I've neglected the Lectures on Faith a bit over the past few weeks; I've had a lot of other things on my mind. But in the past few days, the importance of knowing God in order to exercise faith in Him keeps coming to the forefront of my mind. So the fourth Lecture on Faith is a great place to start, with its discussion of the attributes of God.
As I said previously, I think characteristics are something you have, whereas attributes are something you are, and that is perhaps how the list of qualities in lecture Three differs from lecture Four. I'm not actually sure the difference is important. The purpose of the fourth lecture is to "show the connection there is between correct ideas of the attributes of God, and the exercise of faith in him unto eternal life" (4:1). This is a good time to remind ourselves that we are still talking about the doctrine of Christ, which is to have faith, repent, be baptized, and press forward in Christ until we obtain a sure promise of salvation from the Father (2 Ne 31). Put in context, we are still trying to figure out what it means to have the kind of faith that gets you from the first step to the last.
"For without the idea of the existence of the attributes which belong to God, the minds of men could not have power to exercise faith on him so as to lay hold upon eternal life" (LoF 4:2)--it is the mind which exercises faith, so it is essential that the mind have a correct understanding in order to "enable [us] to exercise faith in God, and through this means to be partakers of his glory" (LoF 4:3). To lay hold upon eternal life means to be partakers of his glory: something worth the effort and faith, no? So in order to exercise faith in God to reach that goal, we must know what kind of being He is (attributes), in addition to knowing what kind of powers He has or what kinds of things He can do (characteristics).
This lecture has an interesting structure: it covers each attribute three times. The first pass is just a list of scripture references referring to each quality; the second is a detailed explanation of what it means, and the third is a quick summary. I will address each attribute once, and integrate the material.
A quick note: one difficulty in discussing these attributes is that we tend to attribute modern definitions to some of these terms, obscuring the intent of the authors and original meaning of the scriptures referenced. I have spent some time reviewing definitions in the 1828 Webster's Dictionary and considering scripture verses in context to make sure I understand correctly. The references are worth your time to study carefully.
- Knowledge (Acts 15:18, Isa 46:9-10). Unless God knew everything ("the knowledge of all things"), He wouldn't know how to save any of His creations. Additionally, because He does know everything, He is able to share His understanding with us when we need it, so we also know how to return to Him. If we didn't believe He knows everything, then we would never bother to ask Him questions.
Note that the most important knowledge He has is an understanding of how to save us--it's not enough to just accept that He is omniscient.
- Power (or faith) (Heb 11:3, Gen 1:1, Isa 14:24, 27). The verses referenced use the word "faith," while the discussion only refers to "power." This is a good reminder that they are the same thing, as long as you are talking about true faith as these lectures define it. God possesses all power to save us from our enemies, temporal and spiritual. "Unless God had power over all things, and was able, by his power, to control all things, and thereby deliver his creatures who put their trust in him...men could not be saved; but with the idea of the existence of this attribute, planted in the mind, men feel as though they had nothing to fear, who put their trust in God, believing that he has power to save all who come to him, to the very uttermost" (LoF 4:12).
Again, it's not enough to simply recognize that God is omnipotent. The primary function of His omnipotence is to save us: our salvation is His greatest work. Additionally, the effect of understanding this is to help us trust Him and feel as if we had nothing to fear.
- Justice (Ps 89:14, Isa 45:21, Zeph 5:5, Zech 9:9). Not to be confused with judgment, which is the next attribute, "justice" refers to the virtue which consists in giving to every one what is his due; practical conformity to the laws and principles of rectitude in the dealings of men with each other; honesty, integrity, impartiality, equity (Webster). In modern English, we might just say that God is fair. If we don't have confidence that God will treat us fairly, we will be "filled with fear and doubt, lest the Judge of all the earth would not do right" (LoF 4:13).
This Lecture also points out that fear and doubt prevent us from exercising faith. I don't want to go so far as to say that faith and doubt cannot coexist, otherwise the father described in Mark 9:24 could never have seen his son healed. However, faith in God's justice and equity can help us cast out fear and doubt, and trust Him, because we know that he gives no preference or special privilege to anyone, no matter how privileged they appear to be on the surface.
