Book Review: Adam S Miller’s Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan

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.

Available at Amazon.com for $8.99 (Paperback), and $3.99 Kindle.

30 thoughts on “Book Review: Adam S Miller’s Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan

  1. Ram,
    You’ve misinterpreted Stephen Robinson’s parable. The payment required on our part wasn’t purchasing grace, it is our good faith effort. The Book of Mormon has always clearly taught the doctrine of grace, but few Mormons were willing to accept it. Robinson wad merely trying to counter the evangelical argument, and insisting that we must make Jesus Lord, and do what He says, not just give mouth praise and half effort. In the words of elder Eyring, we all pay the same cost, everything. In the words of Hugh Nibley, work we must but the lunch is free. In the words of Nehii, even after all the works we do, it is only because of the atonement that we are saved and exalted. Please don’t misrepresent what Robinson wrote.

  2. Everything I do and be and am is because of his grace. The power of his atonement is the power that fuels my life. His sacrifice shows me that i too can sacrifice. This great example gives me the confidence to stand before god. As the great master said “if you love me keep my comnandments.” My keeping the comandments are the fruits that the tree of life produce.

  3. Mormons alwats get caught up in either Protestant or Catholic points of view and the binary nature of reward (heaven or hell). We are saved by grace entirely. But people who are saved by grace experience gratitude (another word based on grace) and they desire to share their happiness, the fullness of Christ’s joy. With no intention to save themselves, they, like Christ, take up their crosses and offer their sanctified lives for the salvation of others.

    This behavior is rewarded. Such sit down with Christ on his throne. Paul does talk about rewards for works. 1 Cor. 3:9-15

  4. I read this and bought the book. Thank you. I have one big worry at this point, however: On the cover is a blurb telling me that Jana Riess called it “Brave and beautiful.” Anything that Jana Riess feels is good in any way is immediately suspect in my book. I don’t think she believes in the same religion that I do.

    Good review anyway and the better understanding of the roll of grace in this theology that has emerged in the past 15 or 20 years has enabled me to have a hope of salvation that I was losing at one point in my life.

    Thanks for the review and bringing this to my attention.

  5. I had an insight that I welcome others to comment on. It came to me that joy is evidence that you have accepted the Grace of God and internalized it no matter what your circumstances. Dark nights of the soul come when we are out of touch with the sweet gratitude for Grace.

  6. I remember a discussion with a girl I new in high school (I did not grow up in Utah and my graduating class was less than 1% LDS). She indicated that since she had been saved by grace, she could do anything that she wanted and it was OK. I think that sometimes we overreact away from that misunderstanding which leads us to try to work for grace. In reality, we work (do works) because we accept grace.

    Grace is our free gift that we exercise faith to receive. Once received, it is evidenced in our lives as indicated by Matthew 7:20 – Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

    @ Pat – l like your thought. I often seen the darkness as us allowing the light to leave us. If the body be full of light…

  7. laserguy, the bicycle parable has us involved in the actual purchase of the bike. Albeit a very small portion of the bike’s cost, it is still a portion of it. Robinson’s parable has us involved in earning salvation. It would be better if the entire price was paid by the parent, with an agreement with the child establishing her responsibilities with the bike (ride safely, wear safety gear, put it away when done, etc). The bike must wholly be a gift, otherwise it does not meet what grace is truly about.

    ron, I agree with your understanding of grace. Our obedience should be an outward display of an inward change. Obedience does not save us, which is one of the key teachings of Jesus towards the hypocrites of his day: the Pharisees and Sadduccees. They kept commandments for the wrong reasons. They kept them thinking they were earning salvation, rather than turning to God’s grace for that salvation.

    Al Miller, Paul does talk about rewards for works that are done for the right reason. He also states that sinners will suffer consequences for their sins, if they do not repent. Repentance includes both remorse for our sin, but also embracing the grace of God’s mercy. As I noted, works must be a subset of grace, and not our main purpose.

    MinJae, I’m glad to bought the book, and am sure you will enjoy it. I know Jana Riess. She is my friend. When it comes to politics, we do not often see eye to eye. When it comes to gospel faith, we are brother and sister.

    Pat, I totally agree. Mosiah 4:1-4 and several other verses in the BoM tell us of the mighty change of heart that occurs when we embrace Christ’s grace and are imbued with the joy of the Lord through the Holy Ghost.

