Gospel Principles and the Bible
Gospel Principles, chapter 15
Mormonism, Abraham, and the New Covenant
This study makes two main points:
A. The Abrahamic covenant shows that God’s covenant with human beings is a relationship of grace in which we depend on God by faith in his promises, not a plan for us to prove ourselves deserving of life in God’s kingdom.
B. The new covenant promised in the Bible is the relationship with God that Christians have had through Jesus Christ for nearly two thousand years, not the religious system of the LDS Church that began in the nineteenth century.
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“Behold, I say unto you that all old covenants have I caused to be done away in this thing; and this is a new and an everlasting covenant, even that which was from the beginning” (revelation of Joseph Smith in 1830, in Doctrine & Covenants 22:1).
The term covenant is essentially a biblical term for a contract—a binding agreement between two parties. Common types of covenants in biblical times included political treaties, marriage unions, and land grants. The term is of importance in the Bible because of its use in referring to agreements between God and human beings.
The topic of covenants may seem strange or heavily theological, but it is a major theme throughout the Bible and a key to understanding it. It is also a subject that highlights in some surprising ways the stark differences between LDS doctrine and the teachings of the Bible. This study focuses on two covenants: (A) the Abrahamic covenant, and (B) the new covenant.
LDS doctrine correctly affirms that God made an important covenant with the Old Testament patriarch Abraham. In this covenant, God promised that through Abraham’s offspring he would bring blessing to all the families of the earth. However, the LDS doctrinal manual Gospel Principles offers an explanation of the basis on which God made this covenant with Abraham that differs markedly from the teaching of the Bible:
“Abraham, an Old Testament prophet, was a very righteous man (see the picture in this chapter). He refused to worship his father’s idols. He kept all of the Lord’s commandments. Because of Abraham’s righteousness, the Lord made a covenant with him and his descendants” (Gospel Principles, 83).
The “picture” to which the above statement refers is a portrait in Gospel Principles of Abraham, long shepherd’s crook in hand, on his knees in a posture of obviously pious prayer. The point that the LDS manual is making is that God made a covenant with Abraham because he was so pious, righteous, and obedient. In this understanding, the covenant is in effect a reward to Abraham for his life of righteous good works. The Bible, on the other hand, gives a very different explanation for the covenant.
From what little the Bible tells us about Abraham (or Abram, as he was then known) before he moved to Canaan, he grew up as part of a family that worshiped other gods. Through Joshua, the Lord reminded Israel of their roots:
“From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River, and led him through all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his descendants and gave him Isaac” (Joshua 24:2-3 NASB).
According to this statement, Abraham’s family—and apparently Abraham himself—served other gods along with the rest of his family until the Lord revealed himself to him. Abraham apparently began serving the Lord only after his father Terah died (Genesis 11:32), when the Lord spoke to Abraham and made promises to him:
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed."
(Genesis 12:1-3 NASB)
This passage is the first, foundational statement of what theologians call the Abrahamic covenant. As the apostle Paul some two thousand years later pointed out, in this passage the Lord in effect proclaimed the gospel to Abraham: “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’” (Galatians 3:8 ESV). This doesn’t mean that God told Abraham that he would send his Son into the world to become a human being named Jesus Christ, die on a cross, rise from the dead, and ascend to heaven in order to redeem people from their sins. What Paul means by “the gospel” is simply the message that God’s blessing to people of all nations and all families will come in some way through Abraham.
The initiative in the Abrahamic covenant is completely from God, reaching out to Abraham and graciously offering to bless him and make him the means of bringing blessing to the rest of the world. Abraham did nothing to earn, merit, or demonstrate his worthiness to receive this blessing. Such unmerited, undeserved favor and blessing is what the Bible calls grace. God called Abraham into a relationship with him by grace.
Paul also states that according to this gospel, “God would justify the Gentiles by faith.” In other words, the Abrahamic covenant promised people of all nations that God would declare them just or righteous in his sight “by faith.” Where did Paul get this understanding of the Abrahamic covenant? The answer is that he got it directly from what Genesis says about how Abraham was made right with God: “And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Abraham believed the Lord’s promise that despite the fact that he was childless, he would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky (Genesis 15:1-5). It was through those descendants that God was going to fulfill his promises to Abraham; thus, Abraham was trusting in God to fulfill his covenant promises even though it seemed humanly impossible (Romans 4:17-22).
