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The Book of Mormon and the fulness of the gospel
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The Book of Mormon and the fulness of the gospel
Question: What does it mean when it is said that the Book of Mormon contains the "fulness of the gospel?"
The Book of Mormon contains the fulness of the Gospel, for the purpose of convincing Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ
The Lord declared that he had given Joseph Smith "power from on high...to translate the Book of Mormon; which contains a record of a fallen people, and the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles and to the Jews also" (D&C 20:8-9; cf. D&C 27:5; D&C 42:12; D&C 135:3).
The Book of Mormon is correct in the doctrines and principles it teaches, but it does not claim to contain all truth. Its own self-described purpose is to "the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself unto all nations" (title page), and that these teachings are "plain and precious" (1 Nephi 13:35,40; 1 Nephi 19:3). For the most part, the Book of Mormon does not concern itself with the deeper mysteries of God.
The book itself admits that it does not contain all the doctrines the Lord wants us to know. The prophet Mormon explained that he only recorded "the lesser part of the things which [Jesus] taught the people," for the intent that "when [the Book of Mormon reader] shall have received this...if it shall so be that they shall believe these things then shall the greater things be made manifest unto them" (3 Nephi 26:8-9; compare Alma 26:22).
What is the gospel?
In the Book of Mormon, Jesus Christ gave a specific definition of "the gospel":
Behold I have given unto you my gospel, and this is the gospel which I have given unto you—that I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me.
And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil—
And for this cause have I been lifted up; therefore, according to the power of the Father I will draw all men unto me, that they may be judged according to their works.
And it shall come to pass, that whoso repenteth and is baptized in my name shall be filled; and if he endureth to the end, behold, him will I hold guiltless before my Father at that day when I shall stand to judge the world.
And he that endureth not unto the end, the same is he that is also hewn down and cast into the fire, from whence they can no more return, because of the justice of the Father.
And this is the word which he hath given unto the children of men. And for this cause he fulfilleth the words which he hath given, and he lieth not, but fulfilleth all his words.
And no unclean thing can enter into his kingdom; therefore nothing entereth into his rest save it be those who have washed their garments in my blood, because of their faith, and the repentance of all their sins, and their faithfulness unto the end.
(3 Nephi 27:13-19, italics added.)
In this passage, Jesus defines "the gospel" as:
- Christ came into the world to do the Father's will.
- The Father sent Christ to be crucified.
- Because of Christ's atonement, all men will be judged by him according to their works (as opposed to not receiving a judgment at all and being cast out of God's presence by default; 2 Nephi 9:8-9).
- Those who repent and are baptized shall be filled (with the Holy Ghost, see 3 Nephi 12:6), and
- if they continue in faith by enduring to the end they will be justified (declared "not guilty") by Christ before the Father, but
- if they don't endure they will be subject to the justice of God and cast out of his presence.
- The Father's words will all be fulfilled.
- Because no unclean thing can enter the Father's heavenly kingdom, only those who rely in faith on the atonement of Christ, repent, and are faithful to the end can be saved.
This is "the gospel." The Book of Mormon teaches these concepts with a plainness and clarity unequaled by any other book. It has therefore been declared by the Lord to contain "the fulness of the gospel." The primary message of the gospel, the "good news" of Jesus Christ, is that he has atoned for our sins and prepared a way for us to come back into the presence of the Father. This is the message of the Book of Mormon, and it contains it in its fulness.
Question: How can the Book of Mormon contain the "fulness of the Gospel" if it does not speak of ordinances such as baptism for the dead or celestial marriage?
The Book of Mormon does not contain detailed descriptions of many religious topics and ordinances, such as eternal marriage or baptism for the dead
Is it possible that the Book of Mormon cannot contain "the fulness of the gospel" because it doesn't teach certain unique LDS doctrines, such as baptism for the dead, the Word of Wisdom, the three degrees of glory, celestial marriage, vicarious work for the dead, and the corporeal nature of God the Father?
There are many religious topics and doctrines which The Book of Mormon does not discuss in detail (e.g., the premortal existence—see Alma 13:), and some which are not even mentioned (e.g., the ordinance of baptism for the dead).
This is unsurprising, since the Book of Mormon's goal is to teach the "fulness of the gospel"—the doctrine of Christ.
Harold B. Lee: "our scoffers say, 'How can you say that the Book of Mormon has the fulness of the gospel when it doesn't speak of baptism for the dead?'"
Of this criticism, Harold B. Lee said:
Now, our scoffers say, "How can you say that the Book of Mormon has the fulness of the gospel when it doesn't speak of baptism for the dead?" Some of you may have asked that question.
