“The Eternal Gospel,” Ensign, July 1996, 48
Both latter-day prophets and the scriptures of the Restoration affirm that God our Father has a plan for his children, a program established to maximize our growth and ensure our happiness. This fact—that there is some divine plan to life—is not as obvious from the Bible as from latter-day scripture. Thus, knowing what we know in the latter days, we are able to recognize divine design in God’s dealings with the people of biblical times, but seldom can we turn to a specific Old or New Testament passage that speaks with clarity of a plan. Yet how very different is the Book of Mormon!
The Nephite prophets speak with grateful hearts of “the merciful plan of the great Creator” (2 Ne. 9:6), “the plan of our God” (2 Ne. 9:13), “the great plan of mercy” (Alma 42:31), “the plan of redemption” (Alma 12:25–26, 30, 32; Alma 22:13–14; Alma 34:31; Alma 42:11, 13), “the great and eternal plan of deliverance from death” (2 Ne. 11:5), “the plan of salvation” (Jarom 1:2; Alma 24:14), and “the great plan of happiness” (Alma 42:8; see also Alma 42:16).
“We know that the plan of salvation is always and everlastingly the same; that obedience to the same laws always brings the same reward; that the gospel laws have not changed … ; and that always and everlastingly all things pertaining to salvation center in Christ” (Bruce R. McConkie, The Promised Messiah: The First Coming of Christ  4–5).
The Lord Jesus Christ is truly the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8; see also Moses 7:47). His atoning sacrifice is not only timely (for those of us who regularly need its cleansing powers) but timeless. Though the act of atonement would not take place until Jesus suffered in Gethsemane and on Golgotha in the meridian of time, earth’s earliest inhabitants were taught to call upon God in the name of his Beloved Son for deliverance (see Moses 5:5–8). Again, this central truth is not found in Christendom except through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Indeed, one puzzling attack on the Book of Mormon is that it is too Christ centered! Critics contend that the Book of Mormon has too much Christ within it long before there was a Christ.
Latter-day Saints know that God has revealed himself, his plan, and the Mediator of his sacred covenant to men and women from the beginning. The voice of the Father came to Adam: “If thou wilt turn unto me, and hearken unto my voice, and believe, and repent of all thy transgressions, and be baptized, even in water, in the name of mine Only Begotten Son, … which is Jesus Christ, the only name which shall be given under heaven, whereby salvation shall come unto the children of men, ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Moses 6:52). Further, Adam was commanded to teach his children that all men and women, because of the effects of the Fall, “must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory” (Moses 6:59).
The Prophet Joseph Smith observed that “we cannot believe that the ancients in all ages were so ignorant of the system of heaven as many suppose, since all that were ever saved, were saved through the power of this great plan of redemption, as much before the coming of Christ as since; if not, God has had different plans in operation (if we may so express it), to bring men back to dwell with Himself; and this we cannot believe, since there has been no change in the constitution of man since he fell” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 59–60). We learn through the scriptures of the Restoration that, in addition to Adam, other prophetic personalities from the Bible received by revelation the particulars of the Father’s plan and testified of the coming redemption in Jesus Christ—Enoch, for example (see Moses 7), Noah (see Moses 8), Abraham (see JST, Gen. 15:9–12), and Moses (see Moses 1). Truly, as the Apostle Peter proclaimed, “To [Christ] give all the prophets witness” (Acts 10:43).
It was no different in the Western Hemisphere. Lehi and his family carried with them the fulness of the gospel, including the holy priesthood as well as the knowledge of salvation and of the intercessory role of Jesus the Christ. Very early in the Book of Mormon, Nephi stated that “six hundred years from the time my father left Jerusalem, a prophet would the Lord God raise up among the Jews—even a Messiah, or, in other words, a Savior of the world” (1 Ne. 10:4). Nephi saw in vision that Jesus would be “lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world” (1 Ne. 11:33). Almost 600 years before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, Lehi taught his son Jacob that “redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.” Further, he explained, “there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise” (2 Ne. 2:6, 8).
Alma taught an erring son that the souls of men and women who lived before the meridian of time are just as precious in the sight of God as those who came during or after that age, and thus it is necessary that redemption in Christ be made available to people of all time periods (see Alma 39:17–19). Indeed, Jacob said, “none of the prophets have written, or prophesied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ” (Jacob 7:11; compare Jacob 4:4, also Mosiah 13:33).
