Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Obedience is the first law of heaven

Posted by robf on July 8, 2011

We’ve heard this quote over and over. It is repeated several times in official class manuals (see for instance, here and here). But where does this teaching come from?

Thanks to the searchable LDS General Conference Archive we can date the phrase to at least 1873, in a talk by Joseph F. Smith. Interestingly, while he makes the claim that obedience is the first law of heaven, he also discounts handily any requirement of blind obedience:

We talk of obedience, but do we require any man or woman to ignorantly obey the counsels that are given? Do the first Presidency require it? No, never. What do they desire? That we may have our minds opened and our understandings enlarged, that we may comprehend all true principles for ourselves; then we will be easily governed thereby, we shall yield obedience with our eyes open, and it will he a pleasure for us to do so.

What are the earlier foundations for this statement by Joseph F. Smith? Did earlier church leaders teach this as plainly, or do we need to credit Elder (later President) Smith with coining this phrase?

31 Responses to “Obedience is the first law of heaven”

  1. David T said

    My thoughts have been that it has its beginning with Obedience being the first of the Laws presented in the Temple Endowment.

  2. TT said

    What about D&C 130:20-21?

    20There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—

    21And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.

  3. robf said

    David, if you read the entire talk by Joseph F. Smith there is clearly a connection to the temple teachings at the heart of this section of his talk.

  4. robf said

    TT, also lots of discussion about eternal laws in D&C 88.

  5. Dave said

    If “obedience” is the first law of heaven, then “love” is the zeroth law. Isn’t that what Christ said? http://lds.org/scriptures/nt/matt/22.36-37?lang=eng#35. (I suppose you could technically say that you can’t love without being obedient to that commandment, but that seems a bit pedantic to me)

    • Sarah said

      Christ wasn’t being pedantic when he said ‘if ye love me – keep my commandments’. In this he’s saying you can’t love me if you don’t keep my commandments, so in other words they are inseparable or one and the same. Obedience is something we as human beings feel it much easier to measure than love. Obedience is the language of our love for him. If we are not obedient, then we know that we are not loving him with all our might, mind and strength. Blessings will flow from our obedience.

      • Dorb said

        Interesting notion, though it may also be a bunch of hooey. Obedience = love? It can, but I don’t buy that it must. After all, our loving Father created us in such a way that we are literally incapable of perfect obedience. That doesn’t mean we can’t still love.

      • Tino Solis said

        Faith is the first principle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the foundational, fundamental principle of power in all we do and in all we expect to accomplish. The Prophet Joseph Smith observed, “We receive by faith all temporal blessings that we do receive, [and] we in like manner receive by faith all spiritual blessings that we do receive” (Lectures on Faith,

  6. A.C.E. said

    Well, you’d have to see it as a bit of semantics, I suppose. I don’t disagree with what he said, or what is said in the D&C, but I place it in context of the rest of the revelations. You can’t have obedience without having knowledge (revelation/testimony) can you? That seems to be what he is exactly preaching against — people ignorantly obeying. So he wants people to seek revelation to “know” that what they are obeying is the will of God. Of course, the only way we can receive revelation is to obey the principles upon which revelation is founded. You can’t receive revelation by doing whatever you want, but by doing only those things that will bring revelation — unless you’re talking about a Saul/Alma the Younger experience where the revelation comes as a form of interference to get you to stop doing something.

    I think in the mix of all of this, agency, or freedom to choose is a necessary pre-cursor. I believe it would have to be a law, that God did not take away our agency before the foundations of this world — maybe he can’t take it away, but in either case that would be an “irrevocable law” would it not? So in order for their to first be righteous obedience, there must be the ability to chose. Maybe you’d call agency a principle and not a law? Except for a principle is defined as: A rule or belief governing one’s personal behavior and a law is defined as: An individual rule as part of such a system. So there is definitely a lot of overlap.

    This could be another case of 2 sides of the same coin though…. agency being a decremental aspect of obedience. But I think the point is we must “choose to obey” and in that sense “choosing” comes before “obeying” does it not? Still, the spirit in which this is given by an Apostle, is one I agree with, if we want to receive further light and knowledge, we must practice obedience to those principles which will bring that light and knowledge into our lives.

