Some Brief Thoughts on 2 Nephi 25

2 Nephi 25:23’s “we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” has proved surprisingly controversial the past few decades. I mentioned last week some of the views on grace during that period. My own view is that this is much more a rhetorical issue than a doctrinal one, despite the way the debate has frequently raged. That said the exegesis of 2 Nephi 25 does seem to be a point of disagreement. BCC a few years back did a nice overview of the issues.

In my view the verse has been cast into an unfortunate false dichotomy. One side is cast so that “after all we can do” becomes total effort necessary to take hold of the atonement before the atonement can function. Even a slight drop in intensity undermines our ability to take hold of the Christ’s salvation. The other side takes “after all we can do” as dismissal of what we do. Proponents paraphrase it into “no matter what we do” with a dismissal of anything but a faith in Christ. While there are arguments from other scriptures one can marshal for each of these I tend to think both neglect Nephi’s focus in the chapter.

Nephi is quite clear that he’s trying to explain why we should worship Jesus. (In places it appears like this is a new doctrine Nephi gets from his vision rather than representing a clear pre-exilic tradition) The question then becomes what the place of the Law of Moses is. While there are some clear allusions, especially in the form of the translation, to Paul’s epistle to the Romans, I think that in many ways this is something novel and different.

To me verse 23 is but one part of a series of repeating parallels culminating in the full explanation at the end of the chapter.

believe in Christ
   be reconciled to God
we know that it is by grace we are saved
   after all we can do (23)
we believe in Christ
   we keep the law of Moses
look forward with steadfastness unto Christ
   until the law shall be fulfilled (24)
for this end was the law given (Christ)
   the law hath become dead until us
we are made alive in Christ because of our faith
   we keep the law because of the commandments (25)

Then in verse 26 we get the full explanation of this faith in Christ and in verse 27 the full explanation of the law.

So to me, the “after all we can do” is not a general statement about works but is a statement about the Law of Moses. Further, I’d argue that the Law points to Christ by showing us the way to be reconciled to God. That reconciliation comes through the ordinances including baptism/mikvah to turn us to God. They are dead for Nephi because they are not an end in themselves but function as signifiers to Christ.

16 comments for “Some Brief Thoughts on 2 Nephi 25

  1. Jerry Schmidt
    December 11, 2017 at 7:42 pm

    Clark Goble, amen.

  2. lehcarjt
    December 12, 2017 at 6:07 pm

    Interesting. I guess I don’t see how ordinances are somehow separate from the law. I’ve always thought of them as the Pinnacle of the law. I’ll have to look back at the scripture and see how Nephi defines the difference.

    Adam Miller would argue that it is rising above the law or fulfilling the law that truly brings us to Christ.

  3. Clark Goble
    December 12, 2017 at 6:13 pm

    I think Adam thinks of law in a very abstract sense rather than as a particular set of rules and ordinances. So he’s much more in the camp of talking about rules in general or works in general as opposed to grace. While I’m sympathetic to aspects of that I tend to think people have gone too far. However here my argument is just that people are taking that particular verse as being much more general than it was intended to be.

  4. December 13, 2017 at 9:56 pm

    “After all we can do” What is “all”? Perhaps “all” can be summed up by “always” doing the one most important thing. Moroni 10:32 tells us that if we deny ourselves ungodliness and simultaneously “deny not” His power, then His grace is sufficient. We are told that by doing this we will be perfected in Christ. Ungodliness is the natural man, and denying not His power is yielding to the Holy Ghost. Moroni is paraphrasing King Benjamin’s instructions as to how we become “saints (sanctified) through the atonement.” (Mos 3:19) The best explanation of how grace and the atonement work. Earlier in Moroni 10 we find the context which supports this understanding of Moroni’s words. Verse 25 says that, “there shall be none that doeth good among you, no not one. For if there be one among you that doeth good, he shall work by the power and the gifts of God.” In other words, ALL good doing must be done by the power of God, i.e. in partnership with the Holy Ghost. (Verses 1-24 go to great lengths to explain that the “power of God” is the power of the Holy Ghost) Compared with this gracious power there is nothing we can add except yielding ALL that we are to Him. It is ALL we can do. Every act of obedience and service should be an out-flowing of His love, His Spirit, and guidance.

    By the way, Moroni actually says that we need to deny ourselves ALL ungodliness. Taken out of context that would of course be difficult, But within the full scope of his instructions we understand that “no not one” could possibly do such a thing unless it was done “by the power and gifts of God,” i.e. denying not his power (vs 32-33), yielding to the Holy Ghost. Thus, Moroni’s words (and Nephi’s) are best understood when parsed through a wider lens, which describe the divine process of “walking in the Spirit.” As posited in D&C 84, the KEY (singular) to manifesting godliness (putting off ungodliness), is therefore the Holy Ghost (a gift given by the greater priesthood in ordinance.)

