Sunday, December 20, 2015

Christmas Talk

So my husband and I were asked to speak in church today about Christ and Christmas.  My friend asked me to post my talk on the blog for your reading pleasure.  Haha!  Here you go, Christine.  :)

Christmas Talk 2015

Last week, while sitting in sacrament, I was thinking about this week’s Christmas program and about how amazing it was going to feel to just sit and enjoy the Christmas program from the audience. This would be the first year I could even remember not being part of a musical number.  Then, after sacrament, the bishop asked us if we would speak today.  I guess there’s no rest for the wicked.  I have to admit, I felt a little overwhelmed when I considered all the final Christmas preparations I had on my last-minute to-do list to which I would now have to add, prepare a Christmas talk, which to me is a big deal.  So, it has remained on my to-do list and in the back of my mind as I have been marking things off of my list all week. 

Each year at Christmas, my favorite tradition I do with my little family is that I handwrite a letter to each of my kids and to Cameron (and to our parents) to put next to their stockings to be read on Christmas morning.  Being several years since I graduated from school, I don’t hand-write many things any more so this tradition is really taxing not only on my time but on my hand!  That’s a lot of letters to write!  But, of all our traditions, I love this tradition the most (even though it requires quite a sacrifice on my part), because it sets the tone immediately on Christmas morning as everyone begins the day by reading their letters as they enjoy the treats in their stockings—it is a tone of love and gratitude and it is a gift I can give to my loved ones that they can keep forever.  As I was working on my letters for this year, I was still contemplating the talk I needed to give and the thought came to me that I should write a letter to my older brother, Jesus Christ, since He too is a dear loved-one and it is His birthday afterall.  So, in lieu of a more traditional format for a talk, I would like to instead share with you my Christmas letter to Him:

My Dearest Big Brother-

You know, you are the only one I get to call my big brother, since I have no earthly brothers.  It sure is nice to know that I have an older brother to protect me and to be such a good example for me.  You are, by far, the best big brother a girl could ask for—literally! I want you to know how much I love and appreciate you.  There are truly no words to adequately express the deep love I have for you.  Yet, I know that you know me perfectly and that, of all the people in my life, you are the one who truly does understand the depths of my heart.  So know this:  that I love you beyond measure and earthly expression.

This year I have been thinking a lot about all you do for me and have been overcome by the magnitude of your love for me.  Being that it is Christmas time, I’ve been thinking specifically about your birth and about child-birth in general.  Do you remember when Ben was born?  Remember how strong the Spirit was in that hospital room?  Do you remember the angels that were there assisting me throughout that horrible labor?  I will never forget them.  The nurses didn’t know how to describe the Spirit they were feeling but it was so palpable that they couldn’t ignore it either and every nurse that entered the room commented on the peace they felt.  It was one of the most spiritual moments of my life.  Thank you for allowing me to have that undeniable experience.  It gives me a small glimpse into what it might have felt like the day you were born.  I can only imagine the strength of the Spirit in that stable and the numerous concourses of angels that were no doubt there, helping Mary, your earthly mother through that labor, that literal labor of love to bring you, love incarnate, into this world. 

Being that this is your season—Christmas season,—I have all my nativities set up all over the house.  They are my favorite Christmas decoration.  I love to see the various renditions offered by each artist of your birth story.  But, what I love most of all, is to watch as my children set up the nativities.  I love how every character, every animal, every piece in the nativity is always facing you, even if that means we cannot see any of their faces.  It forces me to look at and focus on you too, on you as a tiny infant.

I’ve been pondering why we celebrate this particular point in your life—your birth—the time in your life when you were a newborn infant.  I shared this thought with my sister the other day and she was telling me about something Elder Nelson had mentioned:  about how it is interesting that Christmas is a celebration of the only time in your life when you were entirely selfish—as all infants are and must be—and how you then went on to live an entirely selfless life.  This is a really interesting concept to consider.  I can’t help but think about how I too am a selfish infant—a spiritual infant—who must learn to become entirely selfless.  And, as I pondered that process, I was reminded that it is only made possible through your grace.  Thank you.  Thank you so much for your invaluable and eternal gift of grace—both your saving power and your enabling power.

I’ve been thinking about the miraculous and symbolic nature of mortal life—how it allows us to witness and experience this life cycle that begins in infancy—and about how much and how naturally we love infants and how we sacrifice all for their well-being.  We not only risk our physical lives, give our blood, and endure extensive amounts of pain (both physical and emotional) in order to give these infants mortal life and to love and sustain them, but we sacrifice our individual desires and identities so that we can dedicate our entire lives—our time and our intents—to raising those infants.  That’s what your parents did for you.  And, it’s what you did for me, isn’t it?  You not only gave your life, and your blood, and endured unimaginable amounts of pain, but also dedicated your mortal and eternal life to raising me—raising me up to your eternal glory—to give me, a spiritual infant, eternal life, didn’t you? 

An infant does not have the skills to live and support itself in the world.  An infant’s action cannot save him.  I am realizing that I too, in my own infantile state, cannot save myself no matter how hard I try.  Thank you for your gift.  Thank you for giving your life to me—for using your Godly heritage to live it perfectly—so that you could give it to me again in Gethsemane and Golgotha, so as to satisfy the demands of justice allotted to me—to save me from the fall and from myself.  Thank you for saving me by that saving power of your grace.  Thank you for saving my parents and for saving my children and for saving my husband.  Thank you for being my protective older brother so that we can all be together again.

