Feast upon the Word Blog

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_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 6 – Grace, Works

Posted by joespencer on June 27, 2012

Lest anyone think I missed the boat with my last post, I begin with the first part of the first paragraph of the fourth chapter of Believing Christ:

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=https://feastuponthewordblog.org/2012/07/01/_believing-christ_-revisited-7-all/my next post, I’ll begin to address misunderstandings.

22 Responses to “_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 6 – Grace, Works”

  1. […] comments _Believing Christ_ Revisited, 6 – Grace, Works « Feast upon the Word Blog on _Believing Christ_ Revisited, 5 – Covenantjoespencer on _Believing Christ_ Revisited, […]

  2. Robert C. said

    Very nice, Joe.

    In thinking about the final major point you quote from Robinson, I think it’s worth understanding how Robinson was effectively directing an old, familiar (mis)understanding of the atonement in precisely the right direction.

    I think this is best understood in light of Robinson’s swimming parable (at least as it’s described here). As I see it, Robinson’s key (correct) insight is that grace is always on offer, regardless of our works, and this is important because learning to stop refusing grace can be a learned behavior, for various reasons (temptations of the flesh and the idea Aristotelian idea of habit perhaps illustrate this best, esp. because of the light modern science sheds on habits and addictions, even if some of the scientific conclusions are overzealous and misguided…).

    So, if I’m not being clear: although I think the bicycle parable is of limited use, I think the swimming parable is much more useful and helpful. And seeing how both of these (ultimately conflicting) parables inflect Robinson’s thought, can help separate the wheat from the tares (or consistencies and inconsistencies) in his thought.

  3. rameumptom said

    Joe, Great job in explaining the things Robinson misses on in this chapter. The Book of Mormon clearly explains things in the terms you use. To be justified means to be made sinless, which comes via faith in Christ and repentance. Baptism becomes the symbol of us accepting the atonement by covenant. We are then promised the Holy Ghost, or a member of the Godhead, as a symbol that we’ve returned back into the presence of God (Godhead) and left spiritual death behind.

    Where keeping commandments comes in isn’t in being saved, but in the level of salvation we receive. D&C 88 tells us that if we have a “portion” of the Celestial Kingdom in us, we will receive a fullness, and this is true for the Terrestrial and Telestial kingdoms, as well. For a person who has completely rejected the grace of Christ, there is no choice but to allow him to receive the second death – as there is nowhere else for him to go. Commandments cannot save us. They can only help us become more Christ-like, so we can receive a greater portion of grace in a kingdom of heaven. That is why the obedience comes after the covenant and ordinance.

    • joespencer said

      Thank you, though I’m going to take a few exceptions. :)

      First, I don’t think the Book of Mormon has a doctrine of justification. This is unmistakably a central term in Paul’s writings (one he draws from the Hebrew Bible), and it plays a major theological role in both the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price (in the Book of Moses, anyway), but it doesn’t seem to have a soteriological emphasis in the Book of Mormon. I think that’s probably important to understanding the Book of Mormon’s doctrine of grace. There isn’t a re-righteous-ification for the Nephites, just an initial overturning of the rule of death….

      I’m also rather nervous about the idea that “keeping commandments” determines “the level of salvation we receive.” I suspect it’s much more a question of how we go about the commandments than of which commandments we keep. The celestial kingdom, on my reading, is what comes to those who respond to grace in a certain way, the terrestrial kingdom to those who respond to grace in another way, and the telestial kingdom to those who respond to grace in still another way….

      • rameumptom said

        I think you phrased my statement regarding commandments better than I did. For me, it is part of a becoming process, or the “Doctrine of Christ” (2 Ne 31, 3 Ne 11). Herein we learn that the Godhead is one God, and we must be one as they are. We do so with this pattern: faith in Christ, repentance, baptism/ordinances, receiving the Holy Ghost.

        As we cycle through this pattern, we become Celestial through sanctification of the Holy Ghost. The HG causes a “mighty change of heart” (Mosiah 4:1-4, 5:-14) that has us no longer wanting to do evil, but good continually. To the level our hearts have changed, we will wish to do good: whether on the Telestial, Terrestrial or Celestial level.

        While the Book of Mormon may not directly use the terms justification and sanctification, the teachings, IMO, are still there. When Alma believes and repents, he is cleansed from his sins and brought into the presence of God (Alma 36). We see this pattern with Enos, the people of Benjamin, the converted Lamanites, etc. Anti-Nephi-Lehi noted that his people were saved and freed from their sins (made sinless/justified) through the grace of Christ.

