In the Book of Mormon, Nephi has much to say about the mercy of God and salvation through Jesus Christ. Grace is implicit or explicit from his first chapter to his last. It is in that context that we should consider a passage that has caused some confusion about grace and salvation, 2 Nephi 25:23 with the phrase, “for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” Does this mean that salvation is a chore in which we do much of the work, or a transaction in which we pay as much of the price as we can, and Christ only steps in after all we have done or paid to make up the difference? Or does this actually mean that salvation is completely “apart from” if not unrelated to all that we can do? Or something else? I think a plausible answer comes through considering the context.
In 1 Nephi 1:8, Lehi sees a vision of God being praised by numberless concourses of angels. Note that they are singing and praising God, not their own majesty and mighty works. Of course they are praising God for His mercy. He gave them life, agency, and salvation. Then Lehi sees “One descending out of the midst of heaven, and he beheld that his luster was above that of the sun at noon-day” (vs. 8). This is Christ, the Savior and Redeemer. Lehi is given a book to read in which he sees the abominations of Jerusalem and the destruction that will come upon it (vs. 13), but as he reads further he cries out in praise of the Lord for his “mercy … over all the inhabitants of the earth” (vs. 14). Nephi ends chapter 1 by noting that the Jews were angry with Lehi and sought to kill him, but Nephi will show us “that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance” (vs. 20). The power to be delivered, whether from temporal captivity or the captivity of sin and death, is power that only comes from God. It is the grace of God that delivers us and gives us power to escape destruction and come unto Him.
Nephi ends his record in 2 Nephi 33, where he writes, “I glory in my Jesus, for he hath redeemed my soul from hell” (vs. 6). It was Christ, not Nephi, that brought redemption. But this grace is not given automatically to all the wicked who refuse the gift. It is given to those who seek it and accept it. This begins with belief in Christ, as Nephi explains in vs. 4, telling us that the words he has written “speaketh of Jesus, and persuadeth them to believe in him, and to endure to the end, which is life eternal.” Yes, Nephi, like Christ himself in the New Testament, observes that for our belief to bring eternal salvation, we must endure to the end (see Matthew 10:22, “he that endureth to the end shall be saved,” and Matthew 24:13, “he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved”). If we have enough agency to accept Christ, we have enough agency to reject Him and His grace.
Between these endpoints are more declarations on the mercy and grace of God. In Neohi’s psalm in 2 Nephi 4, he observes that God “hath visited me in so much mercy” (vs. 26 — “visited men” is what our current printing still has, but “visited me” is what the Printer’s Manuscript has and is the corrected reading given in Royal Skousen’s The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text [New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2009], p. 87, see also p. 753), praises the Lord as the source of his salvation and redemption (vv. 30-31), and warns of the danger of trusting in the arm of flesh rather than in the Lord (vs. 34). Redemption and deliverance come from the Lord, not from our works. But of course, trust in God means listening to Him and following Him, and that should endure not just in mortality, but forever.
Nephi quotes a speech from his father in 2 Nephi 2, telling us that “no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” who would sacrifice His life to redeem us (vs. 8). He quotes a sermon from his brother Jacob that exults in the mercy and grace of the Messiah (2 Nephi 9:8,19,53). Shortly after that, Nephi writes, “my soul delighteth in the covenants of the Lord which he hath made to our fathers; yea, my soul delighteth in his grace, and in his justice, and power, and mercy in the great and eternal plan of deliverance from death” (2 Nephi 11:5).
But Nephi’s writings on the atonement and the related concept, reconciliation, may be most helpful in providing context for 2 Nephi 25:23. Let’s begin with portions of 2 Nephi 25 that speak of the healing atonement of Christ, likening the merciful atonement to the the miraculous healing through the power of the brass serpent and the miraculous water from stone given through power of God in the days of Moses.
13 Behold, they will crucify him; and after he is laid in a sepulchre for the space of three days he shall rise from the dead, with healing in his wings; and all those who shall believe on his name shall be saved in the kingdom of God. Wherefore, my soul delighteth to prophesy concerning him, for I have seen his day, and my heart doth magnify his holy name….
20 And now, my brethren, I have spoken plainly that ye cannot err. And as the Lord God liveth that brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt, and gave unto Moses power that he should heal the nations after they had been bitten by the poisonous serpents, if they would cast their eyes unto the serpent which he did raise up before them, and also gave him power that he should smite the rock and the water should come forth; yea, behold I say unto you, that as these things are true, and as the Lord God liveth, there is none other name given under heaven save it be this Jesus Christ, of which I have spoken, whereby man can be saved.
