Thursday, April 9, 2015

A More Excellent Way: Are Mormons Living the Higher Law?

WARNING:  This post contains several mentions of a word and subject which is probably unsuitable for children.

I spend a great deal of time writing, speaking, and answering questions about religion, so I tend to encounter the whole spectrum of Mormon doubts and problems (as well as the best that we have to offer) as I get to know people across the world and the church.  As I have interacted with other Mormons on questions of religion, I have noticed a certain tendency that I find especially disturbing.  Specifically, I have noticed that Mormons like to ask some variation of the “Is [blank] a sin?” question, which is usually accompanied by phrases like “It isn’t expressly forbidden by the general authorities,” or, “it isn’t spelled out in the scriptures (or the policy or manuals of the Church),” with the implication that unless it is spelled out explicitly as a sin, then it must be OK to do.  This attitude can only be called legalism, and it can be very dangerous.

Legalism:  Noun.  usage: strict conformity to the letter of the law rather than its spirit.”  (, n. d.)

Case in point, the following question was posted in a Facebook discussion group for Mormons in order to solicit responses for a podcast:

“I got into a downright weird conversation with someone on whether or not the LDS Church teaches masturbation as breaking the Law of Chastity.

His defense was that there isn't a section in the Aaronic Priesthood Manual or some such work (you know - the Fifth Standard Work) about masturbation and so it isn't a sin” (Joe Rawlins, Facebook post, April 9, 2015).

In response, one person stated that she has never viewed a proscription against masturbation to be part of the law growing up, and that she still doesn’t, and then she posted a link to the Wikipedia definition of the Law of Chastity (as taught by the LDS church).

Another person posted a talk from President Spencer W. Kimball which specifically stated that the law of chastity forbids “all sexual relations outside marriage,” including masturbation, to which the first person replied that she did not see anything expressly forbidding the practice in the youth booklet.

Several individuals argued back and forth about whether or not pornography addiction is an actual or fictional condition, and others made statements criticizing the church’s stance on the subject as being a relic of Victorian era hang-ups about sex, and/or misconceptions about the sin of Onan (as it is often referred to) in the Bible, even going so far as to post a link to an article from Wiktionary defining onanism (see Genesis chapter 38 if you really care to know more).  There was also a protracted argument among several individuals concerning the severity of the sin, and its ranking in comparison to the severity of certain other sins.  Of course the crux of the entire argument had to do with the fact that teachings forbidding the practice of masturbation are not clearly spelled out in scripture.

This whole argument is an example of the irritating legalism that has crept into the attitude of many church members:  "If it isn't specifically spelled out, then I don't have to do it, and if it isn't expressly forbidden then I can do as I please."  Or, more subtly, ranking or defining sins so that some seem less severe than others.  Legalism is a problem for members of the church because it can cause us to miss the whole point of the gospel (and commandment keeping) and the atonement of Jesus Christ, and cause us to become lost in a maze of petty bickering over tiny points of the law. Worse, "by looking beyond the mark" (see Jacob 4:14) we may cause ourselves (and others) to "stumble" and "fall" because of confusion over what is and isn't sin.
Titus 3:8-9  This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works.  These things are good and profitable unto men. But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain.

First, a sin, is a sin, is a sin. All sin separates us from God, therefore there is no meaningful ranking of sin.  “For,” as James puts it, "whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.  So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty."  (see James 2:10-12)

Under the gospel we live what James calls "the law of liberty."  This means that now that we have been freed from the onerous burden of trying to remember and keep the 613 rules contained in the law of Moses, we can now obey God in spirit and truth, and not just according to the letter of the law (which, as Paul points out in 2 Corinthians 3:6, “killeth”). 

Romans 8:1-2  There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.  For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.

2 Corinthians 3:3, 6  Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

Romans 8:14  For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.

Paul taught (in 2 Corinthians 3) that the law no longer needs to be written in stone, but rather it must be written in our hearts.  Rather than requiring to be carefully instructed in every little thing that we must do and not do, we are expected to learn and follow correct principles for ourselves.

