How Do Mormons Understand the Gospel?
Mormons (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) use the word gospel in a variety of ways. For example, on Fast Sunday (generally the first Sunday of each month), as part of their fast many will bear testimonies, saying something like "I know that the gospel is true." Or a Sunday School teacher may say, "The gospel contains all truth." We may speak of a person being committed to the gospel or of living the gospel.
We aren't particularly clear about what we mean in these various cases. We may not mean the same thing in each case. But the context is usually enough to remove most ambiguity. Perhaps we can generalize and say that when used in these ways the word gospel means approximately "the principles taught by the LDS Church."
We use the word in a slightly different way when we say that the gospel has been restored with the founding and development of the LDS Church. Used that way, the word appears to mean more than the principles one finds taught in Mormonism.
I think gospel also refers to the covenants that can be made through the rituals of Mormonism, such as baptism and the rites performed in LDS temples, along with the authority to officiate in making those covenants. When we speak of the restoration of the gospel we speak not only of the restoration of particular beliefs, but more importantly of the restoration of covenants and priesthood.
But there is another, more important meaning of the word. The LDS Bible Dictionary, an appendix to the LDS edition of the King James translation of the Bible, defines the gospel as "The good news that Jesus Christ has made a perfect atonement for mankind that will redeem all mankind from the grave and reward each individual according to his / her works."
That's a good start on how Mormons understand the gospel: all human beings will be resurrected, and each will be rewarded for his or her works in this life. But it is incomplete because it doesn't fill out what it means to say that we will be rewarded for our works, except perhaps implicitly when it refers to Jesus' perfect atonement.
The Book of Mormon fills in that lacuna. After his resurrection, Jesus appears to a relatively small group of people, probably in Central America. He tells them:
Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, I will declare unto you my doctrine. And this is my doctrine, . . . I bear record that the Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me. And whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God. And whoso believeth not in me, and is not baptized, shall be damned (3 Nephi 11:31-34).
Repent and be baptized. That is his teaching, a teaching he expands by saying "Ye must repent, and be baptized in my name, and become as a little child, or ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God" (3 Nephi 11:37). Repentance and baptism include rebirth if they are complete. And the Savior promises that those who repent and are baptized will receive the Holy Ghost, a gift by which the Father will witness of the Son (3 Nephi 11:35).
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.