The New Testament quotes Genesis 15:6 in three different passages (Romans 4:3, 9, 22; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23), which shows just how important this statement is for understanding the Abrahamic covenant. Notice that the Lord “reckoned” Abraham’s faith “as righteousness.” As Paul explicitly points out, God did not consider Abraham righteous because of his good works (Romans 4:2-5). Rather, God “reckoned” righteousness to Abraham—credited it to his account, as it were—on the basis of Abraham’s faith in God’s promise. Abraham was justified through his faith. Likewise, all people who have faith like Abraham’s will also be justified (accounted righteous by God) through their faith (Romans 4:12-17; Galatians 3:7-9).
It is significant, as Paul points out (Romans 4:9-12), that God had accounted Abraham as righteous on the basis of his faith in God’s promise (Genesis 15) years before Abraham was circumcised (Genesis 17). Circumcision was a type of blood oath, a rite by which Abraham and his male descendants were reminded that their covenant relationship with God was a matter of life or death. Prior to his getting circumcised, Abraham had made no blood oath commitment to God. Yet God had already reckoned Abraham as righteous in his sight through his faith. Circumcision was a sign of a covenant that God had already made with Abraham, a symbolic and perpetual reminder of God’s solemn promise. Any male descendant of Abraham who refused to be circumcised would be excluding himself from the covenant (Genesis 17:14), because rejecting circumcision amounted to rejecting God’s covenant promise to Abraham.
Abraham’s relationship with God, then, was a relationship secured on the basis of his faith in God’s covenant promise. Although God evidently did not tell Abraham explicitly about the future coming of Christ, Abraham’s faith in God’s promise was functionally equivalent to having faith in Christ. Abraham was about 85 years old when God assured him that he would have a child, and 100 years old when Isaac was finally born (Genesis 15:6; 16:16; 17:1; 21:5). As Paul explains, in believing God’s promise that he would have a child despite his good-as-dead old body, Abraham was in effect trusting that God could bring life from death, which he literally did in Jesus’ death and resurrection (Romans 4:17-25).
After Abraham responded in faith to God’s promise, he asked the Lord for assurance that God would give him the land (Genesis 15:7-8). In response, the Lord enacted a ritual that most modern readers will find very mysterious—even bizarre. He had Abraham cut several animals into two pieces each (a heifer, a goat, and a ram) and lay each half opposite the other half, forming two rows from the remains. When it was dark, there appeared “a smoking furnace” (or firepot) and a “flaming torch” that passed between the pieces (Genesis 15:9-17). Those familiar with the rest of the Bible will know that when the Israelites escaped from Egypt, God’s presence was manifested as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22). The manifestation of smoke and fire passing between the pieces represented God himself passing between the pieces of the animals that had been killed.
What did this strange ritual mean? In Abraham’s culture, the ritual was a formal way of making a blood oath. The two parties to the blood oath (the covenant, Genesis 15:18) would both pass between the pieces as if to say, “If I don’t keep my part of this agreement, may what happened to these animals happen to me” (see Jeremiah 34:18-20). In this case, though, God alone passed between the pieces. The Lord was saying, in effect, that he would make sure that the covenant promises he made to Abraham were fulfilled, even if it meant that he, the Lord God himself, would have to die. This action was a dramatic way of assuring Abraham that God would see to the fulfillment of the covenant no matter what Abraham did or did not do. Abraham’s personal behavior or righteous living was not a condition of the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises. This was a covenant of grace, of God making unilateral promises to Abraham and offering to make himself the one who would pay the penalty if Abraham did not do what God expected of him. In the New Testament we find out that the Lord does just that: he becomes a human being and dies on the cross to pay the penalty for our failure to live as he requires.
Again, God made this one-sided commitment to Abraham in Genesis 15 years before Abraham submitted to circumcision in Genesis 17. The initiative in the covenants between God and human beings comes from God. He made an unconditional promise to Abraham, and only after God graphically demonstrated his commitment to that promise did Abraham receive circumcision. In context, circumcision was an act in which Abraham confessed his faith that God would fulfill his promise of a son despite the fact that Abraham’s body was as good as dead (Romans 4:17-21). In other words, circumcision was an admission of helplessness, of complete dependence on God—in short, of faith.
