The Saved Little Toaster

October 12, 2009

Last spring I participated in a program between Brigham Young University students (even though I go to Utah State University — go Aggies!) and some Evangelical Christian students from Wheaton College in Illinois.  The Evangelical students came to Utah during their spring break and toured Utah to get a feel for the culture and religion here, and to give us Mormons the same opportunity with them.  I came away from each discussion enlightened.  During their stay, they even arranged a private visit with Elder D. Todd Christofferson, one of the twelve Apostles.  I was so jealous.

One of the questions that often came up during their visit was whether Mormons believed our works saved us or the grace of Jesus Christ did.  They made an interesting observation: when challenged with this question, each latter-day Saint (even General Authorities) responded with one of two answers.  1) We are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ.  2) Works are necessary for salvation.

On the face of it, we seem confused.  To many Christians, statements 1 and 2 are mutually exclusive; for us they fold nicely into each other.

A toaster: a modern kitchen marvel.Consider a toaster.  It has two slots, a mechanical tab, some knobs to control heat levels, heating coils, and a plug connected to the outlet.  The toaster was a wedding gift you gladly accepted from your brother; your dad’s present was to pay your first month of rent, including utilities.  You use your toaster every morning.  Drop in two limp, damp pieces of bread, push the lever down, and wait 35 seconds; then, crispy, deliciously crunchy toast pops out as if by magic!  Spread the butter on thick and enjoy.

As you feast, you make two statements to your new spouse, who does not notice any contradiction:

1) This toast was made through the generous gift of loving relatives.

2) It took some effort on my part (albeit not much) to make the toast.

We certainly can’t take the credit for the toast.  The same effort applied to an empty counter top, or to an unplugged toaster would result in disappointment.  (Maybe the bread would become “crunchy” in the sense of getting stale, but I don’t think that’s what we want).  In the same vein, we fully recognize that living by the law of Moses, or adhering to empty ritualistic tradition without a Messiah will never work.  This is why we respond with number 1.

We also know that we can’t expect the toaster to do everything for us, either.  Much of the joy of eating breakfast comes from taking the time to handcraft it.  Your brother knows that while designing and building a fully-automated toast-producing machine is possible, it isn’t what you need or want.  Besides, there’s still the matter of lifting it to your mouth and chewing.  Surely, you wouldn’t eat pre-chewed toast!  Our purpose on earth is growth, and that requires us to step up to the plate and show our willingness.  Our faith in Christ is manifest to Him by our (imperfect and small) effort.  This is why we give response number 2.

The toaster and its connection to the wall outlet represent the infinite atonement of Jesus Christ.  He offers it to all of us.  Please receive His help gratefully and often.  He loves you, so He will not force your hand.  Insert the bread of faith, and press down the mechanical tab of repentance to unlock the power of forgiveness and blessing that awaits you.  Repentance and righteous living may seem tough at first, but He has made it much easier.  In fact, he has made it possible.

“If ye believe on his name ye will repent of all your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through his merits” (Book of Mormon, Helaman 14:13).

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9 Responses to “The Saved Little Toaster”

  1. Bill Evans

    Good analogy. I have often used the analogy of the light switch — the mechanical effort I have to expend in flipping even the most stubborn of switches is nothing in comparison to the comparatively infinite amount of power put out by the electric company (think hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per second flowing through turbines many times the size of the largest house you would ever seriously hope to own), or even the amount of power the light bulb itself is putting out. (Anyone who’s tried human power to light a single 60W bulb with a bicycle-powered turbine will know what I mean — all I think I ever got up to was a weak 10W spark or so.)

    In the end, however, I think that we all realize that the power of the Atonement is so much more infinitely beyond anything we could ever achieve. In Brother Robinson’s “Parable of the Bicycle”, the price on the bicycle would not be the $100 or so that a normal bicycle costs, but more like $10^(10^(10^(10^(10^10)))) (plus a little more). Trying to work out forgiveness for our own sins is so completely beyond our grasp that even the most pious person ever would be forever shut out of the presence of the Divine (See 2 Nephi 9). Like the hymn goes, “Not the labors of my hands, could fill all Thy laws demands. Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone. Thou must save, and Thou alone.” (“Rock of Ages”, Hymns #111)

  2. Danosaur

    I really like both the toaster and the light switch analogies. I have also gotten this question from many Christian friends, and the fact that works and grace are mutually exclusive to them has baffled me. As I have pondered it, I realized that it stems from a misunderstanding of the Atonement, and what it means to access it. It reminds me of a talk the mission president gave in my ward last year. He had visited with a very Christian man and explained some of our beliefs. He asked the man the question, “What does the Atonement mean in your life?” The man answered, “Well, Jesus died for my sins.” The mission president asked again, “Yes, but what does that mean in your life?” The man had no answer because he had never thought about it that way before. The better we understand the Atonement, we understand its infinite redeeming power as well as our obligation to access it — through our works, or, put another way, through repentance, since our works distilled are really a means of changing our natural selves to be more Christlike.

