Prevenient Grace and the Book of Mormon

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Often, I am told that because I am a Latter-day Saint, I believe that I must add my works to the works of Christ before I can be saved—that although Christ’s Atonement is necessary, it is not sufficient for salvation. If this doesn’t mean I’m not a Christian, I’m told, it at least means that I’m different sort of Christian—that unlike my conventional Christian peers, I don’t rely wholly upon Christ for salvation.

What I find interesting is that many of my fellow Latter-day Saints accept this narrative as a given, and believe that we do have a different soteriology than our conventional Christian friends. I’ve frequently seen Latter-day Saints draw a contrast between our religious beliefs and conventional Christianity by claiming that, unlike conventional Christians, we believe that personal righteousness matters when it comes to salvation.

Now, I don’t intend to resolve this ongoing debate. I don’t pretend to have any special insights that will magically satisfy all participants in the discussion. I also don’t want to be guilty of “papering over” essential differences between faiths. I don’t want to rob LDS thought of its uniqueness amongst religions. There are crucial differences, even in our soteriology.

Rather, I just want to explore some passages of the Book of Mormon that may surprise us. I don’t think that either conventional Christians or Latter-day Saints have fully explored the nuances of what the Book of Mormon actually says about salvation. I think that if we as Latter-day Saints were to fully grasp what the Book of Mormon actually says, we might discover that we might at least have less to argue about with many conventional Christians on the issue of soteriology than we’ve been inclined to believe.

One thing that I’ve noticed about the scriptures is that the meaning they have for us can bend and change depending upon the interpretive lens through which we are reading them. If we believe a certain narrative about what it means to repent, for example, we’ll notice verses that support our narrative, and pass over verses that might lend support for a different narrative.

Sometimes it’s interesting to try to read the scriptures without any preconceived narrative, and just see what the verses reveal about themselves. “Let the data speak for themselves,” so to speak. If this is possible, it’s also very difficult. So instead of pretending that data just “spoke to me,” I’m going to be upfront that I’ve been reading some Methodist literature. Interestingly, the Methodist literature that I’ve been reading is contemporaneous with Joseph Smith and the publication of the Book of Mormon, and may therefore represent part of the lens, rightly or wrongly, through which early Latter-day Saints may have read and interpreted the Book of Mormon.

I’m not going to delve into the minute differences between Arminianism, synergism, semi-Pelagianism, and other iterations and parties of centuries long debate and argument. The philosophical puzzles they attempt to unravel may or may not be important in the larger picture. I don’t know that the Book of Mormon was written to answer all the philosophical inquiries that can be thrown at the soteriology written within it. All I know is that it seems that the Book of Mormon is potentially compatible with narratives of Christian redemption we normally attribute to conventional Christianity alone.

According to Wikipedia, in contrast to the Calvinistic idea that God’s grace is irresistable, and that it is impossible to fall from grace, Arminians (closely related to the Methodists) believe that

God’s prevenient grace is equally provided to all human beings alike, drawing them toward His love and salvation. In this view, (1) after God’s universal dispensation of grace to mankind, the will of man, which was formerly adverse to God and unable to obey, can now choose to obey; and (2) although God’s grace is a strong initial move to effect salvation, it can ultimately be resisted and rejected.

The term prevenient grace can be understood as, “preceding grace.” According to Wikipedia, it is “divine grace that precedes human decision. It exists prior to and without reference to anything humans may have done.” That is, God calls to us, prior to any act of our own, so that we can at that point choose to respond and proceed on the path to salvation. One Methodist book explains that this prevenient grace is

…the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our ‘first slight transient conviction’ of having sinned against God. God’s grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith.

The Wikipedia article continues, “As humans are corrupted by the effects of sin, prevenient grace allows persons to engage their God-given free will to choose the salvation offered by God in Jesus Christ or to reject that salvific offer.”

I’m going to say up front that I believe this. Without this idea of “prevenient grace,” I understand that our path to salvation begins with an arbitrary guess—a random act of prayer, ventured by the individual without no idea whatsoever what the consequences would be or why he was doing it. Before one first prays, with real intent, one must first know to pray—one must first be taught, either by family, teacher, or the Spirit itself, to pray. And I’m guessing that when my parents and teachers taught me to pray, the Spirit accompanied their teaching, prodding me to take it seriously.

