The Inexhaustible Gospel

Neal A. Maxwell
Adapted from an address given 18 August 1992 at Education Week, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

The Inexhaustible Gospel

The title of my address, “The Inexhaustible Gospel,” is intended to convey the vastness and preciousness of that enormous body of knowledge we call the gospel, and—if I am at all successful—some of my ever-growing excitement over it.

Before using terms like truth, knowledge, intelligence, education, and wisdom, I stress at the outset that the scriptural insights concerning these terms or definitions of them give us, as Latter-day Saints, an added understanding of these concepts. These differ from those of the world—markedly, in some respects. Each is “added upon” by the relevant revelations.

For example, our being saved by gaining knowledge obviously refers to a particular form of knowledge, a “knowledge of God” and the things of God. (D&C 128:19; see also Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 217.) Nephi lamented, as you know, over those who “will not search knowledge, nor understand great knowledge.” (2 Ne. 32:7.) Clearly he was referring to a particular kind of knowledge. In fact, Joseph Smith’s translation of Jesus’ lamentation—about how those in the meridian of time had lost the “key of knowledge”—provides a definition; it adds five words defining what the word key means: “the fulness of the scriptures.” (JST, Luke 11:53; see also D&C 84:19–20.) So we view knowledge differently. Furthermore, Latter-day Saints know that certain knowledge comes only by revelation and, therefore, is only “spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor. 2:14–16.) So we are in some important respects on a different footing from other people of the world.

Additionally, multiple scriptures make it clear that knowledge is meant to be closely associated with other virtues such as patience, humility, charity, and kindness. (See D&C 4:6; D&C 107:30–31; D&C 121:41–42; 2 Pet. 1:5–9.)

Truth includes, but is not limited to, knowledge which corresponds to reality—things as they were, things as they are, and things as they will be. (See Jacob 4:13; D&C 93:24.) Yet gospel truth is “morally richer” than the world’s definition of truth. (C. Terry Warner, in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, New York: Macmillan, 1992, 4:1490.) Jesus said He is “the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6.) He has “received a fulness of truth.” (D&C 93:26.) Hence, we are to seek to have “the mind of Christ.” (1 Cor. 2:16.) Furthermore, as to the “manner” of people we are to become, it is clear we are to strive to become even as Jesus is. (3 Ne. 27:27; see also 2 Pet. 3:11.) If we keep His commandments, the promise is that we will receive “truth and light” until we are “glorified in truth and knoweth all things.” (D&C 93:28.)

Therefore, gaining knowledge and becoming more Christlike “are two aspects of a single process.” (C. Terry Warner, in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4:1490.) This process is part of being “valiant” in our testimony of Jesus. Thus, while we are saved no faster than we gain a certain type of knowledge, it is also the case that we will gain knowledge no faster than we are saved! (See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 217.) So in our different understanding of knowledge and truth, behaving and knowing are inseparably linked.

Thus defined, the gospel is inexhaustible because there is not only so much to know but also so much to become. The vital truths are not merely accumulated in the mind but are expressed in life as well.

Intelligence is “the glory of God,” as we all know. It is further defined as “light and truth.” (D&C 93:36.) The revelations also inform us that if we have “more knowledge and intelligence” in this life, we will have “so much the advantage in the world to come.” (D&C 130:18–19; emphasis added.) I do not pretend to be able to be definitive with regard to this last verse, but clearly, what we carry forward involves developing our capacity for cognition as well as application. This sets us apart from the world. I hope we understand some of the implications of all these things. Certainly what we will carry forward is more than what we now term as IQ or databases! Hence our approach to knowledge, truth, and wisdom is markedly different.

What are some of the implications of the foregoing?

One important implication of what we have been discussing is that all knowledge is not of equal significance. There is no democracy of facts! They are not of equal importance. Something might be factual, but not be important. For instance, today I wear a dark blue suit. That is true, but it is unimportant. As, more and more, we brush against truth, we sense that it has a hierarchy of importance. Some truths are salvationally significant and others are not.

It is clear from the verses of scripture that some truths may turn out to have a place in a yet-to-be-revealed hierarchy of truth which the world doesn’t anticipate. The scriptures tantalize us by saying “all truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it.” (D&C 93:30.) One even wonders if truths, like planets, might belong to a particular order. (See Abr. 3:9.) But we do not now know. No wonder we should not speak casually of “education for eternity.”