Thank you for not only protecting me, but for teaching me and molding me by your example—for changing me with your enabling power.  When I hold darling little infants in my arms, I am reminded of how little they know, of how much growth and development they have ahead of them.  I too have so much to learn, so much growth and development ahead of me.  There have been so many times in my life when I have stumbled, with you always there to catch me and help me try again—to teach me how to walk through this mortal journey.  There have been so many times when I have been stubborn and thought that I could do it on my own.  I am sorry for all the times I have pushed you away.  Thank you for always staying nearby—for always being there, ready to help when I realize I can’t do it alone. There have been so many times when I know I could not have done what was required of me by my own efforts—that it was your enabling grace that made those things possible.  I think that when you said, “suffer the little children to come unto me,” you were referring to me—a little spiritual “child”.  I am learning to come unto you.  I am seeing your handiwork in my life.  I hope I can always remember that just as Mary’s agency was required to allow you to be born into mortal life, that it is my own agency that is required to allow you to be born into my heart, to allow the transformed “me” to be born into my own eternal life.  Thank you for changing me and molding me and transforming me into the person I want to become so that I will feel at home when I finally return home to you.

My dear, sweet brother, you have taught me so many things.  It is truly overwhelming to consider all the symbols of the season as I contemplate your birth and life and death and companionship.  I want to thank you for all the things you are teaching me as I rededicate myself to transforming into the woman you are molding me to become.  I love that we celebrate your infancy as we usher in a new year.  As we usher in this new year, I hope to also usher in the new being within myself—to commit afresh to changing by way of your enabling power—to recommit to transforming from my selfish infantile state into a selfless eternal being.  Thank you for teaching me to honor the Sabbath—for providing a day, set apart, to partake of the sacrament.  I love that the Sabbath ushers in the new week—a time when I can partake of the sacrament and remember my baptismal covenants to be reborn, committing again to begin afresh with the new week.  As I remember you being born on that Christmas night, so too will I commit to being reborn this Christmas season as my gift to you.

I love you so much and am so grateful to have you in my life,
Your loving Little Sister

Brothers and Sisters, this letter is my testimony of our Savior this Christmas Season.  I know that he is the true and literal son of God and that he is our true and literal protective older brother, not just a nice story passed down through the generations.  And, that it is through his mortal birth and life that we can gain our own spiritual birth and eternal life, because of His grace.  I say these things in His name, amen.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Everything Happens for a Reason?

We were FINALLY done with school!  For four years, I had worked three jobs (and had two kids), while my husband was in graduate school, in order to keep our student debt to a minimum and make ends meet.  And now, with the weight of school finally lifted, we optimistically set off to start our "new life" as a young family.

We started a new job, purchased a starter home, and started setting aside 10% of our income every month to build some financial security.  I got pregnant with our third son and set out to remodel the house in order to accommodate our growing family.  About this time, the young daughter of a dear life-long friend tragically drowned.  Within weeks, my sister's twin nephews were also taken in a tragic drowning accident.  As I mourned for these beloved families, I resolved to be a better mother and appreciate more the precious moments I have with my children while they are "on loan" to me from the Lord.  Shortly before our third son was born, we were offered a new job out-of-state and, recognizing that this job would afford us more quality time with our children, and after much fasting and prayer, we decided that taking the job was the right thing for our family.  So, in 2009, we faithfully packed up, put our newly remodeled home back on the market, and moved to a new state.

While this was a good long-term decision for our family, it was also the start of a three-year nightmare:  It just so happened that not only had we purchased our home at the peak of the housing market, but this move was perfectly synced with the following housing market crash.  We spent three long years trying to sell our house for half the amount we had bought it for and less the money we had put into remodeling.  We had decided right off the bat that we would do everything in our power to honor our commitment to our mortgage debt for as long as we were physically able.  For two years, we scrimped and saved and went "without" as we watched our entire life-savings run dry, until everything we had was gone.  Our house still had not sold.  We spent many sleepless nights, and countless tear-filled days, watching interested prospective buyer after buyer fail to obtain a purchase loan.  We were lied to repeatedly by the lending banks and offered no viable solutions to our plight, despite the extensive efforts we were making on our part.  We were desperately trying to find a way to provide another stable and comfortable home for our family.  Then, despite all our sacrifice to stay current on our mortgage payments for a home we had not lived in for two years, we no longer had anything left to give and spent another year helplessly watching our impeccable credit slip away too. We were tired and defeated.  Why was the Lord not taking away this trial when we had done everything "right"?

Meanwhile, we discovered that we were unexpectedly "expecting" another baby that we could neither afford nor accommodate.  I felt guilty for feeling overwhelmed by this and that guilt was both enhanced and accompanied (1) by my dear older sister's difficult battle with infertility and (2) by another period of mourning when my tender little sister, who was expecting a baby within days of my own due date, experienced a miscarriage.  Why did she miscarry and not me when she was excited about her pregnancy and I was struggling to accept mine?  Why didn't my older sister get pregnant instead of me, when we had all been praying for so long for her?  I resolved again to appreciate the blessings amidst my trials and was filled with joy when our sweet, beloved baby joined our family.  Shortly after he was born, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening bacterial septicemia, which only added to the already overwhelming medical bills and prevented me from being physically capable of keeping up with my duties as a busy wife and mother of four little boys.  I was in a deep depression--partly a side-effect of the infection and partly due to the stresses of the difficult saga with our housing crisis.  And then, shortly after my medical scare, a sweet, darling friend--an amazing wife and mother of her own beautiful young family--passed away suddenly from a similar bacterial infection:  meningitis.  How could this be?  Why was she taken when she had everything going for her?  Why was I still here, when I couldn't even adequately perform my own familial duties anyway?

