Lecture on Faith 1

“Lecture First”, 1835

This is intended for those who, whether they have read the Lectures on Faith or not, need an explanation of why the Lectures are worth studying.

I first opened them as a teenager, and found the language a little hard to grasp. They seemed to ramble on in spirals and circles, like a dumb person trying to sound smart. I had no way to contextualize them, and gained nothing from them.

I read them again on my mission, this time knowing  that they were the curriculum for the School of the Prophets in Kirtland in the early 1830s. I saw this time that there were nuggets (such as the oft-quoted statement from Lecture 6 about religions that do not require the sacrifice of all things), but if there was any unified argument made by the Lectures as a whole it escaped me.

Now, in my third decade of studying them, I can say that they make a very cohesive and powerful argument,  and that the various topics they address are all essential to that argument. 

The Olive Leaf

At the end of 1832, the Lord gave a marvelous and extensive revelation through Joseph Smith to a group of saints who had gathered to ask the Lord’s will. When he sent a copy to W.W. Phelps in Missouri, Joseph wrote “I send you the “olive leaf” which we have plucked from the tree of Paradise, the Lord’s message of peace to us” (TPJS p. 18).

The revelation, found in section 88 of the LDS edition of the D&C, contains a “great and last promise” to the saints:

68 sanctify yourselves that your minds become single to God, and the days will come that you shall see him; for he will unveil his face unto you, and it shall be in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will.

The Lord intended for all the saints, not just the leaders among them, to receive this great blessing, as he had stated in previous revelations (JSH 1:41, Joel 2:28-29, D&C 1:19-20, D&C 84:98, Jeremiah 31:31-34).

Fulfilling this promise would require the saints to organize and prepare:

74 And I give unto you, who are the first laborers in this last kingdom, a commandment that you assemble yourselves together, and organize yourselves, and prepare yourselves, and sanctify yourselves; yea, purify your hearts, and cleanse your hands and your feet before me, that I may make you clean;

75 That I may testify unto your Father, and your God, and my God, that you are clean from the blood of this wicked generation; that I may fulfil this promise, this great and last promise, which I have made unto you, when I will.

The School of the Prophets in Kirtland

Several days after this initial commandment, the Lord added an addendum clarifying that the organization he required was a school, which he referred to as “the school of the prophets” (D&C 88:127). He clarified that these “prophets” included “all the officers of the church, or in other words, those who are called to the ministry in the church, beginning at the high priests, even down to the deacons.”

The “great and last promise” of seeing the Lord’s face was necessary preparation for this group to minister within the Church and to go into the world as missionaries. As Joseph later taught:

Salvation cannot come without revelation, it is in vain for anyone to minister without it.

¶ No man is a minister of Jesus Christ, without being a Prophet. No man can be the minister of Jesus Christ, except he has the testimony of Jesus & this is the Spirit of Prophecy. Whenever Salvation has been administered it has been by Testimony. Men at the present time testify of Heaven & of hell, & have never seen either–& I will say that no man knows these things without this.  (August 1839, Willard Richards Pocket Companion)

The goal of the school of the prophets was to create an assembly of living prophets who knew the Lord personally and could bear testimony of what they had heard and seen. They could not administer salvation in any other way, either to themselves or others. The ministers by whom righteousness and truth will sweep the earth as with a flood (Moses 7) will speak of heaven and hell with firsthand knowledge by sight, quite unlike “men at the present time” (little has changed since the “present time” of Joseph Smith’s day in this regard).

With that simple goal in mind, the curriculum for the school aimed squarely to take a people with a diverse set of beliefs and religious traditions, and teach them why and how to seek God’s face. Joseph enlisted scribes to help compose the text of the lectures according to his instructions, and he delivered the lectures himself in the school. He spent many days correcting the lectures and preparing them to be published in print as scripture, which they were in 1835. They came to be known as the Lectures on Faith, though they are not so simply titled  in their original publication (http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/doctrine-and-covenants-1835/13). I discussed the controversy over the Lectures’ status as scripture in another post, and recommend it to anyone for whom that controversy is not settled.

