July 2, 2013

Perfection and Grace

Excerpt from a talk I gave in church last week:

What does it mean to be perfect?

The scriptures teach us that “Noah was a just man and perfect” (Gen. 6:9). Abraham was commanded by the Lord to “walk before me, and be thou perfect” (Gen. 17:1). Job also “was perfect and upright” (Job 1:1). The Savior himself taught us to “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

So the question is what is perfection? If Noah, Abraham, Job, and others were able to obtain perfection, and if the Savior himself has commanded us to be perfect, than how do we accomplish this? Can we really be perfect in this life?

The question must be asked then, what does it mean to be perfect? The word ‘perfect’ in Greek means to be ‘complete’ or ‘whole.’ Thus the connotation of being perfect, meaning sinless, is actually a more modern interpretation of the word perfect. When the scriptures speak of perfection, as in the case of Job and Abraham being perfect, it does not mean being without sin. If this was the case, none of us would be able to be perfect. Let me be clear, there was only One sinless being, thus if perfection is being sinless, than we will never be perfect.

What then does it mean to be perfect, if being perfect does not mean sinless? Can we really be "perfect, even as [our] Father which is in heaven is perfect." Can we actually become like the Father and the Savior? I think we all have struggled with this question, I in particular.

President Ezra Taft Benson said that “we must be careful, as we seek to become more and more godlike, that we do not become discouraged and lose hope. Becoming Christlike is a lifetime pursuit and very often involves growth and change that is slow, almost imperceptible. The scriptures record remarkable accounts of men whose lives changed dramatically, in an instant, as it were: Alma the Younger, Paul on the road to Damascus, Enos praying far into the night, King Lamoni. Such astonishing examples of the power to change even those steeped in sin give confidence that the Atonement can reach even those deepest in despair.

“But we must be cautious as we discuss these remarkable examples. Though they are real and powerful, they are the exception more than the rule. For every Paul, for every Enos, and for every King Lamoni, there are hundreds and thousands of people who find the process of repentance much more subtle, much more imperceptible. Day by day they move closer to the Lord, little realizing they are building a godlike life. They live quiet lives of goodness, service, and commitment. They are like the Lamanites, who the Lord said ‘were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not.’ (3 Ne. 9:20; italics added.)” (“A Mighty Change of Heart,” Ensign, Oct. 1989)

What is grace?

To understand perfection, it is helpful first to understand what the Lord means when He says that we should be perfect. It is also helpful to know how perfection will be determined at the judgment. Let me explain perfection by first explaining grace.

I remember as a teenager being taught that grace was similar to as if you fell into a pit, and the only way to get out is if you can build yourself a ladder. You find pieces of wood on the floor of the pit, and you begin to build. However, you do not have enough sticks to build the ladder all the way up the side of the pit. This (as explained by my teacher) is where grace comes in. Our works, they said, represent the portion of the ladder we make, and the remaining distance to get out of the pit represents the grace of Christ. In other words, Christ makes up the difference so that we can make it out of the pit.

Christ does not make up the difference! He is the difference! He is the reason we can get out of the pit. We do not create the ladder, He built the ladder, and we climb out. Christ is the difference!

Two scriptures to back this up. When speaking of Jacob, Lehi said “Wherefore, I know that thou art redeemed,” now note why Lehi says that Jacob is redeemed “because of the righteousness” of who? “because of thy Redeemer” (2 Nephi 2:3).

And in another scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants the Savior says “Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him—saying: Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified; wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life.” (D&C 45:3-5)

Notice that nowhere in this verse does the Savior actually point to our works of righteousness. When judgment comes it is the Savior who is on trial, and because He lived a sinless life, He then can turn to the Father and ask for us to be saved through Him. In essence He says “judge them the way you would judge me, and because I was sinless, judge them to be sinless.”

So then, what is perfection? Again, it is not that we are sinless. It is that Christ is sinless, and we are not judged because of our merits, but because of His merits.

Why do we need grace?

Image our life is like a college degree. We are told that we are to be perfect (or receive a 4.0). We do everything we can our first semester to be ‘perfect’ but we get one B+. The question is can we ever now get a 4.0? What if we work really hard and get 4.0s the rest of our college years? We never really will be able to accomplish a 4.0. We may get close, but we never will be able to get that perfect 4.0.

Only the Savior has received a 4.0. Only He has lived a life which would merit any reward. We do not deserve the blessings we receive. Only the Savior deserves salvation and exaltation.

Bruce R. McConkie said “Now let us suppose a modern case. Suppose we have the scriptures, the gospel, the priesthood, the Church, the ordinances, the organization, even the keys of the kingdom—everything that now is, down to the last jot and tittle—and yet there is no atonement of Christ. What then? Can we be saved? Will all our good works save us? Will we be rewarded for all our righteousness?

“Most assuredly we will not. We are not saved by works alone, no matter how good; we are saved because God sent his Son to shed his blood in Gethsemane and on Calvary that all through him might ransomed be. We are saved by the blood of Christ (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 6:20).

“To paraphrase Abinadi: ‘Salvation doth not come by the Church alone; and were it not for the atonement, given by the grace of God as a free gift, all men must unavoidably perish, and this notwithstanding the Church and all that appertains to it’” (Doctrines of the Restoration: Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, ed. Mark L. McConkie [1989], 76).

How do works fit in?

So how do works come in? Why are works important? Can't we just be saved by the grace of Christ?

Paul taught “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

So in other words Paul is teaching that it is through grace that we are saved, not through works. But we also have Nephi who taught “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)

So how do grace and works relate? The way I like to explain it is that grace is what saves us; Paul is correct when he says that it is by grace that we are saved. Our works, however, give us access to His grace. It would be similar to saying that the Lord has built a mansion for us, a beautiful home like no other and we are allowed to live in it. The catch is that Christ does not have the key to the mansion, we do. For us to be able to enjoy the blessings of this beautiful mansion, we must insert the key and open the door and go into the home. But it is His home, He was the one who built it, He spent the money. He hired the architect, the builders, the craftsmen, etc. It is nothing that we did, but if we don’t actually turn that key to open that door, we cannot go inside. Our works are the key to enjoying the grace of Christ.

The reason I share this about the significance of grace is because I feel that we often focus on works (after all that is what we must do, that is our part), and we forget about who really saves us. It is the Savior who saves us in the end. Our works, such as having faith, repenting, baptism, serving others, paying tithing, going to church, etc. only give us access to His grace. In the end, it is by “grace that we are saved.”

Inside the Church of All Nations in the Garden of Gethsemane
I want to close with my testimony. In 2007 I had the blessing to live in Jerusalem for two months. While there, I often visited the Garden of Gethsemane. In the garden there is a beautiful Catholic church called the church of all nations, which was designed specifically to be dark inside to imitate that dark night 2000 years ago. I had the chance to sit in the church on one occasion, and no one was in the church. I remember sitting there in that room and the thought came to me of all the sins that I had committed and all the things that I had done which made the Savior suffer at this very location, and then all of a sudden the pain was gone. Instead, my pain was replaced by joy and happiness. As I sat there, I could not help but feel a deep sense of gratitude and love for my Savior. It is something I will never forget.

I don’t deserve the blessings that He is willing and able to give. The blessings that He will give, we do not deserve. That is perhaps the greatest sign of God's love. He is blessing us with something that we do not deserve.

I testify that the Savior did die on the cross and that through Him and through his atonement we can be saved. I testify that because of His grace we can be perfect, because He is perfect. Of this I testify in his sacred name, even Jesus Christ, amen.

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