“After All We Can Do” as a reference to the Law of Moses

 

“After All We Can Do”

One of the more controversial passages of scripture found in the Book of Mormon is 2 Nephi 25:23.

 23 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.

Evangelicals look to this passage as proof that Mormonism is a “works based” religion. Many Mormons, particularly of past generations, also look to this passage as evidence that Mormonism is a “works based” religion. However, in recent years many Mormon students and scholars have come to view this passage in a different light. If you are reading this post you are probably already aware of what I speak. Stephen Robinson and Robert Millet have been especially influential in changing the way we talk about this passage. They argue for a reading that looks something like this:

23 … for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, [in spite of/even after/apart from] all we can do.

In other words, they argue that Nephi’s use of the word “after all” should be understood in the sense of “after all that we’ve done, we still need God’s grace”.

I personally am a bit unsure as to whether this is what Nephi really means. I worry that, perhaps, Millet and Robinson are too influenced by the Evangelical scholars they love to dialogue with (to the benefit of us all). It certainly is a valid perspective, but is it right?

Rather than argue against their perspective I want to share an alternative one. Actually, it really isn’t an alternative one but perhaps it can be seen as a complimentary facet to their take. I’ve wondered whether it is best for us to remember that Nephi is speaking from the perspective of one bound to follow the Law of Moses.

This passage stands at the beginning of a short exposition by Nephi of the relationship between the Law of Moses and Christ’s grace. It may be appropriate to consider 2 Nephi 25:23-30 as one literary unit, or a small aside by Nephi in which he struggles to explain the relationship between the Law of Moses and the grace of Christ. Verse 23 stands at the beginning of this exposition, and serves as an introductory summary of what is coming next. I want to suggest that, perhaps, “all we can do” is a reference to the Law of Moses.

 23 For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God;

(A) for we know that it is by grace that we are saved,

(B) after all we can do.

(A) 24 And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ,

(B) we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled.

I’m not a scholar of Book of Mormon parallelisms, but I wonder if my restructuring of the text above might be appropriate to illustrate what Nephi really means. It is quite easy to see how “all we can do” in verse 23 refers to “keep the law of Moses” in verse 24.

Nephi, speaking from the perspective of an ancient Israelite who is bound under the Law of Moses, is struggling to reconcile the need for the Law of Moses with the grace of Christ. He is wrestling with this issue long before Paul ever did. Nephi arrives at the conclusion that the Law of Moses is meant to help Israel look forward with steadfastness to the coming of Christ (vs 24).

If 2 Nephi 25:23-30 is taken as a literary unit, and if verse 23 is an introductory summary, then verses 29-30 can be read as a parallel final summary of Nephi’s point.

 29 And now behold, I say unto you that the right way is to believe in Christ, and deny him not; and Christ is the Holy One of Israel; wherefore ye must bow down before him, and worship him with all your might, mind, and strength, and your whole soul; and if ye do this ye shall in nowise be cast out.

 30 And, inasmuch as it shall be expedient, ye must keep the performances and ordinances of God until the law shall be fulfilled which was given unto Moses.

What does it mean for us? It is tempting to see the phrase “after all we can do” to be specific only to Nephi’s doctrinal dilemma, not our own. Nephi is thinking specifically about the relationship between the Law of Moses and Christ’s grace. We don’t really grapple with that specific issue in this dispensation, and so this particular passage may not be totally applicable to us in the same way it was applicable to Nephi and his people. In other words, what I am suggesting is that when someone accuses the Latter-day Saints of having a “works based” soteriology because of this passage, we may be able to point out that this is Nephi speaking from a perspective that is mindful of the Law of Moses which has since been fulfilled in Christ. Our Evangelical friends should understand this, in theory, because Evangelicals very frequently talk about New Testament teachings superseding Old Testament teachings. They don’t consider themselves bound by Old Testament commandments that have no relevance in the New Covenant, and neither do we.

That isn’t to say there is nothing of relevance in 2 Nephi 25:23 for us. As Latter-day Saints we do grapple with the relationship between modern day commandments (ie. tithing, word of wisdom, sabbath day, chastity, etc.) and Christ’s grace. Nephi’s thoughts regarding the Law of Moses can be transferred to our modern day struggles, to a point. The commandments point us toward Christ, and we perform the ordinances and keep the commandments because they are manifestations of Christ’s grace, and they lead us to him.

Let us be careful to not  mistake Nephi for an ancient Latter-day Saint. He wasn’t. He was an Israelite. Latter-day Saints are sometimes prone to forget that Nephi’s concerns were not always the exact same concerns that we have in this dispensation.

Feel free to share your thoughts, and let me know if maybe my pain killers (from my surgery) are really the ones doing the talking.

(As a totally unrelated aside, I want to point out that Nephi urges us to worship Christ in verse 29. How does this jive with the tendency among LDS to emphasize that we worship God the Father, not Christ? I think we need to reevaluate what we mean by “worship”.)

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16 comments on ““After All We Can Do” as a reference to the Law of Moses

  1. I really like this perspective. I too, for a long time, felt that there was something missing from the “in spite of” argument. I think there are a lot of things in 2 Nephi that are taken out of context because of reading verses as self contained thought-units (2 Nephi 2:11 comes to mind). It’s funny how often members forget that the addition of marked versus came way later and that we should not read them as the natural demarcations the authors wrote it in. Case in point, I was sitting with the missionaries the other day and had one elders trying to convince me of some point of BoM geography based on the Chapter headings, saying that they were part of the revelation given to J.S.
    I digress, but I think you are on to some good things here.

