2 Nephi 25 tweet: Isa is hard to get. Who knew? N prophesies plainly of Messiah. Grace saves, after all. Talk, rejoice, preach of Christ. But keep the Law.
The last post on 2 Nephi 25 focused on just the first couple of verses of the chapter. In this post I’ll briefly summarise the rest of the chapter, but the bulk of this post will focus on the chapter’s – and one of the Book of Mormon’s – most famous verses.
So what is Nephi doing in 2 Nephi 25? Well, after explaining why his people don’t generally understand the words of Isaiah (again, see the last post for why Nephi himself may have contributed to their lack of understanding), Nephi proceeds to lay out his own plain prophecy so that the reader can be left with no excuse. This plain prophecy is found in verses 9–19. I think it’s pretty straightforward, as per Nephi’s intention, so I won’t comment on that now. Instead, I’ll focus attention on the following theologically problematic verse:
For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do. (2 Ne 25:23, emphasis added)
A certain reading of this verse has informed what I think is the prevalent understanding Latter-day Saints have of grace. That is, when we have done the very best we can – after all we can do – then grace kicks in and makes up the difference. This understanding might be summarised by the following line in the Bible Dictionary entry under Grace:
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. (Emphasis added)
But I think this approach is problematic. Again, the idea seems to be that men and women are responsible for completely overcoming all sins/weaknesses on their own, to the fullest extent of their capacity and that grace consists of an after-the-fact making up for that which is outside each person’s capacity, but only for those who did in fact overcome sin/weakness to the fullest extent of their capacity.
But here’s the problem. We generally think that sin occurs when a person has a choice and knowingly chooses a bad (or even not the best) option. When a good option is logically conceivable but utterly outside the power of a particular person, that person does not actually sin by failing to do what they are actually incapable of doing.
So, sin can only occur when a person has the capacity to make a good choice but nonetheless does not. That is, sin happens only when people fail to make the maximum effort of which they are capable. Every time we sin, we in fact do less than “all we can do,” and make less than a total effort, therefore disqualifying us from grace – at least the Bible Dictionary version of grace.
Therefore, I think we need to rethink this traditional reading of the verse. The heart of the matter is how to interpret the phrase “after all we can do.” It would seem the traditional reading interprets the ‘after’ as describing a sequence in time. We do all we can and after that, grace kicks in. But there are other ways we might read this.
An alternative reading of 2 Nephi 25:23 – advanced by many who see problems with the traditional reading – suggests effectively replacing Nephi’s “after” with the phrase “in spite of,” effectively yielding the following version of the original text: “we know that it is by grace that we are saved, in spite of all we can do.”
Another way to look at the verse is to reconsider what the “all we can do” is. In Alma 24 we read of a group called the Anti-Nephi-Lehies who had been guilty of “many murders” but then experienced that mighty change of heart. Of this experience their leader declares:
And now behold, my brethren, since it has been all that we could do, (as we were the most lost of all mankind) to repent of all 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 – (Alma 24:11, emphasis added)
So perhaps the “all we can do,” rather than being an impossibly endless list of works that we could theoretically do, is simply to repent. This reading might also be supported by another verse that closely parallels 2 Ne 25:23. In Jacob’s sermon from earlier in 2 Nephi we read:
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved. (2 Ne 10:24, emphasis added)
In this verse, “all we can do” is to be reconciled unto God, which might be another way of saying “repent sufficiently before God.” With this reading we might consider the “all we can do” in 2 Ne 25:23 to be referring back to “believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God” in the first half of the verse.
Another possible interpretation is that the “we” in “all we can do” might actually be referring to just Nephi and his fellow prophets, not all humankind. With this interpretation we might rephrase the verse as follows: “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that after all we [the prophets] can do [to write and persuade], it is [ultimately] by the grace [of Christ] that we are saved.”
Framed this way, Nephi is not making a sweeping statement about the necessity of each man and woman to turn to Christ only after you’ve done the best you can; but instead is acknowledging that the work he himself does is insufficient, for it is by grace that we are saved, even after all he does.
The problem is that these are all just theories and there is no obvious reason why any one of these ideas should be privileged over the traditional reading of the verse. In LDS circles we like prophetic support for our ideas, and preferably a living prophet. And this is where Dieter F. Uchtdorf enters the fray.
