_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 7 – All
Posted by joespencer on July 1, 2012
Chapter 5 of Believing Christ bears the title “Misunderstanding Grace,” and in it Robinson dedicates himself to a variety of different “misunderstandings.” As with the last chapter, I have a handful of quibbles with smaller points in this chapter, but I’ll focus most of my attention just on what Robinson says about 2 Nephi 25:23—Nephi’s famous statement that “it is by grace that we are saved after all we can do.”
Like most scriptures Latter-day Saints can quote from memory, this text deserves a great deal more exegetical and hermeneutical attention. We’ve not, for all our confidence in this text, done much to take a look at what it’s saying. Helpfully—most helpfully—it was Robinson who first began to show us that we needed to give it another look.
Robinson turns to this text as part of a discussion of “gospel superlatives,” the employment of words like “all,” “greatest,” “best,” “always,” “every,” “never,” etc. (p. 90). Obviously, because of their presence in canonical texts and prophetic instruction, these superlatives can’t be dismissed, but we’re more apt to “misapply” them than to orient ourselves by them rightly. And Robinson suggests that “some of the blame” for such misapplication “comes from a misunderstanding of 2 Nephi 25:23″ (p. 90). Robinson’s fascinating and game-changing discussion of this text deserves quotation in full, but I’ll take it in bits and pieces and offer some intervening commentary.
At first glance at this scripture, we might thing that grace is offered to us only chronologically after we have completed doing all we can do, but this is demonstrably false, for we have already received many manifestations of God’s grace before we even come to this point. By his grace, we live and breathe. By grace, we are spiritually begotten children of heavenly parents and enjoy divine prospects. By grace, a plan was prepared and a savior designated for humanity when Adam and Eve fell. By grace, the good news of this gospel comes to us and informs us of our eternal options. By grace, we have the agency to accept the gospel when we hear it. By the grace that comes through faith in Christ, we start the repentance process; and by grace, we are justified and made part of God’s kingdom even while that process is still incomplete. The grace of God has been involved in our spiritual progress until the end. (p. 91)
This is a first, most important point. The common reading of 2 Nephi 25:23—namely, that grace operates only (temporally) after we have done everything we can possibly do to save ourselves—is demonstrably false. Benjamin, for instance, makes clear how much grace gets us off the ground in the first place, rendering us eternally indebted to God before we even become aware of redemption. Grace in one form or another unmistakably operates before we do anything at all. This is what the books on grace from a few years before Believing Christ were already making clear. I’m thinking here especially of Bruce Hafen’s gloss on 2 Nephi 25:23 in Broken Heart: “the Savior’s gift of grace to us is not necessarily limited in time to ‘after’ all we can do. We may receive his grace before, during, and after the time when we expend our own efforts” (pp. 155-156). Robinson, therefore, draws this conclusion:
It therefore belittles God’s grace to think of it as only a cherry on top added at the last moment as a mere finishing touch to what we have already accomplished on our own without any help from God. Instead the reverse would be a truer proposition: our efforts are the cherry on top added to all that God has already done for us. (p. 91)
The point is that grace does a lot before salvation is a question at all, and, so, Latter-day Saints should be careful about suggesting that grace only operates after we’ve put forth our best efforts.
Of course, one might object that the usual interpretation of 2 Nephi 25:23 doesn’t mean to exclude the possibility of non-saving sorts of grace from having an effect before we make our best efforts. Nephi doesn’t say, “we know that grace operates after all we can do,” but, “we know that it is by grace that we are saved after all we can do,” and most Latter-day Saints mean only to suggest that saving grace comes only “after all we can do.” So while it would belittle God’s grace in a general sense to suggest that nothing of it has any effect until we’ve done our best efforts—and perhaps some Saints have ridiculously gone that far—it doesn’t belittle God’s saving grace to hear in Nephi’s words a claim that a certain sort of grace operates only after (and therefore in response to) our works.
