As a missionary, it seemed like the Book of Mormon really had one sole purpose. We’d hand out copies to anyone who would listen to our message, ask them to read a chapter (maybe the Introduction, 1 Nephi 1, 3 Nephi 11, etc.), and then pray about it to see if it was true.
The old training manuals included a self-report scale where we could measure how effective we were on a scale from 1-10. One of the items was “I invite investigators to be baptized on the first or second lesson.” I usually felt uncomfortable doing that unless the Spirit was there, but some missionaries would. They’d typically say something like, “if you get an answer that the Book of Mormon is true, will you be baptized, (etc.)?” Some missionaries were as bold as to suggest a date they could start working towards. Something like, “If you receive an answer before this day, will you be baptized on this day?” It usually felt like we were showing up and putting a lot of pressure on them to suddenly join the Church. It kind of just felt like really aggressive sales tactics.
Elder Ballard announced in a Mission Leadership Seminar last June that it was in fact inappropriate, and that baptismal invitations ought to be led by the Spirit. The Church News reported on it. You can read about it here.
How I Used to Understand the Book of Mormon
But that’s really besides the point. The point is, the Book of Mormon was just used as a thing we asked investigators to pray about to see if they should join the Church. That felt like its primary purpose.
For members, it was an additional volume of scripture we bore our testimonies about in a testimony meeting, but its content didn’t seem all that ground breaking. It felt like all of the lessons we had already had in Sunday School. Anytime it mentioned baptism, for example, I mentally sort of checked out. I had already been baptized, so I assumed whatever Nephi or Alma or Jesus was about to say didn’t apply to me.
Faith? I believed in God. I assumed I already had faith, so I checked out for that too. Repentance I knew I needed, but it seemed like as long as I kept doing my best and taking the sacrament every week, I was good. That was supposed to renew my baptismal covenant anyway, so I was basically being made clean again every week. Right?
I got the Holy Ghost the same day I was baptized, so all of this talk of being “baptized by fire and the Holy Ghost” was old news too. Right? Huh… it somehow seems like this book was written for investigators more than it was for me – although the funny part was, most investigators decided whether or not to be baptized before they read very far. It didn’t seem like most of them made it out of 1 Nephi before they either confessed they weren’t interested or accepted the invitation to be baptized. This was especially true if we were asking them to be baptized on the first or second lesson.
So now the primary audience, in my mind, isn’t even reading what was written for them. And once they get baptized, all those verses about being baptized and getting the Holy Ghost will basically be obsolete, right? I mean, I guess its possible that they could be a little stubborn and the missionaries would need to read all of those chapters with them before they were convinced. But even then, we put so much emphasis on having a spiritual – revelatory – experience, that what the book said almost felt like an afterthought.
And then there were all those confusing Isaiah chapters in 2 Nephi. Those never really made any sense. We have them in the Bible, why did Nephi have to include them? You’d hope your friend or investigator who was reading the Book of Mormon you gave them got an answer before they got to Isaiah (they might lose interest!).
I already believe Jesus is the Christ, and Moroni says that’s the whole purpose of the book! So basically I don’t need it right? It’s supposed to convince you to join the Church, and I’ve already done that. Check.
I mean, obviously its good to read your scriptures everyday. They say it’s like food for your spirit, so that’s a good reason to read. It’s a good reminder that God will answer my prayers, and motivates me to “endure to the end.” I’m in the Church, so now all I have to do is not “fall away,” or go less-active. Like Bruce R. McConkie said,
“What you have to do is stay in the mainstream of the Church and live as upright and decent people live in the Church–keeping the commandments, paying your tithing, serving in the organizations of the Church, loving the Lord, staying on the straight and narrow path. If you’re on that path when death comes–because this is the time and the day appointed, this the probationary estate–you’ll never fall off from it, and, for all practical purposes, your calling and election is made sure.” (“The Probationary Test of Mortality,” Jan. 1982)
Or like BYU author Stephen E. Robinson said,
“What I want to emphasize in this regard ought to be self-evident, but apparently a lot of us miss it. For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, these critical steps, which are the equivalent to entering into the kingdom [baptism, receiving the Holy Ghost, etc.], are already behind us. They are history. Therefore we are not waiting to see what some future verdict will decide. If we are in the covenant, the verdict is already in, and so are we.
