What We Believe
By Robert L. Millet
Dean of BYU religious education
Delivered at the weekly BYU Devotional, February 3, 1998
I am honored to be asked to speak at this devotional assembly this morning. Because the weekly
devotionals at Brigham Young University have been such a significant part of my life, I have taken this
invitation very seriously. My topic is "What We Believe."
Sooner or later you and I will be approached by men and women not of our faith, persons either sincerely
interested in what we believe or else opposed to much of what we stand for. This is particularly true as the
Church grows and as our influence spreads throughout the world.
Perhaps it would be worthwhile for us to entertain a few questions about what we believe, questions
frequently asked of the Latter-day Saints-concerning scripture, God, Christ, and salvation.
1. How can the Latter-day Saints justify having additional books of
scripture and adding to the Christian canon?
I remember very well sitting in a seminar on biblical studies at an eastern university many years ago. One
of the things that stands out in my mind is our discussion of the canon of scripture.
For at least two hours the instructor had emphasized that the word canon-referring, of course, to the
biblical books that are generally included in the Judaeo-Christian collection-was the "rule of faith," the
standard against which we measure what is acceptable in belief and practice. He also stated that the canon, if
the word meant anything at all, was closed, fixed, set, and established. He must have stressed those words at
least ten times as he wrote them on the blackboard over and over.
I noticed in the second session on this topic that the instructor seemed a bit uneasy. I remember thinking
that something must be wrong. Without warning, he stopped what he was doing, banged his fist on the table,
turned to me, and said: "Mr. Millet, will you please explain to this group the Latter-day Saint concept of
canon, given your people's acceptance of the Book of Mormon and other books of scripture beyond the Bible?"
I was startled. Stunned. Certainly surprised. I paused for several seconds, looked up at the blackboard,
saw the now very familiar words under the word canon, and said somewhat shyly: "Well, I suppose you could
say that the Latter-day Saints believe the canon of scripture is open, flexible, and expanding." We then had
a really fascinating discussion! Joseph Smith loved the Bible. It was through pondering upon certain verses
in the epistle of James that he felt directed to call upon God in prayer. Most of his sermons, writings, and
letters are laced with quotations or paraphrasing summaries of biblical passages and precepts from both the
Old and New Testaments. The Prophet once remarked that one can "see God's handwriting in the sacred
volume; and he who reads it oftenest will like it best."
From his earliest days, however, he did not believe the Bible was complete or that religious difficulties
could necessarily be handled by turning to the Old or New Testaments for help (Joseph Smith-History 1:12).
Nor did he believe in either the inerrancy or the infallibility of the Bible.
"From what we can draw from the Scriptures relative to the teaching of heaven," the Prophet stated, "we
are induced to think that much instruction has been given to man since the beginning which we do not possess
now. . . . We have what we have, and the Bible contains what it does contain: but to say that God never said
anything more to man than is there recorded, would be saying at once that we have at last received a
revelation: for it must require one to advance thus far."
Occasionally we hear certain Latter-day Saint teachings described as unbiblical or of a particular doctrine
being contradictory to the Bible. Let us be clear on this matter. The Bible is one of the books within our
standard works, and thus our doctrines and practices are in harmony with the Bible. There are times, of
course, when latter-day revelation provides clarification or enhancement of the intended meaning in the Bible.
But addition to the canon is not the same as rejection of the canon.
Supplementation is not the same as contradiction. All of the prophets, including the Savior himself, were
sent to bring new light and knowledge to the world; in many cases, new scripture came as a result of their
ministry. That new scripture did not invalidate what went before, nor did it close the door to subsequent revelation.
We feel deep gratitude for the holy scriptures, but we do not worship scripture. Nor do we feel it
appropriate to set up stakes and bounds to the works and ways of the Almighty, to tell God, essentially, "Thus
far and no more."
As the Lord declared through Nephi, "Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it
contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written" (2 Nephi 29:10).
In short, we believe God has spoken through modern prophets, restored his everlasting gospel, delivered
new truths, and commissioned us to make them known to the world. We feel it would be unchristian not to
share what has been communicated to us.
