We cannot read the scriptures very far without encountering the word covenant. It is sometimes used as a verb (“to covenant” about something), sometimes as a noun (“to make a covenant”), and sometimes as an adjective (a “covenant people”). It appears in the Old Testament at least 273 times, the New Testament 32 times, the Book of Mormon 155 times, the Doctrine and Covenants 94 times, and the Pearl of Great Price 7 times. In addition, the synonyms oath and promise appear in hundreds of other instances.
Clearly, the making of covenants is a major theme of the scripture and a major way in which the Father deals with his children. What is there about covenants that make them so important? To answer that question, let’s look at the covenant activities recorded in the scriptures.
First, we need to understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the “everlasting covenant”—it is God’s promise of eternal life and salvation (see D&C 66:2; D&C 133:57). Although the gospel is the new and everlasting covenant, it consists of many individual covenants. For example, baptism is “a new and everlasting covenant,” and celestial marriage is also “anew and everlasting covenant, (D&C 22:1–2; D&C 132:4; italics added).
Second, there are different types of covenants. One series of gospel covenants we call the “plan of salvation”; these are the same for every person. They were the same for Adam and for Abraham as they are for us. These covenants relate to individual salvation and include faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, ordination to the priesthood, and eternal marriage.
Another type of covenant pertains to the personal situation of the individual. For example, the Lord covenanted with Noah to preserve his family through the flood, with Abraham to give his posterity the land of Canaan, with Joseph of Egypt that his children would thrive in the land of the everlasting hills, with David that the Messiah would come through his line, and with Enos that the Lamanites would be taught the gospel in a future time. Thus, some covenants are the same for all who wish the fulness of salvation. In addition, the Lord has made special covenants with individuals.
The Earliest Covenants
The first mention of the word “covenant” in the King James Version is one that the Lord makes with Noah (see Gen. 6:18). However, we learn from the Book of Mormon that the Bible no longer contains a complete history of God’s dealings with mankind, and that “many covenants of the Lord” have been lost from its pages (1 Ne. 13:26). Through revelation and restoration by the Prophet Joseph Smith, we now know that the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ was first revealed to Adam, and that he and his immediate family were the first covenant people, more than a thousand years before Noah.
Covenant-making and covenant people have been in the Lord’s plan since the very beginning, even before the world was formed. Several scriptures teach us that mankind was taught the gospel of Jesus Christ while yet in the spirit world before birth into mortality. Even before the earth was formed, the Father’s plan of salvation was explained to us. Paul wrote to Titus, his fellow laborer in the gospel, that God, who cannot lie, promised eternal life even “before the world began” (Titus 1:2). That such promises were made to man in pre-mortal times is also stated in D&C 132:63. We also believe that in pre-mortal life, “the sons [and daughters] of God shouted for joy” at the prospect of eternal life (Job 38:7), and that some of those spirits were foreordained to perform certain work in mortality (see Abr. 3:22–23; Alma 13:3–7; D&C 138:53–56). We also read that a third part of the spirits were cast out with Lucifer because they would not accept the plan of salvation (see D&C 29:36–37; Moses 4:1–4). We are informed in D&C 132:5–11 that all of the promises and covenants of the gospel were instituted by the Father “before the foundation of the world.” Therefore we must conclude that gospel covenants have existed from the beginning and that anyone who has accepted the gospel at any time has had a covenant relationship with God.
The purpose of the gospel is to educate, perfect, and sanctify man, lifting him to the status of a god in celestial glory. A person cannot lift himself or herself by individual effort alone but must be lifted by the power of the atonement of Jesus Christ. This power does not operate in its fulness unless one is wholeheartedly willing to be so lifted.
One important aspect of a gospel covenant is that it commits the individual to the work of the Lord. A person making and keeping a covenant with God must sort out his values and actually work toward salvation, which is a much more involving process than mere intellectual assent. Furthermore, because gospel covenants are revealed from heaven, they are specific indicators of what God would have us do. Without revelation, we would not know how to please God—we would not know that we should be baptized, pay tithing, observe the Sabbath and the Word of Wisdom, be ordained to the priesthood, fast, pray, partake of the sacrament, or do ordinances for our dead. These are not the kinds of things men and women would do naturally. They require conscious and deliberate and willfull obedience. Divine covenants mark the path of duty and commit us to walk in it. They more fully distinguish the way of the Lord from the way of the world. They are the only way in which the saving ordinances of the gospel are administered to man, and the most sacred of these can be received only in the temple.
