Have You Been Changed By Grace?

Guest post by Eric

In the perennial debate over grace vs. works, there seem to be two extremes:

  • On the one end is the view that because believers in Christ have been saved by grace, works don’t matter, or don’t matter in any way that counts. The fancy term for this view is antinomianism, which is related to the concept of “cheap grace.” This is the stereotype that many Mormons have of evangelical belief.
  • At the other end is the view that some have labeled “works righteousness,” that grace is something that kicks in only once we have become worthy to receive it. This is a stereotype that evangelicals often have of Mormons, that we are trying to work our way into heaven.

I’m not going to get into an argument over which stereotype is more accurate. Suffice it to say that if you’re looking for adherents to either of those views (although they may not admit it), it isn’t hard to find them.

I do think, though, that there is a type of works righteousness that is supported by much if not most of Mormon culture and even often by teachings of church leaders. (You’ll sometimes find it in evangelicalism too.) For various reasons, we Mormons have become so wary of teaching cheap grace that we forget what even our specifically Mormon scriptures have to say about the infinite nature of the Atonement.

It is possible to teach grace without resorting to cheap grace. I thought this was very well done in a talk that was given to Brigham Young University students last year by Brad Wilcox, a professor there. I was introduced to this talk recently by my son serving on a mission; it was recently viewed by all missionaries in his mission, and missionaries’ parents were asked to view it as well. I’ve been told that the missionaries found it powerful (my son certainly did!), and I did too. The talk, “His Grace Is Sufficient,” is available in text and video formats.

One thing I liked about the talk is that it is specifically Mormon in tone and addresses some common LDS perceptions that keep people caught in the trap of relying on their own efforts — this isn’t Protestant grace with a Mormon veneer. Even so, I hope that even non-LDS Christians can find something of value here.

25 thoughts on “Have You Been Changed By Grace?

  1. It’s a good first step, and there is lots of good material there.

    The problem is that I don’t think Wilcox can go far enough because of Mormon beliefs. For example, Wilcox says over and over that grace is sufficient. And he does go further with grace than any other Mormon I have seen (with the exception of Steven Robinson). The problem is that grace isn’t quite sufficient in this talk, and there is a subtle bait and switch going on here.

    The bait and switch is encapsulated in this passage of the talk:

    We will all go back to God’s presence. What is left to be determined by our obedience is what kind of body we plan on being resurrected with and how comfortable we plan to be in God’s presence and how long we plan to stay there.

    Grace gets us to heaven, but only our comfort level will determine if we want to stay there. But for Wilcox our comfort level is determined by how much we have practiced being Christlike, indeed a large portion of his examples and metaphors push home the fact that this is the purpose of repentance and obedience, to make us comfortable in God’s presence. And this is the root of the bait and switch, obedience is no longer about getting into heaven, it’s about staying in heaven and being comfortable there.

    Of course at that point the problem becomes knowing how one will be comfortable there, and the logical answer is that it depends on how much we have worked for it. Now I do realize that Wilcox does go to great lengths to make grace part of the process. Over and over he emphasizes that grace is at work in this process. This is progress in Mormon thinking on grace. But if grace is sufficient, then it’s also sufficient to make us comfortable in heaven, since we will always be simul iustus et peccator. We aren’t every going to feel comfortable there unless it is by grace alone.

    I do think this talk is a good step in the right direction of recovering an Arminian/Weslyan version of grace which was there at the very beginning of Mormonism. But I think Wilcox’s inability to get all the way there is due to the intervening decades of Mormon teachings which prevent it. There is just no getting around the fact that no matter how ecstatic Wilcox is on grace, it isn’t sufficient without Mormon baptism, Mormon priesthood, Mormon marriage, and enduring to the end in the Mormon church. Grace may animate and push all of that along, but it isn’t really sufficient in those contexts, and certainly isn’t sufficient outside of the Mormon context.

    I was also miffed at his chiding different groups of people in the Mormon church for not understanding grace with the constant paragraph ending refrains of “These people don’t understand grace.” I wonder why they don’t understand grace? Certainly at some point, LDS leaders are going to need to accept responsibility for this state of affairs, the constant knee jerk blaming of the rank and file on this matter (as on so many other matters) has got to stop.

    All in all, I think this talk was a solid double, but not the home run I was hoping for, and not the grand slam the LDS church needs.

  2. I also found this talk insightful and helpful when I first came across it or a similar one by Brother Wilcox a while back. I don’t see a bait and switch happening here, but he seems to be teaching something very similar to what I hear informed Christians teach about obedience and judgement; viz., that more good works translate to more “jewels in your crown” in the afterlife. If there is a difference between that and the Mormon view, then it is one of degree rather than kind (in Mormonism you end up in a different kingdom rather than the same kingdom with a more ornate crown). If grace is insufficient to make one comfortable in the Mormon heaven, you could say that grace is insufficient to get you as many jewels in your crown as Mother Theresa in the Christian one.