I cannot tell you how many times during those three long years (and since) that I heard the phrase, "everything happens for a reason."  It seemed to always be offered as a condolence, but somehow, rather than bring me comfort, it brought me only confusion.  What about the child whose life is permanently scarred by an abuser?  --or the parents whose child is killed in a car accident?  --or the person who suddenly contracts a terminal illness?  What about my sister who had been unable to bear children?  What about my friend, whose daughter joined the angels too soon?  What about my sister, who did not have the opportunity to carry her baby to term?  What about us, who could not get out from under this house and had lost everything trying?  What about my beautiful, kind friend, who was taken from her family prematurely?  What about her children, her husband, her family?  "Everything happens for a reason"?  Does that mean things happen "because" God is trying to teach us something--like He intentionally "gives" us particular trials to teach us particular lessons?  Or, could it be that God instead uses the things that happen as a means to teach us what we need to learn?  To me, the phrase "everything happens for a reason" really begs the question, "why do bad things happen to good people?"

There are reasons, of course, why "bad things happen to good people" (and "good things happen to 'bad' people" for that matter).  One explanation is that we have agency, and, acting as agents, our actions have consequences for good or bad that affect both us and innocent bystanders.  Another explanation is that we live in a fallen world that is not perfect and, therefore, prone to suffering.  Another is that there is opposition in all things--that we could not appreciate the good if we don't experience the bad.  But, why doesn't God intervene?  Why does he allow it?  Does everything really "happen for a reason"? And, if so, why do some people seem to experience so much more pain and suffering than others? 

In light of the experiences of my loved-ones and of my own over these last few years, I have been contemplating alot about prayer and the degree of intervention God has in our lives.  Since that time, we have acquired another home and added a fifth sweet baby boy to our family.  And, even though the pain has faded since that particular trial ended (much like you come to forget the degree of pain you really experience during child-birth), I still remember feeling particularly hurt and defeated by the fact that God was "allowing" the trial to continue--that He wasn't taking it away when I had done everything He had asked me to and was doing all in my power to show integrity toward the other parties involved.  Why weren't my prayers "being answered"?  I have offered countless prayers throughout my life.  And, it seems that during those difficult three years I was almost in a constant state of prayer, as I tried to cope with the struggles we were facing and witnessing.  And, one major thing I learned during that time of intense and constant prayer was that at the times when I stopped praying for the trial to be taken away and instead prayed for the strength to endure, I was able to find happiness even amidst the difficulties--when I stopped asking for God to change my circumstances and instead asked Him to change me, I was happy.

I think the way God is most active in our lives is not so much in changing our circumstances, but more so in changing "us".  He can use our circumstances to accomplish that change in us, so he doesn't need to rob agency by changing our circumstances.  I think that the phrase, "everything happens for a reason," would be more accurately expressed as, "God can create a reason for everything."  When He doesn't remove a trial, it doesn't mean He doesn't love us enough to answer our prayers or even that He is telling us "no".  It means that He loves us enough to use the temporal circumstances of a fallen world, full of agents, to change who we are as eternal beings--to make us better and bring us long-lasting happiness.  In other words, I don't think God regularly actively changes our circumstances, but that more often, He affords us our agency and allows the consequences of natural laws to take place, because He knows that, regardless of what happens in our temporal lives here on this earth, He can use our experiences to change "us" instead.  And, that is where the real miracle lies. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Repentance—The Second Principle of the Gospel

I guess I never posted my talk on Repentance that I gave in church last year.  Here it is, a year late.  Sorry.

Repentance—The Second Principle of the Gospel
Jennifer Earl Norton

When we were asked to speak in Sacrament Meeting, we were informed that the theme for this month is “repentance.”  What an exciting theme.  Studying the fundamental and foundational principles of the gospel always brings great insight.  There are so many new things to learn about such principles—things that we don’t even realize are left to learn—and there seems always to be a greater depth at which to understand these principles.  Being that this is not a principle that I have specifically studied before, I must admit that I do not yet understand it in as great a depth as I would like to.  But, considering that the first talk I gave in this ward was on faith, the first principle of the gospel, it seems only fitting that I give this second talk on repentance, the second principle of the gospel.  In the 1953 book, “Gospel Ideals,” President David O. McKay is quoted saying, “Every principle and ordinance of the gospel of Jesus Christ is significant and important . . . , but there is none more essential to the salvation of the human family than the divine and eternally operative principle [of] repentance.”  Well, if that doesn’t make studying the principle of “repentance” intriguing, I don’t know what will.

So, what is repentance?
In my personal study, whenever I aim to better understand a particular principle, I always begin first with the definition of the word.  Many times I turn to the Bible Dictionary for insight.  The Bible Dictionary explains that the Greek translation of the word “repentance” refers to “change” and explains it as a “fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world”—“a turning of the heart and will to God.”  Elder Russell M. Nelson of the quorum of the twelve apostles expounds further on this Greek translation in his April 2007 General Conference address.  He explains that the Greek verb for “repentance” is “metanoeo”.  He then breaks down this Greek word, describing each part, with the prefix “meta” meaning “change”, the suffix “nous” meaning “the mind,” and the conjugations of “gnosis” meaning “knowledge”, and “pneuma” meaning “spirit”.  Understanding repentance in this way, as change in the mind and spirit and as a fresh view about God, oneself, and the world, lends great insight into the study of this principle.  When Christ commands us to repent, He is commanding us to change ourselves and turn toward God, gaining a fresh view on things both temporal and eternal, not only to demonstrate remorse and restitution for sin.