    • James says:

      Thanks Chase. Someone smarter than I might come along and prove that I’m wrong….but at least we are thinking outside the box!

  2. Gerald Smith says:

    Good comments. I consider the “saved by grace after all ye can do” as being explained well by King Anti-Nephi-Lehi. In calling upon his Lamanite converts to bury their weapons of war, he states that all they could do is repent.

    Or, as Joe Spencer would suggest, we have to accept grace and quit fighting against it. We don’t earn salvation by keeping commandments. As we embrace the atonement and grace of Christ, keeping commandments becomes a natural outcome. We no longer are the natural man, but the spiritual man, who no longer fights the atonement.

  3. James says:

    Thanks Gerald. My friend Seth Rogers was the first to point out to me the passage you refer to from King Anti-Nephi-Lehi. I think it is a simple and clever “out” for discussions with Evangelicals, but I think it keeps us from analyzing Nephi’s phrase in the context of his own sermon.

    I suppose it just seems like cheating to me. At any rate, I’d be hesitant to assume that the Book of Mormon everywhere teaches a consistent message. These are tough issues to understand and explain, especially anciently.

  4. Robert Line discusses this verse over a few paragraphs in his book, “Pure Before Thee”. He doesn’t take this position, but his treatment of it was a very good reconciliation, if I remember. The book is on the difference between “justification” and “sanctification”. I found it enlightening. I don’t have it with me at the moment or I could find the page it’s one. In any event, you can find it here: http://www.amazon.com/Pure-Before-Thee-Becoming-Cleansed/dp/B004VAXETY/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1330629735&sr=8-1

  5. This is definitely a very interesting aspect and I see where you are coming from on this. When we look at the Old Testament law, we find that the same commandment was given in the Levitical or Mosiac law to be perfect or holy. This same admonishment comes in light of what Christ preached regarding the Sermon on the Mount.

  6. Kevin Christensen says:

    Excellent observations James.

  7. grego says:

    I think you nailed it. :)

  8. Marcus says:

    I would revise or widen your parallelism to the following:

    (A) for we know that it is by grace that we are saved,

    (B) after all we can do.

    (A) 24 And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ,

    (B) we keep the law of Moses,

    (A) and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ,

    (B) until the law shall be fulfilled.

  9. Brant Gardner says:

    I just read this, and when I did I not only agreed, but remembered that I must have made the same kind of argument. I checked what I had written, but in my comments on this verse I was dealing only with the concept of Grace (which is still relevant). I suspect that I didn’t realized that it dealt with the Law of Moses at the time. I learned a lot when I was going through the Book of Mormon, and tried to retrofit later learning into earlier comments, but I certainly missed this one.

    I think it is very important to remember the context in which the Nephites had to deal with these comments. The Law of Moses was clearly much more present to them than it is to us, and we would do well to look at instances where people “do” religion as representing their questions about how to integrate these personalizations of religion into their communal religion. I seem to remember this coming up when Nephi was explaining baptism, and the people wondered what they should “do,” a rather logical question for those steeped in the performance emphasis of the Law of Moses.

    Nice explanation of these verses. If ever I get the chance at a second edition, this will make an appearance. Thanks.

    • James says:

      Thanks Brant. How is the next book coming along? Wasn’t it going to be on the topic of “Book of Mormon Evidences” or some such thing?

    • Brant Gardner says:

      It is still in the process of sorting itself out. I have around 300 pages written and I’m still not quite sure about it. I’m testing some of the material this weekend at the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum conference in SLC.

  10. Fabio says:

    There is nothing controversal in this Scripture. The reason why protestants think that “faith is enough”, is the fact of having their religions built upon a false doctrine from the Reformation in order to criticize the catholic church. We have to remember that the most of the epistles were almost taken off the Bible because of this misleading doctrine preached by the Martin Luther and his subsequent followers.

    Thanks to the Restored Truth, we have another witness that works are also necessary to salvation. In the Holy Bible, the Apostle Paul said:

    “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:

    Not of works, lest any man should boast.

    For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus UNTO GOOD WORKS, WHICH GOD HATH BEFORE ORDAINED THAT WE SHOULD WALK IN THEM”.
    Ephesians 2:8-10

    On the last chapter of the Book of Mormon, Moroni wrote about what are the works:

    “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; AND IF YE SHALL DENY YOURSELVES OF ALL UNGODLINESS, AND LOVE GOD WITH ALL YOUR MIGHT, MIND AND STRENGTH, THEN IS HIS GRACE SUFFICIENT FOR YOU, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.

    And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.”
    Moroni 10:32-33

  11. Ted Suhaka says:

    Could it be what Nephi is trying to say in this verse is it’s critical to understand that although Christ atoned for our sins, we cannot be saved by his great sacrifice unless we take action by first truly believing in Christ, and then sincerely chosing to go through the process or repentence? Perhaps he’s saying it isn’t enough to live a good life, but one must qualify for salvation by having a living faith in Christ (an action), and then choosing to successfully complete the reconciliation process (more action). We must first believe in Christ, and then choose to be the reconciled to God by his atonement in order to be saved by God’s grace. Nephi labored diligently to persuade his children and brethren to believe and repent so that they could be recipients of God’s saving grace. It is by grace we are saved, but only if we have faith in Christ, repent, are baptised, recieve and magnify the gift of the Holy Ghost (i.e. endure to the end). That’s what we must do, and in the end, it’s all we can do.

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