Because we know that the great plan of happiness is eternal and that salvation in any age is accomplished only in and through the mediation of the Redeemer, we understand that the gospel-based covenants we make and ordinances we receive are likewise eternal and unchanging. “Now taking it for granted that the scriptures say what they mean and mean what they say,” the Prophet Joseph noted, “we have sufficient grounds to go on and prove from the Bible that the gospel has always been the same; the ordinances to fulfill its requirements, the same, and the officers to officiate, the same; and the signs and fruits resulting from the promises, the same.” He continues with an illustration of this principle: “Therefore, as Noah was a preacher of righteousness he must have been baptized and ordained to the priesthood by the laying on of the hands” (Teachings, 264). In short, God “set the ordinances to be the same forever and ever” (p. 168). That is, “Ordinances instituted in the heavens before the foundation of the world, in the priesthood, for the salvation of men, are not to be altered or changed. All must be saved on the same principles” (p. 308).
It is in this light that we speak of the restored gospel as comprising the new and everlasting covenant. Modern revelations affirm: “Wherefore, I say unto you that I have sent unto you mine everlasting covenant, even that which was from the beginning” (D&C 49:9). “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; compare D&C 1:22; D&C 39:11; D&C 45:9; D&C 133:57). In the words of President Joseph Fielding Smith, “The new and everlasting covenant is the sum total of all gospel covenants and obligations” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. [1954–56], 1:156; emphasis in the original).
The gospel covenant is new in the sense that it is revealed anew following a period of apostasy on earth. It is everlasting in the sense that it was revealed in the beginning, during our premortal existence, and will endure through eternity.
Understanding what we do about the everlasting nature of the gospel, the Church and kingdom, and the principles and ordinances pertaining to them, we also know that many of the ancients had the gospel. They knew the Lord, taught his doctrine, and officiated as legal administrators in his earthly kingdom. Isaac, Israel, Joseph, and other patriarchs enjoyed personal revelation and communion with their Maker. We would suppose that Eve and Sarah and Rebekah were baptized; that Jacob received the temple endowment; that Micah and Malachi stood in the prophetic office by divine call and not because they assumed that role on their own. Surely Nephi, son of Lehi, was baptized by water and received the gift of the Holy Ghost, as well as the high priesthood, although an account of this is not given in the Nephite record.
That the blessings of the holy temple were available to former-day Saints is made clear in the Prophet Joseph Smith’s translation of the Egyptian papyri. We are told that one particular figure represents “the grand Key-words of the Holy Priesthood, as revealed to Adam in the Garden of Eden, as also to Seth, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, and all to whom the Priesthood was revealed” (explanation of figure 3 in Facsimile no. 2, book of Abraham, Pearl of Great Price).
Several years ago on a Sabbath day, I sat with an associate in the beautiful cathedral where he worshipped and listened as a priest spoke of the body and blood of Jesus. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed tears making their way down the cheeks of my friend. My mind went back over the years of our association, and memory impressed upon me the reality of my friend’s commitment to his faith, of his goodness as a human being, and of his genuine, heartfelt desire to be true to what he understood. There came over me the quiet but compelling realization that the Almighty loves this man as much as he loves me; that my friend is a child of heavenly parents just as I am; and that our Father will do all possible to maximize this man’s opportunities and ensure his ultimate happiness.
That was an important moment in my life. I had grown up with a testimony. It has not been difficult for me to believe. Though I was reared in a part of the country where there were few members of the Church around me, I had somehow sensed deep in my bones that what we are about in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true, is right, and is meant for the blessing of the entire world. On that particular occasion, however, as we sat reverently in a place somewhat foreign to my spiritual upbringing, there sprouted within me an inner awareness that God loves all men and women of all time periods and is no respecter of persons. Oh, I knew then as I know now that this is the only true and living Church and that the Latter-day Saints are the custodians of the fulness of the gospel and the holy priesthood. There was and is no question whatsoever about that. But I seemed to perceive then—and as I grow older I perceive even more clearly—the goodness and mercy and infinite patience of our Heavenly Father toward all his sons and daughters. As Enoch observed: “Thou art there, and thy bosom is there; and also thou art just; thou art merciful and kind forever” (Moses 7:30).
