Summary: One of the most difficult verses of scripture to understand is that which says, “for we know that it is by grace that we are saved after all we can do.” Many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints interpret the last part of this verse to mean that God will only save us if we have done everything we can possibly do in keeping his commandments. It has been taught that when our best efforts fail to fully measure up to what’s expected of us, Christ then “makes up the difference.” But the question that many people in the church have is, “Am I doing all I can do?” This article seeks to answer that question.
One of the most difficult verses of scriptures to understand is that found in 2 Nephi 25:23 which reads, “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.”
Many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints interpret the last part of this verse to mean that God will only save us if we have done everything we can possibly do in keeping his commandments. It has been said that when our best efforts fail to fully measure up to what’s expected of us, Christ then “makes up the difference.” But the question that many people in the church have is, “Am I doing all I can do?”
In the Church we often quote the scripture that says “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) as well as “He that endureth to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 10:22), and the impression many people have is that in order for us to be saved, God expects us to keep all of his commandments up until the time we die. Of course, no one can do that all the time so we are constantly being reminded that we must therefore repent of our sins whenever we fail to live up to what God expects of us.
The Lord has explained “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins–behold, he will confess them and forsake them” (D&C 58:43). But what if we repent of a sin and then do it again? Does that mean we haven’t truly repented of that sin? And if that’s the case then are we really doing all we can, and if not does that mean we’re not really saved?
Many faithful Latter-day Saints struggle with thoughts of not being worthy enough to inherit eternal life because of all the imperfections they see in themselves, and consequently feel they aren’t doing all they can to become perfect. Since Nephi said that we can only be saved after all we can do, they convince themselves that since they’re not doing enough in keeping the commandments or in repenting, then they’re never going to make it to heaven.
On the other hand, there are those who point to what the apostle Paul wrote when he pleaded with the Lord to remove what he called a “thorn in my flesh” that he felt was from Satan. The way he put it, “For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:19). In other words, Paul struggled to do the right thing but he admits that he often failed in that effort. In answer to his plea to have this “thorn” of Satan removed, the Lord simply said, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness,” to which Paul responded, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
This has led some to conclude that since we are saved by grace and not because of anything we do to merit it, then it doesn’t matter what we do, because even if we “glory in [our] infirmities (i.e., sins)” that the power of God will still save us. However, Paul addressed this kind of thinking when he said, “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Romans 5:20). In other words, the more we sin, the greater God’s grace is towards us. But then he asks, “What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid” (Romans 6:15). Although God bestows his grace upon the sinner, that doesn’t mean we can sin as much as we want and still be saved.
It was Jesus who explained this principle when he asked Simon the question, “There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most? Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged” (Luke 7:41-43).
What Jesus was trying to illustrate to Simon was that those who have committed serious sins are more grateful for being forgiven of them than the person who has been forgiven of minor sins, but forgiveness of sins can only be given when a person repents of them. As the Lord has explained in our day “Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven; And he that repents not, from him shall be taken even the light which he has received” (D&C 1:32,33). “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent But, if they would not repent, they must suffer even as I” (D&C 19:16,17). “And they that believe not unto eternal damnation; for they cannot be redeemed from their spiritual fall, because they repent not” (D&C 29:44, italics added).
So we are still left with the question: if we continue to keep making the same sins, even after repenting of them, does that mean we’ve forfeited our right to salvation? Nephi said that we are only saved after all we can do, but if we haven’t done all we can to properly repent, then are we among those who “shall be as though there had been no redemption made”(Alma 12:18) “for they cannot be redeemed from their spiritual fall, because they repent not”?
This question only arises because of not properly understanding the plan of salvation. We usually think of that plan in its simplest form as referring to Christ’s atonement which pays the penalty for our sins, but that’s only one part of the plan, Although, that’s the most crucial part, on which everything else hinges, the plan for our salvation includes many other things as well.
To understand what they are we must first understand what it means to be saved.
There are many different ways to define this word. It can mean being saved from eternal death. It can mean being saved from the punishment of the law. It most generally is understood to mean being saved into the kingdom of God. All of these definitions are accurate, but when God speaks about salvation, he’s referring specifically to receiving eternal life, and to inherit eternal life means becoming an eternal king and queen, wearing a crown and ruling and reigning with Christ forever (Revelations 1:6; 3:21; 5:10).
This is what it means to be exalted (Matthew 23:12), and when that happens, we then inherit all that the Father has, which includes obtaining the same glory, power, majesty, dominion, and honor that God himself has. This is what God means when he speaks about salvation (D&C 6:13), and it is the greatest gift he seeks to bestow upon his children (D&C 14:7).
But to inherit all that God has requires that we become like him, and since God is perfect, then we too must become perfect in the same way and to the same degree that he is. But in order to do that we must know in what way God is perfect. The scriptures tell us that God is perfectly righteous, meaning that everything he does is right and that he never does anything that is wrong. He is perfectly just, perfectly merciful, perfectly fair, perfectly kind, and above all perfectly loving.
But if we must become perfect in order to inherit eternal life, how do we do that? The answer is that the commandments God gives us teaches us how, so when we keep God’s commandments, like Jesus did, then we are learning how to become as perfect as he is. This is also what it means to become Christ-like.
However, in our mortal condition, keeping the commandments perfectly all the time is nearly impossible, and so, like everything else we do, perfection comes through practice. But practice infers making mistakes because if we could do something without ever making any mistakes there would be no need to keep practicing.