The Lord requires certain duties of all members of his Church, but each must also struggle with his own nature and personality. Timid souls must learn to be brave; overzealous natures must develop patience; rebellious persons must learn to conform; the slothful must become diligent; the spiritually uncultured must be refined; and all must learn self-discipline. The covenant relationship encourages us to deal with these personal weaknesses; every gospel covenant ties the individual closer to the Lord Jesus Christ, who has the power to help us turn weaknesses into strengths (see Ether 12:27).
Why a Covenant People?
Granted that personal covenants are necessary for salvation, why is a covenant people important? Why cannot salvation be entirely an individual matter? It is individual, in one sense, but salvation in its fullest sense involves other people. Families, for example, are the essential units of exaltation; and it is only through the covenants received in the temple that the family acquires an eternal nature. Moreover, we receive strength and support and are given opportunities to grow by associating with others who have made the same covenants we have. Another important reason is that a covenant people provides a base of operations through which the gospel can be carried to other people, priesthood authority can be preserved and exercised, and the kingdom of God can be extended through the earth.
We read in Psalm 50:5, “Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice.” [Ps. 50:5] Order characterizes God’s house. A covenant people are bound together not only by the same revealed covenants that they have individually made with the Lord, but also by the strength and support they lend each other as a Church. This bonding provides a functional channel for the Lord to work through among the peoples of the earth. Thus, a covenant people make covenants with the Lord to serve him, and the Lord in turn covenants to redeem them through the gospel.
When the ancient patriarchs tasted the joys of redemption through their faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, they sought assurance from the Lord that the same gospel would come to their posterity. In response the Lord promised to offer the gospel to their children in future generations. In this way the hearts of the fathers were truly turned to their children. (Subsequently, whenever the children come to an understanding of the gospel, their hearts become turned to their fathers—see D&C 2:2.) Thus, to a large extent, we enjoy the gospel today because of the faith of those ancient patriarchs, our fathers, who desired the same joy for us that they had.
But who exactly are the fathers with whom the Lord made covenants concerning their seed? The covenant to Abraham and his seed is the most extensive of the covenants mentioned in the Bible, but thanks to the additional revelations given to the Prophet Joseph Smith we know that the Lord covenanted first with Adam and that the same covenant was then extended to Seth, Enoch, Methuselah, and Noah (see D&C 107:42–52). In fact, Methuselah was not taken up with the rest of Enoch’s city so “that the covenants of the Lord might be fulfilled … that Noah should be of the fruit of his [Enoch’s] loins” (JST, Gen. 7:79). Later, Melchizedek and Abraham received the same gospel with the same covenants that the Lord had made with Enoch. (See JST, Gen. 8:22–23; JST, Gen. 9:15–25; JST, Gen. 13:13; JST, Gen. 14:26–34.) Isaac and Jacob also received the gospel covenant and other special covenants; and “great were the covenants of the Lord … unto Joseph” (2 Ne. 3:4). Abraham, then, was not the first of the covenant people, though he is an indispensable link in a long succession of patriarchs before and after him who covenanted with the Lord not only for their individual salvation but also on behalf of their posterity. The promises made to the fathers extend all the way back to father Adam and all the way forward to his posterity, or all mankind.
It is for this reason that we find such a continuity and cohesivesness in the scriptures. Every past dispensation has had the gospel of Jesus Christ and a covenant people who have labored for the salvation of the human family, just as we in the Church do today in our dispensation. The purposes of God have not changed; his covenants are the same in the Old and New Testaments, the Pearl of Great Price, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Church in the twentieth century.
The Covenants Are Not Forgotten
The Lord has a special respect for the covenants he has made to the fathers. Moses told the children of Israel as they were about to enter Canaan:
“The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people …
“But because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, that the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.
“Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations.” (Deut. 7:7–9.)
The Lord also assured the Nephites and Lamanites during his visit to them in ancient America that the Father had not forgotten his covenant to their fathers:
“And because I said unto you that old things have passed away, I do not destroy that which hath been spoken concerning things which are to come.
“For behold, the covenant which I have made with my people is not all fulfilled; but the law which was given unto Moses hath an end in me.” (3 Ne. 15:7–8.)
The covenant here referred to that shall not be forgotten is described by Mormon:
“Surely shall he [the Lord] again bring a remnant of the seed of Joseph to the knowledge of the Lord their God. …
“And as he hath covenanted with all the house of Jacob, even so shall the covenant wherewith he hath covenanted with the house of Jacob be fulfilled in his own due time, unto the restoring all the house of Jacob unto the knowledge of the covenant that he hath covenanted with them.
“And then shall they know their redeemer, who is Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and then shall they be gathered in from the four quarters of the earth unto their own lands, from whence they have been dispersed; yea, as the Lord liveth so shall it be. Amen.” (3 Ne. 5:23–26.)
It was in keeping faith with the covenants made to the fathers that the Lord has restored the gospel and the priesthood in this dispensation of the fulness of times, informing early members of the Church that they were lineal descendants of the ancient patriarchs, and thus heirs to both the gospel and the priesthood:
“Therefore, thus saith the Lord unto you, with whom the priesthood hath continued through the lineage of your fathers—
“For ye are lawful heirs, according to the flesh, and have been hid from the world with Christ in God—
“Therefore your life and the priesthood have remained, and must needs remain through you and your lineage until the restoration of all things spoken by the mouths of all the holy prophets since the world began.
“Therefore, blessed are ye if ye continue in my goodness, a light unto the Gentile, and through this priesthood, a savior unto my people Israel. The Lord hath said it. Amen.” (D&C 86:8–11.)
The Promise of Posterity
To Adam, the Lord “administered comfort,” and promised that he would stand at the head of “a multitude of nations” and be “a prince over them forever” And Adam, “bowed down with age” but “full of the Holy Ghost” predicted “whatsoever should befall his posterity unto the latest generation.” (D&C 107:55–56.)
Enoch cried unto the Lord in the name of the Messiah that he would “have mercy upon Noah and his seed,” and therefore the Lord “sware unto him with an oath, that he would stay the floods … and he sent forth an unalterable decree, that a remnant of his [Enoch’s] seed should always be found among all nations, while the earth should stand” (JST, Gen. 7:57–58; Moses 7:50–52).
To Noah, the Lord reiterated his intention to “destroy all flesh,” but added “with thee will I establish my covenant, even as I have sworn unto thy father, Enoch, that of thy posterity shall come all nations” (JST, Gen. 8:22–23). In setting the rainbow as a token of their covenant, the Lord made this promise to Noah, which will be fulfilled in the last days:
“And this is mine everlasting covenant, that when try posterity shall embrace the truth, and look upward, then shall Zion [the city of Enoch] look downward, and all the heavens shall shake with gladness, and the earth shall tremble with joy;
“And the general assembly of the church of the first-born shall come down out of heaven, and possess the earth, and shall have place until the end come. And this is mine everlasting covenant, which I made with thy father Enoch.” (JST, Gen. 9:22–23.)
Melchizedek also received the gospel, and “having been approved of God, he was ordained a high priest after the order of the covenant which God made with Enoch” (JST, Gen. 14:27).
This same covenant was conferred upon Abraham, and in doing so the Lord reminded him of “the days of Enoch thy father” (JST, Gen. 13:13). Then the Lord repeated to Abraham the promise of continuing posterity, saying “I will make thee exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come of thee, and of thy seed” (JST, Gen. 17:10).
The covenant to Abraham included a promise that all who accept the true gospel of Jesus Christ will be counted as Abraham’s seed. This includes the literal seed of the body as well as those who accept the gospel and become children of Abraham by adoption. The promise is clearly stated in Abraham 2:8–11:
“My name is Jehovah, and I know the end from the beginning; therefore my hand shall be over thee.
