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What Does “Saved by Grace After All We Can Do” Mean?

I’d like to thank my good friend Mike King for being the catalyst that inspired this article. The Bible verses are all from the New American Standard Version just for kicks, thanks, Andrew T. 

jesus-and-john-the-baptist

There’s a verse in the Book of Mormon that I have seen get plenty of criticism from some who think that the verse teaches some kind of “works-based salvation” that diminishes the role of Christ’s grace.

On the other hand, however, I’ve seen Latter-day Saints misunderstand this verse as well. Read the following verse and ponder what you think it is getting at:

“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 Nephi 25:23)

At first glance, it might seem like this verse is saying that our efforts actually make up a portion of our salvation. That us “doing things” makes up the first part of our salvation and that Jesus Christ’s atonement kicks in to cover whatever is left over. That is just one way that it can be interpreted, but there’s a glaring problem with that interpretation that ignores what the rest of scripture has to say.

This is why it is critical to not just have a “single-verse” based understanding of doctrines and principles. So let’s do a little exploring and see what light can be shed on what constitutes “after all we can do”.

What Role Does Obedience to Commandments Play?

In the Book of Mormon, long after Nephi we are introduced to king named Benjamin. In his last address to his people, King Benjamin gave a powerful sermon about the fallen state of mankind and the need for a Savior. He said these words regarding the futility of our efforts:

“I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.

And behold, all that he requires of you is to keep his commandments; and he has promised you that if ye would keep his commandments ye should prosper in the land; and he never doth vary from that which he hath said; therefore, if ye do keep his commandments he doth bless you and prosper you.

And now, in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him.

And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?” (Mosiah 2:21-24)

God requires us to keep his commandments, but that alone doesn’t save us because even if we keep them, he blesses us and we are still indebted to him and will be forever! So we don’t keep the commandments to be saved, we keep the commandments because the Savior commanded us to; we’ll come back to this in a moment.

How Do We Know What We Are to “Do” in the First Place?

The original “all we can do” verse is actually toward the beginning of a lengthy sermon that spans across several chapters. After ending this sermon, Nephi appears to sense that there are some questions that his audience wants answered. He says:

“I suppose that ye ponder somewhat in your hearts concerning that which ye should do after ye have entered in by the way.” (2 Nephi 32:1)

He first explains that the words of Christ will tell them everything that they should do:

“Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore, I said unto you, feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do.” (2 Nephi 32:3)

Then he explains the importance of prayer and revelation from the Holy Spirit in this process:

“Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.

For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.” (2 Nephi 32:4-5)

Since this was written about 559–545 B.C., Nephi, is prophesying when he says the following:

“Behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and there will be no more doctrine given until after he shall manifest himself unto you in the flesh. And when he shall manifest himself unto you in the flesh, the things which he shall say unto you shall ye observe to do.” (2 Nephi 32:6)

Nephi states that when Christ comes, he will teach more doctrines and that we should observe to do those things; the New Testament Gospels contain the mortal ministry and teachings of Christ.

In his intimate final supper with his apostles, Jesus Christ proclaimed, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15).

Jesus continued saying,

“If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love…You are My friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:10,14).

Thus far we have seen the importance of keeping the commandments, but what is it about “all we can do” that really allows for grace to save us, especially if a perfect record of keeping the commandments (which no one does) still classifies us as unprofitable servants?

In about 90–77 B.C., we have an account that sheds more light on the subject. A civilization of murderous, Godless people are converted to Christ and desire to bury their weapons of war in the earth as a testament to God that they would never again shed blood. At this event, the king addresses his people and states:

“And I also thank my God, yea, my great God, that he hath granted unto us that we might repent of these things, and also that he hath forgiven us of those our many sins and murders which we have committed, and taken away the guilt from our hearts, through the merits of his Son.

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 24:10-11)

Here we note the use of the phrase “all we could do” once again but in reference to repentance. We are saved by grace after all we can do, or, in other words, we are saved by grace after we repent, but how do we repent? What is involved in the repentance process?