These concepts are so precious that they must be preserved in writing from generation to generation (vv. 21-22). Then comes Nephi’s statement about grace, shown here with further context from following verses:
23 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.
24 And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled.
25 For, for this end was the law given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments.
26 And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.
27 Wherefore, we speak concerning the law that our children may know the deadness of the law; and they, by knowing the deadness of the law, may look forward unto that life which is in Christ, and know for what end the law was given. And after the law is fulfilled in Christ, that they need not harden their hearts against him when the law ought to be done away.
28 And now behold, my people, ye are a stiffnecked people; wherefore, I have spoken plainly unto you, that ye cannot misunderstand. And the words which I have spoken shall stand as a testimony against you; for they are sufficient to teach any man the right way; for the right way is to believe in Christ and deny him not; for by denying him ye also deny the prophets and the law.
29 And now behold, I say unto you that the right way is to believe in Christ, and deny him not; and Christ is the Holy One of Israel; wherefore ye must bow down before him, and worship him with all your might, mind, and strength, and your whole soul; and if ye do this ye shall in nowise be cast out.
30 And, inasmuch as it shall be expedient, ye must keep the performances and ordinances of God until the law shall be fulfilled which was given unto Moses.
The law of Moses is not the source of salvation. Indeed, the law is dead, but they keep the law of Moses until it shall be fulfilled because they have been commanded to do so. But it is in Christ that we have remission of sins, not the law and not anything we do, just as it is in Christ that we have the gift of resurrection, which cannot be achieved by anything we can do. Nevertheless, Nephi is certainly underscoring the necessity of keeping the commandments and also expressing our belief in Christ by zealous worship of Christ. And in vs. 23, he tells us not just to believe in Christ, but to also be “reconciled to God.” Why? Because we are saved by His grace “after all we can do.” While Christ does all the work of saving us, both from our sins and from death, there are things we need to do: believe in Him, worship Him, and be reconciled to Him.
“Reconcile” may be a key term for understanding Nephi. Let’s consider the two other ways that Nephi uses this rare Book of Mormon term:
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)
I also have charity for the Gentiles. But behold, for none of these can I hope except they shall be reconciled unto Christ, and enter into the narrow gate, and walk in the strait path which leads to life, and continue in the path until the end of the day of probation. (2 Nephi 33:9)
The first example implies active effort for people to make their lives become consistent with the will of God, implying repentance, but after that dramatic change in or lives, Nephi urges us to remember that is not our repentance or obedience that saves us, for “after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved.” This is a strong echo of 2 Nephi 25:23 and must be considered. As the Book of Mormon and the New Testament teach in abundance, repentance is essential, but the ability to repent at all is a miraculous gift of grace offered to us by the Savior. Our efforts to repent are needed, but forgiveness and salvation are gifts of grace. Likewise, after all our work to live and stay alive, to care for ourselves and our families, to bear and raise children, etc., life itself is a miraculous gift, resurrection is a miraculous gift, and eternal life is a miraculous gift of grace.
The second example from 2 Nephi 33:9 likewise reminds us that we must repent and seek to be following rather than rebelling against Christ, and as a result we must enter the narrow gate and strait path (in light of 2 Nephi 31-32, this suggests baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and pressing forward in following Christ).
Reconciliation, an English word whose roots point to “sitting down with” or “being seated with,” implies having a relationship with God, being pleasing to God, and removing barriers between us and God such as sinful behavior. Wycliffe in his translation of the Bible used “reconciling” (“recounseling”) in Romans 5:11 where the KJV has “atonement.” It takes faith and trust in the bounteous mercy of God to even get started on reconciliation, but it, like belief in God, is something we can choose to seek. We can choose to repent and become reconciled, though this is only possible because of the Atonement and love of Christ. As we do that, we will be invited to move forward on the straight and narrow path, to be baptized, to enter into a covenant with God, and to follow Him each day, repenting when we stray, always seeking Him. None of this can be done without His grace, but our agency must be part of the process as we choose to repent and accept His infinite mercy.
These two statements are nearly the same: “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) and “believe in Christ, and … 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 emphasis is on grace, but it requires our agency to accept and act on God’s merciful invitation.