So, how do we obtain this change, this fresh view?  How do we approach the process of repentance? 
I would suggest that this second principle of the gospel called repentance is the natural result of the first—Faith (the working knowledge obtained and maintained through the observation and application of true principles).  Faith is the key to our becoming like Christ, to developing His pure love; as, the acquisition of knowledge initiates change in all aspects of our lives by simply creating for us a more accurate view of reality.  This process of becoming like Christ is the process of repentance; it is changing, turning toward God, and gaining a “fresh view [on Him], oneself, and the world”.
We had an experience last week that demonstrates how obtaining accurate knowledge results in change in oneself.  My parents were looking after our children while we were in Flagstaff moving our house.  While away from us, our son, Benjamin, broke his leg.  When the injury occurred, our initial reaction was not one you would expect following a serious injury.  Afterall, there were no visible signs of injury and his behavior could easily be explained as a vie for attention disguised in a simple overreaction to a minor injury, as is often the case with homesick children.  But, once we learned through the x-rays that he had actually suffered a severe break in his tibia, our behavior as parents immediately changed.  This simple knowledge immediately gave us a fresh view on the reality of the situation, giving us penitent hearts and changing our behavior toward him.  This experience is a simplistic example, but illustrates how the acquisition of knowledge initiates change in all aspects of our lives by simply creating for us a more accurate understanding of reality. 
So, we can see that developing our faith is the key to initiating change in the mind and spirit and developing a fresh view, as repentance is the natural consequence of that acquired knowledge.  As we learn of and live gospel principles, we are brought to repentance.  Similarly repentance, or change in self, leads us to better understand and live more gospel principles as well.  Clearly, the first two principles of the gospel, faith and repentance, go hand in hand—faith is necessary for repentance and repentance begets increased faith, creating a cycle that propels us up into the loving arms of our Father in Heaven.  But, understanding how to bring about repentance does us no good if we don’t understand why we should repent. 

Why must we repent?
Alma told his son, Corianton, that this mortal life is a probationary time specifically prepared to allow for us to repent (Alma 42).  Why would Alma stress the importance of repentance in the purpose of life?  Why would David O. McKay stress the importance of repentance for salvation?  Why would Christ consistently command us to repent?  Clearly, repentance is imperative for all of us.  But, what makes it so important?  Why is it necessary? 
If God is the perfect, just God that He is, then eternal law must be perfectly followed and enforced in order to satisfy the demands of justice.  Because of Adam’s transgression, we are born into a fallen state, cut off both physically and spiritually from the presence of the Lord and allowed to be tempted, which presents this problem:  if we are fallen, and if we live in a state of sin, then justice can only be satisfied if we are consigned forever to be cut-off from the presence of the Lord (Alma 42).  Our violation of eternal law leaves us imperfect and, as Nephi tells us, no unclean thing can remain in God’s presence (1 Nephi 10).  Thus, the violation of eternal law prevents us from dwelling with God.  However, God is our loving and merciful Heavenly Father as well.  He wants His children to return to His eternal presence, despite violation of eternal law.  So, what is His solution to this problem?  An atonement. 
Christ’s atonement both pays the debt created by our sins as well as allows Him the ability to judge us righteously and apply mercy appropriately, allowing mercy to satisfy the demands of justice rather than those demands being satisfied by perfection in life.  Because He lived a perfect life, Christ can dwell eternally in the presence of the Lord based on His own merit.  He met the demands of justice perfectly in His own life and thus qualifies for that reward outright.  Therefore, He owes no debt to justice for Himself.  This fact allows His suffering to pay the debt for others instead, as it is not needed for His own salvation.  Had He not lived a perfect life, then, as it does us, justice would have claimed Him, preventing his eternal dwelling in the presence of the Lord.  But, because justice can have no claim on Him due to His perfect life, He chose to suffer in order to pay our debt, allowing Him to become our debtor.  Because none of us has lived a perfect life, and because He paid the debt for our sins, we will eternally be in His debt. 
This fact allows Christ the position to distribute mercy.  Thus, through the mercy of our Debtor, the demands of justice are satisfied.  As our debtor, It is Christ who will determine in the final judgment if we have undergone enough change (in other words, repented sufficiently) to return to the eternal presence of the Lord, judging us according to our works and restoring good for good and evil for evil.  As Alma describes it in chapter 42, verse 15, “And now, the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made;  therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might  be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also.”  (For that matter, the atonement also takes effect in our lives not only as a saving grace, but also as a comforting grace—bringing us comfort and strength amidst our struggles and helping bring about that change within us). 
But, can the grace of God alone save us?  No, it cannot.  Even with an atonement in place, if we do not repent (in other words, if we do not allow Christ’s atonement to change us and turn us toward God), then we continue to sin and therefore remain in a fallen and unclean state, unable to allow the atonement to work in our lives and bring us back into the presence of the Lord, since no unclean thing can dwell in His presence.  We cannot be cleansed from our sins if we choose to remain in our sins.  God will not force us to turn toward Him and remain in His presence.  Thus, if mercy were to save us regardless of repentance, regardless of change, then it would rob justice, as both the penitent and the impenitent would receive the same reward.  Thus we see that Christ’s atonement is necessary for our exaltation, but it must be combined with our own accountability as well; justice will have its demands on us if we do not make that change—if we do not repent.  Similarly, even if we do repent and change, it does not take away the fact that we sinned in the first place, creating a debt that must be paid in order to satisfy justice.  So, without Christ’s atonement, our own personal change alone cannot allow mercy to satisfy those demands of justice either.  In this sense, both we and He account for our sins.  In essence both grace and works are needed to appease the law of justice and gain salvation (2 Nephi 25).

But, why have a law at all?
 Afterall, Alma tells us in chapter 42, verse 16-18:
 16 Now, repentance could not come unto men except there were a punishment, which also was eternal as the life of the soul should be, affixed opposite to the plan of happiness, which was as eternal also as the life of the soul.
 17 Now, how could a man repent except he should sin? How could he sin if there was no law? How could there be a law save there was a punishment?
 18 Now, there was a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man.
So, why create law and punishment and thus the ability to sin and the need for repentance?  Why not simply live in a state of innocence as did Adam and Eve before the fall, unable to sin and repent, so that we do not have the problem of fallen nature to prevent us from dwelling in God’s presence? 
Was this not Lucifer’s plan?  It seems like a reasonable plan.  It’s no wonder that a third of the host of heaven supported this plan.  But, are God’s desires only for us to dwell with him again?  Are our only desires for our children to have them with us forever?  I would say no.  Do we not also want them to have all that we have?  So it is with God—He wants us to have all that He has—He wants us to become like Him, to develop the pure love of Christ so that we may experience and bask in the joy associated with that pure love.  We cannot do that without change.  We cannot do that without gaining a fresh view.  We cannot do that without repentance.  It is through our experience and change gained in this mortal probation that Christ’s atonement is able to give us the power to become like Him and gain His perspective.  Thus, repentance is necessary for us to receive all that The Father has.  Without it, there would be no purpose to this mortal life here on earth—we simply could have remained with God as innocent children.  But, this life gives us the opportunity to repent—the opportunity to undergo change that molds us to become like God and receive all that He hath.

