LDS culture is largely works-based. But forces within LDS leadership are striving to find a way to incorporate more grace into our gospel understanding. These forces are held back by a number of key scriptures and works-based traditions of scriptural interpretation. The following three memes are among the most ubiquitous works-based scriptures in LDS culture. I’ve audaciously adapted them to incorporate a more grace-based world view.
I don’t know how far we can move towards grace without confronting the problematic elements of these scriptures. Challenging scripture is of course taboo, particularly the Book of Mormon, which is supposed to be “the most correct book on the face of the earth.” But could it be OK to disagree with Nephi? Mormons are supposed to follow the living prophet more than dead prophets. And if modern prophets point towards a more grace-based gospel understanding, perhaps we should rethink some of our opinions about our works-based scriptures.
After All We Can Do
This scripture has done more to hold back the struggle for a more grace-based approach to the gospel than anything else I can think of. The word “after” in “after all we can do” tells us that grace is not really grace at all. Rather, it is a reward that comes after righteous works. If we add “all we can do to repent” the problem is solved. It makes salvation accessible now, through continual repentance, not after the end of a long life where we’ve done “all we can do.” And of course, no one ever does “all they can do.” More is always possible, thus grace is always out of reach.
Be Ye Therefore Perfect
This misunderstood but memorable scripture props up the LDS culture of perfectionism, wrecking emotional havoc everywhere it is heard. But the perfectionistic element of this scripture can be easily overcome by understanding that the word “perfect” in the original Greek can also be understood as “whole” or “complete.” In their book: Are We Special? The Truth and the Lie about God’s Chosen People, LDS authors Jeffrey S. Reber and Stephen P. Moody beautifully sum up the truth about perfectionism thus:
Perfection, understood relationally, is not a property of the individual; it is a quality of relationship with the divine.
The perfection Christ speaks of in “be ye therefore perfect” is not the perfection of our future selves arrived at through our works. Rather, God is our perfection. Joseph Campbell said, “Perfection is inhuman. Human beings are not perfect. What evokes our love – and I mean love, not lust – is the imperfection of the human being.” David O. McKay said it this way:
“Perfect people would be awfully tiresome to live with; their stained-glass view of things would seem a constant sermon without intermission, a continuous moral snub of superiority to our self-respect.”
If You Love Me Keep My Commandments
In LDS culture we usually interpret this scripture thus: “If you (want to prove that you) love me, keep my commandments.” But in fact the scripture says the opposite. “IF (and only if) you love me, (then), keep my commandments.” In many other instances Jesus speaks about the futility of obedience unless the heart is in the right place. “If a man giveth a gift grudgingly, it is the same as if he retained the gift.” He regularly berated the Pharisees for their outward righteousness, when their hearts were evil. The commandment to “love God with all thy might” is not the first commandment just because it is the most important commandment. It is the first because without it, obedience to any other commandment is of no value. This truth is perhaps best summed up in the gnostic Gospel of Thomas:
His disciples questioned him and said to him, “Shall we fast? And how shall we pray? Shall we give alms? And what kind of diet shall we follow?” Jesus said, “Do not lie, and do not do what you hate. For all things are disclosed before heaven. For there is nothing obscure that will not be shown forth, and there is nothing covered that will remain without being disclosed.”
When asked about obedience to various commandments, Jesus responds by warning us “do not lie and do not do what you hate,” for the desires of our heart are an open book before God, and it is those desires that are the most important, not false works of fasting, prayers, and alms giving that we effect to prove our righteousness.
- Do you agree that these scriptures have contributed to an overly works-based culture?
- Or is the works-based culture a positive aspect of LDS identity?
- Can we respect scriptural authority, while still recognising the drawbacks some scriptures may have?