If you haven’t read our shorter post, entitled “After All We Can Do Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means”, we’d recommend reading it before continuing. This post is intended to expound upon that one.
Our purpose here is to explore and understand Nephi’s words:
“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.” (2 Nephi 25:23; emphasis added)
Many members of the Church think this scripture means that we must do everything that is possible to do to “earn our part” of salvation and only after we have completely exhausted ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually will Jesus come in with His grace and “make up the difference”; and pay the “rest of the price” of our salvation. The part that we couldn’t pay ourselves.
This interpretation is false for many reasons.
Why “after all we can do” can’t mean what many believe it means…
Let’s begin with logic. First, we will define each word in the phrase “all we can do” using a dictionary from 1828—the time period in which the Book of Mormon was translated by Joseph Smith.
ALL, a. awl. [Gr. Shemitic from calah, to be ended or completed to perfect.]
- Every one, or the whole number of particulars.
- The whole quantity, extent, duration, amount, quality, or degree
WE presumably includes all human beings who have lived, or ever will live.
CAN, v.i. pret. could, which is from another root. [See Could.]
- To be able
- To have means, or instruments, which supply power or ability.
- To be possible.
DO, v.t. or auxiliary; pret. Did; pp.
- To perform; to execute; to carry into effect; to exert labor or power for bringing any thing to the state desired, or to completion; or to bring any thing to pass.
In the context of this verse, I think we can agree that the things “we can do” refers to keeping the commandments or doing good works. It means the things we can do to be perfect on our own or to earn salvation on our own.
So, this phrase, taken at face value, technically means: “after every single thing that we possess the ability to do to be perfect” or even “every right thing that is possible for us to do”.
Technically, we possess the ability to be perfect. Meaning we never lose the ability to choose.
It is only our choices that determine whether we sin or are righteous.
Because of the gift of agency, we are free to choose everything for ourselves. We are free to act, and not to be acted upon (see 2 Nephi 2:26-27).
We, and we alone, control everything we think, say, or do, constantly. We cannot commit sin in any way except through our thoughts, words, and actions. Therefore, we control our sins and our righteousness completely. Nobody makes us do anything. Nobody makes us think anything. Nobody can make us sin. Ever.
In any moment of any day we are faced with the opportunity to “do righteousness” or to “do sin”. And the only thing that determines whether we do either of those things is our agency. God won’t force us to do good. Satan can’t force us to do sin. It is ALL up to us. ALWAYS.
Therefore, in every instance where righteousness or sin can be committed, it is possible for us to do righteousness. We never lose the ability to do righteousness or to not do sin. We ALWAYS have the ABILITY to do what is right, and therefore we possess the ABILITY to be perfect.
So Nephi’s words taken at face value literally and technically mean “we are saved by grace only after we have been perfect on our own merits. After we have chosen the right every time”.
Obviously it does not mean that. It CAN’T mean that. That would defy the ENTIRE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST. That would make the Atonement unnecessary.
So it is therefore logically impossible for “after all we can do” to mean what it looks like it means.
We must search for a different meaning.
Some people have interpreted it to mean something like: “after all we can reasonably be expected to do”.
The same faults apply to this concept as well. Because it says “after all we can do”, even by this alternate interpretation we would have to have done every single thing that was reasonable for us to have done right in this life or else we wouldn’t qualify for grace. Even one single misstep would disqualify us.
Both of these interpretations diminish the role and power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. For these reasons, “after all we can do” can’t logically mean what it looks like it means.
What have ancient and modern prophets said regarding how we are saved?
“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.” (Ephesians 2:8-9; emphasis added)
Paul is incredibly plain here. Some people in the Church would like to ignore these verses, suggesting that it may be a misinterpretation, but that would be a mistake. Paul plainly teaches that we are saved only by grace and not by our works. That does not mean that we don’t need to keep the commandments or do good. But it does mean that we aren’t saved by our works.
Dieter F. Uchtdorf
“I wonder if sometimes we misinterpret the phrase ‘after all we can do.’ We must understand that ‘after’ does not equal ‘because.’”
