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.
(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.
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”.)