Maxwell Institute Podcast #146: God’s Original Grace, with Adam Miller
In Original Grace, Adam S. Miller proposes an experiment in Restoration thinking: What if instead of implicitly affirming the traditional logic of original sin, we, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, emphasized the deeper reality of God’s original grace? What if we broke entirely with the belief that suffering can sometimes be deserved and claimed that suffering can never be deserved?
In exploring these questions, Miller draws on scriptures and the truths of the Restoration to reframe Christianity’s traditional thinking about grace, justice, and sin. He outlines the logic of original sin versus that of original grace and generates fresh insights into how the doctrine of grace relates to justice, creation, forgiveness, and more.
Welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Joseph Stuart. In Original Grace, Adam S. Miller proposes an experiment in restoration thinking. What if, instead of implicitly affirming the traditional logic of original sin, we, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, emphasize the deeper reality of God’s original grace? What if we broke entirely with the belief that suffering can sometimes be deserved, and claim that suffering can never be deserved? In exploring these questions, Professor Miller draws on scriptures and the truths of the restoration; reframes Christianity’s traditional thinking about grace, justice and sin; outlining the logic of original sin against the backdrop of original grace; and generates fresh insights into how the doctrine of grace relates to justice, creation, forgiveness, and more. We hope that you enjoy this interview with Professor Miller as much as we enjoyed reading the book. Please be sure to leave a comment and a five star rating for us on Apple podcasts or wherever you get podcasts, and sign up for our newsletter at mi.byu.edu. Thanks and enjoy the interview with Professor Miller.
Joseph Stuart: Adam Miller, welcome back to the Maxwell Institute podcast.
Adam Miller: Thanks for having me.
Joseph Stuart: And we are here to discuss your new book from Deseret Book and the Maxwell Institute, Original Grace: An Experiment in Restoration Thinking. And it seems to me that two men really shaped this book and its outline. One of those men was your father, could you tell us what he was like?
Adam Miller: Yeah, my father ended up figuring largely here in the book for me. In some ways, I’ve been writing this book for 20 years, in some ways I was writing writing the book for about 18 months, about six months into writing the book, my father died. This was June 2020. So I started trying to write about that experience of his passing as part of the book. And it became clear to me as I finished a draft, that was about 40,000 words long, that the book needed to be about half the length that it was. And that I needed to restructure the book entirely around a backbone of stories about my father, and that included my own father’s voice. My father grew up in the church in Pennsylvania, very small, church, branch, Mormon type, experience. And, and when I think about him, the thing that always amazes me about him in particular is just the seriousness and sense of ambition with which he took up his living of the gospel, when it wasn’t obvious that he had a lot of role models for how to do that, or that he ought to do that. And that shaped me in lots of ways, and his voice, I think is crucial now to the book as it stands.
Joseph Stuart: Well, thank you for sharing that about your father. The second is also an intellectual figure in your life, a man named Stephen Robinson, who wrote a book called Believe In Christ, how does he factor into the book?
Adam Miller: For me, my initial introduction, the notion of grace as being central to the gospel of Jesus Christ, came by way of Stephen Robinson, his book, Believing Christ, that I read as a missionary serving in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that was just about the time that it came out there in the mid 90s. And everybody was talking about it, and I was anxious to get my hands on anything that would help me to understand the gospel better and, and I feel like his work on grace really pulled back the curtain for me on what the gospel was about. What my relationship with Jesus Christ ought to look like, what I was trying to do, living the gospel and how I ought to go about trying to do it. And at the heart of that was learning how to receive and accept and live in light of God’s grace as is extended to me through Jesus Christ. I owe a lot of my love for and interest in grace, to Stephen Robinson
Joseph Stuart: I also found Believing Christ, the name of Dr. Robinson’s book, on my mission, and I assume that many people listening to this will be able to relate, but missions are a time of really heavy pressure. Where a lot of responsibility is heaped onto young people’s shoulders. And at least in my experience, I didn’t totally know what to do with it. I felt completely overmatched. I felt completely unqualified for the call, not only of teaching investigators and helping less active members to come back to church, but if I remember correctly, you were also training a new missionary when you first read Stephen Robinson’s book, do you think that that had a particular way of reaching you while you were responsible for the mentorship of young missionary?
