Doctrine and Covenants 20:1-36, 68-69, 75-79; 21; 27; 115:1-4
Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants was originally known as the “Articles and Covenants of the Church.” It was a form of a “constitution” for the early organization of the Church and the first revelation of our dispensation to be sustained by the Church membership and therefore became binding upon Church members to follow as a covenant. This sustaining was done at the first conference of the Church held in the Whitmer cabin in Fayette, New York, 9 June 1830. Section 20 is mentioned by name in two other revelations:
And ye shall remember the church articles and covenants (D&C 20) to keep them (D&C 33:14).
And they shall observe the covenants and church articles (D&C 20) to do them, and these shall be their teachings, as they shall be directed by the Spirit (D&C 42:13).
Section 42, quoted above, was known as “The Law” or “The Law of the Church.” It is important to note that the Lord inserted a commandment to observe the covenants and church articles (D&C 20) into the section referred to as “The Law.” Therefore, D&C 20 is not only the articles and covenants of the Church but also part of the law of the Church.
Section 20 is presented in the format of covenant language broken down into five segments that conclude with the word “amen” (see verses, 4, 12, 16, 27, and 36). It is in section 20 that the Book of Mormon becomes established as “the new covenant” as mentioned by the Lord in D&C 84:57.
THE AUTHORITY FOR THE COVENANT
In the first segment (verses 1-4), the Lord establishes the date on which he wants the Church to be organized and says that it is done by his will and commandment. Next, he establishes the authority of the first two administrators of the kingdom – the prophet Joseph Smith as the first elder and Oliver Cowdery as the second elder and both are ordained apostles. The Lord has now established his authority for this new covenant and his church.
THE COVENANT AND THE WITNESSES FOR THE COVENANT
In the next segment (verses 5-12) the Lord establishes the Book of Mormon as the doctrinal basis for the new dispensation. He declares that it contains the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to go unto the Gentiles and Jews. The Lord reaffirms that the Book of Mormon has been translated by power that God gave to the Prophet Joseph Smith. Because this is a covenant, the Lord explains that there are witnesses (the three witnesses) who have had the truth of the Book of Mormon confirmed to them by angels.
HOW THE LORD WILL USE THE COVENANT AND ITS WITNESSES
In the third segment (verses 13-16) the Lord declares that the witnesses and the Book of Mormon will be used to judge the world. Those who receive the Book of Mormon along with the witnesses will receive a crown of eternal life. Those who reject these things will come under condemnation. In my opinion, this is the most powerful segment of the five, because the Lord is letting us know that the acceptance or rejection of the Book of Mormon as a covenant will be his measuring rod for exaltation or condemnation. It is very clear now why the lord insisted in D&C 5:11,15 that the testimony of the three witnesses accompany the Book of Mormon when it goes forth into all the world. The Lord is going to use these as his witnesses to judge our whole dispensation. That is, all who are confronted by the Book of Mormon and the testimony of the witnesses will be held accountable as to how they treated “so great witnesses”(D&C 20:13).
THE BASIC DOCTRINE OF THE COVENANT
In the fourth segment (verses 17-28) the Lord establishes the basic doctrine for the restoration. The basic doctrine as here outlined is 1. the creation (verses 17-18), 2. the fall (19-20), and 3. the atonement of Jesus Christ (verses 21-24). Elder Bruce R. McConkie referred to these as the three pillars of eternity.
These three divine events — the three pillars of eternity — are inseparably woven together into one grand tapestry known as the eternal plan of salvation. We view the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ as the center and core and heart of revealed religion. It brings to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. Salvation is in Christ.(1)
Also, the Lord reconfirms the importance of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost in the acceptance and the administration of his kingdom on the earth (verses 25-28). Some who are outside of the Church have argued that the gift of the Holy Ghost was not on the earth until the day of Pentecost as outlined in Acts 2. However, here the Lord reveals that this gift has been on the earth since the beginning (verse 26).
A CAUTION AND PENALTY FOR NOT ENTERING THE COVENANT OR FOR NOT STAYING WATCHFUL AND FAITHFUL AFTER ENTERING INTO IT
In the fifth and last segment (verses 29-36), the Lord warns that those who will not repent and endure to the end cannot be saved in his kingdom. The Lord even warns those who come into the kingdom and become justified and sanctified, that they are still subject to fall again, if they are not watchful.
