“For if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain”

I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

(Galatians 2:21)

I find this an interesting verse to mull over. Sometimes it seems our reaction to sin and bad habits is to try and conquer them purely through our own efforts or mortal means. But this isn’t possible. What is true of addictions is really true of all our sins: we, as natural men (and women) cannot overcome them by our own efforts (indeed, in this light addictions are simply the adversary getting smarter about how he preys upon our fallen natures), no matter how hard we try.

But Christ did not die in vain. Freedom from sin, from addiction, from bad habit is possible, but only through his power. Through him, we can be cleansed from all wickedness and have the power to put off our fallen natures to which we are otherwise prone:

Now I say unto you that ye must repent, and be born again; for the Spirit saith if ye are not born again ye cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye may be washed from your sins, that ye may have faith on the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, who is mighty to save and to cleanse from all unrighteousness.

(Alma 7:14)

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

(Mosiah 3:19)

1 Nephi 20

Behold, I have declared the former things from the beginning; and they went forth out of my mouth, and I showed them. I did show them suddenly.

And I did it because I knew that thou art obstinate, and thy neck is an iron sinew, and thy brow brass;

And I have even from the beginning declared to thee; before it came to pass I showed them thee; and I showed them for fear lest thou shouldst say—Mine idol hath done them, and my graven image, and my molten image hath commanded them.

Thou hast seen and heard all this; and will ye not declare them? And that I have showed thee new things from this time, even hidden things, and thou didst not know them.

They are created now, and not from the beginning, even before the day when thou heardest them not they were declared unto thee, lest thou shouldst say—Behold I knew them.

Yea, and thou heardest not; yea, thou knewest not; yea, from that time thine ear was not opened; for I knew that thou wouldst deal very treacherously, and wast called a transgressor from the womb

1 Nephi 20:3-8

Inspiration and revelation can be an astounding and life-changing experience. Yet it is not without its frustrations: while sometimes it is both clear and clearly inspired, at others it can be hard to know what the spirit is saying and hard to discern between true inspiration and ones own thoughts and feelings. On one hand, one wants to respond to true inspiration with faith; believing it and obeying it. On the other hand, there is the desire and duty to avoid being deceived. Sometimes this can feel like a real dilemma.

Yet this passage so strongly speaks about God and His revelations: that he has revealed things, but we’re often too stubborn to hear or understand them. And most intriguingly, he declares that he reveals things in part because of our stubbornness and rebelliousness.

I really hope I don’t fall into that category. But then I’m sure we all do, at least some of the time.


When I wrote the above, I was still a year away from completing my book with its case study on these chapters, the first of the lengthy Isaiah quotations in the Book of Mormon. Now that’s several years ago, and it’s always a funny experience to go back over chapters that I spent so much time on (and again, that exhaustive look at 1 Nephi 20 can be found elsewhere). To repeat a few general but important points, however, when looking at the Isaiah chapters (and the other lengthy, chapter-length, quotations, such as the 10 Commandments in Mosiah 12-13, Matthew 5-7//3 Nephi 12-15 and Malachi 3-4//3 Nephi 24-25), it’s worth asking why they are there. The authors of the Book of Mormon knew its readers would have the Bible (indeed one purpose of the Book of Mormon is so that people would believe in the truth of the Bible, Mormon 7:9). Critics have suggested padding, but even if you were to remove all such lengthy quotations from the Book of Mormon, it would still be longer than the New Testament. So why spend so much time quoting material its readers already have?

One thing that should be recognised when material is quoted at length is that the imputation of authority is reversed. If I happen to quote a line of Winston Churchill to make a point, I’m hoping to draw upon his wit and wisdom to make a point. Likewise when someone quotes a verse or two of the Bible, they’re hoping to use the authority of that scripture to support a point (and this happens in the Book of Mormon too). But when one quotes a passage at great length, as is done here (and – as Grant Hardy noted – especially when it’s given in the mouth of the Saviour as in 3 Nephi), that effect is reversed: instead that biblical passage is given additional emphasis. It is as if the Book of Mormon is singling out particular passages of the Bible that we should pay attention to.