Our relationship as Christians with God is likewise a commitment, a solemn agreement that he makes with us, but it is one in which we are the weak, helpless party utterly dependent on God to bring about the intended goal of the agreement. Baptism is a kind of Christian counterpart to circumcision, a rite of initiation through which we become recognized as members of the covenant community of Christ’s followers. Baptism, like circumcision, is a “death ritual,” one that graphically symbolizes death (because baptism, traditionally performed by immersing a person in water, resembles burial). Specifically, baptism symbolizes the death that Jesus Christ suffered in our place and his resurrection through which we receive eternal life (Romans 6:3-11). It is therefore a symbol of grace, a visible enactment of our acceptance of what Jesus Christ did for us, just as Abraham’s circumcision was a formal act of acceptance of what God promised to do for him.
Although Abraham had faith in God and believed God’s promise, he didn’t always act in a way consistent with that faith. (Do you have this problem? I know I do.) For example, Abraham asked his wife Sarah to tell a half-truth to the Egyptians—that she was his sister—so that they would take her but not kill him (Genesis 13:10-20). It was literally a half-truth because Sarah was his half-sister, the daughter of Abraham’s father from another marriage (Genesis 20:12). He pulled this cowardly trick a second time, after his expression of faith in Genesis 15, with Abimelech the king of Gerar (Genesis 20:1-18), proving that even godly men fall into old sinful habits. Another failure of Abraham was his decision to have sexual relations with Sarah’s maidservant Hagar in order to have a child by her, a decision that backfired badly on him (Genesis 16). So Abraham was by no means a prince of virtue. Like all of us, he had character flaws and sinful habits that dogged him for much of his life.
Ironically, the LDS scriptures present an opposing view of these incidents in Abraham’s life. The Book of Abraham claims that it was the Lord’s idea for Abraham to ask Sarah to call herself his sister instead of his wife (Abraham 2:22-25)! The book of Genesis, of course, says no such thing. In fact, the second time Abraham had Sarah tell this half-truth, the account in Genesis makes it clear that it was Abraham’s idea. After Abimelech, the king of Gerar, had taken Sarah (but before he had become intimate with her), God had revealed to him in a dream that Sarah was Abraham’s husband. God also assured Abimelech that he knew he had acted honorably (Genesis 20:1-7). The next morning, when Abimelech asked Abraham why he had deceived him, Abraham replied:
“I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother’” (Genesis 20:11-13 ESV, emphasis added).
Here Abraham admits that it was his idea for Sarah to tell the half-lie about being his sister. The notion that God might have instructed Abraham to perpetrate this deception for his own physical well-being is not only contrary to the text, it is an affront to the character of God. It would mean that God was encouraging Abraham to act in a cowardly way and put his wife at risk for his own benefit.
In Doctrine & Covenants, Joseph Smith claims that it was God’s command that Abraham have sexual relations with Sarah’s maid Hagar in order to have a child by her:
“God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling, among other things, the promises. Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation? Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it” (D&C 132:34-35).
This statement disagrees with the Bible in more ways than one. First of all, it was Sarah’s idea, not God’s command, that Abraham have sex with Hagar. “And Sarai said to Abram, ‘Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai” (Genesis 16:2 ESV). God had not commanded Abraham to take any other wives besides Sarah. Second, Ishmael was not the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. God did graciously make a great nation of Ishmael, but the covenant promise that God made to Abraham was realized through Sarah’s son Isaac (Genesis 17:18-21; 21:12-13). As the apostle Paul put it, Ishmael “was born according to the flesh” whereas Isaac “was born through promise” (Galatians 4:23 ESV; see also Romans 9:6-9).
Joseph’s argument about Abraham and Hagar is part of his theological justification for the practice of polygamy, or plural marriage, in which he had already been engaged for many years. This practice is the main topic of D&C 132, one of the longer and more controversial “revelations” in Doctrine & Covenants. The revelation begins with the following claim attributed to the Lord:
“…I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines” (D&C 132:1).