This is, I think, an important objection. Robinson’s aim is deadly here, but it isn’t clear that he’s aiming at the biggest, most important target. Most Latter-day Saints I know would agree that Christ doesn’t add just the cherry to the top of the sundae of their own works; but they’d still affirm that saving grace is mobilized only if and when they make their best efforts. I’ll come back to this point a little further on. For the moment, on with Robinson’s discussion.
Actually, I understand the preposition “after” in 2 Nephi 25:23 to be a preposition of separation rather than a preposition of time. It denotes logical separateness rather than temporal sequence. We are saved by grace “apart from all we can do,” or “all we can do notwithstanding,” or even “regardless of all we can do.” Another acceptable paraphrase of the sense of the verse might read, “We are still saved by grace, after all is said and done.” (pp. 91-92)
This is fascinating. And I don’t doubt it’s a good move in the right direction—though I think Robinson phrases it in a less-than-fully-convincing way. There is, as any good dictionary makes clear, a sense the word “after” can take in which it denotes logical separation (without therefore negating temporal successiveness). And I think this is probably exactly the right way to read 2 Nephi 25:23. But I can see why a reader of Robinson might balk at his suggestion—as I did the first time I read it: “You have to dig through a dictionary to find some way of twisting out of the plain, obvious meaning of the text?”
But let’s strengthen Robinson’s claim by noting, straightforwardly, that the supposedly obvious meaning of the text is no such thing. What does Nephi actually say? Not, as we constantly claim, that “after we’ve done all we can do, we’re saved by grace.” Look closely: Nephi never says anything at all about us doing anything! What’s that? The word “after” sets up a prepositional phrase in which one finds reference only to what “we can do,” not at all to doing what “we can do.” Had Nephi straightforwardly meant what we generally take him to have meant, he would most likely have said that—namely, that we’re saved by grace after we do all we can. The fact that he says no such thing means that we need to think again about what he actually does say—and, so, about what “after” means here.
With that destabilization of the text in place, I think we can see the power of Robinson’s reading: “After all we can do”—after and, so, apart from everything that remains within our power—”it is by grace that we are saved.” Robinson, as I say, seems to me quite clearly to have gotten it right.
But then, unfortunately, Robinson begins to move away from this most crucial interpretation with his next paragraph:
In addition, even the phrase “all we can do” is susceptible to a sinister interpretation as meaning every single good deed we could conceivably have ever done. This is nonsense. If grace could operate only in such cases, no one could ever be saved, not even the best among us. It is precisely because we don’t always do everything we could have done that we need a savior in the first place, so obviously we can’t make doing everything we could have done a condition for receiving grace and being saved! I believe the emphasis in 2 Nephi 25:23 is meant to fall on the word we (“all we can do,” as opposed to all he can do). Moreover, “all we can do” here should probably be understood in the sense of “everything we can do,” or even “whatever we can do.” (p. 92)
Do you feel the tension between this paragraph and the ones preceding it? If “after” is to be understood as a “preposition of separation,” then it doesn’t make any sense to come back to a clarification of the “all” in “all we can do.” The “after,” as Robinson has already interpreted it, has displaced any claim on salvation that might be made by our efforts. But by dealing with this “addition,” he concedes, tacitly, that there’s something right about the usual, problematic interpretation of Nephi’s words. And so it becomes necessary to qualify the “all”: it isn’t a theoretical “all,” an “all that could theoretically be done in order to motivate saving grace,” but a sensibly practical “all,” an “all that, given one’s circumstances and fallenness, can reasonably be expected from one in order to motivate saving grace.” I don’t think Robinson would be comfortable with that way of putting it, but it seems to me that that’s largely implied by his return from “after” to “all.”
Here again—as many times before in Believing Christ—Robinson combines a crucial revolutionary advance with an inability fully to escape from the trap of the problematic usual interpretations of grace. He deserves praise for the liberating first steps he took, but we have to be careful to see where he hasn’t yet been able to go all the way down the necessary road to a fully robust theology of grace.
