_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 6 – Grace, Works
Posted by joespencer on June 27, 2012
I often ask my students the following question, “When you stand before the bar of God at the Judgment Day, how many of you would like the assurance that God will be absolutely fair with you?” Usually every hand goes up. Then I pull the rug out from under them. “You’d better think again. To be fair means to judge you by the law of justice and to give you what you deserve. But imperfect and fallen mortals like ourselves don’t want to get what we deserve; we should be hoping for more than that. We don’t want God to be fair or just when he judges us—we want him to be merciful.” (p. 57)
Judged by grace. This couldn’t be clearer. Robinson even goes on to speak of “a way to receive mercy instead of justice” (p. 59). But all this is entirely at odds with scripture. Here’s Alma:
What, do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God. And thus God bringeth about his great and eternal purposes, which were prepared from the foundation of the world. And thus cometh about the salvation and the redemption of men, and also their destruction and misery. (Alma 42:25-26)
If justice weren’t the whole story in the judgment, if mercy were in any sense to rob justice of its role in the judgment, God would cease to be God. But doesn’t that mean that we have no hope? Isn’t Robinson right that if God gives us what we deserve, we’re all bound for hell? Not at all. And that’s what we’ve got to sort out, here.
Note that Robinson finishes the paragraph I’ve quoted above as follows:
The atonement of Christ provides a way for God to be at the same time both just and merciful. Since Christ and I are one in the gospel covenant, and since in a covenant partnership it doesn’t matter which partner does what, Christ can answer the demands of justice for me, and I can then receive the benefits of mercy from him. This is an arrangement that satisfies both justice and mercy. (p. 57)
This sounds something like what Alma says in the same chapter I’ve also quoted above:
But God ceaseth not to be God, and mercy claimeth the penitent, and mercy cometh because of the atonement; and the atonement bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead; and the resurrection of the dead bringeth back men into the presence of God; and thus they are restored into his presence, to be judged according to their works, according to the law and justice. For behold, justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved. (Alma 42:23-24)
What Robinson says sounds something like what Alma says, but the differences are, I think, crucial. Note, first, that in the middle of what Alma says that sounds most like Robinson he affirms quite straightforwardly that we are “judged according to [our] works, according to the law and justice.” It’s not, as Robinson suggests, that Christ answers justice’s demands for us. There is a covenant relationship between us and Christ, but I think Robinson has missed it.
At the heart of Alma’s teachings in Alma 40-42 is a careful clarification of the idea of justice. We’re wont to think of justice, as Robinson explicitly does, in terms of balancing guilt and punishment. That’s not how Alma understands it. Alma instead talks about “restoration” (beginning in 40:22 and obsessively thereafter). What justice demands is not a balancing of guilt and punishment, but rather a restoration of good for good and evil for evil:
And it is requisite with the justice of God that men should be judged according to their works; and if their works were good in this life, and the desires of their hearts were good, that they should also, at the last day, be restored unto that which is good. And if their works are evil they shall be restored unto them for evil. Therefore, all things shall be restored to their proper order, every thing to its natural frame—mortality raised to immortality, corruption to incorruption—raised to endless happiness to inherit the kingdom of God, or to endless misery to inherit the kingdom of the devil, the one on one hand, the other on the other—the one raised to happiness according to his desires of happiness, or good according to his desires of good; and the other to evil according to his desires of evil; for as he has desired to do evil all the day long even so shall he have his reward of evil when the night cometh. (Alma 41:3-5)
All that justice demands is that what was in life be restored in the afterlife. The judgment is in Alma’s thinking a matter simply of determining whether one’s works show that that person had “desires of good” or “desires of evil.” Works reveal desires. (Here it becomes clear what was so wrong in the last chapter with Robinson’s suggestion that we’re to be judged by our works and, where those are deficient, the desires of our heart. From what Alma says, it’s clear that there is no gap between works and desires, because works are the very manifestations of our desires. Our desires can’t go further than our works, according to Alma.)
Now, if we’re to be judged entirely by our works, and if that judgment is to be a question purely and simply of justice, what chance have we of being saved? Frankly, we can only ask this question if we’ve already misunderstood the nature of grace from the very beginning. The trick is that we’ve been delivered from sin entirely by grace, entirely undeservedly, before we do any work at all, evil or good. We can only think that mercy needs to saturate the judgment if we accept the dilemma with which Robinson begins the book—according to which sin is the basic state from which we need to escape. The truth, though, is that sin is the state we escape to when we don’t want to confront the basic state of granted deliverance—the basic state of grace that obtains before we get working at all.
The basic picture is something like this: Completely by grace, I have been delivered from the power of sin. That happens through, of all things, the resurrection. Because it was the dawn of death that introduced sin into the world, that gave sin its real force, it is the resurrection—which comes completely unearned, and is completely irresistible—that releases me from sin’s power. Consequently, it’s given to me to decide what I want to do with the gift I’ve been given. Do I hate the fact that I’ve been delivered by God? Do I resist that deliverance, wishing I could cling to my death—to that one thing that I can claim is absolutely mine (the one thing no human being can take from me is death, and so it is what most radically marks my individuality, my selfhood)? Or do I love the fact that I’ve been delivered by God? Do I affirm that deliverance, getting to work in charity on everything God proposes? If I do the former, it’s clear that my desires are evil; if I do the latter, it’s clear that my desires are good. In the judgment God will take a look at how I’ve responded to grace, and He’ll restore me to what I’ve most wanted. Of course, if what I’ve wanted is death—my own death—I can’t be given that in any straightforwardly temporal way, and so what I’ll be given is a spiritual death.
