President Nelson’s Favorite Topics and Statements, Part 4: The Plan of Salvation

For forty years before his call to the Quorum of the Twelve, Russel M. Nelson spent his career as a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon.  One aspect of his work that had a profound impact on him was that it “brought me into contact almost daily with seriously ill patients who faced the real prospect of death.”  While he saw death as a foe to fight against while he was a doctor, his later time in the ministry led him to “no longer feel that death is always that foe to be feared.  Instead,” he wrote, “I view it as a potential friend to be understood.”  And with that perspective, he came to feel that the Lord’s “gospel will help us to prepare for that great day of judgment.  His gifts will assuage the grief of the bereaved and bring joy to those who love him.  He will help them to fulfill their noblest purposes in life.”[1]  With that background in mind, it’s not very surprising to find that aspects of human existence, including the purpose of life and preparation for life after death, are central topics in President Nelson’s conference addresses.

This is the final post of the second part of my analysis of President Russell M. Nelson’s general conference addresses.  In the overall scheme of things, this puts us here:

  1. Introductory Thoughts
  2. President Nelson’s Favorite Topics and Phrases
    1. God and Power
    2. The Church, Priesthood, and Gathering Israel
    3. Family
    4. Plan of Salvation
  3. Examining the Sources in President Nelson’s Talks
  4. Potential Long-Term Impact of President Nelson’s Addresses

Without further adieu, let’s look at some of his major thoughts on topics closely related to what we often refer to as the Plan of Salvation.

The Three Pillars

In his general conference talks that deal with the Plan of Salvation, President Nelson often orients his discussion around Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s idea of the “Three Pillars of Eternity.”  As President Nelson summarized on one occasion: “Before we can comprehend the Atonement of Christ, however, we must first understand the Fall of Adam. And before we can understand the Fall of Adam, we must first understand the Creation. These three crucial components of the plan of salvation relate to each other.”[2]  Or, in another talk devoted to discussing the Creation: “The plan required the Creation, and that in turn required both the Fall and the Atonement. These are the three fundamental components of the plan.”[3]  This structure to President Nelson’s views reflects back to Elder McConkie and has served to reinforce his perspective.

I’ve discussed the key points that President Nelson has shared about the creation previously, so we’ll move the second pillar—the Fall.  Coming from a medical background, President Nelson has some interesting things to say about the physiological effects of the Fall of Adam and Eve:

The Fall of Adam (and Eve) constituted the mortal creation and brought about the required changes in their bodies, including the circulation of blood and other modifications as well. They were now able to have children. They and their posterity also became subject to injury, disease, and death. And a loving Creator blessed them with healing power by which the life and function of precious physical bodies could be preserved. For example, bones, if broken, could become solid again. Lacerations of the flesh could heal themselves. And miraculously, leaks in the circulation could be sealed off by components activated from the very blood being lost.[4]

He added elsewhere that: “While I do not fully understand all the biochemistry involved, I do know that their physical bodies did change; blood began to circulate in their bodies. Adam and Eve thereby became mortal.”[5]  He even carries the thought through to the resurrection: “That atonement must enable our physical bodies to be resurrected and changed to a bloodless form, no longer liable to disease, deterioration, or death.”[6]  It’s an interesting fixation with blood as the agent of the Fall that, while not entirely unique to Russell M. Nelson in our theology, has received the most emphasis from him in modern times.

Russell M. Nelson’s teachings about the Atonement of Jesus Christ are fairly standard for the Church.  For example, through the Savior’s Atonement: “The Savior’s gift of immortality comes to all who have ever lived. But His gift of eternal life requires repentance and obedience to specific ordinances and covenants.”[7] One point of interest that he has brought out a few times is “that atonement required a personal sacrifice by an immortal being not subject to death. Yet He must die and take up His own body again. The Savior was the only one who could accomplish this. From His mother He inherited power to die. From His Father He obtained power over death.”[8]  Another point, in connection with his fixation about knowing and using the names of Jesus Christ, is that: “It is doctrinally incomplete to speak of the Lord’s atoning sacrifice by shortcut phrases, such as ‘the Atonement’ or ‘the enabling power of the Atonement’ or ‘applying the Atonement’ or ‘being strengthened by the Atonement.’ These expressions present a real risk of misdirecting faith by treating the event as if it had living existence and capabilities independent of our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.”  Rather, he believes that: “The Savior’s atoning sacrifice—the central act of all human history—is best understood and appreciated when we expressly and clearly connect it to Him.”[9]  And, as I mentioned in my initial post, President Nelson has an interest in languages, so it is no surprise that he has taken the time to explain the etymology and meaning of various words used to describe the Atonement of Jesus Christ, both in English and in Biblical languages.[10]  In any case, the Atonement of our Lord is a central component of President Nelson’s teachings, with his belief that “as we repent and live in accordance with the commandments of God, the Atonement of Jesus Christ becomes a force for permanent change in our lives.”[11]