Not long after that visit to the cathedral, I picked up a copy of a Reader’s Digest and discovered an insert on how to communicate more effectively with family members. It was prepared by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I was aware that the Church had begun placing these brief advertisements in the magazine, but I had never taken time to do more than scan them. I read this particular one. It had some good pointers on communication and seemed to be the kind of thing that would leave a positive impression with most readers. My next thought was rather parochial: Would this really bring many people into the Church?
Then there came to my narrow thinking a very simple but effective chastisement. It occurred to me that someone would be helped by the piece. Some father or mother, some son or daughter, would take counsel and take heart from what was written. Oh, they might not join the Church, but what if the insert actually helped their family, resulted in greater harmony, moved home a little closer to heaven? Wouldn’t that be worthwhile? I sensed a broadening of my views through that experience and, again, an awareness that the God and Father of us all will give unto us line upon line, precept upon precept, according to our ability and willingness to receive.
He who is the embodiment of love and mercy is ever willing to bless the lives of all of his children and shower love upon them, including those who do not enjoy the fulness of gospel blessings in their lives. Our Father surely will do all that is appropriate during our mortal probation to inspire, lift, edify, and encourage individuals, families, communities, and nations. It was to Nephi that the Lord Jehovah spoke on this matter: “Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth? …
“For behold, I shall speak unto the Jews and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the Nephites and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it” (2 Ne. 29:7, 12; emphasis added).
Alma explained that “the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 29:8). One body of people may be prepared for the fulness of light and knowledge; another body may be prepared only for a glimmer of that ray of truth. God suits his blessings according to the present readiness of the children of men. Elder B. H. Roberts, who served as one of the seven Presidents of the Seventy, offered the following counsel on this principle: “While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is established for the instruction of men; and is one of God’s instrumentalities for making known the truth yet he is not limited to that institution for such purposes, neither in time nor place. God raises up wise men … , of their own tongue and nationality, speaking to them through means that they can comprehend; not always giving a fulness of truth such as may be found in the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ; but always giving that measure of truth that the people are prepared to receive. Mormonism holds, then, that all the great teachers are servants of God; among all nations and in all ages. They are inspired men, appointed to instruct God’s children according to the conditions in the midst of which he finds them. … Wherever God finds a soul sufficiently enlightened and pure; one with whom his Spirit can communicate, lo! he makes of him a teacher of men. While the path of sensuality and darkness may be that which most men tread, a few … have been led along the upward path; a few in all countries and generations have been wisdom seekers, or seekers of God. They have been so because the Divine Word of Wisdom has looked upon them, choosing them for the knowledge and service of himself” (Defense of the Faith and the Saints, 2 vols. , 1:512–13).
It is but reasonable, therefore, that elements of truth, pieces of a much larger mosaic, should be found throughout the world in varying cultures and among diverse religious groups. Further, as the world has passed through phases of apostasy and restoration, relics of revealed doctrine remain, albeit in some cases in altered or even convoluted forms. Thus persons lacking spiritual insight and the faith that derives from a knowledge of Christ’s eternal plan of salvation may tend to cast doubt on the true gospel. They may point to legends and traditions of creation or to flood stories that presumably predate the Pentateuch; may eagerly note similarities between ordinances of the temple and practices in pagan cultures; and may thereby suggest that Christianity has but copied from the more ancient sources.
President Joseph F. Smith had much to say to people such as these who seek to upstage Christianity. Jesus Christ, he taught, “being the fountain of truth, is no imitator. He taught the truth first; it was his before it was given to man.” Further, “When I read books that are scattered … through the world, throwing discredit upon words and teachings and doctrines of the Lord Jesus Christ, saying that some of the ideas Jesus uttered, truths that he promulgated, have been enunciated before by the ancient philosophers among the heathen nations of the world, I want to tell you that there is not a heathen philosopher that ever lived in all the world from the beginning, that had a truth or enunciated a principle of God’s truth that did not receive it from the fountain head, from God himself. …
“Let it be remembered that Christ was with the Father from the beginning, that the gospel of truth and light existed from the beginning, and is from everlasting to everlasting. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, as one God, are the fountain of truth. … If we find truth in broken fragments through the ages, it may be set down as an incontrovertible fact that it originated at the fountain, and was given to philosophers, inventors, patriots, reformers, and prophets by the inspiration of God. It came from him through his Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost, in the first place, and from no other source. It is eternal.
