Latter-day Saints and the Covenant Framework of the Gospel
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints differs from other Churches in claiming that it is a restoration of ancient Christianity, including ancient covenants between God and man. These covenants are two-way agreements involving a personal relationship and a commitment to obey God and follow Him. Through this covenant framework, God imparts the full blessings of the Gospel through His grace and mercy (we cannot "earn" salvation by obedience or covenant making). The two-way covenant relationship between God and His people permeates the Bible, but in modern Christianity has been diluted and largely replaced with more passive sacraments (e.g., infant baptism). Here we explore the significance of ancient covenant patterns and the claim that they have been restored. This is one of several pages in a suite of "Frequently Asked Questions about Latter-day Saint Beliefs." This work is solely the responsibility of Jeff Lindsay and has not been officially endorsed by the Church.
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The covenant language that many modern Christians hear often seems to portray God's covenant with man as a one-way street: His mercy is offered to us unilaterally. Many are taught that they need only believe to be saved, or to be passive recipients of sacraments (e.g., infant baptism) coupled with believing, or, most sadly, some are taught to just accept their predestination to heaven or hell. Long lost is the ancient concept of man making covenants via promises or oaths of obedience in order to qualify for the blessings offered through the mercy and grace of God. Long lost is the nature of the two-way covenant that God makes with His children. The nature of two-way covenants is well expressed in Deuteronomy 7:9-12, where we read that God keeps His part of the covenant and offers man mercy if we will keep our part of the covenant:
9 Know therefore that the LORD thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations;Consider also Psalm 103:17-18:
10 And repayeth them that hate him to their face, to destroy them: he will not be slack to him that hateth him, he will repay him to his face.
11 Thou shalt therefore keep the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments, which I command thee this day, to do them.
12 Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep, and do them, that the LORD thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers:
17 But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children's children;
18 To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them.
Though the Law of Moses no longer governs us, the covenant-based foundation of the Old Testament surely was a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ and His mercy.
As I will show below and have shown on other pages (e.g., "The Relationship between Grace, Works, and Eternal Life"), the Gospel of Jesus Christ offers mercy and grace to us if we will keep His commandments. One could describe this as "grace attached to obedience." But such a view is often condemned as heretical by modern Christians. According to mainstream Christian doctrine, what is the answer to the question, "What should I do to inherit eternal life?" Many churches will say that the answer is "There is nothing that man can do. Faith alone is what saves." Do churches besides the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints answer that question in terms of covenant language, saying, for example, "If you wish to obtain eternal life, keep the commandments"? Such an answer gets one labeled as a non-Christian cultist by many loud voices these days. But do they recognize where such covenant-based language comes from? It's not from Moses. It's not from the Old Testament. That answer comes straight from the New Testament, from the Author and Finisher of the New Covenant, Jesus Christ, in Matthew 19:16-17:
16 And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
17 And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
The phrase "keep the commandments" resonates with the covenant-based language of the Old Testament. It does not mean that man deserves or earns anything from God by obedience, but to let the vicarious sacrifice for our sins have power in our lives, we must come unto God by following Him and obeying Him, the wonderfully generous conditions upon which we receive the infinite gift of grace and eternal life. It is impossible for man to enter into a covenant relationship with God without recognizing the personal need for obedience to God. To deny that is to ignore the nature of God's covenant, and the essence of Biblical teachings about both the old and new covenants.
The ancient Biblical view of covenants, including the making, keeping, and regular renewing of covenants, is something not entirely familiar to many modern Christians, though LDS practices have numerous parallels to the ancient ones. I feel this position is thoroughly substantiated by comparing LDS views with Jon D. Levenson's scholarly analysis of ancient perspectives in Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985), which discusses the ancient Biblical concept of covenant relationships and especially the covenant aspects of the ancient Temple, as well as the concept of continuously renewing and keeping covenants. (More on Levenson's work later.)
Let me provide some background with a passage from the article "Covenants" in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism by Wouter Van Beek:
The word "covenant" in the Bible is a translation of the Hebrew berith and of the Greek diatheke. The Book of Mormon concept seems close to the Hebrew indication of any formalized relation between two parties, such as a bond, pact, or agreement. As such, the term is used for nonaggression pacts between nations (Gen. 26:26-31), a promise of landownership (Gen. 15:18-21), a bond for free slaves (Jer. 34:8-9), or an oath of secrecy (2 Kgs. 11:4). The Greek diatheke is a more legalistic term, implying a formal will, a legal bequest (Gal. 3:17). In the New Testament the term is often translated as "testament," but clearly is used for the same kind of bond as "covenant" (cf. Heb. 7:22; 8:6; and R.L. Anderson, "Religious Validity: The Sacrament Covenant in Third Nephi" in By Study and Also by Faith, John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., 2 vols., Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1990, vol. 2, p. 5). This legal aspect is also clear in the Doctrine and Covenants (e.g., D&C 132:7), where certain organizational issues are couched in covenantal terms (e.g., D&C 82:11-12). The English term "covenant," meaning "coming together," stresses the relational aspect. In other languages the terms used may have more legal connotations.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speak of themselves as a "covenant people," both collectively and individually. Entering into righteous and authorized covenants with God is one of the most important aspects of their lives. They see their covenants as modern counterparts of covenant making in biblical times. (See "Covenants in Biblical Times.")
