One of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted doctrines in all of Christianity is the doctrine of the Fall of Adam. Elder James E. Talmage said: “It has become a common practice with mankind to heap reproaches on the progenitors of the family, and to picture the supposedly blessed state in which we would be living but for the fall; whereas our first parents are entitled to our deepest gratitude for their legacy to posterity—the means of winning title to glory, exaltation and eternal lives.” (James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1913, p. 70.)
The LDS conception of the Fall as a necessary part of the overall plan of redemption is based heavily on doctrine taught in the Book of Mormon. That doctrine is probably taught no more clearly and forcefully than it is in father Lehi’s final blessing upon his son Jacob. (See 2 Ne. 2.)
Lehi’s great blessing to his son is so full of doctrine and profound meaning that virtually every sentence and, in some cases, every word takes on great significance. In broad terms, Lehi seems to be doing four things. (1) He outlines five fundamental principles that we must adhere to before we can understand the Fall. (2) He discusses the redemption of the Messiah and how it is possible for Him to redeem men from the Fall. (3) He discusses the Fall in some detail, focusing on why it had to take place. And (4) he concludes by exhorting Jacob and the other members of his family to use their agency wisely to reap the blessings of the Atonement.
Lehi indicates that we must understand five fundamentals to properly understand the Fall.
Fundamental 1: “The Spirit is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.” (2 Ne. 2:4.) This is a significant point, especially for Jacob, who lived six centuries before the Messiah came to earth to work out the infinite atonement. It does not matter, in terms of redemption, whether one is born before the Savior’s coming to the earth or afterward. It does not even matter whether one is born on this earth, or on another. In Moses 1:33, we are told that by the Only Begotten Son “worlds without number” were created. Elder Bruce R. McConkie, commenting on that verse, wrote: “Now our Lord’s jurisdiction and power extend far beyond the limits of this one small earth on which we dwell. … the atonement of Christ, being literally and truly infinite, applies to an infinite number of earths.” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 65.)
Fundamental 2: “The way is prepared from the fall of man.” (2 Ne. 2:4.) The fact that the plan of redemption was prepared long before the Fall took place is clearly taught in many places in the scriptures. (See, for example, D&C 124:33, 41; D&C 128:5; D&C 130:20.) The Fall was part of a plan laid down in the very beginning.
Fundamental 3: “Salvation is free.” (2 Ne. 2:4.) This is a profound and important concept. The best single commentary we have on 2 Nephi 2 is 2 Nephi 9—Jacob’s own commentary on the doctrine taught by his father in chapter two. [2 Ne. 9] Of the concept that salvation is free, Jacob writes, quoting Isaiah 55:1–2: [Isa. 55:1–2]
“Come, my brethren, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come buy and eat; yea, come buy wine and milk without money and without price.
“Wherefore, do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy.” (2 Ne. 9:50–51.)
Fundamental 4: “Men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil.” (2 Ne. 2:5.)
We know from other places in scripture that the medium or the means by which “men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil” is known as the Light of Christ. Moroni, citing the words of his father, Mormon, said, “For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.” (Moro. 7:16; see also Moro. 7:15–19.)
In latter-day revelation, the Prophet Joseph refers to this Spirit of Christ, as Mormon calls it, as “the light of Christ.” (D&C 88:7.)
Fundamental 5: “By the law no flesh is justified.” (2 Ne. 2:5.) In that simple statement lies the primary reason there must be a Redeemer, and so we must examine Lehi’s fifth fundamental at greater length.
The word justified and its cognate forms—justification, justice, or just—all have the same root meaning. To be “just” means to be right, or in order, with God. “Justification may be defined, in its theological sense, as the non-imputation of sin and the imputation of righteousness.” (Samuel Fallows, The Popular and Critical Bible Encyclopedia and Scriptural Dictionary, Chicago: Howard Severance Company, 1911, 2:1009.) The law of justice could be simply stated, in both its negative and positive forms, this way: For every obedience to the law there is a blessing; for every violation of the law there is a punishment. (See D&C 130:20—21).
Why does Lehi say that by the law no flesh is justified? Because no one keeps the law perfectly! As Paul says, “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23.) So if the law of justice were the only factor to consider, men would be cut off both temporally and spiritually forever, because violation of the law makes one unclean, and “no unclean thing can dwell … in his presence.” (Moses 6:57.)
Now that he has laid down the fundamental principles about the Fall, Lehi turns to a truth of transcendent importance. In a natural follow-through to 2 Ne. 2:5, Lehi says in verse 6, [2 Ne. 2:6] “Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah.” Simply put, Lehi states in these two verses that men are condemned by the law but redeemed by the Messiah. His qualifying statement about the Messiah in verse 6 is interesting in and of itself; Lehi adds, for “he is full of grace and truth.” In the Bible Dictionary, LDS edition of the King James Version, the following definition is given under the entry “Grace”:
“The main idea of the word is divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ. …
“This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts.