Adam Miller: Yeah, I think that factored into it. I felt very keenly as a missionary, the weight, the mantle of responsibility that you just described. If you feel the weight of that it doesn’t take long for it to become obvious to you, I think as a missionary, that you can’t do it, right? That you literally can’t do the thing that you’ve been sent out to do. At least you can’t do it by yourself, right? That it’s going to depend at the end of the day on something a lot more than your own meager efforts in obedience and proselyting, and teaching and finding. That it’s going to require a lot of grace, if it’s going to work, it’s going to have to unfold as a genuine partnership, God. And that, I think was what I found most striking about Stephen Robinson’s description of grace was that at the end of the day, the gospel was designed to bring me into a partnership with God and Jesus Christ, and that my salvation would be a product of not what I was doing, but of the partnership that we were engaged in together, God and I.
Joseph Stuart: In Believing Christ, Robinson shares this very touching story of his daughter who wants to earn money to purchase a bicycle, and how there is no way that she could save up her nickels and dimes to be able to afford a bicycle. And so Robinson ultimately provides grace in his analogy, by chipping in everything that she cannot, and it has a much greater amount than she could ever hope to contribute to it. And in that way, he saw Christ’s grace working in his daughter’s life and as a great metaphor for how Christ’s work goes on in our life. But as I’m reading the book, I’m seeing a crucial problem, I think, in some ways, which is that grace not only enabled this partnership of his daughter and Robinson, but it’s also bringing in the idea that grace is what allowed Robinson to be able to do anything at all. So grace was there at the beginning, it wasn’t something that entered into a relationship when his daughter wanted the bicycle, the grace was always there as an access to her. And in your experiment in the restoration thinking, as the subtitle of your book goes, you say that it’s important for us to think about grace being the original aspect of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and not original sin, that it wasn’t anything that we did to deserve grace, but that it was always there. At what point did you realize that reframing ideas around salvation and sin around grace, rather than the fall, could be a productive experiment in thinking as a Latter-day Saint?
Adam Miller: That parable of the bicycle is really powerful. And it’s I think, it accounts for a lot of the reason why that book touched so many people and had such long legs and did so much work to help us center grace as part of our experience of the gospel.
Joseph Stuart: And as I was helping my daughter to buy her first bicycle, I had my own little emotional experience again, thinking about Dr. Robinson’s parable, there.
Adam Miller: Nice, yeah. Yeah, the temptation when we think about that parable, though, is to think that, that salvation is the kind of outcome that results, then from whatever work I can manage to contribute to the relationship, however meager that is. Together then with this super addition of grace, from Christ, which, as Robinson, I think helped convince us is a much larger proportion of the equation than we had suspected. That he wasn’t just going to fill in a tiny gap at the end of the day, right? But that Jesus’s work was going to get us most of the way there. It’s better though I think, at the end of the day, to think about that parable along the lines that you suggested, were that grace wasn’t just the thing that came in at the end of the story, to help get his daughter over the line, the amount of money that she needed to get the bicycle, but the grace was there, from the start. That grace was the very essence of the relationship that she had with her father who helped give her life and brought her into the world and made it possible for her to do the things that she was doing and to earn the money that she did earn. And seeing grace, then as part of the story, all the way through, I think, was a kind of crucial turning point for me, in seeing my partnership with Christ as not just a kind of backup plan or a stop gap, once I had failed to save myself, but seeing my attempt to save myself outside of a partnership with Christ as, as the root of the problem that I was struggling with as the sinner right, my attempt to do it by myself. My attempt to circumvent a partnership was at the heart of why I was alienated from God, in the first place, the partnership with Christ and His grace, that was the plan. From the beginning, as best I can tell, not a backup plan that intervenes when it turns out I can’t do it on my own.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, there is no moment in the Garden of Eden where God realizes what Adam and Eve have done, and it’s like, oh, no, where’s Jesus? Okay, we’re gonna fix this here. Right? It was always the plan to have a Savior. And actually, as Robinson says, What’s the point of a Savior who doesn’t save anyone? I think part of the productive reframing that you’re doing is saying that it doesn’t matter how good you are. You always need grace. It doesn’t matter if you’re giving 1% of your salvation or 1.1% of your salvation or whatever arbitrary number it is. We all need it. We are all beggars and you turn that into a really interesting reading of King Benjamin’s sermon in the book of Mosiah in the Book of Mormon, and I was wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about how you started to think about the phrase, “are we not all beggars?” in the context of grace, and in the context of justice?