  3. I think Mormons kind-of get the Grace evangelicals are talking about, but not really. You only occasionally see the outbursts of relief, joy and exultation in Mormon churches that is pervasive amongst the Evangelicals. Mormons are suspicious of this sort of joy, especially when experienced by the “unworthy”.

    Mormons feel the love of God, and the atonement they believe in is deep and generally satisfying, but are not fully open to the concept of being completely forgiven and filled with joy, for free.

  4. Grace. A word that occurs frequently in the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul. The main idea of the word is divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ.

    It is through the grace of the Lord Jesus, made possible by his atoning sacrifice, that mankind will be raised in immortality, every person receiving his body from the grave in a condition of everlasting life. It is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means. 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.

    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 Ne. 25:23). It is truly the grace of Jesus Christ that makes salvation possible. This principle is expressed in Jesus’ parable of the vine and the branches (John 15:1–11). See also John 1:12–17; Eph. 2:8–9; Philip. 4:13; D&C 93:11–14.

  5. So we are using the same word, Grace, with two different meanings.

    On one hand you have, “The main idea of the word is divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ.”

    On the other you have “unmerited favor.”

  6. Pingback: Unrepentant Sinners and Mormon Grace « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

  7. Eric, thanks for this post.
    Below is a quotation from the conclusion of your “text” link. I think it’s brilliant, especially the next-to-last sentence, and is totally in agreement with charismatic theology and the Bible.

    “The grace of Christ is sufficient—sufficient to cover our debt, sufficient to transform us, and sufficient to help us as long as that transformation process takes. The Book of Mormon teaches us to rely solely on ‘the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah’ (2 Nephi 2:8). As we do, we do not discover—as some Christians believe—that Christ requires nothing of us. Rather, we discover the reason He requires so much and the strength to do all He asks (see Philippians 4:13). Grace is not the absence of God’s high expectations. Grace is the presence of God’s power (see Luke 1:37).”

    I would love to know what you think of Jared C’s comment.

    Tim said, “In some ways this talk by Wilcox is an answer to prayer.”

    God certainly does answer the prayers of his people, uh, Tim?

  8. Gundek said:

    So we are using the same word, Grace, with two different meanings.

    The Greek word translated as “grace” (charis or χαρις) has various meanings that can’t always be included in a single phrase. I’ve always thought of “grace” as meaning “unmerited favor” or something similar, and that’s still the first definition I would give, but as I found out in doing some research this morning, the concept of divine power is also one that Paul’s readers would have understood as implicit in his choice of word. Here is what the International Bible Standard Encyclopedia (I’m quoting it from third-party sources, as I do not have access to the original) says in its definition of “grace”:

    It may be added that in later Greek charis also had the sense of force or power. It could be a spell, or demonic force, affecting human life with supernatural influences. In Euripides, it was a power from the underworld that could convey the virtues of a dead hero to his living family or followers. This sense, too, though set in a new context, was used in the NT: grace became the power of God to enable Christians to live the new life in Christ.

    This sense of charis meaning “divine help or strength” (to use the definition given in the LDS Bible Dictionary) can be seen in Roman 6:14 and Galatians 6:18. So I don’t see the definitions as being contradictory; they just convey different aspects of a word’s complex meaning. And while I don’t agree with the Bible Dictionary’s interpretation of 2 Nephi 25:23, I find its definition of “grace” (the first paragraph) to be a reasonable one.

  9. David Clark, I agree with your bait and switch comment. That Mormon teaching is still fuzzy on this issue (it should be #1 on the list!) is very frustrating. I often hear similar talk over EV pulpits as well. I haven’t received a very good explanation of it to date. For example: Grace alone, BUT – you’ll have to ANSWER for what you’ve *done* (how you treated your spouse/others etc.). Grace alone, BUT keep repenting! Maybe the question, “can I lose my salvation?” is also relevant. Although, I’ve heard in Calvinist circles: “Grace alone – you’ll still answer for your deeds – but you can never lose your salvation”. This is a puzzling combination of beliefs for a Mormon…

  10. I think the best spiritual practice is a balance of (1) abandoning self-condemnation and embracing the joy and love of God and (2) maintaining high standards of responsibility and discipline/discipleship. Without the first, faith is difficult to sustain, without the second, the faith is dead and irrelevant.

    Mormons are strong on the second, but are less strong on the first. Mormons can be extremely dedicated and can be great disciples, but they often fail to take advantage of, perhaps, the most important psychological gift of the atonement, i.e. the relief and joy of forgiveness.

