For a December 26, 2011 Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast on this topic, go to Did you earn your Christmas gifts?
By Aaron Shafovaloff
“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.”
Second Nephi 25:23 is a key text by which Mormons identify and distinguish their view of grace, repentance, works, and merit. It has consistently functioned in Mormonism as a text speaking of the prerequisite conditions for receiving forgiveness, eternal life, and exaltation, although some neo-orthodox Mormon revisionists are attempting to recast it as being about receiving grace in spite of all the conditions that we can’t fulfill. Mormon leaders and correlated literature continue to perpetuate the traditional interpretation of this passage.
From General Conference talks that reference this verse, we glean that “all we can do” means “our own merits”[fn]Marion G. Romney, “In Mine Own Way,” Ensign, Nov. 1976, 123[/fn], “all we can do to pay to the uttermost farthing and make right our wrongs”[fn]James E. Faust, “The Atonement: Our Greatest Hope,” Ensign, Nov. 2001, 18. 2 Nephi 25:23 is referenced by Faust after this sentence.[/fn], “[exert] every ounce of energy”[fn]Keith B. McMullin, “Welcome Home,” Ensign, May 1999, page. 79.[/fn], “[t]rue and complete repentance”[fn]Ronald E. Poelman, “Divine Forgiveness,” Ensign, November 1993, p. 84[/fn], “repent to fully pay our part of the debt”[fn]James E. Faust, “The Atonement: Our Greatest Hope,” Ensign, Nov. 2001, 18. Emphasis original.[/fn], “giving all that we can give and doing all that we can do in our present circumstance”[fn]Gene R. Cook, “Receiving Divine Assistance through the Grace of the Lord,” Ensign, May 1993, p. 79[/fn], and “maximum effort”[fn]Marion G. Romney, “Fundamental Welfare Services,” Ensign, May 1979, p. 94[/fn]. According to LDS authorities and church-published literature, these conditions are necessary prerequisites “to receive the fullness of the Lord’s grace and be made worthy to dwell with him”[fn]True to the Faith, p. 77[/fn], “to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation”[fn]LDS Bible Dictionary, p. 697[/fn], to “go into the celestial kingdom”, to have “the Savior’s magnificent Atonement [pay] the rest of [our] debt”, to have God “take away our stain”, and “to get God to take [sins] away from our hearts”.
What is meant by “after all we can do”?
According to the currently used and Church-published True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference, “the phrase ‘after all we can do’ teaches that effort is required on our part to receive the fullness of the Lord’s grace and be made worthy to dwell with him” (p. 77, emphasis added)[fn]See also “What’s Up?,” New Era, Aug 2007, p. 38, where an article is adapted from True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference. Available online here.
The LDS Bible Dictionary tell us that the grace unto “eternal life and exaltation” is insufficient “without total effort on the part of the recipient”:
“This 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. Divine grace is needed by every soul in consequence of the fall of Adam and also because of man’s weaknesses and shortcomings. However, grace cannot suffice without total effort on the part of the recipient. Hence the explanation, ‘It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do’ (2 Ne. 25:23)” (p. 697).
Under the heading “2 Nephi 25:23—We Are Saved by Grace, after All We Can Do”, the currently used CES manual Book of Mormon Student Study Guide reads,
“We are saved by the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. We must, however, come unto Christ on His terms in order to obtain all the blessings that He freely offers us. We come unto Christ by doing “all we can do” to remember Him, keep our covenants with Him, and obey His commandments (see D&C 20:77, 79; see also Abraham 3:25).” (p. 53)
To help explain what “after all we can do” means Mormon leaders sometimes cross-reference 2 Nephi 25:23 with Moroni 10:32. For example:
“And what is ‘all we can do’? It surely includes repentance (see Alma 24:11) and baptism, keeping the commandments, and enduring to the end. Moroni pleaded, ‘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’ (Moro. 10:32).” – Dallin H. Oaks[fn]Dallin H. Oaks, “Have You Been Saved?” Ensign, May 1998, p. 55[/fn]
On December 9th, 1982, Ezra Taft Benson gave a talk entitled, “After All We Can Do”, and said the following:
“What is meant by ‘after all we can do’? ‘After all we can do’ includes extending our best effort. ‘After all we can do’ includes living His commandments. ‘After all we can do’ includes loving our fellowmen and praying for those who regard us as their adversary. ‘After all we can do’ means clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and giving ‘succor [to] those who stand in need of [our] succor’ (Mosiah 4:15)-remembering that what we do unto one of the least of God’s children, we do unto Him (see Matthew 25:34-40; D&C 42:38). ‘After all we can do’ means leading chaste, clean, pure lives, being scrupulously honest in all our dealings and treating others the way we would want to be treated.”[fn]Ezra Taft Benson, “After All We Can Do,” Christmas Devotional, Salt Lake City, Utah, 9 December 1982. Quoted in The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 354.[/fn]
