Years ago a friend of mine had an interview with Elder Joseph Fielding Smith before being hired to teach in the Church seminary and institute program. When Elder Smith asked what he intended to teach, he mentioned several important gospel principles. Elder Smith looked at him lovingly, but seriously, and said, “You teach Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Elder Smith’s counsel applies to all of us. All that we teach or do, whether by formal calling or by the example we set, should reflect that Christ and his atonement are the focus of our lives.
The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets concerning Jesus Christ, that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976, page 121).
The Lord Jesus Christ is the light and life of the world, and faith in him is the unifying principle of the gospel. All we teach should be connected to him as the branch is to the vine. “Abide in me, and I in you,” said the Savior. “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.
“I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:4–5).
In this metaphor, the Lord is the sole source of spiritual life. He is the one fountain supplying all life and power to his disciples. As the vine sends nourishment into every branch, so Christ gives spiritual life to all who put their faith in him.
Christ is the mediator between us and the Father. He said that he is “the way, the truth, and the life” and that “no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).
Christ is also the father of our salvation because he gives us spiritual or eternal life through the Atonement. The heart of the gospel is the atonement and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. He emphasized this when he appeared to the Nephites: “This is the gospel which I have given unto you—that I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me.
“And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil” (3 Ne. 27:13–14).
From these verses we see why Elder Smith said to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. Everything in the gospel works because of Jesus’ infinite Atonement. The Church is the channel through which the principles and ordinances of the gospel are carried.
Often it is up to us as teachers to make the connections to Jesus in our lessons. For example, in teaching the principle of obedience, we might explain that we obey because we know that the Lord loves us and asks only that which is for our good. Therefore, we should obey because we love and trust that all he requires of us is for our good. We obey not merely because Christ made obedience a commandment, but because obedience brings us closer to him—and to being like him.
When teaching the law of the fast, we might teach that fasting and prayer, like obedience, are designed to draw us closer to the Lord. Our hunger pains remind us that we should hunger and thirst after the Lord and his righteousness as much as we hunger and thirst after food and drink. Fasting is a heartfelt hungering and thirsting for the Lord’s Spirit and influence to be with us. As we partake of his Spirit through fasting, praying, taking the sacrament, and bearing testimony, our fasting changes from mourning to rejoicing.
When teaching, we might emphasize that being baptized “grafts” us to Christ—the true vine—so that we can bear proper fruit and receive eternal life. It is the Lord we covenant with to serve to the end, and it is Christ’s name we take upon ourselves at baptism. It is his image we seek to have engraven upon our countenance as we seek to be born again.
Family history work can be severed from the body of Christ if its only emphasis is being with our families in the next life instead of being part of his family forever.
The Word of Wisdom and the law of chastity can be cut from the vine if taught only in terms of their advantages to our physical well being. But if we teach that our bodies are temples of the Lord and are the dwelling places of his Spirit, the principles of chastity and the Word of Wisdom take on deeper meaning.
Tithing can be broken off the vine if we pay it because it’s a rule or in order to obtain blessings. Tithing teaches us that everything we have and are belongs to the Lord—our life, our time, our wealth. Besides helping his Church, we are asked to exercise faith and give back part of what we receive from him. When we consider tithing as an expression of our faith, gratitude, and love for him, its spiritual meaning is clear.
Love can lose its meaning if taught as something we acquire as we perform in certain ways or as we force our willpower to respond in certain ways. We need to emphasize that charity is a gift of the Spirit that Christ bestows on his true followers. (See Moro. 7:48.) Pure love comes only as we humble ourselves as little children, surrender our wills to our Savior, and seek for the guidance and gifts of the Spirit through obedience, fasting, and prayer. The Book of Mormon emphasizes repeatedly the importance of being filled with the love of God.
Christ-centered teaching requires that we put teaching about Jesus ahead of merely teaching lessons. It requires more than having the right emphasis or using special techniques. It requires us to be in tune with the power of the Spirit. Indeed, the Lord has told us that we are to teach by the Spirit or we shall not teach. (See D&C 42:14.)
I have learned that the best way to obtain the Spirit in my teaching is to teach Christ as the source of all truth and power, the center of every gospel principle. It means doing exactly as our baptismal covenant directs: standing “as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places” (Mosiah 18:9).
Of course, before we can infuse the Lord into our teaching, we must be infused ourselves by his Spirit. King Benjamin described how we might view our relationship to Christ:
“I say … you should render all thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another” (Mosiah 2:20).
When we as gospel teachers have Jesus as our central frame of reference, we will spontaneously do what Nephi says that he and his fellow gospel teachers did:
“We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Ne. 25:26).