Adam Miller: It started to become clear to me that we could probably push what Stephen Robinson had helped clarify for us about the nature of grace a little bit farther than he did, if we recognized that our partnership with God wasn’t just a stepping stone to salvation, but that partnership with God was both the original plan and the very thing that we were looking for, right? That that partnership was salvation, if not just the means to the end, it is the end, that grace built partnership with Christ. That led me to think more carefully about the nature and purpose of God’s law. And that led me in particular to that very specific passage in King Benjamin’s sermon, where he gives us a little hypothetical case study about a beggar and about how we should respond to the beggar’s request for help. And he says, When the beggar requested help from you, you might be tempted to say to yourself, I’m not going to help this man because he deserves this suffering. His suffering is just his suffering is in fact, a product of God’s law that he deserves. And if I intervened here and helped the beggar, and prevented him from getting what he deserved, as a result of his actions, that then I would, in some sense, be running against the grain of God’s law. King Benjamin says, If you tend to think about God’s law in that way, then you’re wrong. You’re wrong, you are the sinner, King Benjamin says. If you think to yourself, “This man deserves his suffering”, then you’re the sinner. And I think recognizing that this is a misuse of God’s law, a kind of misunderstanding of what justice is, and how it works, is really key to putting grace back front and center in terms of our experience of the law. If it’s not the case, that the purpose of God’s law is to decide whether people do or don’t deserve my help, and that I am, in fact, instead bound by God’s law to help them regardless of whether they do or don’t deserve it, then I think it becomes possible to think about grace, not as a way of patching up holes in the law. But it becomes possible to think about the grace as the thing that the law itself commands as the very purpose of God’s law.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, I think you get into this a little bit too when you discuss the prodigal son, or what might be better thought of as the parable of the prodigal sons.
And I’m wondering if you could walk us through, I think that most Latter-day Saints are familiar with the understanding of grace with the prodigal son: the man who loses everything that his father has given him, and then he’s come back and given a robe and a feast, and it’s celebrated that he comes back. But you see something that I think that we can benefit from in seeing how the older brother, the one who never strayed, how he reacted to his brother coming back? Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Adam Miller: Yeah, in the context of that verse and King Benjamin’s sermon, it occurred to me that we could offer a deeper reading of the parable of the prodigal son than we sometimes do. We could see how the father in that parable is a model of grace. Right now, the father responds to both of his sons with grace, regardless of what they do or don’t think that they deserve. And we could see in both of those sons, aspects of our problem as human beings insofar as we misuse God’s law as a way of trying to decide what we or other people do or don’t deserve, what good we do or don’t deserve. The younger son, the prodigal son, he takes his inheritance and he runs off and he wastes it all. And he finds himself in terrible circumstances and he thinks to himself, I don’t deserve to go home, I don’t deserve to receive my father’s love anymore. And he shows up, and his father runs out to greet him and his father showers him with love and grace and affection and returns him to part of the family. The other part of the story, though, has to do with the older brother, the faithful son, who is angry about this extension of grace to his younger brother, because he sees that the the younger brother doesn’t deserve any of these things that that his father has given him and he feels like he’s not getting what he deserved out of his relationship with his father. I think at the end of the day, the parable is about how both of the sons misunderstand the purpose of God’s law. The younger son misunderstands it because he thinks it’s that God’s law is about the punishment he deserves. The older son misunderstands God’s law because he thinks God’s law is about the rewards that he deserves. But they both think that God’s law is fundamentally a question about what they do or don’t deserve, what good or evil they do or don’t deserve. Whereas the father doesn’t treat God’s law from that perspective at all. The father feels himself compelled, commanded by the law, to do what is good, to give whatever good is needed to either the younger son or the older son, regardless of what they need, regardless of what they deserve, right? He sees them in light of what they need. And that to me, I think, turns out to be kind of key to reconciling the relationship between justice and grace, and seeing them as working on the same side of God’s ledger here. That what the law commands, what justice requires is that I always and only give what good is needed in response to whoever I encounter. And God’s law never asked me to instead, respond with evil to someone who I think deserves evil.