    I do not think he nor the Lord ever intended it to become more than it is, and indeed, I have never seen it become more than I suggest it is, in my life at least. What’s interesting to me is how intertwined the concepts of agency, obedience, and faith are when you get right down to it. And they all involve the righteous use of our agency.

  7. A.C.E. said

    errr… agency being a decremental aspect of obedience = agency being an incremental aspect

  8. Tino said

    I agree with A.C.E. there’s 3 sides to the coin.Faith, agency and obedience.

  9. idahospud said

    I like your thoughts, A.C.E.. I think that there is a connection of this “first law” with Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ being the first principle of the gospel–the two reinforce each other.

  10. RickH said

    I’ve heard people quote D&C 130 trying to shore up the idea of “Obedience for Obedience’s sake,” and I don’t quite buy it. To me, it doesn’t say that the law irrevocably decreed in heaven is obedience. To me, what it’s saying is that blessings flow naturally from obeying the law to which they pertain.

    (“And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.

    It’s kind of a natural law kind of thing. If you eat healthy food, you’ll be healthier. In Malachi, tithing is associated with specific blessings. If we obey that law, we receive those blessings. But what about multiple earrings? Is it a law unto itself? Which blessings are predicated on that law? Now, if you accept the “Obedience is the first law of heaven” idea, there will be some blessing that will come from just blindly obeying because if we obey, we’re blessed.

  11. Steve Warren said

    Church leaders, members and manuals often teach that obedience is the first law of heaven. This well-intended and rather impressive-sounding concept attempts to convey a correct principle; namely, that obedience to Christ is a fundamental attribute or behavior of those who follow him. Unfortunately, it also often is used to convey an incorrect principle; namely, that church members should automatically obey church leaders.
    To say that obedience is the first law of heaven is to promote a teaching that simply is wrong and that appears nowhere in scripture.
    First, obedience is not a law. The Ten Commandments and the Law of Moses are laws. Obedience denotes compliance to laws. “And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” (D&C 130:21) We believe “in obeying, honoring and sustaining the law.” Christlike obedience could be defined as a voluntary behavior or pattern of behavior driven by a yearning to please God.
    Second, even if obedience were a law, it would be impossible for it to be the first law of heaven. After all, unless another law existed first, there would be nothing for obedient souls to obey.
    Third, if there were some need for a “first law of heaven,” surely the first great commandment (love the Lord thy God) or the first of the Ten Commandments would be better choices than obedience.
    Obedience should not be minimized. It is essential to eternal progression and is the cornerstone of humility. Obedience leads us to loftier attributes, such as charity or the thoughtful exercise of agency.
    Nevertheless, it has never been the first law of heaven.

    • c said

      Just a few things. I like your idea that we ought not blindly follow our leaders and call it “obedience.” I totally agree with you there. I don’t think there’s much we really disagree on, except that we define things a little bit differently. Ultimately I think we are both on the right track, but I just thought I would share my perspective on the things you’ve offered. I think that perhaps obedience is a law and that it is the very substance of the first law of heaven, namely, to love the Lord thy God. I think we learn about this in the temple. We refer to this law in connection with another, “the law of obedience and sacrifice,” the first laws given to Adam on his walk back into the presence of the Father. Without adhering to these laws, he could not ever hope to gain the teachings of true messengers.

      In reference to the first great commandment, I think it is important to not take that scripture out of the context of other of Jesus’ words, particularly, “If ye love me keep my commandments.” There we have embodied the very fabric of this love that we are commanded to have for God. If the “great commandment” isn’t qualified, then the requirement to “love” the Lord is very vague and hard to pin down, but in the context of the Lord’s desire for us to keep His commandments as an expression of our love, we find a more practicable, albeit broad, method of “loving” our God.

      Faith, obviously, is the first principle of the gospel, and it seems that these two (obedience and faith) are the two founding stones of Alma’s sermon in the 32nd chapter of his book. Through the principles, laws, and ordinances associated with faith and obedience, we attain unto the kind of active faith described by James, faith shown by works…obedient works. In all reality, obedience and faith are the two principles (or laws) upon which priesthood is predicated (see Alma 13) and by which miracles are wrought (see Ether 12). It just so happens that the faith portion inspires the obedience. If element were disobedient, all things would cease to exist, and the creation would be for naught. But it also requires faith to obtain power. Only in the careful weaving of both faith and obedience do we find anything of any spiritual worth, and only because we are infinitely imperfect, do we require principles like repentance. Otherwise, perhaps the gospel would be much simpler. We complicate the whole process of exaltation by disobedience and sin.

