Brad Wilcox: The ‘We’ in ‘After All We Can Do’
You’ve likely read the scripture in 2 Nephi 25:23 that says, “It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do." But who is the "we"? Does it simply refer to me and you? Or does the word "we" represent something more? Author and scholar Brad Wilcox shares his thoughts on this and other questions related to the topic of grace in this week’s episode of All In.
JAMIE ARMSTRONG: In 2011, BYU professor and best-selling author, Brad Wilcox, gave a BYU devotional called, "His Grace is Sufficient." That devotional has been viewed more than 1 million times, making it the most-watched devotional in BYU history. Of course, a huge part of that is because Brad is such a captivating speaker, but it also shows that the topic of grace is something that we, as Latter-day Saints, are anxious to learn more about. So today we've got Brad here and we're going to dive a little deeper and get his insights into the doctrine of grace.
This is All In, an LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, "What does it really mean to be 'all in' the Gospel of Jesus Christ?" I'm Jamie Armstrong, and I'm here with Brad Wilcox. Brad, I know a lot of people already know who you are, but before we get started, I want to give a little bio for those who don't.
Brad teaches in the ancient scripture department at BYU, and he is also a Timeout for Women presenter and the author of several books, including his best-seller, Changed Through His Grace, and his newest book, Because of the Messiah in a Manger. Brad, thank you so much for being here with us.
BRAD WILCOX: It's great to be with you.
JA: Okay, Brad. Before we get started, I have to ask you a question that has nothing to do with grace.
JA: I heard you were born on Christmas?
BW: Yes, actually, that's true.
JA: What's that like?
BW: I always know which security people at the airport are actually looking at my driver's license and which ones aren't, because they always say, "Oh, you were born on December 25." And it is fun. My mom always wanted to make sure my Christmas birthday didn't get overlooked. And so she put up a big sign in our house that said, "Happy Birthday to Jesus and Brad."
JA: Oh, that's so nice.
BW: She used to always put up two trees, one for Jesus and one for me. And my brothers were supposed to put a present under both trees so that my birthday wouldn't get overlooked. Well, it worked great until my older brother gave me a pair of mittens. And he put one mitten under the birthday tree and one mitten under the Christmas tree. But it has been fun. I just did a Christmas book called Because of the Messiah in a Manger. And it was fun to do the book, especially because of the perspective that being born on Christmas has given me about the season.
JA: What can you tell us about the book,
BW: I think the book is summed up in the title, Because of the Messiah in a Manger. I've kind of tried to describe the gifts that we have been given, and the blessings that we have in our lives, including the blessing of grace, that we have because of the Messiah in a manger, because of Jesus Christ. The chapter I write about grace is actually a chapter in which I tell the legend of the poinsettia, which is a beautiful legend that comes from Mexico. It talks about how the leaves of a weed were miraculously changed into a poinsettia. And I love the legend because I think that's kind of what grace is doing, is changing a bunch of weeds, that certainly describes me, into beautiful poinsettias.
JA: I love that, in fact, that Christmas legend is the perfect way for us to ease into a deeper discussion about grace. I know this time of year, as we think about the Savior, we always think about his gift of the atonement, but he also offers us the gift of grace. Can you explain the basics for us? What is Grace?
BW: Well, grace is one of those crazy words in English that has about a million definitions. It can mean elegance and beauty or it can mean courtesy and kindness. It can be a prayer, we're saying grace, it can be a title, "your grace," it can even be a salutation like we read in the New Testament, "grace be unto you." So it has lots of meanings, but if you go back to the original Hebrew, from which the word that we use this grace was translated, it means favor, or goodwill, given with compassion. So no wonder Christians grab that word to describe God's favor, God's goodwill, given with God's compassion. But Latter-day Saints are unique because we understand that grace isn't just a description of God's attributes, it's actually how he engages with us. It's his invitation to engage with us. It's the power he shares with us, as we strive to make those attributes our own.
JA: And this isn't a new doctrine, but it feels like we're talking about grace a lot more than we used to. I grew up in the church, and I don't remember learning about grace.
BW: Well, you're right, it's not a new doctrine. I remember after listening to the devotional I gave at BYU on this topic, an evangelical minister contacted me and said, I'm so glad you're adopting the evangelical doctrine of grace. And I wrote him back and I said, actually, we're not. This is not an evangelical doctrine that we are finally adopting, this is a doctrine of the restoration. The Book of Mormon is filled with grace, the hymns are filled with grace, conference talks are filled with grace. So it's not a new doctrine. I think it's, like many doctrines of the restoration, we enjoy a fullness of understanding. And while we may not have always used the word "grace," this is definitely a doctrine of the restoration. And we understand it in its fullness.
