What is so amazing about the Mormon version of Grace?

Note: The following was originally printed in the September/October 2016 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here

By Bill McKeever 

John Newton (1725-1807), the slave trader turned Anglican pastor, wrote many hymns during his lifetime, but none have enjoyed as much fame as “Amazing Grace.” According to Newton biographer, Jonathan Aitken, “Amazing Grace” is the “most sung, most recorded, and most loved hymn in the world. No other song, spiritual or secular, comes close to it in terms of numbers of recordings, frequency of performances, international popularity across six continents, or cultural longevity” (John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, 224).

Aitken notes that the hymn “was conceived by Newton in late December 1772 as part of the preparations he was making for a New Year’s Day sermon to his parishioners on January 1, 1773.” His message was to be from 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And this was a small thing in your eyes, O God. You have also spoken of your servant’s house for a great while to come, and have shown me future generations, O Lord God!” “There can be little doubt,” writes Aitken, “that Newton saw spiritual parallels between God’s grace to King David, and God’s grace to himself. They had both been the worst of sinners; they had both endured tempestuous journeys of extraordinary drama; they had both been undeserved recipients of God’s mercy, salvation, and grace.” So why is this song, a song that isn’t even included in the official LDS hymnbook, played from loudspeakers at the Mormon Miracle Pageant? Do Mormons really share the sentiments of John Newton and the words in this hymn? Newton opens his famous hymn with:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind but now I see.

There is no question that Mormonism has a doctrine of grace. It is even described as “free,” and is given as a “gift.” But setting aside these descriptors, what does grace mean to Latter-day Saints? Newton saw God’s grace as something that was definitely undeserved, an act of God bestowed upon a sinner that once and for all declared a believer justified in the eyes of God. What made grace so incomprehensible to Newton was that nothing could be added to it to bring about the justification that was sought.

Mormonism hardly shares this all encompassing understanding of grace. For example, in a conference message he gave in 1994, Mormon Apostle Boyd K. Packer said,  “Even that grace of God promised in the scriptures comes only ‘after all we can do’” (“The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 1995, 19). Nine years later, Mormon Apostle David A. Bednar, also speaking in conference, said that “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” (In the Strength of the Lord,” Ensign, (Conference Edition), November 2004, 76-77, emphasis mine).

In the correlated manual Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, Mormonism’s eleventh president is cited as saying:

The Lord will bless us to the degree to which we keep His commandments. Nephi put this principle in a tremendous orbit when he 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 we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.’ (2 Nephi 25:23.) The Savior’s blood, His atonement, will save us, but only after we have done all we can to save ourselves by keeping His commandments” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, 24. See also Stand Ye in  Holy Places, 246 ).

The second stanza of “Amazing Grace” goes on to say,

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears reliev’d,

How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.

Newton’s understanding of God’s grace gave him ultimate peace. Despite his egregious sin, this grace gave Newton the assurance of  complete forgiveness at the moment he trusted in Christ. In other words, Christ’s sacrifice is all-sufficient. If Mormons share in this grace, why are so many fearful that they have not done enough to earn celestial glory where God the Father dwells? Mormon Apostle Richard G. Scott, speaking in general conference, warned,

“Time and time again at funerals, statements are made that the deceased will inherit all blessings of celestial glory when that individual has in no way qualified by obtaining the necessary ordinances and by keeping the required covenants. That won’t happen. Such blessings can only be earned by meeting the Lord’s requirements. His mercy does not overcome the requirements of His law. They must be met” (“First Things First,” Ensign, May 2001, 9).

As noted by Scott, a member’s personal effort must be added to Christ’s atonement if celestial exaltation is to be gained. Citing both 2 Nephi 25:23 and Moroni 10:32 from the Book of Mormon, the October, 2006 issue of Ensign magazine, told members,

“The perfect relationship between the atoning grace of Christ and the obedient efforts of mankind is powerfully stated by Nephi: ‘We know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do’ (2 Nephi 25:23). Furthermore, we are invited to ‘come unto Christ, and be perfected in him.’ When we deny ourselves ‘of all ungodliness,’ then and only ‘then is his grace sufficient’ for us (Moroni 10:32)” (“Plain and Precious Truths Restored,” Ensign, October 2006, 53).

Let it be said that John Newton would have none of these heretical notions. Mormonism does not share the same definition of grace as Newton’s, much less does it teach that the above lines from his famous hymn are appropriate for members of the LDS Church. So why is “Amazing Grace” played at the Mormon Miracle Pageant?