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_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.

One more post should see us to the end of these preliminaries—these critical remarks that should open the space in which we might construct a fully robust Mormon theology of grace.

20 Responses to “_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 7 – All”

  1. jacob said

    Joe,
    I always felt like the woman in this story was “saved” the moment she started taking the missionaries seriously. If she had died on the way to her baptism or the week before, would she have been any less saved? I dunno, what do you think? I’m using Alma 5:10-11 as a point of reference.

    And there are also a thousand ways to postpone grace as well as misunderstand it. I worry about that “tantalizing distance” in my life.

    • joespencer said

      I think that’s right, Jacob. The minute she stopped holding out against grace, she was “saved.”

      • Roberta said

        Really? No one is saved (yet). No one is sealed (yet). Maybe this rubs me wrong because we speak as though salvation has happened and we can pinpoint the moment at which salvation occurred, when in reality no one is “saved” (past tense) until after the resurrection ordinance is received by them. I cringe when I hear people talk about “being sealed” or “being saved” as if they are living it right here right now when in reality they are living only in the hope of the event to happen some day in their very distant future. Since no one “earned” The Fall, no one can earn the Atonement, so how can we state that the woman’s “salvation” connected to a point in her own behavior (i.e., once she stopped holding out against grace…)? It actually happened before the foundation of the world, and then (as your previous very wonderful comment stated in a previous post) how she responds to that event makes all the difference in her growth, but not as it relates to salvation. Am I missing something?

      • joespencer said

        Sorry for any confusion, Roberta. I put “saved” in scare quotes for a reason. Robinson’s wording is, of course, “worthy of the kingdom.” Scripture almost universally refers to salvation as an event that comes only at the last day, and I don’t mean to deny that. There’s also a sense, of course, in which salvation has already been effected, inasmuch as it refers to our deliverance from death and sin. But yes, I’m with you.

      • Roberta said

        I appreciate being able to ask you. I have a few other favorite authors I follow but I don’t have such a luxury with them. ;)

      • ginger said

        Now see, I was wondering if the only thing we had to “do” so to speak was agree to gain a body and come to earth. Technically, we are all “saved” when we do that, right? The atonement is infinite, and even those who do not believe in Christ are covered by grace. If they have gained a body, they will still be resurrected?
        Sorry, my head is spinning here, trying to wrap my mommy brain around all this.

      • joespencer said

        Ginger,

        Saved (delivered) from death and sin, yes. But atonement, while rooted in the resurrection, is, I take it, still distinct from it. It is one of its effects. We can hold out against grace. We don’t “lose” it that way. We’ll still be resurrected. But we end up with a “second” or “spiritual” death as a result.

        So I think you’re right: the only thing we had to “do” was to come to earth. But this earth is all about how we’ll relate to grace, and there are, generally speaking, three ways we might relate to it—I’d call them “celestial,” “terrestrial,” and “telestial.”

      • mjberkey said

        Roberta says, “I cringe when I hear people talk about “being sealed” or “being saved” as if they are living it right here right now”

        In this year’s Priesthood/Relief Society manual, President Smith says, “we are living eternal lives”, and “Today is the beginning of eternal happiness or eternal disappointment for you.” I don’t know why we shouldn’t hope for eternal life right now, if we’re promised the companionship of the Holy Ghost.

        Roberta says, “…in reality no one is “saved” (past tense) until after the resurrection ordinance is received by them.”

        Well, I suppose that depends on how you defined “saved”. The problem I have with how most members define salvation is they rarely give much thought to what we’re saved from. Helaman 5:10 has led me to believe that the reason we can’t be saved in our sins is that our sins are the very thing the Lord would save us from. Romans 6:1-7 leads me to believe that that kind of salvation takes place, at least in some sense, at baptism.

        I think Robinson would say that we’re saved from the “demands of justice”. And this is the main problem I have with his idea of grace. It would save us from the effects of sin without saving us from sin itself.

        Joe says, “Scripture almost universally refers to salvation as an event that comes only at the last day, and I don’t mean to deny that.”

        Almost universally? Can you explain further? I think in most cases where scriptures refer to salvation, the precise chronological timing of it is ambiguous.

