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The Salvation Equation

Evangelical and Mormon Grace

In Perils of Grace by Robert L. Millet (BYU Studies Quarterly Vol. 53 No. 2 2014 pp.7-19) the author summarizes his experience with the doctrine of grace especially from the standpoint of interacting with Evangelicals and the contrast between the Mormon and Evangelical perspectives on grace.

The Salvation Equation

In the article, Millet describes a common Evangelical theological approach to the concept of grace called monergism, that is, that God alone determined beforehand who will and will not be saved. He provides to those predestined to salvation the desire to be saved, thereby taking the choice out of their hands. (Sometimes called “irresistible grace.”)

The author also describes the contrasting Mormon theological approach as synergism, that is, God and humanity work together to achieve salvation. We cooperate on our salvation. God’s component is essential, but so is ours.

Millet makes a very telling generalization as well as providing specific examples that can be very helpful to Mormons, not only when interacting with Evangelicals but also in understanding the dynamics of forgiveness and repentance. His generalization is worth quoting:

My perception after almost two decades of interaction with Evangelicals—and it is a generalization, I freely admit—is that they have what might be called a very high view of forgiveness and a low view of repentance. That is, Evangelicals rejoice regularly in the power and beauty and grandeur of God’s forgiveness, and these glad tidings are sounded, even trumpeted, by all. That is as it should be, and Latter-day Saints could take a lesson from our friends. On the other hand, what I hear consistently is how important it is for us to reach up and receive the Lord’s forgiveness but not much on how it is to be received. Some have gone so far as to suggest that one of the reasons Evangelicals teach repentance so seldom is the fear that people may somehow begin to view their repentance has a work!

The result Millet outlines is that the “fruits of repentance”—or behavioral changes that follow true repentance—are often not well exhibited in the Evangelical population. The peril is a grace-based apathy toward repentance and faithfulness, since the outcome is sure. (This trend has carried over to some extent among Mormons who also choose to emphasize the merits of grace and assume little need for repentance. )

According to Millet that is not the most dangerous peril for most Mormons. The most dangerous peril (which some Evangelicals also charge) is that Mormons believe in a “grace of the gaps” that cheapens God’s grace. That is, we work to earn some significant percentage of our salvation and then Christ makes up the difference, that is Salvation = Grace + Effort. By earning we become too reliant on ourselves and not enough on God. 

The problem with Millet’s description of synergism is that it is almost indistinguishable from the “grace of the gaps” problem he is trying to solve. It’s more than a little ironic that Stephen E. Robinson—Millet’s twin in Evangelical/Mormon re-approachment—wrote a parable of the bicycle that, at face value, teaches exactly a grace of the gaps.

As we read Millet’s article, we realized that one of the problems Mormons face is how to explain a cooperative salvation that does not devalue Christ’s contribution. In this post we attempt to resolve that problem.

Solving the Conundrum

As we pondered this conundrum, we realized that synergism is indeed a form of “grace of the gaps.” But the key to avoiding either of the twin perils of apathy of grace or the over-reliance on ourselves is understanding the nature of the “gaps.” To do this we use by analogy the properties of infinite numbers.

Take, for example, the set of integers. There are an infinite number of integers. Any finite set of integers added or subtracted from the infinite set of integers still leaves an infinite number of integers. Dividing the infinite set of integers by a finite number still leaves an infinite number of integers. Any finite set of integers no matter how large will never be close in any measurable sense to infinity. In other words, there is no way to cheapen or devalue the infinity by adding or subtracting a finite quantity.

In this analogy, our efforts are the finite set of integers, God’s grace is the complete infinite set of integers. The gap that must be bridged to achieve salvation is an infinite gap. No matter how hard we work—or for how long—we will never come close to the infinity needed to bridge the gap without the grace of God. With his grace, however, the gap can be easily bridged without respect to the size of our contribution.

The Agency Solution

The issue is not about earning our salvation by accumulating works but about understanding how and when God’s infinite grace will be applied to bridge the infinite gap. So instead of Salvation = Grace + Effort, now Salvation = Grace(Effort). And the question is, how do we get our effort to be part of the equation, so that grace is applied to us?

The answer is simple: We get to choose!

The only meaningful thing we can bring to the equation is our free agency. It is the only thing we have that is truly and eternally ours. Everything else is God’s and can only be credited to him. Salvation is less about doing and more about becoming. It is more about becoming someone who chooses to follow God and in so choosing allows the power of God to transform us to be more like God.

So how do we choose salvation? God has specified that we choose salvation by first repenting and then accepting forgiveness through faith in the atonement to purify us from our sins. We choose salvation through God by exercising our free agency to submit to God with a broken heart and a contrite spirit.