The highest education, therefore, includes salvational truths, bringing us a knowledge of “things as they really are, and of things as they really will be.” (Jacob 4:13.) This focus can be achieved without leaving the usual educational chores “undone.” (Matt. 23:23.)

Ultimate orthodoxy—and orthodoxy isn’t a popular word nowadays—is expressed in the Christlike life, which involves both mind and behavior. Christ’s manner of life is truly “the way, the truth, and the life,” and He has directed us to pursue His example. (John 14:6; Matt. 5:48; 3 Ne. 12:48, 3 Ne. 27:27.)

Another important insight is that knowledge is intended to travel in a convoy of other Christian virtues. It does not have final fulness, by itself. If one possesses some knowledge, as Peter said, but “lacketh” these other qualities, he “cannot see afar off.” (2 Pet. 1:5–9.) A most interesting concept. Precious perspective is missing unless knowledge is accompanied by these other truths and qualities. Other insights bear down upon us as Latter-day Saints. Brilliance, by itself, is not wholeness nor happiness. Knowledge, if possessed for its own sake and unapplied, leaves one’s life unadorned. A Church member, for instance, might describe the Lord’s doctrines but not qualify to enter the Lord’s house. One could produce much commentary without being exemplary. One might be intellectually brilliant but Bohemian in behavior. One might use his knowledge to seek preeminence or dominion.

Such are not Jesus’ ways, for He asks that perception and implementation be part of the same spiritual process. In Alma’s words, we are to “give place” in our lives for the good seed of the gospel to grow in a process involving a form of knowing that combines cognition and implementation. (Alma 32.)

As we all know, Christ does not dominate by His intellect. He leads by example and love. There is no arrogance flowing from His, the keenest of all intellects. He seeks neither to conquer nor to prosper “according to his genius.” (Alma 30:17.)

Given these foregoing views of restoration theology as they pertain to knowledge, truth, education, and wisdom, there is, finally, no comfort zone for vanity or hypocrisy! There is no safe sanctuary for them.

Clearly in some situations, a few individuals in the Church unfortunately end up “looking beyond the mark,” missing the already obvious. (Jacob 4:14.) For these few individuals, exciting exploration is preferred to plodding implementation. Speculation and argumentation are more fun than consecration for these individuals. Some even try to soften the hard doctrines. What happens, however, is that by their not obeying, they lack knowing—the very knowing we are discussing today. (See John 7:17.) Thus, since they cannot defend the faith, a few of them become critics instead of defenders.

As far as salvational truths are concerned, therefore, the secular knowledge explosion in recent years—with all of its many and unarguable benefits to mankind—has not been a bang at all. This has been merely a whimper. It was the Restoration which provided the explosion of salvational knowledge.

I now hasten to add, having said these preliminary things, that the role of secular knowledge is very important. Latter-day Saints should have all the genuine excitement others have in the traditional adventure of learning, including learning secular truths, and we should have a little more. In fact, when we are so learning and so behaving, we are truly “about [our] Father’s business.” This should bring to us a special and genuine zest for learning. (Luke 2:49; see also 2 Ne. 9:29.)

Furthermore, those of us who have spent much of our lives involved with traditional education regard it as one of mankind’s most useful, productive, and cost-beneficial enterprises. It is even more beneficial, however, when it has the added spiritual dimension. Moreover, secular education wisely does not pretend to give us answers to the great “Why?” questions—any more than you and I would read a telephone directory in search of a plot.

Furthermore, our different frame of reference should never cause us to preen or to be insensitive to the uncertainty or despair some feel in the world precisely because they believe sincerely that man exists in “godless geometric space.”

As if speaking to this very point, the Prophet Joseph Smith observed: “Knowledge does away with darkness, suspense and doubt; for these cannot exist where knowledge is.

“There is no pain so awful as that of suspense.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 287–88.) Joseph, of course, was speaking about a particular kind of knowledge and pain.

Thus our view of education is the same as Jesus prescribed with regard to our other Christian duties: namely, the weightier matters should receive their deserved prominence, but without leaving the lesser learning chores undone. (See Matt. 23:23.)

The Prophet Joseph also observed, “If you wish to go where God is, you must be like God, or possess the principles which God possesses.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 216.) God possesses perfect knowledge, but He also possesses perfect love, purity, mercy, and so on. What a contrast He is with those mortals who are bright but bad and who are clever but carnal. Even genius without goodness can be dangerous.

