Talking About Grace

The Deseret News today had an interesting article “Grace is not a Mormon heresy, LDS leaders and scholars say after doctrinal ‘climate change’” It’s an interesting story about how Mormons came to accept talking about grace. Reading it though I realized that the author seemed to make a fundamental confusion that really bothered me. He conflates the language we use to talk about grace with the doctrinal meaning of our beliefs. After all we may believe something yet simply use different language to describe it. Likewise a common problem in discussions with our Evangelical friends is finding we use the same language yet mean completely different things by it.

Quoting from the article:

“Unlike orthodox Christians, Mormons believe that men are born free of sin and earn their way to godhood by the proper exercise of free will, rather than through the grace of Jesus Christ,” the article stated. “Thus Jesus’ suffering and death in the Mormon view were brotherly acts of compassion, but they do not atone for the sins of others.”

The article was plainly wrong about LDS theology. Mormons do believe in grace and that Christ’s suffering and death atone for sin. But the author mounted a strong defense. He wasn’t describing what the faith’s scriptures and leaders taught, he said. He was reporting what regular Mormons told him they understood.

He wasn’t wrong about that.

But this seems incorrect. It’s true that when I was young you simply didn’t hear the word grace much. Part of this was confusion on the part of Mormons. They thought the word grace as used by Evangelicals referred to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship called cheap grace. Cheap grace is the idea of “forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

That this is what Mormons of that era thought grace meant can be seen in Bruce R. McConkie’s popular talk “What Think Ye of Salvation by Grace?” from 1984. He said,

I was listening to the radio sermon of one of these evangelists who was preaching of salvation by grace alone. He said all anyone had to do to be saved was to believe in Christ and perform an affirmative act of confession.

Among other things he said: “If you are traveling in a car, simply reach forth your hand and touch your car radio, thus making contact with me, and then say, ‘Lord Jesus, I believe,’ and you will be saved.”

Now McConkie clearly believed in grace. Indeed the whole talk is about what he took to be the correct doctrine of grace. “What is the grace of God? It is his mercy, his love, and his condescension—all manifest for the benefit and blessing of his children, all operating to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” However his view of what Protestants believed was different. It’s not that he was completely wrong. Many Evangelical preachers, particularly the televangelists of the era, did preach cheap grace. But many, like Bonhoeffer, strongly reject cheap grace.

None of this is to downplay the place of books like Robinson’s Believing Christ or Robert Millet’s By Grace Are We Saved. Both were instrumental in taking back the rhetoric of grace. However if you were to ask the typical Mormon of the 70’s and 80’s questions about what today we’d call grace yet avoiding the term grace most would accept it. Did Mormons then think the spirit would touch people and that God would answer prayers? Of course. Did people think God would transform people by the spirit so they could live the gospel? Of course. Did people think this life was a gift of God designed to aid our progression? Of course. Did people think we could repent by drawing on the atonement? Of course.

Now none of this is to deny there are some disagreements over the nuances of grace. Mormons did (and still do) emphasize doing our part. Yet I’d dispute strongly whether Mormons thought we could do it on our own. It doesn’t require much searching of conference talks from the 70’s and 80’s to realize that while the way we talked about things was different from say how President Uchtdorf talks about grace the content is the same. The idea that we gain “divine assistance and endowment of strength” simply has always been a common belief. It’s just that in the 70’s and 80’s we tended to talk about being in the spirit rather than grace.

So when Robinson says,

However, in the New Testament, “grace” most often refers to the grace or favor of God, and this is usually understood as an attitude of goodwill that predisposes God to act positively toward human beings. … Grace in this sense is not something that I can trigger, manipulate, earn, deserve, or control, for it is a preexisting aspect of God’s attitude toward me.

are there really any Mormons in the 70’s and 80’s who’d disagree that God held such an attitude? The key Mormon scripture is Moses 1:37 “For this is my work and my glory to bring to pass the eternal life of man.” The entire plan of salvation is predicated upon God having an attitude of helping us achieve the most we could.

14 comments for “Talking About Grace

  1. Bryan in VA
    December 6, 2017 at 6:59 am

    “Unlike orthodox Christians, Mormons believe that men are born free…”

    I believe that Eastern Orthodox also believe infants come into this world free of the taint of original sin. So , the term “orthodox Christians” is used too broadly in this case.

