grace

Several years ago I wrote an article about the gift of the Holy Ghost. While preparing to repost it I reread it and had some insights I hadn’t seen before. This article takes off from where that one left off and explores the gift of the Holy Ghost and how it relates to grace.

I have long sought for more understanding on two related subjects: what grace is, and how it works. We have a definition available to us in the Bible Dictionary. Here is part of that definition:

The main idea of the word is divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ.

It is through the grace of the Lord Jesus, made possible by His atoning sacrifice, that mankind will be raised in immortality, every person receiving his body from the grave in a condition of everlasting life. It is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means. This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts.

Divine grace is needed by every soul in consequence of the Fall of Adam and also because of man’s weaknesses and shortcomings. However, grace cannot suffice without total effort on the part of the recipient. Hence the explanation, “It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (Ne. 25:23). It is truly the grace of Jesus Christ that makes salvation possible. [Bold added for emphasis.]

That definition gives us lots of information about grace, but still doesn’t actually tell us what it is or how it works. I am coming to believe that grace is like the priesthood power. We know it exits. We see it operate in our lives. But it is a power that belongs to God that we cannot comprehend. Instead we need to just accept that He has it, is willing to share it, and He wants to bless our lives with it. So faced with something that is beyond our ability to fully comprehend, we will refer to it like we refer to a tool, like a wrench. At least that much is possible for us.
This whole conversation is one that intertwines the unfathomable with the concrete. I think this is what makes things like grace, priesthood, and the Holy Ghost so difficult to talk about in definite terms. There is much here we have to take on faith, and much that we are only hoping for and guessing at. Be that as it may, I will use as many scriptures as I can to demonstrate how I arrive at my various conclusions. Hopefully you will find my reasoning to be sound, based on the references given. Oh, and just to be clear on this one point, I am only addressing grace and the Holy Ghost in this article. The priesthood is not part of the rest of this conversation.


Outline

First, I need to outline the two main topics and what we know about them. Once I have done that we can look at how they interact and work with each other to accomplish the Lord’s designs for his children. This is my understanding that drives what I write here. I hope you will augment what you read here with your own understanding and insights.

The Holy Ghost

The responsibility we usually think of for the third member of the Godhead is as the great Testator. His role is to testify of truth, the truth that God is our Father, that Jesus is the Christ, the Redeemer, and Savior, and of truth in general, wherever it is found. This includes the truth found in the scriptures and in everyday life.
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The Holy Ghost is sent from our Father to all of His children. His role is to teach them as much as their faith will allow him to teach them. That teaching is meant to lead them to the gospel of Christ. If they are truly humble and seeking for truth, his influence will help them accept the true gospel when they find it or it is presented to them. Remember, those without the gift of the Holy Ghost are no different than those who possess that gift in that we are only susceptible to his influence when we are humble and seeking. The Holy Ghost can strive with us all day long, but will accomplish little if we are resistant to what he tries to teach us. Those who have received the gift of his companionship through baptism and confirmation by one holding God’s priesthood authority have the right to the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost, but that is no guarantee that we will listen. Only we can make that determination.

Those without the gift of the Holy Ghost can be enlightened, guided, and blessed by his companionship. They can recognize his influence, and can accomplish much good because of his presence in their life. But they are not entitled to his constant companionship. Nor are they able to repent in such a way as to obtain eternal life. Those are two very big differences between those who have received the gift through the priesthood authority, and those who have not.

Note that the definition of grace says that it is “through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means.” Those who do not have the gift of the Holy Ghost are “left to their own means” most of the time. Without the gift of the Holy Ghost they can become better people, but lack the means necessary to become celestial people. This is why we need the gift of the Holy Ghost. This is why making and keeping covenants, like baptism, is so important to anyone whose goal is to return to God one day.

So far we have covered only the most basic part of the gift of the Holy Ghost. As the teacher and revealer of all truth, he is invaluable in our quest to return to our heavenly home. But that is only the first part of what he does. The Spirit is also the instrument of grace. It is through the Holy Ghost that we receive Christ’s redemptive and saving grace. More on that later.