No wonder, therefore, “to be learned is good if [we] harken” to the counsels of God instead of setting them aside, as if we have somehow outgrown them. (2 Ne. 9:29.) How can one ever outgrow Christ’s example of knowing, behaving, and doing? What happens, however, is that some easily fall into the trap described by Paul, when they are “ever learning” but “never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (2 Tim. 3:7.) One might learn, for instance, a great deal about the physical characteristics of this planet earth, but yet be ignorant of why it was created in the first place. (See Isa. 45:18; 1 Ne. 17:36; Moses 1:33, 39.)

For mortals, therefore, the gospel is inexhaustible, because “the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.” (1 Cor. 2:10.) Jacob’s words are strikingly similar to Paul’s: “For the Spirit speaketh the truth … of things as they really are, and … as they really will be.” (Jacob 4:13.) Unsurprisingly, the scriptural definition of truth matches: “Truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” (D&C 93:24.) What vastness!

In fact, the ultimate place in which we hope to be is “in the presence of God, … where all things … are manifest, past, present, and future, and are continually before the Lord.” (D&C 130:7.) What a wondrous God we worship. The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “The past, the present, and the future were and are, with [Jehovah], one eternal ‘now.’” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 220.) How different the Lord’s “now” is from ours. While encountering and exploring such vastness, we sometimes know more than our tongues can tell. Knowledge which is “spiritually discerned” is not always easily communicated.

In exploring this comprehensiveness and everlastingness, there will be some surprises. Our understanding of some things will be restructured and expanded, especially in the world to come, for “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” (1 Cor. 2:9.) In eternity, when the faithful receive “all that [the] Father hath,” this will include an enormous enlargement intellectually. (D&C 84:38.)

However, some divine disclosure can begin even now in mortality: “For by my Spirit will I enlighten them, and by my power will I make known unto them the secrets of my will—yea, even those things which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor yet entered into the heart of man.” (D&C 76:10.)

Furthermore, having been given so many marvelous truths, we are to share them in order that “wise men and rulers may hear and know that which they have never considered.” (D&C 101:94; see also 3 Ne. 20:45, 3 Ne. 21:8.) So much of the gospel we bring is what people have “never considered” and “never had supposed.” (Moses 1:10.)

Quite understandably, given its very nature, God’s latter-day work will be regarded with much skepticism by many. The Lord foresaw this, saying He would “bring to pass my strange act” (D&C 95:4) and perform “[my] work, [my] strange work,” that men may discern (Isa. 28:21; see also Isa. 29:14).

By accessing the inexhaustible divine databank, through meekness and righteousness, and thereby utilizing the Spirit, scriptures, and prophets, special wisdom is opened to us as the Spirit teaches us of “things as they really are, and of things as they really will be.” (Jacob 4:13.)

In God’s “strange work,” His ways of informing mankind are likewise unusual: “Therefore he sent angels to converse with them, who caused men to behold of his glory.

“And they began from that time forth to call on his name; therefore God conversed with men, and made known unto them the plan of redemption, which had been prepared from the foundation of the world.” (Alma 12:29–30.)

Ironically, many refuse to examine gospel truths simply because of how God reveals them. These very methods swell skepticism among many. Furthermore, these divine disclosures are not democratically dispensed, because such things are “made known unto them according to their faith and repentance and their holy works.” (Alma 12:28–30; see also 2 Ne. 1:10.)

When people are left alone—without angelic visitations, without divine disclosures, without prophets, without scripture, without the Spirit—many cease believing. Belief in the basics is the first thing to go, as happened with Book of Mormon peoples who ceased believing in God, in the resurrection, and in a redeeming Christ. (See Omni 1:17; Mosiah 26:2.)

Many in the world hold back from making the “leap of faith” because they have already jumped to some other conclusions—often the conclusions of Korihor, which are: God never was nor ever will be; there is not a redeeming Christ; man cannot know the future; man cannot know of that which he cannot see; whatsoever a man does is no crime; and death is the end. (See Alma 30:13–18.) The number of modern-day adherents to the Korihor conclusions will grow.

When so positioned, many mortals do not accept the fulness of the gospel. Their reactions to the gospel range from indifference to contempt. Happily, there are some who are meek enough to consider that which they have “never considered” and “never had supposed.” (D&C 101:94; Moses 1:10.)

