Note: The following was originally printed in the July/August 2023 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription to Mormonism Researched, please visit here.
Certina, a former Mormon and contributing author to the mormonscholar.org website (mormonscholar.org/the-covenant-path), wrote in 2018:
Since its introduction into the Mormon vocabulary in 2005 and General Conference in 2007, the term “covenant path” has seen tremendous growth in usage. During the General Conference sessions in 2018, the term was used a total of 36 times, and surpassed other familiar terms such as “Honesty” (2), “Integrity” (0), and “Charity” (25).
A person who listens carefully to LDS general conference messages will notice how often this term, and messages surrounding this term, have been utilized in recent years, especially since Russell M. Nelson became president in 2018. Members make covenants at baptism and when they participate in the temple endowment ceremony. They also renew their covenant promises when partaking of the sacrament (bread and water) service each Sunday in their local chapels.
In his April 2021 conference message titled “Why the Covenant Path?” Mormon Apostle D. Todd Christofferson, began his message by citing Nelson who, just two days after becoming the LDS Church’s new president, told members, “Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping these covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere” (emphasis mine).
In essence, following the covenant path is all about obedience to laws and ordinances that members of the LDS Church must make if they hope to receive exaltation. Christofferson said as much when he rhetorically asked, “What is the covenant path? It is the path that leads to the celestial kingdom of God” (Liahona, May 2021, 116).
Given that making a covenant is virtually worthless unless the member keeps the covenant, my question is, how wide is this metaphorical “path” that Mormons are expected to follow? It is as wide as a lane on a freeway, or is it as narrow as a balance beam, traversed by a skilled gymnast? The former allows us some proverbial “wiggle” room, while the latter offers virtually no mercy for a misstep. The way Mormon Apostle Dale G. Renlund described the Covenant Path in his April 2023 conference message titled “Accessing God’s Power through Covenants,” it sounds more like the width of balance beam (which actually measures a mere 4” wide).
Renlund stated that “making a covenant with God is different than casually making a promise.” He said, “We make a covenant only when we intend to commit ourselves quite exceptionally to fulfilling it” and that members are “inheritors of His kingdom… when we identify ourselves completely with the covenant” (emphasis mine). He insists that “covenants give us power to stay on the covenant path, but if that is so, why do so many have to take advantage of the sacrament service and the opportunity to “renew” those covenants? Renlund’s promise seems more like a case of circular reasoning that really doesn’t offer comfort at all to the average member who is looking forward to the “cleansing” they hope the sacrament service offers.
Some might assume that covenant path theology is similar to New Testament sanctification. Though both do involve effort on the part of an individual to live a godly life, they are not at all the same.
The New Testament tells us that when we “confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Our faith in the works of Christ, not our ability to keep the law no matter what kind of law we call it (Mosaic or celestial), is what justifies, or makes us right in the eyes of God. This kind of faith demonstrates that Christ’s sacrifice was full and complete; that there was nothing left that needed to be done for our forgiveness.
When we come to that kind of faith in Christ, we become new creatures in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17); as Christ’s workmanship, we are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10). Sinners set free want to honor their Savior though good works, but they did not come into Christianity by promising complete obedience to all of God’s commands. It is delusional to think this can be done on a consistent basis. This fact drives Christians to the foot of the cross where Christ’s perfect obedience secures the believer’s redemption. Sin-stained works will never satisfy the demands of a Holy God.
Covenant path theology blurs those lines of distinction between justification and sanctification, and because it does, Latter-day Saints are often left wondering if they really are on this balance beam to the celestial kingdom. According to Doctrine and Covenants 82:10, “I, the Lord, and bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.” This is the condition set by the God of Mormonism.
In a conference message given in April of 1993 titled “Keeping Covenants,” Apostle M. Russell Ballard warned his audience, “You must be honest with yourself and remain true to the covenants you have made with God. Do not fall into the trap of thinking you can sin a little and it will not matter. Remember, ‘the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance’ (D&C 1:31).”
Clearly, this path is treacherously narrow. What fallen human can honestly say they are able to traverse it?