Grace

Grace can be such an illusive topic. We know that grace enables us to do things that we couldn’t do before. We know from the definition above that without Christ’s grace, or enabling power, we wouldn’t have the strength to carry on in righteousness once we have repented of our sins. Without God’s grace we would relapse into our old ways. Sure, we do that anyway, but through continued repentance we lose the desire for sinning. This loss of desire for our sins is why grace enables us, usually over time, to forsake our sins permanently.
The scriptures highlight a few examples of those who underwent miraculous transformations of the soul who never went back to their old ways. It is most important to note that these are RARE and UNUSUAL examples. The majority of us change little by little, taking years to make such changes. In Helaman 10:5 the Lord is speaking to Nephi, the son of Helaman. People like Alma the Younger had defining experiences that changed them forever. But look at what the Lord says to Nephi. He emphasizes to Nephi that his obedience had been given with “unwearyingness.” His obedience had been proven over the course of years.
And now, because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will.
In Mosiah 5:2, 7 King Benjamin is teaching his people his final sermon. We think of their example of conversion as being something that happened all at once, but if you look back on the history of Benjamin and his people, he had been preaching repentance to them for many years. I believe this passage, though a defining experience where they testify they have lost their desire for sin, I believe it is the result of years of faithfulness and resulted in this cumulative final commitment to forsake their old sinful ways.
And they all cried with one voice, saying: Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.
And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters.
The people’s hearts had been changed. Their dispositions to sin had faded with repeated repentance, and the day had come when they all realized they no longer desired what they had in the past. They were ready to exercise their faith in what their prophet-king was teaching them. They were converted.

What grace is not

In order to better appreciate what grace is, it is important to know what it is not. Grace, as something “deserved” is a matter for debate. Many will claim none of us deserve such a gift of spiritual and moral strength, and that is why it is called grace. Many will also claim that we are given the gift deservedly because we are God’s children, and this is a necessary part of His plan to save us. We agreed to use this gift when we chose to uphold our Father’s plan in the premortal life. The Savior knew that offering us the grace we would need to become worthy and prepared to return home was part of the definition of the Savior he agreed to be for us.

So how you see grace depends on how you define it. It was promised to us, but that doesn’t make it a payment we are owed. It is still a divine gift.

Many in the Christian world define grace as a universal payment for sin, thus freeing them from the need to repent. Once we either spiritually or intellectually accept Christ’s gift, his atonement, his grace saves us from damnation. To many, this is a universal gift that takes only stating that we accept it for it to become operational in our lives. This is, of course, not true. Another part of the accepted definition of grace is that “grace cannot suffice without total effort on the part of the recipient.” This is why we turn to 2 Nephi 25:23. It reminds us that grace may be freely offered, but it isn’t a “freebie.” It requires work in order to use it. This is why the scripture tells us that we are saved by grace, after all we can do.

Grace is not an add-on that fills the gap between performance on our part and where we need to be. It is very tempting to treat all gospel concepts like we treat most academic subjects. We tend to separate everything out in to component parts, like laying out ingredients for a recipe, as though all things are done by picking and choosing the right ingredient to use next. Expecting to use grace by itself is like trying to bake a cake without first mixing the necessary ingredients in the right order and in the prescribed manner.

Grace is a principle that works with our works. It also works with the atonement, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the priesthood. We cannot address grace as a stand alone object, for without all these other parts we are literally left with just a single ingredient, not the desired whole.


Combining the Spirit, grace, and works

This is where things become messy. All parts of the gospel plan given to us by our Father work together to accomplish His goals for us. Most of the parts of the plan of salvation are not big parts, like the Savior and his atoning sacrifice. Most parts of His plan, like the parts of the body, are small, but vital to the overall health of the plan. His commandments to us, how real life works in general, and how all things spiritual in nature work together to create something better than the original component parts is what we need to look at.

