I recently had a conversation with a self-described Christian, who was eager to teach me about the doctrine of grace. When I quoted 2 Nephi 25:23 (“We know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”), my companion scoffed. He said this was similar to saying, “We fly from India to the United States on an airplane, after all we can do.” In other words, Jesus does so much and we do so little that our part is not worth mentioning.
What follows is a stylized version of the ensuing dialogue.
Gordon: Given your comment about the airplane, I am interested in your views on the relationship between grace and works. Are you suggesting that we don’t need to do anything to be saved? [As you can see by my use of the word "saved," I am trying to play on his turf here.]
Friend: We need to accept Jesus as our Savior and repent of all of our sins. You seem to think that you can earn your way into Heaven.
Gordon: Not exactly. I believe that no one — except Jesus — merits eternal life. [Again, trying to get the terms right.] But your reference to repentence intrigues me. What does that entail?
Friend: Repentence requires that we give up our sins and act in a Christlike manner. Our goal is to become more like Him.
Gordon: So it seems that we have similar views on grace. We both believe that everyone except Jesus is sinful and in need of repentence. We all do the best that we can, and grace makes up the difference.
Friend: There you go again! You keep talking about this gap between your performance and where Jesus is, but the fact is that everything you do is tainted. It’s like Pope John Paul II said, even when we do “good” works, we are tainted by pride and other worldly concerns. [No, I am not making that up. He paraphrased the Pope.] In my view, our works do not have the power to save us, and we need to acknowledge that.
Gordon: So why do good works? Why give to the poor if that is, in essence, an evil act?
Friend: We strive to do good works as an expression of our love for God.
Gordon: So how is it that doing evil deeds shows your love?
Friend: Your twisting my words.
You get the idea. I have had similar conversations with all sorts of Christians. This one actually held some promise at the beginning, but it quickly deteriorated into cordial misunderstandings.
This is very frustrating to me because I feel like there is something essential that I am missing about the doctrine of grace. My “Christian” friends claim to understand it, but they can’t seem to put it into words that I can understand. Either I am hopelessly caged by my Mormon world view or the Christian doctrine of grace is incoherent.