2. What do the Latter-day Saints really believe about God? Is it true
that they believe man can become as God?
Joseph Smith's First Vision represents the beginning of the revelation of God to man in this dispensation.
We will no doubt spend a lifetime seeking to understand the doctrinal profundity of that theophany. This
appearance of the Father and Son in upstate New York had the effect of challenging those creeds of
Christendom out of which the doctrine of the Trinity evolved-a doctrine that evolved from efforts to reconcile
Christian theology with Greek philosophy.
President Gordon B. Hinckley has observed:
"To me it is a significant and marvelous thing that in establishing and opening this dispensation our
Father did so with a revelation of himself and of his Son Jesus Christ, as if to say to all the world that
he was weary of the attempts of men, earnest though these attempts might have been, to define and
describe him. . . . The experience of Joseph Smith in a few moments in the grove on a spring day in
1820, brought more light and knowledge and understanding of the personality and reality and
substance of God and his Beloved Son than men had arrived at during centuries of speculation."
By revelation Joseph Smith came to know that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost constitute the Godhead.
From the beginning the Prophet Joseph taught that the members of the Godhead are one in purpose, one in
mind, one in glory, one in attributes and powers, but separate persons.
God is the Father of the spirits of all men and women (Numbers 16:22; 27:16), the source of light and
truth, the embodiment of all godly attributes and gifts, and the supreme power and intelligence over all things.
From the Book of Moses we learn that among the ancients God the Father was called "Man of Holiness," and
thus his Only Begotten Son is the Son of Man of Holiness, or the Son of Man (Moses 6:57). The title Man of
Holiness opens us to a deeper understanding of Deity. We believe that God the Father is an exalted man, a
corporeal being, a personage of flesh and bones.
That God has a physical body is one of the most important of all truths restored in this dispensation; it is
inextricably tied to such doctrines as the immortality of the soul, the literal resurrection, eternal marriage, and
the continuation of the family unit into eternity. In his corporeal or physical nature, God can be in only one
place at a time. His divine nature is such, however, that his glory, his power, and his influence, meaning his
Holy Spirit, fills the immensity of space and is the means by which he is omnipresent and through which law
and light and life are extended to us (see D&C 88:6-13).
The Father's physical body does not limit his capacity or detract one wit from his infinite holiness, any
more than Christ's resurrected body did so (see Luke 24; John 20-21). Interestingly enough, research by
Professor David Paulsen of our Philosophy department indicates that the idea of God's corporeality was
taught in the early Christian church into the fourth and fifth centuries, before being lost to the knowledge of
On the one hand, we worship a divine Being with whom we can identify. That is to say, his infinity does
not preclude either his immediacy or his intimacy. "In the day that God created man," the scriptures attest, "in
the likeness of God made he him; in the image of his own body, male and female, created he them" (Moses
6:8-9). God is not simply a spirit influence, a force in the universe, or the First Great Cause; when we pray
"Our Father which art in heaven" (Matthew 6:9), we mean what we say. We believe God is comprehendible,
knowable, approachable, and, like his Beloved Son, touched with the feeling of our infirmities (Hebrews 4:15).
On the other hand, our God is God. There is no knowledge of which the Father is ignorant and no power
he does not possess (1 Nephi 7:12; 2 Nephi 9:20; Mosiah 4:9; Alma 26:35; Helaman 9:41; Ether 3:4).
Scriptural passages that speak of him being the same yesterday, today, and forever (e.g., Psalm 102:27;
Hebrews 1:12; 13:8; 1 Nephi 10:18-19; 2 Nephi 27:23; Alma 7:20; Mormon 9:8-11, 19; Moroni 8:18; 10:7;
D&C 3:2; 20:12, 17; 35:1) clearly have reference to his divine attributes-his love, justice, constancy, and
willingness to bless his children.