Joseph Stuart: I think that this is a really profound way of thinking. And you walk through in the book, and there are diagrams that you include in the book that we’ll include in the show notes, which you can sign up for at mi.byu.edu. But I confess that there were two areas in which my intellectual understanding of what you’re saying and my own personal acceptance that God gives us only what we need, and that we don’t always just get what we deserve came in. And the first was actually thinking as a parent, so thinking about myself as the father in the parable of the prodigal son, and thinking about how I as a parent, or I as a friend, or I as a minister, or whatever it is, sometimes don’t know whether it’s best to let people to fall on their face, so to speak, so that they can get that wake up call. Or if it’s something that they need to be guided and need to have their hand held and need to walk through with that. Did you consider how difficult it might have been for the father to know what to do in that situation? Because at the end of the day, it’s clear he made the right one, he extends this love, he extends this great model of grace. But I wonder, what was going on while his younger son was off spoiling his entire inheritance?
Adam Miller: Yeah, I think the key to understanding how I’m trying to think about justice, and its relationship to grace in the book, is the commandment that Jesus gives in the Sermon on the Mount, that what we are commanded to do, what justice requires me to do, is to love my enemy. To give what is good to my enemy, in light of the fact that I see them as my enemy, because I don’t think that they deserve what is good, right. But that this is, in fact, the commandment. Right? This is what is required for justice. And Jesus comes back to this again and again in the Sermon on the Mount in terms of he keeps saying, You’re not going to think this is what justice is. But this is what it is. This is what the law is, is to love your enemy to give good to those who have done evil to you. And that, of course, is a good description of grace, right? That’s what the law is, if that’s what justice requires, is me to give good even to those who are evil, then justice is just the same thing as grace, as far as I can tell. Grace is the thing that the law commands, and I fulfill the law by participating in that work, then of grace. Of not seeing the world in terms of what people deserve, but seeing the world in terms of what good is needed. Now, making that shift in how we think about the law is one thing, but then figuring out how to actually do it on the ground in real time, in relationships with other people is another thing. It gets complicated and messy right away very quickly because of our own limitations as human beings. Our own limitations in terms of what we can see and what we can understand and how well we can feel our way into what other people do or don’t actually need from us, but also in terms of the way that we always find ourselves locked into a variety of relationships that entail competing demands, that often require us to make difficult choices about what good we will give to whom instead of to someone else, right. The time I spend with my daughter is time that I did not spend with my son, which time I did not spend with my wife, which is I might not spend on my calling at church, which is time I did not spend the you know, working, becoming better at my profession, etc. This is a calculation in terms of, of how to do what’s good, even once we’ve been convinced that we are always and only ever commanded to do good. So there we need God again, right? God to the rescue or the whole thing fails. It’s discernment, it’s spirit, it’s inspiration and guidance. It’s continual forgiving and asking for forgiveness. There’s no other way to do it.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, I’m almost relieved that you don’t have one silver bullet answer that provides all the answers to negotiating every relationship that we have with human beings. But one that I find in some ways, just as vexing is in a way of loving and trusting yourself. Because this is something that I run into, that when my friend or family member does something well, I feel like I can be the first one to congratulate them, to know that they have deserved it. Because they have worked hard. They have used their mind, they have used their bodies, they have put in the time they have done what it takes to achieve something good. But then when something good happens to me, I immediately think, how on earth did this happen? I didn’t deserve this at all. And I wonder if thinking about original grace maybe provides a way of reframing what we deserve not only in terms of justice from a “people getting what’s theirs in a sort of revenge type of way”, but in individuals also getting what they deserve in terms of good things happening to them. Do you have any thoughts there?