        I believe Alma 13 (cf 9-13)speaks to justification and sanctification, as regarding the temple:

        “Therefore they were called after this holy order, and were sanctified, and their garments were washed white through the blood of the Lamb.Now they, after being sanctified by the Holy Ghost, having their garments made white, being pure and spotless before God, could not look upon sin save it were with abhorrence; and there were many, exceedingly great many, who were made pure and entered into the rest of the Lord their God” (Alma 13:11-12).

        We are washed clean through the blood of Christ, which is justification. We are purified or sanctified through the Holy Spirit (Alma 13:11-12).

      • joespencer said

        Interesting further thoughts, for which you have my thanks. I’d like to do some further thinking on how we might read justification in the Book of Mormon. You may well have started me on a new project!

  4. jacob said

    Joe, can you enlarge a bit more about the relationship between sin and death. I know that sin leads to death. But do willing-sinners actually embrace death? Is death the polar opposite of grace? Are sin, death, hell, and darkness all related concepts? This has been a very useful discussion. Several of us here are following it closely.

    • joespencer said

      There’s a good bit of philosophical footwork going on here. Let me see if I can provide a kind of sketch of what I’m thinking about….

      (1) We begin in Eden, with a commandment and associated punishment: Don’t eat the fruit; in the day you do eat it, you’ll die. (This first detail is most helpfully outlined in the last part of Alma 12.)

      (2) Adam and Eve do eat the fruit, but rather than immediately inflicting the punishment (death), God casts Adam and Eve out of the Garden and prolongs their days in order to provide a space of probation. (This is initially articulated in the middle of 2 Nephi 2, but it is also the focus of the last part of Alma 12.)

      (3) The state of probation thus produced, however, isn’t terribly fair, because human beings, as mortal or death-bound, end up being carnal, sensual, and devilish. This seems to be because death, more than anything else, marks their individuality (no one can take my death from me). At any rate, the idea that the dawn of death in the world is what somehow produces sin is affirmed in the basic doctrine of the Fall. (This is articulated over and over again in the Book of Mormon, but it perhaps most profoundly set forth early in 2 Nephi 9.)

      (4) In order to trump these circumstances, the plan of redemption includes the resurrection of Christ, which redeems the flesh by overcoming death. The would-be necessity of sin is thus canceled; the possibility of goodness emerges. (This is perhaps the most consistent claim in Book of Mormon theology of atonement. It’s best outlined, however, in 2 Nephi 2; 2 Nephi 9; and Alma 42.)

      That’s the basic idea, and I’m hoping this helps.

      At any rate, I don’t think there’s a strong sense in the Book of Mormon that sin leads to death. Rather, being-toward-death is what gives life to sin by orienting us to selfishness. The resurrection, by overcoming the death that most radically individualizes or particularizes us, opens up the possibility of being-toward-something-besides-death—that is, opens up the possibility of atonement. (I’ll note here, without enough detail to stage a defense, that there’s no strong distinction between resurrection and atonement in the Book of Mormon. There’s only the one event—the resurrection—and the atonement is effected in its entirety by that event.)

  5. rameumptom said

    Jacob, I see the Book of Mormon as having a heaven/hell view in its teachings. The various kingdoms are not divided, as we modern saints so often tend to do. For me, when people choose the second death over salvation, it means they have chosen to follow Satan, lock, stock and barrel. We can see this in the story of Cain and Abel, where Cain loves Satan and glories in killing his brother, proclaiming, “I am free!” For some (including Satan), they really think that God forces them into his way of living, and they would prefer misery than any of God’s glory and happiness (2 Ne 2). Misery is their form of happiness, as they would redefine it to mean living without God’s coercion or influence.

    For all others who accept even a minimal amount of the atonement, they are rescued from that second death. As Joe has noted, we are in sin because we refuse to embrace the atonement on God’s terms. We are spoiled rotten brats, who pout because we cannot have happiness in our own way. Yet that path leads us out of the light of Christ and Holy Spirit, the source of life, light, and real happiness. Only in coming to our senses and realizing that what God offers is actually better for us, are we ready to accept the atonement and grace. To the level we embrace the atonement may determine the level of glory we receive.

    I find it interesting in studying ascensions, how some are brought close in to the presence of the Lord, while others see him at a distance. In Alma 36, the prophet talks of his conversion, and when he sees the Lord, it is not face to face, but from a distance he can see the God on his throne. He is rescued from death and hell, but perhaps is still a long way off from close proximity with God. Later, as Alma is actively living the gospel and preaching it to others, the angel who condemned him returns and tells him he is accepted. I would suppose, had he seen the Lord’s throne on that day, he would have been up close and personal.

