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.