“Relative to the kingdom of God, most people are ‘out until they’re in.’ That is, they are not members of the kingdom until they have accepted the gospel and enter into the covenant relationship. But in stark contrast to this, the members of the Church are ‘in until they’re out.’ That is, all who are in the covenant are God’s children now, and they will remain in the kingdom until they choose to leave. And if we accept his training and discipline–if we endure to the end–we will still be his children at the great day.” (Stephen E. Robinson, Following Christ, p. 15)
Because becoming a member of the Church is synonymous with salvation, any valuable message the Book of Mormon has to offer either needs to convince us to join the Church, or stay in it. Does it have a message beyond that? If the above quotes are true, does it need to have any other purpose?
Growing up, this was how I understood it. Was I missing something here?
I mean, it seems like Mormon, Moroni, and Joseph went through a whole lot to get us this book. The Lord seemed to think it was pretty important we have it. Are we using it the right way? Is its message relevant to us if we already have the prize every sermon and story points to? Who exactly is it written to?
“I Will Try the Faith of My People”
As it turns out, the Book of Mormon offers a litmus test we can apply to see if we as a people are using it correctly. Mormon recorded the Savior saying:
“And when they shall have received this, which is expedient that they should have first, to try their faith, and if it shall so be that they shall believe these things then shall the greater things be made manifest unto them. And if it so be that they will not believe these things, then shall the greater things be withheld from them, unto their condemnation. Behold, I was about to write them, all which were engraven upon the plates of Nephi, but the Lord forbade it, saying: I will try the faith of my people.” (3 Nephi 26:9-11)
The Book of Mormon comes forth as a trial. If we pass, we receive the greater things. If we fail, they’re withheld, and we come under condemnation.
Therefore, we can simply ask ourselves: have we received the greater things? And the answer is no, we haven’t. The Lord confirmed our condemnation two short years after we received the Book of Mormon, which has still not been lifted:
“And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received—Which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation. And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all. And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written—That they may bring forth fruit meet for their Father’s kingdom; otherwise there remaineth a scourge and judgment to be poured out upon the children of Zion.” (D&C 84:54-58)
So Christ says the Book of Mormon will come forth in the last days, and one of two things can happen. Do you think the Lord saw this coming? More specifically, do you think Nephi, Mormon and Moroni saw this coming? If so, what do you anticipate their perception of us was? What do you think they thought about “the mainstream of the Church?” Do you think they looked at us and said, “They’re awesome. Chosen generation. The Church is restored. They’ve got nothing to worry about?”
Speaking of the “greater things,” Moroni wrote: “For the Lord said unto me: They shall not go forth unto the Gentiles until the day that they shall repent of their iniquity, and become clean before the Lord” (Ether 4:6). To Moroni, we were the people who received “this” [Book of Mormon] “to try their faith,” but to whom the greater things were withheld “unto their condemnation.” To Moroni, we’re the people who need to “repent of their iniquity, and become clean before the Lord.”
To all the Book of Mormon prophets, and to the Lord, we’re a people under condemnation. After all, is it not the “mainstream of the Church” that came under the Lord’s condemnation?
As a sidenote, sometimes we read “the gentiles” in the Book of Mormon and just assume it’s referring to non-members. However, Jospeh Smith affirmed in the Kirtland Temple Dedicatory prayer that even the members of the Church “are identified with the Gentiles” (D&C 109:60). In the last days, the gospel goes to the Gentiles. This doesn’t just mean its preached to them, but it means they receive it. When Moroni looks forward in time, he sees us. To him, we’re Gentiles.
