The protestant doctrine of grace as popularized by Stephen Robinson in his book “Believing Christ” as well as by Brad Wilcox in his books and articles on the atonement stand in direct opposition to the true doctrine of grace found in the scriptures. They are not just different sides of the same coin, they are in opposition. They cannot coexist without one or the other eventually growing to dominate and destroy the other.
Sadly their protestant version has been playing a substantial role in the thinking of many members for some time now.
The false protestant doctrine they teach is that “the grace of God” means that the atonement made it possible for men to receive every blessing God has to give by having the atonement substitute for man’s behavior when his behavior is lacking. Rather than being about forgiveness from sins repented of, the atonement becomes a proxy for righteousness.
Some of us have grown so used to this false teaching about grace that we actually think that is what the atonement is. Instead, that is precisely what the atonement is not. That is exactly the distinction the scriptures are trying to make when they say that Christ didn’t come to save us in our sins, but to save us from our sins.
Put differently, their protestant doctrine of grace directly and fundamentally contradicts the scripture:
D&C 130:20 There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—
21 And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.
Now before anyone cries “Heretic!!!” let me point out what the doctrine of grace is, and what it means that we are saved by grace, for indeed we are.
Grace as the word appears in the scriptures is nothing more nor less than the marvelous, generous, loving gifts God has imparted to his children. Some of these gifts were made possible by the atonement, but the scriptural phrase refers to God’s generous gifts to man that did not require the atonement as well. Some of those, and there are many, include the creation, and the gift of a body.
By contrast to the false protestant doctrine, grace that saves our soul is something that is experienced. It has to be experienced to have any saving effect. According to many verses in the Book of Mormon we will be judged according to our works, whether they are good or evil. In case that is not familiar to the reader, here are the bulk of the direct references to the final judgement I could find in the Book of Mormon:
… must be judged of their works (1 Nephi 15:32)
… must be brought to stand before God, to be judged of their works; (1 Nephi 15:33)
… all men shall be judged of their works (2 Nephi 9:44)
… they shall be judged, every man according to his works (Mosiah 3:24)
… stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body (Alma 5:15)
… stand before God, and be judged according to their works. (Alma 11:41)
… to be judged according to their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil. (Alma 11:44)
… stand before God to be judged according to their works (Alma 12:8)
… all men shall stand before him, to be judged at the last and judgment day, according to their works. (Alma 33:22)
… stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds. (Alma 36:15)
… stand before God, and be judged according to their works. (Alma 40:21)
… men should be judged according to their works; and if their works were good in this life,
and the desires of their hearts were good, that they should also, at the last day, be restored unto that which is good. And if their works are evil they shall be restored unto them for evil… (Alma 41:3-4)
… they are restored into his presence, to be judged according to their works (Alma 42:23)
… all people, all kindreds, and all nations and tongues shall stand before God, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil (3 Nephi 26:4)
… be judged according to your works (Mormon 3:18)
… to be judged according to your works (Mormon 6:21)
Any blessing that doesn’t affect our works has no power to help us at the judgement bar, because it has no affect on the means by which that judgement will take place: namely our works. Real saving grace affects our works. It is experienced, it is not just something we are informed about, because it must change our works in order to save us.
For example, the light of Christ is a saving grace of God. It is a marvelous gift. The more we give diligent heed to the light of Christ, the more clearly we are able to judge righteous judgement, the correctly we discern good from evil. It allows us to reject the bitter that we may choose the sweet. It is the light that is given to all mankind to lead them into truth and life.
Learning to discern truth through the light of Christ is not just some academic promise of future reward. It has constant, important meaning in our life. The light of Christ is the source of our conscience. Without conscience we are morally adrift and headed for disaster. By hearkening to the light of Christ we are instead partaking of a saving grace of God that leads us back to him. Note how this grace works: We enjoy it on conditions of obedience. The more we partake, the more sensitive to it we become to it, and the more fully we enjoy its benefits. It is a saving grace, a merciful gift from God. We cannot be saved without it, yet it has absolutely nothing to do with granting us blessings by allowing the atonement to substitute for actual righteousness.
The light of Christ has power to transform our works. Thus it has power to save us, by the grace of God, at the judgement bar. Without that grace, we could not be saved.
Now if we search diligently in the light of Christ, we do not stop at the light of Christ. As described in D&C 93 we progress from grace to grace.
Another example of a saving grace is the remission of sins that is available through Christ’s atonement. His marvelous atonement has power to forgive us of our sins on condition of repentance.
Helaman 5:11 And he hath power given unto him from the Father to redeem them from their sins because of repentance; therefore he hath sent his angels to declare the tidings of the conditions of repentance, which bringeth unto the power of the Redeemer, unto the salvation of their souls.
D&C 138: 19 And there he preached to them the everlasting gospel, the doctrine of the resurrection and the redemption of mankind from the fall, and from individual sins on conditions of repentance.
That “on condition of repentance” part is often left out and used to extend the forgiveness of the atonement to everything we are presently doing whether right or wrong.
But that condition of repentance is critical. For example. I am far from perfect. I have many faults and flaws. Let’s say that I am not as charitable to my neighbor as the gospel requires. Does the atonement mean I am clean from that sin because of my covenant with Christ, even though that fault is still part of my regular practice? The scriptures answer “No, not until I stop doing it”. We are never clean of misbehavior we are still engaging it, as we read in the scriptures.
D&C 82:7 … unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God.
