One of the passages of scripture I’ve used frequently discussions with fellow Christians objecting to LDS beliefs comes from Deuteronomy 4:2. I’ve often used that in clarifying some Book of Mormon issues (what does John mean when he warns others not to add or subtract to the words of his book? is he saying that God cannot or will not continue to speak?). Today, though, I’d like to call attention to the last phrase in the verse:
Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.
Today I’d like to speak to some of our Christian critics by putting in a good word for keeping the commandments. I think many Christians will naturally agree, but there are those who get bent out of shape by the excesses of critical theology.
For some, the phrase “keep the commandments” immediately smacks of denying the grace of Christ and proudly relying on works for salvation. This is often fueled by misunderstanding that the “law” that is so clearly abandoned in the New Testament refers to the Law of Moses, the system of rites, including animal sacrifices, and detailed rules that was a schoolmaster to prepare a hard-hearted generation for the coming of Christ and the higher laws of the the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Laws and commandments are still there, and obedience to the will of God is still asked of those who wish to received the unlimited grace Christ offers. It’s not that anything we can do can wash away our sins, or earn the infinitely precious gift of resurrection or eternal life. But the blessings of grace are extended to us in the framework of a covenant relationship. If we follow God and worship Him in a covenant relationship, He offers His blessings to us in return. It is all by grace, but there are conditions upon which the gift is given.
By understanding that, we see that all the teachings in the Old Testament about following God and repenting of sins weren’t abominable tripe, but truly were a schoolmaster to bring people to God.
When God spoke to Moses about our need to “keep the commandments,” it wasn’t a cruel joke. That phrase, used so many times in the Old Testament (e.g., “Ye shall diligently keep the commandments of the LORD your God” in Deut. 6:17, with related language in many other places), is no more irrelevant today than the statement, “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments,” as spoken by Jesus Christ in Matthew 19:17. Some of the commandments have changed, and our understanding of their role and our relationship to God has been greatly clarified, but the principle of obeying God has not been abandoned. His grace is essential for us to overcome our failures and sins, and to gain strength to overcome and follow Him, but the standard remains there and we are asked to obey Him with faith and diligence.
While there are numerous New Testament passages that speak of the importance of obedience by Christians, here are a few using “keep the commandments” terminology that may be helpful reminders:
1 John 5:2, 3 – “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.”
Rev. 12:17 – “And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.” (Nice mix: the combination of commandment keeping and people with a testimony of Jesus Christ.)
Rev. 14:12 – “Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.” (Yes, faith and commandment keeping do belong together among those who follow Christ in a covenant relationship, known in New Testament times as the Saints.)
Of course, neither the New Testament nor Old Testament are misleading people in stressing the importance of obeying God and keeping His commandments. It’s part of what God asks of those who wish to accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That concept is abundantly expressed not only in the New Testament, but also in the earliest Christian writings after the New Testament, such as in the collection known as the Apostolic Fathers, where we find many sermons that often sound rather like modern LDS General Conference sermons to the Saints rather than lectures on the irrelevance of obedience.
One of the most self-evident reasons why Mormons aren’t Christians, according to one local pastor who wrote a letter to the editor in my community on this topic a number of years ago, is our Third Article of Faith:
We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.
He cited that as if it removed all doubt that we aren’t Christian. The idea that we should strive to keep God’s laws and commandments to access the power of the Atonement clearly meant, in his opinion, that we Mormons, in spite of worshiping Jesus Christ, had flawed theology and thus couldn’t be Christian. We would fail the Great Theology Quiz on the day of judgment and suffer eternal doom (not to mention flunking the Big Quiz for not embracing the most up-to-date metaphysical formulations regarding the Trinity).
I think he’s wrong, and would encourage him to think more openly about what the Bible is teaching. Just read the Gospel of John, for example, and look at the numerous teachings of Christ, and then see if the Third Article of Faith really is so apostate after all. We may have difference nuances on how we interpret the workings of grace, the judgment of God, and the role of human free agency in this process of mortality, but isn’t is possible that there can be different understandings by people who still truly believe in and seek to follow Jesus Christ? Even those who seek to follow Him by seriously trying to implement His teachings in what may look shamefully like obedience, even intentional obedience? But there’s nothing to be ashamed of: obedience is not a dirty word, but one that Christians should use proudly. No, humbly. That’s it. Humbly. Humble obedience is the call, actually, and the great example set by Jesus Christ:
Philip. 2:8 – “And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
Hebrews 5:8 – “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered.”