This Is Grace

This was a sacrament talk I gave on May 23, 2021.

Years ago, the late novelist David Foster Wallace shared this little parable at a college commencement speech:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the [heck] is water?”

Wallace explains that the point of this amusing story is “that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”[1] I would like to suggest that grace falls into this category. It is the water that we swim in, but the reality of which we are so often tragically unaware. Daily life in general—and perhaps church life in particular—is just so ordinary, so unremarkable, so familiar that it is easy to become numb to the givenness of it all. Furthermore, in a (usually) well-intentioned attempt to avoid sounding like we believe in cheap grace, we sometimes overcorrect and end up pushing grace to the margins in our talks, our lessons, and our conversations.

However, when we do this, we end up turning ourselves into the young, utterly oblivious fish, asking, “What the heck is grace?” We blind ourselves to a gift that has already been given; a gift that will transform us in ways beyond our imagination if we will let it. And when we blind ourselves to this gift, we face the lone and dreary world feeling very alone and very dreary.

You Don't Know Water Until You've Left Your Fishbowl | by Thomas P Seager,  PhD | Age of Awareness | Medium

Yet, grace is not at the margins. It is central to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But before we begin to talk about how we experience grace in our lives, it’s important to define what grace actually is.

Defining “Grace”

While “grace” appears throughout the scriptures, it is especially prominent in the writings of Paul. Unfortunately, much of the modern world’s interpretation of grace is shaped by the Reformation. It is seen as a one-way gift with absolutely no strings attached; what is sometimes called the “pure gift.” Because, surely, if you give a gift and expect something in return, you’re not a very good gift giver. Right?

This notion of a pure gift is very Western, very modern, and very, very wrong (at least if we’re interested in what Paul meant). Because in the ancient world, gifts always had strings attached.[2]

The Three Graces in Botticelli’s Primavera

Paul inhabited the Greco-Roman world, so how did the Greeks and Romans understand it? In their mythology, there were three goddesses known as the Graces, generally identified as the daughters of Zeus. These Graces were often depicted as dancing hand-in-hand in a circle: one giving, one receiving, one returning to the giver. The word “grace” represented this kind of relationship. Grace wasn’t just the gift that was given. It was also the benevolence and generosity of the giver. But not only that: it was also the gratitude of the recipient.

It’s important to note, however, that gift giving did not involve parties that were on equal footing. One party had wealth, status, or influence. They had access to goods and services that the other did not. The two would enter into a relationship as “friends” with one providing access to something desirable while the other displayed public gratitude, loyalty, allegiance, faithfulness (it’s the Greek word that is often translated as “faith” in the New Testament).[3] This is why Ephesians reads, “For by grace are ye saved through faith…Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). This was not an employer/employee or buyer/seller relationship. Grace is not an earned paycheck or a bought product. It was patronage.[4] The patron was not obligated to enter this relationship. They were not in debt. They were not bound by contract. The patron did so because they wanted to.

This was the background of Paul’s understanding of grace.

But with Paul, there’s a slight twist. Most ancient patrons chose to give to people based on their status or ability to reciprocate well. However, in Paul’s teachings—and in the teachings throughout the rest of the scriptures—God extends His gift to all. To the Galatians, Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:28-29). This was not Paul eradicating distinctions. (His other writings make that abundantly clear.) What he does here is empty each of these categories of their hierarchies and status; of their privileges or lack thereof. God did not provide Christ’s gifts of atonement and resurrection based on ethnicity, social status, or sex. He didn’t provide it out of worthiness on our part. He provided it out of love. As John famously writes, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Christ atoned for us not because we earned it, but because He loves us. And He loves us as we are right now: “God demonstrates his own love for us,” Paul says to the Romans, “in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NET; italics mine). So God loves us as we are, but loves us enough not to leave us this way (thank goodness).

Grace, Commandments, and Transformation

Two of my nieces are here today. One is two years old, while the other is one. Never once have I heard their parents say to them, “I love you just the way you are, so you don’t need to walk! You don’t need to talk!” I don’t think any loving adult would ever stunt a child’s development in this manner. Similarly, grace is meant to be transformative. It is meant to help us grow and get us (spiritually speaking) up and running. We are to “[put] off the natural man” and become “saint[s] through the atonement of Christ the Lord” (Mosiah 3:19; italics mine). Grace is meant to make us “new creatures” in Christ (Mosiah 27:26; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15). As Elder Whiting put it in Conference last year, “You are good enough, you are loved, but that does not mean that you are yet complete. There is work to be done in this life and the next.”[5]

What all of this indicates is that when we think of grace, we should think of it as a relationship; one that is centered on the person of Jesus Christ. And if grace is at the center of the Plan of Salvation, then it should define how we understand everything else. For example, what is the purpose of commandments from the perspective of grace? King Benjamin makes it crystal clear that we are “eternally indebted” (Mosiah 2:34) to God. Even if we were keeping all the commandments (which we’re not), we would still be “unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:21). There is no earning salvation here.

So if commandments are not means of earning grace and salvation, what exactly are they? Keeping them is certainly an act of gratitude and fidelity, as Paul and—more recently—Elder Uchtdorf have noted.[6] But what’s their point? And how can they be reconciled with grace?