“We are not saved ‘because’ of all that we can do. Have any of us done all that we can do? Does God wait until we’ve expended every effort before He will intervene in our lives with His saving grace?” (Uchtdorf, “The Gift of Grace”, Apr 2015; emphasis added)
When President Uchtdorf says “after does not equal because”, it means that after never equals because. We are never saved because of all or anything that we can or have done. Or, in other words, not a single one of our works go toward earning any portion of our salvation. Ever.
“ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.” (2 Nephi 31:19; emphasis added)
Jeffrey R. Holland
“I know that there is no other name given under heaven whereby a man can be saved and that only by relying wholly upon His merits, mercy, and everlasting grace can we gain eternal life.” (Holland, “The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent”, Oct 2007; emphasis added)
“…relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith.” (Moroni 6:4; emphasis added)
The words “wholly” and “alone” are important. Let’s not discount them. We rely completely and entirely on Jesus Christ’s works for our salvation. That means that we don’t rely on our own works at all. He paid the entire debt. It’s solely on His merits, mercy, and grace that we are saved.
Dieter F. Uchtdorf
“Salvation cannot be bought with the currency of obedience; it is purchased by the blood of the Son of God. Thinking that we can trade our good works for salvation is like buying a plane ticket and then supposing we own the airline.” (Uchtdorf, “The Gift of Grace”, Apr 2015; emphasis added)
“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved.” (2 Nephi 10:24; emphasis added)
When Jacob says it is “only in and through the grace of God that [we] are saved”, he means ONLY. He doesn’t say it is mostly through grace that we are saved. He doesn’t say it is through grace and some of our works that we are saved. He doesn’t say it is through grace and all the works we can reasonably be expected to do that we are saved. And he certainly doesn’t say it is through grace and all the works we can possibly do to save ourselves that we are saved. He says it is only through grace that we are saved.
DO NOT IGNORE THE WORD “ONLY”. It is there for a reason! That is the point of his statement. Even after you are reconciled, it is still grace that saves you.
He could have said something like this:
“Remember, even after you have become reconciled to God, it is not that reconciliation that saves you. It is not your repentance that saves you. It is not your keeping of the commandments that saves you. It is not your penitence, nor your suffering, your faith, your joy, your love, or your service that saves you. It is not your good intentions or your genuine desires for righteousness that save you. And it is not even a small or reasonable amount of these things that saves you. When you are saved, it is entirely, completely, wholly, one-hundred-percent because of grace. Jesus doesn’t use even ONE of your good works to save you. HE PAID THE WHOLE DEBT. And He gives you salvation by His grace. You don’t deserve it. You don’t earn it. Any of it. You never will. EVER. It is ONLY IN AND THROUGH THE GRACE OF GOD THAT YE ARE SAVED.”
So if we are saved entirely by grace, there is nothing we need to do… right?
Oftentimes grace is misinterpreted as being saved unconditionally. If you just believe in Jesus, then you are saved. But that’s not what it means or how it works. The grace of Jesus Christ is a free, unmerited gift that we will never deserve. But at the same time it carries a condition that we must meet to receive it.
So what is the condition to receive His grace? What must we do to be saved?
Alma, son of Alma
“Therefore, according to justice, the plan of redemption could not be brought about, only on conditions of repentance of men in this probationary state, yea, this preparatory state; for except it were for these conditions, mercy could not take effect except it should destroy the work of justice. Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God.” (Alma 42:13; emphasis added)
Nephi, son of Helaman
“And he hath power given unto him from the Father to redeem them from their sins because of repentance; therefore he hath sent his angels to declare the tidings of the conditions of repentance, which bringeth unto the power of the Redeemer, unto the salvation of their souls.” (Helaman 5:11; emphasis added)
The condition to be saved is REPENTANCE.
In fact, in the very verse of scripture that this post is based on, Nephi states that he labored diligently to persuade everyone to believe in Christ and to be reconciled to God (see 2 Nephi 25:23). Jacob uses the same word: reconcile (see 2 Nephi 10:24).
So what does it mean to become reconciled to God?
RECONCI’LE, v.t. [L. reconcilio; re and concilio; con and calo, to call, Gr. The literal sense is to call back into union.]
- To conciliate anew; to call back into union and friendship the affections which have been alienated; to restore to friendship or favor after estrangement; as, to reconcile men or parties that have been at variance.