Referencing 2 Nephi 25:23 and paralleling temporal salvation with celestial exaltation, Marion G. Romney speaks of how a man must go through the “pearly gates”:
“The truth is that we are saved by grace only after all we ourselves can do. (See 2 Ne. 25:23.) There will be no government dole which can get us through the pearly gates. Nor will anybody go into the celestial kingdom who wants to go there on the works of someone else. Every man must go through on his own merits. We might just as well learn this here and now.”[fn]Marion G. Romney, “In Mine Own Way,” Ensign, Nov. 1976, p. 123[/fn]
James Faust sees doing “all that you can do” as “sincerely repent[ing]” and fully repaying our debt to Christ:
“All of us have sinned and need to repent to fully pay our part of the debt. When we sincerely repent, the Savior’s magnificent Atonement pays the rest of that debt. (2 Nephi 25:23)”[fn]James E. Faust, “The Atonement: Our Greatest Hope,” Ensign, Nov. 2001, p. 18. Emphasis original.[/fn]
The passage is often used as a contrast to the evangelical doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone:
“Many people think they need only confess that Jesus is the Christ and then they are saved by grace alone. We cannot be saved by grace alone, ‘for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.'” – James E. Faust (ibid.)
Dallin Oaks describes what it means to do all we can do:
“Because of what He accomplished by His atoning sacrifice, Jesus Christ has the power to prescribe the conditions we must fulfill to qualify for the blessings of His Atonement. That is why we have commandments and ordinances. That is why we make covenants. That is how we qualify for the promised blessings. They all come through the mercy and grace of the Holy One of Israel, ‘after all we can do’ (2 Nephi 25:23).” (Oct 2010 General Conference)
Harold B Lee wrote[fn]Harold B. Lee, Stand Ye In Holy Places, 1974, pp. 236, 246. Second half of quote also in LDS manual Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, p. 18.[/fn],
“For,” said this prophet, “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.) Truly we are redeemed by the atoning blood of the Savior of the world, but only after each has done all he can to work out his own salvation…
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.
Even general authority Bruce Hafen regards “after all you can do” as prescribing the condition of “if we are faithful”:
“And though the journey of mortality can sometimes be very hard, grace shall be as your day—meaning, in Nephi’s words, ‘it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do’ (2 Nephi 25:23). Thus the Lord’s grace extends further as our individual days grow longer, and harder. If we are faithful he will give us whatever the ‘day’ of our personal circumstances may require.”[fn]Bruce C. Hafen in “Come, Come, Ye Saints“. Hafen “was provost of Brigham Young University when this Annual University Conference address was given on 28 August 1995.”[/fn]
Quoting Alma 24:11, Daniel K Judd, first counselor in the Sunday School general presidency, spoke of “after all you can do” as meaning to “repent sufficiently” and “repent of all our sins”:
“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]”[fn]Daniel K Judd in “A Wonderful Flood of Light”. Judd “was an associate professor of ancient scripture at BYU as well as first counselor in the Sunday School general presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when this devotional address was given on 7 December 2004.” Emphasis noted in original.[/fn]
Recent neo-orthodox, revisionist interpretations
“After” is not a preposition of time
Robert L. Millet, writing with Joseph Fielding McConkie before his (Millet’s) more significant move to neo-orthodoxy, wrote:
“Indeed, it is only after a person has so performed a lifetime of works and faithfulness – only after he has come to deny himself of all ungodliness and every worldly lust – that the grace of God, that spiritual increment of power, is efficacious”[fn]Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet, Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon 1:295. This passage was criticized by J. Frederic Voros, Jr. in a BYU Studies book review: [/fn]
Ironically, a book review of the above in BYU Studies noted the following about Millet and McConkie:
“The authors even maintain that grace, generally considered an antidote to an excessive preoccupation with human works, is itself earned by human works: ‘Indeed, it is only after a person has so performed a lifetime of works and faithfulness–only after he has come to deny himself of all ungodliness and every worldly lust–that the grace of God, that spiritual increment of power, is efficacious’ (1:295). While their position is not without scriptural support (see, for example, Moro. 10:32), it has the effect of desiccating the better supported view that grace is granted through the merits, not of the recipient,’ but of the Giver.”[fn]Book Reviews, BYU Studies, vol. 29 (1989), Number 2 – Spring 1989, p.124; available here[/fn]
