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RS/MP Lesson 15: “The Lord’s Covenant People” (Gospel Principles Manual)

Posted by joespencer on August 1, 2010

A brief word about changes to this lesson with the newer edition of the manual, then on to more important matters.

There is a number of subtle changes in this lesson, but most of them can be summarized under the heading of “getting rid of exclusivist language.” I think that is a good move. Whereas the older version of the lesson tended to associate the Abrahamic covenant with members of the Church only, the manual is now a bit more careful to point out the strict universality of the covenant; and whereas the older version of the lesson tended to talk about how blessed we are to be God’ covenant people, it now points to the enormous task our covenants prescribe. In this, I see the newer version of the manual recognizing a crucial theme of especially Isaiah. Isaiah found himself with the constant work of helping the covenant people to realize what being the covenant people meant, and that was largely a question of opening the covenant onto its crucial universalism, shattering the tendency towards exclusivism of a kind of privilegism.

Anyway, that one “exegetical” point aside, I’d like to move on to deal with the actual content of the lesson.

The Nature of Covenants

The first paragraph of the lesson says a few rather interesting things about covenants. The second sentence suggests that one of the purposes of covenants is to clarify the nature of the work, perhaps to turn the anxiety of having a kind of vague obligation to an omnipotent God into the courage necessary to undertake a very specific work: “When His people make covenants (or promises) with Him, they know what He expects of them and what blessings they may expect from Him. They can better carry out His work on earth” (p. 81). I think that is a rather nice point, though I think we should be careful to recognize that it is only true to some extent, and that we perhaps have a tendency only to pay careful attention to covenants that are explicit in terms of duty. We should perhaps pay close attention to covenants—like, for example, the law of consecration—that do not prescribe specified actions, but that are nonetheless more crucial than others that are “clearer” in terms of prescribed content.

Further along in the same paragraph, a connection is made between making covenants and becoming a “people,” and more strictly, a people belonging to to the Lord. I think this is a crucial point that is glossed over a bit too quickly in the manual. How is a community formed through covenant, and what other social structures are set in motion by the making of covenants? I’ve been thinking lately, to take an example, of the way that Captain Moroni employs covenant in his encounter with the Lamanites. Given what we know of pagan societies in general, it is likely that the Lamanites had relatively little understanding of the strong Judeo-Christian ethic of individualism. But when Moroni found that he could get some Lamanites who had fallen into his power to make a covenant of peace, even when their leaders refused to make the covenant, he at once established a kind of sub-community of Lamanites and likely gave them their first strong taste of a kind of radical individualism. There is probably good reason to think further about the social dynamics of covenant-making.

The second paragraph on page 81 lays out the basics of what a covenant is, and little in it moves beyond the standard discussion we tend to have in our classes. I do think it is interesting and productive, however, that the material here sets so clear an emphasis on God’s sovereignty. There is perhaps too strong a tendency among Latter-day Saints to think of covenants as being “democratic,” that is, as being a mutual agreement between us and God. The material in this paragraph, however, makes clear that it is God who sets the terms, God who reveals those terms, God who always is faithful, and God who issues blessings and penalties for dis/obedience. That’s something we should keep in mind.

The next paragraph lists a few covenants we make: baptism (which the manual nicely refuses to conflate with the sacrament), the sacrament, and temple ordinances generally (I find it interesting that the older version of the lesson only made reference here to sealing). Each of these points is cross-referenced to a whole lesson found elsewhere in the manual.

But the last paragraph of the section moves well beyond these “simpler” covenants. These are obviously crucial, and there is no way around them, but it must be recognized that the scriptures are generally concerned with what might be called larger covenants, covenants like the Abrahamic covenant. Here we are dealing with what must be said to be singular covenants, covenants made to a single individual, but which nonetheless have drastically universal consequences. The difference, it seems, is between covenants given to particular individuals but which establish one’s place within a larger whole (say, the Church), and covenants given to singular individuals but which open up universal consequences within the larger history of the world (such as the Abrahamic covenant). It is certainly interesting that both of these “kinds” of covenants carry the same name.

For whatever it’s worth—and I think it’s worth a lot—the rest of the lesson focuses on this second kind of covenant, the kind of covenant that shapes history and which we do not make as individuals but within which we must be encompassed, these covenants that are given to some singular individual but which concern us all crucially.