“… Men are mere repeaters of what he has taught them. He has voiced no thought originating with man. The teachings of Jesus did not begin with his incarnation; for, like truth, he is eternal. He not only inspired the ancients, from the beginning, but when he came to earth he reiterated eternal, original truth, and added gloriously to the revelations men had uttered. When he returned to the Father, he still took, and does take, an interest in his children and people, by revealing to them new truths, and by inspiring their actions; and, as men grow in the knowledge of God, they shall become more and more like him unto the perfect day, when his knowledge shall cover the earth as the waters cover the deep” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. , 30, 395, 398–400).
Knowing what we know concerning God our Father—that he is a personal being; that he has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as our own; that he is an exalted and glorified being; that he was once a man and dwelt on an earth—and knowing that this knowledge was had by many of the ancients, should we be surprised to find legends and myths throughout the cultures of the earth concerning gods who have divine power but human attributes and passions? Knowing that Adam and Seth and Enos and Cainan and Mahalaleel and others of the antediluvians spoke of the coming of the Messiah (see Moses 5:58; Moses 6:22–23) and taught that he would come to earth as a man but possess the powers of a God, is it not likely that they also knew that he would be born of a virgin? Should we be surprised to find pagan traditions of virgin births and divine humans?
Adam heard the divine voice saying, “I am God; I made the world, and men before they were in the flesh” (Moses 6:51; emphasis added). That is, men and women in the earliest ages knew of a first estate, a premortal existence. Therefore, is it any wonder that several religious traditions are wedded to an idea of past lives? Inasmuch as the doctrines of rebirth, regeneration, resurrection, and the immortality of the soul were taught to Adam and his posterity, why should we flinch when we discover the misshapen doctrines of reincarnation, transmigration of souls, and rebirth in such traditions as Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism, or when we encounter a people like the ancient Egyptians who are obsessed not with death (as some suppose) but with life after death?
Of particular interest to Latter-day Saints is the resemblance between what goes on in our own temples and things that transpire in sacred structures of other faiths and groups. In many cases those resemblances may originate with earnest truth seekers who act without authority, even as did Pharaoh, great-grandson of Noah. Pharaoh, “being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations, in the days of the first patriarchal reign, even in the reign of Adam, and also of Noah, his father” (Abr. 1:26).
Professor Hugh Nibley has spent a lifetime studying such parallels. He wrote: “Latter-day Saints believe that their temple ordinances are as old as the human race and represent a primordial revealed religion that has passed through alternate phases of apostasy and restoration which have left the world littered with the scattered fragments of the original structure, some more and some less recognizable, but all badly damaged and out of proper context. …
“… There are countless parallels, many of them very instructive, among the customs and religions of mankind, to what the Mormons do. But there is a world of difference between Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews and the book of Isaiah, or between the Infancy Gospels and the real Gospels, no matter how many points of contact one may detect between them. The LDS endowment was not built up of elements brought together by chance, custom, or long research; it is a single, perfectly consistent organic whole, conveying its message without the aid of rationalizing, spiritualizing, allegorizing, or moralizing interpretations.
“But what about the Egyptian rites? What are they to us? They are a parody, an imitation, but as such not to be despised. For all the great age and consistency of their rites and teachings, which certainly command respect, the Egyptians did not have the real thing, and they knew it. …
“The Mormon endowment … is frankly a model, a presentation in figurative terms. As such it is flexible and adjustable; for example, it may be presented in more languages than one and in more than one medium of communication. But since it does not attempt to be a picture of reality, but only a model or analog to show how things work, setting forth the pattern of man’s life on earth with its fundamental whys and wherefores, it does not need to be changed or adapted greatly through the years; it is a remarkably stable model, which makes its comparison with other forms and traditions, including the more ancient ones, quite valid and instructive” (The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment , xii–xiii).