In Believing Christ, a book that rivals Spencer W. Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness both in content and in popularity, Stephen Robinson states:
“I understand the preposition ‘after’ in 2 Nephi 25:23 to be a preposition of separation rather than a preposition of time. It denotes logical separateness rather than temporal sequence. We are saved by grace ‘apart from all we can do,’ or ‘all we can do notwithstanding,’ or even ‘regardless of all we can do.’ Another acceptable paraphrase of the sense of the verse might read, ‘We are still saved by grace, after all is said and done'”[fn]Stephen E. Robinson, Believing Christ, p. 91-92[/fn]
In his book Are Mormons Christians? he writes:
“LDS commentators are agreed that the word after in this passage is used as a preposition of separation rather than of time. The sense is that apart from all we can do, it is ultimately by the grace of Christ that we are saved. This meaning is apparent from the fact that none of us actually does all he can do.”[fn]Stephen E. Robinson, Are Mormons Christians?, chapter 8.[/fn]
Those in LDS leadership would seem to disagree, as is evident from their own words and other material that is correlated and published by the church. In “The Atonement: All for All”, Hafen states that God “extends both during and ‘after all we can do'”:
“It also means learning from our mistakes in a continual process made possible by the Savior’s grace, which He extends both during and ‘after all we can do.'”[fn]Bruce C. Hafen, “The Atonement: All for All,” Ensign, May 2004, 97[/fn]
Notice how the following author in this Ensign article links 2 Nephi 25:23 with the “then” of Moroni 10:32:
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).” (emphasis added)[fn]Clyde J. Williams, “Plain and Precious Truths Restored,” [fn]Ensign[/fn], October 2006, p. 50–54[/fn]
If “saved by grace” means to receive forgiveness and “after all we can do” means to “repent”, it cannot be divorced from time or construed as “in spite of all we can do”, for the completion of the steps of repentance precedes forgiveness. It would be like saying “we receive forgiveness in spite of whether we repent” or “notwithstanding the lack of repentance.” Alma 24:11 uses the phrase “all we could do” to describe “repent[ing] sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain”:
“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 the many murders which we have committed, 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…”
For many such reasons Mormons have commonly taken the word “after” as a preposition of time.
“No matter what we do or don’t do”
In a FARMS book review, Russell C. McGregor argues, “Clearly the words after all we can do are there to emphasize the main point: no matter what we do or don’t do, it is still by grace that we are saved.”[fn]Russell C. McGregor in a FARMS book review entitled, “Widening the Divide: The Countercult Version of Mormonism”.[/fn]
Even Bruce C. Hafen, a general authority who is seen as a significant influence on Mormon neo-orthodoxy, seems to take a contrary position. In an Ensign article entitled “Beauty for Ashes”, Hafen communicates that the “after all you can do” phrase means that we can’t continue in sin, that we will not, contrary to what he thinks some “Christians do believe”, “be saved by grace in spite of whatever [we] may do”[fn]Bruce C. Hafen, “Beauty for Ashes: The Atonement of Jesus Christ,” Ensign, Apr 1990, 7[/fn].
“Our efforts will never be enough”
“Sometimes the part of that scripture that rings in our ears is “after all we can do,” and we hurry along through life trying somehow to be good enough. What that scripture is telling us, however, is that our efforts will never be enough, and we are saved through a monumental act of love.” – Maurine Jensen Proctor[fn]Maurine Jensen Proctor, “The First Principles and Ordinances of the Gospel“[/fn]
Mormon apologist Blake Ostler writes:
“I enjoyed your dissertation on grace as well. However, there is one point that I feel is fairly important. You interpret the Book of Mormon’s statement ‘after all we can do’ to mean ‘inspite of all that we can do.’ I would suggest that it relates to the larger picture in the Book of Mormon that prevenient grace, or that grace that we are given prior to any act of willing or doing, is the necessary condition for the exercise of free will at all. In other words, without grace we are not free to act for ourselves but are merely acted upon and we remain unable to choose to accept what is given to us. Thus, “after all that we can do” means that even considering all that we can do, it is by grace that we are saved because all that we can do is enable by grace in the first place. Thus, grace is the foundation of salvation, but we must be free to accept or reject the gospel when it is present, free to accept or reject Christ when we learn of him.”[fn]LDS Philosophy mailing list. April 19, 2007.[/fn]