Joseph goes on to claim that the practice of polygamy is part of “a new and everlasting covenant” that the Latter-day Saints were to embrace or face damnation, “for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory” (132:4, 6). In this covenant, marriages were to be performed “for eternity” and a man could and should enter into more than one such marriage for the future exaltation of himself and his family (132:7-28). In this context, Joseph Smith cites Abraham as his primary example of this principle (132:29-37, 49-51, 57, 65), along with Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, and Moses (132:37-39; see also 132:1). Joseph cites Abraham taking Hagar as his wife as an example to his own wife Emma Smith, who was clearly unhappy about Joseph’s other wives (132:51-54, 65). Perhaps it is worth noting that even though it was originally Sarah’s idea, after Hagar became pregnant she looked down on Sarah, resulting in a crisis in Abraham’s household (Genesis 16:3-6). This is the lesson that Joseph Smith should have learned from Abraham and Hagar, not that God commands men to enter into multiple marriages in order to pursue exaltation!
Joseph even claimed, “Abraham received concubines, and they bore him children; and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, because they were given unto him, and he abode in my law” (132:37). When we compare this statement with Genesis 15:6, it is difficult not to be shocked at Joseph’s audacity. Abraham’s act of taking Hagar was not an act of righteousness, but an act exemplifying his need for righteousness as a gift of God’s grace.
We need to keep in balance—or perhaps I should say in tension—the fact that Abraham’s works were often lacking with the fact that he did have works that reflected the genuineness of his faith. This is a tension in the lives of all God’s people in all ages, including true Christians today. On the one hand, people who have faith in Jesus Christ are still weak and prone to temptation, and we all fall into sin. Whenever we sin, of course, we are acting as though we don’t believe or trust God. On the other hand, if someone really has faith in Christ, that faith will show itself, especially over time, in good works. That is, as a person grows in faith, comes to understand and appreciate biblical values, discovers the depth of his own sinful inclinations, confesses his failings to God, and grasps that God’s acceptance is not based on our performance, he will develop in godly character and spiritual maturity. It won’t be perfect, and serious gaps or flaws will likely remain, but at crucial points his faith will make itself evident.
We can see this faith development in the most famous incident in Abraham’s life. Abraham’s faith was supremely tested and demonstrated to be genuine, saving faith when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac on a mountain (Genesis 22:1-2). Abraham took Isaac to the mountain, tied him up on the altar, and had raised his knife to kill him, when the angel of the Lord stopped Abraham (Genesis 22:3-14). As the book of Hebrews points out, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son demonstrated that he believed God could raise Isaac from the dead if necessary in order to fulfill his promise (Hebrews 11:17-19). The trial was a “type” (Hebrews 11:19), a kind of “sneak preview,” of the future event when God’s own beloved Son, Jesus Christ, would actually die as a sacrifice for sin and rise from the dead. Abraham’s obedience to God demonstrated that he had faith in the Lord as the life-giving, redeeming God, the same kind of faith as those who believe in Jesus Christ as the crucified and resurrected Lord (Romans 4:22-25).
Abraham’s act of obedience, then, demonstrated the genuineness of his faith in God’s promise and validated God’s gracious choice of Abraham as the man through whom he would bring the blessings of salvation to the whole world. This is why, after the angel of the Lord stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, he told Abraham, “In your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice” (Genesis 22:18 ESV; see also 26:1-5). We know that this statement does not mean that Abraham’s act of obedience was the basis on which God made this promise, because he had already made this promise to him more than a quarter of a century earlier (Genesis 12:1-3). Rather, it had been the Lord’s purpose all along to make Abraham into a model example of a believer—not of a perfect or exceptionally righteous person, but of an all too imperfect person who nevertheless persevered in faith even under trial. Blessing would come to the whole world through Abraham’s offspring because he was the man of faith whom God had chosen and whose faith God had developed over the years.
By his act of obedience, then, Abraham actually matured in his faith, demonstrating or vindicating his right standing with God (James 2:21-24). The example of Abraham illustrates the truth of the Protestant maxim that we are justified (made right with God) by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone. Faith that does not result in works of obedience to God is dead (James 2:26) because it isn’t really faith, but mere lip service.
The sum of the matter is this: God did not make his covenant with Abraham “because of Abraham’s righteousness,” as Gospel Principles erroneously states. Rather, God accounted righteousness to Abraham by grace, because of Abraham’s faith in God’s covenant promise. If we trust in God’s promise of life and blessing, as Abraham did, we will also enjoy a right relationship with God based not on what we do for God but on what God has done for us (Romans 4:1-8).