    Also, if you read 2 Ne 25:29 there are shades of Moroni 10:32. (e.g. “deny him not”). I think that the phrase “worship him with ALL your might, mind, and strength and your whole soul” is referring back to and refining the earlier “all we can do,” and is in line (similar wording) with what Moroni says regarding the sufficiency of grace to perfect us in Christ.

  5. December 13, 2017 at 10:26 pm

    Thanks, Clark. I think this is a really good short point. For me, Nephi is less making a statement on the (over-hyped) works-faith debate as much as explaining how the atonement works for him: he is saved by faith after (as?) he strives to seek and find Christ through effort. I may differ with you inasmuch as I don’t think it matters whether he’s talking about “works” in the general sense or “works” in the sense of the specific requirements of the Law of Moses — I would see those as nearly identical in Nephi’s case — but I think Nephi’s position washes out some of the attempts to make a distinction. As you wrote, I read the passage to mean Nephi does not see fulfilling the law as an end in itself but a means of drawing himself into Christ. In this sense, and thanks for the parallel, I would see Nehpi’s in full harmony with Romans.In any event, Nephi clearly does not see the ordinances of the Law of Moses as sufficient (and arguably not even necessary in his view) for salvation in Christ, but necessary nonetheless to fulfill. This resonates with my experience. In other words, I guess, I bear testimony that Nephi speaks the truth.

  6. Clark Goble
    December 14, 2017 at 6:43 pm

    I’d add that Nephi’s use of “dead” is often viewed in terms of Paul but I think reading it in light of Alma 32:34 is apt. Admittedly Alma uses the term “dormant” and not “dead” but I think that’s what Nephi’s getting at.

    Even if we expand beyond the details of Nephi here to the broader faith/works divide I think ritual and commandments guide us towards God the way the Law of Moses did Nephi. We all recognize that we have to do what God directs us but most of us can’t do that constantly. (Even though we have the gift of the holy ghost) Instead knowing general commands that might break down in certain circumstances can lead us to being more Christlike and point us to that life of Christ we should be living. Once we’re living in the spirit we typically don’t need those commands because the law is written in our hearts.

  7. December 19, 2017 at 10:26 pm

    Amen and amen.

    [See, all of Christian history, the works/faith thing isn’t that hard… ;) ]

  8. Charlie
    December 26, 2017 at 5:14 pm

    Stephen Robinson told me years ago, that the “After all you can do” scripture is the most mistranslated scripture in the BOM. I would think after Elder Ucthdorf’s talk a couple of years ago, we would have turned loose of that misunderstanding. I can see we have not done so. Sad.

  9. Clark
    December 28, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    I think the argument is that Robinson’s view of what it means seems a bit acontextual.

  10. Charlie
    December 28, 2017 at 5:16 pm

    Clark, I know what amoral, asexual, and apolitical means, but I am a little loss to understand what you mean by, acontextual, Could you help me with that?

  11. Clark
    January 2, 2018 at 12:55 am

    His exegesis of the verse seems more tied to his theological concerns than the context of the chapter. One might well accept his theological concerns and dislike how the verse has been used yet think it poor exegesis.

  12. Charlie
    January 3, 2018 at 12:20 pm

    Thanks, Clark. I think that is fair enough. I do no know Stephen Robinson, so I could be wrong on the following. I would guess he sees his calling in the Church as someone that tries to help the members have a better understanding of the gospel (good news) than how to understand all of the mechanics of the scriptures. Having read a few things out of the Catholic Encyclopedia, I found it intellectually stimulating, but nothing heart changing. It is the mighty change of heart I believe Stephen is trying to help more members achieve. But, again, I could be wrong.

  13. Clark
    January 3, 2018 at 11:59 pm

    I agree but I think to push that he unnecessarily attacks certain theologies. Further one can deal with the change of heart through unmerited grace in many, many other Book of Mormon passages. No need to twist 2 Nephi 25 into a proof text just because others inappropriately make it into a proof text that undermines grace.

  14. Charlie
    January 4, 2018 at 10:38 am

    I am having a hard time sending my posts here. I just sent a response to Clark and it did not go through. I will send this one just to see if it goes out. I really hate to try and rewrite something. :) Something about a token not being right.

  15. Charlie
    January 4, 2018 at 10:39 am

    Okay, that one went out. Maybe my others are too long. Don’t know.

  16. Clark Goble
    January 4, 2018 at 1:57 pm

    If you post right as we’re updating a part of the backend there can be problems. i.e. updating WordPress or one of the plugins.

    To your main point, I don’t think we should need decide between reading accurately and accomplishing our teaching goals. There have been lots of well intentioned “proof quotes” that were misreading a passage. (And arguably that happens even in scripture itself) I just don’t think we have to misread scripture and I think there’s inherent value in reading scripture carefully.

    Again it depends of course upon what we’re doing. I just think that long term we’re better off making good arguments. It’s of course easy to be persuasive in the short term with misreadings. (I’d say it’s the current political environment) However longer term such shortcuts often come back to bite us. (For an example – look at how bad apologetics enable people to dismiss apologetics as a category including the solid good arguments.)

Charitable Comments Welcome