    Mormons enjoy the rewards and joys of serving/community/sacrifice but are taught implicitly and explicitly to be cautious about feeling forgiven to easily (cf. Miracle of Forgiveness). Psychologically, it’s difficult to maintain a focus on being worthy without focusing on the consequences of unworthiness. Church practice and policy reinforces discipleship by providing ecclesiastical consequences for unworthiness, basically as a tool for members to be disciples. Life is properly about striving and sacrificing not accepting. People receive the grace of God through covenants.

    There really is nothing in Mormon authority that should preclude accepting that sin is defeated, and surrendering to that truth and feeling the Joy. There is no reason they should miss out on the joy of feeling that they are in good standing with God and feeling the love of God “the most desirable of all things. . . and the most joyous to the soul.”(1 Nephi 11: 22-23.) The Christian promise is to feel joy all the time, even in struggle and sorrow. What Mormons get consistently wrong is confusing the love of God, the fruit of the tree of life, with heavenly reward rather than gift available now. They get it “wrong”, not because their scriptures don’t teach it, but because it is not the focus of Church preaching and practice.

    The flip-side of not focusing on joy is that Mormons don’t focus on hell at all. Mormons have always been suspicious of the Hell/Heaven dichotomy. The protestant minister who appeared in the pre-1990 temple ceremony taught two doctrines (1) an incomprehensible God and (2) a literal hell of fire and brimstone. Not believing in the orthodox hell probably contributes to the failure to focus on the joy of salvation.

  11. Thanks for the thoughtful response. I’m not trying to be nitpicky only to explain where I am coming from.

    Yes, in Greek culture grace can mean “good fortune, kindness, and power bestowed by the gods upon divine men, moving them to miraculous deeds.” But the LXX uses this word Greek word for the Hebrew root of “favor” (Gen 6:8; 32:5; Prov 14:31; Ezk 16:8 etc.), the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha use this word to express “divine mercy” (Wisd. of Sol. 3:9; Jubilees 10:3). At Qumran they used the word to for “covenant loyalty” and “mercy” (Thanksgiving Hymn 16:8-9). My question would be how much the New Testament writers would have been influenced by the use of grace in Jewish culture or the culture of the Greek gods in their writing.

    This is not to make light of the importance of the spiritual gifts of God. References to a power, ability, or help from God abound in the NT, they are just distinct from of His graceful disposition toward us, or more properly are given because of His favorable disposition to us. We see this in Acts 6:8; 13:3; 2 Cor 9:8 etc. To explain further, I would understand that it is because of God’s grace (His disposition toward us) that we are united to Christ through the Holy Spirit. In this union with the divine we are provided with spiritual helps and blessings, our blessings are from the Father, in the Son, and through the Spirit.

    How we use words is important and understanding that Professor Wilcox probably doesn’t mean unmerited favor is helpful in understanding where he is coming from.

  12. ‘Grace’ – unmerited favor, or love.

    I like that one. I believe it is the kind of love that God has for us. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (not when we cleaned up our act)

    Grace like that does change people. (Romans 1:16)

    It has changed me. I’m now a believer.

  13. Jared, I think what you said is quite accurate. My experience with Mormons—excluding the ones on this blog—supports what you said. It seems like they tend to be needlessly serious. I wonder if giggly happiness is at times thought to lack a proper reverence for God.

    Christian J, you probably know that grace and answering for what you’ve done are totally compatible.

    Steve Martin, did you imply that you just recently became a believer? Congratulations—though “congratulations” may be the wrong word to use in light of our discussion on grace. Haaaa, ha, ha, ha, ha. Giggle, giggle, giggle. Haaaa, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. (Just want to make sure you know I believe in grace. 🙂 )

  14. supports what you said. It seems like they tend to be needlessly serious.

    Mormons think its weird to be too happy about being saved.

  15. Cal,


    I become a believer (and then I walk away from it) just about each and every day.

    I think at heart I am determined to remain an unbeliever. But the Lord leads me to repentance and forgiveness over and over and over again.

    “Lord, I believe. Help me in my unbelief.”

  16. Thanks, Cal. I can always use prayer.

    But, my condition is no different than any other believer. We all stray. We all do not trust and wander off periodically…even if it’s just momentarily when we sin.

    This (I believe) is the life of the believer…’repentance and forgiveness’ (all throughout life).

  17. Oh, I thought you meant that you had completely left the Lord and went back to serving the devil periodically!
    I got it straight now.

  18. Some days it does seem like I have completely left. But I know that He still has me…if only (at times) by a thread on my collar.

    Thanks, Cal.

  19. How does an Evangelical know that redemption has happened? I don’t mean the factual events or theological or soteriological outcomes of the passion and atonement. I mean, as an individual? How can you tell when you have been transformed by grace? Does something click? Do you feel different? Is there an epiphany? A mystical union with God?

    What does the experience of grace feel like, and how does life with grace feel different from life without it?

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