Grace vs. Works: Has the Pendulum Swung Too Far?

As the gospel continues to unfold, we need to be open to new and richer understandings of old words.

Few questions divide Christianity as much as whether we’re saved by grace or works. In this interview, Terryl Givens notes that a recent flood of talks and books by Latter-day Saints have swung the pendulum in the direction of grace. He says that while it’s an open question whether the rhetorical shift represents an overcorrection, Latter-day Saints should beware of forsaking doctrines unique to the Restoration—or embracing a false dichotomy.

Read Terryl Givens’ BYU Studies article, “Understandings of the Relationship Between Grace and Works.”

What concerns Terryl Givens about a recent “stream of books and talks emphasizing the role of grace in Restoration belief”?

For a long time, many Latter-day Saints have felt inadequate—or like newcomers at the table of interfaith relations. Some have been persuaded that we have neglected the role of grace in our theology and discourse alike.

I am particularly appreciative of those provocative words of President Nelson.

That may be true, but in overcompensating, we have at times neglected to recognize distinctions between our understanding of grace and that of fellow Christians—distinctions so essential as to render them incommensurate terms in our respective contexts.

How does Terryl Givens define grace?

I agree with the writer Matthew Arnold, who said what began as a simple literary term in the Bible—CHARIS (meaning kindness or graciousness or generosity)—became heavily freighted with theological overlays that were largely a Protestant invention.

An essential dimension of our temple theology is that from before the foundation of the world, Jesus Christ offered to do the work of atoning. His offer to do so was not in response to any merit or deserving on our part. Hence the entire plan of happiness is predicated on a generous gift.

In the Protestant tradition, grace means something quite different. It is connected with the doctrine of “imputed righteousness.”

So when a Protestant says “I am saved by Christ’s righteousness, not my own,” they mean something different than what we hear. They are invoking a principle by which Christ did not just die and suffer for them, but He was judged in their place.

An analogy would be having someone else taking the SAT in our stead. In this scenario, we know we could never meet the high standard needed, so a surrogate takes the exam in our place, and the administrator looks at the surrogate’s exam, and we pass because his paper was graded, not ours.

That is what it means to be saved by the principle of “imputed righteousness,” because our righteousness could never be sufficient. We are “considered” righteous by virtue of Christ’s merit.

Terryl Givens and Spencer Fluhman discuss the ways in which the Restoration informs our understanding of Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice. Dr. Givens also explains the original Greek reading of a commonly misunderstood portion of the Savior’s Sermon on the Mount.

How are metaphors of the atonement of Jesus Christ helpful—and not helpful?

These analogies can be helpful if we take them to mean Christ is always working with us to lend us aid, support, forgiveness, strength, and encouragement. Where they become less than helpful is when they envision salvation as being a reward or gift which requires a certain number of points or redemption certificates, and Jesus can make up our deficiency.

I think that is a very erroneous and impoverished way of looking at salvation. God may be infinitely patient with us, but He cannot bestow upon us chastity, or longsuffering, or meekness, or compassion, or unselfishness—or any of those attributes that constitute a celestial character.

It’s not like we can become 20% holy, and then He magically bestows upon us the deficit. We have to learn to live the kind of life that God lives, and to love in the way He loves. There are no shortcuts.

What is atonement theology?

Christian history has seen the development of several varieties of atonement theology. The first Christians had no such theology. They simply knew that in some way, Christ had taken their pains and sufferings and sins upon Himself in order to make possible their unconditional resurrection from the dead and their restoration to His presence on conditions of reforming their hearts. Anything we can say beyond that is speculation.

Should Latter-day Saints be conversant with theories about the Savior’s atoning sacrifice?

I don’t think we need to be conversant in the various theories (ransom theory, satisfaction theory, moral influence theory, and penal substitution are the main four).

However, I do think it is helpful for purposes of making us aware of how our contemporary ideas have been historically conditioned, and in many cases borrow from paradigms incompatible with the Restoration. Especially those that envision Jesus’s role as having to protect us from the retribution of an angry God.

How can Latter-day Saints discuss “pernicious doctrines” with people from other faiths without turning boundaries into battle lines?

