The Higher Law
February 1991

“The Higher Law,” Ensign, Feb. 1991, 7

New Testament

The Higher Law

In the Sermon on the Mount, the Savior emphasized the spirit of the law.

Contention, anger, adultery, divorce, and lust. Reacting to offenses. Dealing with enemies. These are familiar, contemporary issues. They were also issues the ancients had to deal with.

When the resurrected Savior visited some of his “other sheep” on the American continent, he discussed these and other topics—just as he had done during his mortal ministry in the Middle East against the backdrop of the Ten Commandments and the law of Moses, which he had given to the spiritually immature Israelites at Sinai more than a millennium earlier.

Killing and Anger (Matt. 5:21–24; 3 Ne. 12:21–24)

The law given at Sinai forbade killing one another. But the new law of Jesus forbids even getting “angry with [a] brother.” It is impressive that neither the Book of Mormon nor the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible includes the qualifying phrase “without a cause,” found in the King James Version. (Matt. 5:22.) Under the higher law, it seems, there is no justifiable cause for getting angry.

Anger can lead us to feel or say unkind things to or about others. Christ specifically warned against using such words as fool and raca, terms of contempt or derision in both Greek and Aramaic. Today, other words may be more common—like stupid or idiot. But the principle is the same. Whether we use these terms in anger or in making fun of someone, such behavior is inconsistent with the gospel view of the worth of souls.

Anger is spiritually damaging to all concerned, but especially so to the offender, who is “in danger of [God’s] judgment,” “the council,” and “hell fire.” (3 Ne. 12:22.) Council in this instance probably refers to an ecclesiastical disciplinary council similar to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.

“Therefore,” said Jesus, “if ye shall come unto me, or shall desire to come unto me, and rememberest that thy brother hath aught [anything whatever, in any degree] against thee—

“Go thy way unto thy brother, and first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I will receive you.” (3 Ne. 12:23–24.)

The Lord’s instruction is that we thoroughly search our hearts when desiring to come unto him. And if we find that we are guilty of anger or disdain toward someone “in any degree,” whether or not that person has accused us, then reconciling with that person, including apologizing and asking forgiveness, will prepare the way for the Lord to receive us. If we do not seek reconciliation, we demonstrate an attitude less than “full purpose of heart,” and there is then no promise that the Lord will receive us.

Not killing someone seems an easy standard when compared with the requirements of the Savior’s new law. But he has promised to help us as we attempt to develop a more noble character.

“Agree with thine adversary quickly” (Matt. 5:25–26; 3 Ne. 12:25–26)

Often this phrase is interpreted to mean that we should be conciliatory with adversaries in order to avoid contention, lawsuits, or persecution. Certainly, we should be peacemakers—“easy to be intreated” (James 3:17) and cooperative with all people of goodwill. We should even absorb worldly hurt and unfairness when doing so would help advance the cause of righteousness. (See 1 Pet. 2:12–23; 1 Pet. 3:13–17; 1 Pet. 4:14–19.) But surely we are not to compromise truth and righteous purpose to achieve peaceful coexistence with our fellow beings.

Neither does it mean that we allow Satan, the ultimate adversary, to abuse us. His purposes are clear: to capture us (the language in 3 Ne. 12:25 is “get thee”) and make us as miserable as he is. (See 2 Ne. 2:27.) Are we to “agree” (in the usual sense of the word) with this adversary quickly? Wouldn’t we be caught in his grasp if we did so?

Two meanings of agree are “to come to an understanding, especially in settling a dispute,”1 and to “settle a thing in which various interests are concerned.”2 What we need to understand or settle in this instance is just what our relationship with the adversary will be. The more quickly we decide that, the less chance he will have to “get” us with his wiles.

James promises that if we “resist the devil, … he will flee from [us].” (James 4:7.) The Book of Mormon assures us that the word of God “shall divide asunder all the cunning and the snares and the wiles of the devil.” (Hel. 3:29.) The Lord has affirmed that if we will give heed to the words of the prophet as if they came from the Lord’s own mouth, He will “disperse the powers of darkness from before” us. (D&C 21:6.) The Lord has also told us that if we seek the inspiration of the Spirit of God and are obedient to his promptings, we will “not be seduced by evil spirits, or doctrines of devils, or the commandments of men.” (D&C 46:7.)

