Grace, Works, and the Meritocracy

December 12, 2008 | 24 comments

Ross Douthat explains why meritocrats feel like they deserve their success. He says that you probably won’t succeed without the luck of good brains and good upbringing, but that then you have to follow that luck with lots of determination and hard work. Since the hard work and determination is closest to your success and the luck is so remote, you give all credit to the hard work.

This is the inverse of a model a lot of Mormons have of the relation between grace and works, in which you work really hard and then grace steps in at the end (which model you may or may not agree with, but that’s not the point of this post).

But whatever model Mormons use, my impression is that they are acknowleding grace a lot more than they used to. The question is, why? Is it possible that as Mormons become more accepted Mormons can participate more in the meritocracy, and the more Mormons can participate in the meritocracy the less they want their religious life to be a venue where they establish worth through good works? Religion becomes more a consolation and a refuge from the rat race then an alternative source of merit.

Postscript: Ross Douthat has a related post critiquing the new elites. Its worth your time.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

24 Responses to Grace, Works, and the Meritocracy

  1. Matt W. on December 12, 2008 at 10:31 am


    Maybe it is more that the farther Mormons get away from those things which were emblematic of their merits (The pioneers making the desert blossom as a rose, the miracle healings, the theocracy, the seperation from the world, the revelations, etc) the less that pointing to our merits is a comforting idea.

    Or maybe we are just becoming more comfortable with what other religions mean by the word grace than we used to be, as we become less seperatist.

  2. Kent (MC) on December 12, 2008 at 11:57 am

    I attribute our “return to grace” to Believing Christ by Stephen Robinson. I think people underestimate how that book has influenced and changed our culture (especially in the corridor) during the 90′s. The book that is proving to be the most influential for this decade is The Peacegiver by Jim Ferrell.

    Combine Believing Christ with a renewed emphasis on reading the Book of Mormon that began in the late 80′s and you have the Church coming back to its roots. I wouldn’t attribute it nearly as much to our economic trials, especially since it is very common for Mormons to hold tightly to contradictory propositions all the time. Most of the people I know are deeply steeped in the idea that they deserve what they have been given while acknowledging that God has blessed them more than they deserve.

  3. Jonovitch on December 12, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    Or maybe we’re starting to acknowledge what the prophets Lehi, Nephi, and Jacob actually said about grace (2 Nephi 2:8; 2 Nephi 10:24; 2 Nephi 25:23).

    Also, I think the Church is becoming less and less tied to its Western, pioneer, persecuted roots where the concept of “take care of yourself, because no one else will” is based.


  4. Roy on December 12, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    Unfortunately, the leaders perpetuate the following:

    “Let us make our homes sanctuaries of righteousness, places of prayer, and abodes of love that we might merit the blessings that can come only from our Heavenly Father… How might we merit this promise? What will qualify us to receive this blessing?” – Thomas S Monson, “To Learn, to Do, to Be”, October 2008 Conference

    “Each of us has been sent to earth by our Heavenly Father to meriteternal life” – Robert D. Hales, “Personal Revelation: The Teachingsand Examples of the Prophets”, October 2007 General Conference

    “Time is a most precious asset. Would you consider investing more of your time in the things of eternity in order to merit the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost and to benefit more fully from His influence?” – Keith K. Hilbig, “Quench Not the Spirit Which Quickens the Inner Man”, October 2007 General Conference.

  5. Jonovitch on December 12, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    Kent (2), my opinion in comment (3) was inspired by my interaction with Prof. Stephen Robinson, his New Testament class, and a lengthy interview I did with him. He knows what he’s talking about.

    His book “Believing Christ” also merited (pun intended) a response from every one of the 12 apostles at the time — each one told him it was a good book. One of them told him it was a good book, but what about obedience? So he followed up with “Following Christ.” Still, his original premise is scripturally based, and rock-solid in its doctrinal accuracy.

    Regarding Roy’s comment (4), I think we do have to merit the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost — that’s part of the promise and charge when we are confirmed and told “receive the [Gift of the] Holy Ghost.” However, we are neither saved nor exalted by our own merits, rather by the “merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Ne 2:8). (BTW, “earn” is no where to be found in scripture, and “merit” is only in reference to Christ, or in man’s inability — search for it on This is a classic Robinson scripture-chase exercise, and a good one.)

    As Robinson said (to me at least), we “can’t jump high enough” to get into heaven. There is no ladder tall enough, and we can’t climb enough rungs. This is not a gospel of checklists. We can’t pay enough tithing or do enough home teaching, even if it’s on the first of each month.

    My own twist on his analogy is that our job (and ability) in this life is to move horizontally — either toward or away from Christ. That is why we do good works — to move, horizontally, closer to him. His job and ability is to move vertically, between heaven and earth, as he has done before, and as he will do again. And if we have moved close enough to him (through our horizontal good works) when he returns up to heaven again, we will be right there with him.