We can begin by becoming aware that a vast array of contemporary theologians are making many of the same claims and criticisms about the Christian past that Joseph Smith did.

N. T. Wright says there is “nothing biblical” about much of our talk about atonement; only a minority of theologians today proclaim a God “without body, parts, or passions.”

Eternal principles may not change. But the Lord is very clear about the fact that language does.

Nicholas Wolterstorff has written of how meaningless is a transcendent God remote in space and time, and incapable of sharing human pain. Figures from the deceased John Paul II to leading Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart have challenged the view of salvation as a gift limited to a select few, and so forth.

We can engage productively in many of these conversations, while avoiding the language of exceptionalism and triumphalism.

Is it better to focus on grace or salvation?

I would rather put it this way. We need to encourage more consideration of the question N. T. Wright has posed to Christians: “What are we being saved for?”

When we see human existence as part of an eternal continuum, educative and sanctifying in its purpose, with a destiny to become like God, then we stop focusing on questions that are inherently misleading.

The emphasis shifts to becoming rather than getting.

I was surprised (and delighted!) by your encouragement of squishier definitions of terms like grace. Could you explain that for readers?

I’m not sure “squishier” is how I would put it! I would suggest that we need to always remember that we arrive late on the Christian scene. Saints and sinners alike have been having conversations and shaping vocabulary and definitions for a long, long time. So, we need to be self-aware about how we use terms that we inherited.

Joseph Smith rewrote the beginning and the end of the human saga; he could hardly do that without endowing all the language in between with new meanings—or at least new nuances.

And as the gospel continues to unfold, we need to be open to new and richer understandings of old words. Eternal principles may not change. But the Lord is very clear about the fact that language does.

Are we saved by faith or works?

Answering that question is like asking, “Have you stopped beating your dog yet?” It already situates us in a paradigm that we should reject.

As I explained above, we believe that eternal life is the life that God lives. He can’t give us that quality of life; He can do everything in His power to help us choose to follow a path that takes us there.

What does Terryl Givens admire about the Catholic church’s approach to theology?

Joseph Smith referred to the “Lectures on Theology,” which later became the “Lectures on Faith.” Fairly soon after his life, theology came to be associated in the Latter-day Saint mind with frail and misguided human efforts to fill in the vacuum left by “the apostasy.”

In the Catholic church, there is a recognition that theology makes no claims to authority, and operates in the service of authoritative doctrine. I wish we could share more widely in that appreciation for the ways in which authority and rational inquiry, faith and intellect, heart and mind, are supposed to work in productive harmony.

How does Terryl Givens end his essay about the relationship between grace and works? Why?

I close by suggesting that because the term “grace” has been co-opted and is now widely laden with erroneous nuances, we shouldn’t abandon the field (or the term). We need to find ways to celebrate the wonder and majesty of Christ life, and ministry, and sacrificial death, in ways that do credit to our adoration of him as our Healer and Savior. That may take some creative exposition.

What does the atonement of Jesus Christ mean to Terryl Givens?

I am particularly appreciative of those provocative words of President Nelson:

There is no amorphous entity called ‘the Atonement’ upon which we may call for succor, healing, forgiveness, or power. Jesus Christ is the source.

President Russell M. Nelson, “Drawing the Power of Jesus Christ into Our Lives

I appreciate them because they remind us that, as with the first Christians who often gave their lives, devotion lies in a personal love and gratitude toward a real individual who suffered on my behalf in real, concrete ways.

I do not love Christ because theology takes me there; I work in theology because my love for Christ leads me to want to better understand.

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Further reading

Yet to Be Revealed interviews

Terryl Givens theology resources

By Benjamin Pacini

Educator. Proud bow tie wearer. Imperfect disciple.

2 replies on “Grace vs. Works: Has the Pendulum Swung Too Far?”

Hi Ben. This is Brent Schmidt, a classicist and teacher at BYU-Idaho who worked on a C3 lab with you a couple of years ago. Did I ever share my book “Relational Grace” with you? The thesis of this work clears up a lot of basic questions about grace and the Restoration. I’ll send you a free pdf if you would like to read it. There are also a couple of copies I donated to the McKay library.

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