Last Friday, I woke up to the first words of the new U2 Album.
There’s nothing to stop this from being the best day ever.
Bono had no idea how right he was for me, with my old favorite Mormon thinker Stephen Robinson and my new favorite Mormon thinker Adam Miller, both speaking at BYU on my favorite topic: grace.
I’m expecting the Wheatley Institute to publish the videos soon. But I got hold of audio of the Robinson presentation, and especially because I’ve heard some criticism recently of Robinson not fully believing in grace, I wanted to do a summary of his presentation here.
He first described the environment at BYU and in the church in the 60’s and 70’s when Paul and grace were rarely talked about.
He was told by one of the brethren this was due to:
- The pioneer experience. Brigham young couldn’t tell them to rely on grace. They’d die!
- The great depression. Similar to the pioneer experience.
- The Church’s major opponents in the missionary field were the Evangelicals, and we distinguished ourselves on the point of grace and works.
The environment began to change in the 80’s. Bruce R. McConkie gave a couple talks on grace. And then later Bruce R. Hafen and Robert Millett published important books.
But most of all, who was the one that changed the climate and got us ready? It was Ezra Taft Benson. Who told us to read the Book of Mormon. Enough members of the church followed his instructions and read the Book of Mormon carefully, that they started thinking about the doctrines of grace in the Book of Mormon which prepared the ground.
In the winter of 1992, I took Brother Robinson for a class at BYU covering the second half of the New Testament primarily Paul, and it changed my life. Later that year, he published the book Believing Christ, and it changed the Church.
He’s been asked a lot how the brethren received it. In 1994, Elder Dallin H. Oaks speaking at BYU and later republished in the Ensign said:
Recent LDS gospel scholarship clearly shows a greatly increased emphasis on the Savior and his atonement. Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s multivolume work on the Messiah1 and his earlier three-volume Doctrinal New Testament Commentary (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1973) are landmarks in this effort. We have all benefited significantly from the BYU Religious Studies Center’s annual Book of Mormon symposia, which have placed appropriate emphasis on this scripture’s preeminent position as a witness of Christ. Individual LDS scholars, principally in religious education at BYU, have published brilliant and inspired books that have made important additions to our literature on the Savior and his atonement (see, for example, Stephen E. Robinson, Believing Christ, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1992; Robert L. Millet, Life in Christ, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1990; Bruce C. Hafen, The Broken Heart, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1989). I hope such books are read and pondered, not just purchased and possessed.
Brother Robinson claims nearly all the general authorities he talked to received it warmly.
After it was published, I got letters from 2 of the 3 of the First Presidency and about half of the quorum of the 12 telling me what a great job I’ve done. We second guess them. We put words and ideas in their heads that they don’t have. When we do that, we get ourselves in trouble.
A question in the Q&A came about why there’s been lack of commentary from the brethren on the subject.
The ones I work closely with I won’t name them, a dozen or so, they believe in it. OK, Elder Packer. Let’s name a really nasty, hardcore, hell fire and damnation general authority who might not like grace. ELDER PACKER. He read my bike. Then he said, “Well it’s a good book. I like what you said. Now you need to write another one about works.” That’s how Following Christ came about. I can’t think of a general authority who would be upset about my teaching of grace.
He said the brethren gave him great support, but a lot of members gave him resistance. He was early in the process and had submitted a shorter version of the book to one of the church magazines. It was rejected and he was told “this is so bad it couldn’t even be published if someone else rewrote it.”
So I asked him, “What do YOU think grace is?” He’s an editor at one of the church magazines. He said, “grace is the reward God gives you when you keep his commandments.” I discussed that with one of the brethren. His response was “Well, Steve, sometimes we have to wait for people to die.”
Another time he gave a fireside for a stake. After finishing, the stake president stood up and said, “it’s my duty as your stake president to point out to you, you’ve been taught false doctrine.”
It isn’t the brethren, it’s the members! As Elder Maxwell said, “the church is like an aircraft carrier, and it takes a while to get it turned. If you turn too sharply, all the members fall off.”
This got me thinking about whether racism within the Church among some members might have prolonged things before the revelation was received by Spencer W. Kimball in 1978. Or on some of the issues the Church faces today, most notably on LGBT issues, if whether outdated viewpoints held by a segment of the membership could be holding up progress.
He mentioned a couple things he would have done differently in the book had he to do over.
After All We Can Do
The first was his handling of 2 Nephi 25:23.
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.
In the book, he addressed it. But he felt he didn’t do it well enough. He believes the key to understanding this scripture is a companion verse that defines “all we could do”. Alma 24:11
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—
“All that we could do” was essentially nothing. All they could do was simply repent and ask God to take their sins away. Author tangent: you might be thinking right now, “well there probably was a long repentance period, where Alma and the sons of Mosiah spent a lot of time working, doing ‘their part’, doing ‘all they could do’, in order to attain repentance”. This is a current Mormon perspective, but it not a Book of Mormon perspective. Alma, Ammon, et al, immediately went from being the vilest sinners into official roles as missionaries. In another episode, Corianton, after slipping up with the harlot Isabel, wasn’t shamed and sent home early from his mission, but was told to repent and stay on his mission. End of tangent.