The great “Who?” “What?” and “Why?” questions are those on which the transcending revelations usually focus. What, for instance, is God doing? “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.)

Who is involved? “By him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God.” (D&C 76:24.)

God’s revelations do not usually give us answers to the how and when questions, such as details concerning the creation of the earth. Yes, there are revelations such as on the building of Noah’s ark—a revelation not reusable, by the way—and on other tactical matters, but the recurring themes of the revelations are spiritual.

Thus the Creator of the universe does not choose to dazzle His audiences with data concerning the Creation. Rather, as a Perfect and Loving Shepherd, He is interested in the central needs and concerns of His sheep in His many folds.

These revealed truths carry behavioral as well as intellectual responsibilities. When informed, we are accountable. Solomon, for instance, was widely celebrated for his wisdom. (See 1 Kgs. 10:1, 6–7.) Impressively wise as Solomon doubtless was in many respects, he was not wise enough to keep God’s seventh commandment fully. (See D&C 132:38; 1 Kgs. 11:1–6.) In gospel wisdom, knowing and behaving are irrevocably linked.

One basic limitation of worldly wisdom is its lack of longitudinality and of precious perspective. Worldly wisdom cannot “see afar off,” and without a spiritual memory, past mistakes are repeated; folly is resumed.

The world seeks to control the diseases flowing from sexual immorality but without honoring the principles of fidelity and chastity. The world in its wisdom constantly seeks to accommodate the natural man, while gospel wisdom constantly urges us to put off the natural man. (See Mosiah 3:19.) This is a pivotal point, and it makes all the difference!

Being so immersed in the gospel framework, we sometimes fail to realize how illuminating gospel truths are with regard to so many issues of the day. For instance, given the plan of salvation—with our need to experience this mortal school, and to acquire a mortal body—and the very preciousness of human life, we see the awful practice of widespread abortion differently. Similarly, struggling to have the “mind of Christ” includes purity of thought and letting virtue garnish our thoughts unceasingly. Hence we view pornography as an awful and enslaving thing. We cannot feel otherwise concerning such practices as abortion and pornography, even if practices such as abortion and pornography are legally and politically protected.

This is not to say we expect others to share our views or even to understand them. Some will not even tolerate our views but, instead, will attempt to shame us. But if we really are “saints of the Holy One,” we will endure the “crosses of the world, and [despise] the shame of it.” (2 Ne. 9:18.) Whether it is worldly shame or worldly temptations, we, like Jesus, should give “no heed unto them.” (D&C 20:22; Alma 7:11–12.)

Salvational truths combine longevity and relevancy; they contain both span and significance. Education that is only “for a season” is narrow; it pertains only to a knowledge of things as they temporarily are, like today’s weather forecast or an airline schedule. Temporary facts are useful but terminal in their time of utility. Jesus noted the intensity of the children of this world, but said their operative framework was only “in their generation.” (Luke 16:8.)

Given such significant gradation among knowledge and truth, we can resonate to T. S. Eliot’s lamentation: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” (“Choruses from ‘The Rock’,” The Complete Poems and Plays, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1930, p. 96.)

Thus our consuming of certain information is like consuming our daily bread. We need it, but it is perishable. We will soon hunger again. (See John 6:35, 47–48, 51.) Instead, the Bread of Life is inexhaustible.

Ultimate wisdom enables us to see Jesus as the Light of the World, but further, we also come to realize that it is by His light that we are to see everything else. The gospel’s bright and illuminating light thereby helps us see God, ourselves, others, the world and universe more correctly and more deeply. Indeed, as Paul declared, “In [Christ] all things hold together.” (Col. 1:17, New American Standard Version.)

For now, though we can mercifully see something of our eventual possibilities, you and I also become aware of our present limitations. Tolkien wrote wisely. “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, New York: Ballantine Books, 1965, p. 190.)

Hence we desperately need the gospel’s wisdom not only for eternity but also “for the succor of those years wherein we are set,” in order “to do what is in us.” Enoch obtained revelation and reassurance and gratefully exclaimed of God, “Yet thou art there.” (Moses 7:30.) This is what you and I want to know of Him: Does He know me, love, and care for me? And we can have that same reassurance.

How intellectually amazing the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is. The gospel is truly inexhaustible. It is marvelous; it is a wonder.