Principles Vs. Rules

"Well-taught doctrines and principles have a more powerful influence on behavior than rules" (Dallin H. Oaks, "Gospel Teaching," Ensign, Nov. 1999,

“The Prophet Joseph Smith was asked, “How do you govern so great and diverse a people as the Latterday Saints?”  He replied, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.”  Now, that’s the order of heaven. That’s how the Almighty operates. That’s how the Church is supposed to operate. We’re supposed to learn correct principles and then govern ourselves. We make our own choices, and then we present the matter to the Lord and get his approving, ratifying seal (Bruce R. McConkie, “Agency or Inspiration?”, New Era, Jan. 1975, 38–43).

We are not merely expected to learn correct principles and then left to govern ourselves, however; rather we have been given the gift of the Holy Ghost, which God gives to us by covenant, and under His guidance we can exercise our own agency to apply the principles of the Gospel to a wide range of circumstances and questions.

"A principle is an enduring truth, a law, a rule you can adopt to guide you in making decisions. Generally principles are not spelled out in detail. That leaves you free to find your way with an enduring truth, a principle, as your anchor."  (Boyd K Packer,"The Word of Wisdom: The Principle and the Promises," Ensign, May 1996, 17).

“Principles are concentrated truth, packaged for application to a wide variety of circumstances. A true principle makes decisions clear even under the most confusing and compelling circumstances.” (Richard G. Scott, "Acquiring Spiritual Knowledge," Ensign, Nov. 1993, 86).

Note that “Generally principles are not spelled out in detail.”  You may also notice that I have not bothered to weigh in on the question of whether or not masturbation is a sin, because the whole point of this article is that you ought to be able to figure that out for yourself, based on the teachings of the prophets and the Savior, as well as the promptings of the Holy Ghost.

Having the gospel written in our hearts also pertains directly to our motives for obeying God’s commandments.  Do we keep the commandments out of fear or compulsion, or for appearances sake?  Are God’s commandments a burden which we would happily put down if we could?

In his most recent conference talk, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf pointed out that, in the gospel, we (ideally) keep the commandments as a natural outgrowth of our love for God. Or in other words, we ought to keep the commandments without needing to be expressly told, and we should be able to recognize and avoid evil of our own free will.  Unfortunately, there are those who argue semantics, and debate whether or not we are actually required to follow one bit of prophetic counsel or the other, just because it was given as counsel, and not explicitly given the weight of a commandment, or a "Thus saith the Lord" statement.

“Sometimes there are those who argue about words. They might say the prophet gave us counsel but that we are not obliged to follow it unless he says it is a commandment. But the Lord says of the Prophet, “Thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you.” (D&C 21:4.)”  (Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson, (2014), 146–55).

This mistake is most common in petty arguments about whether we ought to avoid R-rated movies, or whether or not caffeine drinks are forbidden by the word of wisdom.  Arguments that look for ways to overlook or ignore (or at least minimize the importance of) prophetic counsel, just because it was not phrased as a commandment, tend to miss the whole point of learning to obey out of principle, and of our own free will.  Furthermore, the Lord has some harsh words for those who wait to be expressly commanded before they will obey.

D&C 58:26-30  For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward. Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves.  And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward. But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned.

Love is the Fulfilling of the Law

In response to a legalistic argument, Christ taught the fundamental truth that all commandment-keeping depends (and all of the commandments depend) on our motivation.  It matters what is in our heart when we try to follow a commandment.

Matthew 22:35-40  Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Under the law of the gospel, love ought to be our primary motive for being “anxiously engaged in a good cause,” and our reason for doing “many things of [our] own free will, and bring[ing] to pass much righteousness.”  It is by love, and not petty legalism and arguments over what is and isn’t commanded or forbidden, that we fulfill the law.  If we truly love God, and our fellowman, we would never NEED to have the commandments written in stone before we kept them.  Rather, obedience would be the natural fruit and expression of our devotion to God, and our quest to become like Christ.