Dr. Robinson says he’s been trying to get the brethren to add a footnote to 2 Ne 25:23 referencing Alma 24:11 for years.
Instead we have a footnote to James. I think that’s the most egregious example in the scriptures of manipulating doctrine by footnote. (roar of laughter from the audience) I can say that, they can’t fire me.
The next thing he wished he would have done better was how some people misunderstood him thinking he believed in a form of synergism. Synergism is the idea that we do some work and Jesus does the rest, and the combined results save us. He drew this diagram on the white board and explained it.
Due to the fall, we became separated from God. God is up there. We are down there. How are we going to get back? Christ and his grace is the answer. First, we come unto Christ. Then that becomes a new entity, which consists of us and Christ combined, and then he takes that unit back to heaven to live with God. He said “if you think you do part of it and Jesus does part of it, then you’ve committed the error of synergism”.
I’ve been sloppy in my language from time to time and given that impression. But going back to the book. Going back to the parable of the bicycle. There were two transactions. My daughter gave me all she had. I PAID KMART. I PAID THE WHOLE $101.99. There are two transactions. One is that we come unto Christ. That’s the horizontal one. That’s our job. We can do that. His job is to take this new creation, this thing that is no longer just him and just me, and take this to the kingdom of God. And he does 100% of it. That’s not synergism.
Before the Q & A, he ended his presentation with what he says is his best description of grace.
My students would ask me. What is your definition of grace? I answer with an analogy. Usually there’s a young mother in my class who’s recently had a baby. I ask her to stand up. I asked her what she felt the first time she held the baby in her arms.
Why? What had that child done to earn that?
Nothing. It just was. It was just born. And it’s mine.
Another question from the audience.
Question: Earlier today Adam Miller brought up a …
SR interrupting: Did he disagree with me?
Question: A little bit.
Stephen Robinson with his classic sarcastic smirk on his face: He’s wrong and I’m right.
Question: His criticism was in the role that Christ plays once it’s done. When you’ve been perfected. What role does Christ still play? Is Christ still there?
SR: Christ and his grace are the ground of being on which everything is built. The Father creates the Son. The Son does everything else. He does it through his grace and that has been there from the beginning. I would be unhappy with any definition that says Christ’s grace starts here or stops there. Grace is the ground of being on which everything rests.
Question came up about Pres. Uchtdorf’s talk on grace.
Hallelujah! I just danced in circles while I listened to him talk! (personal note: So did I. My son wrote me from his mission the next P-Day. “Dad it was like Pres. Uchtdorf gave one of your talks”. I have been preaching the gospel of Stephen Robinson the last 25 years.)
More of the question: “He said the ‘after all you can do’ in 2nd Nephi is not meant after in terms of a time series but after in terms of ‘apart from’ or ‘separate from’.”
Brother Robinson “I AGREE!” (laughter…the questioner might not have known that Robinson was the first to put forward this logic and Uchtdorf borrowed it from him)
There are some people that think that what they’re doing is building their kingdom, and they’re climbing a ladder, and somehow they’ll do 50% and Jesus will do the other 50%. That’s simply wrong. And anytime we think that our salvation in part or partially because of what I’ve done, then we’re wrong.
Question: what do you tell people that when you teach grace they’re thinking we are letting people off the hook and they can do whatever they want and still have salvation.
SR: I would emphasize this part of the relationship (pointing to the horizontal transaction on the diagram). It’s our job to come unto Christ. “Then we may say I’m a mess, but I’m his mess.” That’s where the works are, by the way. You stop loving him and stop responding to what he’s done, then no deal. If my daughter had said, “hey old man if you’re going to buy me the bike, buy me the bike, let me keep my 61 cents,” I wouldn’t have gotten it. She needed to come to me first.
Addressing the 2 NE 25 verse again:
I have seen too many people crushed by “all you can do”. I’ve seen people give up and leave the church. That phrase used incorrectly CRUSHES THE LIFE OUT OF SOME PEOPLE. That’s why I’d like to see that footnote to Alma 24:11…Grace means “a gift from God”. Sometimes we forget. It doesn’t sound fair that all I have to do is come unto Jesus and he’s going to do all that. IT ISN’T FAIR. That’s the glory of the gospel. The glory is unfairness that he could be punished for what you’ve done and you can be exalted and he doesn’t mind. And if that doesn’t make you love him, there’s something wrong with you.
Amen, Brother Robinson. John 4:19
19 We love him, because he first loved us.