In some cases the biblical passages are quoted with sizeable differences, of course (though there’s lengthy passages that aren’t). Some have sought to see this as some sort of restoration of original text, but this has to be set against the fact that the Book of Mormon sometimes quotes the same biblical passage very differently (compare, for example, the quotation of Isaiah 49:24-26 by Nephi in 1 Nephi 21:24-26 and by Jacob in 2 Nephi 6:16-18). Why could they do this? Because they were prophets, and thus by inspiration could supply new wording to communicate God’s word (keep this point in mind for a moment). While some have suggested the variations tally with things like the Dead Sea Scrolls this is in fact not the case: the Great Isaiah Scroll (from the Dead Sea Scrolls) is in fact pretty consistent with the standard Hebrew Masoretic text. The most significant textual differences – the whole additional clauses and so on – do not reflect known ancient variants. What many of them do tally with, however, are two of the major themes of the Book of Mormon announced on the title page, namely prophecy & revelation and the restoration of the house of Israel (again, for more of this see chapter 3 of the Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible – I really need some acronym – as well as the included appendix which has a textual comparison of all the explicit biblical quotations with the KJV text).

In addition to reinforcing this overall message, however, these chapters often also play into the context of what’s going on in the given part of the Book of Mormon too. This chapter is a good example of that: it is in part a warning to Israel that despite God’s revelations to them they have been stubborn and rebellious (and indeed, some of his revelation has been because they have been stubborn and rebellious). Nevertheless he will be merciful to them: he will defer his anger (v. 9), and refine them in the furnace of affliction (v. 10), and so Israel is to flee from Babylon as part of its redemption (v.20), but with the warning that no one will be delivered if they persist in wickedness (v. 22). This of course also connects with what Nephi has been teaching in 1 Nephi 19, about how Israel will reject the Messiah and be scattered, but will be redeemed.

However, significant parts also connect with Laman and Lemuel specifically: “they call themselves of the holy city, but they not stay themselves upon the God of Israel”. We’ve seen how the brothers cannot believe that Jerusalem would be destroyed (1 Nephi 2:13), and have claimed that the people of Jerusalem were righteous (1 Nephi 17:22). We’ve likewise seen them be stubborn and rebellious in the face of revelation, have rejected the Lord’s prophetic servants, have indeed been led through deserts (v. 21), but risk persisting in their wickedness.

Scripture is often like this, multilayered with simultaneous levels of meaning. And indeed there is one more important layer, made ever more evident by a change that Joseph Smith made. To quote verse 1:

Hearken and hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out of the waters of Judah, or out of the waters of baptism, who swear by the name of the Lord, and make mention of the God of Israel, yet they swear not in truth nor in righteousness.

The text in bold – “or our of the waters of baptism” – was not in the 1830 edition, nor on the manuscripts, it was added by Joseph Smith in the 1840 edition. How? On the same basis that Nephi and Jacob could likewise alter the wording as needed. Why? To emphasise another layer: that this warning is not just to Israel as a whole, nor to Laman and Lemuel specifically, but also to us, baptized members of the Church in the latter days. We too can be stubborn and rebellious. We too may not heed the instruction to flee Babylon, a warning that has been very much re-issued in latter day revelation (see D&C 1:16, 35:11, 64:24, and 133:5 & 7). We too may be outwardly conforming to the requirements of the Gospel, including baptism, but “swear not in truth nor in righteousness”. In which case neither our membership of the Church nor any outward obedience will save us, for “there is no peace … unto the wicked” (v. 22). And so we can read ourselves in here too, and liken them unto us, because Isaiah wrote for us too.

1 Nephi 12

And he said unto me: Thou rememberest the twelve apostles of the Lamb? Behold they are they who shall judge the twelve tribes of Israel; wherefore, the twelve ministers of thy seed shall be judged of them; for ye are of the house of Israel.

And these twelve ministers whom thou beholdest shall judge thy seed. And, behold, they are righteous forever; for because of their faith in the Lamb of God their garments are made white in his blood.