Thus we see the vital importance of repentance in our lives.  Because repentance is necessary for us to become like God, so is an atonement, so that mercy may claim the penitent from justice.  As we are told in the Bible Dictionary, repentance “is not optional for salvation;  it is a commandment of God.”  It is my prayer that we may take the steps necessary to change—that we may apply the first two principles of the gospel in our lives—that we may gain the faith necessary for repentance.  Repentance does not have to be an overwhelming, daunting task.  It begins with the small steps necessary for the acquisition of faith, of knowledge.  We start line upon line, precept upon precept.  Let us choose one principle (such as prayer, or scripture study, or church attendance, or service, or whatever) and then add to it until we acquire the degree of faith that will facilitate that change within us, bringing about our repentance.  And, as we consistently seek for greater faith and greater repentance, I testify that we will gain that fresh view on God, ourselves, and the world that will bring us home to Him again, that we may receive all that He hath.  I say these things in the name of our Savior, by whom our sins were atoned for, even Jesus Christ, amen.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Grace and Works--An Excellent Article

(image from

As I've been preparing for a talk I've been asked to give this week in church on repentance (talk to come in a later post), I came across this excellent article. As it applies to the previous "Knowing by the Spirit" discussions, I thought my readers might find it interesting. I sure did. It is a 1981 article by Gerald N. Lund. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Salvation: By Grace or by Works?
By Gerald N. Lund

When the Apostle Paul was imprisoned at Philippi, he was asked by a distressed jailer, “What must I do to be saved?”

Without reference to obedience or repentance or good works that he himself so often spoke of, Paul simply answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” (Acts 16:30–31.)

But in a church that also has many ancient and modern scriptural passages stressing works of righteousness and the importance of obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel, scriptural passages like Acts 16:31 often give rise to confusion.

“As far as I’m concerned,” one missionary said to his companion, “when somebody starts quoting Paul on salvation by grace, I just quote James on faith without works being dead (see James 2:17–26) and try to get off the subject as quickly as possible.”

“Before I joined the Church,” a Sunday School teacher confessed to his class of teenagers, “I quoted the words of Paul to everyone. Now I just kind of steer away from what he said. I know now how important good works are, so I put the emphasis there.”

It isn’t difficult to understand these reactions. Paul’s ringing defense of salvation by grace and his emphatic denunciation of justification through works of the law seem almost in direct contradiction to our third Article of Faith: “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” [A of F 1:3]

The problem in understanding Acts 16:31 isn’t that Paul de-emphasizes the atoning sacrifice of the Savior, but rather that he seems to de-emphasize the need for works. What missionary hasn’t been confronted with Paul’s statement to the saints in Rome: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Furthermore, in both Galatians and Romans, he pointedly rejects any idea that justification comes through works of the old law:

“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:16; see also Rom. 3:20, 28).

Does Paul indeed reject the value of works for the disciple of Christ? Or was he simply reacting to the Jewish Christians who insisted that adherence to the law of Moses was necessary if one were to be saved? And, for us in the latter-days, does Paul’s theological position coincide with that revealed in latter-day scripture?

Inadequate Explanations

There are two different ways in which Church members typically seek to synthesize Paul’s teachings with Latter-day Saint theology. The first suggests that by “the law” Paul means only the law of Moses. Without a doubt, there is merit in this. There was a tendency among some Jewish Christians to insist that Christianity still required obedience to Mosaic principles such as circumcision, the dietary laws, and the observance of certain festivals. Paul combats that doctrine strongly, saying that no matter how strictly a person kept the law of Moses, it of itself would not bring salvation. The power of salvation comes only through Christ because of his atonement.

However, to limit Paul’s meaning to the law of Moses alone would not be quite accurate. Paul rejects the adequacy of the Mosaic code in and of itself for salvation, but he makes it broader than that too. For example, in warning the Ephesians about concluding that a man is saved by works, he makes no reference to the law: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourself: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph. 2:8–9.) So while this explanation is somewhat correct, it does not go far enough.

The second typical explanation goes something like this: The fall of Adam brought two kinds of death into the world—physical death, which is the separation of body and spirit, and spiritual death, which is separation of man from God. The atonement of Christ overcame physical death through the Resurrection. This is salvation by grace because it comes to all men automatically and does not depend on what kinds of lives they have lived. But, if we wish to overcome spiritual death and enter back into God’s presence, we must be obedient to laws and principles. This is exaltation by works. Thus, according to this explanation, we are saved by grace and exalted by works.

This is an appealing explanation because it seems to provide a logical argument that fits the statements of Paul neatly into it. However, there is a doctrinal error involved here. While the resurrection of the dead is certainly an integral part of the plan of salvation, and is unconditional and independent of men’s works, the term salvation as used in the scriptures does not mean physical resurrection alone. As Elder Bruce R. McConkie has pointed out, salvation is synonymous with exaltation:

“Salvation in its true and full meaning is synonymous with exaltation or eternal life and consists in gaining an inheritance in the highest of the three heavens within the celestial kingdom. With few exceptions this is the salvation of which the scriptures speak. It is the salvation which the saints seek.” (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 670.)

