Hey guys, so we’ve talked in the past about the Latter-day Saint perspective on grace and works, and I’m sure we’ll talk more about it in the future. But today, I just wanted to hone in on the single-most popular scripture from the Book of Mormon that gets brought up during this discussion — 2 Nephi 25:23, “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”
Many people interpret this verse to mean that Christ’s saving grace is secondary to our own works — that we have to do all we can to save ourselves, and then Christ steps in. Is that what this verse is really saying, and is that what Latter-day Saints actually believe? Let’s talk about it.
Alright, “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” Being a little confused by this verse is not unjustifiable. It can be and has been interpreted in different ways by different members and leaders of our faith. In 2015 President Dieter F. Uchtdorf asked a very valid question: “I wonder if sometimes we misinterpret the phrase ‘after all we can do.’ We must understand that ‘after’ does not equal ‘because.’ We are not saved ‘because’ of all that we can do. Have any of us done all that we can do? Does God wait until we’ve expended every effort before He will intervene in our lives with His saving grace?”
But if after, in this case, does not mean because, what does it mean? In this video, I’m going to make the argument that, in this case, “after all we can do” should be interpreted as “despite all we can do” or “in spite of all we can do.” In other words, 2 Nephi 25:23 is not in favor of works-based salvation. Quite the opposite. It points out that after or despite all we can do, it is still through the grace of Christ that we are saved.
Now, some people might hear that and think, like this commenter, that I’m a crock and that, in this context, “after” cannot mean “despite.” Well, there are a variety of dictionaries that indicate otherwise. But let’s do our due diligence and dig a little deeper (alliteration unintentional):
The Book of Mormon was published in 1830. Whether you believe the Book of Mormon was revealed by God or not, I think it’s safe to say that the English text was primarily intended to be understood by people from that time period, just as any literary work or translation is meant to be understood by its contemporary audience. So the question is this: If someone from that era were to pick up the Book of Mormon and read 2 Nephi 25:23, how would they have interpreted “after all we can do”?
Well, they would have interpreted that phrase within the context of how other literary works from that time were using it. So let’s look at how this phraseology was used in this era in works outside of the Book of Mormon. Here’s one from 1838:
“[Christ] only is worthy to receive honor and glory. My salvation was purchased by his precious blood. He began the work in me: he must carry it on, and by his grace, I must be finally saved. Heaven is a free gift after all that we can do….”
Putting theology aside, linguistically speaking, in this quote, if heaven is only free “after all we can do,” then it’s not really free. It’d be like saying, “this air-fryer is free, with a donation of 150 dollars.” It’s nonsensical. This quote only makes sense if interpreted as, “Heaven is a free gift despite all that we can do.”
Here’s a similar one from 1841: “after all we can do, we are undeserving of his grace, and all is a free gift on his part.” Here’s one from 1850: “…we are bound to remember that we are but as ‘clay in the potter’s hand,’ and, after all we can do, it is ‘of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed.” The examples go on and on and on. And it’s not just other Christian texts where we see this phraseology used this way. Here are a couple about botany from 1808 and 1852. Here’s one from an 1829 book on French Grammar.
“Despite all we can do” in the Book of Mormon isn’t just a plausible interpretation; it’s the one that makes the most sense within the broader linguistic context. Over time, interpretations of this passage have shifted, and for the nutshell version of why that happened, pause and read this. But similar to the author of that article we just quoted from, I was not able to find a single instance from the late 18th or early 19th centuries where this phraseology did not seem to mean or have to mean “despite all we can do.”
And it also makes the most theological sense within the context of the Book of Mormon. For example, I’ll see your 2 Nephi 25:23 and raise you 2 Nephi 25:20: “There is none other name given under heaven save it be this Jesus Christ … whereby man can be saved.”
Or here’s Mosiah 3: “…there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.”
Helaman 14: “…if ye believe on his name ye will repent of your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through his merits.” Again, the examples go on and on.
Verses like these should be informing how we interpret 2 Nephi 25:23. Now, if you still want to make the argument that Latter-day Saints believe they are saved by their works, you’re free to do that, and we can have a broader discussion about the role of works and temple ordinances and the necessity of keeping God’s commandments, etc. But if you want to advance this idea based on 2 Nephi 25:23 … it just doesn’t work. A works-based interpretation does not fit comfortably with what the broader Book of Mormon teaches, and it simply would not have been how early readers would have interpreted the text. There’s plenty more that could be said about this topic that we didn’t get to, so if you want to learn more, check out the resources in the YouTube description, especially this article from Dan McClellin, which is the best source I’ve seen on this topic. Watch some of our other videos while you’re here, and have a great day!
- “2 Nephi 25:23 in Literary and Rhetorical Context,” by Daniel McClellin in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: https://bit.ly/3h8aGhN
- “Despite All We Can Do with Daniel O. McClellan,” via LDS Perspectives Podcast (with transcript): https://bit.ly/3h7vx4S
- “What Can We Do? Reflections on 2 Nephi 25:23,” by Joseph Spencer (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3Y70YNd
- “‘After All We Can Do’ (2 Nephi 25:23),” by Jared Ludlow (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3FfoeQl
- “His Grace is Sufficient,” by Brad Wilcox (BYU Speech): https://bit.ly/3YavNAL
- “‘Have You Been Saved By Grace?’ How Do We Respond?” by Brad Wilcox: https://bit.ly/3W3JX4A