JA: The first time I learned about grace was in college, and at the time I was taught, if after you do everything you can do, then Christ will make up the difference.
BW: Well, the scripture in second Nephi is probably one of the most quoted scriptures in the church, but it may also be one of the least understood. And until we understand it, then we can feel very discouraged by it. The scripture can make-- because it's nice to say, "Oh, you don't have to do everything, just do your best." Well, who can do your best? And who can do everything you can do? Oh, all you have to do is "all that you can do," oh that's it. And see, it still puts grace outside of our reach mentally, in our minds. It makes us feel like we can never ever do enough to then be able to have Christ make up the difference. As we come to understand that scripture, and the understanding comes in looking at the context around it, then we start realizing that it's not a matter of doing all we can do first, but rather, it's a matter of engaging with Christ in a covenant relationship, in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Instead of speaking about his part and my part, we need to speak more often about his heart, and my heart, loving each other and being conformed to the same image. The word we should focus on, perhaps, in that phrase, "after all we can do," is "we," after all we can do. Not "we" as in you and me, but "we" as in me working together with God, me working together with the divine, that we are working together, it's not all on our shoulders. And grace isn't something that comes after we have done everything we possibly can, we're on the ground with our fingernails clawing the dirt. grace is the power that surrounds us here and now. It's the force that gets us through the journey. It's not waiting at the end of the journey.
JA: That's so fascinating. It's fascinating how such a small change can completely shift the paradigm. What does a covenant relationship have to do with grace?
BW: I think the keyword there that you just mentioned is "relationship." I think too many times we think of a covenant as only a two-way promise, "Well, if you do this, I'll do this." So we kind of have this contract mentality. And so we never feel like we can do our part, so God will never do his part because we can't fulfill our end of the contract. I think we've got to get rid of the contract thinking and start, instead, focusing on the relationship. A relationship in which it's not a covenant, it's not a covenant as in a cold contract, but a covenant as Truman and Ann Madsen have taught a warm relationship.
And when we think of covenant in that way, then all of a sudden, we don't think, "Oh, I'll never be able to hold up my end of this." But instead, we realized that everything we're doing, we're doing because God is helping us do it. And He's not asking us to do it so that then He can reward us with His grace, but rather it's His grace that's helping us throughout the entire process and that what we're doing is actually becoming more like him.
JA: That's really beautiful. Now, can you explain how Christ's atonement is different than His grace?
BW: I think sometimes we think that atonement is the same word as grace.
BW: But they're not. Remember, President Nelson has warned us about not saying "the atonement has helped me," or "the atonement has blessed me," or "I have used the atonement." In the talk in which he cautioned us about our words, the talk was actually called "Accessing the Power of Jesus Christ." We have a word for that power, the word is "grace." And so the atonement is not grace, the atonement is the suffering of Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the cross. And in that suffering, because of that atonement, then the power that makes available to us, the power that flows from the act of the atonement, is grace. So the atonement was looked forward to, then it was performed, and now we look back on it. But the power, that that atonement makes possible, is something that we can feel continuously in our lives.
JA: And that power is grace.
BW: And that's the word for it.
JA: As we come to understand grace, more and more, how will that help us avoid some of the extremes that we hear about as far as grace is concerned?
BW: Well, you mentioned earlier that you had never heard grace mentioned much in the church when you were growing up? Well, I think it's because we're a little nervous about going to the extremes that many other Christians have gone. And so because we don't want to be lumped in with that way of thinking, we've actually avoided using the word.
BW: But I don't think we need to be afraid of the word. As long as we understand that grace is not a "get out of jail free" card, grace is not permission to sin, permission to procrastinate and grace is not a lowering of God's expectations. Grace is his enabling power. It is how he can help us be lifted to meet those expectations. So instead of seeing grace as a "get out of jail free" card, we see grace as the power that changes us so that we don't want to end up in jail every weekend. It's the power that changes us. So when students say, "How can I understand grace better?" I always say when you get to it in the Scriptures, replace it with the word power, or enabling power and that will help you understand. But when we think about these extremes, to which some people have taken this doctrine, we have to remember that grace is not the absence of God's commandments, it is the presence of his power. And it is how he helps us to be able to change and to be able to become better.