Resisting the devil, treasuring the scriptures, seeking and following the promptings of the Spirit, giving heed to the living prophet—these are important things we can “settle” quickly so that we are properly equipped to “agree with”—or come to terms with—our adversaries, whether devils or men, from the most deadly to the seemingly benign.

Adultery and Looking with Lust (Matt. 5:27–30; 3 Ne. 12:27–30)

The act of adultery has always been a serious sin. But in the new law, the Lord teaches a higher standard—purity of mind and heart. “Whosoever looketh on a woman, to lust after her, hath committed adultery already in his heart.” (3 Ne. 12:28.) Those guilty of either the act or the lusting must fully repent to enjoy the Spirit of the Lord here and the blessings of exaltation hereafter.

What is really meant by “lusting after” someone, or committing adultery “in [one’s] heart”? Lust is defined as “sexual desire often to an intense or unrestrained degree.”3 In the scriptures, the heart has to do with the core or essence of a person—his real intent and unfeigned desires. (See Prov. 23:7.) If one would in fact commit adultery with the object of his lust if the opportunity were present, he is an adulterous person. Although taught in terms of a man lusting after a woman, the principle applies to all, male and female.

But what if one really wouldn’t commit the act of adultery, yet suffers real temptation? In a world saturated with immoral aural and visual stimuli, such thoughts and temptations can be daily fare.

Although we cannot avoid all the stimuli, we can plead with the Lord to help us control and channel our thoughts. We can consciously avoid compromising situations and forthrightly resist temptation. Rather than allowing improper thoughts to linger—and enhancing and savoring them—we can dismiss them with a prayer or an uplifting hymn or song, and deliberately channel our thoughts into positive paths.

If we imagine ourselves involved in improper things, our thoughts may influence our heart’s inclination and perhaps even our future behavior. Dr. Maxwell Maltz underscores the connection between our thoughts and our body’s nervous system: “Experimental and clinical psychologists have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the human nervous system cannot tell the difference between an ‘actual’ experience and an experience imagined vividly and in detail.4

As we discipline our thoughts and “suffer none of these things to enter into [our] heart,” we “take up [our] cross.” (3 Ne. 12:29–30.) “For a man to take up his cross,” said Jesus, “is to deny himself all ungodliness, and every worldly lust, and keep my commandments.” (JST, Matt. 16:26.) By so doing, we can truly become pure in heart.

Divorce (Matt. 5:31–32; 3 Ne. 12:31–32)

“Whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery; and whoso shall marry her who is divorced committeth adultery.” (3 Ne. 12:32.)

This verse raises questions of fairness. Why should the wife who is “put away” or the man who later remarries her be judged guilty of adultery—when it may be that she is an innocent victim of her husband’s unrighteousness? And how is this instruction to be interpreted today? Why are members of the Church permitted to divorce, even for reasons other than sexual sin, and allowed to remarry, even in the temple, without the charge of adultery?

These are not easy questions to answer. We do not have record of the Savior elaborating on or qualifying these instructions to the Nephites. There is, however, information in the biblical record and commentary by modern prophets that may help our understanding.

On the subject of fairness, Mark’s account is helpful. He records that after the public exchange with the Pharisees about divorce, Jesus and his disciples went “in the house,” where the disciples “asked him again of the same matter.” There the Savior said, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.

“And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.” (Mark 10:10–12.)

Notice that in this instance the charge of adultery is against the spouse—husband or wife—who puts away the other, and not against the one who is put away. We are left to wonder what other clarifications the Savior may have made “in the house” to his disciples who honestly desired to know the truth.

Concerning modern application, the Savior’s response to the Pharisees is instructive. They challenged Jesus’ teaching about divorce because it differed from what was allowed in the law of Moses. “He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.” (Matt. 19:8.) It was no compliment to the Israelites of Moses’ day that they were allowed a lesser standard than that which God intended “from the beginning.” The lesser standard was allowed “because of the hardness of [their] hearts.”