“Divine grace is needed by every soul in consequence of the fall of Adam and also because of man’s weaknesses and shortcomings.” (Italics added.)
Lehi’s point is that if Christ were not full of this grace, or “enabling power,” the redemption would not be possible.
Lehi comments that the Holy Messiah offers himself as “a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law.” (2 Ne. 2:7.) Remembering the two principles that constitute the law of justice—that obedience brings joy and that violation brings suffering—we could say that there are only two ways to satisfy the demands of that law. The first is to keep the law perfectly—never to violate it in any degree. The second way is for someone without sin—and thus not under condemnation—to pay the penalty for any violations. The Messiah met both of those conditions.
Jesus kept the law perfectly. Not once in his entire mortal life did he violate it. He was the Lamb without spot or blemish. He was one who, in Lehi’s words, was justified by the law, for the law had no claim on him.
But Christ did more. In 2 Nephi 9:21, Jacob teaches, “Behold, he suffereth the pains of all men, yea, the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children, who belong to the family of Adam.” [2 Ne. 9:21] Christ suffered the penalty for all violations of the law even though he was not guilty of them himself. He thus satisfied the law of justice in both dimensions.
Lehi indicates, in 2 Nephi 2:7, that Christ’s sacrifice, which answered the ends of the law, becomes enabling only for those who have “a broken heart and a contrite spirit.” [2 Ne. 2:7] To understand better what this means for us, we must examine the doctrine of grace and works.
As members of the Church, we have often been called upon to defend our belief that the way an individual lives (that person’s works) plays a critical role in salvation. Other Christians cite several references from the writings of Paul to indicate that a person is saved by grace alone. (See, for example, Rom. 3:28; Rom. 10:13; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8–9.) The problem as I see it is that in an attempt to simplify our discussion of the doctrine, we sometimes explain it in ways that are misunderstood by those unfamiliar with our terminology.
The basic explanation often goes something like this: Two kinds of death came into the world through the Fall—physical death, or the separation of body from spirit, and spiritual death, or our separation from the presence of God. Through his death and resurrection, Christ overcame physical death for all of us; all mankind, therefore, will receive resurrection as an unconditional gift.
But, some explain, spiritual death is another matter. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the Savior took upon himself the sins of the world and suffered for all mankind. His suffering provides redemption, but its application to each of us is not unconditional. Men must do things to have the redemption operate in their behalf.
In an attempt to simplify the explanation of the relationship between grace and works, some summarize by saying that we are resurrected by grace, but we are exalted by our works. But if we want to go into a fuller discussion of this relationship, such statements can be easily misunderstood.
Some might assume, for example, that we believe Christ’s death on the cross covered only the effects of physical death and that his suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane covered only the effects of spiritual death. But the scriptures make it clear that Christ’s agony in the garden and his suffering and death on the cross were all integral parts of the atoning sacrifice. (See Hel. 14:15–17.)
Some persons might also falsely assume that we believe our works alone exalt us. One of Lehi’s fundamental points, however, is that no one can be justified, or saved, on the basis of works alone. It is by the merits, mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah (see 2 Ne. 2:8) that we are redeemed. We are exalted by righteous works, but they are primarily the Savior’s works. This is what Nephi meant when he said “for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” (2 Ne. 25:23.)
Our works do play a vital role in our ultimate eternal destination. But sometimes, in discussing grace and works, we may inadvertently suggest that being brought back into the presence of God is conditional only upon how we live. It is true that whether or not we live with God eternally is dependent on our personal righteousness, but it is also true that through the atonement of Jesus Christ, all men, good and evil, will be brought back into his presence to be judged. In 2 Ne. 2:10, for example, Lehi teaches, “And because of the intercession for all, all men come unto God; wherefore, they stand in the presence of him, to be judged of him according to the truth and holiness which is in him.” (Italics added.)
In one sense, this event overcomes the spiritual death caused by the Fall of Adam. Our second Article of Faith states, “We believe that men are punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgression.” There are no conditions placed on our coming back into the presence of God (overcoming spiritual death) at the Judgment. Our initial mortal separation from him was originally caused by the fall of Adam, not any act of our own; we therefore suffer no spiritual punishment for Adam’s transgression.
Seen from this perspective, then, Christ’s atonement unconditionally pays for both the physical and spiritual effects of Adam’s fall. Not only does Christ’s redemption bring about resurrection for all, without condition, it also brings all men back into his presence at the judgment bar. Spiritual death, or our separation from God, is at that point overcome. What does a man have to do to have this happen? Absolutely nothing. It is unconditional. Since we did nothing to be under the effects of the Fall except to be born of the lineage of Adam, it is not necessary (or just) that we should have to meet any conditions to overcome the Fall. And that is just what the scriptures declare.