Most covenants mentioned in scripture are made by God with mankind, either with individuals or a group. In a group covenant, like that of ancient Israel or of the Nephites, the leader or king "cuts the covenant" (as it is said in Hebrew) for, and in behalf of, his people, who in turn affirm their entrance into the covenant by a collective oath or by repentance (for example, 2 Chr. 34:29-32). This covenant may be reaffirmed and reestablished, as occurs in King Benjamin's speech in Mosiah 1- 6. (See Stephen D. Ricks, "The Treaty/Covenant Pattern in King Benjamin's Address (Mosiah 1- 6)," BYU Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, Spring 1984, pp. 151-62. Also see Stephen Ricks, "Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1-6," in King Benjamin's Speech, ed. John Welch and Stephen Ricks, Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998, pp. 233-275.) When such covenants are established, the collective bond with God holds as long as people are obedient to the commandments stated or implied in the covenant. Yet a gradual shift of emphasis from collective toward individual covenant making is discernible from the Old to the New Testament. It is also within the Book of Mormon and in the teachings of the Church. Some tension between the association with the "elect" (Ps. 89:3-4; D&C 88:130-133) and the more general covenant for all mankind (Isa. 55:3) remains. Individual covenants, in any event, are essential in LDS doctrine and religion, both in sacred history and in present practice.
In covenant making, God takes the initiative with a conditional promise, specifying attainable blessings and setting the terms for people to receive them. Sometimes a sign is given to commemorate the pact, like the tables of the covenant (Deut. 9:9-11). Revelations (Jer. 11:1-5) and miracles (Deut. 5:1-6) sometimes accompany covenants. One enters the covenant, usually through a ritual, a visible sign. Blood sacrifices ("the blood of the covenant," Ex. 24:8), the "salt covenant" (Num. 18:19; 2 Chr. 13:5), the circumcision of boys (Acts 7:8), baptism (D&C 22:1; Mosiah 18:7-11), the Sacrament (Heb. 8:6; 3 Ne. 18:1-14), the conferral of the priesthood with its "oath and covenant" (D&C 84:33-42), marriage (D&C 132) and other temple rites, all these revealed rituals are called sacraments or ordinances, which have been given as covenants. They serve as a signal that individuals enter into or reaffirm personal covenants with the Lord. As God is bound by his promises (D&C 82:10), covenant making has to be guided by revelation and performed through the authority of the priesthood. Otherwise, God is not truly made party to the accord and agreement. Since covenant rites are essential for man's salvation and exaltation, the role of the priesthood in administering these covenantal sacraments is crucial. Without priesthood authority, there are no everlasting covenants. Still, these overt covenant obligations are always directly related to the general commandment of loving God and one's neighbor, called the "covenant of the heart" (Heb. 10:16; Jer. 31:31-34; Isa. 55:3).
The Lord's covenants essentially cover the whole Plan of Salvation. God's promise is to send a Savior for all humans, asking on their part for their obedience to the will of the Lord. Each covenant reflects aspects of the "fulness of his gospel" (D&C 133:57). Though various dispensations may have their specific focus, such as Israel's "covenant of works" and Paul's "covenant of grace," Latter-day Saints categorize all divine covenants under the unity of one gospel. As a consequence, all covenants are always new, everlasting, and continually renewed.
Latter-day Saints enter into an eternal covenant with God at baptism, wherein they promise to take upon them the name of Jesus Christ, to keep his commandments, to bear one another's burdens, to stand as a witness of God at all times, to repent, and to serve and remember Christ always (see Baptismal Covenant; Mosiah 18:8-10; D&C 20:37). They renew this covenant by partaking of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Other covenants involving obligations of faithfulness, magnifying one's calling, sacrifice, obedience, righteousness, chastity, and consecration are made when one is ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood (see Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood), when one receives the temple Endowment, and when a man and woman enter into eternal marriage (see Marriage: Eternal).
Many commentaries stress the one-sidedness of scriptural covenants. Since the Lord's promises greatly exceed human obligations, the blessings of deity significantly overshadow the efforts demanded (see Mosiah 2:21), even though a notion of reciprocity is always present. Something is demanded in return, as a covenant is essentially two-sided; before anything else, it is a relation, the means by which God and man become reconciled in the Atonement afforded to all by Jesus Christ.
A covenant is a special relationship with the Lord into which a person or a group may enter. The terms have been set by the Lord both for the rewards (blessings, salvation, exaltation) and the efforts demanded (obedience to rules and commandments). A covenant is fulfilled when people keep their promises and endure to the end in faith, with the Lord giving blessings during life, and salvation and exaltation upon completion.
Further background about ancient Biblical covenants is also needed before we discuss details of covenants in the Book of Mormon and in LDS practice, including Temple worship. Useful information is found in Thomas R. Valletta's article, "The Captain and the Covenant," in Alma, the Testimony of the Word (Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1992, pp. 227-228):
Covenants in the Old Testament
The Old Testament is a record of a covenant people and their relationship to God (eg Gen 6:17, 18; 9:1-17; 11:1-9; 17:1-7; Ex 6:5-7; Ex 19:3-6; JST Ex 34:1-2; Deut 26, 28; Josh 24; Isa 49:15-23; Jer 11:9-10; 33:19-26). Scholars have written extensively concerning the importance of ancient covenants (see Eichrodt; McCarthy; Mendenhall). McComiskey is among the many who considers the covenant "the most foundational aspect of Old Testament theology" (p. 15). He asserts: "The history of redemption in the Old Testament is marked by the ratification of covenants in which God affirmed his will for his people. A covenantal structure underlies the program of redemption" (p. 10). This is consistent with Nephi's summary of the Biblical record's value:
The book . . . is a record of the Jews, which contains the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; and it also containeth many of the prophecies of the holy prophets; and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many; nevertheless, they contain the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; wherefore, they are of great worth. (1 Nephi 13: 23)
Like the Israelites before them, the Latter-day Saints are a covenant people conversant with the need and importance of covenant-making. Less familiar, yet critical to understanding Captain Moroni's actions is the Old Testament view that the formation of all social, political, and religious community is based upon the covenant. The central idea and foundational principle of ancient Israel was the covenant. The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible indicates: "the covenant is not merely a theological concept, but is rather the original form of social and religious organization. . . . Thus the covenant, though a religious rather than a political structure, was no more a mere theological concept than politics is purely a philosophical concept today" (p. 719). In ancient Israel, all history was viewed through the lens of the covenant. Every man was expected to study the law and statutes of God (Deut 17:19; 31:11; Josh 8:34; 2 Kgs 22:8). The covenant enabled "Israel to make sense -- moral sense -- of historical experience" (Levenson, p. 55).
