Grace is not something most Mormons understand well. I joined the Church in 1975 at the age of 16, and for every time I heard someone use the word “grace”, I must have heard the word “obedience” or “keep the commandments” one thousand times. “Obedience is the first law of heaven” was a mantra back then. I got to a point in my early Mormon life where I believed that Jesus’ atonement was limited, and we virtually earned our way into heaven.
Yet we cannot save ourselves. Without grace, we cannot earn heaven. Even if we kept all the commandments, we could not resurrect ourselves nor find the path into God’s mansions.
In the early 1990s, Stephen Robinson tried moving us away from such a focus with his book, “Believing Christ.” It helped move us closer to grace, but his bicycle parable still required us to earn part of the salvation. Since then, various LDS scholars and philosophers have written on grace, and more general authorities have broached the subject in General Conference.
Still, most Mormons struggle with understanding how grace, salvation by faith, works, and everything else in the kitchen sink fit together. Most members struggle with Paul’s teachings on grace, especially in Romans, as he almost sounds like he’s saying we do not need to keep commandments. As the apostle Peter noted, Paul can be hard to understand, and many wrest with his teachings.
Here to help us is Adam S. Miller, LDS scholar and professor of philosophy. Adam studied several versions of the Book of Romans, and gives us a new version of it, a paraphrasing of Paul. For those who have read Adam’s previous book, “Letters to a Young Mormon” (see my review here), we find again an easily accessible and understandable book, which opens our eyes and minds to a better understanding of the topic at hand.
Romans is a rare thing in religion: an explanation.
“Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan, An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans” begins with some solid background and explanation of Adam’s project. He explains, that the book focuses on grace and how it applies in our lives. With each chapter giving an easy to understand paraphrase of each chapter in Romans, it is simple to read Adam’s book in one hand and a copy of Paul’s letter in the other, to compare and contrast them.
But the key is in studying both to begin to understand grace. We spend so much time focused on sin and the law (tithing, Word of Wisdom, Ten Commandments, etc) that we hijack the concept of grace. For Adam and Paul, the law is a subset under grace, something important and necessary. However, we tend to yank the law out of its context, setting it up as the solution, and in doing so, find ourselves subverting or even replacing Christ’s grace. In doing so, we turn the law into a a form of sin. We also find that we cannot keep all the commandments given to us, and so find ourselves frustrated and overwhelmed, caving in to the temptations of the flesh, because we have pushed grace into a dark corner.
We have to let God be the center of the universe. We have to stop looking at God’s grace from the perspective of our sin and, instead, let sin appear in light of grace. And this grace is everywhere. God’s work of creation is a grace. His work of sustaining that created world is a grace. His willingness to shape us in his image and let us make our own way is a grace. His gift of the law is a grace. His Son is a grace. And his willingness to stand by us, regardless of our weakness or wanderings, is a grace….When the law shows up as a deprivation rather than a gift, it works crosswise to its intended purpose.
Paul teaches us that when we are infused with the grace of God, through Christ, and filled with the Spirit, then we naturally keep the commandments. We do not keep the law because we fear the wrath of God, death, hell and eternal punishment. Instead, we obey because we want to accept this gift, this grace. It becomes a natural part of us.
This new life in Christ crosses all the old boundary lines. God’s grace is offered freely to both insiders (Jews) and outsiders (Gentiles). Anyone willing to meet God’s promised grace with faith and trust of their own will find guilt, fear, and anger washed away. Without waiting for us to make the first move, God’s grace is already working to gather and seal the whole human family as joint-heirs with Christ.
So, to begin his paraphrase of Romans 1, Adam writes:
I am bound to Jesus, my rescuer. He called me to him. He sent me to you. He sifted me with God’s good news.
From the beginning, God promised to rescue us…
Adam notes that we must have more than belief, we must have trust that moves us to bind ourselves to God in covenant. Yet, God has already bound himself to us from the very beginning.
God’s power to make things right is revealed when his trust meets your trust…..But if our trust fails and you suppress the truth, God’s love will start to feel like an accusation….Sin is our ongoing refusal of God’s already given grace.
Having spent several years studying grace, I thought I understood it on several important levels. And I did. Yet, Adam’s Paul reveals new layers of understanding in a simplicity that helps us truly see the universal power of God’s grace, and how it is hijacked by sin, or lost because we do not place our focus and trust in God.
I wish all the scriptures were so well written as Adam’s version of Romans. If you want to understand what grace is, how it works, and how law and sin fit into it all, then this book should be on the top of your reading list. Better, it is a great book to read and discuss with your family, so they can begin to understand just how great a gift of grace that God has given us through our “rescuer” Jesus Christ.