That right there is an example of prevenient grace. Before any act of my own, I was invited by the Divine Voice to call upon Him. If I’ve obtained any blessing from God for praying, it’s only because God first reached out to me (through the scriptures, my parents, my teachers, the Spirit, etc.) and invited me to partake of His divine goodness.

We often talk about the Restoration of the Gospel being initiated by Joseph Smith’s prayer. But we sometimes forget that Joseph Smith tells a different story. From his perspective, his prayer was not the beginning of the process. He describes that he was first prompted by the Holy Spirit, while he was reading the New Testament, to call upon God. Without that direct, distinct, and memorable prompting, Joseph Smith may not have prayed at all.

In the church, we often talk about the “light of Christ,” which we think of as a moral compass universal to all mankind. That terminology works for our purposes. But where do we get this term from? There are a number of verses across the scriptures that include this phrase, but I remember personally being introduced to it through this passage from the prophet Mormon:

For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ … And now, my brethren, seeing that ye know the light by which ye may judge, which light is the light of Christ, see that ye do not judge wrongfully … Wherefore, I beseech of you, brethren, that ye should search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil; and if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ.

We can read this verse as saying that we of ourselves cannot know right from wrong—we only know right from wrong because Christ first enlightens us. That is, Christ sends forth His prevenient grace, His initial invitation, without which we have no means of discerning truth from error. Without this divine call, we are, in a sense, left to our own devices, and will wander without salvation—clueless and helpless to light our own way. Christ initiates the process of salvation.

Here is an article of faith of one Arminian sect (Mormons weren’t the only ones in Joseph Smith’s time that had “articles of faith” that started with the phrase “we believe”):

We believe that the human race’s creation in Godlikeness included ability to choose between right and wrong, and that thus human beings were made morally responsible; that through the fall of Adam they became depraved so that they cannot now turn and prepare themselves by their own natural strength and works to faith and calling upon God. But we also believe that the grace of God through Jesus Christ is freely bestowed upon all people, enabling all who will to turn from sin to righteousness, believe on Jesus Christ for pardon and cleansing from sin, and follow good works pleasing and acceptable in His sight.

As Latter-day Saints, we wince and shudder at the term “depraved,” and might sometimes fixate on that terminology. But if we were to replace the word for a gentler one, what in this article of faith might we disagree with? The Book of Mormon teaches rather plainly that it is only through the divine bestowal of the light of Christ that any of us can know right and wrong—and even in Joseph Smith’s account, it was only an act of prevenient grace that brought him to his knees in prayer in the first place.

As a side note, Latter-day Saints often use a passage from King Benjamin’s sermon to remind us that children, are, indeed, innocent from sin, and that we thus do not believe in the total depravity of man as depicted by traditional Christians. What Benjamin actually says is telling: “And even if it were possible that little children could sin they could not be saved; but I say unto you they are blessed; for behold, as in Adam, or by nature, they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins.” In other words it is only by Christ’s grace that they are saved—implying that even without accountability and the ability to sin, their salvation is authored by Christ alone. The prophet Mormon makes this point as well, saying that “little children are alive in Christ,” implying that innocence from sin alone could not save them—Christ still had to work redemption for them, and did so.

This implies almost precisely what the doctrine of total depravity (stripped of its loaded terminology) really means to those who believe it—that without Christ, and His initial reaching out to us, we (all of us, including children) are lost, alone, and devoid of light and truth. The only reason children aren’t lost, alone, and devoid of light and truth is because Christ has reached out to them and has mercifully proffered salvation to them. To claim that children need baptism is, as Mormon put it, to deny the mercies of Christ—but so is denying that they need mercies in the first place, for that is the common lot of all mankind. There is no other way besides Christ, not for children, and not for adults, is what King Benjamin was plainly saying.

So here’s a recap of the soteriology so far:

Alone, we are helpless to save ourselves. We can’t even reliably discern between right and wrong. Not only are we mired in sin, we don’t even know that we’re mired in sin. We have no means to reach out for God, for we don’t even know do so in the first place without God first teaching us to. So how do we lay hold upon good things? It’s a logical question in light of this initial condition of total helplessness without God.