Eichrodt, Walther. Theology of the Old Testament. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1956.
McCarthy, Dennis J. Treaty and Covenant. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1978.
McComiskey, Thomas Edward. The Covenants of Promise. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1985.
Mendenhall, G. E. "Covenant." The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. 4 vols. Ed. George Arthur Buttrick. Nashville: Abingdon, 1962. 714-22.
Anciently, then, covenants were a major factor in religious and social life. They were the foundation for approaching God. And the concept of obedience, faith, and loyalty were always present.
The word testament actually means covenant, and the New Testament is a volume of scripture about the new covenant that Christ offers. As the Old Testament prophesied, the new covenant would have an emphasis on the spirit of the law, but the concept of man obeying God and God's laws was still integral. Let's consider the prophecy of Jeremiah on this new covenant in Jeremiah 31:
31 Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:
32 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD:
33 But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.
34 And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
Under the new covenant, according to Jeremiah, there will still be laws of God for man to follow, but God's people will obey Him and approach Him with the law in their hearts, which I believe refers to having the Spirit of God (the gift of the Holy Ghost) to guide us. The new covenant is to make us become God's people, a people who know the Lord in a close, personal relationship.
The Old Testament emphasis on covenant relationships was not abandoned by Christ, though the form of the covenant, expressed in the Law of Moses, was done away with and replaced with a higher covenant. But the Law was, as Paul put it in Galatians 3:24, "our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith." The perspective that covenant theology brought to man was not done away, but truly taught core truths that prepare us to come unto Christ. The concept of a two-sided covenant as a vehicle to bring man to God, with obedience required from the recipients of grace, is still at the core of original Christianity.
Christ said that eternal life is "to know God" (John 17:3). The Hebrew word used in this sense is "yada" (or a form of it), which refers to an intimate, covenantal relationship, such as that between a husband and wife. Christ was not saying that intellectual knowledge or acknowledgement of God was what brought salvation, but that a close covenant-based relationship with God was what brought one to eternal life. Indeed, as we shall see below, the language of salvation in the New Testament is again expressed in terms of man keeping covenants with God - often expressed as "keeping the commandments" or obeying or keeping the word of God. Salvation by "faith alone" - a term heavily emphasized by some churches - is not the new covenant of the Bible! Such terminology occurs only once that I am aware of in the Bible in James 2:24, which explicitly teaches that faith alone is NOT sufficient for salvation: "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only." The Greek phrase ouk ek pistewV monon literally means "not by faith alone." (See my page on "The Relationship between Grace, Works, and Eternal Life" for further documentation on the error of modern teachings about salvation by "faith alone.")
Though Latter-day Saint theology and practical religious life is more aligned with the ancient covenant perspective than I see in any other religion, we are certainly not the only one who understand that the New Covenant is a two-way covenant based on many of the foundational principles of the Old Covenant, with human obedience again required to fully access the blessings of the Gospel. An excellent essay on this topic comes from the Catholic writer, Rev. William G. Most, "A Biblical Theology of Redemption in a Covenant Framework." Rev. Most explains:
But Paul does not confine the requirement of obedience to Christ himself: Those who belong to his body, in order to come under the covenant with him, must do all things syn Christo. They too must obey. Paul presents this requirement in the vein inaugurated by the words of Jer. 31. For he tells the Romans that the spirit of Christ writes in Christians the "law of the Spirit," [Rom. 8:2] so that they "do not walk according to the flesh." [Rom. 8:1] But Paul knows well that Christians can refuse to follow the spirit, and so he injects a condition into his assertions, "if anyone does not have the spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ." [Rom. 8:9] And similarly: "if by the spirit you put to death the deeds of the flesh, you will live." [Rom. 8:13] Or, "Whoever are led by the spirit of God, they are the sons of God." [Rom. 8:14] We see that those who are not led by the spirit, are not sons. Paul does not even shrink from using the imagery of slavery to describe this obedience, and does so in the very epistle in which he so splendidly extols the freedom of the sons of God: "Do you not know that to whom you offer yourselves as slaves for obedience, to him whom you obey you are the slaves, whether to sin unto death, or to obedience unto justice. But thanks be to God, that you who were the slaves of sin have now obeyed ... that form of doctrine into which you have been delivered and ... you have become the slaves of justice." [Rom 6:16-18]
If we add up these data, we shall see that the result is really parallel to the old covenant on the essential points. [Cf. G. E. Mendenhall, s.v. "Covenant," Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (New York, 1962) p. 723] In both, the covenant creates a people of God, to whom God binds Himself to show favor. In both, the people receive the favor on condition of obedience. In the new covenant, that obedience is basically the obedience of Christ, by which the many are constituted just. But to come under the covenant with Christ, one must be syn Christo in the double sense of pertaining to His body, and of being like Him in obedience to the law of the spirit. . . .
The Epistle to the Hebrews
The nature of the covenant concept held by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews has been questioned, partly because of alleged changes in the concept of covenant due to the use of the Greek diatheke, [see fn. 62 in Most] partly because of the remarks in Heb 9:15-17, in which the concept of testament is dominant, as contrasted with that of a bilateral pact.