Those who are uncomfortable with Paul’s statements about grace and salvation should bear in mind that the same teachings are found in other scripture as well. Nephi, for example, nearly echoes Paul’s words to the Ephesians when he says, “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23). And Lehi’s explanation of the Atonement to Jacob is remarkably similar to Paul’s explanation of justification by faith in Romans 3 [Rom. 3], even down to the phrase “by the law no flesh is justified” (see 2 Ne. 2:5). Likewise, the Doctrine and Covenants points out that both justification and sanctification come by grace (see D&C 20:30–31).

How, then, are the principles of grace and works to be understood in relationship to each other? To come to that understanding we must first look at some related concepts—the concepts of sin and transgression, of justice, and of the Fall.

Sin, Transgression, and the Law of Justice

The concept of sin rests upon the concept of law. If there were no law, there could be no sin (see 2 Ne. 2:13; Alma 42:17), because “sin is the transgression of the law” (1 Jn. 3:4). However, for purposes of understanding the Atonement better, it might be helpful to draw a distinction between two important variations in how the law may be violated. A person may violate the law in spite of his knowledge of it; that is, he breaks the law deliberately. But others may violate the law because they are unaware of its existence (ignorance) or because they do not have sufficient maturity to understand the implications of it (lack of accountability). For clarification, let us use two terms to delineate the important differences in these two concepts. Any violation of the law that is willful and knowing we shall call “sin.” But any violation that results either from ignorance or lack of accountability we shall call “transgression.” The scriptures do not distinguish between these two terms consistently, but such a distinction may help us understand some important points about the Atonement. For example, it helps us understand why children under the age of accountability cannot sin (see D&C 29:47). Any parent who has observed his children’s behavior knows that they often violate laws of the gospel. They hit brothers and sisters, demonstrate extreme selfishness at times, and can be unmercifully cruel to playmates. But while these are “transgressions” they are not “sins,” because as Mormon points out, children are “not capable of committing sin” (see Moro. 8:8). Much the same is true of those who have reached adulthood but have relatively little or no opportunity to learn the principles of righteousness. They also violate the laws of God, sometimes horribly so, as in the case of many primitive peoples, but they are of necessity judged differently because they do not “sin” in the sense of willing and deliberate rebellion against God. (See Rom. 2:12; D&C 82:3; also Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938, p. 218.)

Standing alongside the concepts of sin and transgression is the law of justice, which implies consistency in reward and punishment. In other words, there would be no justice if one person could violate the law and escape its punishment while another was punished for the same act. Elder McConkie points out that “justice demands that a penalty be paid for every violation of the Lord’s laws” (Mormon Doctrine, p. 406). The opposite, or positive side, of that idea is that for every keeping of the Lord’s law there is a reward (see D&C 130:20–21). If these punishments and rewards were not consistent throughout the universe and in all of eternity, justice would be violated. Briefly stated, then, the law of justice is that for every violation of law there is a punishment (ultimately suffering and misery), and for every obedience to the law there is a reward (ultimately joy and peace).

Also embodied in the concept of justice is the idea that men are punished only for those things of which they themselves are guilty. This would make it unjust to punish one man for another’s sin; likewise, if through ignorance or lack of accountability there is no guilt, it would be unjust to mete out punishment.

The Fall of Man

Just as the violation of the law has a dual nature (sin and transgression), and the law of justice has a dual nature (reward and punishment), so does the fall of man have a dual nature. The two falls are, as one person termed them, “the fall of Adam” and “the fall of me.”

When Adam transgressed the commandment given him by the Father in the Garden of Eden, he brought about the fall of man. Because of his transgression, death—both spiritual and temporal—entered the world; as a result, all men are born into a state of existence where they are separated from God and also must suffer physical death. Though these both end up working for our positive benefit, neither is the result of our own actions, but of Adam’s transgression and fall. They come upon us automatically and inescapably. However, “the fall of me” takes place for each of us as we individually sin. We’ll have more to say of this aspect of the Fall later.

Having discussed sin and transgression, justice, and the Fall, we have now laid enough groundwork to understand one of the important aspects of the atoning sacrifice of the Savior, that part that can be termed the “unconditional” atonement. The first application of the unconditional atonement is to the fall of Adam. We have pointed out that it would be unjust for a person to be punished for violations of the law that he did not commit. So regardless of the kind of life a person has led, the ultimate effects of the fall of Adam that we have been discussing are overcome for every soul that comes to earth. All persons will be resurrected and overcome physical death, and also, all will be brought back into the presence of God by the power of Christ for the period of judgment and the assignment of glory. (See 1 Cor. 15:22; 2 Ne. 9:38) Thus, both physical and spiritual deaths are removed through Christ. However, remaining in the presence of God is a matter relating to the “conditional atonement.”

Before analyzing that principle, however, there is a second application of the “unconditional” atonement. The “unconditional atonement” applies to those who are guilty of transgression but not sin in the sense we defined these terms. If there was no knowledge or accountability, it would be unjust to mete out punishment. Nevertheless, justice demands payment for every violation of the law, whether the violation be sin or transgression. So, as one example, the atonement of Christ automatically redeems children who die before they reach the age of accountability, and they are brought back into the presence of God. (See D&C 137:10.)

The Fall of Me

Now let us turn to the second aspect of Christ’s atonement, the “conditional” atonement.

While all of us were born into a situation where we are separated from God because of Adam (this we shall recognize as a form of spiritual death), we (only those who are accountable, of course) remain in that state because of our own personal fall which results from our own sins. The Doctrine and Covenants clearly points out, however, that we could enter back into God’s presence in this life if we would but purify ourselves from sin—or, in the terms we are using, overcome the effects of our own personal fall. (See D&C 67:10, D&C 88:68; D&C 93:1; see also Ether 3:13.) This purification from sin strongly involves the role of works—works of repentance and obedience are indispensable to the achievement of such a high and holy privilege. Even so, is it really by our works that we are saved from spiritual death? Again Paul and the other prophets indicate no. And to understand this, we must once again look at the law of justice.