  3. Nick

    But your brother doesn’t have to be the means by which you get the toaster. You could buy it yourself, win it in a contest, find it on the street, or even build it. You don’t even need a toaster – you could cook bread many other ways. The common thread, however, is that the toast can be made by your hand alone, and this interpretation does not sync with Evangelical Christianity or Mormonism.

  4. Bret

    You also don’t need toast to live, but that isn’t the point of the metaphor. The point is that Christ provides the only means whereby we can become clean to return to our God. It still falls to us to accept His atonement for us by understanding and keeping His gospel which must be done by each individual. I cannot follow Christ for you nor you for me.

  5. Thaddeus

    Nick, you’re correct. Analogies always tend to absurdity around the edges. My analogy is only intended to illustrate the fact that my salvation is accomplished through both my outstretched hand and the Savior’s outstretched hand. He does the heavy lifting, and I must be a willing, even an eager participant in my salvation. (see Philippians 2:12)

    The common thread is that the toast can be made by your hand alone

    I hope my article didn’t give you this impression. That is exactly the opposite of the point I was trying to make.

  6. Dave


    I’m always trying to find a good analogy to explain how we view the cooperation of grace and works. I like this one a lot, thanks.

  7. Drew

    I have a question regarding what you said. I’m not very familiar with what mormons believe on many topics but you said that “our purpose on earth is growth”. Is that sound LDS doctrine? I am currently in the middle of a John Piper book that truthfully and successfully argues that our SOLE purpose is to glorify God. Its not about us, its about HIM.

    I do want to gain an understanding of your beliefs and in no way intend to be offensive, I hope I don’t come across that way.

  8. Thaddeus

    That’s an interesting and insightful question, Drew. Let’s talk about it. Here are my initial thoughts:

    First, what do you mean by “glorify God?” My understanding of that phrase is influenced by a revelation Joseph Smith received as a preface to Genesis 1. It is found in our Pearl of Great Price, and is basically an exchange Moses had with God in which Moses asks the question “Why creation?” God responds with this phrase: “For behold, this is my work and my glory — to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39, my emphasis). Moses then views the creation of earth and the scene in the Garden of Eden, etc., as accounted in Genesis.

    I find it very interesting that God’s work (i.e. His occupation) and his glory (what He loves to do; His passion) is to bring to pass immortal men who willingly receive eternal life (eternal life, we view as Godly life; eternal in quality not just in duration). So what must we do as His beloved children to “glorify Him?” We contribute ourselves to His glory. We learn our duties, follow His directions, and enter covenants to receive eternal life. It’s a step-by-step process that we come to earth to learn, and it means gradual growth.

    In short, our growth is what pleases Him most. When we figure something out and repent and change, this gives him glory.

    Drew, does this help you understand where we’re coming from? How does your understanding of “glorify God” compare with what I described?

  9. Thaddeus

    From a conversation with Cindy at What Do Mormons Believe About the Birth of Jesus? :

    I asked how we receive the grace of Christ in order to become perfected, and you responded by saying that, in essence, we strive to become perfect and then we get His grace.   (“If we embark on a quest to be obedient to the Lord, then He will make us holy.”)
    If that is true, when do we get the grace?  We know we need to become holy (perfect) in order to live with God, so when are we holy?  How do we know?  How many times do we need to push down the button on the toaster in order to become “toasted?”

    Cindy, look more closely at President Benson’s words: “When obedience ceases to be an irritant and becomes our quest, in that moment God will endow us with power.”
    We aren’t given grace once we’ve perfected ourselves (i.e. when we complete our quest), it’s in that moment that we embark on the quest.

    We show the Lord our faith in His words by actually listening to His words and putting them into practice (John 7:17).

    When my dentist tells me to floss, I instinctively react negatively. I don’t want someone telling me what to do and I don’t want to have to change my routine (obedience is an irritant).
    When he helps me understand that flossing results in healthy teeth and gums and less pain, I get excited to do it. I start my day looking forward to the morning’s daily floss (obedience becomes my quest, James 2:21).

    In the first case (irritant), I am not putting faith in my dentist, even if I do reluctantly floss once in a while.
    In the second case (quest), I am putting faith in my dentist and it is evident by my excitement and my flossing.

    Likewise, when Jesus commands us, for example, to love our enemies:
    If we view it as an irritant, we are not putting our faith in Christ. We distrust His commandment; we don’t think it will do us any good.
    If we put our faith in Him, we will be excited to try out this instruction because we believe it will make us happier and we will do it quickly. When we make loving our enemies our quest, in that moment God endows us with the power and grace necessary to love them.