The Deseret News today had an interesting article “Grace is not a Mormon heresy, LDS leaders and scholars say after doctrinal ‘climate change’” It’s an interesting story about how Mormons came to accept talking about grace. Reading it though I realized that the author seemed to make a fundamental confusion that really bothered me. He conflates the language we use to talk about grace with the doctrinal meaning of our beliefs. After all we may believe something yet simply use different language to describe it. Likewise a common problem in discussions with our Evangelical friends is finding we use the same language yet mean completely different things by it.
Quoting from the article:
“Unlike orthodox Christians, Mormons believe that men are born free of sin and earn their way to godhood by the proper exercise of free will, rather than through the grace of Jesus Christ,” the article stated. “Thus Jesus’ suffering and death in the Mormon view were brotherly acts of compassion, but they do not atone for the sins of others.”
The article was plainly wrong about LDS theology. Mormons do believe in grace and that Christ’s suffering and death atone for sin. But the author mounted a strong defense. He wasn’t describing what the faith’s scriptures and leaders taught, he said. He was reporting what regular Mormons told him they understood.
He wasn’t wrong about that.
But this seems incorrect. It’s true that when I was young you simply didn’t hear the word grace much. Part of this was confusion on the part of Mormons. They thought the word grace as used by Evangelicals referred to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship called cheap grace. Cheap grace is the idea of “forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”
That this is what Mormons of that era thought grace meant can be seen in Bruce R. McConkie’s popular talk “What Think Ye of Salvation by Grace?” from 1984. He said,
I was listening to the radio sermon of one of these evangelists who was preaching of salvation by grace alone. He said all anyone had to do to be saved was to believe in Christ and perform an affirmative act of confession.
Among other things he said: “If you are traveling in a car, simply reach forth your hand and touch your car radio, thus making contact with me, and then say, ‘Lord Jesus, I believe,’ and you will be saved.”
Now McConkie clearly believed in grace. Indeed the whole talk is about what he took to be the correct doctrine of grace. “What is the grace of God? It is his mercy, his love, and his condescension—all manifest for the benefit and blessing of his children, all operating to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” However his view of what Protestants believed was different. It’s not that he was completely wrong. Many Evangelical preachers, particularly the televangelists of the era, did preach cheap grace. But many, like Bonhoeffer, strongly reject cheap grace.
None of this is to downplay the place of books like Robinson’s Believing Christ or Robert Millet’s By Grace Are We Saved. Both were instrumental in taking back the rhetoric of grace. However if you were to ask the typical Mormon of the 70’s and 80’s questions about what today we’d call grace yet avoiding the term grace most would accept it. Did Mormons then think the spirit would touch people and that God would answer prayers? Of course. Did people think God would transform people by the spirit so they could live the gospel? Of course. Did people think this life was a gift of God designed to aid our progression? Of course. Did people think we could repent by drawing on the atonement? Of course.
Now none of this is to deny there are some disagreements over the nuances of grace. Mormons did (and still do) emphasize doing our part. Yet I’d dispute strongly whether Mormons thought we could do it on our own. It doesn’t require much searching of conference talks from the 70’s and 80’s to realize that while the way we talked about things was different from say how President Uchtdorf talks about grace the content is the same. The idea that we gain “divine assistance and endowment of strength” simply has always been a common belief. It’s just that in the 70’s and 80’s we tended to talk about being in the spirit rather than grace.
So when Robinson says,
However, in the New Testament, “grace” most often refers to the grace or favor of God, and this is usually understood as an attitude of goodwill that predisposes God to act positively toward human beings. … Grace in this sense is not something that I can trigger, manipulate, earn, deserve, or control, for it is a preexisting aspect of God’s attitude toward me.
are there really any Mormons in the 70’s and 80’s who’d disagree that God held such an attitude? The key Mormon scripture is Moses 1:37 “For this is my work and my glory to bring to pass the eternal life of man.” The entire plan of salvation is predicated upon God having an attitude of helping us achieve the most we could.