Sunday, October 23, 2016

Why I Believe: Evidence Fifty: “Zingers” in the Book of Mormon, Part 7: “relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save”©

101 Reasons Why I Believe Joseph Smith was a Prophet

Why I Believe: Evidence Fifty:
 “Zingers” in the Book of Mormon, Part 7:
 “relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save”


Early in 2 Nephi an interesting new concept appears.  Verse 8 reads:
Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things [Christ offering himself as a sacrifice for sin and to none else can the ends of the law be answered] known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah....”
Variations of the idea of being saved by the merits of Christ arise again four more times in 2 Ne. 31:19; Al. 24:10; Hel. 14:13; and Moro. 6:41, it is also in D&C 3:20 which also relates to the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is unique in that through this simple idea it directs our faith to the correct source–the merits of Christ. There are important nuances to consider in each of these passages so I will reproduce the relevant portions of each:
2 Ne. 31:19 “...for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.” 
Al. 24:10 “And I also thank my God ... that he hath granted unto us that we might repent ... and also that he hath forgiven us ... and taken away the guilt from our hearts, through the merits of his Son.” 
Hel. 14:13 “And if ye believe on his name ye will repent of all your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through his merits.” 
Moro. 6:4 “And after they had been received unto baptism, and were wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost, they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ ... and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith.” 
D&C 3:20 “And that the Lamanites might come to the knowledge of their fathers, and that they might know the promises of the Lord, and that they may believe the gospel and rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ, and be glorified through faith in his name, and through their repentance they might be saved.”
There are several points to make about this idea. First, the phrase does not appear in the Bible, nor does the word merit, though the concept does in its negative, as we shall see below. Second, according to these passages salvation depends upon relying on the merits of Jesus Christ. Third and more importantly, 2 Ne. 31:19 and Moroni 6:5 say that we must rely “wholly” or “alone” upon his merits.  Consistent with these statements, early in 1834, Joseph Smith sent an epistle to the church in which he wrote,
But notwithstanding the transgression, by which man had cut himself off from an immediate intercourse with his Maker without a Mediator, it appears that the great and glorious plan of His redemption was previously provided; the sacrifice prepared; the atonement wrought out in the mind and purpose of God, even in the person of the Son, through whom man was now to look for acceptance and through whose merits he was now taught that he alone could find redemption, since the word had been pronounced, Unto dust thou shalt return.(1)
It is important then to consider the meaning of the word “merit” or “merits.” Upon what is it that we are to rely? Merits, in these passages has two possible meanings.(2) Sometimes the word refers to “praiseworthy attributes,” and at others to  “good works.”(3)  Chief among Christ’s good works is the Atonement. In one sense all of his good works are interwoven components of the Atonement. However, reflective of Jewish thinking about good works at the time of Christ is the rich young ruler’s question, “What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” or the lawyer’s question in Luke 10 “"Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" which led Christ to give the parable of the Good Samaritan.(4) As we shall see below, this Jewish idea was multivalent and influential in later Christian thinking.
Consideration of the Savior’s “praiseworthy attributes” is also helpful in understanding Book of Mormon passages. It is not only through the good works of Christ that we are saved, but also through his attributes. Which attributes does he possess which we must rely completely and solely upon? Since he has all positive attributes in perfection we could say we are to rely upon them all.  Several, however, seem to play a special role in our salvation.(5)  First, his love.  In the world of the Christian creeds God was supposed to be without “passions.” Yet the Bible tells us that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”(6) Modern scripture teaches that Christ “so loveth the world that he gave his own life, that as many as would believe might become the sons of God.”(7) 

Justice and mercy are key attributes relative to the Atonement. God is perfectly just and merciful, which creates a problem in the full expression of both simultaneously. If he is perfectly just, where is there room for mercy? Or, if he is perfectly merciful does that not rob justice of its due?  Moreover, Alma 34:11-16 teaches that the Atonement cannot be by a man, but must be accomplished by an infinite and eternal God. Yet, the Father, already a resurrected being cannot die again to pay the price of sin, so how can God introduce mercy into the plan? Alma explains that this infinite and eternal sacrifice “will be the Son of God” and it’s intent is to bring about the “bowels of mercy.”  With this understanding, B. H. Roberts adds that the complete and perfect attributes of God must be expressed worthily,” by which he means they “must exist in harmony with each other, no one supplanting another or intruding upon its domain.” So, majestically “even justice crys [sic] aloud for” the presence of love and mercy.  “To get Love and Mercy adequately expressed ... in harmony with law, is the burden and mission of the Christ through the Atonement.”(8) 