Chapter 15 of Gospel Principles includes a discussion of “the new and everlasting covenant,” but says nothing about the old covenant. Occasionally some LDS publications have acknowledged the existence of this old covenant, which was the Mosaic covenant, the law of Moses. For example, the New Testament Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual states that the book of Hebrews “teaches that the law of Moses was the old covenant between God and his children, while the gospel of Jesus Christ is the new covenant” (154). The Encyclopedia of Mormonism states that “the old covenant, or Mosaic law, was to be replaced by a new one, as Jeremiah prophesied” and that “this prophecy was fulfilled in the New Testament (or, more exactly, the New Covenant)” (334). Consistent with this traditional view, the LDS scriptures twice echo the reference in Hebrews to “Jesus the mediator of the new covenant” (Hebrews 12:24; D&C 76:69; 107:19).
Gospel Principles and other LDS publications, however, also use the terms old covenant and new covenant in ways that (as we shall see) conflict with the way the Bible uses them. For example, Doctrine & Covenants warns that LDS Church members who have not taken revelations seriously enough will remain under condemnation “until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them” (D&C 84:57). Here Joseph Smith uses the expression “new covenant” to refer to the Book of Mormon and other new revelations that God supposedly gave through Joseph. In context, this “new covenant” includes the priesthood (D&C 84:39-41). Elsewhere in D&C, Joseph uses the term “covenant” to designate the restored church authority system of the LDS Church:
“Thou shalt preach the fulness of my gospel, which I have sent forth in these last days, the covenant which I have sent forth to recover my people, which are of the house of Israel” (D&C 39:11).
“Verily I say unto you, blessed are you for receiving mine everlasting covenant, even the fulness of my gospel, sent forth unto the children of men, that they might have life and be made partakers of the glories which are to be revealed in the last days, as it was written by the prophets and apostles in days of old” (D&C 66:2).
Perhaps the most important reference to the LDS Church system as a new covenant is D&C 22, which is worth quoting in full:
“Behold, I say unto you that all old covenants have I caused to be done away in this thing; and this is a new and an everlasting covenant, even that which was from the beginning. Wherefore, although a man should be baptized an hundred times it availeth him nothing, for you cannot enter in at the strait gate by the law of Moses, neither by your dead works. For it is because of your dead works that I have caused this last covenant and this church to be built up unto me, even as in days of old. Wherefore, enter ye in at the gate, as I have commanded, and seek not to counsel your God. Amen” (D&C 22:1-4).
The context of this revelation is a dispute that arose at the very beginning of the LDS Church in April 1830, regarding some people “who had previously been baptized desiring to unite with the Church without rebaptism” (as the preface to D&C 22 states). In response to such people, Joseph Smith insisted that no one could join the LDS Church without being rebaptized. His theological rationale for this stance is extremely important. Baptisms in any of the existing Christian churches were “dead works” that were performed under “old covenants” that the Lord had “caused to be done away.” Joseph even speaks of historic Christian churches as if they were expressions of “the law of Moses.” His point was that the break between the LDS Church and historic Christianity was just as significant as the break between Christianity and Judaism. Just as the original Christian church represented a new covenant that superseded the Mosaic covenant that Judaism continued to follow, so the LDS Church represents a new covenant that supersedes historic Christianity.
Here is how Gospel Principles explains how the LDS gospel is a “new and everlasting covenant”:
“The Lord calls it everlasting because it is ordained by an everlasting God and because the covenant will never be changed. He gave this same covenant to Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and other prophets. In this sense it is not new. But the Lord calls it new because each time the gospel is restored after being taken from the earth, it is new to the people who receive it (see Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 37:26)” (85).
This explanation of what the new covenant is and what makes it new disagrees with Jeremiah 31:31-34, one of the biblical passages that Gospel Principles cites. According to Jeremiah, what would make the new covenant “new” would be that God’s law would be “within them” and written “on their hearts” in contrast to the Mosaic Law written on stone tablets (Jeremiah 31:33). This new covenant was going to be marked by people knowing the Lord and experiencing his forgiveness (verse 34).
