The Book of Mormon famously teaches, “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” (2 Nephi 25:23). This teaching has prompted a number of explorations into Mormon soteriology (the theology of salvation) and has left not a few Evangelical critics of Mormon doctrine peeved at what is perceived to be a “works based” theology of salvation. I myself, I confess, have paid little attention to the debates surrounding Mormon teachings on grace beyond some of the popularized work of Stephen Robinson and Brad Wilcox and a quip by C. S. Lewis.[i] Of course, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf gave a moving General Conference sermon on the topic of grace not too long ago that I appreciated,[ii] but beyond this handful of material and a 2010 article by John Gee,[iii]my interest in grace has been limited. There’s the treatment of grace by Latter-day Saint thinker Adam Miller, which has been recommended to me by a number of my friends and acquaintances,but frankly I haven’t, at this point, mustered enough interest to pursue this work.[iv](This admission, I hope, is not misconstrued as an indictment against Miller, but rather as an example of my own laziness.)
I was therefore somewhat caught off guard when not too long ago John W. Welch offered me a review copy of the brand new monograph Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis by Brent J. Schmidt.[v]After all, grace vs. works wasn’t ever really my theological cup of tea, and so I wasn’t sure I was the most qualified to give the book a fair shake. I’m still not sure that I am. Notwithstanding, after reading Schmidt’s work I am sufficiently impressed with his treatment that I feel impressed to provide a few notes on his contribution to the discussion.
The central thesis underlying Schmidt’s 200 page book is that “grace” or “favor” (Greek: χάρις, charis), whatever else it is, carries the understanding of a reciprocal or covenant relationship between two parties. These parties that enter into a charis relationship are essentially a benefactor who grants a gift or donation of some kind and a beneficiary who reciprocates the gift with his or her own contribution, regardless how small or incomplete, of service and dedication to the benefactor. In surveying the evidence from “classical, Hellenistic, early Christian, and late-antique Greek texts,” Schmidt explains his discovery that charis, “when used in the sense of giving favor or in any context of a relationship between people or groups of people, . . . always has a connotation that the person or group giving favor expected something in return: favors, service, gratitude, honor, obedience, and more” (p. 15). As such, “Ancient charis gifts were synonymous with reciprocity in the form of making and keeping covenants” (p. 15).
Schmidt is not content merely with exploring how charis was used in classical and Hellenistic literature, however. He specifically sets out to see if the New Testament’s usage of charis is consistent with or diverges from the classical Greek definition. “I wondered,” Schmidt informs his reader, “if Paul’s use of grace was actually different from classical usage. Did Paul in fact use charis differently than those around him used it? Was he consciously using a vocabulary that was familiar to and understood by his Gentile convert audience? When he spoke of charis, did he intend for his audience to recognize this inherited understanding of the word?” (pp. 16–17) Schmidt concludes that Paul and the other New Testament authors did not deviate widely from the classical Greek sense, and instead lays the blame for deviation at the feet of Augustine and Martin Luther, whose highly influential formulations on grace have endured in orthodox Christian soteriology for centuries, for “significantly deflect[ing] attention from the ancient reciprocal meaning of charis” (p. 17). Incidentally, as Schmidt’s bibliography and notes make abundantly clear, this has become widely recognized today amongst Mormon and non-Mormon scholars. What Schmidt is therefore reporting is nothing particularly new or groundbreaking, but is nevertheless refreshingly concise and informative.
After briefly explaining the anthropology behind “gift exchange and reciprocity” (pp. 19–24), Schmidt explores the use of charis in the various eras of Greek culture and history, including archaic and classical Greece (pp. 25–40), Middle Hellenistic Greece (pp. 41–64), and late antiquity (pp. 127–138). He also explores charis (or, more properly, gratis) in classical Rome (pp. 65–86) and, most importantly, throughout the New Testament, including in Paul (pp. 87–115) as well as the Gospels and the non-Pauline epistles (pp. 115–126). Simply put, Schmidt’s analysis in these chapters is masterful, drawing extensively from his training as a classicist[vi]and looking closely at the surviving inscriptional evidence. From the great works of Greek drama to the post-Socratic philosophers to Christian-era ostraca and papyri, there can be little doubt concerning the validity of Schmidt’s thesis that charis was intended to be reciprocal between parties in ancient Greek thought.
When it comes to charis in the New Testament, Schmidt argues that Paul’s use of such imitated the patron-client system common throughout the Roman world of the first century (p. 87). “The crucial point” to remember, Schmidt argues, “is that Paul did not teach that grace is a one-way, one-time, permanent gift from Christ to mankind.