Human Bodies and the Resurrection

Also reflecting President Nelson’s background in the medical field is his repeated emphasis on caring for our bodies and an interest in the topic of the Resurrection.  He has expressed that “your body, whatever its natural gifts, is a magnificent creation of God,”[12] and that he stands “in awe of the miracle of the human body. … In giving us the gift of a body, God has allowed us to take a vital step toward becoming more like Him.”[13]  He has encouraged us to take care of our bodies with that perspective in mind, often also pointing to the words of “the Apostle Paul, that our bodies are temples for our spirits, divinely created by our loving Father in Heaven.”[14]

Based on this, both obedience to the Word of Wisdom and the Law of Chastity are repeated themes in his conference addresses.  In particular, he has expressed concerns about addictions, stating that: “If you yield to anything that can addict, and thus defy the Word of Wisdom, your spirit surrenders to the body. The flesh then enslaves the spirit. This is contrary to the purpose of your mortal existence.”[15] Still, he emphasizes that: “Full repentance from addiction is best accomplished in this life, while we still have a mortal body to help us.” [16] And, while he emphasizes and cites the health benefits of following the Word of Wisdom, he balances that with an emphasis on how “the Word of Wisdom is a spiritual law” that should be followed (regardless of whether medical advice backs it up or not) out of obedience to God.[17]  In any case, taking proper care of our bodies is a repeated focus of President Nelson’s ministry.

As already discussed, while talking about the Fall, President Nelson likes to sprinkle medical ideas into his discussions about doctrine that involve the human body, and the resurrection is another area where he does this.  For example: “Our bodies undergo constant rebuilding according to genetic recipes that are uniquely ours. Each time we take a bath, we lose not only dirt, but cells dead and dying, as they are replaced by a newer crop. This process of regeneration and renewal is but prelude to the promised phenomenon and future fact of our resurrection.”[18]  He added on a later occasion that: “The Lord who created us in the first place surely has power to do it again. The same necessary elements now in our bodies will still be available—at His command. The same unique genetic code now embedded in each of our living cells will still be available to format new ones then.”[19]  It’s interesting effort on President Nelson’s part to flesh out our understanding of the resurrection through incorporating modern life sciences into his explanation of the process by which it will take place.  While such things are interesting, however, President Nelson is also interested in the resurrection and the future state of the human soul, encouraging Latter-day Saints to prepare for our eternal futures.

Death

As the opening of this post indicates, death is something that has frequently been on President Nelson’s mind throughout his lifetime.  One of his most frequently-repeated statements is that: “We live to die, and we die to live again. From an eternal perspective, the only death that is truly premature is the death of one who is not prepared to meet God.”[20]  There are echoes here of the statement made by the early Christian bishop Irenaeus when he wrote that: “The business of the Christian is nothing else than to be ever preparing for death.”[21]  Indeed, Russell M. Nelson feels that his orientation towards death has taken on an eschatological perspective,[22] and he speaks of how “you (and I) are going to die, be resurrected, be judged, and be awarded a place in eternal realms” one day, sooner or later.[23]

Because of this orientation towards death and judgement by God, President Nelson frequently discusses death in terms of prioritizing one’s life in view of what is to follow.  For example, in one talk, he shared a story of how he “was asked to perform an operation upon a very wealthy man. A surgical biopsy confirmed that he had an advanced cancer that had spread throughout his body. As I reported this news, his immediate response was to rely upon his wealth.”  Of course, the man’s wealth didn’t save him, and “he soon passed away. Someone asked, ‘How much wealth did he leave?’ The answer, of course, was, ‘All of it!’”  To President Nelson, this was a negative example of someone where: “His priorities were set upon things of the world. His ladder of success had been leaning against the wrong wall.”[24]  Hence, he encourages people to turn to God and has expressed that: “From an eternal perspective, death is only premature for those who are not prepared to meet God.”[25]

