Latter-day scriptures help us understand that the Spirit of Christ is not merely a source of truth; it is the means by which God assists us in all aspects of our lives. Learning the doctrine of the Spirit of Christ helps us understand it as a gift from a loving Heavenly Father to lead and direct all of His children.
The prophet Mormon described the Spirit of Christ as one of the most fundamental means God uses to sustain and guide us:
“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.
“But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him” (Moro. 7:16–17; emphasis added here and in other quoted material).
Description of the Spirit of Christ
While our latter-day scriptures do not provide detailed information about how the Spirit of Christ works, they do describe its purposes and influence. From the Doctrine and Covenants we learn that the Spirit of Christ “proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space” (D&C 88:12). It is the light of the sun, the moon, and the stars and the power by which all things were made (see D&C 88:7–10). It “giveth life to all things” and “is the law by which all things are governed” (D&C 88:13). The Spirit of Christ is also appropriately called the Light of Christ because it “giveth light to every man that cometh into the world” (D&C 84:46).
The Spirit of Christ and the Holy Ghost
The Spirit of Christ is often confused with the Holy Ghost, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the spirit personage of Jesus Christ. Some of the confusion obviously comes because terms such as Spirit of the Lord, Spirit of God, and Spirit of Christ are often used interchangeably in both scripture and conversation, and it is often difficult to determine to which personage or gift the passage refers. It is from the prophets of this dispensation that we learn the Spirit of Christ is neither the Holy Ghost, the gift of the Holy Ghost, nor the spirit personage of Jesus Christ, but it is the primary means by which these entities operate.
President Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918) taught: “We often say the Spirit of God when we mean the Holy Ghost; we likewise say the Holy Ghost when we mean the Spirit of God. The Holy Ghost is a personage in the Godhead, and is not that which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. It is the Spirit of God which proceeds through Christ to the world, that enlightens every man that comes into the world, and that strives with the children of men, and will continue to strive with them, until it brings them to a knowledge of the truth and the possession of the greater light and testimony of the Holy Ghost.” 1
Elder James E. Talmage (1862–1933) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught that the Spirit of Christ is the “divine essence” by which the Godhead operates upon people and in nature. 2
Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles added, “Before and after baptism, all men are endowed to one degree or another with that Spirit which is the light of Christ.” He said that a “testimony before baptism, speaking by way of analogy, comes as a flash of lightning blazing forth in a dark and stormy night … to light the path.” Then he compared the gift of the Holy Ghost to “the continuing blaze of the sun at noonday, shedding its rays on the path of life and on all that surrounds it.” 3
Prophets, both ancient and modern, have taught that the Spirit of Christ is preparatory in purpose. It prepares God’s children to receive the temporary witness of the Holy Ghost, followed by the more constant gift of the Holy Ghost, which is bestowed upon those who are baptized. An example of this progression can be identified in the Book of Mormon account of the conversion of King Lamoni. Even though Lamoni had the authority of a king and had been taught that “whatsoever [he] did was right,” the text suggests that he still knew it was wrong to slay his servants whom he judged not to have served him well: “Notwithstanding [King Lamoni and his father] believed in a Great Spirit, they supposed that whatsoever they did was right; nevertheless, Lamoni began to fear exceedingly, with fear lest he had done wrong in slaying his servants” (Alma 18:5).
We may conclude from this verse that as sons and daughters of God we all have a conscience (see Rom. 2:14–15). Though the truth in King Lamoni’s heart was eclipsed by tradition and sin, a spirit was working upon him that revived his sense of right and wrong. King Lamoni’s experience continued and intensified as “he fell unto the earth, as if he were dead” (Alma 18:42).
Note the description of King Lamoni’s experience during the time he was overcome: “Ammon … knew that king Lamoni was under the power of God; he knew that the dark veil of unbelief was being cast away from his mind, and the light which did light up his mind, which was the light of the glory of God, which was a marvelous light of his goodness—yea, this light had infused such joy into his soul, the cloud of darkness having been dispelled, and that the light of everlasting life was lit up in his soul, yea, he knew that this had overcome his natural frame, and he was carried away in God” (Alma 19:6).
Ammon seems to be describing the Light of Christ that was working on the king to prepare him to receive the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost. King Lamoni and his servants were then baptized, and while it is not detailed in this scriptural account, we can be confident that the divine order was followed and that they were then given the gift of the Holy Ghost (see 2 Ne. 31:14).
The additional light that comes with the reception of the gift of the Holy Ghost is demonstrated by Ammon’s experiences. He demonstrated great power in defending the king’s flocks (see Alma 17:36–37; Alma 18:2), and he was later “filled with the Spirit of God, therefore he perceived the thoughts of the king” (Alma 18:16).
Ammon described additional blessings in these words:
“I am called by his Holy Spirit to teach these things unto this people, that they may be brought to a knowledge of that which is just and true;
“And a portion of that Spirit dwelleth in me, which giveth me knowledge, and also power according to my faith and desires which are in God” (Alma 18:34–35).