With the above context in mind, I describe their purpose: To convince people that they must enter God’s presence to know him and be saved; to convince people that their distance from or proximity to God depends entirely on their own faithfulness and diligence, because God is unchanging, merciful, and will respond to their faith just as he did the Saints in ancient times.

I suggest that Latter-day Saints and other Mormons today, to say nothing of the rest of the world, are desperately in need of that convincing.

Joseph Smith’s letter to W.W. Phelps included this warning, which should affect how urgently we respond to the Lord’s offer:

Repent, repent, is the voice of God to Zion; and strange as it may appear, yet it is true, mankind will persist in self-justification until all their iniquity is exposed, and their character past being redeemed, and that which is treasured up in their hearts be exposed to the gaze of mankind. I say to you (and what I say to you I say to all), hear the warning voice of God, lest Zion fall, and the Lord swear in His wrath the inhabitants of Zion shall not enter into His rest [meaning they die without seeing his face, which is the terrible curse previously laid on the Israelites in the wilderness].

Below is a brief review of some of what a Latter-day Saint could glean by a careful reading of each lecture, if he or she wanted to stop persisting in self-justification and seek the face of the Lord.

Lecture 1 – Faith Defined

The lectures present “faith” as more than simply a belief in things which one cannot see or has not seen. Referencing the epistle to the Hebrews, Lecture 1 says

8 Now faith is the substance -[assurance]- of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
9 From this we learn, that faith is the assurance which men have of the existence of things which they have not seen; and the principle of action in all intelligent beings.

So faith requires substance, assurance, and evidence, or it is not actual faith.  It follows that a person must understand the assurance given, and make the soft-hearted, spirit led choice to believe it. Faith is also “the principle of action,” meaning that the person must act according to the assurance that has been given.

The word “faith” in this context then, does not describe just any religious conviction. Where God’s specific assurances stop, faith stops, even if belief stretches beyond to include other traditions, and even if that person diligently and scrupulously obeys those traditions. We can also err by removing any of the other elements described above: by failing to study God’s word enough to understand the assurances he has given, by failing to soften our heart enough to believe those assurances, or by failing to act according to that belief.

Many crises of faith are brought on by a clash between people’s religious traditions and their observations of reality. Too often they are advised by friends and family to “have faith”, meaning to somehow increase their belief in their traditions. This treats “faith” as identical to religious conviction. For instance, if God gave no promise that the leaders of the LDS Church would lead inerrantly, then to encourage someone to believe and act on that assurance could never produce faith. Since he did not give any such assurance, and that assurance is found to be false based on a careful review of our history, an encouragement to “have faith in it”  in spite of plain facts is causing tens of thousands of former Latter-day Saints to abandon the idea of religious belief altogether.

When someone finally understands that faith requires an assurance by God, an understanding of that assurance, a belief in it, and action according to that belief, then they become much more careful about differentiating between God’s assurances and men’s traditions.

Lecture 2

Lecture 2 carefully lays out how Adam and Eve’s eyewitness testimony of God’s reality was the foundation for their children’s faith.

If you want to know God, the only people who can educate you correctly about him are those who know him. Hence the “school of the prophets” was not intended to create prophets in name only, but prophets who had seen for themselves and could bear knowing testimony.

The lecture also explains that while the testimony of witnesses is the initial source for our knowledge of God’s existence, their knowledge about him depended on their own seeking:

55. Let us here observe, that after any portion of the human family are made acquainted with the important fact that there is a God who has created and does uphold all things, the extent of their knowledge, respecting his character and glory, will depend upon their diligence and faithfulness in seeking after him, until like Enoch the brother of Jared, and Moses, they shall obtain faith in God, and power with him to behold him face to face.

The lecture goes on to assure us that, throughout the history of mankind, the search for God “frequently terminated, indeed, always terminated, when rightly pursued, in the most glorious discoveries, and eternal certainty.” The only way a person’s search for God could fail to reveal him is if the search were not rightly pursued.