For example, when we first learn how to drive a car, we practice how to do all the things it takes to drive safely, but once we have mastered the skill of driving, we don’t need to practice driving anymore. In fact, when we get in a car, our skills have become so automatic that we rarely even think about what we’re doing.
Learning how to become perfect like our Father in heaven is similar to learning how to drive a car except that the first time we make a mistake we have committed a sin, and since no sinful being can live in any part of heaven, the first time we sin we are no longer capable of living with God. When that happens then “our spirits must have become like unto him (the devil), and we become devils (ourselves), angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself” (2 Nephi 9:9).
When we commit a sin, we can say we’re sorry all we want, but that doesn’t take away the sin. For example, if we spill something on our clothing that stains it, saying we’re sorry doesn’t remove the stain, and neither does saying that we’ll never do it again. Today we have chemicals that will help us remove most stains made in cloth, but we have no such product that we ourselves can use to remove the stain of sin once we’ve made it.
Therefore, in order for us to practice learning how to become perfect as God, we are not allowed to make even the smallest mistake, because doing so immediately prevents us from ever returning to heaven, which then automatically makes any further practice meaningless.
This seems like a hopeless situation, and it would be if it wasn’t for Christ atoning for our sins. We know that he paid the penalty for our sins, but many people don’t understand its significance. God’s grace isn’t so much that he forgives our sins as it is about why he forgives them.
The Lord himself explained the solution to this hopeless conundrum: “For, behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him” (D&C 18:11). Christ paid the penalty for our sins not just so he could forgive us of them but rather he suffered the pain of all men so we might have the opportunity to repent. Without Christ’s atonement, repentance would be meaningless because it has no power to remove our sins, but because of Christ’s atonement, we can now repent and it allows Christ to extend his mercy and apply his atoning sacrifice to cancel out or remove the sins we’ve committed.
But what if we sin and don’t repent? Jesus explained, “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent. But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I” (D&C 19:16,17, italics added). The atonement of Christ allows us to sin but has provided a way to have that sin removed through the process of repentance.
But what if we repent and commit the same sin again?
The whole point of God’s plan for our salvation is to help us to become like him, but learning to do that takes practice and practice involves making mistakes, sometime making the same mistake over and over again but that’s part of the learning process. And it’s just as true for someone learning how to play a musical instrument or being a plumber, or even how to do math. If we could do something one time and get it right the first time, there would be no need to practice. If we could repent of a sin one time and never do it again, we’d become perfect in a matter of a few years, if not weeks, but that’s not how we learn.
Repentance is a process, not an event. It’s an attitude of trying to improve. We need to remember that the whole point of God’s plan to save us, or in other words, exalt us, is to help us become perfect to the same degree as he ist. But to do that we have to keep practicing, making mistake after mistake, until we can do everything perfectly without needing to practice anymore. That’s what the atonement allows us to do.
Christ suffered the pains of all men to allow us the opportunity to practice becoming perfect without having to suffer the consequences of our mistakes. And as long as we are striving to do that, he promises “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more” (D&C 58:42). “And unto him that repenteth and sanctifieth himself before the Lord shall be given eternal life” (D&C 133:62). This is why Nephi wrote, “Wherefore, I, Nephi, did strive to keep the commandments of the Lord, and I did exhort my brethren to faithfulness and diligence” (1 Nephi 17:15, italics added).
The words “strive” doesn’t mean being perfect at what we do. It means sincerely trying. It means putting forth a genuine effort. It means persevering no matter what obstacles we encounter. It means never giving up. But the person who sins and casually repents with his lips but not with his heart is not really trying to improve themselves spiritually, in that case they have no such promise regarding the forgiveness of their sins. And the reason why is because they have no desire to want to become perfect.
In that case, forgiving someone like that of their sins doesn’t do anything to help them advance towards perfection. The plan that our Father has instituted is not just to forgive us of our sins so we can live in a sinless state, but the salvation God intends to give us is to gain eternal life, which can only be given to those who are perfect. If someone isn’t even trying to become perfect, then forgiving them of their sins doesn’t do anything to save them.
Nephi taught, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved” (2 Nephi 10:24). It’s when we reconcile ourselves or, in other words, commit ourselves to doing the will of God and not our own will, without giving up, or becoming weary of trying, that his grace then has the power to save us.
The plan God has provided for our salvation allows us to make mistakes as long as we continue practice keeping the commandments, but the plan only works if we are diligent and faithful in that effort and keep doing so until we reach the end.
But salvation is not a matter of us doing everything by ourselves, nor is it a matter of God doing everything for us. God does for us what we can’t do for ourselves, but he won’t do for us what we can and should do for ourselves. To do otherwise would deprive us of learning. Therefore, salvation is a team effort. It’s a partnership where God and man work together to achieve a common goal. God wants to save us but he can’t do it unless we want to be saved, therefore, both God and man each have their part to do.
We can’t remove our sins, so God does for us what we can’t do for ourselves. On the other hand, we have to have the desire to improve ourselves, and God won’t do that for us. Since we don’t know how to become as perfect as God, therefore he teaches us what we need to know and he is patient with us when we make mistakes, but it’s our responsibility to follow what he says, and he won’t do that job for us. Only God can show mercy towards us by mitigating the consequences of our sins, but God will only do that as we do our part in repenting.
Salvation is a gift from God and it does comes as a result of his grace, but he offers that grace only to those who do all they can to repent or, in other word, who do all they can in striving to keep the commandments no matter how many times they fail, and are diligent, faithful, and valiant in that effort. This is what Nephi meant when he said that we are saved by grace after all we can do.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Salvation