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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
The doctrine of grace has changed my life. In the past year I have come to see it differently and the spirit has begun to teach this doctrine anew. It has changed my relationship to the Savior and has blessed me to see my life and weaknesses differently.
I would like to write out how I understand this new understanding mostly for my own benefit. I thought I would share it. If you would like to correct me or add to it I would be most grateful.
After All We Can Do
A scripture on grace that almost any Latter-day Saint can quote on cue is 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.”
This scripture is universally interpreted as after we put forward our best works, efforts, and strength; then we become qualified to receive the grace of the Lord. Grace is earned, so to speak, after we extend our best efforts.
We are a works-loving people. Work, and duty, and effort, and strain, and lists, and planners, and meetings. We put our shoulder to the wheel and push along. We all have work, so no one should shirk.
We are Deseret. We are the busy worker-bees of the kingdom. We have learned and reinforced through our cultural tradition that we cannot receive the grace of Christ until we are exhausted and worn out, having done all that we can do.
This Mormon ethic produces both blessings and cursings. The Lord does want an industrious and hardworking people. His people are obedient, sacrificing, and organized. But this strength can also become a weakness if we look beyond the mark. And, we should ever be mindful, that the mark is Christ.
Viewing our works and effort as the gate through which we access grace is a grave error. Our interpretation of the scripture has been viewed through a people who have perhaps, with the best of intentions, looked beyond the mark. With our obsession with our own works and the management of our own creature it is possible that we have looked beyond Christ, and believe in error that we only qualify for grace after all of the obedience and works we can muster. Here is the problem with this view.
We can never, ever, ever, produce enough works and effort that will give us confidence to receive the presence and grace of Christ. It cannot be done.
If we think that we can work ourselves into the Lord’s grace we will always be chasing the illusion of our own righteousness.
When we come to an understanding that even our righteousness is a gift bestowed upon us, that comes not by our own works but by his grace, our relationship to Christ will become radically redefined.
Then what does this scripture mean? It seems to be straightforward: “it is by grace we are saved, after all that we can do.”
What is the “doing” the scripture is referencing? Is it works and obedience and keeping the terms of the law? Is it fulfilling our duty and magnifying our calling? Or is it pointing to something altogether different?
The “all we can do” is referencing the admonition to be “reconciled to God.”
This connection is made more clearly in another 2 Nephi verse:
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.”
There is no mistaking the connection Nephi is making earlier in his record. He is inviting us to be reconciled to God, and after we are reconciled we receive of his saving grace.
What does it mean to be reconciled to Christ? Is this just another term for effort, obedience, duty, and works?
It is not.
It is an entirely different way in which we approach our Savior and Father, one from which if we are successful, great works, obedience, powerful effort, and the true magnification of our callings flow. We will get to that in a moment.
The way that I understand reconciliation is to bring one’s self into alignment. It is to become at-one with. It is to share ones heart and spirit. It is to become sanctified.
In the accounting world, when an account is reconciled to a bank statement it means that there is no difference between the two. They match and are mirror images of each other. To be reconciled is to receive the same likeness. In the spiritual sense, it is to share the same will, desire, intent, and feeling. It is to have the same heart.
Reconciliation Through A Softened And Yielding Heart
As a new missionary in Japan, I really hated my mission. I was homesick, cold, constantly tired, and couldn’t speak the language. It was a personal hell from which relief seemed an eternity away. I wanted to love my mission, but the truth of the matter was, I didn’t. I even prayed that I could get hit by a car so that I could return early “with honor”.
I learned a powerful lesson during these early months. In the morning I would get up early and kneel in prayer, but wouldn’t say anything except, “Heavenly Father, please help me to want to be here. Please help me to want what you want.”
If I was quiet long enough and waited in prayer, I found that the spirit would soften my heart and I would start to feel what the Lord desired. My desires were changed. I discovered that my problem was a hard heart. I was resisting the spirit of the Lord, which was his will.
Through prayer the sprit came to me and softened my heart and I started to be filled with his will. It wasn’t manufactured. It wasn’t forced. It wasn’t something I had to talk myself into. It was divine change. I began to love my mission and the work we had to do each day. I wanted to be obedient and fulfill all of the commandments.
Nephi explained this process when he recorded:
1 Nephi 2:16
“And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers.”
What initiated Nephi’s powerful spiritual growth? It wasn’t his resume of good works. It wasn’t the Lord blessing him after all he could do. It was his submissiveness to the Lord, willingness to be softened and changed, and his desire to be sanctified. The Lord did the work of softening his heart so that he could be believing! Even belief was not a work that could be generated on his own. It was a blessing he received as he sought to be reconciled.
This process of yielding the spirit and receiving grace and the transforming power of Christ is replete throughout scripture.
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.
There is no way to escape the natural man unless we first yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit. After we yield to the spirit THEN we become a saint. After we yield to the spirit THEN we receive the characteristics of childlikeness, meekness, humility. Patience, full of love, and submissiveness. These are all byproducts of yielding. These are all gifts given to us when we reconcile ourselves to his will.
Consider another similar scripture that teaches more about the reconciliation process:
“Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God.”
We cannot sanctify ourselves. That is a gift from our Father through his Holy Spirit. We can, however, approach him and seek to be soften, seek to be changed. We can submit our weaknesses, sins, false traditions, and our whole hearts. We do this through the process of fasting and praying. We can approach him and respond to the promptings of his spirit. We can make ourselves completely available to his spirit. We can offer a willingness to sacrifice in our hearts and lives all that is necessary to be reconciled and sanctified.