So what happens if we die while choosing not to follow God temporarily? After a lifetime of discipleship we have a bad week (or month or year), will we lose salvation because of a momentary lapse or bad timing? No! The choice of becoming is not a one time choice, but the result of an infinitude of choices, pre-mortal, mortal, and post-mortal that converge to our salvation.

Extending the Analogy

One of the problems for Mormons in discussing salvation with Evangelical Christians, is that salvation is a binary, yes or no proposition: saved or damned. But for Mormons salvation is only one part of something bigger: eternal progression.

When we choose to repent and accept forgiveness, grace is applied. Rather than a particular “grace event,” Mormon grace is available to be applied at any point. In one moment we may choose to become more like God and in the next choose to be less like God. God has made the choice available to us and set the conditions whereby the choice is effective. Thus God allows us to determine our rate of progression or regression by our choosing.

At this point we come back to our infinite number analogy. As the set of integers is infinite, so also is the set of real numbers infinite, but in a different way. Between any two integers is an infinite set of real numbers. We can use this to make an analogy that includes both salvation and eternal progression.

  • The infinite set of integers represents all that is needed for salvation. We contribute a finite subset of that through our obedience, but receiving salvation is only ours through infinite grace.
  • Between each of those infinite integers is an infinite number of opportunities for growth, by which we can continually progress to be come more like God.

We have both the infinity of large numbers (salvation) and the infinity of small numbers (opportunities to choose, and thereby become). This life is but one of an infinite number of opportunities to choose to become like God, steps on the path to godhood.

This analogy also applies to God who, although having already obtained infinite salvation (the infinity of the integers), has yet an infinity of real experiences or opportunities to progress (the infinity of real numbers between each integer).

We find this a much more deeply fulfilling perspective than the simplistic and false dichotomy of grace versus works.

 Joy

So what about the peril of the apathy of grace Millet describes?

Our moral obligation is to exercise our free agency. When we choose wrong we stop becoming like God for as long as we persist in that choice, even if the immediate result is the pleasure of sin, eventually it becomes sorrow. When we choose right we become more like God for as long as we persist in that choice, even if the immediate result is the pain of repentance, eventually it becomes the joy.

Do we want joy? Then we have the opportunity to choose joy! That opportunity results from grace but requires exercising the choice through repentance and forgiveness.

The peril of the apathy of grace is the self-deception of believing that we will choose salvation and joy eventually, just not yet. If not now, then when? Persistently choosing wrong leads to to becoming someone who will continue to choose wrong. It’s not the sum total of the wrongs or rights we have done but who we have become in the process.

We agree with Millet that salvation is synergism. Its not about either earning salvation by our works or being saved by grace without our works. It’s about the synergistic process of persistently choosing through both repentance and forgiveness to accept infinite salvation and thereby become more like God.

{ 15 comments… add one }
  • IdRatherNotSay January 19, 2015, 8:22 pm

    Haha Alison I get that you’re a math person but UGH… integers and equations and theorems and integration differentiations make my head spin! It’s a great analogy (how else does one quantify infinity?) but still, ugh!

    I have a personal experience that I believe is relevant in some way (assuming I am understanding your algorithm correctly). Years ago, I needed to repent, so I sought the counsel of my bishop. I did not hesitate – I contacted him immediately and met with him in his office. We discussed the situation, I followed his prescribed set of tasks, we met a few more times and then I was considered free and clear and in good standing. I am not saying that pain was not involved or that I did not take to heart what my bishop told me or that I was not sorry for what I did, I am just describing the process by which I was considered “forgiven.”

    It was a few years later during a very personal experience when I realized just how truly sorry I was for what I had done. Certainly, I had let it go and accepted forgiveness long ago, but in that moment, I felt such a deep feeling of regret for having offended my Heavenly Father and it was at that time when I realized something…

    I think that in LDS land, we so heavily emphasize the trip to the bishop that it is easy to forget from whom we are desiring forgiveness. I understand that we need order in the church, I get why things are set up this way (well, kind of) but in hindsight, I realized that I had relied so heavily on the bishop being my intermediary between me and my Heavenly Father that I had practically ignored my Savior’s atoning sacrifice for me. I had taken for granted the very power that gave me the privilege to ask for and receive forgiveness.

    I’m not really sure how to describe my point. What I am trying to say is that while some rely on mercy too heavily (to avoid the “work” of repentance), maybe there are others who rely too much on the work of repentance and unintentionally avoid the mercy. I’m not sure if I am making sense. I just felt like I needed to share this and I’m not sure why. Maybe it was pointless, maybe it will reach someone; I dunno.

    Nice post!

