Christianity Today recently did a story titled, “What Can Christians Learn From the Surge in Mormon Youth Missionaries?” Three Christian experts, one of whom, is a former Mormon, were chosen to weigh in on how we as Christians can learn from how the LDS Church puts their youth to work in ministry. Each of the experts noted that one of the primary reasons for the willingness of Mormon youth to serve on missions is because of the work-based theology of Mormonism. The Christianity Today article to date has 70 comments, most of which are favorable to Mormonism.
Jana Riess, a Mormon blogger for the Religion News Service and author of a number of books including Mormonism For Dummies, takes exception with the observation of the three experts, particularly the observation made by John Divito, the former Mormon. In her response titled, “Mormon Works vs. Evangelical Grace? Not So Fast,” she writes “On the works-grace continuum, most Mormons stand closer to the “works” end of the spectrum than most evangelicals do. But an eloquent (and polite!) LDS commenter to the CT post notes that the theology inherent in the Book of Mormon’s “by grace we are saved, after all we can do” mantra (2 Nephi 25:23) is indeed compatible with a theology [of] grace.”
She then quotes the Mormon commenter. “Those who quote this verse often misunderstand the meaning of the last phrase. It 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.” Alma 24:10-11 makes it clear that “all we can do” is repent. LDS beliefs are not a system of works-righteousness. LDS beliefs are in accord with the teachings of both Paul and James. We believe in salvation by grace through faith (Rom. 5:2; Eph. 2:8) but we also believe that faith without works is dead (Jam. 2:17). True faith will be accompanied by good works. Other portions of the Book of Mormon make it clear that our works in no way save us.” Riess, then states, “It’s good to understand the 2 Nephi quote in context, and it’s also important for evangelical writers to recognize that over the last two decades, Mormonism has been emphasizing grace more and more from the pulpit.”
There are a number of problems with both the Mormon’s comment and with Riess’ conclusion about that comment. First, is this Mormon commenter correct? When he says that 2ndNephi 25:23 is often misunderstood, is that true? Instead of accepting the unfounded opinion of a Mormon commenter, it might be wise to see how this verse is interpreted in official Mormon Church teaching manuals.
In Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, Chapter 3 we have this explanation of 2nd Nephi 25:23)
“The Lord will bless us to the degree to which we keep His commandments. Nephi … said: ‘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.’ (2 Nephi 25:23.)
The Savior’s blood, His atonement, will save us, but only after we have done all we can to save ourselves by keeping His commandments. All of the principles of the gospel are principles of promise by which the plans of the Almighty are unfolded to us.
Each must do all he can to save himself from sin; then he may lay claim to the blessings of redemption by the Holy One of Israel, that all mankind may be saved by obedience to the law and ordinances of the gospel.”(Emphasis mine)
Which comes first, doing all you can do or the Savior’s grace? That little word “after” is very important. The Mormon Church teaching manual teaches Mormons that Jesus will save them but only after Mormons do all they can to save themselves. What will Mormons need to do before they can be saved and how? “By keeping His commandments.” Each Mormon must do all they can to be saved from sin, “then” they have a claim to the blessings of redemption. By what means does all mankind have the possibility of being saved? “By obedience to the law and ordinances of the gospel.”
If this is not a system of works righteousness, then I would like for Riess, the commenter she quoted or any other Mormon to please help me understand what is. This official Mormon teaching manual makes it unmistakably clear that the availability of grace is dependent upon the obedience of the person in need of salvation.
It is also interesting to note that Riess says it is good to understand the context of 2nd Nephi 25:23 when neither the Mormon commenter nor Riess actually looked at the context. Instead, the Mormon commenter quoted a verse from a completely different book within the Book of Mormon.
Alma 24:10-11 does state that, “all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain,” but does that somehow mean that we do not need to do all we can before we are saved? The problem here is that neither Riess nor the Mormon commenter defined their terms adequately. Riess does mention a portion of the LDS definition of grace (help or strength), but she does not quote the parts of that definition which will give a clearer understanding of how the LDS Church interprets this term. The Mormon definition of grace also states, “To receive this enabling power, we must obey the gospel of Jesus Christ, which includes having faith in Him, repenting of our sins, being baptized, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and trying to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ for the rest of our lives (see Ephesians 2:8-9; James 2:17-22; 2 Nephi 25:23; 31:20).”
