Some Mormons seem to think that Mormons don’t understand grace. This is a grave mistake, even if it is an honest mistake. The Book of Mormon is the best discussion of grace in the Christian world. Anyone who thinks Mormons don’t understand grace needs to read the Book of Mormon more carefully, and not start looking elsewhere just because reading and pondering the Book of Mormon is too much work. Please be patient with my candor.
Sure, contemporary Protestants, and even Catholics, use the English word, “grace” a lot more frequently than most Mormons do. And the word “grace” is not very common in the Book of Mormon, either. But what if someone spends a lot of time talking about Heavenly Father, and rarely uses the word, “God”. Does that mean s/he doesn’t understand God? Obviously not. Similarly, what about someone who spends lots of time talking about spark plugs and transmissions and intake manifolds and tires, but rarely uses the word “car”? Does that mean this person doesn’t know about cars? Quite the opposite! Your typical auto mechanic can talk about cars for a very long time without using that particular word, precisely because he understands cars very well. The person who only knows that the car either works or doesn’t work is the one in the dark here.
Ah, but what if the person can talk for hours about catalytic converters and clutches and CV joints but doesn’t understand someone who says something about a horseless carriage? Doesn’t that show that the person is actually lost in the minutiae and doesn’t understand cars? Cars are, after all, horseless carriages . . . No, that only shows that the word “horseless carriage” is archaic!
Unfortunately, by too frequent repetition the word “grace” has become disconnected in some people’s minds from the thing, or things it refers to. Hence these people don’t recognize that Mormons are actually talking about grace all the time, only in a far more informative way. Grace is a word for generosity or a gift. In particular, grace in a Christian context refers to what God does to allow us to return to live in his presence, joyfully, for eternity. How are we saved? By grace! By God’s love! By God’s amazing plan of happiness and salvation! By God’s mercy! By God’s gift of his Son, who willingly died to save us! By the baptism of fire, which not only frees us from the guilt of past sins, but purifies our desires so that we have no more desire to sin! By the action of the Holy Spirit, which leads us on the true path! By the atonement of Jesus Christ, which satisfied the demands of justice and let the sinners go free! These are all God’s generous gifts, all part of one plan of salvation by which he shows us his generous love and invites us and enables us to partake of it, to return to his glorious presence, and what is more, to be filled with his love ourselves and carry on his work–not only to partake of his grace, but to be filled with it ourselves.
“But wait,” some will say, “Mormons think it matters what you do! But the whole point of grace is that we are saved despite the fact that we don’t deserve it! So Mormons don’t understand grace, no matter how much they talk about God’s mercy and Christ’s atonement.”
Yes, the difference between typical Protestant discussions of grace and Mormon discussions is not merely verbal. Mormons have a different conception of grace. In brief, the Mormon perspective (as I understand it) says, “You may try to show me what grace you have received without your works; but I will show you what grace I have received by my works.” Indeed, faith is also a gift from God. It is primarily by doing God’s work, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, that we manifest his grace in our lives. One could spend longer trying to clarify this point of disagreement. I hope to do so at another time. But my point for now is that Mormons do believe in grace, but this goes unrecognized because of two things: they often use other words, and they disagree with typical Protestants about how grace works. It is worth noting that Catholics use the word grace quite often, but also disagree with typical Prostestants, in interesting and salvifically important ways, about just what it is and how it works.
Grace is God’s way of bringing us back into his presence, despite the fact that we have all sinned. So, what is it, more precisely? The plan of salvation, the gifts of the Spirit, the atonement of Christ, and so on. If you want to know about that, there is no better discourse than the Book of Mormon.