    I spent many years mulling over this analogy, and I like it because it embraces the concept of grace wholeheartedly, and at the same time it puts our good works into their proper focus and framework. We do them not because we can move ourselves up (vertically — not our job!), but because we grow closer to Christ (horizontally) — by following in his footsteps, we become more like him. We do home teaching to become like him. We pay tithing to become like him. We follow all the other principles and practices of the Church to become like him.

    The Church membership’s increased attention to the true principle of grace is a good thing all the way around.


  6. Scott on December 12, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    The 3rd Article of Faith is very clear: “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.”

  7. iguacufalls on December 12, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    @Roy –

    While we may not be able to merit salvation or exaltation, there are certain things we can merit, such as the presence of the Holy Ghost or certain blessings. Expecting good works should not and can not rule out grace.

    On another note, I’ve never seen in the church over my 40 years that we’ve emphasized works over grace. It’s ALWAYS been “you work to make the ‘mighty change’ in your hearts and then and the Savior works within you through the atonement and gets you the rest of the way there.” Even as a kid, there was the “parable” of the little girl who saved up 49 cents toward a $100 bike, and the father makes up the difference. Maybe the shift that you refer to in #2 happened long before that, but it’s never been different in my lifetime.

  8. Jerry on December 12, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    I have noticed a shift as well. I have never heard of Believing Christ so I doubt that has had much to do with it. I think the first presidency is fixated on communicating how we believe so they can be part of the greater Christian community and to reach out for missionary work to Christions. Almost every change I have ever seen in the church is to improve missionary efforts and retention. Very few of the metrics the church even keeps track of do not in some way lead back to missionary work.

  9. Eric Nielson on December 12, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    Personally I think it has a lot to do with us Mormons trying to appear more protestant like. You know, marketing.

  10. Adam Greenwood on December 12, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Maybe it is more that the farther Mormons get away from those things which were emblematic of their merits (The pioneers making the desert blossom as a rose, the miracle healings, the theocracy, the seperation from the world, the revelations, etc) the less that pointing to our merits is a comforting idea

    a renewed emphasis on reading the Book of Mormon that began in the late 80’s

    the Church is becoming less and less tied to its Western, pioneer, persecuted roots where the concept of “take care of yourself, because no one else will” is based.

    Mormons trying to appear more protestant like.

    Good answers, all. Thanks. You still get conference talks on self-reliance-and a good thing too–but there’s some truths in the ideas y’all have brought up here.

  11. Craig on December 12, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    I don’t think the impact of Believing Christ should be underestimated. It is apparently the highest-selling book from Deseret Books of all time excepting general authority titles (this is according to Brother Robinson in his class). Between those books and Robinson’s students (and perhaps students of other BYU religion professors especially during Robinson’s time as dean), word travels fast and even worldwide. Just because someone with the belief didn’t read the book doesn’t mean the person who taught them didn’t. Believing Christ didn’t reveal any new doctrines, but it did put one back in the spotlight.

  12. AaronK on December 12, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    What about those who aren’t successful?

  13. Adam Greenwood on December 12, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    AaronK, part of the genesis of this post was my observation that the active Mormons I know who are less successful by temporal standards are the ones who tend to take the most satisfaction in hometeaching, not drinking, and so on. This could be either because they are less likely to read books or slower to become aware of and adopt new trends (including theological trends), or because they find the message of salvation through works more appealing. I don’t know.

    I think its possible that a message of grace might appeal more to those who are in the running on the rat race and a message of spiritual merit through works might appeal more to those who the rat race has left behind. Teach grace to Bowdoin and works to Botswana?

  14. Eric Nielson on December 12, 2008 at 6:20 pm

    Doesn’t the belief in degrees of glory force a belief in merit based salvation?

    Salvation by grace, degree of salvation by merit?

  15. Stephen M (Ethesis) on December 12, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    I think the grace vs. works argument misses the real point:

    But “meritocrats feel like they deserve their success” because it is self fulfilling and self reinforcine — and it gives one a basis for anticipating the future.

    It is interesting just how much Hugh Nibley spoke and wrote on the subject, which colored my thinking about it, because I was very open to being influenced at the time. Still am.

  16. Sarah on December 12, 2008 at 8:39 pm

    I believe that Grace is simply the Atonement of Christ. When we partake of the Atonement of Christ and are forgiven for our sins and then follow Christ’s example we are going to be saved by his grace “after all we can do” as Nephi said.

    It does talk about the Grace of God in the book of mormon but it is coupled with “after all we can do”. We must just insert Atonement for the word Grace and the entire bible makes sense. The Prophet Joseph said that the atonement of Christ is central to our Doctrine. The Atonement is our hope and our grace.

    On a side note I could not find a more appropiate place for this youtube video link then here. Just copy and past the link and enjoy.

  17. queuno on December 12, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    $10 says that if you polled every ward in the Church, less than 10% wards would have more than 10% of the members knowing who Stephen Robinson is.