God’s Covenant with Abraham and His Descendants

Two paragraphs see us through an introduction to the Abrahamic covenant. The first provides just a bit of background, effectively justifying God’s choice of Abraham. The second provides a very basic—and all too cliche—outline of the “content” of the covenant. In both cases, I think there are some major shortcomings.

Regarding the first paragraph, I think it’s quite important to recognize how much the scriptures lay emphasis on God’s, rather than Abraham’s, righteousness: the covenant was given less because Abraham deserved than because God is graceful. Of course, Abraham was the kind of person who would be faithful, and who would open the effects of the covenant onto his children, but it was God who started the whole thing, and it is God who continues to keep the thing moving. Abraham’s fidelity followed from the granting of the covenant, not called for it. Besides, the history surrounding the granting of the Abrahamic covenant is far more complex, because it begins with Adam and not with Abraham. As particularly the Books of Moses and Abraham make clear, the covenant Abraham was received was something that had first been granted to Adam.

Regarding the second paragraph, here we find the same old list of items comprehended by the covenant: numberless posterity, the reception of the priesthood and associated ordinances, the task of carrying the gospel to all nations, etc. This little list is something most every Latter-day Saint can produce in a moment’s notice, but it tells us almost nothing about the meaning of the covenant. This covenant is the burden of the scriptures: the Old Testament frames it and traces its history through to the post-exilic period; the New Testament traces its messianic consequences and the meaning of its universality; the Book of Mormon works out its eschatological significance and ties it to a curious theology of writing; the short books in the Pearl of Great Price exposit its Adamic origins and explain its cosmic reach; and the Doctrine and Covenants systematically translates its significance into the work the Saints have to take up before the eschatological fulfillment of the covenant arrives. There is almost no word in scripture that is not connected quite directly with the covenant, and we miss the meaning of most everything in the gospel if we ignore this covenant.

Members of the Church Are a Covenant People

The first paragraph here reemphasizes the universality of the Abrahamic covenant, a theme most consistently explored by Saint Paul (as well as by Nephi, who is Pauline through and through). It is the Abrahamic covenant that makes clear that exaltation is at once entirely and yet not at all a question of lineage: it is not simply the blood descendants of Abraham who receive the covenant (indeed, not all of his descendants will receive those blessings), and yet everyone who will receive the covenant must be made a part of his lineage. There is, then, a kind of opposition between the merely physical and the thoroughly spiritual, and lineage falls within this. (Of course, for early Latter-day Saints, Joseph and Brigham especially, this was still a question of blood: they believed that when one was adopted, one’s blood was actually changed, and that when one apostatized, there were consequences for the blood itself of the apostate.)

The second paragraph connects reception of the Abrahamic covenant to the ordinance of baptism. I don’t think this is wrong, but I’m not sure it’s quite so simple as that. Baptism indeed opens onto everything associated with the covenant, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as “I’m baptized, so I’m in.” Besides, I’m not sure it’s really a question of being “in” the covenant. Rather, the covenant is what drives history, organizes its unfolding. The covenant is a task or a work, not a kind of destination or place of arrival. The covenant is something we get to work on, something we sustain, not something we get into. This perhaps becomes clearer in the third and fourth paragraphs here, which outline the “great responsibilities” that come with the covenant, but I think it is a bit misleading to make it a question of “once you’re in, you’ve got these responsibilities.” This is especially complicated by the fact that it is the covenant people as a whole who have the responsibilities outlined. The work of fulfilling the Abrahamic covenant is enormous, and I’m not sure it can be translated into a simple list of responsibilities we share.

It seems to me, in other words, that it would be best for us to understand our becoming a part of the Abrahamic covenant as our being inscribed within an enormous world history, within a work that encompasses everything from the creation to the second coming. To be associated with the Abrahamic covenant is to be given the task—whatever this entails—of taking the work seriously. We have at last the focus on the scriptures, on what they have to say about everything that goes into the gospel. We have at last to focus on the structure and organization of the Church, on how this organization can be deployed to further the work of the covenant. We have at last to focus on the meaning of the temple ordinances, on what they imply about the nature of eternity and the work we have right now to take up. We have at last to focus on everything non-Mormon, on history and philosophy and literature and politics and languages, on how everything that humans produce and accomplish must become consecrated and so inscribed also within the universal covenantal history. We have, in a word, at last to live, to “go and do the works of Abraham” by seeking further light and knowledge, by seeking to share the gospel in its most universal form in every way possible, by seeking to receive every blessing, every office, every power and authority—all for the purposes of building the kingdom of God.