Adam Miller: Yeah, I mean, my inclination would be to abandon altogether, thinking about things in terms of what deserved. Goodness is commanded unilaterally, unconditionally. There is no circumstance in which I’m commanded to respond to evil by being evil. There’s no moral imperative to respond, to respond to evil with evil, it’s unilateral. The commandment to do and give what is good, which means the good is something that has to be figured out and shared and received and enjoyed. But it’s never the kind of thing that you have to weigh in terms of whether someone did or didn’t deserve it. And that can be both liberating in terms of how we relate to other people, especially in terms of our desire for revenge or comeuppance, or in terms of our seeing them as being better than us because they deserve something that we haven’t managed to deserve. But it also can be liberating in terms of our relationship to ourselves when we no longer understand who we are and our relationship to God in terms of what we do or don’t deserve. But in terms of goods that are commanded and needed.
Joseph Stuart: I think that pride is something that can be difficult to talk about here. Because often in the way that I as Latter-day Saint think of pride is thinking about putting myself above another, or in President Benson’s memorable address on pride, about me not having something and thus setting myself up against those who do have what I want. And so if there’s original grace, and everyone has access to this original grace, how do we ensure that our assurance that grace exists, overcomes the very human desire to respond with pride or to respond with ego to the things that we have or don’t have?
Adam Miller: Yeah, I think seeing the world in terms of what is or isn’t deserved, there in relationship to other people, or in relationship to myself, that’s an ego driven way of seeing the world. And that’s a way of carving up the world that attempts to put me in a position of superiority, of command, of control. If for instance, I can make my relationship to God about what I do or don’t deserve on the basis of my actions, then I can be in charge of that relationship, I can be in command, I can be in control. And in fact, I might even be able to prove that I can do it on my own, and don’t need him, right. It’s a way of carving up the world in terms of what is or isn’t deserved, as a way of setting ourselves up as our own idols, can play out in a lot of different kinds of positive and negative ways. But pride is the root of that initial refusal of the partnership that is at the heart of the grace that God was originally offering. My pride is my attempt to go it on my own and do it on my own without him. And so in that way, pride, as the root of sin, is a rejection of that original grace, that original offer of partnership with him that was the plan all along. And not just the plan to get us to where we needed to go. But the very thing that that we were looking for from the beginning,
Joseph Stuart: I’m also thinking about this as a former early morning seminary teacher, and thinking about teaching Doctrine and Covenants section 130. And also as a Latter-day Saint missionary where obedience was key. It was the number one thing we were taught to do, to be focusing on, and thinking about how blessings are predicated on obedience. And so with original grace, I can hear my former 10th graders saying, if there is no sort of prosperity gospel sort of relationship, not that they would use this term, but that I’m using this term in, I do good things and good things happen to me. I do bad things and bad things happen to me. How do we square that with the need to obey? How do we think about obedience in light of thinking about original grace versus original sin?
Adam Miller: On the one hand, I don’t want to discount that there is clearly an important correlation between cause and effects, actions and consequences, between doing good things and good things happening to us. But I also think it’s pretty clear and the scriptures make this pretty clear, that bad things happen to good people all the time, and good things happen to bad people all the time: Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Psalms, but there’s no straight one to one correspondence there between input and output. Just this past General Conference, Elder Christofferson put it this way when he said God’s not the cosmic vending machine where you put in input A and always get output B. But instead, I think God intervenes in our lives in terms of that commandment, to always find and do now what is good, regardless of what the previous set of circumstances involved. If something good happened to us previously, we are now commanded to still seek what is good and what is needed in light of what happened previously, as something bad happened previously, even if we are responsible for the bad thing that happened previously, we are now commanded to do what good is needed in light of the bad that happened previously. Such there’s a kind of, again, a kind of liberating, universal, unilateral command to just always respond with what’s good, regardless of whether the thing that happened previously was good or bad. And I think it’s in that it’s always looking for what’s good in partnership with God, regardless of what happened previously. That’s, that’s where grace and salvation show up in our daily lives.
