I was assigned to speak about the topic of “Grace” today, specifically how Paul taught this concept in Romans, chapters 1-6. There are several different ways we see the term “grace” used in the scriptures. Listening to a podcast this week I learned that the word “atonement” appears only once in all of the New Testament. The guest speaker asked the question, “If the apostles where actively teaching and testifying of Christ and His atonement, but not using that term regularly, what terms were they using instead?” When considered in this light, it quickly becomes clear that Paul is often using the term GRACE to teach about the saving gift of the ATONEMENT.
The Bible Dictionary defines grace as, “…divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ.” It goes on to explain that it is through the Savior’s atoning sacrifice that immortality, salvation, exaltation and eternal life are available to everyone. The last paragraph states, “Divine grace is needed by every soul in consequence of the Fall of Adam and also because of man’s weaknesses and shortcomings. However, grace cannot suffice without total effort on the part of the recipient. Hence the explanation, ‘It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do’ (2 Nephi 25:23). It is truly the grace of Jesus Christ that makes salvation possible.” This is where the gospel of Jesus Christ differs a bit from modern day Christianity’s view of “works” and “grace”. Understanding their view of these terms will help us have better discussions with our fellow Christians.
Years ago, a dear friend and neighbor of ours felt the impression to come over and bear witness to my husband of her beliefs. The result was a 2-3 hour Bible based discussion that illustrated many of the truths of the doctrines of our faith instead. In the end, she was left wanting to passionately make the point that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is good, but requires too much of us members, and all of the extra things we do pull focus from Christ. My husband explained that all of the “extra” things we do actually help connect us more to Christ, as we strive to follow His example and be like Him. He asked her, if we are happier with all of the “more” than why would she want us to have “less”? She agreed that it didn’t sound like a good proposition when put that way, and they shared a laugh and left the discussion with good feelings on both sides, regardless of not seeing eye to eye on the topic.
Essentially, this was a discussion rooted in the great, “Grace vs. Works Debate,” which goes back to the the Protestant Reformation. This movement began in 1517 when Martin Luther (a German Monk and Professor) nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Catholic Church. Basically, he had 95 questions, or issues, or concerns, that he needed resolved. One of the main issues was in reference to the “works” of the Catholic Church, or the corruption of the clergy. Luther was primarily concerned with the selling of Plenary Indulgences to those who were wealthy enough to afford them. These indulgences were like purchasing a certificate for oneself, or a deceased love one, insuring clear passage through purgatory. Essentially, they were selling salvation. Luther found this abhorrent, stating that it is only through the grace of God that mankind is saved. We can never check off all of the boxes, or somehow jump through all of the right hoops, to earn, purchase, or merit our own salvation, which is absolutely true. It’s important
for us, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, to understand that this is where the distaste of “works” expressed by many modern day sects of Christianity, comes from. This is an issue Paul also addresses in his letters to those members who were Jewish, but recently converted to Christianity, who were having a difficult time leaving behind old beliefs. When Paul refers to “the law” in these chapters, he’s referring to the Law of Moses. When he refers to “works” he’s referencing the outward actions of those keeping the Mosaic Law. His references to the “law of faith” are to the higher law that Jesus instituted. Paul also introduces the term grace in a different way here, speaking now of “grace for grace.” D&C 93: 11-12, helps to illustrate this concept, “And I John, bear record that I beheld his glory, as the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, even the Spirit of truth, which came and dwelt in the flesh, and dwelt among us. And I, John, saw that he received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace;” If we jump over to verse 19-20 in the same chapter, the Savior himself explains, “I give unto you these sayings that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness. For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace.” In this way the phrase “grace for grace” refers to Christlike attributes that we can work to develop in ourselves. These things require effort on our part. We won’t be instantly patient without first practicing patience. We aren’t able to automatically forgive without first practicing forgiveness, or faith, or hope, or any virtuous attribute. In other words, we don’t strive to obtain “grace for grace” to earn salvation for ourselves, but rather to become more like our Savior and to qualify for the companionship of the Holy Ghost, which sanctifies us. These things can be considered “good works,” which we are commanded throughout the scriptures to be actively engaged in.
So what’s the difference between works and good works? In EPHESIANS 2:8-10, we read, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” If there are good works we should walk in, and works to boast of that should be avoided, then our own intent is the defining characteristic between the two.
In Elder Uchtdorf’s talk, “The Gift of Grace”, he uses the story of Simon the Pharisee and the woman who washed the Savior’s feet with her tears and anointed him with costly oil as an example of this. He says, “Outwardly Simon seemed to be a good and upright man. He regularly checked off his to-do list of religious obligations: he kept the law, paid his tithing, observed the Sabbath, prayed daily, and went to the synagogue.” Elder Uchtdorf goes on to describe how Simon wasn’t pleased with the woman, or with the Savior, because He should’ve known this woman was a sinner when she touched Him. The Savior responds by teaching Simon the parable of the debtors. Elder Uchtdorf continues, quoting the Savior,
“‘And when they both had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?’ Simon answered that it was the one who was forgiven the most. Then Jesus taught a profound lesson: ‘Seest thou this woman?… Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.’ Which of these two people are we most like? Are we like
Simon? Are we confident and comfortable in our good deeds, trusting in our own righteousness? Are we perhaps a little impatient with those who are not living up to our standards? Are we on autopilot, going through the motions, attending our meetings, yawning through Gospel Doctrine class, and perhaps checking our cell phones during sacrament service? Or are we like this woman, who thought she was completely and hopelessly lost because of sin? Do we love much? Do we understand our indebtedness to Heavenly Father and plead with all our souls for the grace of God?”
