What is the unique role of the Book of Mormon in a latter-day world that has multiple books of scripture? Why is it essential? Does it make a special contribution to our lives?
President Ezra Taft Benson made a bold statement:
The Book of Mormon is the keystone in our witness of Jesus Christ, who is Himself the cornerstone of everything we do. . . .Its testimony of the Master is clear, undiluted, and full of power. . . . It also provides the most complete explanation of the Atonement.Truly, this divinely inspired book is a keystone in bearing witness to the world that Jesus is the Christ. (The Keystone of Our Religion, Ensign, January 1992, emphasis added)
God has graciously equipped us with myriad testimonies of Christ. The Old Testament sets the stage for Christ. The New Testament transports us to witness magnificent Jesus, His teachings and ministry. The Pearl of Great Price provides us the testimony of six special witnesses of Christ: Moses, Adam, Enoch, Abraham, Matthew, and Joseph Smith. The Doctrine and Covenants provides a constitution for re-establishing Christ’s kingdom in the latterdays. Living prophets continue to point us to Him. Each of these witnesses makes a precious and unique contribution to our lives. I would like to say more about the unique contribution of the Book of Mormon.
Digging into the Atonement Doctrine in the Book of Mormon
Nancy and I were blessed to sit with Elder A. Theodore Tuttle in his home years ago. He told us that he had made an earnest study of the doctrine of the atonement in the scriptures. He opened the scriptures and taught us. Following his example and challenge, I set out to identify great scriptural speeches and messages of the atonement in all of scripture. I wanted to collect into one file the clear and powerful statements about the purposes, processes, and effect of the atonement. After several years of study, my file stands at about 17,000 words of scripture.
In my very imperfect and random collection of scriptural gems on the atonement, almost 4% of the gems come from the Bible, almost 7% from the D&C and fully 89% come from the Book of Mormon! I think that President Benson got it right when he (among others) pointed us to the Book of Mormon in order to understand Christ and His magnificent, eternity-altering atonement.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. Each volume of scripture makes a priceless contribution to our spiritual progress. Yet, in a time when Jesus is at risk for reinterpretation or marginalization, the Book of Mormon sends a clear affirmation to the world:
And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost (2 Nephi 31:21).
I am truly astonished by the powerful doctrine of His perfect plan and perfect love when I read the Book of Mormon sermons on the atonement. There are rare and special insights given by this new witness of Christ. Would we fully understand and appreciate the heart of Christ and His atonement without the Book of Mormon?
From my file of 17,000 words of scriptural gems related to the atonement, I have plucked acouple of small examples and added some commentary. A lot is lost by setting the rest aside, but see if these short passages don’t inform and inspire you.
Nephi’s Dream as one Example
Nephi had a glorious vision of God’s plan (1 Nephi 11). We often talk about this vision being a replay of Lehi’s vision. Yet the symbols in Lehi’s dream all pertained to his family. The symbols in Nephi’s dream were connected with the life and ministry of Christ. He is taught by the Spirit and an angel. In a key moment, the angel poses a key question.
And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God? (1 Nephi 11:16).
The angel asked Nephi the question in the context of the birth of Christ through humble Mary. What a fitting symbol and question! Effectively the angel asked Nephi: “Do you have any idea what a condescension it will be for Jehovah to take on a humble earthly form and bear the burdens of the human race so that He can both teach and rescue you?”
Nephi answered wisely:”I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (v. 17).
Maybe Nephi was saying: “I know that I cannot comprehend all that He has done for me and the human family. But I have felt His love and I have been personally transformed by it.”
The angel has much more to teach Nephi: “Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?”(v. 21).
Nephi knows and understands the meaning:”Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things” (v. 22).
The angel rejoiced with Nephi: “Yea, and the most joyous to the soul” (v. 23) and pointed Him to the One whose condescension saves us:”Look and behold the condescension of God! And I looked and beheld the Redeemer of the world” (vv. 26-27).
What a fitting focus to a great vision of the atonement! Nephi’s experience right at the beginning of the Book of Mormon sets the stage for Jesus’ centrality in the history and salvation of this fallen world.