God’s omniscience and omnipotence are especially important for us to rely upon. Relative to omniscience, Joseph Smith taught,
... without the knowledge of all things God would not be able to save any portion of his creatures; for it is by reason of the knowledge which he has of all things, from the beginning to the end, that enables him to give that understanding to his creatures by which they are made partakers of eternal life....”(9)
And of omnipotence, he wrote:
... unless God had power over all things, and was able by his power to control all things, and thereby deliver his creatures who put their trust in him from the power of all beings that might seek their destruction, whether in heaven, on earth, or in hell, men could not be saved.(10)
Thus, Joseph taught in the Lectures on Faith, it is important for man to have the correct idea of God’s character, perfections, and attributes in order to exercise faith in God unto life and salvation.(11)

Satan, however,  wants the world and its philosophies to rely on the "merits" of other things than the merits of Jesus Christ. Throughout the Old Testament period, indeed through all history, he has encouraged relying on the merits of false or idol gods. In other ways reliance on people and things other than Christ have crept into religion.  

Merits in Judaism

At the time of Christ Judaism looked to the merits of Abraham, the patriarchs, Moses, and even all Israel for some aspects of deliverance and salvation. For example, in Mt. 3:9 (and parallel in Lk. 3:8), John said to his Jewish opponents:  “Think not to say within yourselves, we have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” In John 8:33 those Jews opposing Christ said, “We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage.”  Of this Jewish reliance on the merits of Abraham, Alfred Edersheim wrote:
For, no principle was more fully established in the popular conviction, than that all Israel had part in the world to come (Sanh. 10:1), and this, specifically, because of their connection with Abraham. This appears not only from the New Testament, from Philo, and Josephus, but from many Rabbinic passages. The merits of the Fathers,’ is one of the commonest phrases in the mouth of the Rabbis.Abraham was represented as sitting at the gate of Gehenna, to deliver any Israelite who otherwise might have been consigned to its terrors. In fact, by their descent from Abraham, all the children of Israel were nobles, infinitely higher than any proselytes. ‘What,’ exclaims the Talmud, ‘shall the born Israelite stand upon the earth, and the proselyte be in heaven?’ In fact, the ships on the sea were preserved through the merits of Abraham; the rain descended on account of it. For his sake alone had Moses been allowed to ascend into heaven, and to receive the Law; for his sake the sin of the golden calf had been forgiven; his righteousness had on many occasions been the support of Israel’s cause; Daniel had been heard for the sake of Abraham; nay, his merit availed even for the wicked.  In its extravagance the Midrash thus apostrophises [sic.] Abraham: ‘If thy children were even (morally) dead bodies, without blood vessels or bones, thy merit would avail for them!’(12)  
Luke’s account of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus involves another important statement about Abraham to which Edersheim responds. In the story Jesus describes what happens to both Lazarus and the rich man at death. He said Lazarus “was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom,” but after the rich man died and was buried, “in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.”(13) Edershim wrote, “the appeal to Abraham as our father is ... frequent, his presence and merits are ... constantly invoked; notably, he is ... expressly designated as he who receives (mqbl) the penitent into Paradise (Erub. 19a)....”(14)

