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Op-ed: The Mormon restoration and the meaning of grace

Certainly the Savior’s infinite gift cannot be earned, merited, or even repaid. His atonement cannot be overemphasized.
Certainly the Savior’s infinite gift cannot be earned, merited, or even repaid. His atonement cannot be overemphasized.
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Editor's note: This commentary by professors Brent J. Schmidt and John W. Welch is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of Faith and Thought.

In the holiday spirit of gift-giving this Christmas season, we wish to share a first-century message of Christ’s redeeming grace described in the New Testament. Truly, the graceful gift is a giving that profoundly moves us to give in return.

A wonderful hymn in the LDS hymnbook, No. 219, powerfully expresses this thought, “Because I have been given much, I too must give.” This hymn should be sung at all times, but especially at Christmastime. In preparing to give Christmas presents, who wouldn’t say to themselves, “Because Jesus has given so infinitely much to me, I too must give”? And in feeling grateful after Christmas, who shouldn’t say, “Because I have received such treasures this Christmas, I too must give and show my thanks indeed”?

You see, a person is under no obligation to receive a gift that is offered. But once a person accepts that gift, there are natural moral obligations that become attached to that beneficence. This is because the bond of giving and receiving necessarily creates a special relationship between the giver and the receiver. And that amazing relational bond is what grace is all about.

Indeed, the word used consistently for grace in the ancient Greek Bible is charis. It has an unexpected meaning. That original meaning became obscure, centuries ago, when it was translated into Latin as gratia. That word meant “pleasantness,” or “favor,” and that makes it look to us like the English word “gratitude.” Gratia eventually evolved in modern Western culture to mean gratis or gratuitously given — with no strings attached. But the original meaning of the Greek word charis involved a relationship between two people — a patron and a devoted client. They gave gifts reciprocally to or for each other’s benefit.

Anciently, the recipient of a gift was expected to be obedient to the will of the patron and to do unconditionally what the patron asked to the full extent possible, by following instructions, keeping commandments, making covenants and reciprocating with gifts. In this process, the desire was for the client to become eventually like the patron or master.

While the actual word charis appears rarely, if ever, among the words of Jesus in the New Testament, the Savior taught this principle in his parable of the unforgiving servant. That servant’s king forgave him an unimaginably large debt — ten thousand talents — but then he did not reciprocate, as he was unwilling to forgive another who owed him only a relatively small amount — a hundred ordinary coins. The unforgiving servant’s conduct violated the ethic of charis (grace). This disappointed, dishonored and disgusted his Lord.

Gifts given and received in biblical times and in almost all other times and places in the world, according to anthropologists and sociologists, create a powerful relationship between the giver and the recipient. This information gives context and background to what Bible writers like Paul meant and how they were understood by their ancient audiences when they used the term charis as they talked about the obligations inherent in the acceptance of Christ’s gifts. This information can only deepen recent LDS conversations about the various possible meanings of grace.

Certainly the Savior’s infinite gift cannot be earned, merited or even repaid. His atonement cannot be overemphasized. We truly are unprofitable servants to him, as King Benjamin beautifully taught. Christ has already paid the price for our sins in Gethsemane and on the cross. But as Benjamin went on also to teach, if God has granted unto us whatsoever we have asked of him that is right, “O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another” (Mosiah 4:21). That’s charis. The gift is free, but that’s not the end of the matter. Instead, it’s a new beginning.

This almost universally understood client-patron relationship stands in stark contrast to the recent, materialistic “Santa Claus” phenomenon. While there is much delight and joy in the surprises of Santa’s generous, no-strings attached, freebee gifts, care needs to be taken to be sure that all are given the opportunity to choose to show thanks to the real giver.

Classicists and eminent Protestant and Catholic biblical scholars who have thoroughly studied charis over the past couple of decades have recognized the reciprocal and obliging essence of grace (charis), which most Bible readers have scarcely noted. And ironically, at the same time as Bible scholars are seeing that grace is not one-directional, some Latter-day Saints are now coming to emphasize the one-dimensional freedom of grace, trending toward some aspects of Reformation theology. But surely both halves of this sacred reciprocal relationship are necessary. The key is to maximize both the fabulous gifts we are given and also the total devotion we voluntarily consecrate in return.

First-century charis can be helpful and deserves to be highlighted in the current climate. Latter-day Saint scriptures and doctrines have always been consonant with this original meaning and understanding of grace. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints enjoys a restored, first-century appreciation of grace, complete with its active covenantal soteriology. Its doctrines, practices and authoritative ordinances uniquely enable and empower all mankind, both living and dead, to choose to give themselves in response to Christ’s invitation to come unto him and become like their Heavenly Parents. Indeed, we believe that through the Atonement or gift of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by reciprocally offering their obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.

Gratefully, Joseph Smith and other modern prophets have restored and taught these plain and precious words, covenants and understandings. Through these freely available and divinely enlightened teachings, all people can choose to have a binding, loving, reciprocal relationship with an exalted, personal and loving Heavenly Father, because of the gift of his Son, who came down as flesh in our midst.

This season may all go forth as Jesus directed, “Freely ye have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8), remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said that it adds blessedness to give and not just to receive (Acts 20:35).

Brent J. Schmidt teaches at Brigham Young University-Idaho in the Religious Education Department. John W. Welch is the Robert K. Thomas Professor of Law at Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, editor in chief of BYU Studies, and director of publications for the university’s Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for LDS History.

For more information about all subjects in this article, see Brent. J. Schmidt, Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis (BYU Studies, 2015), with a foreword by John W. Welch.