There are some false traditions that have a tendency to creep in among the saints of the latter days. If we are seeking to acquire spiritual power through zealous compliance to the long list of commandments, practices, rituals and policies in the modern Church, we are pursuing an “impossible gospel.”
Have you ever spoken to a little child about Jesus and marveled at their perfect faith in him? Children love stories about him. They believe his teachings. They trust him implicitly. The faith and humility of little children characterize the greatest folks in the kingdom of heaven. (See Matthew 18:1-5). We were all little children once, and to enter the kingdom of heaven we will each return to our childlike faith. Occasionally, prophets have to remind us of our true status when we forget who we are and where we came from. (See Mosiah 2:23-25).
We are deceived in this world as we partake of the forbidden fruit of Satan’s lies, and we are taught something called “the gospel” as the antidote. Frequently, however, we define the gospel incorrectly as a long list of commandments. We should teach compliance and observance of the commandments in the Church, but too often we witness people who have become discouraged with their quest for perfection. One slip, they think to themselves, and all is lost. Their lives enter a vortex of sin sometimes only because they misunderstood the principles of the atonement. The task before them to live this false gospel seems impossible. This assumption is just as faulty as the one that we can sin knowingly, then repent to our Church leaders at the appropriate time to get a temple recommend when needed. Only after we have gained sufficient seasoning to acknowledge our repeated failed attempts to measure up to the lofty expectations of the impossible gospel of checklists, it seems, do we learn the true gospel. (See D&C 18:11; 76:40-42).
The long list of commandments and outward ordinances is not unlike the “preparatory gospel” of the law of Moses in an earlier time -- to give Israel a “type and shadow” of the spiritual blessings inherent in the atonement of Christ. The law was never to become the salvation it typified (see Mosiah 13:30-31; 16:14-15), but as sin escalates our lists grow longer to hedge up the way. We zealously admonish one another that not one must be lost. We learn to measure performance and compare relative compliance. Instead of feeding the sheep, the danger is that we become adept at merely counting them.
The Savior reserved His most excoriating criticism for the leaders of Judaism in his day who exhibited inexhaustible zeal for long lists. (See Matthew 23). He despised those “who make yourselves appear unto men that ye would not commit the least sin, and yet ye yourselves, transgress the whole law.” (JST Matthew 23:21). They had their image to think about.
Paul told the church in Rome that living the law in and of itself will not justify us regardless of how righteous we may appear to other men. The outward sign of conformity to the law in Paul’s day was circumcision. In our day it is baptism. Speaking to modern saints Paul might say, “To be a Mormon is not just to look like a Mormon, and baptism is more than a physical ordinance. The real Mormon is the one who is inwardly a Mormon, and the real baptism is in the heart ‑‑ something not of the letter but of the spirit. A Mormon like that may not be praised by man, but he will be praised by God.” (See Romans 2:25-29). Not surprisingly, President Benson said the same thing frequently. (See Ensign, May 1986, pp. 4-7; also Ensign, May 1988, pp. 4-6).
Receiving Not Earning
Two valiant prophets, Nephi and Stephen, rebuked their persecutors as “uncircumcised of heart.” (See Helaman 9:21; Acts 7:51-53). Their tormentors had been circumcised, and yet remained uncircumcised of heart. The circumcision of heart, a spiritual rebirth, had eluded them even though they had complied with the physical ordinances required by the law. Abinadi agrees with Paul: “Salvation doth not come by the law alone.” (Mosiah 13:28).
Lehi tells Jacob redemption comes through the Holy Messiah to those who have a broken heart and contrite spirit, and that “by the law no flesh is justified.” (2 Nephi 2:4-9). Unto “none else,” says Lehi, can the ends of the law be answered through the “merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah.” Only Jesus and little children qualify as perfect.
In our public teaching in the Church today we sometimes give the impression there are some preconditions imposed by the law before men and women can receive the Holy Spirit. However, Paul teaches it is futile to suppose the works of the law will bring the Holy Spirit of promise to the saints. Let us always remember the Holy Ghost comes to us as a gift after we exercise faith in our Savior’s atonement for our sins, and not as a reward for our good works. Paul posed the rhetorical question, “Was it because you practiced the Law that you received the Spirit, or because you believed what was preached to you?” (Galatians 3:2-5).
Paul speaks of the preparatory gospel as being insufficient to save us from our sins. The outward works of the law are of “none effect” if not linked to a spiritual conversion by faith. (Romans 4:14). Paul says, “All that law does is to tell us what is sinful,” and we must “go on unto perfection” in the doctrine of Christ without our dead works. (Hebrews 6:1).
