John 1:15-17 & D&C 93:11-23 — Grace for Grace — LeGrand Baker

The phrase “grace for grace” is about the maturation of reciprocal, unfailing, covenant love. It is used only once in the New Testament, once by Mormon, and twice in D&C 93. The latter also contains the phrase “grace to grace”

The context in which John places it is this:

15 John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me.
16 And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.
17 For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.(John 1:15-17).

Grace is translated from the Greek word charis. It is an expression or act of kindness, a favor with the intent of doing good (Strong # 5485). So, the simplest understanding of “grace for grace” would be an exchange of kindnesses. However, its Hebrew equivelent suggests much more than that, as C.L. Mitton wrote,

Indeed, if this fuller meaning [of grace] is to be represented at all by a Hebrew word, it is the word hesed. This word is, however, usually translated in the LXX by the Greek word [meaning] ‘mercy’. {1}

As I shall point out below, it appears that hesed is translated as both “mercy” and “grace” in the Book of Mormon.

A new version of Strong’s Concordance defines hesed as “unfailing love, loyal love, devotion. kindness, often based on a prior relationship, especially a covenant relationship.” {2}

That definition is probably based on the work of Katherine Doob Sakenfeld who emphasized that hesed is about keeping covenants. She wrote that hesed meant “to do what is expected of one.” With regard to the covenant, God does what is expected (keeps his covenant promises), therefore, man should also maintain “hesed” (keep their covenant promises). {3}

Hesed is more than making and keeping a legal contract, rather it is about keeping sacred covenants. Botterweck and Ringgren write that this reciprocal relationship is fundamental to the meaning of hesed. “because we are dealing with the closest of human bonds.”{4}

It is an act that preserves or promotes life. It is intervention on behalf of someone suffering misfortune or distress. It is demonstration of friendship or piety. It pursues what is good and not what is evil. Thus the most appropriate translation of hesed is “goodness,” “grace,” or “kindness.” {5}

God’s kindness towards an individual places that individual in a relationship with his neighbor, a relationship based on Yahweh’s kindness; in his daily contacts with others he must keep the kindness he has experienced, he must practice righteousness and justice, kindness and mercy. Thus hesed shapes not only the relationship of Yahweh with human beings, but also that of human beings among themselves. {6}

It is often stated expressly that the one who receives an act of hesed responds with a similar act of hesed, or at least that the one who demonstrates hesed is justified in expecting an equivalent act in return. {7}

That idea is expressed very clearly by the Savior in the Beatitudes where he said,

7 And blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. (3 Nephi 12:7).

There he is paraphrasing Psalm 18:25 which says,

25 With the merciful thou wilt shew thyself merciful.

The key words in that statement are each different forms of hesed.

25 With the merciful [ Strong # 2623 adjective form of hesed. Faithful, kind ] thou wilt shew thyself merciful [ Strong #2616 verb form of hesed. To be good, be kind ].

It appears that Mormon was citing the same psalm when he wrote,

24 And may God grant, in his great fulness, that men might be brought unto repentance and good works, that they might be restored unto grace for grace, according to their works (Helaman 12:24).

If he was referring to Psalm 18, then that affirms that in the Book of Mormon, hesed can be translated either “grace” as in Helaman, or “mercy” as in 3 Nephi.

Cohen understood the sweeping consequences of that concept, and defined hesed as “covenant love; i.e. the love relationship between parties whose actions express their mutual feelings and are not merely prescribed by the terms of their contract.”{8}

The most beautiful example of the meaning of hesed that I know is in Psalm 25. It is spoken by the king, but the references are to his personal premortal covenants. Hesed is used three times in that short psalm. The first is translated as “lovingkindnesses.” The other two are translated as “mercy.” Psalm 25 is my favorite because it shows that the covenants we made at the Council in Heaven are an important part of the experiences we have in this life.{9}

Another word with which we are familiar and that carries the same connotation of reciprocal love is pistis, translated as “faith” in the New Testament. Pistis is about covenants and friendships. In the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament we find this definition:

Stress is often laid on the fact that this [pistis] is a higher endowment than wealth. … Concretely pistis means the ‘guarantee’ which creates the possibility of trust, that which may be relied on, or the assurance of reliability, ‘assurance’. … pistis is the ‘oath of fidelity,’ ‘the pledge of faithfulness,’ ‘security.’ This leads on the one side to the sense of ‘certainty,’ ‘trustworthiness,’ on the other to that of ‘means of proof,’ ‘proof.’ In particular pistis denotes the reliability of persons, ‘faithfulness.’ It belongs especially to friendship. {10}

Primarily, then, pistis is an attitude of man to himself, not to others. As man’s faithfulness to himself, however, pistis makes possible the right relation to others, He who is “faithful to himself” can also be “faithful” to others; he alone is capable of genuine friendship. {11}

A similar word to hesed is the Greek word philadelphia, which is usually translated as “brotherly love,” but is “brotherly kindness” in 2 Peter. It means “fraternal affection: brotherly love (kindness).” {12}

In the story told in 1 Samuel 20 of the devotion shared by David and Jonathan, the word hesed is central to the covenants they made. It is easy to discover in that use of hesed that it is about the same devoted friendship that is conveyed by philadelphia.