    Mike, thanks for the insight. I agree that many Christians do not truly understand grace. They take one or two verses from Paul, misinterpret them, and think they are saved. Well, they may receive a level of salvation, for we believe that even Hitler in the Telestial Kingdom will receive a level of salvation. However, such do not begin to embrace the fulness of Christ’s grace. They are only accepting a small portion of his grace. They do not live up to their privileges, as Pres Uchtdorf recently taught. One does not receive grace once, and are done. But we go from “grace to grace, receiving grace for grace” (D&C 93), even as Christ did. I joined the Church in 1975 at the age of 16. It would be a sad thing if my testimony was exactly the same as it was back then. I have grown in knowledge, wisdom, experience, priesthood power, faith, repentance, joy, love, hope, gratitude and grace over those years. My salvation was assured back then. In fact, my salvation was assured before I was born. However, I see my Becoming in Christ’s grace as an ongoing and everlasting process. I have had a mighty change of heart occur many times in my life, and I look forward to more such experiences in the future. For the person who accepts God’s grace just once, thinking she can then recklessly do whatever she wants, means there is a lack of understanding and a lack of true change.

  8. I’m not sure how effectively Paul’s views on grace can be reconciled with our LDS views.

    Pauline grace is undeserved and unearned. Philosophically, this kind of grace is inseparable from a kind of predestination or special favor. Pauline grace is fundamentally unfair and undeserved. That is its beauty: pure mercy, not justice. Universalizing the gospel kills Pauline grace, because what is universal becomes an inalienable right. If God has set the boundaries of the Plan of Salvation so that everyone gets the same fair shot at the Celestial Kingdom, there is no Pauline grace. It is a right, a rule, a level playing field, not grace. Even if that playing field contains a provision for the forgiveness of sins, we can’t really call it Pauline grace if that forgiveness is accessed universally upon following a certain protocol “all we can do.” At the end of the day, that kind of grace is still earned grace, not Pauline, unearned grace.

    How can Joseph Smith’s views be reconciled with Paul?: “there is a law irrevocably decreed from the foundation of the world, upon which ALL blessings are predicated, and when we receive any blessing it is by obedience to the law upon which it is predicated.” This is anti-Pauline. For Joseph Smith, the Law was everything. For Paul, the Law was the enemy.

    We are a works-oriented church that is trying to co-opt the beauty of Pauline grace from the Evangelical community. But it can’t be done. Our grace comes AFTER all we can do. Their grace comes BEFORE.

    But our version is better, because it does not throw out justice. Justice is balanced with mercy. The rules are all there, they are all important, but God bends them for everyone as long as we repent.

  9. Nate, the problem with Paul is we read a few verses and take them as his total message. Paul talks about the importance of obedience and following the law. He talks about sinners being punished. These are often neglected by those who follow a Lutheran construct.

    The Book of Mormon gives us a Pauline version of grace. We are “saved after all we can do” is based on interpretation. John Taylor’s translation into German states, “in spite of all we can do”. The Ammonite king, in burying their weapons of war said, “all we can do is repent.” Suddenly, we get a different understanding of Joseph’s teachings. There are laws that are irrevocable. Yet they all are a subset that falls under grace. If I keep the 10 commandments, but forever refuse Christ’s grace – what salvation would I receive? King Benjamin stated that if I do good works, I am immediately blessed/paid for it, and am still a debtor. Only in accepting Christ’s grace, knowing that I am an unprofitable servant and less than the dust, am I eligible to gain salvation. Yes, salvation is near universal. Why? Because most people will embrace at least a portion of Christ’s grace. Alma 36 has Alma experiencing a death bed conversion and change. He is rescued from hell and delivered into paradise. Now, was he yet exalted? Probably not, but he was saved. And if God chooses to provide a path to salvation, where each person receives as much salvation as that person desires, then how is that in any way an earning of salvation? Some do not want exaltation, and are happy with a terrestrial or telestial salvation through Christ’s grace.

  10. ” the bicycle parable has us involved in the actual purchase of the bike. Albeit a very small portion of the bike’s cost, it is still a portion of it. Robinson’s parable has us involved in earning salvation.”

    I can’t help but feel that that is an interpretation we put on the parable rather than it being an actual part of the parable. There’s no real requirement in the story that the child’s contribution is actually involved in the purchase at all. The father says to give *him* what you have and the bike is yours. I actually think you have to work quite hard to twist that into ‘Mormons buy salvation’.

    That’s not to say that it can’t be improved. I really liked the ‘Piano lessons’ analogy used in an Ensign article last year. So far, I think that’s the gold standard of grace explanations. But then I’ve not read this book of which you speak! 🙂

  11. Grace takes us from sinners to saints. Our sacrifices in love for others in the similitude of the Savior takes us from saints to thrones. All are graces.

