I was reading in 2 Nephi this week and came across the much-abused scripture: “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do”. I can’t help but notice how happy mainstream Christians are that believe they are saved by grace. Conversely, many LDS seem weighed down by believing they have to work for their salvation, and they use this fragment of the verse as the foundation for that belief.
Many say this means that we have to do everything within our power, down to the last calorie, and then and only then will Christ step in to help us make up the difference. Analogies have been made comparing our salvation to a child wanting to buy a bicycle he can’t afford to show us how Christ will help us, but only after we have completely emptied our personal piggy-bank. So much for his yoke being easy and his burden being light!
One technique I was taught to understand scripture is to avoid using my own definitions and interpretations, but to use the definitions the writers used. If you look around the scriptures, usually you will find that the definition or interpretation is in there. It’s best when the definition is provided by the same author. If it’s a different author, chances are the second author will use the terms consistently, but is isn’t always guaranteed.
Let’s take a look at our “after all we can do” verse in context:
2 Nephi 25:23
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 primary point of the verse is that they labor diligently to persuade people to believe in Christ and be reconciled to God. Why are they laboring so hard to persuade people to be reconciled to God? Notice that Nephi doesn’t labor diligently to persuade people to perform a checklist of righteous activities. Being reconciled to God doesn’t give you a list of things to do, but it does give you grace. And grace is what saves us. Let’s look at other places that Nephi talks about grace.
2 Nephi 2:6-8
Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth. Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered. Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.
Notice Nephi again states the importance of teaching people to believe in Christ and that it is through his merits, mercy, and grace that anyone is saved. Without that, no matter how much we work, we’re doomed. Christ offers his sacrifice to those with a broken heart and contrite spirit, not those who do a lot of good works. But what about that “after all we can do” phrase?
2 Nephi 10:24
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved.
Whoa! Nephi says after we are reconciled to God, it is only in and through grace that we are saved. No other works after we are reconciled to God will save us. “All we can do” is to reconcile ourselves to the will of God. We are saved by grace, after we have reconciled ourselves to God.
Nephi repeats this later on:
2 Nephi 33:9
I have charity for my people, and great faith in Christ that I shall meet many souls spotless at his judgment-seat. I have charity for the Jew—I say Jew, because I mean them from whence I came. I also have charity for the Gentiles. But behold, for none of these can I hope except they shall be reconciled unto Christ, and enter into the narrow gate, and walk in the strait path which leads to life, and continue in the path until the end of the day of probation.
Why can’t he hope for them except they be reconciled unto Christ? If we don’t reconcile ourselves to Christ, nothing else matters. All we can do is reconcile ourselves to Christ and have faith in him.
This doesn’t mean that once we reconcile ourselves to God that we can do whatever we want with no consequences. What it does mean is that we don’t have to worry about someone else’s lists of tasks that we must do for salvation, nor should we worry if we are doing enough, or if we will ever be good enough.
Now some will accuse me of glossing over the rest of verse 9 in 2 Nephi 33. They may even argue that walking in the strait path does indeed require lists of things we should be doing and if we don’t exert all our energy on all those activities we won’t have done everything we can and we won’t be saved. But that isn’t how Nephi viewed walking in the strait path.
2 Nephi 31:18-20
And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life; yea, ye have entered in by the gate; ye have done according to the commandments of the Father and the Son; and ye have received the Holy Ghost, which witnesses of the Father and the Son, unto the fulfilling of the promise which he hath made, that if ye entered in by the way ye should receive. And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; 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. Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.
What are the things Nephi says we must do after we enter the strait and narrow path? Have hope, love God and all men, feast upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end. That’s it! Those things are the foundation of our daily walk with God.
Notice what Nephi doesn’t write? He doesn’t write a checklist of activities we must do to be acceptable to God. He doesn’t talk about attending meetings, home teaching, family history, gardening, emergency preparedness, or anything else. If Nephi the prophet won’t tell us what we are supposed to do after we have reconciled ourselves to God, who will?
2 Nephi 32:3,5,6
Feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do. Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark. For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do. Behold, this is the doctrine of Christ.
If God wants us to do something, he’ll tell us. He will likely tell you do to something different than what he tells me, so comparing your answers to my answers is pointless. His yoke is easy and his burden is light…if we really accept it. If you instead put on the yoke of man and rely on the arm of flesh, your mileage will vary. Jesus didn’t think highly of men who “bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders.” God does not require that we run faster than we have strength – and he knows perfectly how much strength we each have personally. He will tell each of us personally what we wants us to do – we just need to ask and listen.
When we revert to a checklist of things to, and compare our activities to the activities of others, we aren’t relying upon the merits of Christ. We aren’t putting our faith in him. We’re putting our faith in our own works and the arm of flesh that created the checklist.
Once you look at the totality of what Nephi wrote about grace, you realize he and Paul were preaching the same gospel.
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.