That’s the picture. It’s basic, and there’s a lot that can be said about it. But I think it’s sufficient. It’s what I see to be clearly taught again and again in a string of Book of Mormon texts—beginning with Lehi’s words to Jacob in 2 Nephi 2, further exposited by Jacob himself in 2 Nephi 9, clarified somewhat briefly by Benjamin and Abinadi in Mosiah, and then worked over in striking detail by Alma in both Alma 12-13 and Alma 40-42.
But I want to get back to Robinson, just to make a few other notes about chapter 4.
First, I think we should note that he’s wrong to criticize those of us who “can’t seem to turn loose of the law of justice” (p. 58). He explains:
I have had many people say to me, “Well, what you say about mercy and grace would be wonderful, if it were true, but it doesn’t feel right to me. It’s too easy—it doesn’t seem fair.” In other words, “I can’t accept mercy because it doesn’t feel like justice.” (p. 58)
No. That’s not, I think, what’s going on in those situations. These are people who feel the weight of scripture, and they recognize that the judgment is a question of justice and of works. And they’re right. They know mercy has something to do with the story, but they’re right to be nervous about transforming the judgment. What they haven’t figured out—just as Robinson, I think, hasn’t figured out—is that mercy and grace come at the beginning of the story. Grace is real, but it precedes everything we do. All our works—good or evil—are done in response to grace.
Second, I think we should note that Robinson is wrong to claim that grace—which he defines quite well in the chapter—is conditioned. He says:
However, for Latter-day Saints the doctrine of grace does not mean that we are saved by grace alone, that is, without participating in the process in some degree, nor does it mean that salvation is totally without conditions. (p. 68)
Grace is by definition unconditioned, and there are no conditions attached to the gift of resurrection that is given to us. There are no conditions attached to our release from the power of sin. Not a single one. Of course, if we fight against that overwhelmingly beautiful gift, then, yes, of course there’s something to be done: we have to stop fighting against it. But that’s not so much “participating in the process” as ceasing to refuse to participate in the grace that gets us moving. Salvation is absolutely free, though we do everything we can to keep at arm’s distance from it.
Third, I think we should note that Robinson overstates his dismissal of the faith/works debate. He says:
For centuries theologians have argued pointlessly over whether individuals are saved by faith or saved by works. A pox on both their houses, for neither by faith alone (defining faith as mere passive belief) nor by works alone are we saved. (pp. 69-70)
Pointlessly? Doesn’t Robinson’s own book attest to the importance of the debate? And doesn’t the fact—or what I take to be the fact—that Robinson hasn’t understood what the scriptures say about grace and works make clear that these debates are of real importance. Salvation is well worth understanding, or at least the scriptures are convinced that it’s well worth understanding. I think we’d do well to spend a bit more time trying to sort out the nature of the questions and paying attention to those debates.
Fourth, I think we should be wary of how Robinson affirms works in his model of things. He says:
Even though our best efforts may be insufficient to save ourselves, they are sufficient as a token of good faith to establish a covenant with our Savior. (p. 71)
Robinson is, I think, almost right here. He rightly distances works from salvation (though he elsewhere fails to do this), recognizing that they can really serve only as a token, as an indication of something else. But I think he missteps when he assumes that those good works have to precede the establishment of a covenant with God. We don’t have to show God anything before He makes a covenant with us except that we’re ready to stop fighting against Him. There are only two “steps” before baptism: faith and repentance. In other words, we have to (1) believe in the message announced regarding Christ’s resurrection, and we have to (2) stop refusing the gracefulness of that resurrection by ceasing to rebel against God. We don’t have to do anything before baptism; we have only to stop doing things before baptism. The covenant requires no efforts as tokens. All of our efforts come only after and in response to grace, and the first of those efforts is our making of a covenant—binding ourselves, with God, to the work of building the kingdom.
Fifth and finally, let me say something positive about this chapter—since I’ve been so consistently negative here! I think Robinson gets this major point right:
Finally, in the face of all God has done and is willing to do for us, after he has cleared away all the obstacles and we are faced with an open door, we must either say, “Yes, I want to go with you,” or “Look, I’ll give it to you straight, I just don’t want to go.” None of us can weasel our way out by saying, “I’d really like to, but I can’t.” Grace has eliminated every excuse but one: “I just don’t want to go; I prefer my sins to your kingdom.” (p. 77)
Where has this been hiding in this chapter? This is beautiful, a perfect embodiment of grace. The only problem throughout this chapter has been that Robinson has wanted to make this moment of decision come too late in the story—has claimed that we only face this from within a dilemma we fall into unawares. But if we take this conversation of sorts to be the story from the very beginning, Robinson couldn’t be more right about it. This is the either/or we have to face up to in life, and our decision in response to it couldn’t be more on display in our works—not only what we do, but how we do it. The judgment should be a pretty simple affair.
I hope, then, that things are getting clearer about grace as we move along. Starting in <a href=http://feastuponthewordblog.org/2012/07/01/_believing-christ_-revisited-7-all/my next post, I’ll begin to address misunderstandings.