1 Nephi 12:9-10

I am struck by the description of the twelve Nephite disciples as being ‘righteous forever’. I often get disheartened by my own mistakes and errors, and that even when doing well in some areas one can then mess up things in others. The idea of not only being unambiguously righteous, but righteous forever, as a permanent fact, cannot help but be appealing. We speak of conversion (meaning sanctification, becoming a holy person) being a process, and that’s true (Nephi likewise talks of ‘the path which leads to eternal life’, 2 Nephi 31:18), but that end state seems both so desirable and yet sometimes so far away. Apparently the key is faith in Christ, by which our ‘garments’ (and to what does this actually refer? Alma 5:21-23 speaks of our ‘garments’ either being cleansed by Christ’s blood, or ‘stained with blood and all manner of filthiness’ – our ‘garments’ must be a reflection of the state of our soul) are ‘made white in his blood’. Sometimes, however, one can wonder if one really has the level of faith in Christ necessary for the power of His atonement to have that cleansing effect in one’s life. To which I guess the answer is simply faith: to trust in him, rather than any notion of personally achieving a particular ‘level’ of faith, and to trust that he has the power to save and to cleanse us despite our own inadequacies.

Edit 2020:

I find it interesting that Nephi is given some of the keys to the interpretation of Lehi’s dream, in the midst of a vision detailing the destruction of his own descendants. So first he is shown the beginning of that process of destruction (1 Nephi 12:13-15:

And it came to pass that I saw the multitudes of the earth gathered together.

And the angel said unto me: Behold thy seed, and also the seed of thy brethren.

And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the people of my seed gathered together in multitudes against the seed of my brethren; and they were gathered together to battle.

Then suddenly the angel turns to interpreting Lehi’s dream (vv. 16-18):

And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the fountain of filthy water which thy father saw; yea, even the river of which he spake; and the depths thereof are the depths of hell.

And the mists of darkness are the temptations of the devil, which blindeth the eyes, and hardeneth the hearts of the children of men, and leadeth them away into broad roads, that they perish and are lost.

And the large and spacious building, which thy father saw, is vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men. And a great and a terrible gulf divideth them; yea, even the word of the justice of the Eternal God, and the Messiah who is the Lamb of God, of whom the Holy Ghost beareth record, from the beginning of the world until this time, and from this time henceforth and forever.

And as the angel is speaking, Nephi sees the fate of his descendants (v. 19):

And while the angel spake these words, I beheld and saw that the seed of my brethren did contend against my seed, according to the word of the angel; and because of the pride of my seed, and the temptations of the devil, I beheld that the seed of my brethren did overpower the people of my seed.

It might seem a bit of a non-sequitur, but verse 19 makes the connection between the dream and what Nephi is seeing evident: these hazards that Lehi saw in a dream are not just general spiritual hazards we all face, but are the very factors that lead to the destruction of Nephi’s own people. What I can’t help but think about, however, is the effect upon Nephi. We know from 1 Nephi 15:5 that he was upset by this: “for I considered that mine afflictions were great above all, because of the destruction of my people, for I had beheld their fall”. It seems seeing this was the part of the vision that made the most immediate emotional impact upon Nephi. In the short term, at least, this revelation may have given Nephi knowledge and wisdom, but it didn’t bring him any happiness.

And maybe that’s why he seems so upset to have to interpret the dream to his brothers in 1 Nephi 15: not just because he’s upset by what he saw in the vision, but because the interpretation of the dream is tied up with very thing that’s making him upset, and he’s having to explain this to his brothers, whose descendants he knows will in the end survive and be restored. It may even have felt a little unfair: here he was, striving to be faithful, yet he learns by vision that his descendants will fall into wickedness and be destroyed, while those of his brothers – the hardhearted brothers who’ve already tried to kill him once and to whom he has to explain the dream because they hadn’t sought revelation – will in the end be blessed! It’s the sort of experience that might shake a lesser person from their faith and trust in God. Perhaps this is sometimes the reason the Lord is careful about revealing things to us. And yet Nephi will continue to faithfully follow God’s will, even as he knows that things won’t go well for his descendants