A highly relevant passage on the issue of “all we can do” is from Alma 24, where the people of Ammon, newly converted Lamanites now called the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, are faced with violence from their fellow Lamanites. Rather than defend themselves, they feel they must give up their weapons of war that were tools of terrible sins in their past. The faithful brother of King Lamoni, the newly appointed king over the Lamanites who has taken the name Anti-Nephi-Lehi, makes this statement in Alma 24 as he prepares his people for their costly pacifist response to the imminent attack they are facing:
10 And I also thank my God, yea, my great God, that he hath granted unto us that we might repent of these things, and also that he hath forgiven us of those our many sins and murders which we have committed, and taken away the guilt from our hearts, through the merits of his Son.
11 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 —
12 Now, my best beloved brethren, since God hath taken away our stains, and our swords have become bright, then let us stain our swords no more with the blood of our brethren.
This great man, in spite of being such a fresh convert, understood grace, probably more fully than most of us. He said it was God who took away their sins and their stains, and God who gave them the opportunity and the ability to repent. It was God who took away their guilt, through the merits and grace of His Son. All they did was all they could, everything they could, to repent of the horrors of their sins. They yearned for Him, for His mercy, for cleansing, and they found it — through grace. Yes, they began to keep the commandments and loved one another. And of course, they quit killing people.They were appalled at the thought and would rather die than shed blood again and rekindle murderous thoughts and memories. But they had achieved this powerful cleansing and forgiveness rapidly. It did not take many decades of sacrifice and faithful efforts to qualify for grace. The “after all we can do” part was done quickly and a flood of saving grace had been poured out on this people. They rejoiced in that grace, treasured it, and would endure to the end — an end that would come swiftly for many of them because of their faith, praising God and His mercy even as armed soldiers fell upon them and slaughtered 1,005 now fully innocent people,
All we can do, and all we must do, is to believe in Christ and seek to repent and be reconciled with Him, or to at least have faith enough in Christ to begin to seek His grace. We do this knowing “that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead” (2 Nephi 2:8) and that he may bring about means to man to believe and repent, as Amulek taught in Alma 34 as he reiterates some of the very points Nephi teaches on the sacrifice of the Messiah and the meaning of the law of Moses:
13 Therefore, it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; and then shall there be, or it is expedient there should be, a stop to the shedding of blood; then shall the law of Moses be fulfilled; yea, it shall be all fulfilled, every jot and tittle, and none shall have passed away.
14 And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal.
15 And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.
16 And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption.
17 Therefore may God grant unto you, my brethren, that ye may begin to exercise your faith unto repentance, that ye begin to call upon his holy name, that he would have mercy upon you;
18 Yea, cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save.
The Atonement of Christ is what gives us the hope to even begin repentance and reconciliation, for this great manifestation of the love of Christ “bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance” (Alma 34:15). Through this love, through this hope He gives, we can then make a choice and begin: “begin to exercise your faith unto repentance, … begin to call upon his holy name, that he would have mercy upon you; Yea, cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save” (Alma 34:17-18). This is the path to reconciliation. Believing in Christ and believing Him, what He teaches, necessarily urges us toward repentance and reconciliation. We can begin, we can choose to begin, we can seek Him as we plead for His mercy and exercise a particle of faith to begin repenting, and if we hold onto that faith, it will lead us in His paths. These small steps to receive His grace are pretty much all we can do in this life, one step at a time, repenting as often as we stray, while He does all everything of importance: creating us and the cosmos, giving us life and agency, hope and love, means to repent, means to receive forgiveness, resurrection and eternal life. We are saved by His mercy and grace, after we choose Him, beginning with the desire to be reconciled to Him. That reconciliation and its aftermath of covenants made and kept, with ongoing repentance, is nothing to brag about. We rejoice in His grace that makes everything possible, conquering death and sin and bringing endless joy and life.
Our works do not save us. Nothing we do wipes away sins or conquers death. All that we can do is to choose Him and trust Him enough to begin the endless journey He will lead us on. We are saved by grace after all we can do. The little that we can and must do does not justify any allegation that we deny the mercy of Christ or exalt ourselves. Nephi’s words, understood in the context of his teachings on mercy, grace, and reconciliation, and in the context of the rest of the scriptures, are insightful and accurate, in spite of the limitations of language and translation.
- “Need a Little Help with that Spleen? My Discomfort with the Bicycle Analogy,” Arise from the Dust (“Mormanity” when posted), Dec. 11, 2006.
- “Why Does Nephi State that We Are Saved by Grace ‘After All We Can Do’?,” Book of Mormon Central, Oct. 10, 2017.
- “How Are We Saved By Grace? Are ‘Works’ Required for Salvation?,” LDSFAQ at JeffLindsay.com.