“And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee above measure, and make thy name great among all nations, and thou shalt be a blessing unto thy seed after thee, that in their hands they shall bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations.
“And I will bless them through thy name; for as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name, and shall be accounted thy seed, and shall rise up and bless thee, as their father;
“And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee; and in thee (that is, in thy Priesthood) and in thy seed (that is, thy Priesthood), for I give unto thee a promise that this right shall continue in thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal.” [Abr. 2:8–11]
A major part of the covenant with Abraham is the promise that through Abraham and his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed (see Gen. 12:2; Gen. 18:18; Abr. 2:11). Paul explains that the Lord Jesus Christ was born into the world through Abraham’s lineage, and since Jesus is the Savior for all mankind, all are thus blessed through Abraham’s seed (see Gal. 3:8–16). This is one application of the promise. Another way in which all people are or will be blessed is that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are mixed and intermingled with all nations; thus today the descendants of these patriarchs are found more or less among all nations and among all people, making them heirs to the promise that the gospel would be offered to them. Furthermore, the descendants of Abraham bear the holy priesthood and minister the gospel to all nations.
Since the fall of Adam, the Lord has had one object in view—to extend salvation to as many persons in the human family as possible. This began with Adam and has continued in every dispensation and with every prophet. With Jacob, the house of Israel became the major visible vehicle and the symbol through which the covenant was continued. However, there have been individuals from other ancestries who were blessed of the Lord with the gospel and the priesthood. Jethro, father-in-law to Moses, is an example.
The House of Israel
The word “Israel” means one who prevails with God. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel at the time he received the covenant that had been conferred upon Abraham, his grandfather (see Gen. 32:28). His lineal posterity are known in the earth as the house of Israel, although most of them have been scattered throughout the earth and their identity has been lost, except to the Lord. The covenant was later conferred upon Joseph the son of Jacob, and upon his son Ephraim who was given the birthright in Israel in the last days (see 1 Chr. 5:1–2; Jer. 31:9). In keeping with the Lord’s covenant to Abraham, whenever an individual accepts the gospel of Jesus Christ, he becomes a member of the house of Israel, regardless of his actual lineage because he becomes an heir to the blessings of the covenant. The word “Israel” therefore has more than one meaning today, and a literal descendant of Israel may lose his spiritual heritage if he does not accept the gospel. Thus, Paul in speaking of lineal Israel can say to the Romans, “They are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (Rom. 9:6), meaning that one must become an Israelite by covenant, not simply by lineage, if he wants the blessings of eternal salvation. In this respect, those not of Israel who joined the Church—such as Cornelius and his family in New Testament times (see Acts 10–11) were given the same promise of salvation through the gospel as were the Israelites. In a sense, they were adopted, or grafted, into the house of Israel. Whether in Abraham’s time, or in New Testament times, or in the Fulness of Times, Israel is the name and inheritance confirmed upon all who accept the covenants of the gospel (see Rom. 11 and Jacob 5). And those who obey the covenants of the gospel will continue as members of the house of Israel in eternity, ruling forever as kings and priests over their posterity.
The house of Israel has been scattered throughout the whole world and among all nations so that today there are probably very few places and people in which the blood of Israel is not present to some degree. This does not annul nor supercede the promises made to Adam, Enoch, and Noah about their posterity, but is the way through which the covenants and purposes of the Lord in all ages might be brought to a fulfillment.
A Call to Responsibility
Through the Abrahamic covenant the Lord has established the house of Israel and placed upon it the responsibility to carry the gospel to all peoples. When the time came for the restoration of the gospel and the establishment of the dispensation of the fulness of times (which includes the restoration of all things), the Lord called upon Joseph Smith because he was of the lineage of Abraham and of Ephraim, and it is that lineage which holds the birthright in Israel in the last days.