As shown here, the prerequisites to grace are obeying the gospel, having faith in Him, repenting of sin, being baptized into the Mormon Church, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and following the teachings of Jesus Christ… for the rest of our lives. The enabling power, or grace, comes only after the recipient meets the requirements for it. Let’s look at another official Mormon Church teaching manual which defines grace and interprets 2nd Nephi 25:23 in the light of that definition.
“Exaltation in the celestial kingdom of God is obtained as a gift from God, by grace, after all we can do (see 2 Nephi 25:23; D&C 6:13). Regarding grace, the Bible Dictionary states:
‘The main idea of the word is divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ.
‘… It is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means. This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts.
‘… However, grace cannot suffice without total effort on the part of the recipient” (“grace,” 697; see also 2 Nephi 25:23; Moroni 10:32–33). (Pearl of Great Price Student Manual, The Book of Moses 7:59)
The two phrases that jump out at me are that, first, we can lay hold of this enabling power, i.e. grace, only “after we have expended our own best efforts” and second, that grace is insufficient without “total effort on the part of the recipient.”
When Mormon leaders speak of grace in regards to being forgiven and living with God in the afterlife, the primary understanding of grace is that it is an “enabling power.” This power helps me to do what I cannot do without it, but only on the condition of obedience. This definition of grace is so diametrically opposed to the Biblical definition of grace that I can’t help but wonder, what is the difference between the Mormon concept of grace and their concept of works? If I receive grace only after I do my best and that grace is insufficient without my “total effort,” then how can a Mormon state that 2nd Nephi 25:23 does not mean exactly what it says? We can only be saved after all we can do.
This leads to another term that was mentioned in Alma 24:10-11 which deserves our attention. What is the Mormon definition of repentance? If all we can do is repent, then we should know how Mormonism defines that term. Let us refer back to the Harold B. Lee Teaching manual.
“We hear much from some of limited understanding about the possibility of one’s being saved by grace alone. But it requires the explanation of another prophet to understand the true doctrine of grace as he explained in these meaningful words:
‘For, said this prophet, ‘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.’ (2 Nephi 25:23.) Truly we are redeemed by the atoning blood of the Savior of the world, but only after each has done all he can to work out his own salvation.
The third great distinctive principle in the plan of salvation was the provision that “all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” (Article of Faith 3.) These fundamental laws and ordinances by which salvation comes are clearly set forth:
First, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Second, repentance from sin, meaning the turning away from the sins of disobedience to God’s laws and never returning again thereto. The Lord spoke plainly on this point. Said he: “… go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth [meaning, of course, returning again to the sins from which he has repented] shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God.” (D&C 82:7.) (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee pp. 4-5)
Although the above quote does not refer to repentance until the last section, I wanted to quote the proceeding paragraphs to show the context and exactly how 2nd Nephi 25:23 relates to the Mormon idea of repentance. One of the aspects of repentance often cited by the LDS Church is the necessity for the abandonment of sin. As Harold B. Lee put it, repentance includes, “never returning again” to sin. What happens if you do? The quotation of D&C 82:7 is double-damning. Your former sins return back to you. It is also interesting to note that Mormonism’s third article of faith clearly states that “all mankind may be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” How is this not a system of works-righteousness?
To summarize, I once spoke with a representative of the Mormon Church who informed me that before we can be forgiven, we must do all we can do, which is completely in line with all we have looked at here. I asked if that included keeping commandments. I was answered in the affirmative. I asked, “Which commandments?” I was answered that I must keep all of them. “How often,” I asked? “All the time.”
I asked one final question. “Are you telling me that if I don’t keep all of the commandments all of the time, then I am not forgiven? The answer? “I like it better the way I say it.”
As we have seen in this rebuttal, Mormonism’s definition of grace is much more than what Jana Riess stated in her piece. The explanation of the Mormon commenter she quoted is not helpful in the least. The official Mormon Church teaching manuals are clear. Grace is insufficient without the total, best effort on the part of the recipient. This effort must precede salvation and endure until life’s end.
The three key words in 2nd Nephi 25:23 are “after”, “all” and “do.” Mormons are not taught that they will be saved before their part is completed. Neither are they taught that they can get by with less than maximum effort. They are taught that being forgiven by God depends upon what they do. That is a system of works-righteousness. That is not a caricature of Mormonism. That is what Mormonism has stated about itself.