I Have a Question
July 1989

“I Have a Question,” Ensign, July 1989, 59–61

What is the role of grace in LDS theology?

Robert E. Parsons, associate professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University. One cannot be an active Christian or a student of the scriptures without being introduced to the term grace. It is as much a part of Christian theology and doctrine as are faith, baptism, the Atonement, and the Judgment. Just as we grow in our spiritual understanding of these principles, so we must grow in our spiritual understanding of grace. Scriptural statements about grace are clear and faith-promoting to those who understand the gospel. But they are often misunderstood by those who interpret them without a proper understanding of the gospel, and they are but foolishness to those who reject Christ as their Redeemer.

What Is Grace?

Grace is God’s love in action. It is his doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. With his infinite wisdom, power, and love, God willingly condescends to extend that infinite wisdom, power, and love to bless and save his children. Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote that “God’s grace consists in his love, mercy, and condescension toward his children. All things that exist are manifestations of the grace of God. The creation of the earth, life itself, the atonement of Christ, the plan of salvation, kingdoms of immortal glory hereafter, and the supreme gift of eternal life—all these things come by the grace of him whose we are.” (Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, pp. 338–39; italics in original.)

The LDS Bible Dictionary defines grace as “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.” (P. 697.)

Grace and Salvation

Just as grace means different things to different readers of the Bible, so also does the term salvation, which may refer to being saved from death or hell, or inheriting the telestial, terrestrial, or celestial kingdoms. One of its most common uses in the scriptures is to be saved in the celestial kingdom.

In searching for salvation, each generation has asked the question the Zoramites raised during Alma’s and Amulek’s mission to them about 74 B.C.:

“We have beheld that the great question which is in your minds is whether the word be in the Son of God, or whether there shall be no Christ.” (Alma 34:5.)

This has been the question of the ages: How are we saved? That is, how are we saved from death, and how are we saved from the effects of sin? To answer this question, let us consider two other questions: Is it only through the name of Christ that we are saved from both death and sin? If so, are we saved by the grace of Christ?

The answer to both these questions is a resounding yes. We are saved only through the name of Christ, and we are saved only by the grace of Christ. Further questions now arise: Are we saved through Christ’s grace by merely confessing him as our Savior? Or are we saved through his grace after doing all we can—both in confessing his name and in keeping his commandments? Both reason and scripture loudly proclaim the latter, as we will see as we look at the scriptures and seek to understand the doctrine of grace.

What the Bible Records about Grace

The Bible teaches at least five important principles about grace:

1. Salvation through Christ’s grace differs from—and is both additional and superior to—the law of Moses. The Prophet Joseph Smith’s translation of John 1:15–17 reads:

“John bear witness of him, and cried, saying, This is he of whom I spake: He who cometh after me, is preferred before me; for he was before me.

“For in the beginning was the Word, even the Son, who is made flesh, and sent unto us by the will of the Father. And as many as believe on his name shall receive of his fulness. And of his fulness have all we received, even immortality and eternal life, through his grace.

“For the law was given through Moses, but life and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

Because the Jews of Jesus’ day relied on salvation through individual works through the law of Moses, Paul emphasized that man is not saved by such works (works performed under the law of Moses), but by grace—the acceptance of Christ as the Savior and the works required by such acceptance. (For a discussion of the sectarian controversy over grace and works, see Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56, 2:306–11.)

2. All disciples of Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, are saved by grace. The Bible tells us how Peter resolved the “disputing” of whether or not both Jews and Gentiles are saved by grace with the words, “Ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. …

“Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?

“But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.” (Acts 15:7, 10–11.)

3. Salvation through Christ comes by faith and grace, not just by lineal blood descent or by Church membership. The Prophet Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible tells us that “the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.

“For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect:

“Therefore ye are justified of faith and works, through grace, to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to them only who are of the law, but to them also who are of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all.” (JST, Rom. 4:13–16.)

As it was incorrect for the Jews to believe that they would be saved simply because they were of the chosen lineage, so it is incorrect for Latter-day Saints to believe that we will be saved simply because we belong to the true church.

4. We cannot save ourselves by our own works. Ephesians 2:8–9 reminds us that “by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” [Eph. 2:8–9]

Of this principle, Elder Bruce R. McConkie eloquently wrote that “man cannot save himself. He cannot be saved by the works of the Mosaic law; he cannot be saved by the works of the gospel. Man cannot resurrect himself; neither Mosaic works nor gospel works can bring him forth from the grave. The resurrection comes by the grace of God; all men are resurrected, and in that sense all are saved by grace alone. And further: No man can raise himself unto eternal life; he cannot create a state of salvation and provide the means to obtain it. Man cannot create the kingdom of God, nor can he save himself in such a kingdom. If it were not for the grace of God, as shown forth in the redemption of his Son, there would be no eternal life. Neither the works of the Mosaic law nor the works of Christian righteousness, standing alone, without the grace of God as manifest in the sacrifice of his Son, could save a man. Salvation does not come into being by the works of men; it comes because of Christ and his atonement. Because there was such an atonement, man can have faith, perform the works of righteousness, endure to the end, and ‘work out [his] own salvation with fear and trembling.’ (Philip. 2:12.)” (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1985, p. 150.)