In addition, President Joseph Fielding Smith explained that "From eternity to eternity means from the spirit
existence through the probation which we are in, and then back again to the eternal existence which will
follow. Surely this is everlasting, for when we receive the resurrection, we will never die . We all existed in
the first eternity. I think I can say of myself and others, we are from eternity; and we will be to eternity
everlasting, if we receive the exaltation."
We come to the earth to take a physical body, be schooled and gain experiences in this second estate that
we could not have in the first estate, the premortal life. We then strive to keep the commandments and grow
in faith and spiritual graces until we are prepared to go where God and Christ are. Eternal life consists in
being with God; in addition, it entails being like God. A study of Christian history reveals that the doctrine of
the deification of man was taught at least into the fifth century by such notables as Irenaus, Clement of
Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Athanasius, and Augustine.
Because we know that many plain and precious truths were taken from the Bible before it was compiled
(1 Nephi 13:20-39; Preface to D&C 76), we might not agree with some of what was taught about deification
by such Christian thinkers, but it is clear that the idea was not foreign to the people of the early church.
For that matter, no less a modern Christian theologian than C.S. Lewis recognized the logical and
theological extension of being transformed by Christ. "The Son of God became a man," Lewis pointed out,
"to enable men to become sons of God."
Further, Lewis has explained: "The command Be Ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to
do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible)
that we were 'gods' and He is going to make good his words.
If we let Him-for we can prevent Him, if we choose-He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god
or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom
and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of
course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and
in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said."
All men and women, like Christ, are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27; Moses 2:27),
and so it is neither robbery nor heresy for the children of God to aspire to be like God (Matthew 5:48;
Philippians 2:6); like any parent, our Heavenly Father would want his children to become and be all that he is.
Godhood comes through overcoming the world through the Atonement (1 John 5:4-5; Revelation 2:7, 11;
D&C 76:51-60), becoming heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, who is the natural Heir (Romans 8:17;
Galatians 4:7), and thus inheriting all things, just as Jesus inherits all things (1 Corinthians 3:21-23; Revelation
21:7; D&C 76:55, 95; 84:38; 88:107). The faithful are received into the "church of the Firstborn" (Hebrews
12:23; D&C 76:54, 67, 94; 93:22), meaning they inherit as though they were the firstborn. In that glorified
state we will be conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus (Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 15:49; 2 Corinthians
3:18; 1 John 3:2; Alma 5:14), receive his glory, and be one with him and with the Father (John 17:21-23;
Although we know from modern revelation that godhood comes through the receipt of eternal life (D&C
132:19-20), we do not believe we will ever, worlds without end, unseat or oust God the Eternal Father or his
Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ; those holy beings are and forever will be the Gods we worship.
Even though we believe in the ultimate deification of man, I am unaware of any authoritative statement in
LDS literature that suggests that we will ever worship any being other than the ones within the Godhead. We
believe in "one God" in the sense that we love and serve one Godhead, one divine presidency, each of whom
possesses all of the attributes of Godhood (Alma 11:44; D&C 20:28).
In short, God is not of another species, nor is he the great unknowable one; he is indeed our Father in
heaven. He has revealed a plan whereby we might enjoy happiness in this world and dwell with him and be
like him in the world to come.
3. Do the Latter-day Saints believe that salvation comes through
their own works rather than by the grace of Christ? Are they
The theological debate over whether we are saved by grace or by works is a fruitless argument that
generates more heat than light, much "like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary."
Latter-day Saints have often been critical of those who stress salvation by grace alone, while we have
often been criticized for a type of works-righteousness.
The gospel is in fact a gospel covenant-a two-way promise. The Lord agrees to do for us what we could
never do for ourselves-to forgive our sins, to lift our burdens, to renew our souls and re-create our nature, to
raise us from the dead and qualify us for glory hereafter. At the same time, we promise to do what we can do:
receive the ordinances of salvation, love and serve one another (Mosiah 18:8-10), and do all in our power to
put off the natural man and deny ourselves of ungodliness (Mosiah 3:19; Moroni 10:32).
We believe that more is required of men and women than a verbal expression of faith in the Lord, more
than a confession with the lips that we have received Christ into our hearts.
