Is there a difference between behaving righteously and being righteous? Can I do righteous works, but not be righteous? Aren’t I defined by what I do? These are the questions addressed by the Savior’s sermon to the Nephites in 3 Nephi 12-14.
This article is an expanded form of the third day’s lesson from the Come, Follow Me Manual for the Book of Mormon, page 151.
The Nephites had been living the Mosaic law, a law of outward performances. By that I mean it was a law that required physical representations of what Christ would do for us in his atoning sacrifice. The people were required to bring animals to lay on the altar. The animals gave their lives for the forgiveness of the person’s individual sins or for the worship of God. The person sacrificed nothing, but the animal gave everything on their behalf. All of this was a representation of what Christ would do for us when he came to earth.
Once a year, the high priest would symbolically lay all the sins of Israel on the head of a goat that would then be driven outside of the temple to be devoured by wild beasts. In this way all of Israel received forgiveness for their collective sins each year. With the coming of Christ that all changed.
The higher law
What makes the “higher law” higher than the Mosaic law is the change of focus. Whereas the Mosaic law required animals go give their lives in sacrifice for the person to be forgiven or to worship properly, the higher law, the law of the Gospel required the people to sacrifice themselves on the altar of obedience in order to be forgiven or to worship properly.
Now they could no longer do something and correctly worship, or do something and be forgiven for their sins. Now they had to BE something in order to correctly worship and be forgiven for their sins. This is a much more difficult law to live, for it requires the sacrifice of the whole soul, not just proper external behavior.
An outward display of righteousness is still just a shallow imitation of the righteous act if the act is not born of pure intent. In other words, I can help an old person with their groceries, which in and of itself is a good thing. But is it really a righteous thing if I am helping begrudgingly or with anger towards that person while I am “helping?” The key to righteousness, as defined by the law of the Gospel is that my righteous acts must be motivated by pure thoughts, kind intentions, and a generosity of spirit that would not allow me to do otherwise.
The Pharisees were famous for their public good works. These good works earned them the title of “whited sepulchers” by the Lord. They were rotten within, but they sparkled with goodness without. This is why righteousness isn’t really righteousness if our heart isn’t pure before the Lord. By heart I mean our intention, the reason we do what we do.
Reasons to be blessed
In 3 Nephi 12:2–12 the Savior gives the qualifications for being blessed by God. They include such character traits as being merciful, meek, poor in spirit and those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. If we have these traits, or are developing these traits then we can expect blessings from our Father in Heaven.
But is that it? Are a few verses worth of good traits to develop enough to receive all the blessings available to those who truly learn to live the law of the Gospel as Jesus taught it? The next thing Jesus teaches them is the first in a long litany of examples of how to become righteous, and hence be deserving of the blessings the Gospel has to offer. The first thing he teaches them is the importance of being the salt of the earth. Here is a link to a short article on what it means to be the salt of the earth. I needed to learn more about this topic, so I thought it would be helpful to share what I learned.
Here is a list of the examples Jesus gave of how we can become truly righteous people.
Be the salt of the earth – share the gospel and set the example of godly living and goodness.
Be like a light on a hill – a good example for others to follow or emulate
To come to Christ we must keep his commandments
In order to come to Christ we must first settle our accounts with those around us. Christ will not accept our heart if it is hardened by anger towards another.
We must not allow or suffer thoughts of lust to enter into our hearts, that is to say we must not entertain such thoughts. We can’t control which thoughts enter our mind, but we can control how long they stay there and what we replace them with.
Be strictly honest in all your dealings – say “Yea, yea; Nay, nay.” Let your word be your bond, just as God’s word is His bond.
Be humble and submissive when we are used or abused by another. Do not fight evil, except under the conditions approved by God elsewhere in the scriptures.
Be generous with your material possessions. In other words, set your heart upon the things of God and not on the things of this world.
Be forgiving and generous to those who hate you and despitefully use you.
There is a lot more to this list, but this paints the picture. Christ is telling us that the law of the Gospel he brought with him is all about the character traits we need to learn to develop in order to be truly righteous. The people he described to the Nephites are the kind of people that couldn’t be hypocritical in their words and their deeds. What they say is what they will do. Justice and fairness, kindness and generosity are part and parcel to their nature.
Christ’s parting injunction to the people at the end of this sermon is to become perfect, even as he and His Father are perfect. Remember that perfect means to be whole or complete. Living the laws that Christ gave us in the law of the Gospel heal us of our brokenness. They make us more whole or perfect. Complete perfection, that perfection that means without flaw of any kind, won’t happen in this life. But being perfect as described in these three chapters is something we can come very close to while still in mortality. But to do so the changes we make in our lives must be more than cosmetic. They must be changes to our desires, our intent, and in what we value most, our treasures.
To become perfect we must learn to value eternal things more than physical things. We need to be watchful and guard against being deceitful or being disingenuous in our behavior. We must be honest in our dealings with others, and with ourselves. This takes constant monitoring and evaluating.
Perfection is real
I think too often we dismiss the injunction to become perfect because we automatically assume it is not possible in this life. But isn’t that our goal? Why shouldn’t we be working toward that wholeness now? The more we let Christ heal us by drawing closer to him, the happier we will be. Isn’t that something we all desire?
The problem with liars is that they eventually lose track of all the lies and end up getting caught in their own webs of deceit. When we learn to act on the outside in complete harmony with who and what we are on the inside, we will find there is nothing we need to hide or be afraid of in this life. It is then that we will see that when we do something righteous there is no disconnect between what action we just took and how we feel about that action. We are living and acting in harmony with who we really are.
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printable PDF version of the article.