Reconciliation means to take two people or things that have become estranged or separated and to make them unified again. If you have two lines that run parallel to each other, you could say they are in union. They are heading in the same direction. They are aiming toward the same destination. They are the same. If one of them then gets tilted off course, they are incongruous. They are not unified anymore. They are estranged. They are not heading in the same direction or aiming toward the same destination.
The two lines need to be reconciled. They need to be put back in line with each other. The estranged one, the one that is tilted or veered off course, must be straightened out again to become one with the original.
This is like us with God.
In fact, under Atonement in The Guide To The Scriptures on lds.org, we find:
“To reconcile man to God.”
And then it continues:
“As used in the scriptures, to atone is to suffer the penalty for an act of sin, thereby removing the effects of sin from the repentant sinner and allowing him to be reconciled to God.”
Under Mediator in the same Guide we read:
“Jesus Christ is the mediator between God and man. His atonement made possible a way for people to repent of their sins and become reconciled to God.”
In both of these passages we find our answer: REPENTANCE
Repentance is how we become reconciled to God.
Dieter F. Uchtdorf
“I am certain Nephi knew that the Savior’s grace allows and enables us to overcome sin. This is why Nephi labored so diligently to persuade his children and brethren ‘to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God.‘
“After all, that is what we can do! And that is our task in mortality!” (Uchtdorf, “The Gift of Grace”, Apr 2015; emphasis added)
President Uchtdorf says that believing in Christ (faith) and becoming reconciled to God (repentance) is what we can do and is our task in mortality.
Daniel K. Judd, former first counselor in the Sunday School general presidency said this about “all we can do”:
“In a well-known verse the prophet Nephi stated: ‘It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do’ (2 Nephi 25:23; emphasis added). Although many have attempted to define what Nephi meant by his phrase ‘all we can do,’ Anti-Nephi-Lehi, the Book of Mormon king, answered the question well:
“And now behold, my brethren, since it has been all that we could do, (as we were the most lost of all mankind) to repent of all our sins . . . and to get God to take them away from our hearts, for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain. [Alma 24:11; emphasis added]” (Judd, “A Wonderful Flood of Light”, 2004)
We have discovered what we must do to receive salvation! We must have faith in Jesus Christ and repent of our sins!
It really is that simple.
This is why Alma commanded all of the priests that he ordained to preach NOTHING except repentance and faith in Jesus Christ:
“Yea, even he commanded them that they should preach nothing save it were repentance and faith on the Lord, who had redeemed his people.” (Mosiah 18:20; emphasis added)
“And thus, notwithstanding there being many churches they were all one church, yea, even the church of God; for there was nothing preached in all the churches except it were repentance and faith in God.” (Mosiah 25:22; emphasis added)
And it’s why Samuel risked his life standing on a wall to teach people who wanted to kill him that it is ONLY through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ that they could be saved:
“…nothing can save this people save it be repentance and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Helaman 13:6; emphasis added)
And it’s why the Lord revealed these words to Joseph Smith:
“And of tenets thou shalt not talk, but thou shalt declare repentance and faith on the Savior, and remission of sins by baptism, and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost.” (D&C 19:31; emphasis added)
This means that we should focus on teaching faith and repentance. The tenets are the appendages. The branches of the tree of the gospel. Faith and repentance are the focal point. (The Atonement is really the focal point, but faith and repentance are how we apply the Atonement).
So when President Uchtdorf said, “that is what we can do! And that is our task in mortality!”, he is saying the same thing. He is saying “nothing can save this people except it be repentance and faith on the Lord, Jesus Christ”! He is encouraging us to focus on those two things.
With this understanding, we could reorder Nephi’s words just slightly to match what all of the other ancient and modern prophets have said:
“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 after all we can do, we know that it is by grace that we are saved.”
Or perhaps if we just add one word to the original verse, it does an even better job:
“…for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, even after all we can do.”
The point that Nephi is actually trying to make in this verse of scripture is that even after all that we do end up doing, it is still only the grace of Jesus Christ that saves us. We are saved by His power, because He is the only one who has that power. Because He is great. Because He is God. Because He is the Savior of mankind.
Not us. We are nothing without Him. He. Saves. Us. Totally.
Why keep the commandments then?
It seems contradictory, doesn’t it? We are saved entirely by grace and not of our works, yet we are told by Jesus Himself to keep His commandments. In fact, we have been told to keep the commandments by every prophet we have on record. So what’s the deal?