JA: So we're not allowed to be spiritual couch potatoes as you write in your book.
BW: Right. It's not a matter of just saying yeah, God will be me up when we're all done. Because the goal isn't just to be with God, the goal is to become like God. And that is a process that we can only achieve with his help or with his grace.
JA: So how do we access His grace? How do we receive it?
BW: I think that the best answer is the same answer that was given to Adam and Eve, and that is by covenant. Bruce C. Hafen and his wife, Marie, have written that the endowment is not the story of how Christ gave us the atonement, it's the story of how Adam and Eve received the atonement.
JA: Oh, very interesting.
BW: And we receive the power of the atonement, we receive grace, the same way they did, by covenant. And as we enter that covenant relationship, then we receive grace. And as we renew that covenant relationship, we receive more and more grace in our lives. Some people think, "Oh, Latter-day Saints believe in works more than grace. They believe in keeping commandments more than grace." They don't realize that the reason we keep commandments, the reason we make and keep covenants is not because we trust works more than grace, rather, it's how we acknowledge grace, it's how we receive grace and it's how we invite more and more grace into our lives. It's a free gift, it's an unmerited gift, it's an unearned gift, but it's a gift that comes with an expectation that it will be used. When I speak to young people, I often say, "Grace is like getting a scholarship, it doesn't guarantee learning, it doesn't guarantee graduation, it facilitates it."
JA: One of my favorite things about grace is that everyone's entitled to it. And we believe in being saved by grace, but can you explain a little bit what that means from a Latter-day Saint perspective?
BW: I hope that every Latter-day Saint in the world knows the answer to that question. Have you been saved by grace? The answer is yes. Completely. Absolutely. With grateful hearts, yes. If we're going to have a discussion with those who are not members of our faith, about that phrase, let's don't talk grace, that's actually common ground. Let's talk salvation, that's where we're different. Have you been saved by grace? For many Christians, salvation just means getting to the other side of the wall of heaven. Just getting into heaven. I met a lady in the south and she said, "I'm going to slip St. Peter at $20, and slide on through." And that was her idea of grace, just getting to heaven. But Latter-day Saints understand that that's just part of a much larger salvation. For us, it's not just about getting to heaven, it's about becoming heavenly. It's not just about getting to God's presence, it's about becoming like God. That's the salvation that is so huge, and also only possible through grace. So the question for Latter-day Saints isn't just, "Have I been saved by grace?" But when we think of that larger view of salvation, the question becomes, "Have I been changed through His grace?"
JA: Can you tell us more about this transformative power of grace?
BW: Yeah, because this is what we're talking about is being able to be different because of the power that we have encountered the gift of Christ. Think about it, if the goal is just to get back to God, why did we leave? We were already there. But we were also very aware that we were not like God, not like him physically, not like him spiritually. So the reason that we were valiant enough to choose, and courageous enough to choose to come to mortality, even with all of its pitfalls that we knew about, we knew that through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, we could go back. But not just that, we could go back different, we could go back better, we could go back transformed. And that's the piece I think sometimes we miss as we were teaching about the atonement because everybody knows that we can be forgiven. But it's more than just being clean, that's not the goal. And we know that we can be comforted and strengthened during hard times, but if that's all the atonement is, why do we have to go through those hard times to begin with? The answer to both those questions, about what is there more than forgiveness and why do we have to go through trials in the first place, is found as we look to another aspect of the atonement, and that is the transformation that the atonement makes possible in our lives.
You know, as I think about grace, I think that some people tend to make the term kind of a catch-all phrase for every divine interaction. It's important that we understand the difference because if an answer to prayer is grace, and a tender mercy is grace, then we start thinking everything is grace. And God has a whole umbrella that covers the myriad ways that he reaches out to bless our lives. But the reason it's important to remember that grace is a little different than an answer to prayer, or a little different than a tender mercy, is because then we can see grace in our lives, even when we don't see answers to prayer. And we can see grace changing and transforming our hearts, even when we don't see tender mercies. We can see grace beginning to change us and shape us. But that change takes time. We all want it to happen like Harry Potter, poof!
JA: Of course.
BW: You know, poof, you're nice. Poof, you're spiritual. Poof, you're kind. I wish somebody would "poof" me and make me skinny. But it doesn't happen Harry Potter-style,
JA: That is really beautiful.