    Brother Robinson’s books are excellent, but he’s not exactly teaching new doctrine that other general authorities weren’t already teaching…

  18. queuno on December 12, 2008 at 9:33 pm

    Anyway, to the core point, I think (as many have touched) — there’s been a subtle rejection in the Church that “meritocracy” works. Mostly, because no one really can define “meritocracy” in the Church. What, if you work hard you’ll be made bishop? {That’s enough probably to get people to go inactive.) Over the last 20 years or so (Hunter and GBH and other apostles) really made it a point to talk about the joys of service — any service, no matter how small. And it’s always a discussion of the JOYS — how the service itself is a blessing and a reward, not a stepping stool to be endured before receiving a better set of service opportunities where one can finally receive joy in his/her service.

  19. Ray on December 13, 2008 at 12:14 am

    Fwiw, I wrote the following last November:

  20. The Right Trousers on December 13, 2008 at 4:44 am

    #14: “Salvation by grace, degree of salvation by merit?”

    Not at all. I agree that the “three degrees of glory” doctrine is sometimes interpreted to mean that. I’d say that interpretation is made by people who don’t read Section 76 carefully or read their preconceived notions into it. That may occasionally include general authorities. (I’m only saying that for completeness, in case someone wants to counter canon with a conference talk.)

    Those who inherit Celestial glory accepted the testimony of Jesus, were baptized, and overcame by faith. I don’t see any mention of those folks deserving it or meriting it by their works. I see that the lifelong requirement is continued faith – which I mentally rewrite as “trust” and not “mere belief” nor “lots of anxious labor”. (Though degrees of both may be required if you really do trust.) I don’t see any room for making “always did my home teaching” or “what I think when there’s nothing to think about” or “keep the Word of Wisdom” or “feel like I deserve it” or any other heuristic into a discriminator of received glory.

  21. Cicero on December 14, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”

    I think people are missing the point. The goal of the Lord’s Church is to guide people to the path of eternal salvation and then keep them on that path.

    Satan has many ways of getting people off the path. One of his favorites is to say: “It’s not a big deal to sin- you can always repent later.”

    Naturally, when the Lord’s servants warn against this lie it appears as though they are discounting grace and emphasizing work and merit.

    Satan then says: “If you have sinned you are doomed! You can’t repent now. Your life is forever ruined.”

    Obviously the Lord’s response is going to emphasize grace, and how intrinsically important you are to God. It may appear to ignore merit.

    Another of Satan’s temptations is the temptation of Pride: “You’re so good, you deserve to be saved and should rule over your less worthy brothers.”

    Again the Lord’s response is likely to emphasize our worthlessness before Him (“Ye are less than the dust of the Earth”) and how utterly dependent we are on Him for salvation.

    Still another lie is hopelessness: “Nothing you do can change the situation, give up and let God take care of the mess.”

    The Lord’s response to this will emphasize work, merit, and labor.

    The inconsistency is not in the Church or the Lord’s doctrine, the inconsistency is within the hearts of men. Thus the response of the Lord may appear inconsistent on the subject of grace versus works, but it is perfectly consistent in guiding us to a life of righteous submission to God. (Whether in the form of obedience or in the form of repentance).

    As for the Church’s “shift” in emphasis I believe that can be explained by the shifting nature of the populace. The emphasis on works and merit developed during and immediately following the Great Depression. (I’m referring to the most recent emphasis on works and merit, as their have been other times when this has been emphasized). At this time, the harsh experiences of most people had already taught them humility, and the necessity of God’s grace. What they needed most was exhortations to work hard, keep their nose to the grindstone, and the promise that these efforts would bear fruit.

    Times changed, a new generation came of age, and in response the Lord instructed Ezra Taft Benson to emphasize the Book of Mormon- which naturally led to an emphasis on grace, and a warning against pride. This was also timely in preparation for the 90′s and early aughts, a time of plenty, pride and widespread tolerance of debauchery we have not seen since roaring 20′s. Warning against pride, and reminding sinners of the possibility of repentance through grace became essential messages.

    One of the reasons we have Prophets, is so that we have an established line through which the Lord can emphasize whichever part of His doctrine is most essential for us at this time. When seeing these changes in emphasis over time, we should be grateful- not critical.

  22. Eric Nielson on December 15, 2008 at 9:46 am


    Are you not ignoring all that keeping the commandments and repenting stuff? Perhaps you haven’t read the scriptures as carefully as you claim.

    Anyway, you mention a partial list of what people in the CK will have done. Those in lower kingdoms will not have fullfilled whatever requirements are necessary for the CK. Based on Merit.

  23. Adam Greenwood on December 15, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    I like your account of how an unchanging message can appear to shift in response to shifting attacks.

  24. gary on December 15, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    The Right Trousers: What do you mean by “trust”? If I trust another person, I act in reliance on their promises, confident that they will do what they said they will do. Generally speaking, I would not perform these actions but for the trust which I have placed in that individual. Do you attribute a similar meaning that word when you rewrite “faith” as “trust”?


Times and Seasons is a place to gather and discuss ideas of interest to faithful Latter-day Saints.