We readily grant that Heb 9:15-17 does use the word in the sense of last will. However, we believe that the correct view is given by Mendenhall, who writes: "There is an incidental argument drawn from the Greek usage of diatheke to refer to a 'last will and testament.' There can be no doubt, however, that this is simply an apologetical argument, and cannot be taken seriously as the framework of the author's concept of the covenant, which is entirely within the OT pattern of thought." [op. cit., p. 723]
A closer inspection of all pertinent passages in Hebrews reveals that, with the one exception noted, the writer's covenant concept is as Mendenhall asserts. For the writer clearly teaches the essential points which we have seen above, namely: 1) The covenant creates a new people of God, to whom He binds Himself to show favor; 2) this favor is dependent on a condition, obedience.
First, the new covenant does create a new people of God. This appears clearly in the long passage of 8:6-13 in which Jer 31:31ff is quoted and applied to the new covenant. We note especially v.10: "For this is the covenant ... I will put my laws into their mind and upon their hearts I will write them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people." The fact that God binds Himself is clear in v.6 of the same passage, which speaks. Of a "superior covenant enacted on the basis of superior promises." Since God has promised, He is bound by His promise.
Secondly, there is a human condition, obedience. That this condition is really required, so that there is not just a unilateral promise is made clear in several places. First in v.10, just cited: "I will put my laws into their mind and upon their hearts I will write them." But, still more clearly, 10:36 says: "For you have need of patience, that, doing the will of God, you may receive the promise." Here it is explicitly stated that for the people to receive what is promised, they must do the will of God, must obey. So it is evident that God's promise is not unilateral: it is conditioned by men's "doing the will of God."
We saw that in the thought of Paul, the essential obedience by which the new covenant is constituted is that of Christ: the obedience of others is required but is secondary. The Epistle to the Hebrews has the same teaching: "... in coming into the world He says: 'Sacrifice and oblation you did not want, but a body you have fitted to me....' Then said I: 'Behold I come to do your will, O God.' In saying in the first place, 'Sacrifices and oblations ... you did not want' ... and then saying: 'Behold I come to do your will, O God,' He annuls the first [covenant] in order to establish the second. It is in this 'will' [see fn. 64 in Most] that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." [Heb 10:5-10] So Christ, who "learned obedience from the things He suffered," [Heb. 5:8] sanctified men, and established the second covenant by this "will," that is, by the will he proclaimed on entering into the world: "Behold I come to do your will, O God." Thus "He became to all who obey him the cause of eternal salvation." [Heb. 5:9]
A confirmation of the bilaterality of the covenant appears also in the repeated assertions [Heb 7:22; 8:6; 9:15; 12:24] that Christ is the "mediator" or "surety" of a new covenant. In the framework of a last will concept, there is neither need nor place for a mediator. In the framework of a bilateral covenant, parallel to that of Sinai, in which Moses was the mediator, there is place for the New Moses, [Cf. Heb 3,1-6; also see fn. 69 in Most] Christ. As Paul says, "there is no intermediary where there is only one" [Gal. 3:20] party. But a bilateral agreement has room for an intermediary.
Insight into ancient covenant patterns and their relationship to LDS Christianity can be seen in the writers of early Christianity (although the available writings of early Christianity after the New Testament have much less emphasis on covenants that LDS readers might expect, an issue I address below in the Appendix). The works of many of these writers have been compiled in the series, Ante-Nicene Fathers, [hereafter ANF] (Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Buffalo: The Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1885-1896, 10 vols.; also available online at the Early Church Fathers Site of Wheaton College). For example, Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 153-217) in Exhortation to the Heathen, Chapter IX, taught that the covenant of grace requires repentance and obedience (ANF 2:195-196), a concept that can get a sincere Christian branded as a pagan cultist these days by some "countercult" folks:
And the Lord, with ceaseless assiduity, exhorts, terrifies, urges, rouses, admonishes; He awakes from the sleep of darkness, and raises up those who have wandered in error. . . . Why, then, should we any longer change grace into wrath, and not receive the word with open ears, and entertain God as a guest in pure spirits? For great is the grace of His promise, "if to-day we hear His voice." And that to-day is lengthened out day by day, while it is called to-day. And to the end the to- day and the instruction continue; and then the true to-day, the never-ending day of God, extends over eternity. Let us then ever obey the voice of the divine word. For the to-day signifies eternity. And day is the symbol of light; and the light of men is the Word, by whom we behold God. Rightly, then, to those that have believed and obey, grace will superabound; while with those that have been unbelieving, and err in heart, and have not known the Lord's ways, which John commanded to make straight and to prepare, God is incensed, and those He threatens.
In Chapter X of his Exhortation to the Heathen(ANF 2: 198), Clement goes on to speak of grace and the need for obedience, introducing a very apt term, "the grace attached to obedience," which well describes the LDS and Biblical concept that God offers grace to those who follow Him and repent, striving to keep their covenants with Him (i.e., to keep the commandments):
Let us therefore repent, and pass from ignorance to knowledge, from foolishness to wisdom, from licentiousness to self-restraint, from unrighteousness to righteousness, from godlessness to God. . . it is that treasure of salvation to which we must hasten, by becoming lovers of the Word. Thence praise-worthy works descend to us, and fly with us on the wing of truth. This is the inheritance with Which the eternal covenant of God invests us, conveying the everlasting gift of grace; and thus our loving Father--the true Father--ceases not to exhort, admonish, train, love us. For He ceases not to save, and advises the best course: "Become righteous," says the Lord. . . . You have, O men, the divine promise of grace; you have heard, on the other hand, the threatening of punishment: by these the Lord saves, teaching men by fear and grace. Why do we delay? Why do we not shun the punishment? Why do we not receive the free gift? Why, in fine, do we not choose the better part, God instead of the evil one, and prefer wisdom to idolatry, and take life in exchange for death? "Behold," He says, "I have set before your face death and life." The Lord tries you, that "you may choose life." He counsels you as a father to obey God. "For if ye hear Me," He says, "and be willing, ye shall eat the good things of the land:" this is the grace attached to obedience. "But if ye obey Me not, and are unwilling, the sword and fire shall devour you:"(7) this is the penalty of disobedience. (emphasis mine)
Interestingly, just as the LDS perspective teaches that the purpose of divine covenants and the "grace attached to obedience" is to bring man into fellowship with God, and to be more like God, Clement also goes on a few sentences later to speak of our goal of fellowship with God and becoming more like Him (ANF 2:199-200):
For God is by no manner of means unrighteous, as the demons are, but in the very highest degree righteous; and nothing more resembles God than one of us when he becomes righteous in the highest possible degree. . . .
Receive, then, the water of the word; wash, ye polluted ones; purify yourselves from custom, by sprinkling yourselves with the drops of truth. The pure must ascend to heaven. . . . But do you still continue in your sins, engrossed with pleasures? To whom shall the Lord say, "Yours is the kingdom of heaven?" Yours, whose choice is set on God, if you will; yours, if you will only believe, and comply with the brief terms of the announcement; which the Ninevites having obeyed, instead of the destruction they looked for, obtained a signal deliverance. How, then, may I ascend to heaven, is it said? The Lord is the way; a strait way, but leading from heaven, strait in truth, but leading back to heaven, strait, despised on earth; broad, adored in heaven. . . .
For man has been otherwise constituted by nature, so as to have fellowship with God. As, then, we do not compel the horse to plough, or the bull to hunt, but set each animal to that for which it is by nature fitted; so, placing our finger on what is man's peculiar and distinguishing characteristic above other creatures, we invite him-- born, as he is, for the contemplation of heaven, and being, as he is, a truly heavenly plant--to the knowledge of God, counselling him to furnish himself with what is his sufficient provision for eternity, namely piety. Practice husbandry, we say, if you are a husbandman; but while you till your fields, know God. Sail the sea, you who are devoted to navigation, yet call the whilst on the heavenly Pilot. Has knowledge taken hold of you while engaged in military service? Listen to the commander, who orders what is right.
Clement's teachings sound very LDS in their emphasis on repentance, on our freedom to choose the things of God, on the need for obedience to receive the grace of life, and on our potential for fellowship with the divine. His words do not fit comfortable in modern mainstream Christian thought, in my opinion, but have a strong LDS flavor to them - the flavor of divinely restored early Christianity.
Further teachings from Clement in his classic work, The Instructor (Paedogogus) again stress that repentance and obedience were common aspects of the old and new covenants. And interestingly, he confirms the LDS doctrine that the giver of the old covenant was in fact Jesus Christ (Book I, Chapter VII, ANF 2:224):
For "the Lord willeth the repentance of the sinner rather than his death." And let us as babes, hearing of the sins of others, keep from similar transgressions, through dread of the threatening, that we may not have to undergo like sufferings. What, then, was the sin which they committed? "For in their wrath they slew men, and in their impetuosity they hamstrung bulls. Cursed be their anger." Who, then, would train us more lovingly than He? Formerly the older people had an old covenant, and the law disciplined the people with fear, and the Word was an angel; but to the fresh and new people has also been given a new covenant, and the Word has appeared, and fear is turned to love, and that mystic angel is born--Jesus. For this same Instructor said then, "Thou shalt fear the Lord God;" but to us He has addressed the exhortation, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God." Wherefore also this is enjoined on us: "Cease from your own works, from your old sins;" "Learn to do well;" "Depart from evil, and do good;" "Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity." This is my new covenant written in the old letter. The newness of the word must not, then, be made ground of reproach. . . .
Now the law is ancient grace given through Moses by the Word. Wherefore also the Scripture says, "The law was given through Moses," not by Moses, but by the Word, and through Moses His servant. Wherefore it was only temporary; but eternal grace and truth were by Jesus Christ.
For additional insight into ancient covenants, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia has two helpful articles: "Covenant, in the Old Testament" by George Ricker Berry, and "Covenant, the New" by Archibald McCaig.
From what I have seen, the concept of regularly renewing covenants to follow God, such as baptismal covenants, is not a standard part of the religious experience of most other Christians, though the language is sometimes used in the general sense of becoming recommitted to God. But formal actions to renew specific covenants was part of the ancient covenant relationship between man and God. For example, Jon Levenson writes of "the ever-renewed covenant" (pp. 80-82), an expression of a standard step in ancient covenants, the deposition of the covenant, with its call to remind men repeatedly of the terms of the covenant:
By putting on the tefillin [the two little boxes containing scrolls of passages from the Torah], the Jew . . . renews each weekday morning his fidelity to the ancient romance consummated on Mount Sinai. [p. 79]Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1-6," in King Benjamin's Speech, ed. John Welch and Stephen Ricks, Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998, pp. 233-275). We also find that the ancient Semitic view of personal oaths is strongly reflected in the Book of Mormon. For example, consider the story of Zoram. At the beginning of the Book of Mormon, when Nephi dressed as the now-dead Laban has taken the brass plates from Laban's treasury (a truly authentic ancient concept - the idea of storing records in a treasury), Laban's servant, Zoram, realizes that he's been tricked, and tries to flee but is subdued by Nephi. Nephi explains that they are on an errand from the Lord and tells Zoram that he can join their group. Zoram then agrees and makes an oath that he will stay with them. In modern society, we would expect Zoram to flee as soon as Nephi's back is turned, and in a modern text, we would expect Nephi to keep a close eye on Zoram or perhaps keep him tied up until they were far away. But, according to 1 Nephi 4:37, "when Zoram had made an oath unto us, our fears did cease concerning him." That's how serious ancient oaths were taken, a concept entirely in harmony with the ancient Semitic world, but way out of place for 19th century America.
Finally, we should note that the insistence that the "words" be constantly recited, bound to one's body, written upon one's house, and the commandments symbolized in one's clothes, is also a reflex of part of the covenant formulary [discussed below], the deposition of the text and the requirement for its periodic reading. In short, the idiom and the theology of covenant permeate the Shma. [p. 83]
In the Hebrew scriptures, the term "word" can also refer to "covenant," something that we also see in the Book of Mormon. According to Thomas R. Valletta ("The Captain and the Covenant" in Alma, the Testimony of the Word, Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center) 1992, p. 227):
It is noteworthy that sometimes the term "word" was used synonymously with "covenant" (e.g., Numbers 30:2; Deut. 33:9; 1 Chron. 16:15; Ps. 105:8). This may be a result of the binding nature of the revealed word of God (compare Ex. 13:16; Deut. 11:18). In our own dispensation, the Lord has revealed: "For of him unto whom much is given much is required; and he who sins against the greater light shall receive the greater condemnation" (D&C 82:3). Phrases such as "keeping the commandments" (Alma 48:15), and "maintenance of the sacred word of God" (Alma 44:5), are the scriptural equivalent of living the covenants of the Lord (Alma 46:21). [emphasis mine]
The Book of Mormon explains that Jews and Gentiles alike can become part of the Lord's covenant people. One becomes part of the Lord's covenant people not on the basis of ancestry, but by making covenants. Simple, yes, but important:
For behold, I say unto you that as many of the Gentiles as will repent are the covenant people of the Lord; and as many of the Jews as will not repent shall be cast off; for the Lord covenanteth with none save it be with them that repent and believe in his Son, who is the Holy One of Israel. . . . (2 Nephi 30:2)Of course, those who truly and properly covenant with the Lord are those who believe in the Messiah, as we read in 2 Nephi 6:13:
Wherefore, they that fight against Zion and the covenant people of the Lord shall lick up the dust of their feet; and the people of the Lord shall not be ashamed. For the people of the Lord are they who wait for him; for they still wait for the coming of the Messiah.
We now wait for the Second Coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Those who accept the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ will find that covenants to follow Jesus Christ permeate the Gospel. Baptism is a true covenant. The Priesthood is given in a covenant. The blessings of the Endowment in the Temple and eternal marriage are among the most sacred covenants. And as in ancient times, there are mechanisms to renew and recall these covenants. The weekly sacrament - our version of what others call the Communion - is all about renewing covenants, and is deeper and more profound than many Latter-day Saints realize. The Church gives us many opportunities to more fully become a covenant people of the Lord.
This ancient pattern is becoming relatively well known now, and has even made its way into some mainstream Christian sermons, such as a recent sermon by Reverend Neil Bramble-Chapman (amazingly, he even mentions the ancient Christian doctrine of theosis in his sermon).
While I do not desire to discuss details of the Temple, each of the six elements of the ancient covenant formulary is present in the LDS Temple, in my opinion. I do not believe that Joseph Smith could have fabricated the structure of ancient covenants based on information available to him, for modern recognition of the ancient covenant formulary only dates back to the 1950s, when George Mendenhall and Klaus Baltzer began comparing biblical literature with other ancient treaties (see discussion in Levenson, p. 26; see also George Mendenhall, "Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition," Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1954, pp. 50-76, as cited by Stephen Ricks in a related essay that I also highly recommend, "Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1-6," in King Benjamin's Speech, ed. John Welch and Stephen Ricks, Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998, pp. 233-275, with references pertaining to Mendenhall and other related sources cited on p. 274). Though these elements can be found scattered in the Bible, their significance and their relationship to each other was not appreciated in Joseph Smith's day.
There is much more in Levenson and other modern writings of ancient practices which puts the LDS Temple squarely into the realm of ancient practice. Some of the elements which deeply impressed me were the relationship between the Temple and the Sabbath day (sacred space and sacred time), the symbolism of the baptismal font (and subterranean waters in general) in the Temple, the relationship between mountains and Temples (also found strongly in the Bible and the Book of Mormon), the significance of covenant making, the link between Zion and the Temple, the things one does to show reverence for sacred ground, the significance of the Creation story, and so on. Levenson probably knows nothing of LDS Temples, yet his writings about the ancient Jewish experience did more for my understanding of LDS Temples than any modern LDS writer had.
After reading Eliade and Levenson, the works of Hugh Nibley, an LDS scholar, became especially significant in my explorations of the LDS Temple concept. He has provided extensive evidence that some parts of LDS Temple paradigms were present in the ancient world, especially among early Christians. A few books I would recommend to serious LDS students of the Temple include Mormonism and Early Christianity (another archived source is here), Vol. 4 of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987) and Temple and Cosmos, Vol. 12 of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992). Just reading the direct quotes from ancient Christian documents - many of which were not even discovered in Joseph Smith's day - will truly surprise you. To me, there is little room for doubt that the LDS Temple is largely a restoration of ancient revealed concepts. The "40-day literature," documents discussing the sacred things that Christ taught his disciples during his 40-day ministry after His Resurrection, are especially interesting. These things were sacred and were not intended to be passed on to the world or put into public texts. Also of great value are Nibley's discussion of ancient writings about baptism for the dead, the early Christian prayer circle, sacred vestments, apocryphal writings, geometrical symbols, and more.
LDS folks familiar with the Temple may wish to read the works of St. Cyril of Jerusalem at the Early Church Fathers Site. For example, I recommend Cyril's discourses on the mysteries found in lectures 19, 20, 21, 22, and 23 at the end of Book 1), including the lecture on "chrism." Cyril mentions some interesting rituals that correlate to a few specific details in the Temple. Some things are highly interesting.