It was the privilege and responsibility of Ephraim to be offered the gospel first in this dispensation; as the birthright tribe, Ephraim was given the gospel first because it is Ephraim’s responsibility to minister the gospel to the other peoples of the earth. The covenant or “chosen people” concept is a call to bear the holy priesthood and to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ into all the world. Those who have that designation—in other words, those who are numbered among the covenant people because they have made covenants with the Lord—are not chosen to be saved faster, or higher, or easier than all others, but are chosen for service and responsibility.
It is appropriate that the covenant of salvation be called after Abraham’s name, for Abraham bore the responsibility most effectively in his own life. He was a teacher of the gospel to the peoples of Chaldea, and Haran, and Egypt, as well as to his own family. Because of his greatness, the Lord said of him, “I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him” (Gen. 18:19).
Children of the Covenant
Since it is “Israel” who now dispenses the gospel to all the world, and since the faithful are all gathered into “Israel,” thereby becoming heirs of the promises God made to the fathers, all nations and peoples may partake of the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant by accepting and obeying the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul said to the gentiles of his day: “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
“And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:27–29).
Thus, all who accept the gospel of Jesus Christ come into the covenant and are considered Israelites; they are truly “children of the covenant” (see 3 Ne. 20:24–27)—if not by direct lineage, then by virtue of accepting the gospel. Even literal descendants of Abraham who do not accept the gospel for themselves are not “children of the covenant” in the same sense that faithful children are. It was in this sense that Jesus spoke to some literal descendants of Abraham as recorded in John 8:37–44.
The question naturally arises, is there a spiritual advantage or difference between being a literal descendant of Israel or being adopted into the house of Israel? We do not know all of the judgments or purposes of the Lord, and therefore are limited in pursuing the topic. However, we do know some things that may have bearing on the matter. First, the Lord loves all of his children. Second, “We believe that through the atonement of Christ all mankind may be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.” Third, when any person comes into the Church his opportunities for salvation and holding Office in the Church and serving as a missionary are the same as with all other members. Fourth, all who accept the gospel become the seed of Abraham and heirs of the covenant. People of all nations are invited to come into the Church, so as to participate in the covenants of the Lord and obtain the blessings of salvation for themselves and their posterity. When they do so, they are eligible to be called to hold office as well as to be a member. Salvation is obtainable only through Jesus Christ, regardless of nation or race. There is no other name nor means—there never has been, nor ever will be—and all who accept Jesus come into the covenant fully.
On the other hand, we know that some remnants of the literal seed of Israel still have a prophetic mission. For example, the ten tribes are not yet gathered; the Lamanites have many promises made to them that have not yet been completed; and the Jewish people have not yet been restored in the manner spoken of in the scriptures. Thus, certain remnants of the literal children of Israel still have a role to perform in the salvation of the human family. Though “all are alike unto God” (2 Ne. 26:33) in an eternal perspective, there may be some difference as to where the bulk of the remnants fits in relation to the Lord’s timetable. For example, the Jews were offered the gospel before the gentiles in the meridian of time, and Ephraim was called upon first in the fulness of time. Some other differences are discussed by the Savior in 3 Nephi 15:21–24. [3 Ne. 15:21–24]
Whatever the differences, the promises made to the fathers have been extended to all who covenant with the Lord in the gospel of Jesus Christ. One aspect of the gathering of Israel is accomplished today by becoming a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As Latter-day Saints we are a covenant people not only because of the covenants made to the ancient patriarchs, but also because we are a covenant-making people. Through these covenants the gospel shall continue to go forth among all nations until the day comes when the Saints shall sing this New Song, saying:
“The Lord hath brought again Zion; the Lord hath redeemed his people, Israel, according to the election of grace, which was brought to pass by the faith And covenant of their fathers. The Lord hath redeemed his people; and Satan is bound and time is no longer. The Lord hath gathered all things in one. The Lord hath brought down Zion from above. The Lord hath brought up Zion from beneath. The earth hath travailed and brought forth her strength; And truth is established in her bowels; And the heavens have smiled upon her; And she is clothed with the glory of her God; For he stands in the midst of his people. Glory, and honor, and power, and might, be ascribed to our God; for he is full of mercy, justice, grace and truth, and peace, forever and ever, Amen.” (D&C 84:99–102).