Important doctrines

Following are important doctrines or teachings we all need to take into account as we seek to become more like Christ. None of these should be a surprise to you, but all of them play into our use of grace through the gift of the Holy Ghost. As you read this lengthy, yet woefully incomplete string of references, look for the doctrine that ties them together. We have been commanded to pray to God and ask for whatever it is we want. We have been promised that the desires of our heart will be given to us. Once you have read through the list we will tackle how grace and the gift of the Holy Ghost makes all this possible.

25 And the Lord said unto me: Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of Godchanged from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters;

26 And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.

Key: We need to become new creatures.

I ought not to harrow up in my desires the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.

Yea, and I know that good and evil have come before all men; he that knoweth not good from evil is blameless; but he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience.

Key: We will be given our heart’s desire, whether to eternal life or eternal death.

24 Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye praybelieve that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.
Key: God promises that our true desires will be given to us.
Now, it came to pass that when I had heard these words I began to feel a desire for the welfare of my brethren, the Nephites; wherefore, I did pour out my whole soul unto God for them.

12 And it came to pass that after I had prayed and labored with all diligence, the Lord said unto me: I will grant unto thee according to thy desires, because of thy faith.

13 And now behold, this was the desire which I desired of him—that if it should so be, that my people, the Nephites, should fall into transgression, and by any means be destroyed, and the Lamanites should not be destroyed, that the Lord God would preserve a record of my people, the Nephites; even if it so be by the power of his holy arm, that it might be brought forth at some future day unto the Lamanites, that, perhaps, they might be brought unto salvation.

Key: The granting of our heart’s desire is based on our faith, and progresses incrementally outward from selfish desires to godly desires.

Behold, they do not desire that the Lord their God, who hath created them, should rule and reign over them; notwithstanding his great goodness and his mercy towards them, they do set at naught his counsels, and they will not that he should be their guide.
Key: We can reject God’s rule over us at any time.
14 But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble.
Key: Proof that God gives us what we desire. The Jews didn’t want plainness and understanding, they wanted mystery, so that is what God gave them.
O Lord, thou hast said that we must be encompassed about by the floods. Now behold, O Lord, and do not be angry with thy servant because of his weakness before thee; for we know that thou art holy and dwellest in the heavens, and that we are unworthy before thee; because of the fall our natures have become evil continually; nevertheless, O Lord, thou hast given us a commandment that we must call upon thee, that from thee we may receive according to our desires.
Key: We must call upon God to declare the desires of our heart. He doesn’t read minds and dispense accordingly. We must decide for ourselves what we want and actively petition it from God.
12 Having gone according to their own carnal wills and desires; having never called upon the Lord while the arms of mercy were extended towards them; for the arms of mercy were extended towards them, and they would not; they being warned of their iniquities and yet they would not depart from them; and they were commanded to repent and yet they would not repent.
Key: God will not stop us from self destructing if that is the desire of our heart. He does all He can to convince us otherwise, but it is ultimately up to us.

Our relationship with God

All of the above passages of scripture demonstrate the our Father in Heaven will honor our moral agency, even if it costs Him our souls. He will never violate our agency or influence our use of the agency He has given us, even if is means losing us. The purpose of this life is to see what the real desire of our heart is. Do we really want to live with Christ and God forever or do we prefer to be left to our own devices? What truly makes us happy?
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The problem lies in the process of becoming like God. For those who want to return to the celestial realm, we have a lot of changing that needs to be affected before we are prepared to enter and present ourselves before the throne of God with joy. I hope it is already clear that we cannot make the needed changes by ourselves. If we were able to repent and improve sufficient to become holy and perfect then there would be no need for a Savior.

This is where our works, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and grace enters the picture. These three ingredients are necessary for us to be saved. Let’s look at the famous quote from Ether 12:27 to start off.
27 And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.
Here are a couple of important points about this verse.

1  We cannot progress with ease. We lose all desire for change when we are comfortable. Because this is our nature, God has given us weaknesses to overcome, because He knows which weaknesses will produce the final product we each need to be perfected in Christ. So each of us has our own set of trials and hardships in this life, all of which are designed to humble us and bring us to Christ so we can be made strong through his Atoning sacrifice and his gift of grace.