Mormon answers that question. God first sends us the light of Christ, to teach us to discern between good and evil. And as we respond to that divine act of grace, that initial invitation, Mormon says, God sends “angels to minister unto the children of men, to make manifest concerning the coming of Christ; and in Christ there should come every good thing.” In addition, Mormon continues, “God also declared unto prophets, by his own mouth, that Christ should come. And behold, there were divers ways that he did manifest things unto the children of men, which were good; and all things which are good cometh of Christ; otherwise men were fallen, and there could no good thing come unto them.”

Again, Mormon is clear: without God first reaching out to us, enlightening us by the light of Christ, inviting us to Christ through angels, messengers, and prophets, no good thing could come to us. “And by so doing,” Mormon continues, “the Lord God prepareth the way that the residue of men may have faith in Christ, that the Holy Ghost may have place in their hearts, according to the power thereof.” It seems here that God initiates the process of salvation through an act of prevenient grace—without which we can’t even incline our hearts towards Christ in the first place—and our job is to respond to His divine call.

What happens when we respond to the divine call? We are directed to messengers, who teach us about Christ (prophets, scriptures, angels, etc.). Sometimes the Divine Call that initiates salvation is delivered by these messengers as well, but always accompanied by the voice of the Holy Spirit. These messengers then invite us to turn ourselves over to Christ. What happens when we turn our hearts over to Christ? If we respond to it, Christ remakes our hearts, through the Holy Spirit, and we are changed by His grace.

Again, this is the pattern of the Book of Mormon, over and over.

In King Benjamin’s address, we see this pattern. He first reminds his people that we are inescapably indebted to God for everything that we have, for even our very knowledge of Him was a divinely bestowed gift. He then teaches them of Christ:

And the Lord God hath sent his holy prophets among all the children of men, to declare these things to every kindred, nation, and tongue, that thereby whosoever should believe that Christ should come, the same might receive remission of their sins. … There shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.

In short, King Benjamin invites them to Christ (and presumably, the Holy Spirit carried that invitation to the hearts of his congregation). True to the Arminian position, the people then have a choice to accept or reject this divine manifestation of prevenient grace. They accepted, and prayed: “O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Immediately, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ.”

King Benjamin then warns them to always remember their total reliance on Christ—and their own nothingness before God without Christ. He explained to them what happens next:

And behold, I say unto you that if ye do this ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; and ye shall grow in the knowledge of the glory of him that created you, or in the knowledge of that which is just and true. And ye will not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably, and to render to every man according to that which is his due.

And ye will not suffer your children that they go hungry, or naked; neither will ye suffer that they transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel one with another … But ye will teach them to walk in the ways of truth and soberness; ye will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another.

And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.

We often read these verses as instructions, but it seems that King Benjamin is just describing basic cause and effect—if you turn to Christ, he says, you’ll do these things. Turning to Christ, we find ourselves living as He did. We find our hearts changing. We find ourselves transforming. We find Christ working in us to make us better people.

Let’s use another example. Alma the younger is talking with some Nephites about his father’s converts. He says,

Behold, he [God] changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word; yea, they were encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell, and an everlasting destruction did await them. And behold, he preached the word unto your fathers, and a mighty change was also wrought in their hearts, and they humbled themselves and put their trust in the true and living God.

This describes the change of hearts Alma’s people experience at the waters of Mormon. They were encircled in the chains of hell, and Christ reached out and illuminated their souls. They had a choice, yes—but the choice was to respond to what God was offering them. Once they responded, God worked a might change in their hearts. It seems to me that good works follows redemption by the grace of Christ, over and over in the scriptural narrative. This provides an interesting perspective on King Benjamin’s remarks:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

Our agency, our choice, is to accept or refuse the enticings of the Spirit. Once we yield, however, we can conceptualizing the rest of the verse as the consequences of yielding our hearts to Christ. Not something we do by “oomph,” but something that Christ does to us as we consistently yield to the Spirit. It’s not a one-time event, but a process.