Lectures 3 and 4

Since lecture 2 establishes how we learn that God exists, Lectures 3 and 4 describe the character and attributes of God that make him a worthy object of our faith. What assurances do we have about God that allow us to trust him enough to leap off of this world and into his arms?

Lecture 3’s description of him includes the following characteristics:

  • He was God before the world was created, and the same God the he was, after it was created.
  • That he is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abundant in goodness, and that he was so from everlasting and will be to everlasting.
  • That he changes not, neither is there variableness in him.
  • That he is a God of truth and cannot lie
  • The he is no respecter of persons

Latter-day Saints who think they have a perfect understanding of these attributes already may find themselves surprised when they dig deeply into them. For instance, we may think we believe that God is no respecter of persons, but then also believe that he may choose to visit one worthy person but not another. We may believe he chooses to visit people like Joseph Smith, while allowing the rest of us to “walk by faith, not by sight,” whispering to us through a still, small voice rather than appearing even though we are faithful and obedient. Lecture 3 would correct us:

23 But it is also necessary that men should have an idea that he is no respecter of persons; for with the idea of all the other excellencies in his character, and this one wanting, men could not exercise faith in him, because if he were a respecter of persons, they could not tell what their privileges were, nor how far they were authorized to exercise faith in him, or whether they were authorized to do it at all, but all must be confusion; but no sooner are the minds of men made acquainted with the truth on this point, that he is no respecter of persons, than they see that they have authority by faith to lay hold on eternal life the richest boon of heaven, because God is no respecter of persons, and that every man in every nation has an equal privilege.

To believe that God chooses to visit one faithful person (thus granting them eternal life) while merely whispering another of equal worthiness is to believe he IS a respecter of persons. Our understanding of God’s character may not be as clear or comprehensive as we imagine.

Likewise with his attributes, which lecture 4 names as

First, Knowledge.
Secondly, Faith.
Thirdly, Justice.
Fourthly, Judgment.
Fifthly, Mercy.
Sixthly, Truth.

These may each seem simple and clear, but if our understanding of God’s character and attributes were fully developed we could not be kept from within the veil and he would show himself to us (Ether 3:12-13,19). Since this experience of knowing God IS eternal life (John 17:3), we should seek diligently to discover and understand the character and attributes of God.

While written texts may introduce these concepts, they have to be revealed to us through the Holy Ghost in response to our diligent seeking and faithfulness. As God said to Adam in response to his faith:

Therefore it is given to abide in you; the record of heaven; the Comforter; the peaceable things of immortal glory; the truth of all things; that which quickeneth all things, which maketh alive all things; that which knoweth all things, and hath all power according to wisdom, mercy, truth, justice, and judgment. (Moses 6:61 )

We must receive the same baptism of fire and the same revelation as Adam:

And as it is through the revelation of these that a foundation is laid for the exercise of faith in God unto life and salvation, the foundation, therefore, for the exercise of faith, was, is and ever will be the same. So that all men have had, and will have an equal privilege. (Lecture 4:19)

Lecture 5

The Father is here described as a “personage of spirit, glory and power. The Son is described as a “personage of tabernacle”. The Holy Spirit is not described as an embodied personage, but rather the mind of God shared by the Father and Son. These descriptions have caused controversy, but needlessly.

For instance, the lecture clarifies that the Son is “filled with the fulness of the Mind, glory and power, or, in other words, the Spirit, glory and power of the Father.” Hence Christ is also a “personage of spirit, glory and power” like the Father is. He is distinguished by having taken a mortal tabernacle in this eternal round of creation, while the Father has not, so his primary description as a “personage of tabernacle” is the best way to distinguish him from the Father. The Son carries the marks of his condescension, while no witness of the Father has claimed that he is similarly marked from his prior condescension.