2  God does not make weak things become strong without our elbow grease. That change requires our participation. Don’t get me wrong. We cannot do it alone. We need the gift of the Holy Ghost, the atonement, and Christ’s grace for it to happen. But because all three ingredients are plentifully available to us, it can happen.

Works

As mentioned already, it is important to remember that nothing spiritual will happen to us without work. We will not grow as people, as children of God, without a lot of work. The Lord does indeed promise to give us whatever we ask for. But He isn’t referring to tickets to the next basketball game or that secret recipe Aunt Milly has been guarding all these years. When He promises to give us whatever we ask for, I believe he is referring to our ultimate heart’s desire, either eternal life or eternal damnation. That is what I get from the scriptures I’ve already cited.

The gift of the Holy Ghost

The Holy Ghost, or Spirit does more than testify of truth. Remember all those verses you just read that say there will be a change of heart, or that weak things will become strong, or that the desires of our heart will be granted? The role of the Holy Ghost is to not only testify of truth, but to reveal truth. He not only reveals it, but he guides us along the path and teaches us how to use it, how to understand it. He makes us wise as to the things of God.

The Spirit also has the ability (and I think this is his most underrated ability by far) to grant unto us the changes we have asked for and worked for. This is the application of Christ’s grace. This is how it is done.


Application of grace


Grace is not a standalone spiritual ingredient. It requires other things in order to work. It’s full power is generated from the atonement of Christ, and is activated by our own works, and the covenants we made at baptism through the gift of the Holy Ghost. For example, my wife and I were having problems early on in our marriage. Like most couples, we were learning to get along and to appreciate each other better.

I remember standing on the opposite side of the bed from her and thinking to myself that this one thing was going to be more than I could change on my own. I realized, probably for the first time in my life, I was going to have to take this to the Lord, for this was going to require that my heart be changed. My attitude was bad, and I simply couldn’t fix it by myself.

I prayed for several months to have this irritant removed from my heart that I might love my wife more purely, and more generously. I knew there was nothing wrong with her. It was me that needed changing. Then one day we were having another discussion, amazingly again on opposite sides of the bed, and I suddenly realized that what was happening in the discussion between us that drove me so nuts a few months before, no longer bothered me. I realized that my love for my wife was completely unimpeded by what had hampered my love before. My heart had been changed, and I hadn’t even noticed it happening.

This was Christ’s grace in action. I was exercising faith in him and his atoning sacrifice that with his help I could change – my heart could be changed. I sought for the Spirit to guide me and teach me what I needed to know and do for this change to take place, and over time it did. This is grace.

Notice that nothing stood alone. Grace did not do everything. My work did not do everything. The Holy Ghost did not do everything. All the parts were required for grace to do its job. I had to exercise my faith and pray, work, and plead for help. Christ’s payment for my sins opened the door and created the path for the Spirit to step in and begin to change my heart and open my mind to better things. My desires changed. I no longer have the need to be irritated over what bothered me before. My capacity to love has increased incrementally.

Did I deserve that blessing? Did I earn that blessing? Was it a gift? I would argue that the answer to all of these questions is yes. Grace is activated by the Spirit in our lives. The Holy Ghost affects the changes we need to have made to bring us closer to the perfection of Christ. It happens one small step at a time. And I could not have had the blessing of that change had I not also been exercising my faith in the power of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.


Final Thoughts

This is what I have learned from reading my previous article on the gift of the Holy Ghost. Grace is only one of several ingredients needed for the requisite changes to be made in our lives. We must also be doing everything in our power to bring those changes about. Through our exercise of faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice, in addition to the physical and spiritual labor we invest in our changes, the Holy Ghost is able to guide us, lead us, teach us, and make the changes in our heart, disposition, and mind that we could not do for ourselves.

This is what grace is to me. It is the process by which, by our consent, and our petitioning the Lord in faith, He is able to use the Holy Ghost to enable us to become more than what we can achieve on our own. This growth, brought about by the atonement of Christ, is the definition of grace. This is the recipe for creating a celestial person or people. This is how we become born again as new creatures in Christ.
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