This is the title of a talk by Brad Wilcox, a BYU professor, originally given in 2011. An edited version was published in the September 2013 LDS magazine, the Ensign (now called the Liahona). Interestingly, the editors removed many of his more Christian-sounding statements.
Mormons sometimes give Christians a copy of this talk to try and prove that they also believe in grace. Because the original sounds more Christian, it is the version they usually share with Christians. It is the version appended and the one on which this article is based. (It appears that President Uchtdorf’s talk, The Gift of Grace, given in April 2015, will eventually supplant it. Numerous Mormons, however, still refer to Wilcox’s talk.)
Wilcox begins by describing a dialogue he had with a BYU student. Her struggles with applying 2 Nephi 25:23, “by grace we are saved, after all we can do,” is a common Mormon struggle. Many Mormons are hurting.
There are two major points to keep in mind as you read his talk:
- Wilcox’s main point is that God’s grace is sufficient to get us back into God’s presence. But our eternal fate is determined by what we do.
- He uses Mormonism’s definition of grace as an enabling power that changes us. This is drastically different from biblical usage. Biblical grace is the unconditional love that moved God to sacrifice for us and to shower us with undeserved blessings.
God’s grace is sufficient to get us back into God’s presence
The following paragraph is key to understanding his position:
“Oh no,” I said, “you have plenty to do, but it is not to fill that gap. We will all be resurrected. We will all go back to God’s presence. What is left to be determined by our obedience is what kind of body we plan on being resurrected with and how comfortable we plan to be in God’s presence and how long we plan to stay there.”
When his talk was revised for the Ensign, the phrase “to be judged” was added to make the third sentence read, “We will all go back to God’s presence to be judged.” In other words, he says grace is sufficient to get us back to God’s courtroom, but God’s verdict is based on our obedience! “What is left to be determined by our obedience is what kind of body we plan on being resurrected with and how comfortable we plan to be in God’s presence and how long we plan to stay there.”
Wilcox is promoting classic Mormonism. His last sentence refers to its teaching of three kingdoms of glory. A person only remains in God’s presence if, through their obedience, they have attained a place in the celestial kingdom. All others will be in God’s presence only to be judged. Then they will be escorted out of his presence for all eternity!
Mormons believe that not remaining in God’s presence is a gracious act on God’s part because, if we aren’t worthy, we wouldn’t be “comfortable” in his presence. This is reflected in some of the statements Wilcox makes later on. For example, he says: “Scriptures make it clear that no unclean thing can dwell with God (see Alma 40:26), but, brothers and sisters, no unchanged things will even want to.” And again, “Heaven will not be heaven for those who have not chosen to be heavenly.” One more, “The more I realize that in the final judgment, it will not be the unrepentant sinner begging Jesus, ‘Let me stay.’ No, he will probably be saying, ‘Get me out of here!’”
Wilcox also echoes Mormonism’s definition of salvation as bodily resurrection. This is why he can say that he responds to born-again Christians by saying he “absolutely, totally, completely, thankfully” has been saved by grace. In other words, he believes his body will be resurrected by grace. It all hinges on definitions.
God’s grace is an enabling power which changes us
This is Wilcox’s main emphasis and serves as the subject of the remainder of his talk. It, too, is classic Mormonism, as evidenced by the following, “The word grace, as used in the scriptures, refers primarily to the divine help and strength we receive through the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ” (True to the Faith, p. 77). Wilcox echoes this in his conclusion when he writes, “Grace is the presence of God’s power.”
The concept that God’s grace transforms and changes us is deeply ingrained in Mormons. It is intimately connected with Mormonism’s emphasis on God giving us a plan of salvation which we need to work. In many ways, Mormonism puts the burden of being right with God back on the person. To be “comfortable” in God’s presence, grace must transform them—something they must show by being obedient. They must progress and mature.
What is so difficult for Christians to grasp is that many Mormons sincerely see this as an act of love on God’s part. It is common for Mormons to talk about how a loving father wants his children to mature and become independent and “like him.” Conversely, they view a father who does everything for their children and never lets them grow up as selfish and even cruel.
Such a view, however, doesn’t factor in that, because of sin, we are not healthy children. This is like demanding that a paralyzed and severely handicapped child attain independence. It is what is cruel. We were not just spiritually handicapped; we were spiritually dead.
How to respond
Focus on the thought that grace gets us into God’s presence only to be judged. The reason for focusing on it is because judgment day is something most Mormons view with a great deal of anxiety since their fate depends on their obedience. Ask the missionaries how they picture judgment day. Ask them how they feel about it. (Remember that feelings are important to them and something they regularly ask people about.) Most will say they are uncertain. Some will admit to anxiety. Only a minority will say they are confident.
Explore their feelings with them. You will want them to see that a lot is riding on their obedience. Even if they respond with confidence, ask them if they would remain confident if they committed a blatant sin later in life.
Once they have confirmed with their own words that their obedience plays a big role in determining their fate, contrast that with the confidence and joy you have because you know you have an airtight case. Tell them you have no doubts because Jesus has already done everything for you. He washed all your sins away. He has already obeyed God perfectly in your place. Therefore, you now look forward to judgment day as the best day of your life!
As always, don’t expect Mormons to agree with you or even indicate you have made them think. But be assured that your joy and confidence will be striking to them—something they will remember for a long time. More importantly, trust that the Holy Spirit will work mightily on them through your words.