Paul did not reject the notional of reciprocal covenants. These covenants vertically bind man to God through obligations to keep his commandments” (p. 87). In short, “Paul used the term charis according to its proper reciprocal Mediterranean social conventions” (p. 88). In order to more clearly demonstrate this, Schmidt provides in some instances his own translation of Paul’s Greek that deviates from the KJV, which is wholly justifiable on both theological and academic grounds.[vii]Thus Schmidt renders Romans 3:24 not as “being justified freely by his grace” (KJV) but as being justified “as a gift” (Greek: δωρεὰν, dorean) by his grace (cf. the NRSV’s translation). Although slight, this change is significant, as “gifts
were not given ‘freely’ in the ancient Mediterranean world because every gift had nuances of reciprocity” (p. 106). Likewise, Schmidt challenges the KJV’s translation of Romans 10:9 (“That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved”) on the grounds that the KJV’s translation “does not have the covenantal nuances . . . that [the verse] probably had in the first century A.D.” (pp. 108–109). The word the KJV translates as confess” (Greek: ὁμολογέω, homologeō) is more properly rendered as to consent, agree, or even make a promise to something or someone. Schmidt therefore renders homologeō in this verse as to vocally assent,” with the connotation that those assenting to Jesus’ lordship will “transform their lives and become true disciples” through entering a covenant or reciprocal charis relationship with the Lord (p. 109).[viii]Schmidt’s arguments for the retranslation and reinterpretation of these biblical passages to better communicate the largely lost covenantal nuances of Paul’s soteriology are well-reasoned, enlightening, and welcomed.
Besides exploring the New Testament, Schmidt likewise delves into Latter-day Saint books of scripture (the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price) and the sermons of Latter-day Saint leaders to see if the concept of grace found therein is consistent with the reciprocal and covenantal sense of charis found in the ancient world (pp. 149–188). His insights into the Book of Mormon’s usage of “grace” is, in particular, illuminating and situates the Book of Mormon’s soteriology within a primarily ancient Israelite context that reflects the ancient Greek nderstanding. Schmidt insists that the Book of Mormon’s “ideas of grace . . . are more at home in the worlds of the Bible and the ancient Mediterranean” than the modern Protestant world (p. 149). In particular, the Book of Mormon’s “usages of grace largely parallel the meanings of hesed (mercy) from the Old Testament,” as well as “the ancient social concepts that all gifts give rise to reciprocal obligations.”[ix]As Schmidt argues, “In essence, grace in the Book of Mormon necessarily enables and encourages disciples to try to restore broken covenant relationships by finding their way back to God’s presence and thus enjoy life and eternal rest embraced by his love and outstretched arms” (p. 149).
To demonstrate this, Schmidt points to many passages in the Book of Mormon, but in particular to the sermons of Jacob and Nephi in 2 Nephi 10 and 25, respectively. His argument is worth reproducing here in full.
[K]nowing the value and importance of that relationship, Nephi, later in the text, explains why he works so hard to persuade his posterity and his brethren, faithful or recalcitrant, “to believe in Christ,” the Messiah, and “to be reconciled to God,” preserving or restoring their good standing within the covenantal relationship between them and the Lord, “for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23). Here Nephi’s famous words, almost verbatim, echo the words of Jacob in 2 Nephi 10:24, where Jacob admonished the brethren to reconcile themselves to the will of God and to remember that “after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that you are saved.” Nephi’s phrase, “be reconciled to God,” is a shortened allusion to Jacob’s slightly longer phrases, “reconcile yourselves to the will of God” and “after ye are reconciled to God.” When Nephi says that “we know that it is by grace that we are saved,” he speaks not only for himself but also implicitly recognizes Jacob as the source of this expression of their belief. Moreover, when Nephi refers to “after all we can do,” he would expect his readers to recall what Jacob had previously said, when Jacob explained that salvation can operate through the grace of God only after one is reconciled unto God. “After all we can do” is then an elliptical reference to Jacob’s “after ye are reconciled unto God,” thereby maintaining the covenantal relationship through divine Atonement and human reconciliation of any infractions, thereby allowing the grace, justice, wisdom, power, mercy, and greatness of God to operate so that we “are saved” (2 Ne. 10:24; 25:23). (pp. 153–154)
Besides being a brilliant example of the Book of Mormon’s
intertextuality, Nephi’s teaching on grace in 2 Nephi 25, although often the target of sectarian scorn, invokes the ancient covenantal understanding of charis that was common in the pre-classical Mediterranean world. That Jacob’s sermon was delivered “in a temple context and speaking shortly after the temple in the land of Nephi was completed and dedicated” is likewise significant in situating Nephi’s concept of grace in an ancient setting. “In order for this salvific relationship to materialize,” Schmidt clarifies, “those bound to God through his covenant, as Jacob taught, must reconcile themselves” through ritual apparati (p. 152). This insight into the Book of Mormon’s covenantal nature of grace is most illuminating, and makes the Book of Mormon’s theology “stand in tension with ideas of grace that emerged in late antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and the modern era” (p. 149). In other words, the Book of Mormon’s teachings on grace are not half-baked Protestant notions that Joseph Smith cribbed from his religious environment, as naturalistic critics of the Book of Mormon have insisted, but are authentic to an ancient Israelite worldview.
