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.
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 little gap is left over.
If you are applying this to salvation, then that would be teaching a false doctrine.
The first thing to understand is that Nephi is speaking here about “we” a people that are living under the law of Moses so that’s the context. If we read a few verses down, we’ll see Nephi explain more:
For, for this end was the law [of Moses] given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments. And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.2 Nephi 25:25-26
Now this begins to make more sense because he is explaining that no matter what they do, after all they can do, that it is by the grace of Christ that they are actually saved and not the law. We are made alive in Christ through faith and the law, the schoolmaster, becomes dead because it served its purpose to bring people to Christ. But that doesn’t mean they throw out the law, they keep it because of God’s commandments but now as one who is alive in Christ.
Let’s switch back to modern times and how we should be interpreting this verse as Christians who do not live under the law of Moses anymore.
We know that we all struggle in mortality and we cry out to God to bless our efforts, to grant us grace to do our difficult duties in life. This is a true principle, we can call upon God to help us in our efforts and he does assist. God can make the weak strong and empower people to do more with his diving help and grace.
But we make a damning mistake if we then think that this is how salvation from sin works.
This is why it is critical to not just have a “single-verse” based understanding of doctrines and principles that ignores context.
So let’s explore the relationship of how Christ’s grace works in light of his commandments, our faith, and the decisions we make in life to try and get some correct perspectives.
What Role Does Obedience to God’s Commandments Play?
It’s clear here that the law doesn’t save. We know that life is in Christ, not the law, and I would add not the commandments either. So why keep the commandments if they don’t save us?
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.
God will show us what to do
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 does that have anything to do with this “all we can do” statement? King Benjamin teaches that even a perfect record of keeping the commandments 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.
But how do we repent? What’s involved and how do you know if you have repented or not?
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.
If we enter in at the gate, which is repentance and baptism, we will receive a remission of our sins through Christ’s grace. That is what saves us, but note what he says here next it is important.
Even the word of Christ itself was given by grace and we must rely wholly upon HIS merits, because he is mighty to save.
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.
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 a baptism by fire and the Holy Spirit unto the remission of our sins.
Our 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).
When Christ saves a man, he is born again and is like a new child and must figure out how to walk in this mortal world as a new Christian. This is what it means to endure to the end. Yes, God has saved you but now it is time to continue forward to do his will and be a light to the world of his name.
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 remission of our sins by responding to Jesus’ call to repentance.
But I think the ultimate point that Nephi is making if we reverse the order of his statements is that “after all we can do,” ultimately, “it is by grace that we are saved.” The blood of Christ is what saves, because he has purchased us with his own blood.
Keeping the commandments doesn’t save us, righteousness doesn’t save us, good works do not save us, and any and all things we can think of to do in and of ourselves do not save us.
All we can do is have faith in Christ and repent but even that alone is not what saves us; it is by the grace of Christ that we are actually saved.
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?