I think an argument can be made to say that Dieter F. Uchtdorf is the most important General Authority of the 21st century. For some time I’ve had in my mind the idea that President Uchtdorf is on an unspoken mission to take down common Mormon cultural memes (the original Dawkins’ version of meme rather than the modern internet version) that he considers a distraction from the real gospel. An obvious, trivial example was when he referred to himself as having drunk many litres of a nameless diet soda and thus deflated the idea that non-consumption of caffeinated soft drinks is a touchstone of worthiness.1 But it can also be seen in his occasional use of non-KJV Bible references,2 his willingness to admit to the mistakes of Church leaders,3 his take down of our fear culture,4 and in the subtle ways he talks about politics and current affairs that run against the grain of the prevailing Mountain West Mormon culture.5,6
All of that is perhaps a little obscure and may just be me wanting to read more into his messages than intended. However, in April 2015 he delivered two sermons that taken together I think constitute a deliberate and needed corrective to the predominant LDS view of works-based salvation / grace. Rather than two discrete messages, I think they may well have been intended to be read together. But in the interest of space, I’ll just touch on the first address delivered during the Priesthood session.7 In that address you may remember he used the fascinating story of the Potemkin village as an analogy to warn against whiting our sepulchres. His charm and amiable personality should not distract from what was a pretty sharp critique of the Mormon obsession with appearances (e.g., see the last post on the appearance of the Sacred Grove) and how we measure success, and included such quotes as:
Many of the things you can count, do not count. Many of the things you cannot count, really do count.7
The Church is not an automobile showroom—a place to put ourselves on display so that others can admire our spirituality, capacity, or prosperity. It is more like a service center, where vehicles in need of repair come for maintenance and rehabilitation …. We come to church not to hide our problems but to heal them.7
However, more obviously relevant to 2 Nephi 25:23, on the Easter Sunday he gave the final address of the morning session and directly challenged our traditional understanding of grace in general, and this verse in particular. He said:
I wonder if sometimes we misinterpret the phrase “after all we can do”. We must understand that “after” does not equal “because.” We are not saved “because” of all that we can do. Have any of us done all that we can do? Does God wait until we’ve expended every effort before he will intervene in our lives with His saving grace? …. I am certain Nephi knew the Savior’s grace allows and enables us to overcome sin. This is why Nephi labored so diligently to persuade his children and brethren “to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God.” After all, that is what we can do! And that is our task in mortality!”8
Salvation cannot be bought with the currency of obedience; it is purchased with the blood of the Son of God. Thinking that we can trade our good works for salvation is like buying a plane ticket and then supposing we own the airline. Or thinking that after paying rent for our home, we now hold title to the entire planet earth.8
President Uchtdorf went on to address the why of obedience, but as this is already overly long that discussion will have to wait for another time.
I want to close this post by touching on some of the work of Adam Miller regarding grace. He’s written a good deal about grace and in fact has written what he terms a paraphrase of Romans entitled Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan.9 In response to President Uchtdorf’s sermon on grace he outlined a more general theory of grace.10
Miller suggests that “grace isn’t just a name for how God saves us. It’s a name for God’s global modus operandi, a modus that is manifest originally and fundamentally in the act of creation.” He goes on to state:
Grace is this massive, ongoing act of divinely organized creation that involves an uncountable host of agents (human and nonhuman) embedded in irreducible webs of stewardship, consecration, sacrifice, and interdependence.
“Glory” is Paul’s name for God’s freely given and unearnable grace as it continually brews out of these massive, creative networks of divinely enabled agents.10
Having laid out a more general theory of grace, Miller goes on to look at sin in a new light:
Sin is our rejection of this original grace. Sin is our refusal of some part of creation. Or, even better, it is a refusal of our having to be part of creation. It’s our proud and fearful refusal of our dependence on a world that we didn’t ask for, can’t control, and can’t be rid of.
Redemption, then, doesn’t involve injecting grace into a sinful situation that previously lacked it. Rather, because sin is our suppression of creation as a grace, redemption proceeds fundamentally as a recovery of that grace that’s already given.10
I’m not sure I fully understand what Miller is saying or of the implications of his ideas on grace and sin, but I love his reformulation of these concepts. As always, let me know what you think. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the traditional LDS understanding of grace vs. that outlined by President Uchtdorf? What do you think of Adam Miller’s ideas re. sin and grace? What are the practical implications of what President Uchtdorf taught for individuals and the Church? As grace is one of the key theological concepts of the Book of Mormon, I’ll revisit these ideas again.
Next week’s reading: 2 Nephi 26–27