What is the gospel as it is defined? Let me give you how the Lord defines the gospel, in these words: "And verily, verily, I say unto you, he that receiveth my gospel receiveth me; and he that receiveth not my gospel receiveth not me. And this is my gospel—repentance and baptism by water, and then cometh the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost, even the Comforter, which showeth all things, and teacheth the peaceable things of the kingdom." (DC 39:5-6.)
Wherever you have a restoration of the gospel, where those fundamental ordinances and the power of the Holy Ghost are among men, there you have the power by which the Lord can reveal all things that pertain to the kingdom in detail, don't you see, including baptism for the dead, which He has done in our day. That is what the Prophet Joseph Smith meant when he was questioned, "How does your church differ from all the other churches?" and his answer was simple, "We are different from all the other churches because we have the Holy Ghost." (See History of the Church 4:42.) Therein we have the teachings of the fulness of those essentials in the Book of Mormon upon the foundations of which the kingdom of God is established.
BYU professor Noel Reynolds wrote:
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not synonymous with the plan of salvation (or plan of redemption), but is a key part thereof. Brigham Young stated that the 'Gospel of the Son of God that has been revealed is a plan or system of laws and ordinances, by strict obedience to which the people who inhabit this earth are assured that they may return again into the presence of the Father and the Son.' While the plan of salvation is what God and Christ have done for mortals in the creation, the fall, the atonement, the final judgment, and the salvation of the world, the gospel contains the instructions--the laws and ordinances--that enable human beings to make the atonement effective in their lives and thereby gain salvation.
Question: Why is baptism for the dead not mentioned in the Book of Mormon?
The Church has no official answer to this question
The Church has, of course, no official answer to this question. There are several factors which should be considered. There are textual and editorial reasons to suspect that Mormon would not include vicarious ordinances: most of the history predates Christ, and little about Nephite worship after Christ is discussed.
On a more basic level, however, baptism for the dead is not discussed because it is not germane to the Book of Mormon's purpose: to teach the fulness of the gospel, which involves the basics of faith in Christ, repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and endurance to the end. The readers of the Book of Mormon are promised that they will learn more once they have passed these first steps.
There are additional factors, however, which lead us to suspect that vicarious baptism would not be included in the Nephite record.
#1: Baptism for the dead may not have been preached before Christ
This ordinance of baptism for the dead would perhaps not be practicable prior to the atonement of Christ, for Christ is the one who broke the bands of death and hell and inaugurated the preaching of the Gospel to the Spirit World (see 1 Peter 3:18-20, 1 Peter 4:5-6, DC 138:). Since most of the Book of Mormon account precedes the resurrection of Christ, we should perhaps not expect vicarious ordinances to be mentioned prior to 3rd Nephi. Third Nephi is concerned with the teachings of Christ, and Mormon specifically tells us that only the lesser portion of Christ's teachings are recorded (see 3 Nephi 26:8-12). The Book of Ether likewise predates Jesus' resurrection, and so the performance of vicarious ordinances might be premature.
#2: Mormon's abridgement does not tell us much about Nephite worship after Jesus' departure
This leaves only the books of 4th Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni as potential sources for baptism for the dead among the Nephites. It is clear, however, that during this time that Mormon and Moroni were both heavily engaged with an apostate people. Both Mormon and Moroni were teaching repentance to their people, rather than temple ordinances.
This leaves us with only 4th Nephi, about which very little is written other than to say that the people enjoyed almost 200 years of peace. The text tells us nothing about the practices and worship of this period—partly because the record has been created retrospectively. Mormon's goal as editor in 4th Nephi is clearly to illustrate the collapse and ruin of the Nephites because of worldliness and pride. He makes it clear, however, that there were many other things revealed to the Nephites (Mormon 5:16-17).
#3: Some preparatory scripture is included
Though we have no record of Jesus teaching baptism for the dead in 3 Nephi, He did command the inclusion of material from Malachi about the coming of Elijah and hearts turning from the children to the fathers (see 3 Nephi 25:1-6). This is a classic text for the doctrines of temple work and vicarious ordinances, so this may be a hint that further teachings were given about these matters of which we do not have record, as discussed in point #2 above.
Question: Did Joseph Smith contradict Jesus’ commandment in the Book of Mormon to not add to nor take away from Jesus' Gospel?
Introduction to Question
Upon his arrival to the Americas in 3 Nephi 11, Jesus begins to instruct the local masses of Nephites in his Gospel.
Near the close of 3 Nephi 11, the Savior says the following in verses 35–41:
- 35 Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and I bear record of it from the Father; and whoso believeth in me believeth in the Father also; and unto him will the Father bear record of me, for he will visit him with fire and with the Holy Ghost.