Paul explains the difference by saying that it would be written “not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3 ESV). He and his fellow apostles were “ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit” (verse 6). In the old covenant, the Law was “carved in letters on stone” (verse 7); in the new covenant, the Spirit causes believers to be “transformed” from the inside out (verse 18). The focus of this new covenant is “the gospel of the glory of Christ…the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4, 6).
The writer of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 in full and then comments, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13). Jesus himself is the “mediator” of this “new covenant” (Hebrews 8:6; 9:15; 12:24), that unlike the previous Mosaic covenant is without fault: “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second” (Hebrews 8:7 ESV). The logic of this inspired statement is of obvious relevance to the LDS Church’s claim to be the custodians of a new covenant. Since “the eternal covenant” that Jesus enacted in his blood (Hebrews 13:20) cannot be superseded, there is no room or place for the notion that the new covenant of which Jeremiah spoke was Joseph Smith’s “new and everlasting covenant.” The real new covenant was inaugurated almost two thousand years ago when Jesus died for our sins (see Matthew 26:28 and the parallel statements in Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25). It has not been rescinded and cannot be superseded.
The new covenant, then, is not a past covenant “restored” after having been supposedly lost in apostasy. It is a new stage in God’s plan to bring redemption to the world. The new covenant represents an advance in contrast to the old covenant; it is better (Hebrews 7:22; 8:6). Unlike the old covenant, the new covenant that God put into place in the first century—and that is still operating today—has Jesus Christ as its mediator. You won’t find a better covenant than that.
Consistent with his claim to be the revelator of a new covenant, Joseph Smith also claimed that the Restoration represents a new dispensation. The term dispensation in Protestant theology referred (and still refers) to a distinct period of human history in which the administration of God’s dealing with people differs in some significant way from that of other such periods. Most Christian denominations and theologies recognize distinct dispensations, though one theological tradition, called dispensationalism, is known for its particular view of these dispensations. Modern terms that are roughly equivalent to the term dispensation are administration and management: each period is distinct because in it God puts the world, as it were, “under new management.”
The word dispensation appears just four times in the English Bible, all in Paul’s epistles (1 Corinthians 9:17; Ephesians 1:10; 3:2; Colossians 1:25). Ephesians 1:10 says that “in the dispensation of the fulness of times” it was God’s plan to “gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth” (KJV). Joseph Smith claimed that this “dispensation” had begun with him, when he and his associate Oliver Cowdery were made apostles and given the keys of Christ’s kingdom, “and a dispensation of the gospel for the last times; and for the fulness of times, in the which I will gather together in one all things, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth” (D&C 27:13). The power of the priesthood was given to Joseph and the other apostles “for the last days and for the last time, in the which is the dispensation of the fulness of times” (D&C 112:30; see also 121:31; 124:41; 128:18, 20; 138:48).
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of Joseph’s claim. Once again, he was in effect asserting that the LDS “Restoration” is as distinct from historic Christianity as Christianity is from Judaism. According to Joseph Smith, God’s redemptive work in the world is literally under new management—that of the LDS Church’s apostles and its priesthood orders. All of the religious institutions and works of Christianity are declared obsolete, part of the outgoing management that God has “fired” and replaced. This is the context in which Joseph Smith announced that all individuals joining the LDS Church need to be rebaptized; all baptisms performed outside the LDS Church are null and void because they are not enacted under the “new and everlasting covenant” and the current “dispensation” or management that alone has “priesthood” power.
Christianity versus LDS Views of Church History
We may look at this point in another way. In the teaching of historic Christianity, the period between the first and second comings of Christ is the church age, the “dispensation” of the Christian church. The history of Christianity has had its ups and downs, of course, but it is one dispensation governed by one covenant, namely, the new covenant that God made with humanity in which Jesus Christ is the mediator and the church is the public association of all people who accept that new covenant. In LDS teaching, on the other hand, the period between the first and second comings of Christ must be divided into three periods (see the table above): the New Testament church (lasting less than a century), the Great Apostasy (lasting some seventeen centuries), and the Restoration (the period which began almost two centuries ago with Joseph Smith). On this view, the dispensation of the NT church (which Mormons call the “meridian of time”) and the Restoration (the “dispensation of the fullness of times”) are two distinct dispensations with two distinct (though related) covenants, separated by a long period of time in which God had no dispensation or management in operation on the earth.