The Light of Discovery and Intellect
The Spirit of Christ is the power that enlightens our intellect as we seek to discover the mysteries of heaven and earth (see D&C 88:11). Nephi tells us that “the Spirit of God … wrought upon the man” we recognize as Columbus and that “the Spirit of God … wrought upon other Gentiles [for example, Pilgrims, Puritans, and so on]; and they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters” (1 Ne. 13:12–13). We also read of the Lord’s promise to Nephi to be his “light in the wilderness” as he sought the promised land (1 Ne. 17:13).
Alma wrote of hearts being changed and souls being “illuminated by the light of the everlasting word” (Alma 5:7). He also described the “discernible” nature of light in the following passage: “O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good” (Alma 32:35).
Many of the world’s great leaders, scientists, artists, and philosophers have been blessed by the influence of the Light of Christ. In 1978 the First Presidency stated that great religious leaders “such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as the philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light … to enlighten whole nations.” 4
President Joseph Fielding Smith (1876–1970) wrote: “Those who make these discoveries are inspired of God or they would never make them. The Lord gave inspiration to Edison, to Franklin, to Morse, to Whitney and to all of the inventors and discoverers, and through their inspiration they obtained the necessary knowledge and were able to manufacture and invent as they have done for the benefit of the world. Without the help of the Lord they would have been just as helpless as the people were in other ages.” 5
The Light of Conscience
While the Spirit of Christ is manifest in a multitude of ways, perhaps the most personal and the most important of its dimensions is expressed as our conscience, or knowing “good from evil” (Moro. 7:16). It is through our conscience we first come to perceive the love of a Father in Heaven who does “all things for the welfare and happiness of his people” (Hel. 12:2).
Though it can be distorted, we can experience our conscience, the Light of Christ or Spirit of Christ, in different ways. If we are living truthfully, we will experience our conscience as a gentle invitation persuading us to do good. When we are not living truthfully, we will experience our conscience as a source of guilt.
Following the Light of Christ can lead us to peace and greater understanding, while acting against what we know to be right leads us to distress and confusion and is often the beginning of greater problems. Large, ominous problems typically begin as small, simple ones. Note the following example of a prompting of conscience, a situation most of us can identify with:
My wife had asked if I would rock our baby Rachel to sleep. I knew I should, but I really wanted to watch the football game. I quickly settled on a compromise: I could take the baby into my room, watch the football game on the portable television, and rock her to sleep at the same time. A real win-win situation! I would miss the color screen, but what a small price to pay for being a good dad!
The problem came after about two minutes of watching the game. Rachel began to fuss. The thought came to my mind that if I turned the television off, walked with her, and sang to her, she might be soothed. I knew it was the right thing to do, but did I do it? No, I spent the next 30 minutes struggling to watch the game and rock Rachel, all the while resenting the fact that I couldn’t do what I wanted to!
One of the characteristics of those of us who go against the light and knowledge we have is that we attempt to justify our actions. These justifications come in the form of thoughts, feelings, and in some cases physical symptoms. In Proverbs we read, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes” (Prov. 12:15). In my experience with my daughter Rachel, my self-justifications were: (1) I’ve been working with difficult situations all day, so I need some time to myself; (2) My wife is much better suited to deal with babies than I am, and she should be doing this; (3) My wife doesn’t appreciate all I do, so it’s really unfair she would have me do this; and (4) I’m so tired; I need to sit down and relax.
We often think of “sin” as being something grievous like murder, adultery, or some other form of gross immorality. Although these actions are among the most serious of sins, the scriptures teach that any time we know “to do good, and [do] it not, … it is sin” (James 4:17). While it is a little uncomfortable to admit, when I didn’t get up and walk with my child, I went against that which I knew was right, and that, in a word, is sin. 6
President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) stated: “There are many causes for human suffering—including war, disease, and poverty—and the suffering that proceeds from each of these is very real, but I would not be true to my trust if I did not say that the most persistent cause of human suffering, that suffering which causes the deepest pain, is sin—the violation of the commandments given to us by God. … If any of us wish to have more precise prescriptions for ourselves in terms of what we can do to have more abundant lives, all we usually need to do is to consult our conscience.” 7
A Rich Blessing
How blessed we are that the Spirit of Christ has been given to us, that we may know good from evil. Our Father in Heaven has promised, “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day” (D&C 50:24). It is my prayer that each of us will heed Mormon’s invitation to understand and obey that light within: “Wherefore, I beseech of you … , that ye should search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil; and if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ” (Moro. 7:19).
Gospel Doctrine, 5th edition (1939), 67–68.
See Articles of Faith, 12th edition (1924), 488, note 3.
A New Witness for the Articles of Faith (1984), 262.
Statement of the First Presidency, 15 February 1978.
Doctrines of Salvation, compiled by Bruce R. McConkie, 3 volumes (1954–56), 1:147.
I am grateful to my colleague C. Terry Warner for helping me come to a better understanding of the terms conscience and sin.
The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, edited by Edward L. Kimball (1982), 155.