Does this mean that God adjusts standards according to his children’s willingness to obey? As a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Ezra Taft Benson spoke about this principle:

“God has to work through mortals of varying degrees of spiritual progress. Sometimes he temporarily grants to men their unwise requests in order that they might learn from their own sad experiences. Some refer to this as the ‘Samuel Principle.’ This children of Israel wanted a king, like all the nations. … The Lord told Samuel to warn the people of the consequences if they had a king. Samuel gave them the warning, but they still insisted on their king. So God gave them a king and let them suffer. … God wanted it to be otherwise, but within certain bounds he grants unto men according to their desires. Bad experiences are an expensive school that only fools keep going to. …

“Sometimes in our attempts to mimic the world, contrary to the prophet’s counsel, we run after the world’s false educational, political, musical, and dress ideas. New worldly standards take over, a gradual breakdown occurs, and finally, after much suffering, a humble people are ready to be taught once again a higher law.

“Now, during all this gradual lowering of standards, the righteous should be living up to the highest personal standards they can—not forcing those standards on others but preparing for and awaiting a better day which surely must come.”5

Elder Bruce R. McConkie applied this principle to the subject of divorce: “Divorce is not part of the gospel plan. … But because men in practice do not always live in harmony with gospel standards, the Lord permits divorce for one reason or another, depending upon the spiritual stability of the people involved. … Under the most perfect conditions there would be no divorce permitted except where sex sin was involved. In this day divorces are permitted in accordance with civil statutes, and the divorced persons are permitted by the Church to marry again without the stain of immorality which under a higher system and in a better civilization would attend such a course.”6

When we are not prepared or willing to live a higher law, the Lord, on occasion, may give us a lesser standard, a “schoolmaster” law. (Gal. 3:24.) But even strict obedience to the schoolmaster law is not the goal, nor is the law sufficient to exalt us. (See Mosiah 3:13–17; Mosiah 12:31–33; Mosiah 13:28–35.) The lesser law is a temporary measure, a minimum standard, to help prepare us to live willingly the fulness of the law of Christ. All who would be exalted must, through repentance and obedience, become the kind of people who desire and obey “the law of a celestial kingdom.” (D&C 88:22.)

Many more honest questions could be asked about divorce as it relates to particular circumstances. Although the scriptures do not address all such questions, we are not left without guidance. Joseph Smith taught that “revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed” is the “principle on which the government of heaven is conducted.”7 That revelation comes through the Lord’s authorized servants, who are guided to establish policies and procedures appropriate to the current needs of Church members. As we follow the prophets, the Lord will “lead [us] along” toward “the riches of eternity.” (D&C 78:18.)

Swearing Oaths (Matt. 5:33–37; 3 Ne. 12:33–37)

The earlier expectation was that one should not “forswear” himself. That is, he should not renounce or fail to keep an oath, but should keep every sworn promise as unto the Lord. Under this system, some people made and carried out rash and foolish vows, as did Jephthah. (See Judg. 11:30–40.)

The Lord now taught a better way, one in which we do not need oaths or vows to secure our word. Rather than swearing with an oath, we should honestly affirm our word or express approval or disapproval in simple terms—yes means yes, and no means no. Elder James E. Talmage captured the spirit of the Lord’s instruction: “Moderation in speech, decision and simplicity were enjoined, to the exclusion of expletives, profanity and oaths.”8

It is foolishness to swear an oath using heaven or earth or our own heads as collateral, “because thou canst not make one hair black or white.” (3 Ne. 12:36.) We do not have control over such things, as God does. All oaths, therefore, depend upon God to guarantee fulfillment, and we cannot bind him with our uninspired utterances.

Reacting to Offenses (Matt. 5:38–42; 3 Ne. 12:38–42)

Here the Lord is revoking the law of retribution that he had given to the spiritually immature Israelites centuries before. (See Ex. 21:23–25.) Instead of exacting “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” we are to turn the other cheek, give more than is required by law, go the second mile willingly after being compelled to go the first, and lend to those who ask.