David had fled from Saul’s house and asked Jonathan to help him preserve his life. David said to Jonathan,

8 Therefore thou shalt deal kindly [hesed] with thy servant; for thou hast brought thy servant into a covenant of the Lord with thee: …

After David had affirmed the terms of his covenant Jonathan responded,

14 And thou shalt not only while yet I live shew me the kindness [hesed] of the Lord, that I die not:
15 But also thou shalt not cut off thy kindness [hesed] from my house for ever: no, not when the Lord hath cut off the enemies of David every one from the face of the earth.
16 So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, Let the Lord even require it at the hand of David’s enemies.
17 And Jonathan caused David to swear again, because he loved him: for he loved him as he loved his own soul (1 Samuel 20:8, 14-17).

In the first four verses of 2 Peter, he uses the word pistis (“faith”) to mean the entire ancient Christian temple service, concluding with: “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4) Then Peter lists in sequence eight things we must be in order to make our “calling and election sure.” (2 Peter 1:1-10) In Peter’s sequence, philadelphia and charity are the final necessary qualities that will bring one to the fruition of his promise:

11 For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:11).

That ordering is necessary. One cannot have charity (love for everyone) if one does not first have philadelphia (one-on-one love between individuals). In this sequence Peter has taken the key triumvirate of pistis, philadelphia (hesed), and charity (grace), and shown us how those actions and the attitudes create a unity of relationships that is “everlasting.” All are about keeping covenants that sustain and validate eternal family and eternal friendships.

The Prophet Joseph had reached that same conclusion when he wrote: “Friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism.” {13}

That understanding of the covenants gives us a different and beautiful way by which we may examine what John meant when he said, “And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.” It calls to mind that Jesus referred to not just his apostles, but also to Lazarus, as his friends. Friends are persons who give love and receive love.

When you and I read the definition of hesed as “unfailing love based on a prior covenant,” our minds find no conflict in finding two sources for the love and the covenants. The first is our premortal covenants and the second is the covenants we make in this world.

The premortal covenant relationships were reciprocal both between each other and between us and God. I believe that the friendships and the sacred covenants we make in this world are affirmations of the ones we made before.

As we consider these principles it becomes obvious that none of the relationships discussed here are limited to, or even focused on this life’s fleeting experiences. Rather, we are glimpsing the true nature of our eternal covenants with God and with each other. The phrase “grace for grace” denotes our ever maturing friendships. The infinite quality of those friendships is evinced in the Doctrine and Covenants where the Lord explains John’s testimony:

11 And I, John, bear record that I beheld his glory, as the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, even the Spirit of truth, which came and dwelt in the flesh, and dwelt among us.
12 And I, John, saw that he received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace;
13 And he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness;
14 And thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first.
15 And I, John, bear record, and lo, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove, and sat upon him, and there came a voice out of heaven saying: This is my beloved Son.
16 And I, John, bear record that he received a fulness of the glory of the Father;
17 And he received all power, both in heaven and on earth, and the glory of the Father was with him, for he dwelt in him.
18 And it shall come to pass, that if you are faithful you shall receive the fulness of the record of John.
19 I give unto you these sayings that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness.
20 For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace.
21 And now, verily I say unto you, I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn;
22 And all those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of the same, and are the church of the Firstborn.
23 Ye were also in the beginning with the Father; that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth (D &C 93:11-23).

It is appropriate that I conclude this discussion by citing the testimony of John, Jesus’s Beloved friend and apostle:

4 John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne;
5 And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,
6 And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (Revelation 1:4-6).

11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.
12 No man hath seen God at any time [except them who believe — JST] If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.
13 Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.
14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world.
15 Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God.
16 And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.
17 Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world.
18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.
19 We love him, because he first loved us.
20 If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?
21 And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also (1 John 4:11-21).

{1} C.L. Mitton’s article on “grace” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1991), 2: 464. The quote includes Greek and Hebrew words that are omitted here.

{2} John R. Kohlenberger III and James A. Swanson, The Strongest Strong’s, Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), Hebrew dictionary # 2617.

{3} Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, The Meaning of Hesed in the Hebrew Bible: A New Inquiry (Missoula, Montana; Scholars Press for the Harvard Semitic Museum, 1978).

{4} G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, eds., trans. Davod E. Green, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 15 vols. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1986), article about hesed, 5:45-48).

{5} Ibid, 5:51.

{6}Ibid, 5:63.

{7} Ibid, 5:47.

{8}Stuart A. Cohen, “Kings, Priests and Prophets, Patterns of Constitutional Discourse and Constitutional Conflict in Ancient Israel.” In The Quest for Utopia, Jewish Political Ideas and Institutions through the Ages, edited by Zvi Gitelman. 17-40. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1992, page 21.

{9} For a discussion of Psalm 25 see Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, chapters, “Meaning of ‘Meek’ in Psalm 25: Keeping One’s Eternal Covenants” and “The Meek in Psalm 25.” First edition, pages, 525-43; paperback edition, pages 378-90. However, for a discussion of the psalm, the paperback edition is better and it is available on this website.

{10} Gerhard, Friedrich, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols. Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1964-76), 6: 177. Italics added.

{11} Ibid, 6:182.  In these texts pistis is written in Greek letters. I have replaced them with pistis written in italics.

{12} Strong # 5360 [first edition, 1894] Emphasis is in original.

{13} Joseph Smith, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph, compiled and edited by Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980), 234.


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