And what is true of sacred practices and beliefs throughout the ancient non-Christian world is also true in today’s modern Christian world. We know there was a great apostasy following the deaths of the meridian Apostles and that plain and precious truths and priesthood authority were lost. We know that God began the restoration of truths and powers through Joseph Smith and will continue to restore facets of the truth into and through the Millennium. But the fact that those of other faiths and groups do not possess authority to act in the name of God does not mean they have no truth or that every scriptural interpretation from them is automatically incorrect or corrupt. As noted earlier, elements of enlightenment, remnants of truth, and aspects of the faith of the former-day Saints may be found in modern Christianity. The Lord loves his children, all of them, and he delights to “honor those who serve [him] in righteousness and in truth unto the end” (D&C 76:5).
There are good people throughout the world, men and women who love God, who are earnestly striving, even without the fulness of the gospel, to be true to the standards of decency and integrity they have been taught. Indeed, everyone has access to some measure of light and truth from the Almighty. President Brigham Young declared that there has never been “a man or woman upon the face of the earth, from the days of Adam to this day, who has not been enlightened, instructed, and taught by the revelations of Jesus Christ” (Deseret News Weekly, 8 Feb. 1855, 2). The prophets teach that if people will be true to the light within them—the Light of Christ—they will be led to the higher light of the Holy Ghost found in the covenant gospel, either in this life or in the life to come. “And the Spirit giveth light to every man that cometh into the world; and the Spirit enlighteneth every man through the world, that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit” (D&C 84:46; see D&C 84:47–48; also Gospel Doctrine, 67–68; Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith , 260–61).
In fact, is it not possible that one reason so many parallels and resemblances exist between the fulness of the gospel and the various approximations of the truth is that men and women are responding to what might be called “spirit memories” of the past? These would be intimations of things we once knew that now seem just out of conscious awareness. President Joseph F. Smith observed: “All those salient truths which come home so forcibly to the head and heart seem but the awakening of the memories of the spirit. Can we know anything here that we did not know before we came?” (Gospel Doctrine, 13). Is this not why so many who join the Church recognize in the teachings of the missionaries things that they feel they have always known, things, interestingly enough, that are not necessarily to be found in their former religion? We generally refer to those who come into the Church as converts, implying that they turned from another belief to embrace the testimony of the Restoration. While that happens in many instances, those who are baptized will often say, “Everything the missionaries told me I already believed!” That which we call a conversion often seems to be the awakening of a distant memory, an echo from the past. “People ask me why I left my old church,” the convert says. “I tell them it was not a matter of leaving my old church so much as it was a matter of coming home.”
And so, in summary: Christ’s gospel is eternal. It was delivered to earth’s inhabitants in the beginning. It has been preached through the ages by Christian prophets who knew their Lord and sought to be true to divine covenants and ordinances. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we attend to sacred matters, matters that are ancient and eternal, matters that were discussed and foreordained from before the foundations of the world, matters that will prepare this earth to abide the coming of the King of Kings. Latter-day Saints believe what the former-day Saints believed. The covenants we make and the ordinances we perform link us to the past and point us to a glorious future. God loves all men and women and is eager to enlighten them in whatever ways he can. We rejoice in our Father and God, and we rejoice in the knowledge that we are all part of the royal family. Like Nephi of old, we glory in Jesus, for he has redeemed our souls from hell (see 2 Ne. 33:6).
In 1978 the First Presidency of the Church stated clearly and powerfully the position of the Latter-day Saints in the larger religious world: “Based upon ancient and modern revelation, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gladly teaches and declares the Christian doctrine that all men and women are brothers and sisters, not only by blood relationship from common mortal progenitors but also as literal spirit children of an Eternal Father.
“The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.
“The Hebrew prophets prepared the way for the coming of Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, who should provide salvation for all mankind who believe in the gospel.
“Consistent with these truths, we believe that God has given and will give to all peoples sufficient knowledge to help them on their way to eternal salvation, either in this life or in the life to come.
“We also declare that the gospel of Jesus Christ, restored to His Church in our day, provides the only way to a mortal life of happiness and a fulness of joy forever. For those who have not received this gospel, the opportunity will come to them in the life hereafter if not in this life.
“Our message therefore is one of special love and concern for the eternal welfare of all men and women, regardless of religious belief, race, or nationality, knowing that we are truly brothers and sisters because we are sons and daughters of the same Eternal Father” (statement of the First Presidency, 15 Feb. 1978).