Is this a call for complete servitude and submission to any and all demands of others? How literally and to what extent should we apply these instructions today? If someone is attempting to hurt us physically—even to destroy us—shouldn’t we resist in self-defense? Didn’t the Lord say that “all men are justified in defending themselves … from the unlawful assaults and encroachments of all persons in times of exigency, where immediate appeal cannot be made to the laws, and relief afforded”? (D&C 134:11.)

We could pose similar questions and scriptural citations for each of the examples the Savior uses as applications of the new requirements. How, then, can we know just what to do in circumstances such as these? The answers are available to all who “come unto Christ” (Moro. 10:32) and “enter in by the way,” for they receive the Holy Ghost, who “will show unto you all things what ye should do” (2 Ne. 32:5). This gracious promise is available to all who “follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent.” (2 Ne. 31:13.)

Loving Our Enemies (Matt. 5:43–47; 3 Ne. 12:43–45)

The statement, “It is written also that thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy,” is evidently not a quotation of any earlier instruction of the Lord. It is not found in the Old Testament. The Savior may have had reference to other writings like the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Qumran community, wherein adherents are taught to “love all the sons of light” and “hate all the sons of darkness.”9

Whatever the written source of other ideas, the Savior taught that we love our enemies, “that ye may be the children of your Father who is in heaven.” But aren’t we all children of our Father in Heaven already?

Although God is the Father of our spirits, another dimension of being His children is implied here: becoming “begotten sons and daughters unto God” through the atonement of Christ. (D&C 76:24.) We then become “children” in the exalted family of God, joint-heirs with Christ of all that the Father has. (See Rom. 8:17; D&C 76:50–70; D&C 84:36–38; D&C 132:19–24.)

To enjoy those blessings, we must have charity, which is “the pure love of Christ.” (Moro. 7:47.) How do we acquire such love? It is a gift, bestowed by the Spirit of God “upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ.” (Moro. 7:48.) Part of being true followers of Christ is to “bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute you.” (3 Ne. 12:44.)

Earnestly striving to do these things prepares us to be “born again; yea, born of God, changed from [our] carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters.” (Mosiah 27:25.) Love for our enemies is one of the blessings associated with this “mighty change” of heart, a precious gift of the Spirit. (See Mosiah 5:2.)

The Savior’s Invitation (Matt. 5:48; 3 Ne. 12:46–48)

Concluding this part of his sermon, Jesus reiterated that the old law was fulfilled in his coming, and that there was now a new order of things—a higher law—to guide our relationships with one another.

Then follows the invitation for us to become perfect, as Jesus and the Father are perfect. There are two powerful differences in the wording of these verses as compared with Matthew 5:48. First, the Matthew account names only the Father as being perfect, while 3 Nephi includes the Savior—perhaps because during his mortal life, when the Matthew account was given, Christ had not yet been resurrected and had not yet received a fulness of perfection. [Matt. 5:48; 3 Ne. 12:48]

Second, in Matthew’s account, the verse is a commandment to be perfect. But in 3 Nephi, it is an expression of the Lord’s desire that it happen: “I would that ye should be perfect.” (3 Ne. 12:48.)

Knowing that becoming perfect through Christ is eventually possible and that the Savior is “pulling for us” is a compelling thought. Also compelling, and comforting, as we respond to the Savior’s invitation to live the higher law, is King Benjamin’s admonition:

“And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order.” (Mosiah 4:47.)


  1. The World Book Dictionary, Thorndike-Barnhart, 1986, s.v. “agree.”

  2. Oxford English Dictionary, 1989, s.v. “agree.”

  3. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 1974, s.v. “lust.”

  4. Psycho-Cybernetics: A New Way to Get More Living Out of Life, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1960, p. xi.

  5. BYU Speeches of the Year, Provo, Utah: Brigham Young Univ. Press, 1974, pp. 304–5.

  6. Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–73, 1:547.

  7. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976, p. 256.

  8. Jesus The Christ, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1973, p. 235.

  9. G. Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 3d ed., New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1987, p. 62.

  • Larry E. Dahl, chairman of the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, also serves as chairman of the Church’s Materials Evaluation Committee.

Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett