Teaching God’s Commandments in the Home
Sacrament Talk given by Bob Sonntag on 10.16.2016
If the scriptures are adamant about one point, it is that all of us must come unto Christ and be saved. If they say a second thing, it is that there is only one very specific path back to Christ’s presence.
Romans 10 says that “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” as preached by a messenger sent by God. If someone is not sent by God, or if they deviate from God’s word, their message cannot produce faith, no matter how zealously it is believed.
In Mosiah 4 we find that the miraculous response to the repentance of King Benjamin’s people came “because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ who should come, according to the words which King Benjamin had spoken unto them.”
Saving faith could only come “according to the words” given by God. Christ said of his commandments given in the Sermon on the Mount:
Whosoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so to do, he shall in no wise be saved in the kingdom of heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach these commandments… the same shall be called great, and shall be saved in the kingdom of heaven. (JST Matthew 5:21)
A study of that sermon suggests why Christ is so particular: the commandments of God exalt you in the act of keeping them. They reveal God’s nature by causing you to emulate his mercy, integrity, and loving kindness.
It sounds simple enough. What goes wrong? A third core message of the scriptures is that we will be presented with “commandments of men” as a counterfeit of the commandments of God. Since most people are actually trying to be good, the best way to lead them astray is to give them a false standard of goodness.
These counterfeits are created when well-meaning teachers think they can improve on God’s commandments by addition, subtraction, or modification (3 Nephi 11:40; D&C 10:68).
In 3 Nephi 18:3, Christ says
But whoso among you shall do more or less than [my commandments] are not built upon my rock, but are built upon a sandy foundation; and when the rain descends, and the floods come, and the winds blow, and beat upon them, they shall fall, and the gates of hell are ready open to receive them.
Therefore blessed are ye if ye shall keep my commandments, which the Father hath commanded me that I should give unto you.
He then warns us to be watchful and prayerful to make sure we are not led astray by falsehoods.
When we attempt to teach the gospel disconnected from the words God has caused to be written then the difference between God’s commandments and the commandments of men is obscured. The spirit cannot override our neglect of the scriptures and force truth out of our mouths (D&C 11:21-22; Mosiah 1:3-5). The less we ground our teachings in a careful and correct reading of the scriptures, the more our teaching will consist of stock phrases, trite platitudes, sentimental stories, clichés, and folk traditions. Worse yet, we will develop guidelines; standards of dress, speech and behavior; and invented commandments that spring from those traditions rather than from God’s word. At best those things simply distract us, waste our time, and turn the beautiful simple gospel of Christ into a soul crushing exercise in behavior control. At their worst they actually cause us to break true commandments. Just as we come to know God through his true commandments, we gain a false and distorted view of him when those commandments are added to or diminished. Since eternal life means to know God, a false understanding of him will thwart our salvation until we abandon it for truth (John 17:3).
D&C 93 contrasts the commandments of God with the traditions of men:
36 The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth. Light and truth forsake that evil one.
27 And no man receiveth a fulness [of truth] unless he keepeth his commandments. He that keepeth his commandments receiveth truth and light, until he is glorified in truth and knoweth all things…
39…that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers.
The most damaging false traditions are those which come to be seen as fundamental, indispensable, essential features of a religion, causing people to disobey God while thinking they are righteous.
[Paragraphs in red cut for time] Orthodox Jews at the time of Jesus were taught that the teachings of their leaders were more important than past prophets, including the head of their dispensation. They were taught that only the rabbis could provide authoritative interpretation of scripture. They were taught that they were to treat the teachings of the rabbis as if God had spoken it, and follow them and be blessed or reject them and suffer. The inevitable result of those beliefs was that they taught for doctrines the commandments of men, developing an invented set of laws they treated as though it were the Torah (Matthew 15:1-9). One such faux-commandment involved a ceremonial washing of the hands before a meal, wherein they recited the following prayer:
“Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with Thy commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.”
They knew that we are sanctified by keeping God’s commandments, but, as God’s people almost always do, they invented commandments which could not sanctify. They claimed God commanded them to wash their hands; ask them where God commanded that and they could only point to their traditions.
Latter-day Saint history provides us with numerous examples. I’ve chosen one from the 19th century, because if I chose one from the 21st century we’re uncomfortably close to some steep gullies that are
perfect for an angry mob to throw a heretic into. This example will help us focus on the role of parents in teaching their children truth.
Here is an excerpt from a letter shared with me by a friend, from her ancestor Gilbert Belnap to his wife Adaline Knight, dated February 25,1856
"Instruct the children in the ways of the Lord and be not too severe in your chastisement of them. Kiss them all for me and teach the little boys to avenge the Blood of the Prophet."
I’m not the most careful reader, but even I noticed that this advice took a left turn somewhere in the middle. Where did Gilbert get this idea to teach his sons vengeance? Shortly after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, it was thought to be appropriate to cause the saints to enter into a covenant to
promise that [they would] pray and never cease to pray to Almighty God to avenge the blood of the prophets upon this nation, and that [they would] teach the same to [their] children and to [their] children's children unto the third and fourth generation.1
This covenant was thought so important that it was administered in the Saints’ most sacred places, as part of their most sacred ceremonies.
While the wording of the covenant remained the same for 90 years, the saints’ understanding of it evolved, as traditions do. In the decade-or-so between Joseph’s death and Gilbert’s letter the saints came to believe that the covenant didn’t simply mean to pray for God to take vengeance on the nation, but that the saints themselves were responsible for taking vengeance. Gilbert was simply repeating to his sons the version of the gospel that was current among the saints. It was orthodox. It was a fundamental and essential feature of what Gilbert thought Mormonism was. So what could he have done differently?
When he heard over the pulpit that the saints were themselves responsible for vengeance could he have thought back to the wording of the covenant he had made and realize he was now hearing a misinterpretation of those words?
Going back further, when Gilbert was asked to covenant to pray for divine vengeance to rain down upon his enemies, could he have asked himself whether that was the right thing to do?
If he studied his scriptures, he might have read D&C 84, where God informs the saints that they are under condemnation for “treating lightly” the Book of Mormon and failing to do what it taught. Maybe that would have led him to read the book very carefully, where he would read of Lehi, Nephi, Jacob, Enos, and others praying with all their hearts for the salvation of people who wanted them dead. He would read in 3 Nephi 12:
behold I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father who is in heaven
“Pray for”. Not pray against. And certainly don’t seek vengeance (3 Nephi 12:39).
Gilbert would be faced with hard choices. Should he remain orthodox, and prize the words of his leaders over Christ’s own words, and keep the covenant he had made? Or should he instead follow Christ’s instructions, that he might be a Child of his Father in Heaven? Had the saints chosen that second path, D&C 84 says they would have brought forth fruit meet for the kingdom of God (vs. 58). Instead, the violent rhetoric about vengeance and bloodshed only grew more intense and elaborate in the months following Gilbert’s letter. Words were soon tragically matched by action in eruptions of violence so horrific we still haven’t fully processed them as a Church.2 As Gilbert should have examined his most precious beliefs before passing them on to his children, so we should ours.
We must not expect God to conform to our traditions, no matter how precious they are to us, how popular, or how orthodox. If our obedience is to the commandments of men, we will only experience a tedious oppressive version of the gospel. Truly seeking God, and leading our children to him, will require setting aside our creeds and seeking truth as little children. As Joseph Smith said:
To all those who are disposed…to set up stakes for the almighty—[you] will come short of the glory of god. To become a joint heir of the heirship of the son [a man] must put away all his traditions. (Smith Diary, August 27, 1843)