  • MB January 20, 2015, 7:02 am

    So have you read Brad Wilcox’s BYU address “His Grace is Sufficient” or his book “The Continuous Atonement”? I think you might enjoy reading those. They are his response to the “grace of the gaps” sensibility that you point out seems to thread through Robinson and Millet’s writings.

  • Alison Moore Smith January 20, 2015, 8:29 am

    IdRatherNotSay, great insights.

    There was a decades old talk by…hmmm…Maxwell? Faust?…where he discusses the sorrow of true repentance. We can have extreme sorrow but are not required to experience the full measure of sorry. I think he used the term “exquisite sorrow.”

    I notice what you are saying probably most with (prospective and current) missionaries who feel wracked with “guilt” over everything EVERYTHING they’ve done, not done, overdone, underdone, thought about doing, did but repented of, etc.

    Today the most common cause of early release (from what I heard) is anxiety. When my dad was a branch president at the MTC (Provo) he was called into the MTC (from our house in Orem) in the dead middle of the night regularly—typically more than once per week—because a missionary was unable to sleep and needed to confess.

    My father got up, put on his suit, drove in, and came back a few hours later. Of course, he never told me what the discussions were about, but I do know that almost none of these sweet kids had done anything that would get them sent home. (I believe there was only one in all his years there.) In other words, the guilt to sin ration seemed higher than it should have been or, more to the point, needed to be.

    As you said, some beat themselves up over past behavior when God isn’t interested in doing so.

    MB, neither of us have read those books. I’ll look into them (after the other 14 books I have lined up 🙂 ).
    Alison Moore Smith recently posted…Hibernating Disease and Other Reasons I Can Totally Play Wii on Thanksgiving But Not Be Able to Help with DishesMy Profile

  • MonteLBean January 20, 2015, 9:58 am

    I like your explanation a lot. (And hello to Samuel. Been a while since we’ve had a male voice join in.) Thank you.

    I’ve read the Wilcox stuff. It’s good but I found his ideas to kind of sidestep the issue and, in essence, circle back to the “all you can do” argument. Maybe I need to read them again, but this made more sense to me.

    Of course, part of my problem with Wilcox’s explanations is that he always seems to be EFYing his responses. It’s kind of like, “Well, I’m so scripturally astute, but I will dumb this down for the rest of you, in your simple language.” Maybe I just have a chip on my shoulder, but I don’t think so.

  • Lincoln Cannon January 20, 2015, 11:30 am

    Interesting thoughts. I agree with what I understand to be the synergistic interpretation of grace and works described here. I worry, though, that we tend to make this matter far more complicated than it needs to be when we idolize Jesus, distinguishing him as different in kind from us, forgetting that he invited us all to be Christ with him, to forgive and to console and to heal and to raise each other up together. Grace is in our common reconciliation, our practical atonement. No matter how hard we might work with and for each other, we yet depend utterly on each other’s grace for that which matters most: compassionate relationships, friendship, communal creation.
    Lincoln Cannon recently posted…True to Life ChristmasMy Profile

  • Carlie January 20, 2015, 4:50 pm

    Loncoln, I’m intrigued to hear how you concluded what matters most. Not that ?I completely disagree, just wondering.

  • Lincoln Cannon January 21, 2015, 11:48 am

    Hi Carlie. There are a few reasons I’ve come to that conclusion. Given the present context, I’ll mention a religious reason first: as Paul teaches in the New Testament, all things except charity will ultimately fail, and I agree with that. Joseph Smith also taught that friendship is a grand fundamental principle of Mormonism, which idea I happily embrace. From a philosophical perspective, I believe our survival and thriving as a human civilization has always depended on cooperation, which at its strongest manifests itself as the notions I listed. There’s my two cents.
    Lincoln Cannon recently posted…True to Life ChristmasMy Profile

  • Celeste January 21, 2015, 1:27 pm

    Interesting article. I think the best talk on grace I’ve heard is Elder Bednar’s “In The Strength of the Lord” given as a devotional at BYU. Here he says the key to gaining grace is to consistently ask not for our circumstances to change, but for us, in our present circumstances, to be changed. At first I didn’t see the correlation with our circumstances and grace, but he posits that grace isn’t just the process of going from bad to good but from good to better. Anyway, I’ve learned a lot about everyday grace from trying to apply this. Thanks for this article- I’m going to show it to my husband 🙂

  • Samuel Smith January 21, 2015, 2:02 pm

    Practically speaking what we must do is as Lincoln says, exercise charity. The purpose of the article was to provide an alternative perspective on the grace vs works that frequently becomes a source of misunderstanding between Mormons and more traditional Christians. The twin perils of the apathy of grace and over reliance arise from the same problem, that is of devaluing God by comparing human effort on the same scale when they are not comparable. So those that accuse Mormons of cheapening grace because we emphasize the importance of faithfulness and good behavior, actually cheapen it more in making the argument, as if any degree of individual effort on its own comes close. The result is that Evangelicals bend over backwards to avoid the appearance of works. Some Mormons cheapen grace when they engage in Tower of Babel thinking, that is, they believe that by merely piling up bricks they will eventually reach heaven on their own.

