Saved by Charis: A Review of “Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis”

Paul Writing His Epistles attr. Valentin de Boulogne (17th century).
Paul had a thing or two to say about salvation.
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
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 understanding. 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
, 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 (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
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.
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
(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.
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.

3 thoughts on “Saved by Charis: A Review of “Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis””

  1. <<[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.>>

    Do Mormons believe the above quote to accurately reflect their view of the Bible? Based on my previous discussions with Mormons, anytime the JoDs are quoted, the typical Mormon knee jerk reaction is to say "well, that's just Brigham Young's opinion and not doctrine." So, I ask you here, whether or not this is "doctrine" . . . would you say the quote is true (along the same lines as asking a prospective "investigator" if they believe the book of Mormon is true. Does the quote above "ring true"? Is it something you can get behind and say "Yes! I believe this to be true!"? If so, then why do Mormons still use the KJV when so many words within it's pages are NOT translated correctly? Surely the LDS Church has the resources to produce a better translation than the KJV! Heh, even Joseph Smith Jr. said the German version (forgive me I don't recall exactly which German version) was the most accurate translation.

    I have a couple of sources (links) that I hope you have time to read (in order to give you some context as to where I'm coming from). The first is where the discussion talks about Joseph Smith's view of the German Bible. Do you know which German Bible JS was referring to? Could it be used as a "guide" of sorts in translating from the original Hebrew and Greek Texts in order to produce a more complete and accurate translation?

    Another source would be: where they discuss the problem with the names Jacob and James. Joseph Smith (I gathered from the article) was pretty keen on using certain names which I can only assume had to do with your Temple rituals and perhaps exaltation. I can only speculate as I've never been through any LDS ceremonies (involving the Temple). I have been inside a Temple prior to it's dedication (OKC). However, this quote from the bycommonconsent link above makes me wonder if the names really are important and not just something to quibble over.

    "“Now, if Jacob had the keys, you might talk about James through all eternity and never get the keys.”

    Joseph’s theology at this time made a great deal of using certain names, and obtaining particular priesthood keys. He’s not merely making a linguistic quibble here, but making what for him was an important theological point."

    It seems to me that if names are important, we ought to get them right and not merely lean back on our laurels and claim it doesn't matter as long as everyone knows who we are talking about. If the Bible translators used the original names in some places but not others, then doesn't that indicate the KJV (among others) is not the "word of God" since these versions have NOT been translated correctly?

  2. As it pertains to this article and "grace" I'm wondering if you were familiar with the view that Joseph Smith used the phrase "after all we can do" to mean in spite of all we do? I don't recall the exact LDS article I gleaned this from, but the gist was in spite of all our good (or bad) deeds, it all comes down to God's grace. For it is by grace we are saved, and that not of ourselves, not of works, not because God is obligated to save us. Even while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Christ died for those who were under no obligation to follow Him. But He did it anyway. Grace, unmerited grace is truly a gift from God. However, it doesn't stop there. No, we (who receive and accept His grace) are changed, born again, and His Spirit dwells within us. We have a new nature. So, it is no surprise that those who have been changed will gladly (happily and enthusiastically) follow and obey His commands. Jesus said: "If you love Me, keep My commandments." How can we do otherwise?

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