This scripture doesn’t mean whenever we do anything wrong, ALL of our former sins return. Otherwise who could be saved? It means that the atonement doesn’t grant me forgiveness for things which I am still doing. If I am breaking the Sabbath, then whether I am forgiven for Sabbath breaking or not at baptism, as soon as I break the Sabbath again thereafter, my former sins of Sabbath breaking return to me. I will not obtain lasting forgiveness for Sabbath breaking until I have repented of it and stopped doing it.
Even though I was baptized for remission of sins, I still have lots of lesser stuff I need to get over.
And let’s be honest with ourselves. This is actually part of our regular life experience. When we start doing something wrong, even if it won’t get us kicked out of the church or require confession, we experience a loss of the Holy Ghost. We are not as clean as we once were.
And on the other hand, when we overcome some fault, we know that we feel better about ourselves. We know that we have Holy Ghost a little more in our lives. We feel happier and cleaner.
We don’t really have to be told this, because we experience it. We experience mistakes, repentance, forgiveness. We experience our own flaws and failures and we know that as we overcome them we grow into the gift of the Holy Ghost. We may not notice the difference in a day, but as we press forward over 5, 10, 25 or more years we can look back and see how much more committed we are, and how much more we enjoy the gift of the Holy Ghost than we used to.
The grace of forgiveness through the atonement can forgive more as we repent more. And we experience that. We experience greater cleanliness and greater spiritual endowments now than we used to, as we continue to press forward diligently and put aside more of our own flaws and overcome more of our own failings than we once had.
The condition of forgiveness through the atonement is always repentance and we also experience that. As we continue to repent and change we experience a feeling of greater cleanliness and a greater closeness to God day to day than we did before.
Another saving grace is the gift of the Holy Ghost. The more we experience the Holy Ghost, the more he is part of our lives, the more clearly we know God’s will and the easier it is for us to submit to it. As we gain the Holy Ghost more powerfully in our lives our works are transformed from works of rote obedience to a list of laws to works that, while they still include obedience to those laws, also involve being led by the Holy Ghost to those who need our help, and being inspired when and how to teach a nonmember the gospel, and which ancestor wants their work done, and how to find that ancestors information, and so on…. Our works take on a new spiritual life as we grow in obedience to the gift of the Holy Ghost and thus also become more worthy of it. This transformation of our works is a saving grace because it transforms the works we will be judged by. We could not be saved without it, because our works can never really become like the Master’s without the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Christ always did that which pleased his Father, but without the Holy Ghost, we cannot hear what the Father wants to tell us. His voice is spirit. The Holy Ghost is our connection to the Godhead who knows all things. As we grow into the gift of the Holy Ghost, our works, those works we will be judged by, take on new spiritual life.
There is no conflict with the fact that we will be judged according to our works, but we are saved by grace. In fact, we progress from grace to grace. We progress from that grace which is the light of Christ, to the grace of baptism for the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost. From there we can progress to make greater covenants. Those commitments, faithfully kept, always endow us with greater light and spiritual power, particularly by helping us grow into the gift of the Holy Ghost as we become more worthy of him.
There is much more to the doctrine of grace, but this lays out the general pattern. Saving grace always transforms our works and is inseparably connected with the powers of heaven. Saving grace connects us with the powers of heaven and we experience it and can observe that it transform our works. Everyone knows that in some measure. Who hasn’t done tender service for another and not felt, for a time, the sanctifying effects that God bestows in reward for that effort. Do we not feel like our burdens are lightened, that we can more easily do right, that we want to be more good after such an experience. Even that, the light of Christ experienced by all mankind, demonstrates the pattern of saving grace. It can only be experienced on principles of righteousness. It has nothing to do with excusing bad behavior, or providing a proxy atonement to substitute for righteous work. It has everything to do with living so that we are connected to the powers of heaven by enjoying those spiritual gifts and endowments that are saving graces, that enlighten our minds and free our souls from sin.
Now let us compare that to the protestant doctrine being popularized these days.
Students of grace as taught this way need teachers like Robinson and Wilcox to inform them of all the spiritual blessings that are made open to them by the atonement and grace because they do not experience them. Their doctrine turns grace and the atonement into a mystery, that requires proper teaching to fully understand. They teach that the atonement makes it so we can receive every spiritual blessing from God without actually choosing to change, without actually putting forth the effort, diligently pressing forward. Instead, any change we make is simply a show of gratitude to Christ for his atonement.
It is easy doctrine. It is comfortable doctrine. And the reason we need teachers to explain it all to us is because it isn’t what we experience. It has no power to connect us to heaven. It actually inspires apathy toward repentance, the very opposite of true saving graces such as the light of Christ and the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Their doctrine teaches that the plan of salvation is that we are saved as we have faith, but that real change in our lives is only a sign of gratitude since our works have no power. Can we not be honest that sin is comfortable? Christ taught in Matt 7 that “… broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
Why did Christ say many choose destruction? He said it was because strait is the gait and narrow is the way that leads to life. It is because the commandments and commitments are restrictive, and people don’t want to do them.
If sin is so comfortable that many choose the broad way to destruction, and only few choose the strait path, can’t we admit to ourselves that a doctrine that teaches that our good works merely show gratitude for the atonement is a doctrine that will inspire most of its listeners to do the bare minimum they think they can get away with?
That is the opposite of the true doctrine of saving grace. And sadly, it is trumpeted and proclaimed and gloried in as being precisely what the atonement and grace are all about. It is destructive doctrine as surely as any false doctrine ever was. It is the doctrine that Christ came to save us in our sins, where the true doctrine of saving grace is that the grace of God is precisely the means by which he can transform our works, and thereby save us from our sins.