    I will give another example. Humans can communicate over short distances using our voices e.g. with sound. But no amount of yelling no matter how loud or for how long will ever allow us to communicate with someone on the Moon. Sound does not propagate through a vacuum. But if we have a radio, we could communicate with someone on the Moon. Now obviously radios are things that humans have created but our current state of progression relative to God is such that for all practical purposes, we are like cave men yelling at the moon and the gift of grace is like a radio beamed down from outer space.

  • Alison Moore Smith January 24, 2015, 3:49 pm

    Sorry for the delay, folks. I got sidetracked by the latest feminist rant to come into view.

    Lincoln:

    I worry, though, that we tend to make this matter far more complicated than it needs to be when we idolize Jesus, distinguishing him as different in kind from us, forgetting that he invited us all to be Christ with him, to forgive and to console and to heal and to raise each other up together.

    While I think the brother/peer aspect of Christ is helpful—and particularly like the idea of being Christ with Jesus—I don’t see the idolization of him as a problem. He is different from us, not in kind but in behavior, accomplishment, service, and what he provided for us.

    Sam, I like the radio analogy. The idea that Evangelicals cheapen grace by being so bothered by focusing on works is one I hadn’t thought of until our conversation. I tend to agree. If works don’t matter, then they don’t, right? Working excessively in a Christlike way can only help make the world a better place, even if if had nothing whatsoever to do with salvation.
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  • Lincoln Cannon January 24, 2015, 6:50 pm

    Alison, in my opinion, to the extent we are one in Christ with Jesus, we are not different from Jesus as Christ; and to the extent we are not one in Christ with Jesus, we are still not different from Jesus before the fullness (D&C 93). For practical and moral reasons, I think of Jesus as being quite like you and me — not different in kind or even in past degree. Present degree? We’re all non-linearly different in present degree, and I choose to look to Jesus as the example of what it means to become Christ, not hypothetically according to some external standard, but rather definitionally according to the standard I posit in him.
    Lincoln Cannon recently posted…The End of Religion MisrecognizedMy Profile

  • Alison Moore Smith January 24, 2015, 7:35 pm

    Lincoln, do you know what’s really bugging me? It’s that I coded the site so the post author (only) can reply directly to a comment. Then, I modded the theme to allow multiple authors to display properly. Now, on the this multi-author post, only YOU seem to be able to reply to comments!

    So what I want to know is what powers you have obtained to control the site commenting? Anyway…

    I see what you mean. I like that very much. It puts a very different angle on “becoming like Christ,” doesn’t it? I still don’t have a problem with idolizing (admiring, revering, loving) Christ, but it’s rather a more “real” notion to think of becoming something that is actually traveling on the same line we are.

    Question: How does that fit with his being a literal child of God the Father to you?
    Alison Moore Smith recently posted…Argumentum Ad Hominem – Logical FallacyMy Profile

  • Samuel Smith January 25, 2015, 10:22 am

    I think those that are worried about works vs grace, assume that God only knows arithmetic. At the very least God knows calculus.

  • Lincoln Cannon January 25, 2015, 1:41 pm

    Hi Alison. Maybe it’s because I’m clicking on “reply” in the email notifications? If it’s not that, I don’t have another idea offhand. 🙂

    I too have no concerns whatsoever with admiring, revering, or loving Jesus as Christ. My concerns arise when we would not include full emulation in our behavior, and we would not admire, revere, and love all others in Christ just as much. Jesus, so far as I can tell from scripture, was never about raising himself above others. Yet so many of his disciples seem to want to do that to him. That’s the idolatry that concerns me.

    You asked about Jesus being a literal child of God. I believe you and each of us can and should be just as much begotten children of God, after the order of and one in the Only Begotten, together in one body as the Church of the Firstborn, savior and gods in the fullest sense, as exemplified and invited by Jesus. I feel that we quite dramatically weaken the Gospel when we do not interpret it in the most immersive way, making us Christ with Jesus both in body and in mind.
    Lincoln Cannon recently posted…The End of Religion MisrecognizedMy Profile

  • jman March 13, 2015, 3:19 pm

    Moroni 10:32. God’s grace is sufficient for you IF you deny yourselves of all ungodliness. Good luck.

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