What about those verses that talk about how we will be judged by our works? There are a great many of them. Nephi, for example, said, “For the day should come that they must be judged of their works, yea, even the works which were done by the temporal body in their days of probation” (1 Nephi 15:32). Alma said,

And it is requisite with the justice of God that men should be judged according to their works; and if their works were good in this life, and the desires of their hearts were good, that they should also, at the last day, be restored unto that which is good. (Alma 41:3)

There’s more. Amulek said, “For behold, the day cometh that all shall rise from the dead and stand before God, and be judged according to their works” (Alma 11:41). Abinadi said, “Even this mortal shall put on immortality, and this corruption shall put on incorruption, and shall be brought to stand before the bar of God, to be judged of him according to their works whether they be good or whether they be evil” (Mosiah 16:10).

And, finally, Jesus said,

And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil—And for this cause have I been lifted up; therefore, according to the power of the Father I will draw all men unto me, that they may be judged according to their works. (3 Nephi 27:14-15)

These are just a few of the Book of Mormon passages that speak of a judgment based on works. That’s something to reckon with, and one could easily read this to say that we are saved by works. Our contemporary Christian friends have had the same problem. The book of Revelations contains precisely the same verbage, talking, like the Book of Mormon, of a moment just after the resurrection of all mankind: “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.” (Revelation 20:13)

What are we to make of this? First, we have to recognize the overall context of these verses. How in the world can we assume that the fact that we are judged by our works means that we are saved by our works—particularly when every person speaking in these verses tells a story of salvation by the grace and power of Christ?

I think the simplest answer is contained in the book itself. Mormon, in the beginning of his sermon, said to his congregation,

I would speak unto you that are of the church, that are the peaceable followers of Christ, and that have obtained a sufficient hope by which ye can enter into the rest of the Lord, from this time henceforth until ye shall rest with him in heaven. And now my brethren, I judge these things of you because of your peaceable walk with the children of men.

For I remember the word of God which saith by their works ye shall know them; for if their works be good, then they are good also. … For behold, a bitter fountain cannot bring forth good water; neither can a good fountain bring forth bitter water.

Mormon lays it outright: he judges whether his congregation have been changed by the grace of Christ by how they live. That is because, as we’ve established, the enabling power of Jesus Christ changes our hearts and therefore our lifestyles. In a way, Mormon is saying that we are judged by our works because our works reveal the state of our hearts. He can know if Christ has changed our hearts by what observing what we do. In addition, a bitter fountain (which I interpret as any fountain other than Jesus Christ) cannot bring forth good fruit. This can possibly be interpreted to mean that a man who—without relying on Christ and by his own efforts—attempts to work his way into heaven by doing good works is little better off than a man who does no good at all.

Here’s a summary of the soteriology so far:

Alone, we are helpless to save ourselves. Our hearts, due to our fallible mortality, are inclined towards sin, and we can’t change our hearts on our own. However, God sends forth His Spirit, and calls to us to turn ourselves over to Christ and be saved. When we hear that call, we can respond to it, or we can ignore it. If we respond to it, Christ remakes our hearts, through the Holy Spirit, and we are changed by His grace. Good works do not earn us grace or salvation—good works are a consequence of Christ’s saving grace in our hearts. They are evidence of Christ’s work in our lives. A man can certainly attempt to change his lifestyle through his own efforts, through his own self-discipline, but it availeth himself nothing, because the only lifestyle changes that approach us towards salvations are those wrought by Christ and the Holy Spirit.

In conclusion, I’m not convinced we need to argue as much with conventional Christians on the topic of works vs. grace. I’m not convinced that conventional Christian narratives (such as, for example, the Methodist approach) don’t match up quite nicely with the soteriology detailed in the Book of Mormon. We have agency, yes—but it is not by our own “oomph” that we change our habits, desires, and hearts. Rather, we accept and respond to the prevenient grace proffered us by Christ, and He works miracles in our hearts.

Now, I’m not saying this is the only way to approach this—just that this is a way to read the Book of Mormon, and that therefore the Methodist approach to grace is not at all incompatible with the teachings of the Book of Mormon.

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