- Judgment (Ps 89:14, Deut 32:4, Ps 9:7, 16). Whereas justice refers to equity and fairness, "judgment" seems to refer to the ability to discern truth from error, right from wrong, good from evil--in other words, the ability to pronounce a sentence, and then the ability to carry it out. Webster's says judgment is the act of judging, the process of the mind to ascertain truth, propriety, justice; the faculty of the mind that compares ideas; the determination of the mind formed from comparing ideas, facts, and arguments; determination, decision, verdict; the spirit of wisdom and prudence, enabling a person to judge good and evil.
In context in this lecture, it refers to God delivering the faithful and punishing the wicked. It is necessary for us to understand this about God, because if God "were not to come out in swift judgment against the workers of iniquity and the powers of darkness, his saints could not be saved." If we believe and trust the judgment of God, we "are enabled, by faith, to lay hold on the promises which are set before [us], and wade through all the tribulations and afflictions to which [we] are subjected by reason of the persecution from those who know not God, and obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: believing, that in due time the Lord will come out in swift judgment against [our] enemies, and they shall be cut off from before him, and that in his own due time he will bear [us] off conquerors and more than conquerors in all things" (LoF 4:14).
Put another way, faith in God's judgment means that we believe that in the end, God will conquer all darkness and evil in the world, so we can hope for something better.
- Mercy (Ps 89:15, Ex 34:6, Neh 9:17). We generally think of mercy as referring to something that tempers judgment, that offers clemency or inflicts less punishment than the law would warrant. However, this is not consistent with the teachings in the Lectures on Faith. Here, "mercy" is not something offered to sinners; it is the deliverance of the righteous from their afflictions. It is something we must believe in to endure through our trials: "believing that the mercy of God will be poured out upon [us] in the midst of [our] afflictions, and that he will compassionate [us] in our sufferings; and that the mercy of God will lay hold of [us] and secure [us] in the arms of his love, so that [we] will receive a full reward for all [our] sufferings" (LoF 4:15).
- Truth (Ps 89:14, Ex 34:6, Deut 32:4, Ps 31:5). We must trust that God is telling the truth, which means that "all the teachings, instructions, promises and blessings become realities, and the mind is enabled to lay hold of them with certainty and confidence: believing that thse things, and all that the Lord has said, shall be fulfilled in their time... and by reason of the truth and veracity of him, the mind beholds its deliverance and salvation as being certain" (LoF 4:16). To quote a well-known LDS book, "We must not only believe in Christ but also believe him." God is telling the truth, and we can behold our deliverance and salvation as being certain, if we have true faith as laid out in these lectures.
This question is not answered in this lecture, but I believe it will be in the following lectures. The quick "Sunday School" answer, of course, is that through repentance and the atonement of Christ, we can become clean again, but I try to avoid the quick answers--I find that they generally limit my understanding. And the quick answer is not actually given in the Lectures on Faith (or at least it's not explained in those terms), and I'd like to find the answer Joseph Smith proposed within the context of these lectures, within the context of faith in God as he preached it, in order to expand my understanding of faith, repentance, and the atonement.
So I am going to leave my question unanswered, for now, and continue to look for a resolution in the following lectures.
To recap: in order to have faith strong enough to save you, your faith must include three things. First, a knowledge that God actually exists: check. The lectures demonstrated where the idea of God originally came from. Second, a correct understanding of who God is: we have now covered what his character and attributes are, so we are partway through this second thing.
"In view, then, of the existence of these attributes, the faith of the saints can become exceedingly strong: abounding in righteousness unto the praise and glory of God, and can exert its mighty influence in searching after wisdom and understanding, until it has obtained a knowledge of all things that pertain to life and salvation" (LoF18). A couple final observations: here, faith as previously described is something that is considered "righteous," so maybe that is what qualifies us for God's mercy and deliverance. I think that is a partial answer. Also, true faith has "mighty influence" that drives us to search for wisdom and understanding until we know everything. Reverse that, and it means if you aren't still searching, your faith is not true. Let's keep searching!
Read the following post in this series here.