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Deseret News archives
Terryl Givens recently spoke at a conference titled "My Grace is Sufficient: Latter-day Reflections."

Editor's note: This is the second of two articles about the Mormon doctrine of grace. Part 1 provided the backstory of how grace regained its place over the past 30 years among Mormons raised on works.

PROVO — At times when he has given a presentation, Stephen Robinson has been introduced as the man who changed the Mormon doctrine of grace.

"If that's true, I should be taken out and hung," the retired Brigham Young University religion professor said on campus recently at a conference on grace.

Robinson meant he would never attempt to change the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "I'd be more than happy to be known as the one who changed Mormon culture," he said, part of a renaissance of grace talk in Mormonism in the past 40 years.

Grace has been a meaningful part of Mormon scriptures and doctrine from the beginning, but LDS Church leaders, theologians and scholars have long placed an energetic emphasis on the doctrine of works in part because of the Book of Mormon phrase that God's children are saved by grace "after all we can do" (see 2 Nephi 25:23).

Many Latter-day Saints who grew up in the 1950s, '60s or '70s said they never heard the concept of grace taught in church. Some said they learned not to bring it up. But that is changing. A quick review of the word's usage in LDS general conferences by decade shows a surge. Grace was mentioned 60 times during conferences in the 1930s and 96 times in the 1960s.

With years to go, the term grace already has been used 225 times in general conferences during this decade, including recent talks that have defined and explained the LDS configuration of a core doctrine of Christianity. If there is any remaining doubt that Mormons believe in grace, a pair of evangelical academics recently tried to drive a stake in it in a recent academic paper that sought to shape how evangelicals interact with Mormons.

"Future participants in the evangelical-Mormon dialogue would do well to acknowledge the existence of grace in Mormon theology," the authors wrote, "irrespective of whether they agree with this or that configuration."

So how do scholars and church leaders define grace in LDS belief?

Robinson boldly declared what it isn't.

"There's some people," he said, "who think what they're doing is somehow they are climbing the ladder, that they'll do some percent and Jesus will do the other percent. They are wrong. If they think the Mormon conception of grace is there is any salvation from what they've done, they're wrong."

Others worry that the surge of grace language among Mormons has made some begin to sound too much like Catholics and evangelicals, wandering away from what the Prophet Joseph Smith taught.

The real question

For decades, Mormons rejected, shunned or worried about the term grace because of their belief in works. For example, the late Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught that believing in salvation "by grace alone and without obedience" is a "soul-destroying doctrine" because it could lessen the determination of people to follow God's commandments.

Yet in the 1970s, McConkie was among the first to help Mormons begin to "wake up to grace," said Camille Fronk Olson, former chairwoman of Brigham Young University's department of ancient scripture.

Since Mormon scripture is replete with grace, the question "Do Mormons believe in grace?" is a poor one, wrote John Anthony Dunne, a professor at Bethel University, and Logan Williams, a doctoral student at Durham University in England, in a paper this year titled, "A Perplexing Gift: Toward Clarity in the Evangelical-Mormon Interfaith Dialogue on Grace."

They proposed better questions: Do Mormons believe in the Protestant configuration of grace? How do Mormons configure grace? How is Mormon grace talk configured in Mormon terms?

Due to the Restoration, Mormons clearly configure grace differently than Protestants. How they do can be complex, as Dunne and Williams observed.

"Grace is everywhere in Mormonism, but it is certainly not everywhere the same," they wrote.

Generally, they found the term salvation often refers to two concepts for Mormons. First, some have referred to the general salvation from death provided to all through Jesus Christ's Resurrection. Second, it can mean exaltation and reaching the highest level of heaven. Mormons often have defined the first as salvation by grace and the second as overcoming spiritual death by works, or obedience to laws and principles that lead back to God's presence.

But grace is a deep part of that second definition of salvation, too.

