Teaching, Learning, the 1,000 little changes, and the nature of exaltation/atonement

This is in response to the gauntlet that was thrown down by Geoff J (although I should note that he was only responding to my gauntlet).

In his parable of the piano, Geoff is trying to negotiate the roles of the individual spiritual agent in relation to the role of God in the Atonement and Exaltation (I am in the camp that believes (as apparently Geoff agrees) that one cannot successfully talk about one without invoking the other). Specifically, God gives everyone a piano that they could not get on their own and then God spends years and years training up the kid in piano, giving all the necessary skills, guidance, instruction, encouragement, discouragement, etc. necessary to get the orphan (us) to be as good a piano player as the instructor is. This places the responsibility for our salvation squarely on our shoulders; Although God gave us the piano as a gift, we must learn to play it individually. He cannot play it for us. (Geoff, please correct me if I am misinterpreting here).

If anyone has been following this debate (as I am sure you all are), you will note that whenever I disagree with Geoff, I initially point out that I mostly agree with him and find his parables helpful (his comments here reinforce that impression). Since patterns must be followed, I will do the same here. Taken individually, I agree with all of the sentences in the above paragraph. I just think that the sum is greater than the whole that paragraph creates.

Part of the issue comes from teaching. What I do best is teach. I am better at it than I am at research, critical thought, or any of the qualities necessary in academia. I enjoy it more than many of them, too. However, I know that I do not ultimately teach anybody anything (as I think most good teachers would agree). Humans are not computers and simple input/output doesn’t take place. Let me take, for a proof text, D&C 50:10-14, a passage important to teaching in the mission field and elsewhere.

10 And now come, saith the Lord, by the Spirit, unto the elders of his church, and let us reason together, that ye may understand;
11 Let us reason even as a man reasoneth one with another face to face.
12 Now, when a man reasoneth he is understood of man, because he reasoneth as a man; even so will I, the Lord, reason with you that you may understand.
13 Wherefore, I the Lord ask you this question—unto what were ye ordained?
14 To preach my gospel by the Spirit, even the Comforter which was sent forth to teach the truth.

I find this passage instructive for two reasons. First, God flat out says that he is going to take a moment and speak to us at our level, that he is going to appeal to our sense of reason. Second, it delineates the role of the teacher and the Spirit in learning. I preach; the Spirit teaches. Some may reasonably restrict this division of responsibility to only Gospel teaching (for it is here that we say the Spirit is essential). I don’t buy it. All teaching consists of trying to come up with example after analogy after metaphor after rule (ad nauseum) until the student has a eureka moment. All teaching is an episode of blind leading blind until an epiphany takes place and understanding is achieved. I don’t believe that this ever happens without the intervention of the Holy Ghost (who carries knowledge to the heart and mind). I can talk until I am blue in the face and it will be entirely possible that a student will get nothing out of it. While some amount of content in a class is dependent on me, whether or not the student gets anything out of it is entirely dependent on them.

So, how do students facillitate these useful eureka moments? They do what I ask them to do. They read and they think. They come prepared to class. However, it is fairly common for well-prepared students to leave well-presented lessons confused. Without this revelatory moment, nothing gets wholly communicated (I also think that the Holy Ghost is necessary for all true communication, but let’s set that aside for now).

What does any of this have to do with the piano? How do students learn? A combination of themselves and this divine intervention. As we seek to draw near to God, we are changed in a thousand little ways. Tiny daily gifts of grace are available to slowly remake us into better people. We do our part by becoming submissive to God’s will and enduring in the changes that have been made (to whatever degree this is possible). God does the actual changing. I do not think that we can become Gods without an atonement. Our nature must change for us to be exalted. However, the changing is affected by God. We are willing participants in His work, not the other way around. I would extend this to our own salvation.

Pres. Benson said, “The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.” What should we understand him to mean? He does not seem to be saying that people drive the changes they experience. I am particularly interested in the last sentence. God does change human nature. We are different now than we were before we came to this earth and, presumably, we will be different when we leave. Our work here on earth is becoming more like how we ought to be when we leave. We do this work by submitting our will to God and thereby allowing Him to change us.

The submitting of our will to the Father is the primary work that we have in this life. It is a long, painful process that involves a truly broken heart and a wholly contrite spirit. Godly works that we can see are symptoms of this slow change. In some cases, they can help prepare us for further change; in all cases, they are the outgrowth of spiritual changes that the Lord is working on us. Remember that the Lord is not interested in our outward changes alone, it is the thought that counts. How do you make yourself want something that you don’t honestly want? I don’t believe that anyone, having entered this world, wishes to surrender their agency. But this is specifically what God asks us to do. It is insufficient to just go through the motions and say the proper things. Geoff is right to say that it is worthless unless we become the new creature. But we are still just creatures at this stage; it is God who creates.