The scriptures of the Restoration add perspective and balance to the majestic teachings of the Apostle
Paul on the matter of salvation by grace. We know, without question, that the power to save us, to change us,
to renew our souls, is in Christ. True faith, however, always manifests itself in faithfulness. Good works
evidence our faith, our desire to remain in covenant with Christ, but they are not sufficient.
The real question is not whether I am saved by grace or by works but rather, In whom do I trust? On
whom do I rely? (See 1 Nephi 10:6; 2 Nephi 2:8; 31:19; Moroni 6:4.)
Too often we are prone to view grace as that increment of goodness, that final gift of God that will make
up the difference and thereby boost us into the celestial kingdom, "after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23). To be
sure, we will need a full measure of divine assistance to become celestial material. But the grace of God,
through Jesus Christ our Lord, is available to us every hour of every day of our lives. "True grace," as one
non-LDS writer has suggested, "is more than just a giant freebie, opening the door to heaven in the sweet by
and by, but leaving us to wallow in sin in the bitter here and now. Grace is God presently at work in our lives."
The grace of God is a precious gift, an enabling power to face life with quiet courage, to do things we
could never do on our own. The Great Physician does more than forgive sins. He ministers relief to the
disconsolate, comfort to the bereaved, confidence to those who wrestle with infirmities and feelings of
inadequacy, strength and peace to those who have been battered and scarred by the ironies of this life (Isaiah
61:1-2; Alma 7:11-13).
Few things would be more serious than encouraging lip service to God but discouraging obedience and
faithful discipleship. On the other hand, surely nothing could be more offensive to God than a smug
self-assurance that comes from trusting in one's own works or relying upon one's own strength.
Understanding this sacred principle-the relationship between the grace of an infinite Being and the works
of finite man-is not easy, but it is immensely rewarding. The more we learn to trust the Lord and rely upon his
merits and mercy, the less anxious we become about life here and hereafter. "Thus, if you have really handed
yourself over to Him," C. S. Lewis wisely remarked, "it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But
trying in a new way, a less worried way."
Are we then "saved Christians"? Whereas the ultimate blessings of salvation do not come until the next
life, there is a sense in which people in this life may enjoy the assurance of salvation and the peace that
accompanies that knowledge (D&C 59:23).
True faith in Christ produces hope in Christ-not worldly wishing but expectation, anticipation, assurance.
As the Apostle Paul wrote, the Holy Spirit provides the "earnest of our inheritance," the promise or
evidence that we are on course, in covenant, and thus in line for full salvation in the world to come (2
Corinthians 1:21-22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:13-14). That is, the Spirit of God operating in our lives is like the
Lord's "earnest money" on us-his sweet certification that he seriously intends to save us with an everlasting
salvation. Thus if we are striving to cultivate the gift of the Holy Ghost, we are living in what might be called
a "saved" condition.
One of the most respected Evangelical theologians, John Stott, has written:
"Salvation is a big and comprehensive word. It embraces the totality of God's saving work, from
beginning to end. In fact, salvation has three tenses, past, present, and future. . . . I have been saved (in
the past) from the penalty of sin by a crucified Saviour. I am being saved (in the present) from the
power of sin by a living Saviour. And I shall be saved (in the future) from the very presence of sin by a
coming Saviour. . . .
"If therefore you were to ask me, 'Are you saved?' there is only one correct biblical answer which I
could give you: 'yes and no.' Yes, in the sense that by the sheer grace and mercy of God through the
death of Jesus Christ my Saviour he has forgiven my sins, justified me and reconciled me to himself. But
no, in the sense that I still have a fallen nature and live in a fallen world and have a corruptible body, and
I am longing for my salvation to be brought to its triumphant completion."
President David O. McKay taught that "The gospel of Jesus Christ, as revealed to the Prophet Joseph
Smith, is in very deed, in every way, the power of God unto salvation. It is salvation here-here and now. It
gives to every man the perfect life, here and now, as well as hereafter."