Father Lehisummarized the lessons of his life in his own one-verse summary of the fall, the focus of mortality, and the purpose of the atonement: “But behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love” (2 Nephi 1:15). What a fitting benediction to that great patriarch’s life!
The Whole Book Testifies of Christ
These are not isolated passages. The Book of Mormon’s focus on Christ and His atonement is sword-sharp and relentless. I list a few of my favorite examples.
Lehi taught the doctrine of the atonement to his family before he died (2 Nephi 2).
Nephi wrestled within his soul and found both comfort and salvation in the atonement (2 Nephi 4).
Jacob rejoiced in God’s amazing goodness (2 Nephi 9).
King Benjamin taught the doctrine of the atonement to His people before he died (Mosiah 3-4).
Alma taught his people in Zarahemla about being changed by the power of the Redeemer (Alma 5).
Ammon rejoiced in God’s power to magnify and save us (Alma 26).
A newly re-energized Amulek taught the people about the atonement (Alma 34).
Alma described his conversion to his son Helaman in perfect poetry (chiasmus) and perfect theology (Alma 36).
Alma also taught his wayward son the power of the atonement to rescue us (Alma 42).
Mormon offered his benediction and blessing by pointing to Christ (Moroni 9).
Moroni offered his concluding invitation (Moroni 10).
The question for us is: Have we appreciated that God has done something very extraordinary in the last days? God has delivered an inspired book to us by unexpected means. The writings of centuries of prophets were selected and edited by prophets and delivered to a modern prophet by the direct visitation of an ancient prophet. This is not how God has traditionally delivered His word. God must have really wanted us to have something immensely precious: a clear and unrelenting testimony of Christ and His atonement.
In recent years, superb books have been published about the Book of Mormon that help us understand its unique genius. Grant Hardy shows us a depth, consistency, and richness in that book of scripture that eludes casual students in his commentary Understanding the Book of Mormon. Brant Gardner’s Second Witness gives us an amazing and insightful six-volume commentary. In By the Hand of Mormon, Terryl Givens observes that the Book of Mormon was hardly used for doctrine or teaching in the early generations of the Church; early saints just marveled that God had provided added scripture.Givens also notes in another volume, The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction, that virtually none of our doctrinal distinctives as a Church (pre-mortality, eternal marriage, Word of Wisdom, levels of heaven) come from the Book of Mormon. John Welch has opened our eyes to many discoveries in the Book of Mormon through his extensive writings.
We live in a time when great discoveries are regularly made in the Book of Mormon. But most of those discoveries are not at the heart of the book. Consider again the conclusion in President Benson’s statement: The Book of Mormon “provides the most complete explanation of the Atonement. Truly, this divinely inspired book is a keystone in bearing witness to the world that Jesus is the Christ.”
The Book of Mormon is another and much-needed testament of Christ to the latter days. It provides personal and powerful witnesses of Christ and His redemptive intent. It is easy to see why the study of that book can transform our lives and rescue us from the confusion and cynicism of a fallen world.
Gardner, B. A. (2007). Second witness: Analytical and contextual commentary on the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books.
Givens, T. L. (2002). By the hand of Mormon: The American scripture that launched a New World religion. New York: Oxford University Press.
Givens, T. L. (2009). The Book of Mormon: A very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hardy, G. (2010). Understanding the Book of Mormon: A reader’s guide. New York: Oxford University Press.
In 2005 (in response to Pres. Hinckley’s challenge to read the Book of Mormon before year’s end), I wrote about 14 weekly articles for Meridian titled: “The Book of Mormon, A Latter-day Corrective.” My premise was that God gave us the Book of Mormon not because we are so deserving that we forced Heaven’s hand but that we received it in order to fight the cultural errors that regularly seduce “even the very elect.” The Book of Mormon clarifies or establishes at least a dozen vital doctrines. You can see the articles by scrolling down to 2005
You can find many of Brother Goddard’s past articles by going to www.DrWally.org
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