Romans 13:8-10  Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.  For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

“‘Love is the fulfilling of the law.’  Did you ever think what [Paul] meant by that?  In those days men were working their passage into heaven by keeping the Ten Commandments and the hundred and ten other commandments which they had manufactured out of them.  Christ said, I will show you a more simple way.  If you do one thing, you will do these hundred and ten things, without ever thinking about them.  If you love, you will unconsciously fulfill the whole law.  And you can readily see for yourselves how that must be so.  Take any of the commandments.  ‘Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.’  If a man love God, you will not require to tell him that.  Love is the fulfilling of that law.  ‘Take not His name in vain.’  Would he ever dream of taking His name in vain if he loved Him?…Love would fulfill all these laws regarding God. 

  [Just] so, if he loved Man you would never think of telling him to honor his father and mother.  He could not do anything else.  It would be preposterous to tell him not to kill.  You could only insult him if you suggested he should not steal--how could he steal from those he loved[?]  It would be superfluous to beg him not to bear false witness against his neighbor.  If he loved him it would be the last thing he would do.

  And you would never dream of urging him not to covet what his neighbor had.  He would rather they possessed it than himself.  In this way ‘Love is the fulfilling of the law.’  It is the rule for fulfilling all rules, the new commandment for keeping all the old commandments, Christ’s one secret of the Christian life.”  (Henry Drummond, The Greatest Thing in the World, 11-12)

Christian Liberty

The whole point and purpose of God’s plan of happiness, and Christ’s atoning sacrifice is that, out of love for us, the Lord has set us free to choose for ourselves to follow Him, without compulsion.  Unfortunately, we also have the freedom to give in to our weaker impulses and to choose (or choose by not choosing) to follow Satan and the ways of sin.

2 Nephi 2:27-28  Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man.  And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.  And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit;

We each possess free will, which means that it is up to us to determine what is right and what is wrong, and which course to take.  As I mentioned before, we can have the gift of the Holy Ghost to aid us in making these decisions, but only if we will choose to follow Christ from the heart, and not solely according to the letter of the law.  Christ has indeed set us free, but it is nevertheless our responsibility to exercise that freedom to choose to submit ourselves and our wills to Him.  To choose anything else would only be a return to bondage.

Galatians 5:1  Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.

This will require us to search out those principles and truths which will guide us in “bringing to pass much righteousness.”  Where can we find these packets of concentrated truth which we need to guide us in making correct choices?

“You will find correct principles in the teachings of the Savior, His prophets, and the scriptures—especially the Book of Mormon." (Richard G. Scott, Ensign, May 1993,32, 34).

That means that we need to study the scriptures more deeply, and listen more carefully to the words of the general authorities if we wish to learn correct principles by which we can govern our actions in any given situation, with the aid of the Holy Ghost.

As you may be able to tell, I am passionate about this subject.  It distresses me that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who ought to know better, so often fall into the pointless legalism and petty bickering that unfortunately characterized many of those who lived under the lesser law.  We have been shown “a more excellent way,” by the light of the gospel and the example of Christ, and it is high time that we as a church wake up (and grow up) and shake off the chains of wickedness and letter-only obedience that are holding us back from becoming true saints and disciples of Jesus Christ.

2 Nephi 1:13, 23  O that ye would awake; awake from a deep sleep, yea, even from the sleep of hell, and shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound, which are the chains which bind the children of men, that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery and woe. Awake, my sons; put on the armor of righteousness.  Shake off the chains with which ye are bound, and come forth out of obscurity, and arise from the dust.

Romans 13:10-14  Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying.  But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.


  1. As I read through some of your posts I find them most helpful. I intend on backtracking and reading your older posts. Great Article.

  2. Thanks Mark! I'm glad you find my posts to be useful, especially since I know they tend to be fairly long compared with typical internet fare. Feel free to share my posts with your friends!


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