"After All We Can Do" – Balancing Grace and Works

5 min read

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

This verse has had considerable treatment over the course of Mormon history. One interpretation (ultimately the default view) is that this is about temporality going so far as to state or imply that grace is only ever accessed after we’ve done everything on our part — which is highly problematic with many personal experiences with God’s grace in the scriptures coming before one had extended any personal righteous effort (e.g. Paul and Alma the younger).

I think a more robust interpretation isn’t a “before/after” or “if-and-only-if” interpretation. Perhaps an interpretation that can better navigate the complexities of life and avoid withholding or failing to recognize grace when it is most needed is one that makes it about ultimate reconciling. With this interpretation and approach “after all” can be interpreted as “despite” or “after all is said and done”: that ultimately it is grace that saves despite all the effort we can (and must) do. This is Nibley’s “Work We Must, but the Lunch Is Free” approach. We must work, yes, but God’s grace gives the blessing to we who are ultimately unworthy despite our best efforts. And in the end, when all is said and done, despite our best efforts, “after all”, we remain “unprofitable servants” (taught by both King Benjamin and Christ).

Stephen Robinson in ‘Believing Christ’ puts it this way:

I understand the preposition ‘after’ in 2 Nephi 25:23 to be a preposition of separation rather than a preposition of time. It denotes logical separateness rather than temporal sequence. We are saved by grace ‘apart from all we can do,’ or ‘all we can do notwithstanding,’ or even ‘regardless of all we can do.’ Another acceptable paraphrase of the sense of the verse might read, ‘We are still saved by grace, after all is said and done’” (p. 91-92)

Now, I think a powerful emphasis that Mormonism brings is that of work. A theology that brings work into balance sees that God ultimately requires our work and that grace is correlated with work. But a risk of error the default interpretation has here is that it can fall into thinking this grace-works correlation equals one-way causation. God’s grace can be found in works, but it is not defined merely by it. Taken too far, the default interpretation of “grace only after works” leads to awful interpretations like prosperity gospel or makes Christ merely a coach rather than a Savior. The strict “before/after” or “if-and-only-if” approach misses out on the nuance of a God who blesses whom God will. It ties God’s will down to merely what we are able to measure in the fleeting works we perform. It packages God up into a neat box that we control. And a major risk here is that with this limited, “before/after” view of grace, we’re liable to then withhold our grace from others as we can alwaysfind more which others ought to have done. It creates a “No true Scotsman” fallacy where we continuously move the goalpost of works as an excuse to withhold our grace from one another (or even ourselves).

So, how can we balance these two: grace and works? The bickering often occurs on which one comes first or is more important. I think that debate misses the point entirely. It misses the fundamental principle that grace and works co-exist in a mutual relationship. The are forever correlated, but the causation is bi-directional. This is the principle of Pratītyasamutpāda (this arises, that becomes) which Lehi also taught.

For example, walking, for humans, isn’t walking without a left and a right leg. Furthermore, their very definitions are mutually linked. Your left leg doesn’t act as a left leg in walking without your right leg and your right leg doesn’t act as your right leg in walking without your left leg. The two come together mutually to perform the task of walking. Your left leg can’t progress unless there is a right leg for it to lean on as it swings forward. And your right leg can’t progress unless there is a left leg for it to lean on as it swings. Their efforts are correlated, but the left leg doesn’t cause the right leg to walk anymore than the right does the left.

So your left leg and right leg co-exist and work in harmony in order to make walking possible. It’s the same with the interrelationship of things like grace and works. Any question of which one is more important is about as silly as asking which leg is more important for walking.

Paul taught how the definitions of grace and works are tied together this way:

And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.

1 Romans 11:6

I think that rather than our getting caught up in the debates and paralysis of whether our works merit access to grace or we have accepted enough grace to merit our works, God is far more concerned that we’re simply walking with grace and works. If seeing God’s grace is what motivates you to work, then great! Lead with grace. And if works is what enables you to see God’s grace, then great! Get to work. Our walking in the gospel towards Christ is far more important than the particular gait with which we walk.

So, let’s walk together and stop tripping each other over who prefers the left leg or right leg of grace or works as we walk in gospel towards Christ.