Gifts of grace

For the Mormons who spoke at BYU's conference, titled "My Grace is Sufficient: Latter-day Reflections," grace was necessary from before the Creation and the Fall, is a partnership with God, exists to provide healing and enabling power throughout life and is about human development, education and transformation.

Adam Miller flatly rejected the idea that perfection could be private and independent of Christ. He said Robinson's book, "Believing Christ," changed his life but left him feeling as though grace was Plan B, installed because flawless obedience failed.

"In the beginning, there was grace," said Miller, a professor of philosophy at Collin College in Texas. "If sin comes first, and God's grace comes as response to sin, then grace is a Band-Aid, a backup plan. Grace is not God's backup plan. Grace is the plan. Full stop."

Asked about Miller's comment in a later conference session, Robinson agreed.

"Christ and his grace are the ground of being on which everything is built," Robinson said. "Grace is the ground on which everything else rests."

Miller said Christ's disciples must learn to stop running from this "rolling grace" and instead partner with it, making the present "ground zero for grace."

That, of course, requires a choice. In the conference's final speech, Deseret Book CEO Sheri Dew outlined the choice: "How much light and Godly power do we want to have in our lives? And, what are we willing to do to get it?"

After or regardless?

Several speakers echoed a 2015 conference talk by President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency, who challenged those who "misinterpret" the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi's use of the word "after" when he wrote that grace is available "after all we can do."

"We must understand that 'after' does not equal 'because,'" he said. "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?"

If Robinson could write his book over again, "I would do a better job of explaining 'after all we can do,'" he said. "I have seen too many people crushed by that 'after all we can do.' I've seen people give up and leave the church. 'I can't be what so and so is, what chance have I got.'"

"When I was younger I always thought grace was something that comes at the end," said BYU religion professor Brad Wilcox, the author of several books on grace. "I'd have to be scraping on my hands and knees, I had to be down on the ground, I had to have dirt under my fingernails, and finally at the end of this path, somehow grace would come."

Christ's grace doesn't supplement a person's works, he said. Instead, Wilcox said he now understood grace to be a power that is available and surrounds each person at all times and is about growth and God and his children working together. Grace is the power of Jesus Christ.

"I am certain," President Uchtdorf said, "Nephi knew that 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!"

Robinson has explained Nephi's passage as "a preposition of separation rather than a preposition of time" and as meaning "apart from all we can do" or "all we can do notwithstanding" or "regardless of all we can do."

Robinson would like Latter-day Saints to link the Nephi scripture to Alma 24:11, where the prophet Ammon said repenting sufficiently "was all we could do."

Transformative grace

Elder Bruce C. Hafen, an emeritus LDS General Authority Seventy, expressed concern that the surge in Mormon grace language since his seminal book "The Broken Heart" was published has blurred the distinctions between Protestant and Mormon beliefs on the topic.

"There are a few reasons to be cautious about our increased Atonement conversation," he said. "Some emphasize a relationship between grace and works that is closer to or draws on evangelical" and is a move away from Joseph Smith's teachings. While Mormons believe 'we are utterly dependent upon the grace of God,' there is a further level of grace available only on certain conditions.

"The most obvious example is forgiveness conditioned upon repentance," he said.

The story of Adam and Eve is the story of receiving the Atonement, he added.

"Do we believe in being born again in this church? Absolutely, but it's only the beginning," he said, adding, "It's a doctrine of human development, it makes human growth possible. ... Because of Christ's Atonement we can learn from sins, unintendeded mistakes, any form of adversity. Not just that help us survive our bitter experiences, but grow and become more, better."

Grace, then, plays a critical role in Mormon salvation theology. The plan of salvation is not designed just to bring God's children back to him, but to bring them back changed. A partnership between grace and works and God and his children is required for that transformation.

"Our works will evidence the kind of people we have become," said BYU professor Robert Millet, who spoke at the conference and has written books on grace and Mormonism.

Different frame?