5. The effects of the Fall can be overcome only by the atonement of Jesus Christ. The Bible also tells us that “since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.

“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:21–22.)

Latter-day Scriptures Clarify the Bible’s Teachings about Grace

Grace is one of the most misunderstood doctrines in modern Christianity. It is through the clarity of the Book of Mormon that we are able to understand this doctrine and Paul’s New Testament teachings concerning it. Note how clear and simple the following six points from the Book of Mormon are:

1. Salvation is free to all who truly accept Christ. In 2 Nephi 2:4–6 we learn that “the way is prepared from the fall of man, and salvation is free. …

“Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.” [2 Ne. 2:4–6]

2. Though salvation is free (fully available and not withheld from anyone because of time, location, or lineage), we must reconcile ourselves to God. Nephi stressed the importance of doing so:

“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 Ne. 25:23.)

Under the topic grace, the LDS Bible Dictionary refers to the importance of effort in reconciling ourselves to God:

“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.” (P. 697.)

3. To reconcile ourselves to God, we must accept Christ as our Savior and his gospel as the means of salvation. The Book of Mormon tells us that the Lord “cometh into the world that he may save all men if they will hearken unto his voice. …

“And he commandeth all men that they must repent, and be baptized in his name, having perfect faith in the Holy One of Israel, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God.” (2 Ne. 9:21–23.)

4. We have agency to choose Christ and his gospel. Lehi tells us that “Men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil.” (2 Ne. 2:27.)

5. We have the power to keep God’s commandments and must do so in order to be saved in his kingdom. God is willing to save us (which we cannot do for ourselves) if we are willing to do what we have to do, which is to receive Christ as our Savior, repent of our sins, be baptized as a witness of our covenant with the Lord, and continue in a life of righteousness and obedience to the end of our probation on earth. (See 2 Ne. 31:13–21.)

6. The Book of Mormon clarifies that physical and spiritual death are both overcome for us by the atonement of Christ. Hence, if little children (who are spiritually alive in Christ) die, they are saved in the kingdom of God. (See Moro. 8:8, 12.) After the age of accountability, we become responsible for our own sins and “die” spiritually because of them. We must then receive Christ and his gospel to be born again and overcome spiritual death.

Since all men are redeemed from both physical and spiritual death, scriptural references that emphasize that we must receive Christ, be born again, and keep his commandments in order to be saved refer to being saved in the celestial kingdom. (See Alma 5:10–21; Hel. 14:15–19.)

Thus, the Book of Mormon enables us to understand what the New Testament’s authors say about grace. It confirms that the Lord has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. First, Christ’s atonement saves us all from death by paying for Adam’s transgression, which brought death into the world. Since we had no power or control over that transgression, God’s grace and mercy take care of the penalty—this is the unconditional aspect of salvation. It guarantees that we all will be resurrected.

However, God’s grace will not do for us what we can do for ourselves. Accountable man has the power to accept Christ as his Savior. Accountable man can receive Christ’s gospel, with its principles of faith and repentance and its ordinances of baptism and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. Accountable man can endure to the end by living a life of righteousness and service. When we are willing to do all this, God’s grace cleanses us from our sins, gives us the gift of the Holy Ghost, and blesses us to enable us to dwell in peace and holiness in the celestial kingdom forever.

Perfection and Grace

The crowning teaching about grace is that mankind may become perfect through Christ. From the Book of Mormon we learn that Christ is both the author and the finisher of our faith. (See Moro. 6:4.) It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that teaches or “authors” the plan of salvation. It is the Church of Jesus Christ that administers the ordinances necessary for our salvation and that provides for our spiritual growth by giving us opportunities to worship and to serve. But after all our efforts to accept Christ and his gospel, to receive saving ordinances, and to grow through worship and service, we still fall far, far short of perfection and the keeping of every commandment that is required for salvation in the celestial kingdom.

How fitting and beautiful that the Book of Mormon, this other testament of Jesus Christ, should close its witness by inviting us to become perfect in Christ. After all of our efforts, after all of our struggles with sin and the carnal aspects of the world, God, through his grace, will bestow upon the faithful his divine nature. (See 2 Pet. 1:3–4.) Only in this way can faithful men and women fully and completely put off the nature of fallen man and finally have the power to keep all the commandments and to dwell with God. This is the crowning act of God’s grace, which is referred to in Moroni’s closing statement in the Book of Mormon. It is a fitting conclusion to our discussion of the role of grace in LDS theology:

“Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.

“And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.” (Moro. 10:32–33.)