Feast upon the Word Blog

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Thoughts on the Road: A Grace/Works Analogy

Posted by BrianJ on May 4, 2008

I’m in the middle of a cross-country move, which means that I have had plenty of “ponder time” driving through America’s heartland. I’ll share a little thought that came to me in Iowa as I thought about King Corn, food chains, ethanol fuel, housing costs, and the focus of many of my Gospel Doctrine lessons: grace.

Nearly every bit of the energy we use on the earth comes from the sun—whether it’s solar power or ethanol from corn or fossil fuels. I’m not only referring to energy to power machines, but also the energy to power people: all of our food is completely dependent on the sun.

Is it helpful to read “it is by grace ye are saved, after all ye can do” with this sun/man analogy in mind? A reminder that that grace not only fills in after all we do, but also makes possible all that we do. And not just in the “give permission” sense of making things possible, but that we are totally dependent on grace from start to finish. I’m not a big fan of analogies, but this one seems to have some merit.

12 Responses to “Thoughts on the Road: A Grace/Works Analogy”

  1. robf said

    Nice thoughts. Have we really worked out here what we mean by “grace”? Its not a word that we use much outside of a gospel context, and I’m not sure we’re even all on the same page in understanding what “grace” even means.

  2. joespencer said

    Brian, I think that is the only way to begin thinking about grace! Life is a response to grace, and we return to it, not receive it after we work out some kind of openness to God.

  3. NathanG said


    Not sure if this is a limitation of analogy or a limitation of understanding of grace, but it’s interesting that we have no way of directly channeling the energy of the sun within our organism and turning it into something useful (with the exception of vitamin D). We are completely dependent on plants doing that work. Once that transformation has been made, we and other organisms can take the stored energy and mix it around into fats, proteins, and sugars which enable many other processes to occur.

    This kind of takes grace beyond an individual experience to a community experience and in some ways we receive of the grace of God by the interactions with others who have already received it, not that someone else “saves” us, but in our process of becoming as God, we are blessed by the interaction and experience of others who have already received and assist others to also receive.

  4. CEF said

    Hello BrianJ – Have you read “Bonds That Make Us Free” by Warner. I have mentioned his book before in various places, and have never gotten much traction out of it. I think Robert said he had a class at BYU with him, but I do not remember what Robert had to say, so it must not have been about the book.

    I believe Terry makes a good point that until we have a mighty change of heart, we cannot do anything good. In my opinion, he is right. But as I said, I have never been able to get anyone to agree or disagree with the idea.

    Warner did not say what he thought created the change of heart, but if it is not grace, I would be at a loss to know what else has that kind of power. What does all of this have to do with your post, glad you asked.

    Without a prevenient grace in the world, we would all be lost, seeking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, until the whole world would be blind and toothless.

    I think it was Manning who said something along these lines, “knowing that God has already forgiven us, makes it easier to ask for forgiveness.”

    robf – What does grace mean to you?

    joespencer – I am curious, do you think the preponderance of evidence of what our GA’s teach about grace would support your statement? Please do not take the time to try and show such evidence, a simple yes or no with a line or two of explanation would be fine. (I know you are busy) I do agree with you though.

    NathanG – I agree, without someone to interact with, it would be hard to demonstrate either grace or ungrace.

  5. Robert C. said

    CEF, yes I agree with you (and Warner) about needing a mighty change of heart before we can really do anything good. I’m pretty sure Warner would agree that grace is what allows us to have a mighty change of heart. I need to go back and read Bonds that Make us Free more carefully from the beginning, but what I like about Warner is that he does a very good job of showing us how we avoid grace by self-deceptions—self-deceptions that I think can be revealed to us through worship, prayer and, esp., reading scripture. Thus, I don’t think it would be too far off the mark to say that the main (sole?) purpose of studying scripture is to bring us to a recognition/understanding of this grace (and I think it’s important that we study scripture, not just that we, say, come to a logical understanding of what scripture means—it is in the struggle to work out what scripture means for us, individually and communally, that I think the barriers to our experiencing grace can be cleared away…).

  6. robf said

    CEF (#4), I have no idea what “grace” means. I suppose I would start with a study of Hebrew: hen, hanan, hesed, rahum and Greek: charis. Anybody have a good place to start on that?

  7. joespencer said


    I’m really not sure, to be honest. I’d have to listen to an entire General Conference with that question in mind. But I do think it can be read into every line of the second paragraph in the Bible Dictionary entry on “Grace,” a snippet of which I’ll quote: “This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts.” Though I’d make this point a bit more radically, I do think the most charitable reading of it recognizes grace as being first.