President Nelson does offer solace to those who are preparing for death in his talks as well.  He talks about death being merciful, and that “death, like birth is part of life.”  Without it, we “would be stranded here on earth!”[26]  Hence, “The aging process is also a gift from God, as is death. The eventual death of your mortal body is essential to God’s great plan of happiness. Why? Because death will allow your spirit to return home to Him.”[27] In the perspective of eternal life, he feels that “we regarded the returning home as the best part of that long-awaited trip” while we prepared for life in the premortal existence.[28]  Yet, even knowing that, he does realize that: “Irrespective of age, we mourn for those loved and lost. Mourning is one of the deepest expressions of pure love. … The only way to take sorrow out of death is to take love out of life.”[29]  Throughout his general conference addresses, President Nelson frequently brushes the topic of death, discussing how it something that is a positive experience for those who are well-prepared.

Conclusion:

President Russell M. Nelson’s background as a surgeon has shaped his interests and focuses as an apostle.  This includes discussions about the Plan of Salvation (which are deeply rooted in the “Three Pillars of Eternity” structure outlined by Bruce R. McConkie), caring for the human body, and preparing for death and the resurrection.

Having discussed these aspects of his ministry, along with previous installments covering his interests in families, the Church and the Gathering of Israel on both sides of the veil, and the power of God, I’ve covered most of the major themes that come out repeatedly over the years in President Nelson’s addresses.  Along the way, I’ve also tried to bring out points of particular interest from various talks.  In the next part of my analysis, I’ll turn towards examining the sources President Nelson cites in his conference talks and what we can learn from them.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Russell M. Nelson, The Gateway We Call Death (SLC: Deseret Book Company, 1995), vii-xii.

[2] “The Atonement,” CR October 1996, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1996/10/the-atonement?lang=eng

[3] “The Creation,” CR April 2000, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2000/04/the-creation?lang=eng

[4] “The Atonement,” CR October 1996, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1996/10/the-atonement?lang=eng

[5] “Constancy amid Change, CR October 1993, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1993/10/constancy-amid-change?lang=eng

[6] “Constancy amid Change, CR October 1993, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1993/10/constancy-amid-change?lang=eng

[7] “The Atonement,” CR October 1996, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1996/10/the-atonement?lang=eng

[8] “Constancy amid Change, CR October 1993, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1993/10/constancy-amid-change?lang=eng

[9] “Drawing the Power of Jesus Christ into Our Lives,” CR April 2017, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2017/04/drawing-the-power-of-jesus-christ-into-our-lives?lang=eng

[10] “The Atonement,” CR October 1996, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1996/10/the-atonement?lang=eng

[11] “Combatting Spiritual Drift—Our Global Pandemic,” September 1993, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1993/10/combatting-spiritual-drift-our-global-pandemic?lang=eng

[12] “We Are Children of God,” CR October 1998, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1998/10/we-are-children-of-god?lang=eng

[13] “We Can Do Better and Be Better,” CR April 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/04/36nelson?lang=eng

[14] “Combatting Spiritual Drift—Our Global Pandemic,” September 1993, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1993/10/combatting-spiritual-drift-our-global-pandemic?lang=eng

[15] “Self-Mastery,” CR October 1985, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1985/10/self-mastery?lang=eng

[16] “We Are Children of God,” CR October 1998, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1998/10/we-are-children-of-god?lang=eng

[17] “Addiction or Freedom,” CR October 1988, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1988/10/addiction-or-freedom?lang=eng

[18] “Life after Life,” CR April 1987, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1987/04/life-after-life?lang=eng

[19] “Doors of Death, CR April 1992, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1992/04/doors-of-death?lang=eng

[20] “Face the Future With Faith,” CR April 2011, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2011/04/face-the-future-with-faith?lang=eng See also “Now is the Time to Prepare,” CR April 2005, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2005/04/now-is-the-time-to-prepare?lang=eng and “Doors of Death,” CR April 1992, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1992/04/doors-of-death?lang=eng

[21] Fathers, Church. The Complete Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post-Nicene Collection of Early Church Fathers: Cross-Linked to the Bible (Kindle Location 280563). Amazon.com. Kindle Edition.  There are also similarities here to the words Dumbledore shares in the Harry Potter series: “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” (Dumbledore, Rowling, J.K. [2012-03-27]. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone [Book 1] [p. 297]. Pottermore Limited. Kindle Edition).

[22] Nelson, The Gateway, ix.