In short, Schmidt’s work on grace is excellent. He builds a convincing case for his thesis based on careful attention to and close readings of the scriptural and extra-scriptural evidence. He demonstrates,
basically, that Joseph Smith’s 1842 formulation hits the ancient concept of charis out of the ballpark: “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel” (Article of Faith 3). Or, as Schmidt himself explains,
Ancient charis relationships were based on generosity, need, friendship, honor, and the exchange of money and power, but the charis relationships discussed in scripture are spiritual and
divine in nature. God grants the gift of Jesus’s Atonement to us an in return we are obliged in certain ways. A divine charis relationship is created when people make and keep covenants according to the rituals and ordinances that God has taught through his prophets. As people strive to keep these covenants, they are converted and their relationship with God is strengthened. Through enduring to the end, people come closer to God. (p. 197)
Latter-day Saints would benefit tremendously from Schmidt’s work. I myself have, after reading Schmidt, a newfound interest in grace and soteriology, and am eager to explore the titles included in his bibliography. My reading of the New Testament and the Book of Mormon in particular has been indelibly changed with this new paradigm of grace as a covenantal and reciprocal relationship with God. I heartily recommend Schmidt’s work and hope Latter-day Saint readers who read it will be both intellectually stimulated and recommit to living their covenants, so that God’s charis might save them.
[i] Stephen Robinson, Believing Christ: The Parable of the Bicycle and Other Good News (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992); Following Christ: The Parable of the Divers and More Good News (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995); Brad Wilcox, “His Grace Is Sufficient,” online
at https://speeches.byu.edu/wp-content/uploads/pdf/Wilcox_Brad_2011_07.pdf (Accessed September 28, 2015). The quip from C. S. Lewis comes from Mere Christianity
(New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 148. “Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions, or Faith in Christ. I have no right really to speak on such a difficult question, but it does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary.”
[ii] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Gift of Grace,” Ensign, May 2015, 107–110.
[iii] John Gee, “The Grace of Christ,” FARMS Review 22/1 (2010): 247–59.
[iv] Adam S. Miller, Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans (n.p.: CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2015).Although I have not read
Miller’s recent work, I am familiar with his Letters to a Young Mormon published two years ago, which touches on the topic of grace. See my own review of this work at Stephen O. Smoot, “Help for the Troubled ‘Young Mormon’,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 8 (2014): 139–146.
[v] Brent J. Schmidt, Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis (Provo: BYU Studies, 2015). Citations
of Relational Grace are followed here with in-text parentheses.
[vi]According to one online biography, Schmidt “earned degrees in history and classics from the University of Utah and a PhD in classics from the University of Colorado—Boulder. He is interested in patristics, ancient and modern utopian communities, Greco-Roman history, and New Testament Studies.” See http://www.byunewtestamentcommentary.com/about-us/contributors/brent-schmidt/ (Accessed September 28, 2015).
[vii] “[If] there is a scholar on the earth who professes to be a Christian, and he can translate [the Bible] any better than King James’s translators did it, he is under obligation to do so, or the curse is upon him. If I understood Greek and Hebrew as some may profess to do, and I knew the Bible was not correctly translated, I should feel myself bound by the law of justice to the inhabitants of the earth
to translate that which is incorrect and give it just as it was spoken
anciently. Is that proper? Yes, I would be under obligation to do it.” Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 14:226–227.
[viii]Compare this with John Gee’s translation of the same passage in John Gee, “The Corruption of Scripture in Early Christianity,” in Early Christians in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the
Christian Apostasy, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005), 180–81.
[ix] Schmidt explores the concepts of חסד (ḥesed) and חן (ḥen) in the Hebrew Bible and post-biblical Jewish literature and their respective relationships to charis at pp. 41–49.
Stephen O. Smoot is a doctoral student in Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literature at the Catholic University of America. He previously earned a Master's degree in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations from the University of Toronto and Bachelor's degrees in Ancient Near Eastern Studies and German Studies from Brigham Young University.