The problem with the lines that we have drawn is that they foster more misunderstanding than understanding. The accusation is that “piano” mormons are insufficiently humble, that under their system people theoretically could save themselves. I don’t think that this is what Geoff believes (why else make the piano initially unattainable?). The counter-accusation is that “gift” mormons are lazy or mediocre, seeking to let God do all the work. I think that this is also a mis-statement. What I have been trying to express is that both systems are fairly correct, so long as they take into account the usefulness of the other system (it really does turn out that we need faith and works). Our primary work is the submission of our will to God so that he can make us, through grace in the form of spiritual gifts, in his image. It is a joint project. As we submit, God works 1,000 (or more) little changes in us.

Joseph Smith said, “[B]y learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus.” If this is a good metaphor, the question should be, “Who controls our growth? According to whose timetable does it occur? What can we do to start or stop it in ourselves?” At Geoff’s blog, we exchanged the following pair of sermon on the mount scriptures:

Matt 6:27 Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?
Matt 6:33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Who is doing the adding? If it isn’t us, who must it be? As we seek the kingdom of God, we are changed. I just think that it is foolish or prideful to assume that we are the ones who generate the change. The best that we can hope to do is to try to generate conditions favorable to change (like doing your homework in class) and working to maintain those conditions until the change takes place (enduring to the end?). It is God who makes us like God.

  • David J


    Good post, man.

    This may be a bit off, but sometimes I wonder if our attempts at understanding the atonement via allegories are products of our own mental mechanics and therefore cannot fully represent how it works. Don’t get me wrong, I think allegories are helpful (my allegorical predilection for the atonement leans toward the allegory of Abraham Lincoln given by Cleon Skousen), but we must also recognize that they are somewhat incomplete.

    Did anyone verify if the gospel writers utilize allegory to explain the atonement in the Bible, the patristic writings, or the restoration scripture? If so, which ones did they employ, and how did they do it?

    Also, I had a course on the book of Matthew in grad school (it’s also my favorite of the synoptics), and I recall specifically that the author of Matthew frequenly employs the “divine passive” throughout his gospel as a means of avoiding repetition of God’s name. Matt. 6:33 is a text-book example of this. Nearly 100% of the scholarship on Matthew, therefore, would indeed concede that it is God who is doing the adding because of the use of the Greek divine passive in that verse. For those interested, I can present a biblio on this if requested.

    Furthermore, Matt. 6 is a discussion about the problem of riches, and it is a stretch, in my exegetical opinion (but by no means fatal to the application given here), to use those verses otherwise because of how nuanced they are in their original contexts.

    It is God who makes us like God.

    I honestly think that you and Geoff are advocating the same thing in different words. Both of you will disagree, but I don’t get that “nope” feeling when I read either of your explanations. Does anybody else feel this way?

  • John C.

    David J,
    I agree about questioning the usefulness of human developed allegory. And I agree that Geoff and I have issues moreso over vocabulary than doctrine (which I keep pointing out and Geoff keeps denying). We’ll see how it goes this time.

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com Geoff J

    Nice post John. I think we have plenty to discuss still.

    And I agree that Geoff and I have issues moreso over vocabulary than doctrine (which I keep pointing out and Geoff keeps denying).

    I think you are right that the majority of our disagreements can be attributed to not understanding the definitions of the vocabulary used. With that in mind let me ask you where you stand on a few things. Let me give you an example:

    At 6’0″, I am roughly 4 cubits tall. As a toddler I was roughly 2 cubits tall. My question to you is, do you think God actively made me 4 cubits tall or that he simply didn’t interfere with nature which had me slated to be that tall? This is a very important distinction I think. If our existence is entirely contingent on the active will of God then I think you are getting into a notion of God that is like the absolutest God of creedal Christianity. Major strains of Mormon thought have traditionally taught that God lives within laws of nature rather than outside of them. Where do you stand on this?

    (Your position on this will help me better understand this post I think)

  • John C.

    I would argue that God established the rules originally (at least as far as we are concerned), so, in that manner, he is behind your growth. That said, I have seen no evidence that God strictly lives within the laws of nature and I wonder if this is a reasonable expectation as his nature differs so greatly from ours. Certainly we have the potential to become like him, but equally certainly we are not like him now.

  • David J

    Yehezkel Kaufman was one of the first to illustrate the concept of the “meta-divine” in the ancient near east — this was the idea that the ancients believed that even the gods were subjected to the powers of the numen or magic or whatever. Whoever controlled these powers could manipulate other humans or the gods or whoever. Modern Christianity (post-Nicea/Chalcedon) I think would argue that the God of Israel is wholly outside all powers and forces and all is subject to him. He doesn’t even live in the universe — but fully outside it because it’s one of his creations (which I find odd–I can explain later). When I first heard this, I was somewhat pleased and disappointed simultaneously. Pleased, because sometimes I think there are laws that even God must abide (like agency and the eternal self-existence of things), and disappointed because it makes it seem like God dwells within his own creation, assuming those creations are lesser than he is (which I think is the orthodox Judeo-Christian assumption).

    but equally certainly we are not like him now.