The Jews also depended upon the merits of Moses. During a dispute Jesus told the Jews that he would not accuse them to the Father, but “there is one that accuseth you, even Moses, in whom ye trust.”(15)   A few chapters later in John, Jesus healed the man born blind which angered the Jews. John records “Then they reviled him, and said, Thou art his disciple; but we are Moses' disciples.  We know that God spake unto Moses: as for this fellow, we know not from whence he is.”(16) One of the more direct instances of Jewish reliance upon Moses concerned the manna in the Sinai wilderness wanderings. John 6 recounts Jesus’ feeding the 5,000 followed by his famous “bread of life” sermon. Amazingly after this miracle voices from the multitude asked for a sign so they might believe him. They challenged, “Our fathers did eat manna in the desert” and suggested Moses had provided it. Jesus replied, “Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven.” As the discussion continued Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” This caused the Jews to murmur, but it grew worse when he said, “Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead,” and went on to teach, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever....”(17) Concerning this episode, Alfred Edersheim wrote:
To understand the reasoning of the Jews, implied but not fully expressed, as also the answer of Jesus, it is necessary to bear in mind ... that it was the oft and most anciently expressed opinion that, although God had given them this bread out of heaven, yet it was given through the merits of Moses, and ceased with his death. This the Jews had probably in view, when they asked: ‘What workest Thou?’; and this was the meaning of Christ’s emphatic assertion, that it was not Moses who gave Israel that bread. And then by what, with all reverence, may still be designated a peculiarly Jewish turn of reasoning–such as only those familiar with Jewish literature can fully appreciate– ... the Saviour makes quite different, yet to them familiar, applications of the manna.  Moses had not given it– his merits had not procured it –but His Father gave them the true bread out of heaven.(18)
In the Rabbinical period there was even talk of relying on the merits of a particular rabbi if Abraham’s merits were not sufficient for salvation. Edersheim reports, 
The same Rabbi was wont to say: ‘I have seen the children of the world to come, and they are few. If there are three, I and my son are of their number; if they are two, I and my son are they.’After such expression of boastful self-righteousness, so opposed to the passage in the Sermon on the Mount, of which it is supposed to be the parallel, we scarcely wonder to read that, if Abraham had redeemed all generations to that of Rabbi Simon, the latter claimed to redeem by his own merits all that followed to the end of the world, nay, that if Abraham were reluctant, he (Simon) would take Ahijah the Shilonite with him, and reconcile the whole world!  Yet we are asked by some to see in such Rabbinic passages parallels to the sublime teaching of Christ!(19)
In the same period the salvational merits of study were elevated even above those of works.(20) It was also apparently of some dispute, whether it was the merits of Israel herself, those of the fathers, or of a particular father that the deliverance and redemption of Israel was dependent.(21)

Catholicism’s Treasury of Merit
Over time Catholicism developed an intricate theology which came to include a “treasury of merit.” Elder James E. Talmage cites the church historian Mosheim to this effect about the treasury:
As stated by Mosheim (Eccl. Hist. Cent. xii, part ii, ch. 3:4) the dreadful doctrine was formulated in the thirteenth century as follows:  "That there actually existed an immense treasure of merit, composed of the pious deeds and virtuous actions which the saints had performed beyond what was necessary for their own salvation, and which were therefore applicable to the benefit of others;  that the guardian and dispenser of this precious treasure was the Roman pontiff, and that of consequence he was empowered to assign to such as he thought proper a portion of this inexhaustible source of merit, suitable to their respective guilt, and sufficient to deliver them from the punishment due to their crimes.(22)
This idea seems to be an institutionalization of the ancient Jewish notions of the merits of the patriarchs, of Israel herself, and even a rabbi. Indeed, some scholars speak of a Jewish treasury of merit. However, Mormon summarizing Aaron’s teachings in Alma 22, clarifies the matter more clearly than the Bible when he writes:
And since man had fallen he could not merit anything of himself; but the sufferings and death of Christ atone for their sins, through faith and repentance, and so forth; and that he breaketh the bands of death, that the grave shall have no victory, and that the sting of death should be swallowed up in the hopes of glory; and Aaron did expound all these things unto the king.(23) 

It is of considerable importance to ponder the implications of the teachings of the Book of Mormon regarding the “merits” of Jesus Christ. As found therein, it focuses the reader’s faith, not on the merits of some thing, such as the hem of Jesus’ garment when he healed the woman with the issue of blood, or of study, the intellect, the good deeds of the ancients or even oneself. In such simple phrases as “relying wholly upon the merits of him who is might to save,” and “relying alone upon the merits of Christ,” the Book of Mormon places the emphasis and priority squarely where it should be. We are to rely “wholly” and “alone” on the merits of Jesus and no other. There is no other name or way whereby mankind may be saved. These Book of Mormon passages are not belabored by their authors. They are generally simply stated and left without further discussion or elaboration. It is as if the writers intended that they be among the “zingers” which would, when one is in a mental state to consider the details and meaning of specific wording, pierce the consciousness in the power of the Spirit with their importance and with understanding and enlightenment. All of this leads me to a final thought.

If Joseph Smith were making up the Book of Mormon out of his own devious motives or at the direction of Satan, one must confront these five amazing little “zingers” which point the heart and mind directly to Christ. Strange, that Joseph Smith would have inculcated such principles in a false book. But he did not write the book. It is a true book, and it’s ancient authors taught true doctrine; doctrine which enlightened people with simple but potent and profound words the true object of their faith and trust. 

Thank God for Joseph Smith.

Let’s think together again, soon.


1. Joseph Fielding Smith, comp., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1967), 57-58, emphasis added.

2. The 1828 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language gives half a dozen definitions to the word “merit.” The second one was, “spiritual credit granted for good works,” and the last two were, “an aspect of a person's character or behavior deserving approval or disapproval,” and “value, excellence, or superior quality.”  Of the ten definitions in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, the last one is “a praiseworthy quality: virtue.”  Other definitions in these lists also relate to the Atonement, but in either similar or less applicable ways to those above.