Modern LDS covenant-based ordinances also include the steps of having witnesses be present and keeping records of the ordinances. Two witnesses must stand to watch the baptism ceremony, for example, and multiple people participate in ordinations, confirmation, etc. Witnesses are explicitly called into the covenant making process in the Temple. All this is soundly rooted in ancient patterns associated with covenant making. For example, baptism is viewed as a sacred covenant made before God and other witnesses (see Baptismal Covenants by Jerry A. Wilson in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism), and the terms and conditions are repeatedly renewed each week as one partakes of the bread and water of the sacrament (communion), consistent with the ancient approach to covenants. The priesthood is also received in the context of making a covenant (Section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants), and the Endowment of the Temple and almost everything about the temple is presented in the context of sacred covenants before God and witnesses. Recall that the biblical scholar George Mendenhall identified six common steps in ancient covenants (Interpreter's Dictionary 1:714), all of which are found in the LDS Temple: (1) the preamble, (2) historical prologue, (3) stipulations, (4) blessings and curses, (5) witnesses, and (6) deposition of the covenant (e.g., writing it down and providing a means to recall or renew the covenant regularly). All this testifies of the restoration of God's covenant-based Church.
LDS scriptures also resound with covenant themes. Modern revelations are compiled in a volume called "The Doctrine and Covenants." And the Book of Mormon is called a new covenant by the Lord (Doctrine and Covenants 84:57). Further, it has many elements dealing with covenants that show its source is not modern America, but the ancient world. For example, see Stephen D. Ricks's article, "The Treaty/Covenant Pattern in King Benjamin's Address (Mosiah 1- 6)," BYU Studies, Vol. 25 (Spring 1984), pp. 151-162.
This perspective about progress, perfection, and covenant making was not made up by Joseph Smith, but was a part of early Christianity as well. Irenaeus in Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter IX (pp. 472-473), states:
For one and the same Lord, who is greater than the temple, greater than Solomon, and greater than Jonah, confers gifts upon men, that is, His own presence, and the resurrection from the dead; but He does not change God, nor proclaim another Father, but that very same one, who always has more to measure out to those of His household. And as their love towards God increases, He bestows more and greater [gifts]; as also the Lord said to His disciples: "Ye shall see greater things than these."(7) And Paul declares: "Not that I have already attained, or that I am justified, or already have been made perfect. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect has come, the things which are in part shall be done away."(8) . . . (11) [N]either do we receive another Holy Spirit, besides Him who is with us, and who cries, "Abba, Father;"(12) and we shall make increase in the very same things [as now], and shall make progress, so that no longer through a glass, or by means of enigmas, but face to face, we shall enjoy the gifts of God;--so also now, receiving more than the temple, and more than Solomon, that is, the advent of the Son of God, we have not been taught another God besides the Framer and the Maker of all, who has been pointed out to us from the beginning; nor another Christ, the Son of God, besides Him who was foretold by the prophets.
3. For the new covenant having been known and preached by the prophets, He who was to carry it out according to the good pleasure of the Father was also preached; having been revealed to men as God pleased; that they might always make progress through believing in Him, and by means of the [successive] covenants, should gradually attain to perfect salvation. For there is one salvation and one God; but the precepts which form the man are numerous, and the steps which lead man to God are not a few. It is allowable for an earthly and temporal king, though he is [but] a man, to grant to his subjects greater advantages at times: shall not this then be lawful for God, since He is [ever] the same, and is always willing to confer a greater [degree of] grace upon the human race, and to honour continually with many gifts those who please Him?
I have often been intrigued by the familiar flavor of early Christian documents like those of the Apostolic Fathers, for they so often sound like messages from modern LDS General Conferences. I will admit, though, that were is one significant difference in the flavor that long puzzled me: the lack of overt emphasis on our covenant relationship to Christ and the Father. LDS religion puts great emphasis on covenants, with baptism and other ordinances all being expressions of a covenant relationship between God and mortals. Such covenant theology is abundant in the Old Testament and present in the New, but much of early Christian writing seems to lack that focus which we believe was restored in the modern Church of Jesus Christ.
Insights into this issue are given in an exciting new book that I highly recommend, Early Christians in Disarray, edited by Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 2005, 397 pages). In the introduction, "What Went Wrong for the Early Christians?," Noel Reynolds points out that a careful study of early Christianity pushes the date of what we call the Apostasy to much earlier than many Latter-day Saints have assumed. Much of the Apostasy has already occurred before 100 A.D. with rebellion and disobedience within the Church being a much greater factor than persecution from without. This timing helps us understand the loss of an emphasis on covenants. As Reynolds explains (pp. 5-6):
The scriptures of the restoration make it clear that ordinances such as baptism, priesthood ordination, and marriage are all based in covenants between man and God. Those receiving the ordinance have made certain covenants with God to turn away from their sins and obey his commandments, and God in turn makes promises to them. The ordinances provides a public witness of these covenants. What we had not previously realized is that when the second-century Christians redefined these ordinances as sacraments, they had already abandoned their covenantal understanding of the ordinances. These were significant efforts by some key thinkers in the Protestant Reformation to restore these covenantal understandings to the ordinances, but these all failed. Reinvented as sacraments, the ordinances were understood in traditional Christianity as the means by which God could bless a person with an infusion of divine grace, through the mediation of the priest. Once the covenantal understanding was lost, it made sense to bless everyone possible. So how could traditional Christianity deny baptism to infants if the recipient no longer was expected to be making a meaningful covenant in connection with that ordinance? A similar analysis applies to Christian sacraments such as last rites. This helps us understand what Nephi meant when he explained that "many covenants of the Lord they have taken away" (I Nephi 13:26).
I find this helpful. The introduction of infant baptism was not the vanguard of apostasy, but a logical and even compassionate development of a theology that had already lost its covenantal underpinnings.