      • joespencer said

        Mjberkey,

        Just a word of explanation: Commentators often note that Paul (with only one exception) talks of salvation as lying in the future, and a quick glance in the Book of Mormon suggests that wherever it isn’t ambiguous, “saved” is coupled with “shall be” and “at the last day.”

        Of course, that’s not to say we can’t talk about salvation in other terms.

      • Roberta said

        Mjberkey,

        I completely agree that we should all “live in the hope of eternal life right now.” That is an awesome perspective to keep! But to me that’s much different from declaring “I’m saved” or “we’re sealed” to denote a personal status that doesn’t yet exist in reality. I recognize this is fully cultural (and my own pet peeve) and is not going to change but I see it most often declared as a way to elevate/separate onself above/away from others rather than to unify with them. That’s all.

      • mjberkey said

        I see what you’re saying. Using salvation or sealing as a status symbol…

      • Roberta said

        Well, I guess it could be said that way, but it sounds a bit more harsh than I like. I just prefer unity instead of using things in our culture to separate… :)

  2. rameumptom said

    I have lots of ideas regarding being saved by grace, but will wait until Joe more fully develops it to discuss it. Joe is correct in saying that we misread 2 Ne 25:23. Grace is so different than many LDS understand it.

    • joespencer said

      I won’t be developing it much more in this series. I’m planning only on one last post, and it will be more on exactly how the atonement works in order to set grace in motion….

  3. Robert C. said

    Nice, Joe. (FYI, I suspect your phrase “a fully embrace of grace” is a typo….)

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  6. Mike H. said

    Joe-

    I teach Gospel Doctrine in my ward, and I’m preparing this week’s lesson on Alma 23-29. I came across some text that I feel is relevant to this conversation regarding 2 Ne. 25:23 (“after all we can do”). This text potentially offers another alternative reading to 2 Ne. 25:23, which is separate from the typical Mormon reading (“after we do all we can”) and the Robinson/Spencer reading put forward here (“apart from all we can do”).

    Here’s some background: in Alma 24:1-4, the Anti-Nephi-Lehies are faced with the threat of violence from other Lamanites who have not converted–they wish to rise up in rebellion against King Anti-Nephi-Lehi (this is Lamoni’s brother, who is named king over the Lamanites to replace Lamoni’s father, who dies in the same year). So the question under debate is whether the Anti-Nephi-Lehies should make preparations to defend themselves against the rebellious arm of the Lamanite society. King Anti-Nephi-Lehi issues a statement (comprising Alma 24:7-16) that they should not, lest the stains of their past sins & murders that have been cleansed through the atonement of Christ should return and not be cleansed again (see particularly v. 13).

    Here’s the text that I want to highlight: in v. 11, King Anti-Nephi-Lehi states “since it has been all that we could do (as we were the most lost of all mankind) to repent of our sins and the many murders which we have committed, and to get God to take them away from our hearts, for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain–”

    In this verse, there are two “all we could do” clauses, which is essentially the same clause from 2 Ne. 25:23, except it’s narrated in a past tense. [Well, “could” isn’t strictly the past tense for “can”, but I’m not sure if “can” has a technical past tense–is “can” even a verb?]. In both of these clauses, “all we could do” is connected to repenting of our sins.

    The king again repeats this “all we could do” clause in v. 15, again connecting it to getting their stains taken away–in other words, repentance. I tried analyzing the remainder of the text of the king’s statement further to see if there were any clues to hint that he is directly referencing Nephi’s teachings, but I couldn’t find anything else there to support this hypothesis.

    In the end, I feel like it’s clear that King Anti-Nephi-Lehi interprets “all we can do” to be saved as repenting of our sins–putting down our weapons of rebellion. I feel this reading aligns nicely with the concept of grace that you’ve been putting forward in this series. That is, the Lord’s grace is always there for us, and sin is our rejection of it (or rebellion against it). “All we can do” to accept that grace and be saved, as Nephi instructs us, is put down our weapons of rebellion and repent of our sins so that we can accept the gift which has already been prepared for us.

  7. Robert C. said

    Mike #6, this is a fantastic connection! Really, you should work this up into a paper and submit it to the Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture….

  8. joespencer said

    Mike,

    Yes, this is a connection Robert Millet makes in Grace Works, but I agree with Robert C. that you should do some more work on this. Millet mentions it only briefly, and you’ve given a richer, more contextualized reading here already with just a few paragraphs. Go!

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