3. See Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), 1:84. Edersheim's work was originally published in two volumes.  The Eerdman's edition combines them in one volume, but maintains the pagination of each volume.  See also, E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion, (Fortress Press, 1987), 37-38. 

4. Matthew 19:16; Lk. 10:25.

5. Because of its age and relatively limited exposure, many Latter-day Saints are unaware of a magnificent study of the Atonement by the early historian and theologian, Brigham H. (B. H.) Roberts. It was the fourth in a five volume series on theology he wrote as study manuals for the Seventy’s quorums between 1907 and 1912. Chapters 12 and 13 are devoted to a study of eleven “Attributes of God Related to the Atonement.” They are: eternity, omniscience, truth, mercy, immutability, omnipresence, justice, love, omnipotence, wisdom, and holiness.  See: Brigham H. Roberts, The Seventy’s Course in Theology, Fourth Year: The Atonement (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1911), 66-75. The entire course was reproduced in one volume in 1994 by Grandin Book Company in Orem, Utah.

6. John 3:16.

7. D&C 34:3.  See also 2 Ne. 26:24; Eth. 12:33, and D&C 138:3.

8. The quotations in this paragraph are found in Brigham H. Roberts, The Seventy’s Course in Theology, Fourth Year: The Atonement, 88. For a fuller treatment see also pages  75,  83-84, 90-97, 102-103, 104-109 (this is chapter 19, titled: “The Advent of Mercy into the Earth-Scheme of Things.”  

9.   Joseph Smith, Lectures on Faith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 51-52; Lecture 4:11.

10.   Joseph Smith, Lectures on Faith, 52; Lecture 4:12.

11.   Joseph Smith, Lectures on Faith, 38-39; 3:4,7, emphasis added, however Joseph Smith placed the emphasis on the word "correct" in the original.

12. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 1:271-272, emphasis added. See also, J. R. Dummelow, ed. A Commentary on the Holy Bible, (New York: Macmillan Co., 1970), p. 631, and David Hill, The New Century Bible Commentary: The Gospel of Matthew, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 93. The latter wrote: “According to Jewish teaching, the merits of Abraham were counted to Israel’s advantage: ‘it is by the merits of Abraham their father that I walked up the sea for them’ (Mek. Exod. 14:15; see Schechter, chapter 12). The uselessness of dependence on forebears and of trust in membership of the chosen race is declared again at Jn 8:39 (cf. Rom. 2:17-29).”

On the other hand, Truman Madsen, takes a more positive view of the “merits of the fathers,” in the context of Mormon proxy temple work.
“Christ's atonement extends to fragmented and traumatized families and the family of man. Fragmented families represent another kind of death. If his healing of wounds is the beginning, then his sealing of families is the end. He will not rest until these are achieved. Temple teachings echo Jewish traditions concerning "the merit of the fathers" and conversely "the merit of the children." Jewish tradition says that somehow the righteousness of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah was so exceptional that one may come to God in their name and receive beyond any present worthiness . . . a bridge to and through the generations.10  On the other hand children may by their lives become a redeeming force in the redemption of their ancestors and ancestresses. This parallels Joseph Smith's repeated rationale, a "bold doctrine," for proxy service in the temple: "we without them cannot be made perfect," nor they without us (D&C 128:9, 18).”
Truman G. Madsen, “The Temple and the Atonement,” in Donald W. Parry, ed., Temples of the Ancient World: Ritual and Symbolism, (Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah: 1994), 67.

13.   Luke 16:19-31, esp. 22-23.

14. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 2:280.

15. John 5:45, emphasis added; see vss. 39-47.

16. John 9:29-30.

17. John 6:22-51.

18. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 2:30, emphasis added.    For another example of appealing to the merits of the “fathers,” see Edersheim, 1:536.

19.   Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 1:540, emphasis added.

20. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 1:85.

21. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 1:169-170. In Appendix 9, Edersheim lists Old Testament passages that were applied Messianically in Rabbinic writings.  Concerning Ps. 106:44 he writes: “On this there is in the Midrash a long Messianic discussion, setting forth the five grounds on which Israel is redeemed: through the sorrows of Israel through prayer, through the merits of the patriarchs, through repentance towards God, and in the time of ‘the end.’” [See  2:720.]

22. James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1960), 589-90, emphasis in Talmage.

23. Al. 22:14.

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