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Difficult Doctrinal Teachings

by W. John Walsh

The doctrines of the gospel, as taught in the scriptures and by Church leaders, are usually taught in such plainness and clarity that they are very easy to understand.   However, as a person studies the gospel, he or she will occasionally come across a statement that seems to be in conflict with revealed truth.  To help the reader understand what I mean, I will relate an incident that happened to me several years ago.   As I was reading the Doctrine and Covenants one night, I came across the following verse:

"Verily, verily, I say unto you, if a man marry a wife according to my word, and they are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, according to mine appointment, and he or she shall commit any sin or transgression of the new and everlasting covenant whatever, and all manner of blasphemies, and if they commit no murder wherein they shed innocent blood, yet they shall come forth in the first resurrection, and enter into their exaltation; but they shall be destroyed in the flesh, and shall be delivered unto the buffetings of Satan unto the day of redemption, saith the Lord God." (D&C 132:26)

To me, it seemed as though this verse taught that if you were married in the temple, then you were guaranteed exaltation, regardless of how you lived afterwards.  You could do anything except "murder wherein [you] shed innocent blood" and still be exalted.  This interpretation left me troubled because I knew it was wrong.  Not only was it at variance with numerous statements from Church leaders on the subject of salvation, but the Holy Spirit told me that this doctrine was simply not true.

To help resolve this issue,  I went to see one of my religion professors, Dr. Robert L. Millet.  When I explained my problem to Dr. Millet, he smiled and told me a story.  Some years ago, he had been traveling with President Harold B. Lee who was President of the Church at that time.  Dr. Millet had been reading the same verse in the Doctrine and Covenants and had been troubled in the same way.  He decided to ask President Lee about it.   President Lee took Brother Millet's scriptures and marked a note in them:   "if they repent."  Afterwards, President Lee explained to Dr. Millet that a person cannot take one gospel teaching in isolation from all others.  All teachings of the gospel must be taken as a congruent whole.  There were hundreds of verses of scripture that plainly taught that exaltation was predicated upon true repentance.  Were all of these scriptures to be ignored because of this one verse?  Of course not.  President Joseph Fielding Smith noted:

"It is wrong to take one passage of scripture and isolate it from all other teachings dealing with the same subject. We should bring together all that has been said by authority on the question. If we were to make a photograph, it would be necessary for all of your rays of light to be focused properly on the subject. If this were not done then a blurred picture would be the result. This is the case when we try to obtain a mental picture, when we have only a portion of the facts dealing with the subject we are considering." (Doctrines of Salvation, Vol.2, p.95)

Most of the difficult teachings that we come across can be resolved in this way.   For example, Elder Orson F. Whitney taught:

"The Prophet Joseph Smith declared-and he never taught a more comforting doctrine-that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father's heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God" (in Conference Report, April 1929, 110).

At first, one might assume that children born in the covenant are guaranteed exaltation because of the righteousness of their parents.  But does this make sense?   Certainly, our salvation is dependent upon the righteousness of Jesus Christ.   The Book of Mormon teaches:

"Wherefore, thy soul shall be blessed, and thou shalt dwell safely with thy brother, Nephi; and thy days shall be spent in the service of thy God. Wherefore, I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer; for thou hast beheld that in the fulness of time he cometh to bring salvation unto men." (2 Nephi 2:3)

However, we also know that the Lord cannot save us unless we follow him and keep his commandments.  Therefore, if the Lord can't save people who will not repent, how could a temple sealing save someone who refuses keep the Lord's commandments?  The answer is simple:  It can't.  This statement must be taken into context with the other teachings of the gospel.  The Articles of Faith state:

"We believe that through the atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel."

Yes, wayward children can be saved if they are "obedien[t] to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel", including faith and true repentance.

Finally, it should be mentioned that neither Church leaders nor the scriptures are infallible and free from all error.  A Church leader might have known the correct doctrine, but simply misstated himself.  For example, in one of my previous callings, I was the gospel doctrine instructor in my ward.  During the course of the lesson, I was emphasizing how important it is for fathers to actively participate in parenting.   Then, I made the statement that "fathers should regularly baby-sit their children."  Well, immediately one of the sisters pointed out that "fathers can't baby-sit their own children.  You only baby-sit other people's children."  Well, as soon as the sister brought up the issue, I knew I had misspoken and with some embarrassment retracted my statement.  What I was thinking in my mind was true, but what actually came out of my mouth was flawed.   This happens to everyone, including Church leaders.  In addition, a Church leader might not understand a particular doctrine correctly.  It is important to remember that only Jesus Christ is perfect and free from all error and sin.  (See Are Prophets Infallible?)

(See Basic Beliefs home page; Doctrines of the Gospel home page)

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