Joseph Stuart: So how might this work at an institutional level? Because something that I often hear from the students that I work with, or from people in my ward, so a large age range here, is the idea that yes, I can trust an individual or an individual can help me. But what is the point of an institution? If an institution isn’t able to live up to its mission? What might you say to that person who brings up that concern?
Adam Miller: It’s a nice little case study, I think, in the nature of the problem here. If I go into, for instance, my relationship with the church, thinking to myself, is the church good or bad? Is the church succeeding? or failing? Does the church deserve or not my trust and faith and contributions, then just that way of framing the question, regardless of how I answer it, is yes or no, or positive or negative? Or just that way of framing? The question is going to predispose me I think, to have, it’s going to miss relate me to the church in ways that will create problems. In the same way that if I went into my relationship with my wife, thinking, does my wife deserve or not my trust? Am I getting from my wife the things that I need, right? Then the relationship, there’s going to be a kind of problem in the relationship itself from the start. If I go into my relationship with the church thinking, what good is there in the church and trying to see it? And then also asking simultaneously, what good does the church need for me, then my relationship with the church is going to have a very different kind of character, very different kind of flavor. If I’m constantly looking at one, to see what good there is, and then two, judge what good it needs from me, in particular, right. Shifting the responsibility in the relationship from the institution to give me what I think I deserve, and deciding whether I think it deserves something for me to thinking about what it needs from me and what and recognizing simultaneously what goods it has given me. Just the very quality of the relationship has changed in a fundamental way. And it’s a relationship that’s grounded then in grace, rather than in kind of continual judgments about whether the scales have been balanced in a way that I find appropriate.
Joseph Stuart: Well I think with individuals or with institutions, I think that we’re constantly asked to make judgments about whether it is a relationship that is worth maintaining. A relationship that is bringing a desired outcome to both sides. Do you see that as if, then thinking or how might we navigate this broader question of negotiating relationships that may not be 100% healthy for either side?
Adam Miller: I think what’s at stake here is not a question about whether I’m morally obligated to give what good is needed? I am. What’s at stake, then again, is the much stickier, more difficult question that you introduced earlier about exactly how I ought to go about giving what goods are needed, and to whom in what proportion, in what order. The sorting out my responsibilities to my children, in relationship to my responsibilities to my wife, in relationship to my responsibilities to my mother, in relationship to my responsibilities to my job, and then the church, right. Sorting out the balance between all those different things, what goods are needed from me in each of those certain kinds of relationships and what goods I’m actually capable of giving, that’s the daily work on the ground of trying to live in grace. But I think that work only unfolds within the larger commitment to to grace as the very thing that I’m commanded.
Joseph Stuart: Well thank you for this illuminating conversation. And we like to ask each of our guests in accordance with Doctrine and Covenants section 88, the command to learn out of the best books, what are three of your best books that you would recommend to our audience to read?
Adam Miller: I’ve always loved Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which is a kind of long form, nonfiction, quasi philosophical essay on nature and God, and what it means to be alive. With just some of the most crushingly beautiful prose you’re ever likely to find in the English language. I especially love a novel called The Unnamed by Joshua Farris, who has three or four really beautiful novels. But this is by far my favorite; about a man who is handsome and successful in every way that you would want here and 21st century America, who one day finds that he starts walking and can’t stop. And that everything that involves then from his own life kind of being rested from his control, and what it looks like then to try to live a life that’s no longer yours in a fundamental way. It’s a beautiful book, and it strikes me as also a beautiful case study in living the gospel. Because at the end of the day, what we want is for control of our lives to be rested from us, and handed back to God. Third, let me recommend Steven Peck’s beautiful little book A Short Stay in Hell, in which he imagines what it would be like to show up in the next world, discover that you’d picked the wrong religion as your religion. And then be consigned to an eternity in hell and what’s involved? It’s just a little novella, but it’s also a beautiful little book.
Joseph Stuart: Thank you, Adam Miller for coming by the Maxwell Institute podcast.
Adam Miller: My pleasure.
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“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)