    That would need to be qualified somewhat (for me, anyway). I have often thought, based on JS’s comments in the KFD, that the only difference between God and man is man’s fallenness. Both are uncreated, self-existing beings (“God never had power to create the spirit of man at all” WJS, p. 352, 359-360, etc.), both have the same form (Gen. 1:26-28), both have the power to procreate (Matt. 1:18), etc. etc. But I see your point if indeed what you’re talking about, John, is glory and exaltation, in which case I’m right with you (again, due to the Fall). As far as the other aspects (outside of exaltation) of what it means to be God or human, my decided answer to that purported dilemma is “yes.”

    Geoff, I see where you’re going now. Theologians call it “determinism,” and, for the most part, it’s still alive today in the Calvinistic theologies (Baptists, etc.). It’s a difficult question to answer: is God detached from his creation, or is he fully involved with it? Or neither of these (some sort of medium)?

  • http://www.splendidsun.com J. Stapley

    “…based on JS’s comments in the KFD….”

    Are you refering to the uncreatedness stuff or is there more that you mean to call out?

  • http://faithprorumor.weblogs.us John C.

    Daivd J, just skimming commments as I am short on time. That said, I think that the fall does make us fundamentally different from God and, for that matter, I have my doubts regarding massive similarity prior to earthly existence. I believe that this is why we need a mortality/atonement, to become like Him.

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com Geoff J

    John: I would argue that God established the rules originally (at least as far as we are concerned)

    Well that is certainly debatable. Elder Widstoe didn’t think so.

    I have seen no evidence that God strictly lives within the laws of nature

    Do you mean the laws of nature we humans understand or the laws of nature God understands? I agree he is not bound by the former but I strongly suspect he is bound by the latter.

    I asked those questions because I do sense a form of determinism in your position. The idea seems to be that if we repent, God changes us to be more like him. But my question is whether God is the one that actively changes us or if becoming more like him is the natural consequence of our surrendering our will to him and repenting to become more like him. I think it is probably the latter. So while we can say that God makes the sun come up each morning, we can also (more accurately I think) say that the sun is coming up for us tomorrow morning unless God intervenes to stop it from doing so. The same can be said of the effects of repenting I think — the natural consequence of humbling ourselves and loving God and repenting is that we change to become more like him.

    So when you say “As we submit, God works 1,000 (or more) little changes in us” I think that a more precise description of what is happening is that those changes in us are the natural consequence of repenting. When President Benson says “The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature” I think it means that obedience to Christ naturally changes human nature, not that Christ get some divine email saying “Geoff just repented – Go down and change his nature”.

    I fully agree with you when you say: “The submitting of our will to the Father is the primary work that we have in this life.” I think we currently disagree on the mechanics of how the change in us occurs thereafter. I think they are the natural and inevitable consequence of our having faith in Christ and repenting; you seem to think the change requires a proactive response by God himself. It is a subtle difference, but I think an important one.

    One other point I thought I would agree with you on was when you said: I preach; the Spirit teaches. This can all go back to the atonement too I think. The atonement provides the foundation in this world to allow us to be able to progress and have intelligence added to our “Intelligences” (or spirits) and thus make us new and different creatures. Our robust free will is still the igniter of these changes the Holy Spirit works on our Intelligences, but it that change is the natural result of our faithful reception of truth.

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com Geoff J

    John: We do our part by becoming submissive to God’s will and enduring in the changes that have been made (to whatever degree this is possible). God does the actual changing.

    This is one of the part of your post I found slightly misleading. I think that we don’t endure God making changes on us, but rather experience change as a natural consequence of having faith in Christ and repenting.

    Our nature must change for us to be exalted. However, the changing is affected by God.

    Again, I fully agree with the first sentence, my quibble is with the sencond sentence here. I think the changing happens naturally, not because of some proactive move by God himself.

    We are willing participants in His work, not the other way around.

    I think it would more accurately be called “our work” rather than His or mine. The work is one of building a relationship ultimately. We are trying to become one with each other. God is using all the techniques He described in section 121 on us: “persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;… kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul … Reproving betimes with sharpness”. We use our free will and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ to repent. As with any relationship, it is the work of both parties.

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen M (Ethesis)

    Interesting posts, definitely not just “more of the same” — thanks (to both the blog and to those who commented).

  • David J

    uncreatedness stuff or is there more that you mean to call out?