To be associated with the Abrahamic covenant is, in a word, to realize our nothingness and our absolutely crucial place in the work—to see that it would roll on without us, and that it will stop dead if we don’t get to work. Or so, at least, it seems to me.

The New and Everlasting Covenant

Finally, here it seems to be recognized that the Abrahamic covenant is bigger than a few limited promises given to Abraham. It is recognized that there is a singular covenant that was given to Adam and to Abraham, and that makes up the beating heart of history. I’m a bit nervous about how oversimplified this beating heart is in the second paragraph of this final section. There it seems its importance is reduced to a list of covenants to make—a list of covenants that most members of the Church have already made. As if Abraham’s or Adam’s entire work could be summarized by saying “Be a good Latter-day Saint until you’re about 25, and then just don’t do anything stupid before you die.” Exaltation is not bought so cheaply.

Of course, I don’t think the lesson quite says that! But I think we will generally be too quick to read that into it. It really can be summarized as it is in the second paragraph here. But of course the covenants listed there include the law of consecration, and that is so much bigger than we tend to let on. That covenant is anything but an injunction not to do anything stupid, but an injunction to consecrate absolutely everything we have or may receive to the work of building up the kingdom—an injunction to do nothing if it isn’t for the building up of the kingdom. In many cases, that isn’t so much a question of getting rid of many of our activities, but a question of beginning to see how they can be turned to the work, of how we can see the world and all we do in a rather different way than we are accustomed. If we are to be exalted, we have first to exalt everything we come into contact with—not in some sappy, feel-good sense, but in the sense that everything we come across can be turned to the work of building the kingdom, however slightly. Again, it is a question of recognizing that God is so much more than any of this and so that my place is absolutely nothing in this work, and yet that if I don’t consecrate absolutely everything I encounter, the work will never be completed.

The promises, as the last paragraph of the lesson makes clear, are enormous. But they are to be realized in the very moment of consecration. So soon as we turn everything around us to the work of building the kingdom, we are always “shar[ing] the blessings and beauties of heaven and earth,” already “liv[ing] in His presence and partak[ing] of His love, compassion, power, greatness, knowledge, wisdom, glory, and dominions.”

So, at any rate, it seems to me.

17 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 15: “The Lord’s Covenant People” (Gospel Principles Manual)”

  1. Clark said

    Further along in the same paragraph, a connection is made between making covenants and becoming a “people,” and more strictly, a people belonging to to the Lord. I think this is a crucial point that is glossed over a bit too quickly in the manual

    I think this gets glossed over too much in general. Folks focus on such matters more as a kind of binding us to follow God. But, says this line of thought, what’s the point? Why have covenants at all? Why not just have directives and then the influence of the spirit? What’s the point of covenants at all?

    In one sense there’s something to that in terms of simply purifying ourselves. As we try to live the commandments we move from grace to grace. Yet at the same time God makes us make covenants with him and with each other. That’s because we simply aren’t saved alone. Salvation is always a community sort of thing. I think this is actually a huge difference between us and many Protestants but one that doesn’t get a lot of attention. The whole mission of Malachi is making us into a large covenant people transcending not only borders but even time.

    • hillplus said

      I must be misunderstanding your statement when it comes to salvation. Nothing is more personal and individual than salvation. The Atonement is one on one. It is not a community event.

    • JoeSwiss said

      Why have covenants at all? Why not just have directives and then the influence of the spirit? What’s the point of covenants at all?

      By coincidence, I did a thought experiment this week on these questions. I pretended I was a high-minded, 3rd Century BC pre-Christian Stoic: I wanted to have a meaningful life. I wanted to be sure I didn’t get to the end of my life having wasted it. How could I do that?

      I could set a goal. Develop a strategy for reaching it. Develop self-discipline for staying on track. Etc. Kind of what the Stoics did.