Remembering that every violation of the law demands punishment of suffering, there are only two ways possible to meet the demands of the law of justice. Either one keeps the law perfectly and never gets in debt to the law, or else one must pay the debt of suffering. The law is very exact. Even if it is violated only once, the violator is in its debt and must suffer the consequences. Perhaps this is why James warns, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).

Now we can see why both Paul and Lehi warn us that no one can be justified by the law: no one (with one exception) has ever kept the law perfectly. Every soul is in debt to the law. “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).

The Need for Grace

In Greek, the word which is translated as grace means “good-will, loving kindness, favor.” In the New Testament usage, the word implies “the idea of kindness which bestows upon one what he has not deserved.” (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, trans. Joseph Henry Thayer, Grand Rapids: Zonderron Publishing House, 1962.)

In the scriptural sense of the term, it is impossible for a man to be justified (brought back into a proper relationship with God) by his own works, because no one can keep the law perfectly. This was the very mistake that the Pharisees fell into with regard to the Mosaic law. We sometimes smile at their tremendously careful attempts to define the law and what was acceptable to it; but if you hold that a man is brought into the proper relationship with God by his own works alone, then theirs was a logical position to take. If the tiniest infraction of the law puts one’s relationship to God in jeopardy, then one must be extremely careful about any violation. The early rabbis simply carried that idea to its extreme. For example, in the law it said, “Keep the Sabbath day holy.” Very well then, what does that mean in terms of my behavior? Well, for one thing, I mustn’t do any work. All right, but what happens if my house should catch fire on the Sabbath? Is it “work” to take things out and save them from destruction? A ridiculous question?—not if you are seeking justification by the law. And so, with great precision the rabbis enumerated what could and could not be saved. They even defined how much food could be saved, depending on what time of day the fire occurred. If it broke out on Friday evening (the Jewish Sabbath went from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday), one could save enough for three meals; if Saturday morning, two meals; and if Saturday afternoon, only one. (See Mishnayoth [The Oral Law], “Tractate Sabbath,” 16:2.)

These are the kinds of logical conclusions one is forced to if one seeks justification by the works of the law alone.

To better see why such attempts are ineffective, let us analyze a parable given by Elder Boyd K. Packer in an April 1977 general conference address (“The Mediator,” Ensign, May 1977, pp. 54–56), in which he refers to the spiritual jeopardy of all those who are born on this earth:

“There once was a man who wanted something very much. It seemed more important than anything else in his life. In order for him to have his desire, he incurred a great debt.

“He had been warned about going into that much debt, and particularly about his creditor. But it seemed so important for him to do what he wanted to do and to have what he wanted right now. He was sure he could pay for it later.

“So he signed a contract. He would pay it off some time along the way. He didn’t worry too much about it, for the due date seemed such a long time away.” (p. 54.)

Thus, having entered mortality in a state of innocence, man begins to sin and loses his perfect worthiness. He incurs a debt (a burden of sin) which, unless paid in full, will extend into the eternities “the spiritual death, which is separation from the presence of our Heavenly Father” (p. 56).

Under these circumstances (disregarding the Atonement for the moment), even if he suddenly realized that he had cheated himself of the opportunity to go back to the presence of God and stopped increasing his debt (that is, he stopped committing sin and became obedient), there is still no way that he could ever qualify to return to the Father. Even if he only committed one sin (which is unrealistic, of course, for most of us sin not once but many times), he still could not get back; full payment is the condition for admittance, and there can be no exceptions—justice is perfectly exact. Ceasing to sin merely stops the increase in the burden of debt—it does not generate the means to repay.

There is, of course, an advantage in keeping the burden of sin (the debt to the law) as small as possible; nevertheless, at the commission of the first sin a person loses his ability to return to God.

Elder Packer continues:

“As it always does, the day came, and the contract fell due. The debt had not been fully paid. His creditor appeared and demanded payment in full.”

The debtor’s dilemma is acute: “‘I cannot pay you, for I have not the power to do so,’ he confessed.

“‘Then,’ said the creditor, ‘we will exercise the contract, take your possessions, and you shall go to prison.’”

But the debtor begged, “‘Will you not show mercy?’”

The creditor replied, “‘Mercy cannot rob justice.’”

“There they were: One meting out justice, the other pleading for mercy. Neither could prevail except at the expense of the other. …

“Both laws, it seemed, could not be served. They are two eternal ideals that appear to contradict one another. Is there no way for justice to be fully served, and mercy also?

“There is a way! … but it takes someone else. And so it happened this time.

“The debtor had a friend. He came to help. He knew the debtor well. … He wanted to help because he loved him. He stepped between them, faced the creditor, and made his offer: …

“‘You demand justice. Though he cannot pay you, I will do so. You will have been justly dealt with and can ask no more. …’

“And so it was that the creditor was paid in full. … The debtor, in turn, had been extended mercy. Both laws stood fulfilled. Because there was a mediator, justice had claimed its full share, and mercy was fully satisfied.” (pp. 54–55.)

Once the debt was established, then, outside payment had to be introduced from somewhere or the debt would have stood forever. And thus it is that only in the sacrifice of the Only Begotten Son, who had no sin, could man be delivered from this sad state.

Christ—The Source of Unlimited Reserves

The Savior could effect the deliverance for two important reasons. First, he met the demands of the law of justice for himself because he kept the laws of God perfectly. In other words, Christ was justified by his works. He avoided the debt altogether and qualified himself to return to the Father—the only one of all mankind to do so. Secondly, he met the demands of the law for all of the rest of mankind. He himself owed no debt to the law, but he went before it and in essence said: “I am perfect and therefore owe you no suffering. However, I will pay the debt for all mankind. I will undergo suffering that I might pay the price for every transgression and sin ever committed by any man.”