      I think you are right that there is no place where obedience is necessarily spelled out specifically as “the first law of heaven”, but I think that its primacy among all of God’s laws and principles cannot be underestimated. Whether we are talking about laws, principles, ordinances, etc, it is really just a matter of semantics anyway. :)

      Thanks for this thought provoking thread Steve.

  12. Cassandra said

    If you almost obey a commandment, God will almost give you a blessing.

  13. Steve Warren said

    I believe “obedience is the first law of heaven” stems from an 1873 address by Elder Joseph F. Smith.

    • robf said

      …which seems to be based on LDS temple liturgy.

      • Steve Warren said

        Obedience is certainly taught in the temple.

        Adam and Eve’s actions demonstrated that the thoughtful exercise of agency outshines obedience. In the Garden of Eden, our first earthly parents would have remained in a lower state if they had not partaken of the fruit. Adam originally intended to obey all of God’s commandments. He told God, in effect, “obedience is number one on my list,” but God responded by saying, in effect, “you need a new list.” God gave Adam two conflicting commandments, which forced him to disobey one. This episode teaches us that in God’s sight, the thoughtful exercise of agency trumps 100-percent obedience. An act of disobedience by Adam and Eve allowed them to progress from their childlike innocent state to a higher and more mature level of existence full of opportunities to exercise agency and to become like God.

      • robf said

        Yes, Steve, that is one interpretation of the narrative, though there are many, many “what ifs” that could provide a different view.

  14. Steve Warren said

    We have shared some interesting and informative thoughts on obedience, but I can say without the slightest hesitation that all of our thoughts are minor-league stuff compared with a talk that recently became available on the LDS Business College Web site.

    Go to “about us,” click on “devotionals” and call up the July 26 talk by Judd King. This address has great potential for changing attitudes and behaviors.

  15. Robert C. said

    Thanks, Steve. I like the talk, esp. b/c it draws on one of my favorite books by Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing (which is, arguably, the main idea underlying Terry Warner’s excellent Bonds That Make Us Free, since I know Warner is also a fan of Kierkegaard).

    My one quibble is how King seems to contrast obedience to love, esp. in many scriptural passages. I agree we often understand the terms differently, but I think that’s simply a misunderstanding of obedience….

  16. Steve Warren said

    Thanks for your comment of a couple of weeks ago on obedience. I think you’re right in that it mostly boils down to semantics, where I view obedience as behavior or as a principle and others are comfortable calling it a law. While temples use “the law of obedience,” we all know that wording has changed over the years in the endowment presentation, and I’d be happy if “the law” of obedience were the next words to go.

    I like your thought that faith inspires obedience. I would add that love of God (based on faith, of course) inspiries obedience to even a greater degree. In fact, some scholars say that the words “if ye love me, keep my commandments” is more correctly interpreted as “if ye love me, ye will keep my commandments.” The “will” makes a huge difference because it suggests that a characteristic of a person who has come to know (and, therefore, love) God, is that he desires to keep his commandments. (This is true with or without the thought of reaping a reward and with or without fear that not doing so will result in consequences.)

    It is certainly true that obedience is essential in the plan of salvation and that nothing is more important than something that is essential. However, just as a tire and an engine are essential to a car, the engine is a greater or higher thing in the same way that the thoughtful exercise of agency is a greater or higher thing than automatic obedience.

    At some point, obedience must change our hearts. When that happens, the fear is gone, and we obey because we have lost the disposition to do evil. I believe many of us obey but really wish we could disobey and not be penalized. We’re kind of like the prodigal son’s brother and like the laborers in the vineyard who resented the fact that those who entered the vineyard in the 11th hour got the same reward.

    Maybe I’m preaching to the choir.

    Best regards.