      I realized a lot of things however (the problems): I was at the center (not Christ). Goal could initially be set incorrectly, or drift over time as I became older and wiser. How to realize if I was going off course? What to do about guilt over setbacks? How to deal with uncertainty?

      I also realized, on the other hand, that covenants give certainty. They’re established by someone who is perfect. Christ is in the center. We always remember Him. The goal is Eternal Life. Covenants are the strategy. The Holy Ghost inspires. Repentance removes guilt and roadblocks. Progress is faster. Protection. Accountability. Reward. Direction. Save time. Power. Standard. Measurability. Weekly renewal. Security. Orientation. Focus. Faith. Hope. Duty. Cleansing. Scriptures, the sure word.

      Covenants are a great blessing.

  2. NathanG said


    There is a lot of talk in Christianity about how essential it is to have a personal relationship our Savior. Others will say they can worship God in their own way, usually on their own. This to me is missing a great deal of what Christ teaches.

    There is a large amount of scripture that speaks in terms of a community or a group of people being righteous or wicked, or being a people. I think it takes extra effort on our part to return to thinking in terms of community when so much in (at least American) is focused on the individual. To establish Zion we need to focus on being a people rather than focus on being an individual.

  3. Ryan said

    LOL — After reading your thoughts on this topic… I feel like you’re kinda bummed it didn’t get into detail of covenants as much as you’d like. Which I can understand, cause I’ve wanted to dive into more details on other topics in the past. BUT… I’ve learned in the past, that getting into details could wreck havoc in the classroom. LOL

    In the Members of the Church Are a Covenant People section — you stated in the end of the first paragraph,
    “(Of course, for early Latter-day Saints, Joseph and Brigham especially, this was still a question of blood: they believed that when one was adopted, one’s blood was actually changed, and that when one apostatized, there were consequences for the blood itself of the apostate.)”

    Continuing into the second paragraph,
    “The second paragraph connects reception of the Abrahamic covenant to the ordinance of baptism. I don’t think this is wrong, but I’m not sure it’s quite so simple as that. Baptism indeed opens onto everything associated with the covenant, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as “I’m baptized, so I’m in.”

    Why is that? Why do you think that’s too simple??? Here’s how I kinda view things(which I might be WAY OFF here)… In the B of M, the non-believers(wicked) were cursed with a dark skin.

    Was the curse of the skin going dark a fast process or slow? We don’t know. We just know they were cursed with dark skin. We can also read of a couple incidents of the Lamanites(dark skin) who were converted to the Church and believed in the Gospel had their skin turn white — “fair” — like the Nephites.

    You may think/believe it’s too simple to enter a Abrahamic covenant by baptism… This confirms to me that it is actually that simple. If skin color can change by your actions in your faith, then entering a covenant is just as easy.

    If I’m way off, and focused on something that is irrelevant… The just ignore me ;)

  4. BrianJ said

    @Hillplus: “Nothing is more personal and individual than salvation. The Atonement is one on one. It is not a community event.” How did you reach that conclusion, and how would you convince others that you are correct? Also, as you make that argument, how do you deal with scriptures such as D&C 128:18:

    For we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect….

  5. Jen said

    I am teaching this lesson on Sunday. I noticed something that has me thinking. The lesson clearly says that when a person is baptized they are adopted into the Abrahamic lineage. It also says that worthy males have the right to hold the priesthood when they are “in” the Abrahamic covenant. So to me that says that when blacks were baptized (before 1978) they should have been able to hold the preisthood because they were adopted into the Abrahamic lineage. I fully believe the Lord was in charge and there may have been other reasons that it was beeter to wait. But does anyone else see my point on baptism?

  6. Dusty Hart said

    I’ve often had a strong personal feeling that the reason this precious branch of Father’s children (those with African lineage) had to wait to obtain the priesthood blessings NOT because they were not worthy of them, but because the rest of God’s children were not ready, not yet mature enough to accept them (they had not yet freed themselves of generations of prejudice).

    I believe it was for the protection of the precious & singularly sweet spirited people, and to PREVENT the eternal condemnation of those of us who were not ready to accept that those blessings would be given to ALL of Father’s children.