The description of the Holy Spirit is fully consistent with the spirit of Christ described in D&C 84:43-46, which is identified as Christ’s word, his truth, and his light. It is thus also fully consistent with the description of the light which proceeds forth from the presence of God described in D&C 88:6-13. and with God’s description of the Holy Ghost to Adam in Moses 6:61, quoted above. Lecture 5 is completely consistent with the other scriptures given by Joseph Smith, and powerfully describes the Holy Spirit’s effects on those who keep God’s commandments, drawing them into complete unity with the Father and Son:

The Spirit of the Father…is shed forth upon all who believe on his name and keep his commandments: and all those who keep his commandments shall grow up from grace to grace, and become heirs of the heavenly kingdom, and joint heirs with Jesus Christ; possessing the same mind, being transformed into the same image or likeness, even the express image of him who fills all in all: being filled with the fulness of his glory, and become one in him, even as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one. (Lecture 5:2)

It is by becoming one with them that we gain a knowledge of their perfections, character, and attributes, which knowledge allows us to exercise faith to rend the veil and be saved as the Brother of Jared.

Lecture 6

Each of the following doctrines taught by Lecture 6 would completely re-make the religion of a Latter-day Saint if they accepted them:

  • God manifests his acceptance of a person in a way that assures the person that “he has not nor will he seek his [God’s] face in vain.” The person is brought into God’s presence and gains the sure knowledge that they can enter his presence again in the future. (paragraph 7)
  • If a person or group of people has not received that manifestation, they will grow weary in their minds and faint, unable to endure the persecution that inevitably follows true faith. Therefore God always manifests himself to those he accepts and tells them they are accepted, because those who worship God according to his revelations will always be persecuted “to the uttermost.”  (paragraph 4)
  • If we claim we possess the blessings of eternal life, including an eternal marriage or an eternal bond with our children, when we have not made the same sacrifice the ancient saints made nor obtained the same manifestations from God they obtained, then our claims and hopes are “in vain.” (paragraph 8)
  • The final gathering of God’s saints on Earth will be of those who have made the sacrifice of all things, obtained God’s revealed assurance that he has accepted them, and thus have obtained a “made a covenant unto me by sacrifice”. This is not a covenant TO sacrifice with blessings conditional upon performance, such as Latter-day Saints make in our temples. It is a covenant BY sacrifice, an unconditional promise of eternal life received after the sacrifice has been made. (paragraph 9)
  • The revelations of God do not authorize anyone who has not made this sacrifice and thereby obtained God’s assurance to them, to exercise faith unto salvation. The faith to lay hold on eternal life depends entirely on this sacrifice and subsequent manifestation. (paragraphs 10-12)

If it were truly believed, Lecture 6 would destroy all religious pretension, all vanity, and all flattering thoughts that we are destined for eternal life. Show me any period where these descriptions of the sacrifice of all things, the manifestation of God’s acceptance, and the revelation of his face, were applicable to the safe and comfortable mainstream of the Latter-day Saints. There is no such time, least of all now. Joseph Smith once began a sermon on this topic by describing the effect these doctrines should have on the Latter-day Saints:

¶ had I inspiration, Revelation & lungs to communicate what my soul has contemplated in times past there is not a soul in this congregation but would go to their homes & shut their mouths in everlasting silence on religion, till they had learned something.

Could I tell the fact as it is all that heard me would go home and never say one word more about God or Christ or religion until they had received that assurance from Heaven which would set their souls at rest by placing all beyond a doubt. (Sermon, August 13, 1843)

If that was true of the saints in his day, who made tremendous sacrifices to join this new religion, how much more should these ideas silence us today?

