Grace and works: A topic that never grows old

I was just noticing an interesting intersection of themes in some of the things I’ve been reading and listening to this past week.  Craig Harline, LDS historian at BYU, just published a new biography of Martin Luther, “A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation.” In it, he talks about what brought Luther to his position on the role of grace and works (from LDS Perspectives podcast):

What Luther most cared about was grace. Every theologian pretty much agreed that man was saved by grace, but then there was always a qualifier: grace through what? It wasn’t just a question of whether salvation came through works or grace; it was a question of how grace went together with works. The current orthodoxy taught basically to do the best you could, and Jesus would do the rest. But that just didn’t satisfy Luther, because a really sensitive soul like his could always find something else wrong inside himself. He questioned, “How do I know that I’m doing all that I can? The question tormented him.

Harline says that Luther suffered from what the monks called overscrupulousness or “the bath of hell.” The clergy understood this was an occupational hazard; if your job is to look inside yourself most of the day for sins, you were going to find them. You could be so worried because you could always find something else you could do better.


I was surprised, because this issue sounded so familiar to what we just heard in general conference from Elder Holland when he talked about “toxic perfectionism”:

Around the Church I hear many who struggle with this issue: “I am just not good enough.” “I fall so far short.” “I will never measure up.” I hear this from teenagers. I hear it from missionaries. I hear it from new converts. I hear it from lifelong members. One insightful Latter-day Saint, Sister Darla Isackson, has observed that Satan has somehow managed to make covenants and commandments seem like curses and condemnations. For some he has turned the ideals and inspiration of the gospel into self-loathing and misery-making…

So I believe that Jesus did not intend His sermon on this subject to be a verbal hammer for battering us about our shortcomings. No, I believe He intended it to be a tribute to who and what God the Eternal Father is and what we can achieve with Him in eternity. In any case, I am grateful to know that in spite of my imperfections, at least God is perfect—that at least He is, for example, able to love His enemies, because too often, due to the “natural man”6 and woman in us, you and I are sometimes that enemy. How grateful I am that at least God can bless those who despitefully use Him because, without wanting or intending to do so, we all despitefully use Him sometimes. I am grateful that God is merciful and a peacemaker because I need mercy and the world needs peace. Of course, all we say of the Father’s virtues we also say of His Only Begotten Son, who lived and died unto the same perfection.

It seems that the same insecurities about our position before God have been around a long time and aren’t going away.  The topic is always relevant and important.

Growing up in the Church, the topic of grace and works didn’t ever come up– or at least, I don’t remember it at all.  To me, the center was on covenants, which every primary child learns is “a two-way promise between me and God.”  As long as we promise to keep his commandments and repent, then we are forgiven of our sins.  But once you start to become conscious of your short-comings, you eventually come to the same place Luther did: How do I know that I have done enough?

Grace and works didn’t register in my consciousness until my mission when I would encounter many who would say that they were already saved because they believed in Christ.  I only had what was in Preach My Gospel, but I always had a hard time explaining it.  One young man I taught gave an example of a man being saved from drowning when a man throws him a life preserver.  God does all the saving.  I countered that we had to reach out and grasp the saving preserver.  There was something on our part.

I have since been able to come to a better appreciation of grace, and the discussion within the Church surrounding grace has increased as well.  I remember reading Brad Wilcox’s The Continuous Atonement where he explains that Nephi’s phrase “we are saved by grace after all we can do” can be read as “we are saved by grace in spite of all we can do” (another LDS Perspectives podcast with Brad Wilcox here).  President Uchtdorf gave a beautiful talk on grace recently as well.

Jesus Christ is the saving power.  I think Russell M. Nelson summarized it beautifully: “Jesus Christ is the source…  The Savior’s atoning sacrifice—the central act of all human history—is best understood and appreciated when we expressly and clearly connect it to Him.


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