Abinadi echoes Paul’s teachings. We often consider gifts and grace as troublesome doctrines, thinking in our Protestant ethic that we must earn everything we receive, but remember prophets speak and write to those who have already received the initial outward ordinances of baptism and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. The ordinances are essential for salvation, but “all mankind were lost” because of the fall, and would have been “endlessly lost were it not that God redeemed his people from their lost and fallen state.” (Mosiah 16:3-5). Nowhere do prophets speak of any preconditions for salvation except faith in Christ’s atonement, repentance, and baptism. Outward ordinances only typify inward spiritual realities, they guarantee nothing. Those who cannot humble themselves in repentance for their sins before their Redeemer “remain as though there had been no redemption made,” despite their empty works of compliance without the spirit.
Now examine Amulek’s teachings as another witness: “All are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made.” (Alma 34:9). Through the redemption of Christ little children have escaped accountability for sin. The ordinances at age eight symbolize what happens to us later when we have partaken of the forbidden fruit and the effects of the fall are complete. That is what is meant by the baptism of the heart -- it is spiritual not physical.
How many of us assume we are saved merely by our nominal membership in the true Church? Too many of us perform closure on our spiritual progress, thinking we have all the knowledge we need in the law. Paul taught the outward ordinance of baptism has no power to save. Only faith in Jesus Christ “which worketh by love” results in the desired goal of salvation. (Galatians 5:6). This deception of focusing our efforts on outward behavioral checklists breeds self-righteousness and spiritual complacency, collective sins of the chosen people who are not yet “born again.” (Alma 5:14).
“So what becomes of our boasts?” demands Paul. “There is no room for them. On the contrary, it is the law of faith, since, as we see it, a man is justified by faith and not by doing something the Law tells him to do.” (See Romans 3:27-31).
Faith Like Abraham’s
Paul cites Abraham’s faith. Though it seemed Abraham’s hope for posterity could not be fulfilled, he hoped and he believed. Through doing so he became the father of many nations exactly as he had been promised. Nothing could shake his faith. Since God had promised it, Abraham refused either to deny it or even to doubt it, but drew strength from faith and gave glory to God, convinced that God had power to do what he had promised. There are many in the Church today whose faith and hope in an eternal posterity seems in every particular as impossible as Abraham’s. This is the faith that was “considered as justifying him.” Our faith too will be “considered” if we believe in him who was put to death for our sins and raised to life to justify us. (See Romans 4:13-25). It is easy to confess our faith in God once or twice in a lifetime. We only receive the blessings of Abraham as we live each day like Abraham.
Would Paul have us abandon the requirements under the law for the outward ordinances and commandments of salvation? Not at all. He says the law is not sufficient to save us -- he does not say the law is disposable. But the law, even if it could be lived perfectly as Paul says he lived it, does not save.
Salvation is perfect faith in Christ as our personal Savior, not perfect compliance with the checklist of commandments demanded by the law. Our doctrine is the doctrine of Christ. Once innocent children, we have all ingested the forbidden fruit of Satan’s lies. (D&C 93:37-40). Paul’s testimony was, “I am no longer trying for perfection by my own efforts, the perfection that comes from the Law, but I want only the perfection that comes through faith in Christ, and is from God and based on faith.” (See Philippians 3:4-14).
Alma taught the same doctrine. Each had a keen awareness of his fallen condition and his need for redemption. Each knew his deliverance from the bondage of sin. They were saved in the abyss of their sin and folly by faith, not because they were living the law perfectly. Alma’s salvation came “not of any worthiness of myself.” (Alma 36:2-5). Salvation for each of us comes as a gift of grace “after all we can do,” but we are commanded to teach our children “the deadness of the law.” (2 Nephi 25:23-30).
Too often, instead, we advocate the merits of the law, insist upon compliance from our children and never teach them the true gospel of Jesus Christ. We deny the twin doctrines of the fall and the atonement when we concentrate on their outward performance, and we rate them “good” or “bad” against a false standard. Therefore, our judgment of them is faulty.
Jesus taught only God was “good.” (Mark 10:18). So did Paul. (Romans 3:10-12). Eternal life is attainable only because of our faith in Christ’s atonement. We earn nothing as fallen beings, because any good in us comes from God. Either our good works are inspired by the Holy Ghost, or our works are merely works of men inspired by Satan and they perish. (3 Nephi 27:10-12).
No advocate of the gospel was as faithful and fearless as Paul following his vision of the Lord, yet his writings disclose he continued to struggle with temptation all his life. He referred to his mortal weakness as “a thorn in the flesh,” and each of us is blessed with similar thorns. He was silenced in his thrice-repeated petition to have the thorn removed with, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” The thorn is our corruptible mortal flesh we must submit through repentance to the sanctification of the Lord’s grace. Paul finally learned there was no glory in achieving his own worthy goals under the law. Rather, he found the source of his spiritual strength in his dependence upon Christ to deliver him from his temporal infirmities. (See 2 Corinthians 12:7-10). It is a lesson for us. Spiritless checklists and self-determined goals are powerless to save.