Lecture 7

Each of the following doctrines taught by Lecture 7 would completely re-make the religion of a Latter-day Saint if they accepted them:

  • Saved beings must have faith to enable them to act in the presence of the Lord. Thus, if we hope to be saved, we must forsake our sins, come unto Christ, call on his name, obey his voice, and keep his commandments (D&C 93:1). All who do so will have faith to act in the presence of God, and thus to be saved. These are things that those who have had “so many witnesses” must do in life, because “if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed” (Alma 34:32-33). (paragraph 9)
  • Christ is the prototype of the saved man. To be like him is to be saved, and anyone unlike him cannot be saved. We must therefore purify ourselves as he is pure. Because God cannot override our agency, we must choose to be as Christ is. Hence, being accepted by God requires the complete sacrifice of everything, choosing Christ over all. There is no fairy dust that can be sprinkled on us that will perfect us against our will and force us into an eternal mold. We must choose every difficult step and learn every difficult lesson, the teaching being made possible by Christ’s grace. (paragraph 9)
  • All things that pertain to life and godliness are given through the knowledge of God and our Savior Jesus Christ. Unless we know them, and are thus prophets, we do not have access to those things, and cannot be saved. (paragraph 19)
  • Where faith is, there will be the knowledge of God also, with all things that pertain thereto – revelations, visions, and dreams, as well as every other necessary thing in order that the possessors of faith may be perfected and obtain salvation. Revelations, visions, dreams, and the other gifts of the spirit are the process by which God perfects us and grants us salvation. They are how Christ manifests his grace to sanctify and cleanse us. When Moroni commands us to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness,” he is asking us to seek and receive these things (Moroni 10:32-33).  Where these things are absent, faith is absent. Refer to my summary of Lecture 1 to begin diagnosing the problem. (paragraph 20)

Are we really missing these things?

The summary of Lecture 2 on Wikipedia, as of the publication of this post, includes this statement

God can choose to reveal himself directly (as he did to Adam) to those who live a life of devout prayer and service to God.

This way of thinking about our potential for interacting face to face with God is now nearly universal among Latter-day Saints. Most would read this statement and see it as faith-affirming and inspiring. We believe that it is possible! although subject to God “choosing” to do so. Similar statements have been made to me by many fellow Saints as they have discussed these ideas.

It is ironic that this statement is used to summarize the Lectures, because that is exactly the kind of false idea that the Lectures on Faith are meant to demolish. It is not true, according to the Lectures, that God “can choose” to visit those who qualify: he has already chosen that he will visit them, and promised as much by a binding covenant. If there is someone who qualifies to be in God’s presence, but he does not “choose to reveal himself”, then Lectures 2, 3, and 4 are wrong: God is a liar instead of a God of truth, he is a changeable God instead of unchanging, he treats some with more favor and mercy than others instead of being no respecter of persons, and our knowledge of Him depends on his capricious and unknowable will rather than on our own diligence and faithfulness.

Far from being a faith promoting statement, the common idea stated in that Wikipedia article is a destroyer of faith. It prevents the one who believes it from exercising faith unto salvation, because there exists in their mind the possibility that God could choose not to keep his promises, that he could not be merciful to them, that he could love them less than those he visited in the past. Its commonality among Latter-day Saints is a clear sign of how much light we have lost by removing the Lectures from the scriptures and thus from our collective consciousness. Since our salvation depends on knowing God (Lecture 7:20), and faith to know God depends on correctly understanding his attributes (Lecture 3:2-4), no Latter-day Saint can hope to have eternal life without abandoning this false idea of an unmerciful and unreliable God. The fact that several generations since 1921 have been allowed to go to their graves, and tens of millions have since become Latter-day Saints, without finding these things clearly laid out in their scriptures is an indescribable tragedy. It is such a great problem that most will simply pretend that it is no problem at all (because we are God’s Church, after all).

Before we can progress from where we are we have to receive the light that was offered in the past but that we have rejected. Joseph spelled out the ultimate consequence of our failure to do so in his “olive leaf” letter to W.W. Phelps, and presents a stern rebuke to those who would pretend that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is guaranteed not to fail:

The Lord will have a place whence His word will go forth, in these last days, in purity; for if Zion will not purify herself, so as to be approved of in all things, in His sight, He will seek another people; for His work will go on until Israel is gathered, and they who will not hear His voice, must expect to feel His wrath. (TPJS p.18)

It is the Lord’s work that will not fail, but we have failed in the past and can continue to do so. The Lord will simply seek another people and carry on without us.