  17. Kathryn Carmona said

    Hello, Interesting, I am doing some research for a talk on obedience, and came across this discussion. I think that the phrase “Obedience is the first law of Heaven” doesn’t necessarily refer to any written laws or commandments, but is possibly referring to obedience as a natural law, like the law of gravity. In other words, it quite literally is the law (the glue) that holds the universe together. Joseph F. Smith refers to this in his talk when he says “Without it, neither the earth nor those who dwell upon it could be controlled….there could be no union or order, and chaos and confusion would prevail.” If we compare it to the law of gravity, and imagine what would happen if the law of gravity no longer existed on the earth, then it seems that the same thing would happen if obedience wasn’t the first law of heaven. So, to me, the phrase is a true phrase and we can take it quite literally. The scriptures in Alma 42 remind me of this same topic when they speak of the law in regard to justice and mercy. “Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God.” It seems that some of these laws are “invisible” in a sense, but are still real forces. I do agree that obedience on a personal level is all about changing our hearts. It quite literally is a manifestation of the condition of our hearts. Our hearts and our wills have to be completely His eventually. Just my thoughts. Thanks for the information and inspiration!

    Sincerely,
    KC

    • Steve Warren said

      Thanks for your comments.

      I think “obedience is the first law of heaven” is simply not a well-worded phrase. Even with your more expansive view of “law,” the phrase doesn’t work too well, because in that context, obedience would be second and agency first.

      It would be preferable, in my view, to say obedience is the “first attribute” of good discipleship. Or, obedience is a “fundamental attribute” of good discipleship. In any event, we both agree obediencet is essential to qualify as a follower of Christ.

      All the best with your talk.

      • Sarah said

        Agency isn’t a law it’s a principle- we can’t ‘keep the law of agency as what would that result in us doing? Obedience is the first thing that we need to Do to get into heaven. AGENCY IS THE FIRST LAW OF MORTALITY, while obedience is the first law of heaven. Agency is more to do with the conditions Heavenly Father has allowed us to come here under.

      • Steve Warren said

        First, you say “Agency isn’t a law, it’s a principle.” Then you say, “AGENCY IS THE FIRST LAW OF MORTALITY.” You’re sort of making this up as you go along, right? That’s OK. I do that all the time.

        Obedience can’t be the first law of heaven, because at the moment it becomes the first law, there is nothing to obey. If obedience were the second law of heaven, at least there would be one law to obey.

        Just because we believe our top LDS leaders are the Lord’s authorized servants doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything they teach, such as “obedience is the first law of heaven.” Frankly, the best thinking I’ve encountered on obedience is in a 2011 LDS Business College devotional by Judd King titled “Re-thinking Obedience.” I would strongly recommend it.

      • RickH said

        Sarah, I really don’t think you can say that obedience is a law. You can obey commandments and laws – I can obey the law of tithing. I can obey the law of chastity. I can even (try to) obey a commandment to obey all of the commandments. But how can you obey obedience? It’s recursive. Obedience is an important principle. But it’s not a law.

  18. Bob Wilde said

    My understanding is that this pithy quote was first used in the 1920s when a counselor in the first presendency attended a stake conference where a well meaning primary president had posted a sign which said “reverence is the first law of heaven.” The counselor, whose name escapes me, took the opporunity to preach his sermon on obedience and created the quote in the process. I would agree that listening closely in the endowment supports the message of the quote.

    Once again, a very enlightening discussion despite the fact that I came here looking for help with my priesthood lesson on the priesthood from the George Albert Smith book and came away empty.

  19. Wes said

    “There is a law (obedience) irrevocably decreed … that all blessings are predicated upon” That settles it for me, two witnesses being the scriptures and a prophet. Easy acceptance that obedience is the first law in heaven that has been restored in these last days as the preeminent law above all laws. Without it all laws are inert including it. It is the 1st law as well that the brethren and sisters covenant to implement in their lives. It is the 1st law in heaven and earth! This understanding should prevail as part of the restoration. Go to the temple and learn this, the House of God, the university of the Lord.

    • Steve Warren said

      Obedience is not a law, nor has it ever been. Obedience is behavior; it is about how we respond to law. “By obedience to the law upon which it is predicated” shows that obedience is a response to law.

      Same with the Article of Faith. We believe in “obeying” the law. The obeying is behavior.

      Obedience would better be called a fundamental attribute of discipleship.

      Although the Church teaches that obedience is the first law, it is still incorrect. (The concept may have begun with Elder Joseph F. Smith in an 1873 talk.)

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