Yet orthodoxy is required to keep all these truths in essential balance. In real orthodoxy lies real safety and real felicity. Flowing from orthodoxy is not only correctness, but happiness. Orthodoxy is especially vital in a time of raging relativism and belching sensualism. The world’s morality is constantly being improvised. Some views are politically correct one day, but not another.

Yes, being learned is good. It can supply us with the needed facts and develop a facility with facts and a discernment among facts. It can train us to use our minds, to cultivate an intellectual adroitness in connecting various patches of truth and insight. It certainly furthers the calisthenics of the intellect.

Finally, however, you and I should be fully qualified and certified in traditional education and its processes for yet another very good reason: bilinguality. The men and the women of Christ should be truly educated and articulate as to secular knowledge but should also be educated and articulate in the things of the Spirit.

I close now by speaking further of Jesus, our Perfect Shepherd. His atoning experience placed upon Him the pains, sicknesses, sorrow, griefs, and infirmities of the human experience—in order “that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” (Alma 7:11–12; see also 2 Ne. 9:21; Isa. 53:12; Heb. 2:18.) He “suffered the pain of all men, [women, and children” and was “touched with the feeling of our infirmities.” (Heb. 4:14–15; see also D&C 18:11.) Thus in the agony of the Atonement, Jesus “descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things.” (D&C 88:6; see also D&C 122:8.) How marvelous His empathy. How wondrous the “mind of Christ,” which we are to try to come to have. (1 Cor. 2:16.)

Jesus, our Perfect Exemplar, was astonishingly exemplary even in the hours surrounding the awful but glorious atonement. The intrigue of Pilate and Herod, for instance, who had earlier been “at enmity” but who “made friends together” because of Jesus, presented opportunities for Jesus to “shrink” from going through with the Atonement. (Luke 23:12; D&C 19:18.) Herod, who had been “desirous to see [Jesus] of a long season” “hoped to have seen some miracle done by him.” (Luke 23:8–9.) Yet Jesus, under heavy questioning from Herod, “answered him nothing.” (Luke 23:9; see also Mosiah 14:7.) Jesus’ integrity and intellect were not for sale. Amid temptation, He maintained His integrity—even in the face of an opportunity which a lesser individual would have seized in order to reduce his suffering and to increase the praise of men.

Ironically, when Jesus’ enemies came for Him, the Light of the World, they came with lanterns and torches. (See John 18:3.) There they found Jesus, who might by then have understandably been so swollen with sorrow and self-concern that there was no time to think of others. Nevertheless, He restored the severed ear of a hostile guard. (See Luke 22:50–51.) Amid irony He kept His poise. He also kept His way, which is not the way of the sword.

Christ spoke only several sentences while on the cross. One of them was to ensure that His mother, Mary, would be cared for by John. (See John 19:25–27.) Another sentence reassured a thief on an adjoining cross. (See Luke 23:39–43.) He had empathy amid His agony.

Finally, He maintained His full consecration in the midst of the deepest deprivation anyone can know. President Brigham Young has taught us that in the course of the astonishing atonement, the Father withdrew both His presence and His Spirit from Jesus, and, further, even cast a veil over Jesus. (See Journal of Discourses, 3: 205–6.) Thus Jesus became utterly and totally alone.

There then came that great cry of forsakenness. “Nevertheless,” Jesus did not “shrink,” but, instead, “finished [his] preparations unto the children of men.” (D&C 19:18–19.) Just as He promised premortally, even when He might have reflected a little credit upon Himself for the glorious atonement, meek Jesus instead gave all the glory to the Father. (See D&C 19:19.)

We need not apologize for regarding Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6.) We need not apologize for regarding salvational knowledge, revealed by Him, as being the most precious. Indeed, in Christ “all things hold together,” for He is perfect in knowing and perfect in doing. Marvelously and encouragingly, He has challenged us to become like Him. (See Matt. 5:48; 3 Ne. 12:48; 3 Ne. 27:27.)

Of Him I testify. Of His standard of truth and knowledge and behavior I testify. He is the Light of the World. May we reflect His life in our lives, distinguishing between the things of the moment—including the facts that dissolve—and the supernal, transcending knowledge of spiritual things which He has given us through the restored gospel. This is my humble, heartfelt prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

[photos] Photography by Phil Shurtleff