  2. Happy Hubby
    December 6, 2017 at 8:38 am

    I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s and if someone would have asked me if I believe in grace I really couldn’t just answer with “yes.” I certainly hear LDS scholars talking more about grace, but other than President Uchtdorf’s talk, I still don’t think that water is getting to the end of the row.

  3. JR
    December 6, 2017 at 9:21 am

    Clark, You have pointed out a major omission from the Deseret News article, but that article was not entirely wrong about what some “regular Mormons” believed — at least if you take “regular Mormons” to include Mormons like those I know who “believe” slogans or soundbites and don’t go deeper into the meaning of “grace” or what kind of “faith” leads to salvation. You don’t even have to go back to the 70s or 80s to find those folks. It seems to have been fear of Mormon confusion about cheap grace that fueled the McConkie campaign to eradicate God’s “unconditional love” from General Authority vocabulary. It was significantly after the 80s when that campaign finally succeeded in the form of Elder Nelson’s Ensign article, an article far from a model of analysis or clarity. To at least some extent, that fear of confusion was justified even if the proposed cured might not have been. That justification is evidenced not only by certain televangelists’ declarations, but also by the negative reaction of some Mormons to Robinson’s books. The unspoken rejection of “grace” as explained by Robinson continues to fuel the “toxic perfectionism” of some “regular Mormons” that Elder Holland recently addressed in General Conference. While the Deseret News article was misleading in accepting the Newsweek article’s author’s generalization about “regular Mormons” and in missing the semantic difference entirely, it was not wrong as to some of the “regular Mormons” I knew in the 70s and 80s and still today. Thanks for your response to that article. It would be good if there were such a response published by Deseret News.

  4. Clark
    December 6, 2017 at 11:02 am

    Bryan, by orthodox I just meant those who accept the main creeds including Protestants. Not Eastern Orthodoxy.

    Happy Hubby, but did you think that God helped you accomplish his commandments with the spirit? That was constantly talked about. Did you think that God gave this world for us before we came here to help us progress? All those are grace, just not described as grace in typical Mormon rhetoric.

    JR, there are some disagreements over nuances of grace I fully admit. I don’t think that means we don’t accept grace, just that we quibble about it – much like some disagree with Luther’s “by faith alone” yet still feel they accept grace. I’ll admit I have some issues with Robinson’s theology myself. Yet I feel I still accept grace.

  5. December 6, 2017 at 4:42 pm

    Just to clarify: Eastern Orthodox *do* believe in original sin–that is, that human beings have inherited a fallen nature by virtue of Adam’s and Eve’s sin–but not original *guilt,* which is to say, that the *guilt* of Adam’s and Eve’s sin in the garden is imputed to the next generations. They do not believe that human beings have a clean moral slate at birth as Mormons do, but a sin nature is inherent to the human condition in Orthodox teaching. This link might help.

  6. Jerry Schmidt
    December 6, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    I have found that my personal understanding of grace has increased by reading the Book of Mormon. I found that combining the Catholic/Christian concept of “tutelary”,
    normally used to describe the role of Saints, with Lehi’s dream, I could identify that Jesus the Christ was seen by the disciples of Christ in the Book of Mormon, both before and after the advent of Christ, as a tutelary deity.

    For them, and presumably for us, Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” of the plan of salvation, a phrase actually used in Jarom 1:2. The atonement was the core of the plan, the bridge between the limits of human ability to change behavior and the reality of God’s actual existence that, as God’s children, we inherited; and Jesus’ life and ministry as the model for how humans could choose to behave.

    The disciples in the Book of Mormon understood this and lived by it. Though they had been given the performances and ordinances of the Mosaic law, even they, like Paul after the mortal ministry of Christ, understood that faith in Jesus Christ gave them hope for salvation, not the performances of the law itself. Obedience to the law and commandments demonstrated this faith, and gave the path to walk and the rod to hold on to. The fruit of the tree was the goal, the transformative grace from Christ (2 Nephi 10; 25:25).

    Grace is not a Mystery, nor is God, for the disciples in the Book of Mormon. It is accessed directly through faith and prepares a disciple for judgement in front of Christ, the only righteous and authorized judge because of the atonement. Protestants (at least the ones I met on my LDS mission) tend to look at grace as a “judgement-free” zone, where believers call upon Christ and therefore escape accountability. Not so the Christians in the Book of Mormon; standing “before the” pleasing bar of God” was exactly what they spent their lives preparing for, hence their view of this mortal life as a preparatory existence.