The Baptism of Repentance

Among Jesus Christ’s final words to his apostles in the book of Luke we read:

“and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47)

Luke also recorded that John the Baptist came, “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins;” (Luke 3:3) which the sinless Jesus Christ himself humbly submitted to in public.

Matthew, an apostle of Jesus Christ who was likely there when he ascended into heaven, recorded that the Jesus gave this simple final commission:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Jesus’ apostles carried out his commandment that repentance and remission of sins should be preached. Luke records further in the Book of Acts that Peter declared:

Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself. And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!”…And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:38-40, 47)

After receiving the baptism of repentance, according to Peter, we will receive the gift of the Holy Ghost and Nephi taught that “if ye will enter in by the way [baptism], and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do” (2 Nephi 32:4-5).

If repentance brings salvation, then what is the purpose of the gift of the Holy Ghost? Jesus Christ offered a clue when he prophesied, “Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” (Matthew 24:12-13). What does it mean to endure to the end and why did Jesus say that we would be saved by enduring? How does that work?

Putting it All Together

Let’s return to Nephi because I think he nailed it. He begins by giving a very clear and detailed explanation of why Jesus Christ was baptized. He said that Jesus’ baptism:

“…showeth unto the children of men the straitness of the path, and the narrowness of the gate, by which they should enter, he having set the example before them. (2 Nephi 31:9)

In verses 12 through 21, the path to salvation and what we must “do” to receive it is described beautifully.

“And also, the voice of the Son came unto me, saying: He that is baptized in my name, to him will the Father give the Holy Ghost, like unto me; wherefore, follow me, and do the things which ye have seen me do.

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism—yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, according to his word, behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels, and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel.

But, behold, my beloved brethren, thus came the voice of the Son unto me, saying: After ye have repented of your sins, and witnessed unto the Father that ye are willing to keep my commandments, by the baptism of water, and have received the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost, and can speak with a new tongue, yea, even with the tongue of angels, and after this should deny me, it would have been better for you that ye had not known me.

And I heard a voice from the Father, saying: Yea, the words of my Beloved are true and faithful. He that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved.

And now, my beloved brethren, I know by this that unless a man shall endure to the end, in following the example of the Son of the living God, he cannot be saved.

Wherefore, do the things which I have told you I have seen that your Lord and your Redeemer should do; for, for this cause have they been shown unto me, that ye might know the gate by which ye should enter. For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.

And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life; yea, ye have entered in by the gate; ye have done according to the commandments of the Father and the Son; and ye have received the Holy Ghost, which witnesses of the Father and the Son, unto the fulfilling of the promise which he hath made, that if ye entered in by the way ye should receive.

And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.

Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.

And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end. Amen.”

The apostle Paul wrote that “…For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). I think that sometimes the “through faith” part of that verse is sometimes omitted.

Being saved by grace “through faith” means the same thing as being saved by grace “after all we can do” because faith is something that you do.

James asked, “are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” (James 2:20) because faith is “works” or, in other words, the “action” we take in response to the Gospel message.

When one has faith, they repent, accept Jesus Christ’s atonement for their sins and seek to follow him and do his will because they love him. They love him because he heals them and they know that in him they have salvation and eternal life.

Paul explained to the church in Rome,

“…do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection,” (Romans 5:3-5)

Baptism is the way that Jesus Christ has ordained that we show that we accept him as our Savior. As we make this covenant with God by being “born of the water”, not for “…the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”(1 Peter 3:21) so that we are able to be “born of the Spirit” and receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost and a remission of our sins.

All this is an exercise of faith. This faith further compels us to “walk in newness of life” and “not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness” (Romans 6:13) and understand that “If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us;” (2 Timothy 2:12).