For the purpose of this post, I’m going to label each group in bold or italics or both. Both the nations of the Gentiles as well as those who have have inherited America (Americans) will be bold. The House of Israel, Jews, or Lamanite remnant will be italicized. The covenant Gentiles who receive the Book of Mormon and Fulness of the Gospel (Mormons) will be italicized bold.
An example of this is in Ether 12:22, “my fathers have obtained the promise that these things [the Book of Mormon] should come unto their brethren through the Gentiles; therefore the Lord hath commanded me, yea, even Jesus Christ.” In other words, the Book of Mormon comes first to the Gentiles, and then the Gentiles take it to the Lamanites. We’re the Gentiles.
“Upon My House Shall it Begin”
Another example of this is in 3 Nephi 20. The Savior says:
“…then fulfilleth the Father the covenant which he made with Abraham, saying: In thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed—unto the pouring out of the Holy Ghost through me upon the Gentiles, which blessing upon the Gentiles shall make them mighty above all, unto the scattering of my people, O house of Israel. And they shall be a scourge unto the people of this land. Nevertheless, when they shall have received the fulness of my gospel, then if they shall harden their hearts against me I will return their iniquities upon their own heads, saith the Father.” (3 Nephi 20:27-28)
The latter-day Gentiles who receive the Book of Mormon are warned that if they harden their hearts against Christ, there will be consequences. He does not guarantee that once they receive the fulness of the gospel, staying in the mainstream of the Church will be enough. He also said,
“And thus commandeth the Father that I should say unto you: At that day when the Gentiles shall sin against my gospel, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, and shall be lifted up in the pride of their hearts above all nations, and above all the people of the whole earth, and shall be filled with all manner of lyings, and of deceits, and of mischiefs, and all manner of hypocrisy, and murders, and priestcrafts, and whoredoms, and of secret abominations; and if they shall do all those things, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, behold, saith the Father, I will bring the fulness of my gospel from among them.
“And then will I remember my covenant which I have made unto my people, O house of Israel, and I will bring my gospel unto them. And I will show unto thee, O house of Israel, that the Gentiles shall not have power over you; but I will remember my covenant unto you, O house of Israel, and ye shall come unto the knowledge of the fulness of my gospel.
“But if the Gentiles will repent and return unto me, saith the Father, behold they shall be numbered among my people, O house of Israel. And I will not suffer my people, who are of the house of Israel, to go through among them, and tread them down, saith the Father. But if they will not turn unto me, and hearken unto my voice, I will suffer them, yea, I will suffer my people, O house of Israel, that they shall go through among them, and shall tread them down, and they shall be as salt that hath lost its savor, which is thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of my people, O house of Israel.” (3 Nephi 16:10-15)
There are a few clues in this passage that help us identify these Gentiles as the 3rd group (those who receive the gospel), and not just “non-Israelites” or “Americans.”
First, He says that the Gentiles will “sin against” His gospel. You can’t sin against a gospel you haven’t learned. This isn’t just referring to non-members hearing the missionaries’ message and telling them they’re not interested. They’re sinning “against the greater light” (D&C 82:3). Following their sinning against the gospel, and rejecting its fulness, the gospel is brought from among them.
Further confirming that these Gentiles aren’t “non-members,” they are then told that if they “repent and return,” they can still be numbered among the house of Israel (as opposed to those who will be “cut off from among the covenant people” [3 Nephi 21:11]). You can’t “return” to somewhere you’ve never been.
That these are the “Covenant Gentiles” is even further confirmed by the Lord’s use of symbolism. As He stated to both the Jews in the Sermon on the Mount, and the Nephites in bountiful, “I give unto you to be the salt of the earth; but if the salt shall lose its savor wherewith shall the earth be salted? The salt shall be thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men” (3 Nephi 12:13). Salt is a covenantal symbol. It refers to being a covenant people, and salt that “loses it savor” and is “trodden under foot” is the result of violating the covenant with God (the covenant curse).