That Robinson balks at this most crucial point becomes particularly clear in the next part of the chapter. That the question “But when have I done enough?” is even worth addressing seriously—rather than critically rejected as a completely uncomprehending question—makes clear that Robinson hasn’t fully freed himself from the wrong approach to grace. And that Robinson’s answer to that question is ultimately to ask “Do you feel the influence of the Holy Ghost in your life?” (p. 94) is all the more telling. I don’t doubt that the Spirit’s presence is an important sign that things are right, but there’s so much confusion among the Saints about what is and isn’t the Spirit, what the Spirit does and doesn’t do, etc., that this is a far too delicate sign. Someone already worried about whether they’re doing what can reasonably be expected of them is quite likely to be worried about whether they’re really feeling the Spirit. Robinson’s approach to this difficulty only removes it to the next level.
But then the next part of the chapter gets it right all over again. Here Robinson tells the story of a woman who joined the Church while he was a bishop. She was very rough around the edges, and little changed before she was baptized—only a few basic hurdles were jumped, and not definitively. But time saw her edges smoothed and her nature change. Robinson tells this story and then asks this crucial question: “At what point did this sister become a candidate for the kingdom? Was it when she finally gave up cigarettes, or when she got her language and temper under control? Or what is when she finally qualified for a temple recommend?” (p. 96). That’s exactly the right question to ask because it starkly reveals the silliness of our attempts to determine how much has to be done in order to “earn” grace. Grace isn’t earned. The problem Robinson still faces is his occasional indications that some minimal something—whatever could reasonably be expected from someone—is still necessary to motivate saving grace. They’re only occasional indications, but they’re symptomatic.
Another symptom like this comes near the end of this chapter. Robinson says the following:
But will I ever be perfect in the sense of being without error, fault, or blemish? I mean me separately and individually, apart from my covenant perfection-in-Christ? I think the answer is yes. For example, I envision a scene about a million years from now, after we’ve been in the celestial kingdom a very, very long time. I will approach the Savior and say something like, “OK, I finally did it. I have overcome eating fruit out of season (or whatever). Now what comes next?” And he will look at me and say, “Hey—that was it! Congratulations! That was the last one. You have finally learned to keep all the commandments all of the time!” (p. 103)
Oh, how this worries me! I’ve already stated in another post my worries about individual perfection, so I won’t rehearse that here—though it’s principally what worries me about this. I’ll mention instead the frankly absurd idea that perfection is a matter of, for instance, finally not eating fruit out of season! Now, I realize that Robinson is probably mostly trying to be funny here, referencing something minor that some Latter-day Saints get weird about. But it’s telling nonetheless. To portray the aim of the gospel as the production of individuals who finally force themselves—albeit with Christ’s help—to pay constant attention to even the tiniest bits of advice and counsel in scripture or prophetic words is to miss the point of the gospel entirely. And that’s not to mention the portrayal of a kind of constant “What’s next on the list?” approach to goodness. Goodness is holistic, a matter of character—not a matter of controlled actions.
But despite such symptomatic lapses, Robinson makes serious headway. I particularly appreciate his drawing the distinction, early in the chapter, between “wanting righteousness and wishing [we] wanted righteousness” (p. 86). Though Robinson introduces the distinction in a problematic way—as part of the idea that our desires can take the place of our works, which I’ve already criticized in a previous post—it’s a crucial distinction if we translate it into the context of judgment of our works. Do our works manifest a desire to do good (a fully embrace of grace), or do they manifest a desire to desire to do good (a rejection of grace that keeps it at a tantalizing distance to allow the space to do what we really want to do)?
And on and on. There are a thousand ways to “misunderstand grace,” and Robinson has both corrected some and—in my opinion—embraced others. But I think we can learn a lot from his courageous attempt to forge ahead in the path toward a theology of grace. He’s made serious headway, and we have the task of taking that further. I suspect he’d be happy to see us do so.