Do we understand our indebtedness? Do we perform works to be seen of man, or to become like God? Do we love much? One of the purest ways we love our Savior and our Heavenly Father is to be obedient to the commandments.
Several years ago, we got our children a puppy. My husband and I had both grown up with dogs, but quickly realized we had never been the ones to train them. Next thing I knew, I was standing in a dog obedience class, holding a clicker, wearing a fanny pack of dog treats, and hearing instructors refer to me as my puppy’s “Mommy”. It was an unsettling transition. However, I learned a lot about obedience. Obedience at the most basic level usually occurs because there is a reward we want, or a punishment or consequence we wish to avoid. This is often how little children are encouraged to behave. As we mature, we level up to obeying because it makes sense to obey. We can see the benefits of something, like living the Word of Wisdom. Strengthening our bodies and avoiding the pitfalls of addiction is clearly beneficial, so we can obey those guidelines because it makes practical sense to do so. Then there is the highest level of obedience, which occurs when we obey purely out of love. Maybe what we’re being asked to do makes no sense to us, there is no obvious reward, and lots of potential unknown consequences, but we still choose to obey because we love our Heavenly Father and will do what He asks of us.
So how do we truly understand the concept of grace and adopt it into our daily lives? We use it. We recognize our need, and actively access the Atonement. As mortal human beings, we exist in a fallen state. Imagine falling into a very deep pit with very sheer sides. Regardless of all of our best efforts, we cannot climb out of the pit ourselves. It’s impossible, unless someone throws us a rope to help us out, we are trapped. The Atonement of Jesus Christ is that rope. But it does us no good unless we take hold of it, exert our own best efforts, and climb. Have you ever attempted to climb a rope? It’s not easy, but neither is repentance, because repentance is change, and change is hard. When we choose instead to sit, defeated in the pit, refusing to utilize the power of the Atonement of Christ to repent, or to be made whole, or to forgive and move forward, we are essentially boasting in our own works. We are vainly imagining we can get free ourselves, without the justifying and sanctifying power of the Atonement.
Secondly, we can and should extend grace to others, whether that’s through forgiveness, patience, love, having charity, giving someone the benefit of the doubt, or refusing to take offense when given. All of these things help us gain grace for grace, understand our own lack, have greater compassion for the shortcomings of others, and better understand the power of the Atonement.
We also should ask for, and utilize divine help. In the same Podcast I referenced earlier, one of the hosts mentioned that he had been sitting next to a Pastor of a Christian denomination on a plane, and having the “grace vs. works” discussion. This man expressed that our church relies too heavily on good works, which essentially reduces God to only being a “God of the gaps.” Meaning that we think we can get ourselves so far along on our own, and only look to God when needed to fill in the gaps for us. Clearly, that isn’t an accurate assessment of our doctrine, but as I listened to that, I thought, “Well…what’s wrong with a God of the gaps?” I am deeply grateful for a loving Heavenly Father who steps in when I fall short and makes more of me. I love the story in Mark about the parents who bring their child to be healed by the Savior, and He asks the Father if he believes. The Father simply responds, “Lord, I believe. Help though my unbelief.” I’ve lived that myself so many times, when facing a calling, or assignment, or task that stretched far beyond my present abilities. Or when kneeling in prayer, earnestly pleading for needed miracles for myself or loved ones that required an enlargement of my existing faith and understanding. So many times, I’ve brought what I have to the Lord and said, “Lord, I believe. I have this much to offer, it’s everything I have. But if more is required, please help me.”
There’s been a lot of emphasis over the last decade in a worldly sense on the “power of no.” Meaning, we should be able to say no and not commit to things beyond our capabilities or time constraints. In a spiritual sense, there’s been an emphasis on “Good, Better, Best,” ensuring that we are choosing wisely where to spend our time and efforts. Obviously, that’s all important, we are instructed in the scriptures not to run faster than we can walk. But I want to testify that when we are on the Lord’s errand, there is an abundant “power of yes.” When we seek to know His will, to do the things He requires of us, and trust in Him to help our lack or our “unbelief”, saying “yes” to the Lord is always an edifying, enabling, and enlarging process.
President Uchtdorf has stated, “Though we all have weaknesses, we can overcome them. Indeed it is by the grace of God that, if we humble ourselves and have faith, weak things can become strong. Throughout our lives, God’s grace bestows temporal blessings and spiritual gifts that magnify our abilities and enrich our lives. His grace refines us. His grace helps us become our best selves.”
I want to close with my testimony that Jesus Christ is our Savior and Redeemer. That through the justifying and sanctifying power of His Atonement we are saved, and can be exalted and made whole. I am grateful that through the grace of God the Father, we were given the gift of His only begotten son. That through the grace of His son, our Savior, we have been given the gift of the Atonement. May we use it, and extend that grace to one another as we generously strive to forgive, love, and serve as He would. I am deeply grateful for a “God of the gaps” who has, and continues to embrace me where I fall short. Who constantly lifts and enlarges me to close the distance between where I am, and where I need to be. Who recognizes my belief, but never fails to help my unbelief. I say these things humbly, and gratefully, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.