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Law: An Overview

by John S. Welch

Three types of laws exist: spiritual or divine laws, laws of nature, and civil laws. Latter-day Saints are deeply and consistently law-oriented, because laws, whether spiritual, physical, or civil, are rules defining existence and guiding action. Through the observance of laws, blessings and rewards are expected, and by the violation of laws, suffering, deprivation, and even punishment will result.

Basic LDS attitudes toward law and jurisprudence are shaped primarily by revelations contained in the Doctrine and Covenants, and by explanations given by the Presidents of the Church. God is, by definition, a God of order: "Behold, mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion" (D&C 132:8). God and law are inseparable, for if there is no law, there is no sin; and if there is no sin, there is no righteousness, "and if these things are not there is no God" (2 Ne. 2:13). Law emanates from God through Christ. Jesus said, "I am the law, and the light" (3 Ne. 15:9), and God's word is his law (D&C 132:12).

In an 1832 revelation, Joseph Smith learned that law is a pervasive manifestation of God's light and power: "The light which is in all things…is the law by which all things are governed" (D&C 88:12-13). In connection with both spiritual law and natural law, no space or relationship occurs in which law is nonexistent. "There are many kingdoms; for there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; …and unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions" (D&C 88:37-38).

There are as many laws as there are kingdoms, which reflect greater or lesser light and truth. Some laws are higher, and some are lower. The kingdom of God operates in accordance with higher laws befitting God's exalted station, while the earth and all mortality and other kingdoms belong to lower spheres and therefore operate under different laws. The degree of glory that a person or thing can abide depends on how high a law he, she, or it is able to abide (D&C 88:22-25).

Lower laws are subsumed in higher laws. If people keep the laws of God, they have "no need to break the laws of the land" (D&C 58:21). Similarly, when the Law of Moses was fulfilled by Jesus Christ, it was subsumed in him.

Existence is a process of progressively learning to obey higher law. Obeying and conforming to law are understood as a sign of growth, maturity, and understanding, and greater obedience to law produces greater freedom (D&C 98:5) and associated blessings (D&C 130:20-21).

At all levels, the principles of agency and accountability are in effect: People may choose which laws to obey or to ignore, but God will hold them accountable and reward them accordingly (D&C 82:4). This is not viewed as a threat; law's purpose is not to force or punish but to guide and provide structure.

In the divine or spiritual sphere, law is not the product of a philosophical or theoretical search for what is right or good. It emanates from deity and is revealed through Jesus Christ and his prophets.

Spiritual laws given by God to mankind are commonly called commandments, which consist variously of prohibitions ("thou shalt not"), requirements ("thou shalt"), and prescriptions ("if a man"). The commandments are uniformly coupled with promised blessings for faithful compliance. Thus, Latter-day Saints describe themselves as covenant people who may be rewarded now, and in the hereafter, for their faithfulness. Many such covenants are bilateral in character; that is, members make personal commitments in a variety of formal ordinances to keep in accord with certain commandments.

Spiritual laws, or God's commandments, are generally understood to have been purposefully decreed by a loving Heavenly Father, who desires to bring to pass the exaltation of his spirit children. Thus, "there is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated" (D&C 130:20). Latter-day Saints believe that God knows or stipulates all types of acts and forbearances required by all individuals in order for them to attain that blessed eternal state of exaltation and that he has revealed these requirements to humankind through his servants. No law given of God is temporal (D&C 29:34).

"Irrevocability" in the foregoing quotation connotes permanence and unchangeability. Since God cannot lie, the commandments and promises contained in his covenants with people will not be revoked, though he can revoke a specific commandment to individuals when they have disobeyed (D&C 56:3-6). The fundamentals are not situational and do not ebb and flow with changing concepts of morality or theology outside the Church. The President of the Church is a prophet of God who receives revelations and inspiration to interpret and apply those basic principles as human circumstances change.

In accordance with the principle of agency, God commands, but he does not compel. No earthly mechanism exists for the enforcement of God's laws. The prophet teaches the members correct principles, and they are expected to govern themselves. Missionary work and education of Church members are carried out so that people may make informed choices. They are taught that making an informed choice results either in a blessing (current or deferred) or an undesirable consequence (current or deferred). Ignorance of the law is considered a legitimate excuse. Because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, repentance is not required of those "who have ignorantly sinned" or "who have died not knowing the will of God concerning them" (Mosiah 3:11), even though failure to abide by the commandment may result in the loss of blessings that would flow from proper conduct. In most cases, violators of divine law can escape the punishment connected with the offense by repentance, the demands of justice having been satisfied by the Atonement of Christ in the interest of all (see Justice and Mercy).

Bibliography

Firmage, Edwin B., and Christopher L. Blakesley. "J. Reuben Clark, Jr.: Law and International Order." BYU Studies 13 (Spring 1973):273-346.

Garrard, LaMar E. "God, Natural Law, and the Doctrine and Covenants." In Doctrines for Exaltation, pp. 55-76. Salt Lake City, 1989.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2, Law, an Overview

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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