[23] “Choices,” CR October 1990, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1990/10/choices?lang=eng

[24] “Now is the Time to Prepare,” CR April 2005, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2005/04/now-is-the-time-to-prepare?lang=eng

[25] “Decisions for Eternity,” CR October 2013, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2013/10/decisions-for-eternity?lang=eng

[26] “Thanks Be to God,” CR April 2012, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2012/04/thanks-be-to-god?lang=eng

[27] “Decisions for Eternity,” CR October 2013, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2013/10/decisions-for-eternity?lang=eng

[28] “Doors of Death,” CR April 1992, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1992/04/doors-of-death?lang=eng

[29] “Doors of Death,” CR April 1992, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1992/04/doors-of-death?lang=eng

6 comments for “President Nelson’s Favorite Topics and Statements, Part 4: The Plan of Salvation

  1. I have problems with treating OT characters as real people. A lot of the stories in Genesis are obviously allegorical. Do you need to be a literal believer in Adam and Eve to be a member of the Church? If we believe they were real people, how does that fit in with human evolution? Any discussion of the Fall seems highly problematic.

    With more and more members accepting the realities of Darwinian science, including the biology staff at BYU, there needs to be a serious discussion of the realities of Genesis. If that doesn’t happen, the Church will continue to lose its young members.

  2. It’s complicated because Church leaders have taken such literalistic views of the Bible in the past that Adam is treated as a real person–one that is the patriarch of the human race and who functions as the presiding authority in the priesthood for the human family and who visited Joseph Smith (i.e., see https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-joseph-smith/chapter-8?lang=eng or https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/128?lang=eng for Joseph Smith treating it this way).

    But yes, it is highly problematic to approach the topic of the Fall and to try to square it with the topic of evolution. As a biotech professional with a background in molecular biology, I do not see any way that we can deny that organic evolution is the best way to explain the development of life on earth. Yet, there are a lot of aspects of our doctrine that are difficult to iron out with that perspective (i.e., literal Adam). The framework of the three pillars (Creation, Fall, Atonement) reinforces the problem, since it makes the Atonement of Jesus Christ dependent on the Fall for an explanation of its necessity. I personally think that there are other ways to approach understanding the Atonement of Christ within Mormonism and that the approach of the Fall being so central to the Plan of Salvation is rooted more in post-Augustine Christianity (particularly fundamentalist Protestant Christianity) than in our historical doctrine.

    I will say that I am interested to see what is said in the forthcoming special BYU Studies volume on evolution to see how various people in the Church approach resolving issues like this.

  3. ” I do know that their physical bodies did change; blood began to circulate in their bodies. Adam and Eve thereby became mortal.”

    It seems that for some statements from the prophets like this “I know” statement are more troublesome that their choice to believe in no death before the fall of a literal Adam and Eve — more troublesome because the usage in this context calls into question whether they “know” anything in the sense they may wish us to take the word. Currently I prefer to think they use “know” in a wide variety of meanings — just as one hears in testimony meeting — whether they know it, or not.

    BRM’s insistence that one cannot have faith in Christ, in the atonement, without a literal Adam before whose fall there was no death on earth was not in my view original with him, but I would credit his “unauthorized book” and his adamant and overconfident speeches with its widespread popularity among Mormons. Of course, his father-in-law’s “unauthorized book” (published shortly after the death of the opponents of his approach among the Q12) took the same approach. I still remember being appalled about 1980 when I first noticed those books being quoted in official Melchizedek priesthood manuals. I wonder if anyone has researched when the actually began to be quoted in official curriculum materials.

  4. “mortal creation and brought about the required changes in their bodies, including the circulation of blood”

    What’s interesting about that statement is the church removed from the Bible dictionary the teaching that pre fall Adam had a body of flesh and bone. The bible clearly teaches the Adam had flesh and bone, but nothing about the lack of blood.

    I think there’s an important distinction about blood, the connection to the atonement, sacrament, even the revealed nature of God having a body of flesh and bone, but not blood.

    I wonder why this was removed.

  5. Really Geoff, out of everything you could discuss from this, that’s what you choose to say? I don’t even understand where you’re going with it. In any case, I don’t think that we have access to records that allows us to calculate the body-mass index of each of the General Authorities in the Church. Nor is it a polite topic to focus on.

    Sute, that is interesting that it was removed from the Bible Dictionary. I hadn’t noted the change, but the idea of flesh and bone vs flesh and blood being used to differentiate between immortal and mortal bodies is something that isn’t unique to President Nelson in the Church, so it is odd that it would be taken out.

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