Latter-day Saints often speak of "the gospel," and the word carries a variety of meanings for them. Most often they probably mean "the beliefs shared by Mormons about their religion," though seldom do people really distinguish between "what I believe" and "what most believe."
It has not been uncommon for Mormons to say, with John Taylor (1860), "In the Gospel of Jesus Christ is embodied all truth, so far as the salvation of the human family is concerned." Many drop the last clause and equate the gospel with all truth — full stop.
For example, occasionally someone in a Sunday School class will tell us that the principles of physics are part of the gospel. I'm skeptical, but I applaud the sentiment behind that claim. The idea is that we should be willing to inquire into and embrace all truth because it is, supposedly, part of the gospel. Good idea even if the reason is faulty.
Whatever the most common uses of the word among Latter-day Saints, the Book of Mormon is straightforwardly clear about its meaning. 3 Nephi 27 says the gospel is:
- Jesus came into the world to do the will of the Father.
- The Father's will was that the Son should be crucified so that he might draw all people unto him.
- The Father's will is that all will be judge by their works.
- But those who have faith in Jesus Christ, repent, are baptized, are filled with the Holy Spirit, and endure to the end, will not be found guilty.
That is a variation on what Christians have believed for millennia: trust in Jesus the Messiah allows us to avoid being found guilty at the Last Judgment.
In the Book of Mormon that good news comes against the background of a sermon given by an early king, King Benjamin. His people are good. They are obedient to the law they have, the Law of Moses as it has come to them through their kings (Mosiah 2:31). They probably go to church every Sunday, do their home teaching, have Family Home Evening and family prayer, don't date before sixteen, keep working on their genealogy . . . . Yet, having heard King Benjamin speak about atonement, they fall to the earth:
. . . for the fear of the Lord had come upon them. And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified. (Mosiah 4:1-2)
They recognize that their obedience is not enough.
The immediate cause of this people's fear seems to be something that King Benjamin says was given to him by an angel:
[T]he time shall come when the knowledge of a Savior shall spread throughout every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. And behold, when that time cometh, none shall be found blameless before God, except it be little children, only through repentance and faith on the name of the Lord God Omnipotent. (Mosiah 3: 20-21)
Like Paul and the Psalmist, King Benjamin teaches that no one is worthy of salvation or can make himself worthy: "For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever"(Mosiah 3:19).
For people relying on their obedience, that message is awful. They have no chance and can rightfully despair. But they have not yet heard the other part of what King Benjamin says:
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).
The alternative to damnation is to yield to the Spirit, which means putting off the natural man. How? Through accepting the atonement of Jesus Christ. If we do that, then we will become as a child who submits to a parent in whatever the parent wishes to inflict.
That is an awful image. It is not difficult to imagine a cruel parent who inflicts all manner of suffering on his or her child and the submissive child who willingly submits to that cruelty. It is an image of depravity. But in this case we are asked to trust that our Parent is not depraved. Trusting the Father, we must submit to his will as Jesus did, even though we may not understand what he inflicts on us.