The Latter-day Saint Articles of Faith 3 and 4 sum up everything quite well:

“We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel. We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (source)

While it is true that we are all unconditionally saved from death by the resurrection of Jesus Christ and pure grace alone, we can only receive a forgiveness of our sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost by witnessing to God that we accept Jesus’ atonement by repentance and baptism by water and the Spirit.

In that respect we are not saved just by grace or just by “works” or just by faith, it is process involving each of these things. In the Book of Revelation, John wrote, “Here is the perseverance of the saints who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” (Revelation 14:21)

As we act in response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ by receiving it and letting the atonement change us, we receive his grace and are indeed saved as we endure in that faith to the end.

See also:

What do you think?

  • What experience do you have with any of the principles mentioned here in this article?
  • Do you have any additional insights on the connection between faith, repentance, baptism and the Gift of the Holy Ghost?
  • What are your thoughts on salvation through Jesus Christ?
  • pierre

    thanks for this good article.

    I’ll try to organize my thoughts and hope it will be useful.

    The way I see “saved by grace after all you can do” is linked to the parable of the talents. Like the parable of the ten virgins it’s an important parable because it talks about the kingdom of heaven.

    It seems pretty obvious that the 3 servants knew what the Lord had required of them. The talents could be money but we could interpret them as stewardship (body mind callings children etc.)

    When the Master came back, He didn’t have to put the faithful ones “in charge of many things” as a reward. After all, they were just doing their job. He could have just said “Well done.” Just as when we obey the Lord’s commandments, he could tell us the same.

    What comes as a reward is through the grace of the Master. He puts us in charge of many things because He loves us so much :
    ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ (matthew 25)

    As I’m writing this comment I realize that the wording sounds a lot like the temple. Interesting…

    • oneclimbs

      Yeah it would be interesting to study all the parables in light of the term “salvation”. That’s one reservation I have about this article is that it doesn’t cover the whole spectrum.

      So I went ahead and published Dallin H. Oaks’ talk “Have You Been Saved?” as well because it’s great and it is simple, but covers a lot more bases. http://oneclimbs.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=3945&action=edit&message=6

      I was intending to have a little more narrow scope in putting this together. The focus of this article is specifically on actual salvation from sin which I think is the most hotly contested doctrine.

      Just about every Christian tradition teaches that something must be “done” to accept Christ’s atonement whether it is just saying a prayer, or baptism, or receiving of various ordinances, there are acts of faith associated with the receipt of salvation.

      Clearly, if we are in an unresurrected state, we have only received partial salvation even if we are presently justified from sin. Full salvation consists of resurrection and an inheritance in the kingdom of God. I think what you are talking about speaks more to the degree of our inheritance or exaltation in God’s kingdom.

      I think this principle is the fork in the road between traditional Christianity and the restored Church of Jesus Christ. While one focuses on just getting people into the kingdom, the latter not only seeks to bring people into the kingdom but also provide the way for exaltation in the kingdom. It is primarily that knowledge that was lost from the earth through the apostasy.

  • bbytheway

    I’ve thought for a long time that it is a bit misleading to call the resurrection “unconditional.” It seems to me that everything connected to the gospel and the atonement is conditional (D&C 130:20-21). God set the conditions for the blessings we enjoy as his children.

    Not all of God’s children will receive the resurrection of the flesh, the third part lost that opportunity. To obtain that blessing, the condition was to keep the first estate.

    Yes, if we take a mortal-only view, then resurrection does appear unconditional, but only because taking our limited view we have neglected to include the time period when the condition was met. The atonement really does span from eternity to eternity.

    There is no way that we could resurrect ourselves, Christ had to prepare the way for that to occur, but we did have to put ourselves into a position where his grace could reach us (namely: Earth).

    • oneclimbs

      Yes, I believe that you are technically correct in your analysis of the resurrection in general. This article was written from the perspective of the “post-first estate era”.

      The atonement truly does span from eternity to eternity, but for all those who have kept their “first estate”, the resurrection truly is unconditional and this is the perspective I was writing from in the article.

      By the way, are you related to John?