Too many of us wrestle with feelings of inadequacy, struggle with hopelessness, and in general are much
too anxious about our standing before God. It is important to keep the ultimate goal of exaltation ever before
us, but it seems so much more profitable to focus on fundamentals and on the here and now-staying in
covenant, being dependable and true to our promises, cultivating the gift of the Holy Ghost.
President Brigham Young taught that our work "is a work of the present. The salvation we are seeking is
for the present, and sought correctly, it can be obtained, and be continually enjoyed. If it continues today, it is
upon the same principle that it will continue tomorrow, the next day, the next week, or the next year, and, we
might say, the next eternity."
In short, salvation is in Christ, and our covenant with Christ, our trust in his power to redeem us, should
be demonstrated in how we live. The influence of the Holy Ghost in our lives is a sign to us that we are on
course, "in Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:17), and thus in line for salvation.
4. Are the Latter-day Saints Christian? Or do they, as some have
suggested, worship a different Jesus?
We believe in Jesus of Nazareth, in the One sent of the Father to bind up the broken hearted and proclaim
liberty to the captives (Isaiah 61:1; D&C 138:11-18). For us, the Jesus of history is indeed the Christ of faith.
He was and is the Only Begotten Son of God in the flesh (John 3:16; 2 Nephi 25:12; D&C 20:21). While
some may exclude us from the category of Christian for this or that doctrinal matter, our behavior must be
consistent with our profession; those who claim new life in the Spirit are expected to walk in the Spirit
"Are we Christians?" President Gordon B. Hinckley asked. "Of course we are! No one can honestly deny
that. We may be somewhat different from the traditional pattern of Christianity. But no one believes more
literally in the redemption wrought by the Lord Jesus Christ. No one believes more fundamentally that He was
the Son of God, that He died for the sins of mankind, that He rose from the grave, and that He is the living
resurrected Son of the living Father.
"All of our doctrine, all of our religious practice stems from that one basic doctrinal position: 'We believe
in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.' This is the first article of our
faith, and all else flows therefrom."
In the long run, all we can do is live what we preach and bear testimony of what we feel in our hearts and
know in our minds. While we do not want to be misunderstood and we certainly would like for others to
recognize the centrality of Christ in our lives, we do not require the imprimatur of the religious world to
substantiate our claim. We are who we are and we know who we are, and if all the world should think
otherwise, so be it. Our primary thrust in the religious world is not to court favor. Our desire to build bridges
of understanding does not excuse us from the obligation to maintain our distinctive position in the religious world.
Our strength lies in our distinctiveness, for we have something to offer the world, something of great
worth. No one wants to be spurned, misunderstood, or misrepresented. But sometimes such is the cost of
discipleship (Matthew 5:10-12).
As to whether we worship a different Jesus, we say again: We accept and endorse the testimony of the
New Testament writers: Jesus is the Promised Messiah, the resurrection and the life (John 11:25), literally the
Light of the world (John 8:12). Everything that testifies of his divine birth, his goodness, his transforming
power, and his Godhood, we embrace enthusiastically. He has broken the bands of death and lives today.
All this we know. But we know much more about the Christ because of what has been made known
through latter-day prophets. President Brigham Young thus declared that "We, the Latter-day Saints, take the
liberty of believing more than our Christian brethren: we not only believe . . . the Bible,
but . . . the whole of the plan of salvation that Jesus has given to us. Do we differ from
others who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ? No, only in believing more."
Our conduct and our way of life cannot be separated from our doctrine, for what we believe empowers
and directs what we do. A number of years ago an article appeared in Christianity Today entitled "Why Your
Neighbor Joined the Mormon Church." Five reasons were given:
- The Latter-day Saints show genuine love and concern by taking care of their people.
- They strive to build the family unit.
- They provide for their young people.
- Theirs is a layman's church.
- They believe that divine revelation is the basis for their practices.
After a brief discussion of each of the above, the author of the article concluded: "In a day when many are
hesitant to claim that God has said anything definitive, the Mormons stand out in contrast, and many people
are ready to listen to what the Mormons think the voice of God says. It is tragic that their message is false, but
it is nonetheless a lesson to us that people are many times ready to hear a voice of authority."