  12. I used to try to reconcile the Bible with the Book of Mormon, and there are ways of interpreting things to try to make them all fit a common theology, but now I find it more useful to simply acknowledge that Paul and Joseph Smith disagreed. Paul’s epistles have spawned all sorts of strained theologies over the centuries because what he says is clearly problematic. Predestination cannot be easily reconciled with the idea of a just and merciful God. But predestination IS a valuable principle when considered psychologically. Symbolically, the idea of being “elect” “chosen” set apart above others, not by virtue of works, but by virtue of some kind of divine mandate is very motivating. To be the “Jacob he loved” rather than the “Esau he hated” gives one a feeling of exceptional favor which illuminates a dimension of God’s love and grace for us.

    I find Paul’s theology exceptionally beautiful for what it is, illuminating a particular dimension of our experience with God, one I feel very moved by. But in order to experience that beauty, you must embrace the predestination and unearned grace on its own terms, not bothering to reconcile them with contradictions with other things you might believe on other dimensions. But that is just my own approach. Others are so bothered by contradictions between Paul and the Book of Mormon that they must be reconciled before any benefit can be derived from the epistles.

  13. This books promises to be interesting. As I was young, I think I took comfort in the sort of protection or reward I could get from being obedient. Perhaps, becoming a bit Pharisaical in my thoughts and judgements. For me, and perhaps for many of us, it feels good to have things neatly wrapped up like that. Obedience brings blessings, and vice versa. We can “earn” our place in God’s kingdom. It sort of gives us a sense of control over our destiny. While this is true to a degree, there isn’t a tangible formula. There isn’t a checklist to finish to get into Heaven. The laws Heavenly Father gives us to follow are not really about being a “test”.
    I had an experience with the Holy Ghost while reading the scriptures that clearly communicated to my heart and mind about my relationship with my Heavenly Father.
    One day I was feeling quite overwhelmed with life, as I imagine many of us do from time to time. I opened my scriptures for my daily reading and shortly came to the phrase, “Be ye therefore perfect,” My immediate reaction to this was to say to myself, “Really, this today?!” And almost immediately, as I read on, “even as I, your Father which is in Heaven is perfect,” I felt the love of my Father in Heaven and it was communicated to me that Heavenly Father wanted me to be perfect because I would be more like Him. And the more like Him I become, the more I will be able to understand and more fully receive His love.
    For me, this encompasses much of what we are asked to do. When I have faith that my Heavenly Father loves me and His end result is having me understand and feel that love, it puts all the things He asks of me in a new light.

  14. I don’t believe we ‘earn’ heaven or God’s grace. Grace is always present but we must seek and accept it. Once we accept it, we feel motivated to be more conformed to Christ. Paul lived in a culture influenced by magic thinking in which the gifts of heaven could be purchased. Think of Simon the Sorcerer who attempted to buy priesthood power to bestow the Holy Ghost. We make the same mistake when we regard the financial worth of our time or tithing. I find that when I cease to attempt to reconcile various prophetic teachings and scriptures by main force of reason they somehow begin harmonize quite ‘gracefully’.

  15. @rameumptom, I appreciate your comment that Ms. Riess is a sister in the gospel. I just don’t get that from reading her posts on “Flunking Sainthood.” You know her and get a chance to see and hear many things that apparently don’t come through the written media. It is certainly not my place to judge her relationship with the Savior and the good Lord knows I have plenty of beams in my own eyes (yeah, “beams” – plural), but that blog seems to fall into the camp of those who see the prophets and apostles as men leading the church after their own thoughts and desires and I don’t share that view or testimony. I may be wrong (would not be the first time) but that is my perception and it leads me to be wary.

    Anyway, I’m halfway through the book and it is living up to the expectations that your review built up for me. Thank you again.

  16. I love Paul, and tend to love Hebrews more than Romans (the books) and understand their points. To me the Pauline epistles are like conference addresses–I take what insight and motivation to do good I can and move on. The discussion on grace and works is still developing still “restoring.” If Paul could, he would clarify himself and admit where he had it wrong or was misunderstood, a la Elder McConkie. Our parsing over and over again of dead words yields little. Mormons claim the high ground–the bible is not inerrant and the word of God not finished. No mortal may shut the mouth of God. I love the discussion but in the end the epistles are just nice conference talks.
    President Hinckley said the scriptures we should read everyday are the four gospels and the Book of Mormon. The reasoning for this is pretty clear.
    I applaud all efforts to help us all understand more fully the existence and operation of grace in our lives. I am glad that the doctrine of grace inherent in Mormonism (as it should be understood if God were doing the explaining) does not exclude anyone and yet promises marvelous and free gifts for those who love and serve god according the deeds done in the flesh and the thoughts and intents of our hearts.
    I agree we may look at the child’s money as an allegory to works meet for repentance and faith and still find the parable instructive if not perfect. What metaphor is?

