Recently, I read The Continuous Atonement by Brad Wilcox. According to Wikipedia, “Bradley Ray Wilcox is a professor of education at Brigham Young University, the author of several books, and a popular speaker in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” This book rates very high, and came recommended by one of my LDS friends, so I had to give it a good read!
I continue my series of blog entries addressing numerous notes I took while reading it. Today, we take a look at covenants, explored by Mr. Wilcox in Chapter 8 of this title.
As you might recall, God covenanted with Abraham, promising to make him a great nation. God did not do this for Abraham’s benefit, par se, though Abraham certainly received numerous blessings from the arrangement. God brought about His Will, including the eventual arrival of Jesus, through Abraham’s seed. We see numerous times where God covenanted with various people in the Old Testament. Christians often say we live under the ‘New Covenant’ with God. However, I do not recall ever reading about God’s people or prophets initiating a covenant with God. I believe God always started those. Regardless, most Christians consider the New Covenant to be the final one, as it brings together all of the prior promises. We live within its blessing today.
The tenants of the LDS church bring back this idea that God covenants with people directly, and take it one step further. According to Mr. Wilcox, “In a covenant – a two-way promise – the Lord agrees to do for ourselves – forgive our sins, lift our burdens, renew our souls and re-create our nature, raise us from the dead and qualify us for glory hereafter. At the same time, we promise to… receive the ordinances of salvation, love and serve one another and do all in our power to put off the natural man and deny ourselves of ungodliness” (Note that he references Millet, Grace Works, 116)
Mr. Wilcox paints a transaction, or a trading of one set of promises for another. We promise to God that we will do good, and God promises to forgive our sins. This is a slight, but important change on the Biblical formula. GotQuestions notes, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). God has already done all of the work. All you must do is receive, in faith, the salvation God offers (Ephesians 2:8-9). Fully trust in Jesus alone as the payment for your sins. Believe in Him, and you will not perish (John 3:16). God is offering you salvation as a gift. All you have to do is accept it. Jesus is the way of salvation (John 14:6).”
In many churches, pastors give an alter call after the sermon for those who wish to follow Christ. They will often lead them through a prayer that entails making commitments, or even promises, to repent of sin and follow God. When one considers this, they may not see a huge distinction with what Mr. Wilcox proposes above. However, we must first consider that the Bible never asks us to make promises in order to become saved. We must simply repent of our sins and place our faith in Jesus Christ. I find interesting that the Bible even discourages us from making promises or vows.
Mat 5.33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
Wilcox doubles down on this idea and takes it up a step. He writes,
“Elder Jeffrey R Holland wrote, “Obviously the unconditional blessings of the Atonement are unearned, but the conditional ones are not fully merited either. By living faithfully and keeping the commandments of God, one can receive additional privileges; but they are still given freely, not technically earned” (“Atonement of Jesus Christ,” 36). Making covenants is not a way to earn a free gift, but rather a way to learn how to accept that gift freely and gratefully. We do not keep covenants in order to prove ourselves worthy of grace, but rather to improve upon that which is given (see Matthew 25:20-23) and thereby grow in grace (see 2 Peter 3:18). When we speak of the human part of a covenant as something we can do without God’s assistance, or the divine part of a covenant as something we can repay, we not only grossly overestimate our abilities but we also see the arrangement as a one-time deal. When we fully realize the continuous nature of the Atonement, gratitude and obedience are less a condition for receiving it and more a natural outgrowth of it. They become continuous as the gift itself. In that moment, we realize we do not earn the Atonement. The Atonement actually earns us.”
First, the Bible makes it clear that all who are ‘born again’ will exist in God’s direct presence forever. This contrasts with the LDS principle that in order to exist in the celestial kingdom, one must progress. According to that theology, all are ‘saved’, as in resurrected, but only a few who meet numerous requirements, including covenanting, performing LDS church ordinances, etc, will enter God’s presence. While the author goes out of his way to stress that people entering covenants do not ‘earn’ greater ‘privileges,’ the fact remains that one must jump through all of these additional hoops to spend eternity with God. When the Bible talks about the holiness of a person, it does not point to their works, or their fulfilled promises made to God, but their faith in God (Rom 4.9, Rom 4.22, Gal 3.6, etc).
Second, the author references the parable of the talents to demonstrate that we can somehow improve on the gifts of God by keeping covenants. I would argue that the analogy is not quite apples to apples. We are certainly directed to use your time, talents and treasure to further the kingdom of God. And, there’s certainly an implication that we will receive a greater reward for it in heaven. However, there’s also another implication, in Revelations, that we will lay all such treasure at Jesus feet. After all, they still pale in comparison to simply being with Him. cannot improve God’s grace, or gifts, through our efforts or promises. And I think that highlights another important distinction. In these writings from Mr. Wilcox, so much emphasis is placed on ‘eternal progression’ and doing all of this hard work to better prepare myself for my afterlife or even godhood. In Christianity, we focus squarely on living a life pleasing to Jesus. We look forward to spending eternity with Him. Everything else is a far second place, so much so as to not even be on our radar.
Third, I feel the last half of the paragraph mirrors Christian theology, but changes up the language so the meaning is not quite the same. Christians believe that when we become born again, God gives us a new heart. From that we perform good works truly pleasing to God as He gives us new wants and desires. We will also thank Him from that same heart. The Bible says that God’s sSirit performs this sanctification in our lives, and He will finish any work He begins in us. This is not some work performed by ‘the atonement,’ but by Jesus directly. The author states ‘gratitude and obedience are less a condition for receiving it,’ but Christians would say that gratitude and obedience serve no role in salvation or atonement. They are natural outcomes, but that is all.
LDS theology complicates the message of the Gospel, which provides atonement to God for our sins. The Bible teaches that we must repent, put our trust in Jesus, and we will become born again. Once we do, we become fully reconciled to God and will spend eternity in His presence. LDS theology teaches that we must join the LDS church, perform ordinances, make covenants, follow a list of rules, and even engage in plural marriage to reach our full potential (D&C 132) and enter the celestial kingdom. History has shown us time and again that man enjoys creating hurdles and works for people to be fully reconciled to God (see Catholicism, Islam, and many others). Christianity teaches that God does all of the work, so that He alone receives all of the glory.