Justification is defined by Elder McConkie:
An act that is justified by the Spirit is one that is sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise, or in other words, ratified and approved by the Holy Ghost. This law of justification is the provision the Lord has placed in the gospel to assure that no unrighteous performance will be binding on earth and in heaven, and that no person will add to his position or glory in the hereafter by gaining an unearned blessing.(2)
Sanctification is defined by Elder McConkie:
To be sanctified is to become clean, pure, and spotless; to be free from the blood and sins of the world; to become a new creature of the Holy Ghost, one whose body has been renewed by the rebirth of the Spirit. Sanctification is a state of saintliness, a state attained only by conformity to the laws and ordinances of the gospel. The plan of salvation is the system and means provided whereby men may sanctify their souls and thereby become worthy of a celestial inheritance.(3)
HOW THE COVENANT IS TO BE ADMINISTERED, KEPT DYNAMIC, AND RENEWED TO THOSE WHO ENTER INTO IT
Through the rest of section 20, step-by-step the Lord explains how to administer to those who have come into the covenant. He begins by outlining the qualifications that one must meet before they can be baptized (verse 37). The Lord then outlines the basic officers that will be in the Church. What we now call the home teaching program is explained twice (see verses 47, 51). This material seems to be drawn from the Book of Mormon when Moroni is explaining how they administered the Church in his day:
And after they had been received unto baptism, and were wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost, they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ; and their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith.
As part of common consent, the Lord requires that each person be sustained in their office by the Church membership (verse 65 see also D&C 26:2).
Those who have entered into this new and everlasting covenant are now expected to have a godly walk and conversation to show that they are worthy of their Church membership. The scriptures are endorsed as the standard and guide for their holy walk before the Lord (verse 69).
The Lord commands members to have their children blessed in the name of Christ (verse 70).
BLESSING OF CHILDREN. When babies are just a few weeks old, they are usually given a priesthood blessing for the special purpose of conferring a name by which the baby will be known and bestowing promises based on spiritual impressions regarding the baby’s future life. A quality of prophecy attends this process. If a baby’s father is a worthy holder of the Melchizedek Priesthood, he will usually pronounce the blessing, but it may be given by a grandfather, a family friend, or any other qualified priesthood holder chosen by the baby’s parents. Babies are usually blessed in the presence of the congregation at a fast and testimony meeting. However, the blessing may be given at other times and places, such as in a hospital or home, if there is a special need.(4)
The set prayers for baptism and the sacrament are outlined in verses 73-79. They are taken directly from the Book of Mormon. The instructions on baptism were given by the Savior himself in 3 Nephi 11:22-27:
And again the Lord called others, and said unto them likewise; and he gave unto them power to baptize. And he said unto them: On this wise shall ye baptize; and there shall be no disputations among you.
Verily I say unto you, that whoso repenteth of his sins through your words, and desireth to be baptized in my name, on this wise shall ye baptize them–Behold, ye shall go down and stand in the water, and in my name shall ye baptize them.
And now behold, these are the words which ye shall say, calling them by name, saying:
Having authority given me of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
And then shall ye immerse them in the water, and come forth again out of the water.
The sacrament prayers are taken from Moroni 4:3 for the bread and Moroni 5:2 for the wine (the reason for the current use of water instead of wine if given in D&C 27:1-4). The Lord recognizes our fallen state and our propensity to sin and has provided a way for those who have entered into the covenant to renew it often.
The Lord’s last set of instructions in this revelation explains how to handle the member who has significantly sinned against the covenant. They are to be dealt with as the scriptures direct. Some may need to be expelled and their names blotted out from the Church records (verses 80-83).
Section 20 is a powerful confirmation of the importance of the Book of Mormon to our whole dispensation. The Lord has endorsed it and presented it to us as a standard for our lives. It has now become the new covenant and the instrument of judgment in the hands of our God for a whole dispensation. Section 20 reconfirms what the Lord told Oliver Cowdery in D&C 18:1-5. Oliver is told that he knows that the things which he has written (the Book of Mormon) are true. Oliver is given a commandment to rely on the things he has written (the Book of Mormon). The things written in the Book of Mormon contain all things for the foundation of his Church, his gospel and his rock. Is it any wonder that the Lord was upset with some of the early elders for treating lightly the Book of Mormon, therefore they were under condemnation until they remembered the new covenant even the Book of Mormon to say and do what was contained therein (D&C 84:55-61).
Now that the Book of Mormon is translated, the Church organized, and the articles and covenants of the Church are in place the Lord is ready to lay the foundation of this great Church and bring it forth out of obscurity and darkness, the only true and living Church upon the face of the whole earth (D&C 1:30).
1. Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, p.81
2. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p.408 JUSTIFICATION
3. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p.675 SANCTIFICATION
4. Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol.1, BLESSINGS