"This is no return to a primordial condition," said Terryl Givens, a professor of religion at the University of Richmond and a Mormon author, "but a transcendance of progression from a premortal realm to a more abundant eternal life.

Givens, in fact, would like to reframe the issue. He said the Restoration was designed in part to erase the pessimism of Tertullian, Augustine and the Reformers who taught that mankind inherited original sin from Adam and Eve.

"Joseph's divinely appointed task was to rescue Christianity from such a dismal preoccupation with sinfulness, depravity, inherited guilt and kindred abominations," Givens said. "Joseph taught that our story begins not with an Edenic catastrophe, but with heavenly parents who loved us and 'saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance (with them).'"

He said many Protestant scholars have begun to ask the question, "Was the Reformation a colossal mistake?"

"Yes, says the Restoration," Givens said.

Givens said he is wary of the growing dialogue between Mormons and evangelicals.

"In our own tradition there is a lamentable tendency to find accommodation and common ground with Protestant theology, using a vocabulary of grace that was entirely co-opted 500 years ago," he said. "It would be sadly ironic if Latter-day Saints were working to accommodate an Augustinian inheritance at the very moment that Protestants are questioning its entire basis."

For Givens, grace is available to help God's children find constant healing during a bruising journey that necessarily includes sin, pain and wounding as part of the education.

"Restoration understanding of grace does not diminish Christ's role in our salvation. It greatly enhances it," he said. "Rather than concede so much ground by joining in the debate, 'Have you been saved' or, 'Are we saved by grace or works,' we might more boldly reframe the question: How are we healed? Have you been healed?"

Mormonism, he added, "envisions a God who invites us into active participation in a community of fully and generously shared energies. Grace is the name of his relentless, inexhaustible and ultimately irresistible invitation."

Climbing mountains

In addition to President Uchtdorf, other senior church leaders have spoken about grace recently. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has discussed it in multiple talks, including one he gave in October titled, "Be Ye Therefore Perfect — Eventually." He asked LDS Church members to "strive for steady improvement without obsessing over what behavioral scientists call 'toxic perfectionism.'"

"If we persevere," he added, "then somewhere in eternity our refinement will be finished and complete — which is the New Testament meaning of perfection."

Elder D. Todd Christofferson of Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke in the same conference, saying that the doctrine of Christ teaches that the LDS basics of faith, baptism, repentance and the gift of the Holy Ghost are the gate to the Savior's atoning grace and exaltation.

As a longtime executive of Deseret Book, Dew solicited the books on grace by Elder Hafen and Robinson and has published several books by Wilcox and Givens. A former counselor in the church's general presidency of the Relief Society her own books have sold more than 1 million copies.

Dew's belief is that God's grace is constantly available.

"The Savior has all power in heaven and in earth," she said at the close of the conference. "Power to cleanse, forgive and redeem us. Power to heal us of weakness, illness, sadness and heartache. Power to inspire us. Power to conquer Satan and overcome weakness and weaknesses of the flesh. Power to work miracles and deliver us from circumstances we can't escape ourselves. Power over death. Power to strengthen us.

"Grace is divine power that enables to handle things we can't figure out, can't do, can't overcome, can't manage on our own," she continued. "We have access to this power, because Jesus Christ, who was already a God, condescended to endure the bitterness of a fallen world and experience all physical and spiritual pain. He is the eternal healer. He will heal us from sin, weakness, hurt, fear and even years of pain. That's because his love is greater than any pain. Because of the Savior, we don't have to deal with grief or insecurity or fear or loneliness alone. With his help we can resist temptation, we forgive those who've hurt us and seek forgiveness from those we have hurt. We can receive answers to our questions or peace in the absence of an answer.

"We can become the best version of ourselves," she concluded. "We can change. We can grow and progress. We can fulfill our mission on this earth. My belief is the Lord rarely removes the mountains in front of us, but he always helps us climb them."