Now we must consider at greater length Lehi’s fourth fundamental point: all men “are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil.” (2 Ne. 2:5.) If we know good from evil and then sin (which, according to Paul, all men do) then we must deal with a second fall—our own personal fall.
From this fall, brought about by our own transgression, we require redemption as surely as we did from Adam’s. We could term this our own fall.
Once we reach the age of accountability and sin, we become unclean. Unless something happens to change this, when we are brought back into God’s presence at the Judgment, we will not be allowed to stay. Now, since we have no one to blame for this but ourselves, our redemption, though dependant upon Christ’s atonement, is affected by our actions. If we are to receive all that Christ’s grace offers us—entrance into the highest degree of the celestial kingdom—we must, during our probationary period, exercise faith and “godly sorrow” to repentance (see 2 Cor. 7:9–10; 2 Ne. 2:21; D&C 76:51–70) and participate in the redemptive ordinances and covenants that Christ established and makes effectual—baptism, confirmation, priesthood ordination, and completion of the temple ordinances. This is why Lehi said that the Messiah’s great atoning sacrifice, offered to satisfy the ends of the law, is fully empowering only for those with a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
Those who refuse to make this new sacrifice (see 3 Ne. 9:20) are characterized in the scriptures as having a hard heart and a proud spirit. These are conditions that lead one to reject the priesthood ordinances. This is true even though, in some cases, the outward ordinances may have been performed. In other words, some members of the Church who have been baptized and confirmed, and perhaps completed temple ordinances, may still have a hard heart and a proud spirit. If they only go through the outward motions, they will find no lasting validity in those ordinances.
The mediation and intercession of the Messiah apply fully to those who meet the conditions of a broken heart and a contrite spirit. In Lehi’s words, the Savior’s life and death serve as a “sacrifice for sin” (2 Ne. 7) to meet the demands of the law. The person is sanctified from sin and perfected.
The Messiah’s role in saving us is beautifully supported in D&C 45:3–5, wherein the Son says:
“Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him—
“Saying: Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified;
“Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life.”
For those who are hard of heart and proud of spirit and refuse to accept redemptive ordinances and covenants, Christ’s redemption is largely inoperative. He does not make intercession in their behalf, other than redeeming them from the effects of Adam’s fall.
“For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
“But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I.” (D&C 19:16–17.)
Either way, justice is paid. For the humble and obedient, the price is paid fully by the atoning sacrifice of the Messiah. They inherit celestial glory. For the rest, they must make a payment themselves until the law of justice is satisfied and the Atonement can cover their sins. At that point, the Lord’s grace provides them with a place in one of the lower kingdoms of our Father in Heaven.
Lehi points out that once the Fall had taken place, this life became a state of probation, a time for men and women to prove themselves. (See 2 Ne. 2:21.) The days of the children of men were prolonged so they might repent and bring into operation the plan of redemption. Had there been no Fall, Adam and Eve would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery, not being credited for good because they could do no sin. And we could never have come into the world.
When one examines the conditions that resulted from the Fall, it becomes evident that all are necessary for the progression of mankind toward godhood. They are necessary for man to prove himself and to become accountable before God. Noting that if there had been no Fall, the purposes of God would have been frustrated, Lehi summarized his doctrinal discourse with eloquence and simple profundity:
“But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.
“Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.
“And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall.” (2 Ne. 2:24–26.)
In Lehi’s thinking, all choices, all options, all alternatives boil down to one simple, ultimate choice for mortals: “Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil.” (2 Ne. 2:27.)
To our first parents, Elder James E. Talmage said, we owe a deep debt of gratitude for the opportunity we have to make this choice:
“Our first parents are entitled to our deepest gratitude for their legacy to posterity—the means of winning title to glory, exaltation, and eternal lives. But for the opportunity thus given, the spirits of God’s offspring would have remained forever in a state of innocent childhood, sinless through no effort of their own; negatively saved, not from sin, but from the opportunity of meeting sin; incapable of winning the honors of victory because prevented from taking part in the conflict. As it is, they are heirs to the birthright of Adam’s descendants—mortality, with its immeasurable possibilities and its God-given freedom of action. From Father Adam we have inherited all the ills to which flesh is heir; but such are necessarily incident to a knowledge of good and evil, by the proper use of which knowledge man may become even as the gods.” (Talmage, p. 70.)
Lehi’s marvelous blessing to his son Jacob provides much of the explanation of why this is the case. In one couplet, he caught the essence of it all. “Adam fell the men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” (2 Ne. 2:25.)