It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do. -2 Nephi 25:23
I know I’m not the only one who has misunderstood and/or been misinformed about this important scripture. Without a doubt, this is something we need to truly understand, ponder, remember, and increase our testimony in as we strive to come unto Christ.
Any misunderstanding or misapplication of grace in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is devastating because grace is powerful, beautiful, and central to our ordinances, covenants, and choices.
Oh how we need grace. And we have it! Period. It is a by-product of, a power flowing from, the attributes of godliness that caused our Heavenly Parents to send the Only Begotten Son to answer the demands of justice. His grace most certainly is sufficient. But it is beneficial to ourselves and all of humanity if we try to really comprehend what that means so we can fully abide in and experience the power, peace, hope, joy, and gratitude this can bring.
Peeling back the layers
There was a time when I would read this scripture in 2 Nephi, that grace saves AFTER all I can do, I would feel hopeless. I would think I couldn't have grace now and that I would only get it someday, based on what I could do. Knowing my current needs as well as my mortal deficiencies, this was terribly discouraging because I knew 'what I could do' would be infinitely imperfect and lacking.
A loving bishop, in my lamenting about this painful predicament, advised me that the power of the atonement is always accessible in the present. While that brought great comfort at the time, I afterward wondered how I could believe that bishop, feel the Holy Ghost testify to the truth of that, and even experience the power of grace from moment to moment when I needed it in those times, yet reconcile this scripture in 2 Nephi. As well as the bible dictionary definition, which includes, " This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts."
Further study and prayer about the subject led me to find the truth of Elder Bednar's sentiment:
There are layers of meaning in the scriptures, brothers and sisters. As we have the companionship of the Holy Ghost, those meanings can be revealed to us. -David A. Bednar
In an attempt to peel back the layers, I have found some important truths to ponder and apply. In doing so, I have found access to the atonement of Jesus Christ in both a more intimate and a more broad scope.
Does grace only happen on a timeline?
The first thing I want to look at is the word after. I don't question that we are saved by grace after all we can do, in the typical definition of the sentence. But let's look a little more closely at the word 'after'. Its most common use is on a timeline... being saved by grace comes later in time (after) all we can do. But this word has other meanings!
‘After’ can mean: in imitation of, according to the direction and influence of.
So the scripture might read:
It is by grace that we are saved, in imitation of all we can do. or
It is by grace that we are saved, according to the direction and influence of all we can do.
What if it is saying ‘The manner in which we are saved through grace will look like/be like all we do.’ (Can you say karma?!) Or maybe restoration is more appropriate. Let’s look at this:
“That which ye do send out shall return unto you again, and be restored.” -Alma 41:15
So might it be saying that the power of grace saves us in a manner that reflects our actions? I think so! Maybe this is part of what is meant by ‘grace for grace.’ And, keep in mind:
'All we can do' can (and should) include ‘relying alone upon the merits of Jesus Christ.’
Another action 'we can do' can (and should) include partaking of the sacrament weekly and taking on His name so the manner in which we are saved reflects HIS actions rather than ours.
That certainly feels much more merciful, since none of us can come even close to all He can do. And considering that mercy is one of the characteristics of our loving Heavenly Father, and having felt His mercy and experienced grace when what I could do was less than impressive, I am comfortable accepting and embracing this as a beautiful truth.
After can also mean: in pursuit of, in search of.
Based on this other definition of 'after,' the scripture might also read:
It is by grace that we are saved, in pursuit of all we can do.
Grace flows from the atonement of Jesus Christ, which is infinite and eternal. So it’s not before and after sequentially, but within and around eternally. IN the pursuit of, IN the seeking to do and become good, grace is through us and enables us to pursue this course.
What can we do and when can we do it?
I'm going to use 'can do' together, because their meanings are attached in this sentence.
‘Can’ can mean: to bear or endure; to try or attempt; to hold or contain; to strain or stretch; to urge or thrust with force; to become or be made; to create, generate, or form; to prepare or plant; to have sufficient strength or means/instruments which supply power or ability; to have the moral power or the right to do; to be free to undergo change or produce an effect through nature or divine appointment; to have fortitude or patience; to have the knowledge or skill required; to have the inclination or motives to overcome obstacles, impediments, inconvenience, or objection; or to have the capacity to receive (like a vessel).
‘Do’ is always present tense. (let's talk more about that in a minute)
Additionally, ‘do’ can mean: to be able, to carry into effect, to labor to bring something to the state desired, to practice, to perform for the benefit of another, to convey, to observe, to transact, to take a step toward, to answer the purpose, to make use of, to gain, to effect by influence, to have concern with, to do away with or remove.
With this in mind, let's look at our scripture again and consider a few additional possibilities:
It is by grace that we are saved...
-in pursuit of all we are able to bear in the present.
-according to the influence of all we attempt to carry into effect in the present.
-in pursuit of all we are patiently laboring to improve upon.
-as we are seeking to overcome all obstacles in order to do away with our imperfections.
-in search of all we stretch to observe.
-according to our inclination to perform for the benefit of another. (Well, hello, temple work... I see you hiding in this sentence that I’ve read ten billion times).
So I guess you see I've chosen only a sampling of the possible combinations.
Is one right and the rest wrong? Have I gone too far with some and gotten some right? How do we know?
My suggestion is that we should not take one possible meaning of a word or words, attribute it to the word of a compassionate, eternal, loving Heavenly Father, and never consider or question it again. Maybe through different circumstances, different applications will be more meaningful or helpful, and by pondering and praying about alternative depth of meaning, we can find new light we need to get through each new moment with grace and because of grace.
The power of now
So one very critical thing to understand about this scripture is that it is a present-tense scripture: It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.
Grace works in the present. The atonement of Jesus Christ, though infinite and eternal, is relevant in each moment that you receive its enabling power. That is how we receive ‘grace to grace,’ grace from moment to moment, in all of the personal, ‘and it came to pass,’ verses and chapters of our own lives, grace is bringing it to pass and keeping the story going.
One of the things 'we can do' is consider approaching this incredibly important gospel principle with new eyes, an open mind, and a willing heart.
Speaking of things WE can do…
Notice something important about this scripture.
It says WE.
I know this does mean Jesus and each person, at one. The best and most important WE there is.
I know it can also mean this principle applies to all of us.
>>But could it also mean we?
Could it mean WE are saved through grace as WE collectively pursue Zion?
I'd like to put that in the ‘suggestion box’ for someone else to answer. Or maybe I’ll continue pondering, praying, and studying. Or maybe WE should continue pondering, praying, and studying until we reach some unity on the subject.
Hmmm. Something about that just feels right. ;)