Let’s pose two questions at this point:
- Why are we to keep the commandments if they don’t earn any part of our salvation?
- By what power are we to keep the commandments?
So why should we keep the commandments?
Jesus answers this question very simply and clearly:
“If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)
President Uchtdorf says the exact same thing:
“Brothers and sisters, we obey the commandments of God—out of love for Him!” (Uchtdorf, “The Gift of Grace”, Apr 2015)
We should keep the commandments because we love Jesus and are so grateful for his saving gift of grace. And may we also add that we should keep the commandments because we want to be like Him and we want to feel comfortable in His presence (see Wilcox, “His Grace is Sufficient”, Ensign, Sep 2013).
Now, it may not be immediately clear what the difference is here. If we keep the commandments to show our love to Jesus, or we keep them out of fear or obligation, we’re still keeping the commandments. What’s the difference?
Our second question holds the answer:
By what power are we to keep them?
This may sound like a strange question. But it is the key to understanding this whole grace vs. works confusion.
Most of us try to keep the commandments by our own power. Meaning, our own limited human ability to choose the right. Our own weak ability to control our thoughts and our actions. Our own frail ability to control our emotions.
That is how many interpret “all we can do”. That we need to do everything that is possible to do to earn salvation by our own power first and then Jesus will come in and make up the difference.
That is a very exhausting and lonely road. A road with no end in sight. It’s a road that keeps us focused on ourselves and our own efforts, taking our eye off of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
It’s time to take a different road. A more hopeful road. A road with Christ by our side. A road filled with the enabling power of His grace that will help us actually keep the commandments.
The road of faith and repentance
If we truly have faith in Jesus Christ and truly repent of our sins, something really interesting and amazing happens:
Not only will the grace of Christ come into our lives and save us, but it will also change us. It will not only make us want to keep the commandments, but also make us able to keep them.
When we have been changed by grace, we are no longer just the simple, weak, sinful human beings we were before. When we are changed, we are literally changed. We become different. We become infused with the power of Jesus Christ. We become infused with Godly power!
There are many examples of this in the scriptures.
After King Benjamin gave his dissertation, he asked all of his people if they believed the words which he had spoken to them and this was their reply:
“Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 5:2; emphasis added)
Their hearts had been changed. They didn’t even want to sin. And therefore they didn’t. But it wasn’t difficult. It was just their new nature. They weren’t trying to force themselves to keep the commandments on their own will power anymore. They just kept them because they had become righteous in their hearts.
That is the power of the Atonement. That is the power of Jesus Christ. Quite often in the Church we focus on the need to keep the commandments but forget to talk about the only way to really do that. The only way is to be “born again”, as Jesus taught (John 3:3), and to have “this wicked spirit rooted out of [our] breast” as King Lamoni’s father described (Alma 22:15). The only way is to experience a mighty change of heart.
And how do we get a mighty change of heart? We have faith and we repent. Over and over again. Every day. Our entire lives.
The goal should be to have a changed heart, not to try our hardest to keep the commandments all the time. Keeping the commandments is a byproduct of a changed heart and should be done out of love, not fear or obligation.
Now, there is merit in striving to keep the commandments even before having experienced a mighty change of heart. Keeping the commandments puts us in tune with the Spirit. And the Spirit is the vehicle by which His grace enters our lives. The Spirit uses His grace (the power of His Atonement) to sanctify us, change us, and enable us to actually keep the commandments.
However, notice that the motivation is to get in tune with the Spirit, not fear or obligation. Keeping the commandments out of fear or obligation will never lead to a changed heart and it will almost certainly lead to stress and possibly to getting burned out.
In conclusion, the gospel of Jesus Christ should never be a stress. It should not be a strain. It is empowering and life-giving! It brings hope!
Please don’t ever keep the commandments to earn anything or to avoid punishment. Keep them because it has become your nature to keep them. Because you want to be like Jesus. Because you love Him (see John 14:15).
If everything we do is done with His help, life truly will be easy and light because we will be taking His yoke upon us (see Matt. 11:28-30).
Jesus will enable us and change us through His grace if we just have faith in Him and repent of our sins.
So please don’t try to be perfect on your own.
Don’t carry that burden.
Just have faith in Jesus Christ and repent.
That is all we can do.
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