To see commandments merely as a checklist of arbitrary items to get into heaven is to degrade their divine purpose. Commandments, like grace, are relational in nature. They are pro-social. They show us how to properly relate to God and to one another. They teach us how to be what God is. Elder Oaks sums it up this way:

Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become…The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.[7]

The entire framework of commandments, ordinances, and covenants is a gift of grace. It is through these mediums that God nurtures His relationship with us and our relationships with each other. And as our doctrines of the Godhead, marriage & family, and Zion demonstrate, divinity is found in relationships. Brad Wilcox nails it when he says, “We are not earning heaven [when we keep our covenants]. We are learning heaven.”[8]

Now grace does not negate repentance. Recall that Jesus’ first message of his ministry according to Matthew and Mark is “repent” (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15). Instead, grace makes repentance possible. Samuel the Lamanite explains that “the resurrection of Christ redeemeth mankind…and it bringeth to pass the condition of repentance” (Helaman 14:17-18). So repentance is not some punishment, but a gift as well. And it too is relational. In Hebrew, it means to return to God. In Greek, it means to change your heart or intent.[9] It is about reorienting ourselves toward God, who is graciously seeking out a relationship with us. He wants us to be reconciled to Him. His hand of fellowship is continually extended, even though we tend to slap it away over and over again. And yet, despite our constant rejections, He still seeks us out. Repentance is taking His outstretched hand. It’s accepting His gift of friendship that we are in no position to demand. As John succinctly puts it: “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19; italics mine).

Grace Is Available Now

The gift of grace should remind us of what the Lord revealed to Moses: that “[God’s] work and [His] glory [is] to bring to pass [our] immortality and eternal life” (Moses 1:39). The Plan of Salvation is for us, making the Atonement for us as well. Grace demonstrates that “the worth of souls [including each one of us here] is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10). There isn’t a single person here that Christ did not die for. There isn’t a single person here that is too far gone. And there isn’t a single person here that cannot partake of the love of God right now. As Elder Christofferson says, “we do not need to achieve some minimum level of capacity or goodness before God will help—divine aid can be ours every hour of every day, no matter where we are in the path of obedience.”[10] Recognizing where we fall short is part of the process. The Lord said to Moroni, “if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness…my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27). The Lord knows our weakness and is patient with us. Perhaps we could be a little more patient with ourselves and with others.

Returning to the story of the fish and water, David Foster Wallace ends his commencement speech by encouraging “awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘this is water, this is water.’”[11] Similarly, I would encourage us all as we grudgingly attend our church meetings, as we irreverently partake of the sacrament, as we try not to roll our eyes at Brother Wright as he drones on and on in his talk, as we’re stretched thin by our callings, as we try to not be rote in our prayers, as we try to stay awake while reading our scriptures, as we struggle to be more charitable, as we desperately seek revelation, as we really try not to lose it on our kids or our spouse, as we attempt to forgive, as we work hard to overcome an addiction, as we slowly-with-guaranteed-detours-on-the-way become disciples of Christ, as we do all of these things and more that we look at these commandments, ordinances, and covenants and remind ourselves over and over:

This is grace. This is grace.

Totally Normal Activities That Are Illegal in Certain Places | Feng shui,  Goldfish, Goldfish bowl

[1] David Foster Wallace, “This is Water,” Kenyon Commencement Address, May 21, 2005; https://fs.blog/2012/04/david-foster-wallace-this-is-water/

[2] For the historical background of “grace” relayed in this talk, see John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Power of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020); Brent J. Schmidt, Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2015); David A. DeSilva, “Grace” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David Noel Freedman (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000); Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downer Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Ch. 3-4.

[3] See Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017); Zeba A. Crook, “BTB Readers Guide: Loyalty,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 34:4 (2004): 167-177; DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, 115-116.

[4] E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien compare the ancient client-patron relationship to the beginning scene of The Godfather between Don Corleone and Bonasera. See their Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 82-83.

[5] Scott Whiting, “Becoming Like Him,” General Conference, Oct. 2020; https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/10/13whiting?lang=eng

[6] See Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Gift of Grace,” General Conference, April 2015; https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2015/04/the-gift-of-grace?lang=eng

[7] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” General Conference, Oct. 2000; https://abn.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2000/10/the-challenge-to-become?lang=eng

[8] Brad Wilcox, “His Grace Is Sufficient,” BYU Speeches, 12 July 2011; https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/brad-wilcox/his-grace-is-sufficient/

[9] See David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 560; Brendan Kennedy, “Repentance,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016); J.R. Soza, “Repentance,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander & David W. Baker (Downer Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).

[10] D. Todd Christofferson, “Free Forever, to Act for Themselves,” General Conference, Oct. 2014; https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2014/10/free-forever-to-act-for-themselves?lang=eng

[11] Wallace, “This is Water.”

1 thought on “This Is Grace”

  1. Thank you for sharing and posting this, I am an Awesome Fan Of True Grace by Way Of True Faith. I would edit out as you did some of his colorful swear words he used at the start of his article but other than that it was a well done . I serve as a Ward Congregational Missionary and help members that receive anti LDS polemical materials, of which the Grace Works is a central issue. The Atonement It Is The Central Doctrine, Washing My Garment/Robe In His Blood, In His Eternal Debt/Grace, He Died To Make Man Holy, It’s Not Just 6 Words To A Song, They Have Eternal Meaning.

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