    But I think the problem is not in interpretations, mine or theirs; rather, it seems to me more often to be in a felt but, I would suggest, unreal tension between the scriptures and the statements of the Brethren. Is it necessary to see any slight difference in understanding or approach from that of the Brethren as one’s being essentially at odds with them? When I am reading the scriptures, I confess that I don’t at all think of what the Brethren say; and when I am reading the Brethren, I generally don’t think of what the scriptures say (the exception being when they quote or comment on them, of course). I think it is a possible—and worthy!—project to explore and to analyze the dialectic that can be read into the relationship between the Brethren and the scriptures, but I don’t think that dialectic is inherent in either the scriptures or the words of the Brethren, and I see it as a (perhaps minor but very real) mistake to stop up every reading of the text by defining it with or against the Brethren, or to stop up every hearing of the Brethren by defining it with or against the scriptures. It takes enough effort just to come to grips with the one that is calling my attention in the moment: I haven’t the ability to do both at once.

    In a word, then (and this is far longer than you hoped for!): I don’t at all know whether what I’ve said is somehow at odds with the teachings of the Brethren. I don’t particularly hear them speaking about works vs. grace. Their focus is, as I hear them, elsewhere. I am trying to be just as faithful to that elsewhere as I am to the scriptures.

    Does that make sense?

  8. CEF said

    Robert C – Thank you. As I read Warner’s book, I found myself disagreeing with some of the things he said. It was not until the end of the book, where he ties everything together, that I was able to see/understand how it all works. It was at that point that I embraced Warner’s view of the world and adopted it as my own.

    I have been toying with an idea of how faith works, and why it is so important to read the scriptures. But it is just a way I try and make sense out of things I do not really understand. Anyway, I honestly believe if we do not make grace a part of who and what we are, we will in no way dwell with God, regardless of how well we “keep the commandants.” Meaning, keeping them for all of the wrong reasons.

    robf – I am not a very complicated person, I think you are simply trying to hard. :)

    joespencer – Yes, that does make sense. I can appreciate your largeness here. I sometimes wonder if I am just too small in my thinking.

    However, a problem can arise in a Sunday School class where a person can say something that you may want to shed further light on before the discussion ends and someone quotes a statement by a GA as an end to any further discussion. As I see it, you are left with either agreeing with the GA, keeping your mouth shut, or, heaven forbid, say something like, “that is just his opinion.” Now we are back to the original intention of my question. Does this make any sense?

  9. robf said

    CEF (#8), maybe its not me. Maybe grace is complicated ;)

  10. CEF said

    robf – Gosh, I sure hope not. Yancey said when he was doing the research to write his book about grace, he read a thirteen page treatise in the Catholic encyclopedia about it. After doing that, Philip decided to try and convey what grace is through stories. Maybe there is something to what you say. However, I like to think we know it when we see/experience it.

  11. joespencer said


    Thanks for the clarification: it is a very different matter to ask about what happens in the classroom! There seem to me to be two ways to read the description of the situation you describe: with me as the teacher, or with me as a student.

    As a student, I don’t find this situation overly difficult, personally. If a GA statement has been used as a weapon (as you say: to put “an end to any further discussion), I simply keep my mouth shut: it is better in the longrun, I think, to keep something of a spirit of unanimity in the classroom than to be correct today. If a GA statement is used more innocently, I don’t think the problem arises.

    As a teacher, I find things a bit more difficult, though not by any means impossible. First, I tend to teach in such a way that such comments are seldom if ever made, something that naturally follows, I think, from sticking very closely to the scriptures. Second, I anticipate such comments where I think the nature of the discussion can lead to them by setting up a paradox in advance and suggesting that the scriptures we’re looking at will help us think more carefully about what is really being taught by the GAs (“Now, what the Book of Job is about to suggest here might seem to be at odds with what we generally hear from the pulpit, but I don’t think it is, in the end. Perhaps this text can give us a new way of making sense of what the Brethren are asking us to do.”) Third, no matter what I’ve done, the situation does arise once in a while where a classmember pits me against the Brethren on some point. My response is usually along the following lines, and I should mention at the outset that I begin any such comments with the assumption that the classmember and I are entirely on the same page and are striving toward the same goal (Zion), and that determines the tone in which it is said: “Yeah. That’s good. I want to look at the context of what Elder X was saying there to get a clearer understanding of what he was saying, because I imagine it would help us to make better sense of what we’re looking at here. Keep that thought as we work through this text—and if I forget to come back to it, bring that statement up again at the end of our discussion so we can see how it might help us make sense of things.” I’ve found generally that this distracts any belligerent purpose on the classmember’s part and that it can even result in his or her more serious study (whether of that GA’s statement or of the scripture we’re looking at).

    Does that help?

  12. CEF said

    Thank you Joe, that helped very much.

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