    This is why I see the statement by Joseph Smith that the Book of Mormon “is the most correct” as pointing to its role in the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Neither the Old or New testaments are sufficient to help humans understand the Christ, the aronement, or grace.

  7. December 6, 2017 at 11:06 pm

    Clark, no disagreement with your points. I thought the article itself was incomplete, but then I noticed this PS at the end: “Next week: How scholars and church leaders define grace in LDS belief and how it differs from other Christian theologies.” What easily gets lost in Mormon discussions of grace, I think, is that the Protestant doctrine of grace has fundamental implications for free will, divine reward and punishment, and ordinances – basically, accepting a Protestant doctrine of grace would require one to reject fundamental Mormon teachings on all of these and more. So there really is the possibility of grace being a Mormon heresy, and I’m not sure that emphasizing use of the word clarifies more than it obscures.

  8. Clark
    December 7, 2017 at 1:18 am

    Jonathan I’ll hopefully discuss that when it comes out especially comparing and contrasting LDS belief with Arminianism or Eastern Orthodoxy. I think the issue of original sin gets tricky in that context especially when combined with a notion of pevenient grace.

    With regards to free will I also think there are many things that often are more linguistic issues rather than really about content. But I also know many people are buying into Open Theism and I’ll confess I’m pretty skeptical of the arguments marshaled there.

    Jerry one thing I’ve noticed with recent discussions on Grace, particularly Nephi’s “after all you can do,” is how infrequently people tie in with the type of Judaic practice they follow. While there is a certain anticipatory Christianity to the Book of Mormon there’s also an issue of whether people read it too much in terms of Protestant views of Romans. This Protestant Romans lens some use to reinterpret Mormonism can lead to a certain quietism that verges near cheap grace. (Not everyone agrees with me of course) Effectively the question is how comfortable does grace make us and how uncomfortable it must make us in order to transform us. In a sense both must be at work yet each can obviously have negative aspects.

  9. Jerry Schmidt
    December 8, 2017 at 7:01 am

    I think grace operates like a scholarship, say to BYU. One does not earn a scholarship in the same sense one earns a diploma, or an employee earns a salary. One qualifies for a scholarship, then may receive a scholarship. Unlike the scholarship, however, salvational grace has no limits; all who qualify for grace receive it. What is the primary qualification for salvational grace? Faith in the Christ. What sacrifice is presently expected to demonstrate that faith? A “broken heart” and “contrite spirit.”

    In this case, I see “broken” as a horse is broken, i.e. tamed. In our free will, we submit to the taming events of life, reach out to the Christ with contrite heart, and the Christ extends grace to us in response. Salvation then is the emergent self from that purifying or “refiner’s fire” of circumstance, reaching to God, and God’s responding grace.

  10. Clark Goble
    December 8, 2017 at 4:04 pm

    A scholarship is an interesting analogy for grace. I’d have to think about that a bit to decide if I like it.

  11. Jerry Schmidt
    December 9, 2017 at 2:54 pm

    Clark Goble, consideration of what I’ve said is for me sufficient respect. I don’t expect agreement from anyone, not even own my family these days lol. I just appreciate not being dismissed right away.

  12. Clark Goble
    December 10, 2017 at 4:51 pm

    I actually like it a lot. I don’t think it covers everything but it gets at the works faith aspect. Like any analogy of course it breaks down if you push it too far. But I think I’ll steal that one.

  13. Clark Goble
    December 14, 2017 at 11:24 am

    For those who missed it in the Twitter feed Deseret News has up the second part of their series on grace. “It’s not ‘if’ Mormons believe in grace but ‘how’” From my perspective it still avoids a few issues – the rhetorical part doesn’t really get addressed. Overall though it’s a good conclusion and gets a reasonable number of people talking about grace.

  14. December 29, 2017 at 3:51 pm

    Nice commentary. It is nice to see grace referenced so much more often than it used to be, but it also a bit peculiar seeing so many strong opinions of what it is and is not.

    I am reminded of a quote by Elder Bruce R. McConkie (who is referenced in the OP): “Now, the atonement of Christ is the most basic and fundamental doctrine of the gospel, and it is the least understood of all our revealed truths.”

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