And so, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ stood before the law and paid the price in suffering for every sin as though he himself had committed them. Such suffering was beyond the power of any mortal man to endure. We can’t understand how he did it, only that he did, and that “through Him mercy can be fully extended to each of us without offending the eternal law of justice” (Packer, p. 56). In terms of our parable, he generated sufficient payment to satisfy the debt of every other man. He met the demands of the law for himself through obedience, and for all others through suffering.

Alma told his son Corianton that mercy could not rob justice, or else “God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:25). And the merciful love of the Father and the Son did not rob justice of its rightful demands. Rather, it paid justice! Their Love said to Justice, by virtue of the price paid in the Garden, “Here is payment for the wrongs committed. You are paid in full. Now let the captives go free.”

In one of the most beautiful images in all of scripture, we find the solution to that awful dilemma we all face as sinners. We are standing before the bar as defendants, facing the great judge, God the Father. Our defense attorney—our “Advocate with the Father”—steps forward, not to refute the charges or to hold up a record of good works on our part to counterbalance our guilt, but to plead our case in a different manner:

“Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him—

“Saying: Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified;

“Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life.” (D&C 45:3–5.)

Nothing man could do for himself could bring him past that judgment bar successfully without such an Advocate. That is why eternal life is always a gift, and those who receive it do so by “inheritance.” It is interesting to note that the word inherit and its cognate words are used seventy-eight times in the Doctrine and Covenants, while the word earned and its related words are not used once.

The Conditional Atonement

But the sacrifice which pays the debt and frees us from the results of our own spiritual death, though it comes to us through the grace and goodness of God, is not unconditional. What, then, are the conditions? Very simply stated they are: first, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, then repentance, followed by baptism. If one truly moves through those steps—mentally, spiritually, and physically—then he is prepared for the reception of the Holy Ghost. When one is given the gift (there’s that word again) of the Holy Ghost, he has overcome spiritual death to a degree, for he has come into the presence of one member of the Godhead. The Holy Ghost’s role, of course, is to help us continue in the pre-conditions of this part of the Atonement and fully overcome spiritual death by coming back into the presence of the Father and the Son.

Now with all this in mind, remember that Paul said we are justified through and by faith (see Gal. 2:16; Rom. 3:28), which is the first principle of the gospel. In other words, faith is the principle that activates the power of the Atonement in our lives, and we are put back into a proper relationship with God (justification) as faith activates that power. There are marvelous implications in this concept, and perhaps another analogy can help us see more clearly the role faith and works play in achieving salvation:

We are like a powerhouse on a mighty river. The powerhouse has no power residing in itself; the potential power rests in the energy of the river. When that source of power flows through the generators of the power plant, power is transferred from the river to the power plant and sent out into the homes (lives) of others. So it is with faith. The power to achieve justification does not reside in man. Man requires the power of the atonement of Christ flowing into him. If no power is being generated, one does not—indeed, cannot—turn the generators by hand (justification by works); but rather, an effort is made to remove those things which have blocked the power from flowing into the generators (working righteousness as a result of faith). With this background then, one can understand why the scriptures clearly stress that faith includes works (see James 2:17–26); that is, obedience, commitment, and repentance—these are the works of faith that open up the channels so that the power of the atoning sacrifice of Christ can flow into us, redeem us from sin, and bring us back into the presence of God. Disobedience and wickedness dam those channels. (How literal is the word damnation!) The righteous works in themselves do not save us. The atoning power of God saves us. But our righteous works, activated by our faith in the Savior, are the condition for the operation of that power. Thus, each of us has something to say about whether he will be able to seek the gift and power of the Atonement in his behalf.

We Are Saved by Grace

In summary then, there is no need to go to extraordinary lengths to apologize for Paul, or try to explain away his statements on salvation by grace. We are saved by grace—saved by Christ’s love from physical and spiritual death; saved by Christ’s love from Adam’s fall and our own; saved from sin and transgression by the grace or gifts of God. The atoning power of God unto salvation is a freely available gift from him—but our works of righteousness are essential to bring the gift into power in our lives. Sin brings alienation from God. The more we sin, the greater the alienation and the more difficult it becomes to effectively tap the power of God, which alone is sufficient to save us from our sins.

President Joseph Fielding Smith has summarized the relationship between grace and works as follows:

“So Paul taught these people—who thought that they could be saved by some power that was within them, or by observing the law of Moses—he pointed out to them the fact that if it were not for the mission of Jesus Christ, if it were not for this great atoning sacrifice, they could not be redeemed. And therefore it was by the grace of God that they are saved, not by any work on their part, for they were absolutely helpless. Paul was absolutely right.

“And on the other hand, James taught just as the Lord taught, just as Paul had taught in other scripture, that it is our duty, of necessity, to labor, to strive in diligence, and faith, keeping the commandments of the Lord, if we would obtain that inheritance which is promised to the faithful. …

“So it is easy to understand that we must accept the mission of Jesus Christ. We must believe that it is through his grace that we are saved, that he performed for us that labor which we were unable to perform for ourselves, and did for us those things which were essential to our salvation, which were beyond our power; and also that we are under the commandment and the necessity of performing the labors that are required of us as set forth in the commandments known as the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56, 2:310–11.)

Thus, we can with Paul fervently exclaim that “the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). We should continue to stress the importance of obedience, of repentance, of faith, and strive with all our hearts to demonstrate good works in our lives. But we should never lose sight of the great overriding fact of the grace of God and the wholly central part it plays in our atonement and salvation.

Moroni, in the closing words of the Book of Mormon, teaches the relationship between the grace of Christ and the need for our righteous efforts. Note how he keeps distinctly clear what it is that perfects us, and yet what must happen in our lives to bring that about.

“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; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.

“And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.” (Moro. 10:32–33.)