BW: We have to want to become like God. We have to want to live as He lives, love as He loves, create as He creates. And so the transition takes time, purposely because God knows that strength to easily one is not strength. And change without challenge is not really change. So we just have to be patient with ourselves as we're going through this perfecting process, a process that God is very involved in, but a process that still takes time.
JA: That's a great reminder that we're all a work in progress. There is a scripture in Doctrine and Covenants, I think it's section 93, verse 12, And it talks about grace to grace, grace for grace.
BW: Well, actually, both of those scriptures.
JA: Both of those phrases?
BW: You got it right. There are two phrases, grace to grace, which I think describes the levels we were talking about before. And that as we receive grace, God gives us more, and as we receive that, he gives us more.
JA: Well then, what's grace for grace?
BW: Grace for grace, I think is an expectation that we will give to others, the same way that Christ has given to us. That in the same way Christ gives so freely to us His grace, that we will give to others grace. That we will not just give them charity, or handout, but we will give them the help and the mentoring and the tutoring, that is also a part of grace. That we will help them as freely as Christ has helped us. And I think that, in my mind, that helps me understand that phrase that we hear so often, "grace for grace." Think about, as we do temple work, we're doing for someone else what he or she can't do. And so we are giving grace for the grace that God has given us, that we can't do for ourselves. And just as he empowers us to do what we can't do without his help, we can help others do what they need to do.
JA: I have never thought about it that way.
BW: I hope that helps.
JA: That's really eye-opening.
Camron Wright: Yeah, it helps us kind of understand that phrase and it helps us realize that as freely as we've received, freely can we give.
JA: Brad, you've spent years studying grace and the atonement. Considering all you've learned, what does it mean to you to be "all in" the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
BW: When I was in high school, I joined the debate team. It wasn't because I was any good at it, it's just because some girls talked me into it.
JA: Of course.
BW: So you bet, girls don't realize how much power they have, "Hey Brad, why don't you come join the debate team, so you can be with us?" "Okay!" And I joined the debate team. We'd go to competitions, I wasn't very good, but at the end of the competitions on Saturday, we drive home on the school bus. And on the bus, we'd get bored so we'd play a little game, we called it "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John." You might remember, it's where you clap your knees, and then clap your hands and then click your finger. You get a rhythm going. Do you know what I remember that one?
BW: And as you get the rhythm going, then when you click your fingers, you're supposed to say someone else's name or somebody else's number. And if somebody blows it, goes to the back of the bus. Well, we'd be moving up and I'd think, oh, wow, I'm going to win this thing, and I'd get all excited. And then somebody would call my name or my number, and my brain would freeze and I wouldn't be able to say anything, and then they kick me to the back of the bus. And then I'd spend about 10 minutes saying, "This game is stupid. I hate this game. Anybody who likes this game is stupid." And I'd just kind of sing that song for a while, but then I start moving up again and I'd think, "Oh, this time I'm going to do it. Last time I blew it, but this time I am going to do it." And I'd be all excited. And then somebody would call my name and I'd mess up and I'd be sent to the back of the bus.
Now that's a long story to answer your short question, "What does it mean to be all in?" I think what I realized now that I didn't realize then, is that wherever I was sitting on that bus, the bus was still taking me home.
JA: Oh, interesting.
BW: Even when I went to the back of the bus, even when I blew it, the bus was still moving me forward. So what does it mean to be all in? Stay on the bus. Stay on the bus, stay in your covenant relationship with Christ, he will get us home, and he will get us home better then we were when we came. We just have to stay on the bus. And right now there are too many people that are jumping off of that bus, maybe it's because they're discouraged, "Oh, my gosh, I got sent to the back of the bus again?" And they don't see their forward progress. But if we can look back in our lives, we realize that we have received grace, and that we have been transformed and that we are in a process of being changed, we're doing better than we were. So instead of looking forward and saying, "Gosh, there's so far to go." Look back, and be grateful for how far God has helped you to come. And then stay on the bus. Stay in the covenant relationship and Christ will get us where we need to be. That's grace.
JA: Brad, thank you so much for your powerful insights. It has been such a pleasure talking with you today.
BW: It's always good to be with you. Thank you for all the good you're doing, you're helping a lot of people.
JA: A huge thank you to Brad Wilcox for joining us. We hope you enjoyed listening to this podcast. To learn more about grace, pick up Brad's book, Changed Through His Grace, and don't miss his new book, Because of the Messiah in a Manger. Both are available at Desert Dook and desertbook.com. To hear more episodes of All In, visit LDSliving.com/allin.