The Savior taught of the importance of judging things—prophets, for example—by their fruits, by the
product of their ministry and teachings (Matthew 7:15-20). He also explained that "Every plant, which my
heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up" (Matthew 15:13). Evil trees cannot bring forth good
fruit. Works of men eventually come to naught, but that which is of God cannot be overthrown (Acts 5:38-39). (1 John 3:7).
In short, we proclaim that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ. We have taken his name upon us, eagerly
acknowledge the redeeming power of his blood, and seek to emulate his perfect life.
Let me close by sharing with you three simple suggestions-learned through both sad and sweet
experince–on how we might effectively deal with difficult questions posed by those not of our faith.
First, stay in control. There is nothing more frustrating than knowing the truth, loving the truth, sincerely
desiring to share the truth, and yet being unable to communicate our deepest feelings to another who sees
things differently. Argument or disputation over sacred things cause us to forfeit the Spirit of God and thus
the confirming power of our message (3 Nephi 11:28-30). We teach and we testify. Contention is unbecoming
of one called to publish peace and thus bless our brothers and sisters. In the words of Elder Marvin J. Ashton,
"We have no time for contention. We only have time to be about our Father's business."
Second, stay in order. The Savior taught that gospel prerequisites should be observed when teaching
sacred things (Matthew 7:6-7).
A person, for example, who knows very little about our doctrine will probably not understand or
appreciate our teachings concerning temples, sealing powers, eternal life, or the deification of man. Joseph
Smith the Prophet explained that "If we start right, it is easy to go right all the time; but if we start wrong, we
may go wrong, and it [will] be a hard matter to get right."
It is always wise to lay a proper foundation for what is to be said; the truth can then flow more freely. The
Apostle Peter is said to have explained to Clement:
"The teaching of all doctrine has a certain order, and there are some things which must be delivered first, others in the second place, and others in the third, and so all in their order; and if these things be delivered in their order, they become plain; but if they be brought forward out of order, they will seem to be spoken against reason."
Third, stay in context. As we have already noted, we love the Bible and cherish its messages. But the
Bible is not the source of our doctrine or authority, nor is much to be gained through efforts to "prove" the
truthfulness of the restored gospel from the Bible.
Ours is an independent revelation. We know what we know about the premortal existence, priesthood,
celestial marriage, baptism for the dead, the postmortal spirit world, degrees of glory, etc., because of what
God has made known through latter-day prophets, not because we are able to identify a few biblical allusions
to these matters.
Some of our greatest difficulties in handling questions about our faith come when we try to establish
specific doctrines of the Restoration from the Bible alone. There is consummate peace and spiritual power to
be derived from being loyal to those things the Almighty has communicated to us in our dispensation (D&C
5:10; 31:3-4; 43:15-16; 49:1-4; 84:54-61).
"Our main task," President Ezra Taft Benson explained, "is to declare the gospel and do it effectively. We
are not obligated to answer every objection. Every man eventually is backed up to the wall of faith, and there
he must make his stand."
I testify to the truthfulness of these remarkable doctrines about which we have been speaking. I know, by
the witness of the Holy Ghost to my soul, that God is our Father, Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, Joseph
Smith was and is a prophet of the living God, and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is
indeed the kingdom of God on earth. These things I know, because I have studied and searched and sought to
understand. These things I know, because I have read and pondered and prayed and pleaded for light and knowledge.
What has come to me is as settling and soothing to my heart as it is stimulating and enlarging to my mind.
This work is true, and because it is true it will triumph. The First Presidency of the Church in 1907 declared:
"Our motives are not selfish; our purposes not petty and earth-bound; we contemplate the human race, past,
present and yet to come, as immortal beings, for whose salvation it is our mission to labor; and to this work,
broad as eternity and deep as the love of God, we devote ourselves, now, and forever."
I pray that we will come to know what we believe, by study and by faith, and then with boldness but quiet
dignity share those saving truths with others. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.