The net effect of this doctrinal understanding of the LDS Church and its distinct “covenant” and “dispensation” is that the LDS faith is for all intents and purposes a different religion than Christianity. The point I am making here is not about whether “Mormonism” is true but whether it is the same religion as Christianity. Christianity is a different religion than Judaism, and Islam is a different religion than either Christianity or Judaism. These statements are valid, factual observations with which members of all three religions agree, despite both the commonalities in their beliefs and their obvious disagreement as to which of these religions is the true path to God. Likewise, I see no reason why members of the LDS Church could not agree that their religion is a different religion than Christianity while still maintaining from their perspective that it is the true religion. Nor am I suggesting that Mormons do not regard themselves as followers of Christ. Obviously they do, but their understanding of what it means to follow Christ involves accepting a new religious system—one with new scriptures, new institutions, a new theology and worldview, and new rituals (ordinances)—that distances them from the religion historically known as Christianity.
Whether the LDS faith is the true religion or not must be learned by comparing what it teaches with the word of God in the Bible. Just as the notion that the LDS prophets are the custodians of a new covenant is at odds with the Bible’s teaching about the new covenant, so also the LDS concept of the “dispensation of the fullness of times” is at variance with the biblical teaching. We need only return to Ephesians 1, from which Joseph Smith took this expression, to see the problem:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He has made us accepted in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him” (Ephesians 1:3-10 NKJV, emphasis added).
In this passage, Paul exults in what God has done for us in Christ. He “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing”—something he started doing in the first century, not the nineteenth. What are those spiritual blessings? Are they the priesthood, ordinances, temples, and living prophets? No: they are holiness, blamelessness, adoption, love, grace, redemption, forgiveness, and the knowledge of his purpose and plan to provide these spiritual blessings. The blessings also include the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as the guarantee of our complete salvation (Ephesians 1:13-14). The “dispensation of the fullness of the times” is not a separate dispensation that began with Joseph Smith. Rather, it is the plan and covenant that God set in motion through Christ’s death and resurrection. “In Christ,” through our faith relationship with Christ, we have every spiritual blessing that we need to be assured that we will receive our inheritance as God’s adopted children. These spiritual blessings are the very blessings that God promised would spread to all the families of the earth through Abraham’s offspring (Genesis 12:1-3). God already put this “dispensation” into place in the first century, and he has been at work bringing people to salvation in Christ ever since, leading up to “the fullness of the times” that is still future, when God’s plan will be complete and everything in heaven and earth will be brought under the rule of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The LDS religion is not only arguably a different religion from Christianity, it is a religion founded on claims that simply do not agree with the Bible. One of these unbiblical claims is its teaching that beginning with Joseph Smith the Lord has instituted a new dispensation under a new covenant that nullifies all of the baptisms of the billions of people who have trusted in Jesus Christ but have not accepted the LDS dispensation. The truth is that the gospel has not changed, the covenant of Jesus Christ was not lost, and that those today who with child-like faith trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, as did believers in the first century, are assured that God gives them “every spiritual blessing” in Christ.
Did the Lord make a covenant with Abraham because he was a righteous man, or was he a righteous man because he responded in faith to the covenant that the Lord made with him? How does the answer to this question affect the way you think about your own relationship with God?
Whose death assures the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants, and how do circumcision and baptism symbolize this assurance?
How does Abraham’s repeated deception concerning Sarah being his sister illustrate his need—and ours—for grace?
Is Joseph Smith’s claim that God justified Abraham in his polygamy something the Bible teaches, or is it a rationalization for Joseph’s own practice?
According to Joseph Smith, why must a person be rebaptized in order to become a member of the LDS Church?
What did Jeremiah mean by the “new covenant”? Does Jeremiah’s description agree with that given in Gospel Principles?
Why does the LDS understanding of the Restoration as a new “dispensation” imply that Mormonism is a different religion than Christianity?
According to Paul in Ephesians, is the “dispensation of the fullness of the times” something that began only in the nineteenth century?
Was Joseph Smith really inspired to redefine such biblical terms as “new covenant” and “dispensation of the fullness of the times” to fit his own new religious system?