    Both. JS taught (quite clearly): “I am dwelling on the immutibility of the spirit of man–is it logic to say that spirit of man had a beginning & yet had no end? it does not have a begining & yet had no end. it does not have a begining or end — my ring is like the Exhistance of man–it has no begining or end. if cut into their would be a begining & end, so with man, if it had a begining it will have an end. if I am right I might say God never had power to create the spirit of man at all.” (WJS, 346)

    My point was that we’re just as old as he is (eternal), and that means we’re both self-existing, and that without this “there is no existence.” We’re both of the same crop, so to speak. At least that’s my take on it.

    And Geoff, my point was not that we were essentially the same in charecter, as you stated in your response, but in nature. Hence all the eternal stuff I posted there and here. His exaltation is what differentiates us, and I agree with you in that only Jesus bridges the gap for us.

    I can see how you guys got hung up on vocabulary — I feel trapped by it now too. So with that said, I think I’ll just sit back and watch from the sidelines on this one (as I was before). :)

  • http://www.splendidsun.com J. Stapley

    Interesting David. I agree with our self existing nature, but to equate that with being of the same crop is, I believe, a mistake. What about animal spirits?

  • David J

    What about animal spirits?

    I don’t know, JS didn’t go into that, but I imagine that they’re self-existing as well. Who knows.

    I agree with our self existing nature

    Then you and I are a rare breed, my friend. It’s my belief that this is the single reason why the church has never fully embraced the KFD.

    but to equate that with being of the same crop is, I believe, a mistake.

    Again, vocabulary is the bane here. After re-reading it, I’m not sure I even know what I meant by “crop.” And that’s weird because to be self-existent, as JS defined it, means to be uncreated and eternal, so there is no “crop” per se. I stand corrected by myself.

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com Geoff J


    I posted on this subject (in a post called Are we eternal or are our parts eternal) The question is whether our spirits/intelligences are “cut from whole cloth” and eternal as such or if we are made up of eternal “particles of intelligence” as first taught by Orson Pratt.

    I lean toward the latter based on the evidence I’ve seen.

  • David J

    I lean toward the latter based on the evidence I’ve seen.

    Most people do, which again, as I said before, is why I think the church has had such a difficult time swallowing the KFD. Nobody is necessarily wrong in thinking that because it’s so ubiquitous in the church (lesson manuals, conference talks, teaching guides, etc. etc.) that it is silly to try and refute it. At least that’s what I’ve discovered in talking about this with people. At times I think the church would be no different if the KFD had never been given. But personally, I need it.

    Thanks for linking the post over at NCT. I’ll go read that.

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com Geoff J

    David: Most people do, which again, as I said before, is why I think the church has had such a difficult time swallowing the KFD.

    Hmmm. I’m not sure most people do (lean toward our parts being eternal rather than our spirits in current form, that is). Most people probably never think about it. Those that do seem to split on this issue though (including the brethren from what I can tell).

    Further, I don’t think this specific issue is what makes the KFD hard to deal with. I fully accept the KFD and still think it is our parts that are eternal — that’s how I understand Joseph’s comments in conjunction with his other teachings. Obviously most creedal Christians think we were created ex nihilo so they would reject both versions of our eternality.

  • David J


    What’s your exegesis of Abraham 3:18?

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com Geoff J

    Ooh, good question David. (Apologies to John for ths little treadjack)

    That verse is about the intelligence (small i) of spirits/Intelligences (big I) relative to one another. There can always be a relative intelligence hierarchy even if we are fundamentally made up of what O.P. called eternal “particles of intelligence”. The fact that our spirits/Intelligences can increase of decrease in intelligence over time is the strongest evidence to support this idea I think.

    Let me add that I think there is one supreme monarch of our Universe. I don’t buy this “infinite regress” of Gods idea. I think rather that there is a finite regress and at the end of that is the God the Supreme Monarch. He told Abraham “I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.”

    Now that message was delivered to Abraham through the Holy Ghost and because of the atonement of Christ so it is an example of “divine investiture of authority”. The point is that the Godhead is One. “Elohim” is a plural word so the question that will not be answered in this life is how big the regress is that leads back to the Supreme Monarch. (Not that it matters much to me since they are One…)

  • David J


    1. Did you get all that from Abraham 3?

    2. Why such prominence given to Orson Pratt?

    3. Are you suggesting that there is a fundamental difference between spirits and intelligences?

  • http://www.splendidsun.com J. Stapley


  • http://www.newcoolthang.com Geoff J


    1. No – I see that all over our scriptures and sacred narratives. It’s a big picture/ model thing for me.
    2. I mostly am referring to the “particles” model of Intelligences rather than the whole-cloth model (the only two models I know of). I only mention O.P. because he was the first to publish ideas about the particle model. Lots of others have believed it though. (BTW- I think O.P. was wrong on plenty of things — I tend to side with Brigham on many of their debates)
    3. No

    J. – Nuyuk, nyuk, nyuk

    (Inside joke about “spiritual evolution”)