- 36 And thus will the Father bear record of me, and the Holy Ghost will bear record unto him of the Father and me; for the Father, and I, and the Holy Ghost are bone.
- 37 And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and become as a little child, and be baptized in my name, or ye can in nowise receive these things.
- 38 And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and be baptized in my name, and become as a little child, or ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.
- 39 Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.
- 40 And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them.
- 41 Therefore, go forth unto this people, and declare the words which I have spoken, unto the ends of the earth.
The phrase “And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock” has puzzled interpreters.
Some critics contend that since Joseph Smith “added” to Jesus’ gospel by providing additional commandments and covenants through revelation in, for example, the Doctrine and Covenants, that Joseph Smith disobeyed the Savior’s command in the Book of Mormon and that the Gospel Joseph claimed to be restoring was a complete fabrication. Some critics go further than this and claim that this throws the Book of Mormon’s ancient authenticity into question since Joseph Smith was “clearly” just making up commandments and revelations to suit his religiously exploitative motives.
This article examines this criticism and provides and easy counterargument to it.
Response to Question
The Context of Jesus’ Words are “Disputations” Among the Nephites
The first point that we can easily establish is that the context of Jesus’ words are “disputations” among the Nephites (3 Nephi 11:22, 28). Thus, it is likely that what the Savior is saying is not that there will be no other prophets after him that will deliver commandments given from the Savior through the prophet, but that there is no other thing that a prophet can add to these specific points of doctrine delivered about the role of the Holy Ghost and Father in creating testimony, repentance, baptism, and becoming a little child. He means to both allay the disputations of these points of doctrine (and especially vis-a-vis baptism as pointed out by verses 22 and 28) and say that there will be no one that will dispute these points as he has laid them out in the future, whether a prophet or not.
Jesus Contradicts Himself
Further evidence of this is that Jesus gives further commandments beyond the ones delivered in 3 Nephi 11 after 3 Nephi 11, contradicting his own alleged injunction to not add to nor take away from the Gospel/commandments delivered in 3 Nephi 11. The Savior delivers a sermon almost identical to the Sermon on the Mount in 3 Nephi 12, 13, and 14.
Jesus contradicts himself more starkly in 3 Nephi 18 when he institutes the sacrament among the Nephites. There, he gives instruction to eat of his body and drink of his blood symbolically through the ordinance. In 3 Nephi 18:12 he says:
- 12 And I give unto you a commandment that ye shall do these things. And if ye shall always do these things blessed are ye, for ye are built upon my rock.
In verse 13 he says:
- 13 But whoso among you shall do more or less than these 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.
Thus Jesus gives his followers a commandment to partake of the sacrament and remember him. He says, in the minds of our critics perhaps, that anyone who does more or less than these commandments is not built upon his rock. But then look at what he says in verses 27–28 of the same chapter:
- 27 Behold verily, verily I say unto you, I give unto you another commandment, and then I must go unto my Father that I may fulfill other commandments which he hath given me.
Thus now Jesus is going to introduce another commandment after he just told us that the commandments we should be following are no more nor less than partaking of the sacrament and remembering his blood and body! What is the commandment that Jesus delivers?
- 28 And now behold, this is the commandment which I give unto you, that ye shall not suffer any one knowingly to partake of my flesh and blood unworthily, when ye shall minister it.
Jesus is a real clutz, huh? Must have just been tripping over himself so much that day. He had way too many things on his mind and kept forgetting all of the commandments that he was supposed to deliver before declaring that his disciples shouldn’t obey any additional commandments. Maybe he was too preoccupied thinking about how many peoples he had to visit besides the Nephites and deliver similar instructions.
We can think that or we can take the other possible and arguably more sensible interpretation that Jesus means that we should keep the commandments that he delivers exactly and not let those specific commandments be added to nor taken away by critics, whether inside or outside the Church, or future prophets.
This argument and the obvious failure that it is should remind us that the scriptures need to be read both contextually and holistically when attempting to extract their messages and commandments to us. FAIR has produced an article that one can read to get a primer on how to do that.
Hopefully this counterargument will motivate our critics to be similarly careful in the future.
- Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996), 156.
- Noel B. Reynolds, "The Gospel of Jesus Christ as Taught by the Nephite Prophets," Brigham Young University Studies 31 no. 3 (Summer 1991), 33.
- Sidney B. Sperry, "Third Nephi (Continued)," in Book of Mormon Compendium (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1968), 427–430. GospeLink (requires subscrip.) GL direct link