  6. JKC said

    On the issue of Robinson getting justice wrong, I get your point, and I agree with it, but I’m not sure I agree that he gets justice “wrong” as much as he is using justice in the colloquial sense rather than the scriptural sense. It’s a matter of definitions. When Robinson says that we should not want “justice,” what he really means is that we should not want eye-for-an-eye retributive justice to be the principal on which we are judged. Up to this point, I completely agree with him, and I suspect that Alma would as well. The mistake is only in conflating that idea of justice with justice as it is used is the Book of Mormon (and somewhat in the Old Testament as well, though the Old Testament is arguably a little more about broad-scale social justice while the Book of Mormon focuses a little more on justice as it operates in the lives of individuals). Justice in the scriptural sense (see Alma’s restoration discussion) is probably closer to what we might call “the law of the harvest” or Karma that it is about a legalistic sense of retributive justice (balancing crime against punishment).

    They are related in the sense that “restorative justice” might restore a balance that has been upset by sin, but the balance of restorative justice is a balancing of relationships, not a balancing of crime against punishment. Restorative justice if more about the outcome than whether the punishment fits the crime. The question is not, what punishment fits this crime, the question is, now that sin has been committed, what must be done to restore fairness that sin has offended? This scriptural sense of justice is more consistent, incidentally, with the character of God, as well. If I, as imperfect as I am, am able to forgive someone without insisting that they suffer a punishment appropriate to his or her offense against me, I seriously doubt that God is not able to, and I have serious reservations with a concept of justice that makes God less able to forgive than I am.

    This concept of justice also makes so much more sense in the “mercy cannot rob justice” conversation. If justice is nothing more or less than insisting on punishment for crime, then mercy (a willingness to forego punishment) will always rob justice unless it is ignored completely. The atonement does not fix it because inherent in the concept of retributive justice is that the punishment is inflicted on the guilty party.

    • rameumptom said

      JKC notes: “The question is not, what punishment fits this crime, the question is, now that sin has been committed, what must be done to restore fairness that sin has offended?”

      Would you think it better asked: “now that sin has been committed, what must be done to restore the relationship between man and God?”

      • JKC said

        I think that’s probably right.

      • JKC said

        Though I would add that it is not just the relationship between man and God that is concerned, it is the relationship between individuals, between the individual and the family, the individual and society, one society and another, society and God, society and the earth, etc.

    • JKC said

      Hit return too soon. The idea that punishment gets inflicted on an innocent party is foreign to the concept of retributive justice. But if the concept of justice we’re dealing with is restorative justice, then you can begin to see how, though the atonement, it can co-exist with mercy without diminishing either concept.

    • joespencer said

      I don’t disagree with anything you say here, JKC, though I think it should be said that there’s a danger in Robinson’s colloquial use—especially because he doesn’t clarify that he’s using that sense. His reader can’t but come away believing that his position is that mercy should take the place of justice in the judgment, and that—however one defines justice—is at odds with scripture….

  7. jacob said

    Joe and Rameumptom, I really appreciate your insights to my questions. This has been a productive discussion and has renewed my desire to feast more deeply in the scriptures as a response to grace and hope. I once had a companion who glossed over the resurrection as a given and not really worth talking about during a discussion. I don’t think he meant to be so cavalier but it seemed very strange to me at the time and I couldn’t articulate why. It seems that most of us have been content with a “lesser portion of the word” and that isn’t going to cut it anymore.

  8. Gilbert said

    Thank you very much for your thoughts. My wife and I are really enjoying these posts. One question: how can we reconcile King Benjamin’s statement on the natural man being our basal state and your statement:
    “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.”

    • mjberkey said

      I think I would just say that sin is the natural response to grace…

    • joespencer said


      More or less along Mjberkey’s and Rameumptom’s lines, I’d say that Benjamin’s “natural man” is a reference to our too-automatic refusal of the basic state of grace that has always already been given to us. We’ve been redeemed, but we hate that fact and rebel against it—that’s the natural man. Paul uses the same language and the same idea in his first letter to the Corinthians….

  9. rameumptom said

    Gilbert, I think this is where Joe will be going to in his discussion soon. A quick answer would be that saving grace only requires us to believe and repent. Then, there is exalting grace, which comes to us as we increase in faith, repentance, accepting of ordinances and covenants, and prepare to enter into God’s presence. Joe’s new parable of the bicycle, where the girl pouts because she wants a different bike than the one freely offered her, shows the natural man within us. It is only when we have a change of heart and humbly accept the gift before us that grace can work in our lives. At that point, the girl can then learn to ride the bike – the works.

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