Moroni was weak in writing, and feared he would be mocked by the gentiles who received The Book of Mormon in the latter days. “If men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness,” promised the Lord. He did not mean He gives us our many mortal weaknesses and temptations. He reveals our true weakness as fallen mortals to humble us, a weakness we never overcome until death (the end of our probation if we have been faithful). His grace strengthens us in mortality, not our vain exertions to remove our own thorn. “My grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me,” was the sweet whispering of the Holy Spirit to Moroni, who testifies, “I know that thou workest unto the children of men according to their faith.” (Ether 12:26-29). He lived like Abraham, and so must we.
We exchange our sins for His love, the “grace” or “charity” spoken of in the scriptures. His grace is his enabling power given as a gift to make salvation possible for the penitent. Charity for others is obtained by our faith in Christ’s redemptive power to save us from sin and death, which gives rise to the hope that our faith will not be in vain and our sins will be forgiven. We cannot give the love we have not yet received.
Moroni tells us the gift is given only when we “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ.” (Moroni 7:48). That is what James meant by the necessity of good works to go with our faith. (James 2:20-24). Praying with “all the energy of heart” and acting on the answers is just the kind of good hard work James had in mind!
Every covenant we make with God condemns us, because we all fall short of perfect performance. The weight of the law if borne alone will crush us. That is the purpose of the law -- to teach us we are weak and need help shouldering the load. The real joy and peace of living the gospel lies in the infinite possibilities if we know how, what and who to worship, not in keeping score on our checklists hoping to prove ourselves worthy. (D&C 93:19).
Why is perfection in the law so impossible in the flesh? “All that the law does is to tell us what is sinful.” There is no salvation in living the law of carnal commandments perfectly, said Paul. Salvation consists in being perfected in Christ through our faith on him as our personal Savior. He is our only hope for perfection. (Moroni 10:32-33). Our doctrine is, “if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power,” only then are we sanctified.
Jacob taught a daily spiritual walk for the believer, not a one-time profession of belief. He said those who would claim salvation in Christ must “consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility.” (2 Nephi 9:41-42). Each day the true disciple denies himself all ungodliness and every worldly lust, takes up his cross, and follows the Savior. (JST Matthew 16:26). It becomes a way of life for the true disciple, not just a well-meaning slogan.
Nephi promised, “if ye will enter in by the way [baptism], and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show you all things what ye should do. Behold, this is the doctrine of Christ.” (2 Nephi 32:5-6). He spoke of “my doctrine,” when Jesus said, “whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved, and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God. And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and become as a little child.” (3 Nephi 11:31-40).
Even the gates of hell shall not prevail against true disciples who build upon his rock. “This is my gospel,” taught Jesus when he invited us to “repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost.” (3 Nephi 27:19-21). The law, though always intended to yield a spiritual result, operates in a natural, carnal, and temporal world. The Holy Ghost is the supernatural sanctifier of the natural man. (Mosiah 3:18-21).
“This is my doctrine,” saith Christ, “whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church.” (D&C 10:68). God give us the wisdom to avoid making “more” of the gospel than it is. King Benjamin taught the disciple “should put his [her] trust in the Lord, and should be diligent in keeping his commandments, and continue in the faith even unto the end of his life. . . This is the means whereby salvation cometh,” and there is no other way. (Mosiah 4:6-8).
Paul’s teachings on grace and the futility of excelling in the works of the law are simple. The doctrine of Christ applies today, and “shall suffice for thy daily walk, even unto the end of thy life.” (D&C 19:29-32).
The impossible gospel of searching for power by blind adherence and faith in our checklists under the law is just another false tradition with no power to save. Jesus never taught it, “for my commandments are spiritual.” (D&C 29:34-35). Only the Holy One of Israel can supply the perfect fruit of the tree of life. (1 Nephi 11:8-36; 2 Nephi 9; 25:23-30; 31:16-21). “Mercy cometh because of the atonement, and none but the truly penitent are saved.” (Alma 42:23-24). Rather than our own perfection in mortality, our quest must be for the mercy of our Redeemer.
Little children know the doctrine of Christ. They love Jesus. They know his love for them. As we wash our garments in his blood we become like them, “holy and without spot.” (Alma 13:11; Moroni 10:33). The possible gospel, the true gospel, is a very short list. It is so simple only little children understand it.