every effort before He will intervene in our lives with His saving grace?”
Further, Elder James Hamula said, “’It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do’. Some may read this scripture to mean that God’s Grace is withheld until we have given our best efforts. I do not read it this way. There are simply too many examples of God’s grave being extended to man without him doing anything. The power of the Resurrection, for example, is given to all by the grace of God, irrespective of individual effort. I understand Nephi’s ‘all we can do’ language to mean that God’s grace is extended to us when we are diligent.”
Finally, Elder Bruce C. Hafen has written, “The Savior’s gift of grace to us is not necessarily limited in time to ‘after’ all we can do. We may receive his grace before, during, and after the time when we expend our own efforts.”
I recently taught my young women about these two extreme views of grace. On one side of the chalkboard I wrote “grace” and explained it was the side that many Christian’s take, believing all we need is grace and our works are worthless. On the other side of the board I wrote, “works” and it represented those in our own church who Elder Bednar explains "mistakenly believe they must make the journey from good to better and become a saint all by themselves through sheer grit, willpower, and discipline, and with our obviously limited capacities.” I drew a line between the two extremes and asked the girls where the on the spectrum we should actually be. A few brave girls came forward and drew dots in varying places but always on the side closer to “works.” One of the girls whispered, “I think she’s tricking us.” And she was right. Because truthfully there is no place for a dot. As Brad Wilcox says, it’s not about “His part and my part. It’s His heart and my heart beating together, loving each other and being conformed to the same image.”
Alma 32:27 offers hope to those who think they are nowhere near being worthy of receiving grace. “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 no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.” The rest of the chapter compares the word to a seed that may be planted in your heart. The seed begins to swell and causes your soul to enlarge, enlightening your understanding and increasing your faith. The seed sprouts and grows, proving it is a good seed. The seed eventually grows into a tree and is nourished with great care, so it may take root and bring forth fruit, becoming a tree that springs up unto everlasting life. And with diligence, faith, and patience with the word, it may take root and grant fruit that is most precious, sweet, white and pure and you will never hunger or thirst again. The rich symbolism of the tree taking root represents a process within us that requires grace from beginning to end. That entire process started with exercising, “a particle of faith,” and “no more than a desire to believe.”
We don’t have to wait until we have done everything we can do to receive grace. I don’t think I’ve spent one day of my life doing all I can do yet I’ve been granted grace countless times. From the above scripture, we are told we can receive grace by exercising a particle of faith and a desire to do good.
Waiting until you’ve reached a certain level of righteousness in order for grace to be granted reminds me of some gym friends I met during my previous career as a fitness instructor. They didn’t want to join my yoga class until they were more flexible out of fear of feeling inadequate in class, while the very stretches that would give them the flexibility they were seeking were waiting for them in my class. We cannot wait until we’ve done all we can do before seeking God’s help. For we need God’s help to do any good thing.
Then, What is the Point of Works?
Brad Wilcox explained, “We will all be resurrected. We will all go back to God’s presence. What is left to be determined by our obedience is what kind of body we plan on being resurrected with and how comfortable we plan to be in God’s presence and how long we plan to stay there.”
► You'll also like Brad Wilcox's book Changed through His Grace.
Moroni 7:48 reads, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure.”
Working to earn our salvation is futile and limits our access to God’s power. Working in gratitude and love for God and the great gift He has given us, allows us to change from the inside out, for the right reasons. These acts of humility allow God to change our very natures and gradually, usually almost imperceptibly, we become more like Him. We will continue to grow upward in the next life if we practice while we’re here and that is what allows us to be comfortable in God’s presence and to one day, unimaginable as it may seem, become like Him and inherit all that He hath. What a blessing! And what a different type of motivation besets us when we know we are working out of love for God and the desire to live with Him in His heavenly home.
What Exactly Can Grace Look Like in My Life?
Sheri Dew wrote, “The Savior has ‘all power’ in heaven and on earth. He has power to cleanse, forgive, and redeem us; power to heal us of weakness, sadness, illness, and heartache; power to inspire us; power to conquer Satan and overcome the flesh; power to work miracles; power to deliver us from circumstances we can’t escape ourselves; power over death; and power to strengthen us. When the Apostle Paul said, ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me,’ he was describing grace.”
For me grace takes many forms:
Grace helped me to see my genetic illness as a tool to remind me to always reach out to those who suffer.
Grace helped me to thrive in a variety of situations I never thought I’d end up in in 2016, the hardest year of my life.
Grace made me more patient than I ever thought I could be when my first son was born and continues to soften me as my three children grow.
Grace took all the burdens off my back when I said yes to serving as the Young Women president in my ward in an already chaotic and trying time in my life.
Grace enabled me to knock on a young man’s door after midnight 13 years ago and ask him to help dig my car out of the snow. I’m not sure he needed grace to say yes but we both needed it to prepare for a temple marriage that came six months later.
And that same grace allows our family to learn about, love, and become more like our Savior with each passing day, knowing we have the chance to live with Him and each other in eternal bliss. And for that gift I know I can never repay Him.
This life is not about earning heaven. It is about learning to become like Heavenly Father. As Brad Wilcox said, "No, we are not earning heaven. We are learning heaven. We are preparing for it (see D&C 78:7). We are practicing for it.” I pray we can all exercise our own particles of faith and allow the marvelous gift of grace to transform us into the eternal beings we are meant to become.