  17. Regarding the Grace vs Works issue , I’ve just drug my self through N.T. Wrights massive masterwork on Paul (Paul and the Faithfulness of God) which as one of its main theme the fact that a lot of our understanding of the scriptures is a result of trying to find 19th century answers to 16th century questions out of a 1st century book and so we get them WRONG. Romans in particular is not about getting to heaven but integrating Jews and Gentiles into one community of re-born (resurrected) Messiah(anointed)-people (i.e. Christians).

    Here is a bit by him on grace vs works.
    http://youtu.be/SIuL5Jo_ccE?t=18m30s

    A little earlier he has some great things to say about the “primary answers”

  18. Joseph, thanks for the comment. N. T. Wright is perhaps my favorite current scholar on the NT. His insights are valuable to all Christians, and definitely to LDS Christians.

  19. Rich, thanks for the posting on Facebook. Here’s my comment I put on Facebook for a couple questions your friends had:
    “Since this discussion is on my blog post, let me clarify that I believe the atonement is infinite and can save and hopefully exalt all. I do not believe that murderers can only “earn” the telestial kingdom, even though previous prophets have shared that belief. I believe there is more for them to repent of, and more change required for them to be able to bear the eternal burnings of God’s presence. But there is no gap the murderer must fill in order to obtain any level of salvation. Christ’s grace fills all space and provides all gifts necessary for mankind to be saved and exalted. It is a matter of us accepting the full gift, rather than just a part of it. – As for the scriptures, I definitely want them to be our main source of study. However, inasmuch as the scriptures were written long ago by people who were not wordsmiths, and then translated by many others since then, sometimes it is helpful to have others show us better ways to understand the scriptures today. Isn’t that what Nephi did for his people? He didn’t just tell them to read Isaiah, but he also likened Isaiah to them, so they would have an important method of understanding Isaiah’s message. I believe Adam’s paraphrase can help us to better liken Paul’s epistle to the Romans to ourselves in our day.”

  20. Alison, thanks for your formula. I agree it is an issue of continually becoming, and is filled with continual choices that lead us toward or away from God. I would add the following thoughts:

    Here is how I view it, and I’m sure Adam Miller would probably agree: our salvation is already guaranteed. The only thing we need to do to receive salvation is to accept it. Yes, even a cheap grace may work here. Why? Because in LDS parlance, we believe in levels of salvation. Being rescued from death and hell into a telestial salvation is a wonderful gift of grace, regardless of what Elder McConkie and others said against it 50 years ago.

    We are saved after all we can do. I suggest that “all we can do” is repent. Our works do not earn us anything. Our works can condition us to be more Christ-like, and in so doing make us more amenable for dwelling in God’s presence. Alma 36 shows Alma being rescued by the atonement and grace of Christ, so he beholds God’s throne from a distance. He is filled with joy, yet still wishes he could be closer, even up front of God’s throne. He is not yet ready for such a close encounter, but will be after developing his spiritual strength over years of faithful service to God and man. Mormon 9:3-4 tells us that the wicked would be more miserable in the presence of a just and holy God than with the damned souls in hell. Christ offers all people 100 percent of his grace and salvation. We accept the amount we are willing and able to receive. Sons of Perdition totally reject the atonement, preferring evil and darkness over holiness and light.

    It is not easy for us to totally turn our souls over to Christ. Each and everyone of us attempts daily to keep control of some portion. We feel satisfied in earning our way through life, and we feel satisfied in earning our way into heaven. Yet it is not ours to earn. Pharisees and Sadduccees failed at earning their salvation, even while strictly abiding the Mosaic Law. How can we ever hope to do so?

    For me, the equation would be like this:

    Salvation = Grace(Our Level of Faith + our Level of Repentance).

    The greater our faith and repentance, the greater our salvation, because we embrace more of the gift of grace..

  21. Regarding works, we have to remember that Paul was addressing two different audiences. The Jews hated him for constantly preaching against the works of the law (of Moses). In that light we need to understand that he is often teaching against the works of the law of Moses. He always condoned good works and obedience on the other hand. He was constantly reminding the new converts that the law of Moses was fulfilled and that the works of that law were no longer necessary. Good works on the other hand…absolutely necessary.

  22. Russ,

    What Paul was teaching is that the Jews tried to save themselves by living the Law (of Moses), but that it could not save them. They could not earn their way into heaven. They separated the Law from the rest of the gospel, particularly the grace of God and the atonement of Christ. In so doing, they were missing the biggest part of the gospel. Even for the Gentile saints, they were taught not to try to save themselves, but to rely on the merits of Christ. Then, as they embraced Jesus, they would naturally want to embrace the commandments as part of the entirety of God’s grace.

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