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Grace is not a Mormon heresy, LDS leaders and scholars say after doctrinal 'climate change'

PROVO — For a faith that believes in Jesus Christ, Mormons once stood out among Christians for not using the term "grace" much. When they did, they emphasized works over grace, but the explanations often were muddled. In fact, a Protestant hymn seemed to describe many LDS well: "Confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me."

Newsweek captured that confusion in 1980 with a story that said members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints didn't believe in grace and downplayed the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

"Unlike orthodox Christians, Mormons believe that men are born free of sin and earn their way to godhood by the proper exercise of free will, rather than through the grace of Jesus Christ," the article stated. "Thus Jesus' suffering and death in the Mormon view were brotherly acts of compassion, but they do not atone for the sins of others."

The article was plainly wrong about LDS theology. Mormons do believe in grace and that Christ's suffering and death atone for sin. But the author mounted a strong defense. He wasn't describing what the faith's scriptures and leaders taught, he said. He was reporting what regular Mormons told him they understood.

He wasn't wrong about that. When BYU philosophy professor James Faulconer joined the LDS Church in 1962, he said he was shocked as a former Protestant to discover that "Mormons didn't talk about grace and I wasn't allowed to." Robert Millet, a former dean of Religious Education at BYU, recalled his father telling him Mormons don't believe in grace.

The exposed gap between theology and the understanding of rank-and-file church members unsettled many scholars and leaders, who soon unleashed a torrent of talks and books that subsequently altered Mormon culture by clarifying the understanding of LDS theology over the past 30 years. Several key figures in this renaissance of grace gathered at BYU last week to recall what they did, how it was received — one local church leader branded Stephen Robinson a heretic for writing "Believing Christ" — and what they would do differently now if they had it all to do over again.

Doctrinal conversion

One of those they converted to the doctrine of grace was Camille Fronk Olson, a seminary teacher in the 1980s.

"It was not a natural for me growing up," said Olson, who became the first woman to chair BYU's department of ancient scripture, during last week's conference, which was billed as "My Grace is Sufficient: Latter-day Reflections."

Three actions by LDS leaders created fertile ground for change.

First, they published a 1981 article in the official church magazine Ensign on "Salvation by Grace or Works?" that used the word grace 26 times.

Second, in 1982, LDS Church leaders added a subtitle to the Book of Mormon: "Another Testament of Jesus Christ."

Olson said she thought, "Ah, the church leaders are onto this idea that people of other faiths don't think we're truly Christian, so we're slapping that subtitle on to tell those evangelicals, 'We are Christians.'"

"I will say," she added, "it was several years before I realized that was not for people of other faiths, that was for us. That was for me."

Third, LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson gave a landmark general conference talk in 1986 on the Book of Mormon, which "abounds in the language and logic of grace," Millet said.

Still, the Newsweek article lurked. Elder Bruce C. Hafen, now an emeritus General Authority Seventy of the church, and Stephen Robinson would respond.

First book

Olson said she began to "wake up" to grace when Elder Hafen, then the dean of BYU's law school, delivered a 1988 talk to seminary teachers on the university's campus titled "The Atonement is not just for sinners."

"He helped me start to understand there was something more happening. It was the first time I had heard, that I remembered, this term grace as part of what we believe."

The gap between beliefs and believers revealed by Newsweek ate at Elder Hafen. The talk Olson heard him give was his response, which also drew the attention of another woman, Sheri Dew, who was the vice president of product at Deseret Book. She visited Elder Hafen in his law school office and told him he needed to write a book.

He pulled a manuscript out of his desk. Dew, who was struggling with the breakup of a relationship she had hoped would culminate in marriage, took it home and read it.

"I can't even describe the effect it had on me," Dew said in an emotional moment in her keynote speech at the conference. "I had always been a believer. I absolutely had always known that Jesus was the Christ, but I think I'd had no idea what the Savior actually did for me. It opened my eyes to scriptures and divine promises I had never seen before, that the Lord would heal our wounded souls — boy, I was wounded — that he had already taken our pain upon him — I was in deep pain — and that he would succor us, or run to us, in our infirmities."

Deseret Book published Elder Hafen's "The Broken Heart: Applying the Atonement to Life's Experiences" in 1989. The church then published his initial talk in a 1990 issue of the Ensign under the title "Beauty for Ashes."

"It is perhaps the first LDS book that brings to the fore what the LDS understanding of grace is," Faulconer said, "which is that grace delivers us from spiritual as well as physical death. The publication of the book occurred at a time when the topic of grace was first making an appearance before the church in a public way."

Second book

In 1990, BYU religion professor Stephen Robinson delivered a landmark campus devotional about grace and Christ's Atonement centered on the Book of Mormon scripture that no one can dwell in God's presence but through the grace of Jesus Christ (2 Nephi 2:8).

Robinson had studied at Duke University under W.D. Davies, an expert on the Apostle Paul.

"I learned to ask the right questions from the Protestants," he said, "and I learned the right answers in the Book of Mormon."

Once again, Dew visited a BYU office. She pleaded with Robinson to publish his talk as a book. Last week's conference celebrated the 25th anniversary of "Believing Christ." Deseret Book has sold more than 600,000 copies in English and published the title in 10 other languages.

The following year, 1993, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gave a Church Educational System talk that was published in the Ensign in 1994.

"Individual LDS scholars, principally in religious education at BYU, have published brilliant and inspired books that have made important additions to our literature on the Savior and his atonement," Elder Oaks said. He specifically listed "The Broken Heart," Millet's "Life in Christ," which was published in 1990 and focused on grace, and Robinson's "Believing Christ."

"I hope such books are read and pondered, not just purchased and possessed," Elder Oaks said.

That was a comfort to Robinson. One LDS stake president got up after Robinson delivered a talk based on his book and labeled it false doctrine. Another labeled Robinson a heretic and asked how to get rid of him before he ruined the church.

Since then, many LDS Church leaders have spoken about grace in general conference. In April 2015, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency, gave an address on "The Gift of Grace."

"It is a most wondrous thing, this grace of God," he said. "Yet it is often misunderstood."

"Hallelujah," Robinson said when asked about President Uchtdorf's talk during last week's BYU conference. "I danced the entire time he talked."

Next week: How scholars and church leaders define grace in LDS belief and how it differs from other Christian theologies.