We can plead that our hearts are softened and that we can become full of belief. He does all of the work. He has all of the power. We just have to come to him and be willing to sacrifice all things to receive of this transforming power. We have to respond to the enticings of his spirit and allow it to transform us. We have to cease hardening our hearts against the spirit and allow him to soften and remake us.
What this means is that we must come to him in our weakness. We must come to him in our sin. We must come to him in our fallen nature. We must not be fooled that we must achieve a certain level of good works and obedience and prove our own righteousness before we can approach the throne of grace. We must come now. As we are. With all of our problems and our pathetic fallen natures. This is humility. This requires true faith.
Our “work” is to repent and become as a little child. Repentance and offering a sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit is the work we must accomplish in order to receive further light and truth. From that point, that mark, Christ, is able to make us “of Him,” and one with Him. From that point we can “grow in grace and in the knowledge of truth.” (D&C 50: 40-44.)
Sometimes we are content to hide behind our own unrighteousness. It is a convenient shield to not come to him wholeheartedly. We may deceive ourselves into thinking that since our obedience isn’t as it could be, and that since we haven’t yet done “all that we can do,” that we are excused from whole-hearted abandonment to the will of Christ. That we resist asking for and receiving those things we want most because we have convinced ourselves, in a very sophisticated type of pride, that we have yet to qualify.
We will never qualify by our own works. It is not great faith that produces the types of works that will bring us into the presence of Christ. It is a greater type of faith that is required: It is the type of faith that brings us into his presence while we are ever aware of our weakness and sins. The type of faith that we need is the faith in him, not us. That we can come unto him in our weakness and sins, and have the faith to be healed and transformed by him.
Mustering the faith in our self to enter into his presence is a fool’s errand. It cannot be done. In some ways it can be used as a purposeful excuse not to proceed in faith. I find myself doing this all the time.
The Prayer of the Brother of Jared
The account of the Brother of Jared at the veil teaches us this principle.
For the space of three hours the Lord chastised him for not calling upon his name. Surely, the Brother of Jared had been praying. What does the record then mean that he had ceased calling upon his name?
Gratefully, we are given the account of a prayer the Brother of Jared offers after this chastisement. He prays:
“O Lord, thou hast said that we must be encompassed about by the floods. Now behold, O Lord, and do not be angry with thy servant because of his weakness before thee; for we know that thou art holy and dwellest in the heavens, and that we are unworthy before thee; because of the fall our natures have become evil continually; nevertheless, O Lord, thou hast given us a commandment that we must call upon thee, that from thee we may receive according to our desires.”
How did the Brother of Jared exercise faith to part the veil? He did so by coming to the Lord with full awareness of all of his sin, weakness, and in spite of his fallen nature. He came wholeheartedly, not with fear, having full faith that the Lord could heal, forgive, and transform him sufficiently to enter into his presence. He came to the Lord with the faith to be blessed according to his desires despite the knowledge of his possession of a fallen nature.
I believe that the Brother of Jared was being chastised for “not calling upon the name of the Lord, which is different from not praying. One can pray, and even pray with great intensity, and still not call upon the name of the Lord.
Calling upon the name of the Lord is engaging the Lord despite our weakness and fallen nature. It is coming unto him fully aware of our unworthiness. This requires great faith.
The same invitation is given to us.
Later, Moroni reveals: “And in that day that they shall exercise faith in me, saith the Lord, even as the brother of Jared did, that they may become sanctified in me, then will I manifest unto them the things which the brother of Jared saw, even to the unfolding unto them all my revelations, saith Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of the heavens and of the earth, and all things that in them are.” (Ether 4:7.)
We must call upon the Lord knowing that because of the fall of our natures that we, too, do evil continually. We must call upon him even though we are unworthy before him.
As a great friend shared with me: “My unworthiness becomes my worthiness to receive a fullness of his grace.”
As we reconcile ourselves to the spirit and become softened, transformed, and a new creature in Christ our obedience takes upon a new nature. Our obedience, works, effort, and fulfillment of the law are wholly motivated by the love of Christ. We cease doing them to prove ourselves to the Lord, rather, we do them because we love him with all of our hearts. We begin to work and serve and obey with a renewed intensity that is a manifestation of his love and grace.
“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.”
Our perfection in not in ourselves. It is in Christ. If we deny ourselves those things that resist the spirit and presence of Christ, and then become reconciled to him by loving him with all that we have and are, then his grace becomes the sufficient power in our lives. His grace will perfect us, not our works. When we receive of his grace, we can no longer deny his power.
“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.”
It is my opinion that the works we do in the fulfillment of the conditional statement that we are saved by grace after all that we can do are works that are inspired and led by the Holy Spirit. They are the works that flow from individuals that have fully reconciled themselves to the will of the Spirit, or are doing the things that the spirit inspires them to in the process of becoming sanctified and reconciled. The all we can do condition is fulfilled when we engage the Lord with all of our hearts, becoming reconciled to him in prayer, and becoming full of the will of the Lord through the process of yielding to the enticings of the Holy Spirit. When we are fully reconciled and willing to do all things that he would ask of us, then his grace becomes an enabling power in our life, giving us the strength and power to overcome all darkness and to be endowed with salvational knowledge (D&C 50:35).
I love our Savior and am overwhelmed by his grace and mercy.