But why was the foundation of covenants in the Gospel so quickly eroded? In a later chapter, "The Decline of Covenant in Early Christian Thought," Noel Reynolds again provides valuable clues (pp. 305-6):
[George] Mendenhall agrees that "the early Christians did regard themselves as a community bound together by covenant" [George F. Mendenhall, "Covenant" in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1972), 722]. However, he concludes that cultural forces worked to shift the Christian basis away from covenant after the first century. The term covenant itself was charged with political significance: "The covenant for Judaism mean the Mosaic law, and for the Roman Empire a covenant meant an illegal secret society" [ibid.]. As a result, "the old covenant patterns [soon became] not really useful as a means of communication, and may have been dangerous in view of the Roman prohibition of secret societies" [Mendenhall, 723]. The temple ceremonies were changed or abandoned [Reynolds cites Margaret Barker's Temple Theology: An Introduction (London: SPCK, 2004), 10].
Daniel Elazar speculated further that in establishing orthodoxy and unity, the concept of covenant may have "presented a number of practical and theological problems" for Christians. The church, he said, "de-emphasized covenant especially after it believed that it had successfully superseded the Mosaic covenant and transferred the authority of the Davidic covenant to Jesus. After Augustine (354-430), the Church paid little attention to covenant and, even though the Eucharist remained central to Christian liturgy, it ceased to be a truly common meal and its covenantal dimension was overshadowed by other features and meanings attributed to the Last Supper" [Daniel Elazar, Covenant and Commonwealth: From Christian Separation Through Protestant Reformation (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1996), 2:32].
Reynolds goes on to point out a number of aspects of covenant theology and practice that survived, but clearly there has been a loss. The restoration of covenant relationships between man and God is one of many powerful aspects of the Restored Gospel for which I remain most grateful. There is great power and beauty in the LDS concept of personal covenant relationships with God, including the ways those relationships are expressed and strengthened through ordinances rooted in covenants, including (especially) the ordinances of the LDS Temple.
An especially valuable chapter later in the book is Chapter 11, "The Decline of Covenant in Early Christian Thought" also by Noel B. Reynolds. Reynolds explores the transition from covenants made by believers with God to sacraments much less grounded in covenants and history. It's an excellent read for those wishing to better understand what Latter-day Saints call the Apostasy. Here is the conclusion from Reynolds' treatise:
We have seen that the insight that late second- and early third-century theologians rearticulated Christian teaching in the language and categories of Greek philosophy is no longer controversial, and not even evangelical Protestant historians regret this development today. Rather, it is seen by a growing variety of Christians as a divinely enabled move that completed and preserved an endangered Christian movement, bringing it to its full glory as God's work. This paper assumes this historical hellenization of traditional Christianity and goes on to show that this development also replaced the earlier Christian and Jewish emphasis on history as the ground of truth and faith with a focus on nature and reason. The centrality of the Christian's covenant to repent of sin and obey God's commands had already been marginalized, and the traditional ordinances had lost their covenantal basis, being redefined as sacraments by which God's grace could be transmitted to a recipient through the mediation of a priest. The subsequent shift to a theology that found truth in nature through reason ensured that the original covenantal understandings of the Christian's relationship to the Father could never be recovered, though their echoes would reverberate hauntingly down through the ages, leading many dissatisfied Christians to long for a restoration of original Christianity.
Also see Noel Reynolds' article, "The Decline of Covenant in Early Christian Thought."
My answers to common questions about Book of Mormon evidence - including archaeological disputes, geography, and a brief mention of DNA studies. It's one of my Mormon Answers (LDSFAQ) pages. Other related LDSFAQ pages include Questions About Alleged Problems in the Text, Questions About Plants and Animals in the Book of Mormon, Questions about Plagiarism (was it based on works of Ethan Smith, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, or perhaps even Tolkien?), Questions About Changes in the Book of Mormon, and Questions About Metals in the Book of Mormon.
"His Hand Is Stretched Out Still": The Lord's Eternal Covenant of Mercy by Ann N. Madsen in Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen edited by Daniel C. Peterson, Donald W. Parry, and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, Utah: FARNS, 2002).
Mormonism and Early Christianity, an excellent, archived site by Barry Bickmore exploring what early Christians wrote and taught about the Gospel, with comparisons to LDS teachings.
Introduction to the Book of Mormon - my page.
Legal Models for the Old Testament Covenants:An Issue of Contract or Real Property Law? - an interesting paper by Cordell P. Schulten, Associate Professor in Interdisciplinary Studies at Missouri Baptist University.
Covenant, Treaty, and Prophecy by E. C. Lucas, originally printed in Themelios, Vol. 8, No. 1 (September 1982): 19-23. This article discusses the ancient six-part treaty concept proposed by Mendenhall and reviews some recent criticisms of Mendenhall's views.
Covenant, in the Old Testament: The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia - a helpful article about ancient Hebrew covenants.
2 Nephi 12 and the Septuagint: Evidence for Fraud or Authenticity in the Book of Mormon? - my work from July 2001, including the tentative discovery of paired tricola in the Book of Mormon as another authentic Hebrew poetical form that Joseph would have been unlikely to fabricate - after all, it wasn't recognized yet in his day.
DCP's Gospel Research Pages (archived from 2003) by D. Charles Pyle. This site tackles many anti-LDS arguments with sound logic and solid research. A valuable page on this site is Pyle's review of Marian Bodine's book, "Book of Mormon vs. the Bible (or common sense)". Includes a couple photos of relevant evidence.
Arabia and The Book of Mormon - Cooper Johnson's excellent article at FairMormon.org, reviewing a presentation by S. Kent Brown.
Book of Mormon Witnesses by Richard L. Anderson.
Mounting Evidence for the Book of Mormon - an article in the January 2000 Ensign by Daniel C. Peterson.
Jewish Festivals in the Book of Mormon - by Kerrry Shirts
(Call 1-877-537-0003 to receive a free Book of Mormon, or request one at Mormon.org.)