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Grace, Works, and Becoming

Since at least the time of Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius, western Christianity has been embroiled in a debate about salvation and grace. The two extremes have been represented as salvation by grace alone and earning salvation by our own works.  In a recent interview at From the Desk, Terryl Givens described the need to shift our paradigm about how we approach this issue in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).

In the interview, Givens brought up his concerns that we have focused too much on fitting in with more mainline Christians in our efforts to improve faith relationships.  As he put it:

For a long time, many Latter-day Saints have felt inadequate—or like newcomers at the table of interfaith relations. Some have been persuaded that we have neglected the role of grace in our theology and discourse alike.

That may be true, but in overcompensating, we have at times neglected to recognize distinctions between our understanding of grace and that of fellow Christians—distinctions so essential as to render them incommensurate terms in our respective contexts.

Context matters, and our system of belief works differently than most other Christians.  And, frankly, western Christianity’s obsession with grace vs. works is a bit off the mark within the context of the Restoration.  I’ve noted before that I find that the Eastern Orthodox view of synergistic salvation to be closer to our own beliefs, though even there, the context is different.

The context of Latter-day Saint theology is quite different from that of Protestant Christianity.  And within those context, the same words take on very different meanings.  For example, take the word grace:

I agree with the writer Matthew Arnold, who said what began as a simple literary term in the Bible—CHARIS (meaning kindness or graciousness or generosity)—became heavily freighted with theological overlays that were largely a Protestant invention.

An essential dimension of our temple theology is that from before the foundation of the world, Jesus Christ offered to do the work of atoning. His offer to do so was not in response to any merit or deserving on our part. Hence the entire plan of happiness is predicated on a generous gift.

In the Protestant tradition, grace means something quite different. It is connected with the doctrine of “imputed righteousness.”

So when a Protestant says “I am saved by Christ’s righteousness, not my own,” they mean something different than what we hear. They are invoking a principle by which Christ did not just die and suffer for them, but He was judged in their place.

Same word, different meanings based on the broader belief system of the person using the word.

An important part of the context of Latter-day Saint beliefs is that we see the goal of our existence as becoming like God rather than worshiping God for all eternity.  One of my all-time favourite general conference addresses is Elder Dallin H. Oaks’s “The Challenge to Become“, in which he taught that: “The Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.”  Similarly, when Terryl Givens was asked whether it is better to focus on grace or salvation, he stated in the interview that:

I would rather put it this way. We need to encourage more consideration of the question N. T. Wright has posed to Christians: “What are we being saved for?”

When we see human existence as part of an eternal continuum, educative and sanctifying in its purpose, with a destiny to become like God, then we stop focusing on questions that are inherently misleading.

The emphasis shifts to becoming rather than getting.

Givens also stated that:

Analogies [about the Atonement of Jesus Christ] can be helpful if we take them to mean Christ is always working with us to lend us aid, support, forgiveness, strength, and encouragement. Where they become less than helpful is when they envision salvation as being a reward or gift which requires a certain number of points or redemption certificates, and Jesus can make up our deficiency.

I think that is a very erroneous and impoverished way of looking at salvation. God may be infinitely patient with us, but He cannot bestow upon us chastity, or longsuffering, or meekness, or compassion, or unselfishness—or any of those attributes that constitute a celestial character.

It’s not like we can become 20% holy, and then He magically bestows upon us the deficit. We have to learn to live the kind of life that God lives, and to love in the way He loves. There are no shortcuts.

With that being the goal, the process of learning and developing attributes of God with help from God becomes more important than simply being granted a place in Heaven.

For more of the interview with Terryl Givens, including some commentary on atonement theory, head on over the From the Desk.

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