    I also feel that because of their faith, those who had to wait but who would have welcomed these blessings will be all the more blessed because they had to wait …


    • Robin said

      Thank you for that insight! I’d never thought of it that way before. Everything you said made a lot of sense!!!

  7. kirkcaudle said

    Nice notes as always Joe.

    I liked how you pointed out that the covenant given to Abraham was more (if not all) about the righteous of God and not of Abraham. As I see it, being a part of the chosen people is a being “chosen,” not just being “born into” an exclusive club. I can never work my way into the club, I can only be let into the club by the Grace of God.

    I really like 1 Peter 2:9-10 (in the additional scriptures section). In these verses I think we find two essential ways to know if we are a chosen/covenant people. 1) We are a “peculiar people” and 2) we are a people who have “obtained mercy.”

    We often talk about the first, but rarely speak of the second, of these in church. I think a great question to throw out to the class (and one I will be using when I teach) is “what does it mean to obtain mercy as a ‘people,’ not just in your personal life?” I think the answer can somehow be connected with the “suffering servant” of Isa. 53.

    Also, how do we as a covenant receive mercy in ways other communities do not? Or do we?

    One more thing, Ryan #3, I have always been of the same mind as Joe when it came to baptism and covenants. However, your thoughts have got me thinking twice about my own reasoning. Thanks for that!

    • Robert C. said

      But doesn’t the Book of Abraham push in the direction of seeing Abraham as playing an important role in initiating what would eventually become the Abrahamic covenant? I don’t really disagree, at the end of the day with Joe’s point, but I do think that the scriptures teach that it takes two to tango. Consider D&C 88:63: “Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you.” In this case, it is actually up to us to take the first step (although God obviously already took the first step by offering the promise)….

      • joespencer said

        That’s a nice point, Robert. I wasn’t—and shame on me for that!—thinking of the Book of Abraham, but instead rather strictly of Genesis. That said, I think the best reading probably still emphasizes the righteousness of God over the righteousness of Abraham, for reasons I won’t bother to go into for the moment (since I’m in the middle of packing and moving). But again, nice point.

      • Robert C. said

        Yes, Joe—I agree that emphasizing God’s righteousness is what should be emphasized. The danger is that this can become something detached from our own lives. God’s righteousness is in vain if we don’t let in that righteousness and let that righteousness completely pervade our being and lives.

        (BTW, I’ve been reading Agamben and I think I finally understand why so many anti-capitalist efforts bother me: essentially, anti-capitalism tries to change the system, starting “with the end in mind,” to borrow a Coveyism, rather than starting with the immediate means at hand. Related to God’s righteousness, the immediate implication is that we can participate in that righteousness, rather than simply waiting for that righteousness to manifest itself in some spectaculor—a la Guy Debord’s notion that Agamben uses in Coming Community—manifestation at the end of time. Anyway, my rewrite of my D&C 42 paper address these ideas….)

  8. JerryY said

    Is anyone working on GP Chapter 16 for Aug 15th? (This is Aug 11th) The Exponent ladies have a take on the Church in Former Times linking the 6 features to the Holy Ghost.

  9. Julie said

    After reading D&C 132, I concluded that all the covenants we make require the priesthood. And that’s why our church is the only one that has the new and everlasting covenant, aka, the fullness of the gospel. If that is so, then what about the law of tithing and the law of consecration? I believe those require proper authority: we pay our tithes to the bishop, the law of consecration is something we promise in the temple, etc. But is it a priesthood ordinance? And what does the phrase Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood? Is the Priesthood itself a covenant?

  10. Patrick said

    While looking for quotes for this lesson I found one by Hugh Nibley that I rather liked that goes nicely in conjunction with your mention of the sovereignty of God in regards to the story of the young rich man found in Matt. 19:16-26, it says: “The Lord observed to the apostles that the rich just can’t take it; nevertheless, any alternative plan, any proposal or compromise, easier payments, or tax write-offs, was out of the question. The Lord did not say, ‘Come back; perhaps we could make a deal.’ No, he had to let the young rich man go. One does not compromise on holy things. Unless we observe every promise we make in the endowment, we put ourselves in Satan’s power.”

    Hugh Nibley “Approaching Zion”

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