“When men are called unto mine everlasting gospel, and covenant with an everlasting covenant, they are accounted as the salt of the earth and the savor of men; they are called to be the savor of men; therefore, if that salt of the earth lose its savor, behold, it is thenceforth good for nothing only to be cast out and trodden under the feet of men.” (D&C 101:39-40)
This passage in 3 Nephi therefore can’t be talking about anyone else. According to Christ Himself, there would come a point in time when the covenant Gentiles sinned against the gospel, and rejected its fulness. When that happened, the Lord would bring the fulness of His gospel from among them, and they’d be cut off from being God’s covenant people. Lastly, if they would not repent, they would be trodden under foot by His people: the House of Israel. That all may look something like this:
“But behold, the life of my servant shall be in my hand; therefore they shall not hurt him, although he shall be marred because of them. Yet I will heal him, for I will show unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the devil. Therefore it shall come to pass that whosoever will not believe in my words, who am Jesus Christ, which the Father shall cause him to bring forth unto the Gentiles, and shall give unto him power that he shall bring them forth unto the Gentiles, (it shall be done even as Moses said) they shall be cut off from among my people who are of the covenant. And my people who are a remnant of Jacob shall be among the Gentiles, yea, in the midst of them as a lion among the beasts of the forest, as a young lion among the flocks of sheep, who, if he go through both treadeth down and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver.” (3 Nephi 21:10-12)
The Lord said to the prophet Joseph Smith,
“Behold, vengeance cometh speedily upon the inhabitants of the earth, a day of wrath, a day of burning, a day of desolation, of weeping, of mourning, and of lamentation; and as a whirlwind it shall come upon all the face of the earth, saith the Lord. And upon my house shall it begin, and from my house shall it go forth, saith the Lord; first among those among you, saith the Lord, who have professed to know my name and have not known me, and have blasphemed against me in the midst of my house, saith the Lord.” (D&C 112:24-26)
In accordance with divine pattern, the judgment begins upon those who had the most light and responsibility, and works outward in that direction. We might expect something like this:
Multiple times in the scriptures, we’re told to study the prophecies of Isaiah. Jesus explicitly commands us to:
“And now, behold, I say unto you, that ye ought to search these things. Yea, a commandment I give unto you that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah. For surely he spake as touching all things concerning my people which are of the house of Israel; therefore it must needs be that he must speak also to the Gentiles.” (3 Nephi 23:1-2)
Jesus point blank vouches for the words of Isaiah – and yet, how many of us who read the Book of Mormon really “search these things diligently?” Do we grasp their importance? Could this be one way we “treat lightly the things we’ve received?”
One reason this is important is because they offer us a prophetic perspective into the last days. Isaiah’s prophecies are always relevant to both his day and ours (the last days). He speaks in such a manner that applies to his world as well as ours. Understanding much of Isaiah is a matter of identifying the modern day players. One key, for example, is knowing that when Isaiah speaks about “Israel” he’s referring to a covenant people. In his day, it obviously means the nation of Israel. In the latter-days, he’s referring to the Covenant Gentiles. Nephi confirms this when he quotes Isaiah and adds commentary like:
“Hearken and hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out of the waters of Judah, or out of the waters of baptism, who swear by the name of the Lord, and make mention of the God of Israel, yet they swear not in truth nor in righteousness.” (1 Nephi 20:1)
Searching the words of Isaiah is important. Jesus commands us to do it. That’s a topic beyond the scope of this post.
The truth is, we, the Covenant Gentile readers, are one of the primary audiences of the Book of Mormon. We, those who have “received this” and have come under condemnation (3 Nephi 26:9), are those who need to apply the message of the Book of Mormon. As long as we continue to read it and say, “these verses about repenting and coming unto the Lord belong to non-members,” we are in danger of missing the whole point. We are in danger of becoming those who Nephi saw:
“And others will [Satan] pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell… Therefore, wo be unto him that is at ease in Zion! Wo be unto him that crieth: All is well!” (2 Nephi 28:21, 24-25)