What Are the Commandments God Expects Us to Keep?
By Jon M. Taylor
I recall as a newly returned missionary my resolve to keep all of God’s commandments, and I wanted to know what those commandments were – a question that has intrigued me ever since. When the word “commandment” comes up in conversation, many people equate it to the Ten Commandments (a.k.a. the “Decalogue”) given to Moses on Mt. Sinai.1
The original ten commandments as given to Moses for the children of Israel:
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them. . .
“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, . .
“Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
“Thou shalt not kill.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery.
“Thou shalt not steal.
“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”
God has given other commandments besides the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments are widely accepted as cardinal commandments by both Jewish and Christian believers. In fact, many of our laws and customs emanate from the original Ten Commandments. Killing, stealing, lying, and adultery are condemned in most civilized societies. Also, the Lord has reiterated most of the Ten Commandments in our dispensation.2
Many other commandments are recorded in scripture. For example, when Christ appeared to the Nephites following his resurrection, He said:
“And behold, I have given you the law and the commandments of my Father, that ye shall believe in me, and that ye shall repent of your sins, and come unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit. (He had earlier commanded that this be followed with baptism.) Behold, ye have the commandments before you, and the law is fulfilled.
”Therefore come unto me and be ye saved; for verily I say unto you, that except ye shall keep my commandments, which I have commanded you at this time, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”3
Clearly, the keeping of God’s commandments is an important duty which includes but also goes beyond the original Ten Commandments. Yet when I ask other church members, “What is a commandment?” I get varying answers, such as –
“Well, it’s the Ten Commandments and I guess whatever else the prophet tells us to do, like the Word of Wisdom and tithing.”
“Instructions from God that begin with ‘Thou shalt’ or ‘Thou shalt not’ or ‘Thus saith the Lord’.”4
“It’s instructions from God on how to live and be happy.”
And some could not come up with an answer. So I decided to make a serious study of what is a commandment and what are the commandments we as Latter-day Saints are expected to keep.
It is important that we know and keep God’s commandments.
Abraham recorded that in the Council in Heaven Jehovah declared, “And we will prove them herewith to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.”5
Our Church leaders have stressed the importance of keeping God’s commandments. As Latter-day Saints, we believe God’s highest rewards go to those who repent of their sins, are baptized, and obey his other commandments.
Elder David A. Bednar reminded us that our work is to keep the commandments:
“One of the most well-known and frequently cited passages of scripture is found in Moses chapter 1, verse 39. This verse clearly and concisely describes the work of the Eternal Father: ‘For behold, this is my work and my glory–to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.’
“A companion scripture found in the Doctrine and Covenants describes with equal clarity and conciseness our primary work as the sons and daughters of the Eternal Father. Interestingly, this verse does not seem to be as well-known and is not quoted with great frequency. ‘Behold, this is your work, to keep my commandments, yea, with all your might, mind and strength.’
“Thus, the Father’s work is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of His children. Our work is to keep His commandments with all of our might, mind, and strength. And we thereby become chosen and, through the Holy Ghost, receive and recognize the tender mercies of the Lord in our daily lives.”6
Every president of the Church, from Joseph Smith to our present prophet has stressed the importance of obedience to God’s commandments and the blessings from doing so.
In his first press conference as President of the Church, President Harold B. Lee told reporters:
“The safety of the church lies in the members keeping the commandments. There is nothing more important that I could say. As they keep the commandments, blessings will come.”7
In the priesthood meeting of October 2015 General Conference, President Thomas S. Monson stated:
“My message to you tonight is straightforward. It is this: keep the commandments.
“God’s commandments are not given to frustrate us or to become obstacles to our happiness. Just the opposite is true. He who created us and who loves us perfectly knows just how we need to live our lives in order to obtain the greatest happiness possible. He has provided us with guidelines which, if we follow them, will see us safely through this often treacherous mortal journey. We remember the words of the familiar hymn: “Keep the commandments! In this there is safety; in this there is peace.”
A verse from Ecclesiastes reinforces this theme: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” 8
Nephi’s inspired admonishment to his brethren could apply to all of us as well:
“Wherefore, I, Nephi, did exhort them to give heed unto the word of the Lord; yea, I did exhort them with all the energies of my soul, and with all the faculty which I possessed, that they would give heed to the word of God and remember to keep his commandments always in all things.”9
In 1831, the Lord commanded: “Keep my commandments continually, and a crown of righteousness thou shalt receive. And except thou do this, where I am ye cannot come.”10 Still later, he said, “If thou lovest me, thou shalt serve me and keep all my commandments.”11 In fact, we covenant to keep the commandments every time we partake of the sacrament.12
And finally, in 1842, Joseph Smith taught:
”Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God. But we cannot keep all the commandments without first knowing them . . .”13
God’s commandments are directions he gives us for our guidance and benefit.
If one does a search in the scriptures for verses with the words “command” or “commandment,” it becomes clear that what they all have in common is strong direction to do or not do something. And there is often a blessing attached to obedience to the commandment – and/or dire consequences for disobedience.
In a general council of the Church9, the Lord instructed through the prophet Joseph Smith: “I give unto you a new commandment, that you may understand my will concerning you; or in other words, I give unto you directions. . .”14 So those directions given to us by living prophets for our guidance and benefit, as well as those recorded in scripture, could be considered God’s commandments.
Great blessings are offered to those who keep God’s commandments. For example, the Nephites were repeatedly given the same promise and warning: “For the Lord God hath said that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence.”15
As he ministered among men, the Savior promised, “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.”16
It should also be noted that God’s commandments are not rigid rules that cannot be altered by the Lord for his specific purposes. For example, Nephi was commanded to slay Laban so that his people could have the records of the Jews.17 And the Savior allowed his disciples to pick corn on the Sabbath, teaching that he was Lord also of the Sabbath.18
Shortly after the Church was founded, the saints received “commandments not a few.”
In 1831, the Lord declared, “Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments. . . Search these commandments, for they are true and faithful, and the prophecies and promises which are in them shall all be fulfilled.”19
In the ensuing sixteen years many additional revelations labeled “commandments” were given through the prophet Joseph Smith to the Church and to certain individuals.
In a revelation in 1831, the Lord declared: “Yea, blessed are they . . . who have obeyed my gospel; . . And they shall also be crowned with blessings from above, yea, and with commandments not a few. .”20
There follows the two “great commandments” (to love the Lord and our neighbor), an expanded Sabbath commandment, and some new ones:
“Wherefore, I give unto them a commandment, saying thus: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy might, mind, and strength; and in the name of Jesus Christ thou shalt serve him.
“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Thou shalt not steal; neither commit adultery, nor kill, nor do anything like unto it.
“Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things.
“Thou shalt offer a sacrifice unto the Lord thy God in righteousness, even that of a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
“And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day; For verily this is a day appointed unto you to rest from your labors, and to pay thy devotions unto the Most High; . .
“But remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord.
“And on this day thou shalt do none other thing, only let thy food be prepared with singleness of heart that thy fasting may be perfect, or, in other words, that thy joy may be full.”21
The 42nd section of the Doctrine and Covenants repeats some of the Ten ommandments and includes many other directives that could be considered commandments, such as the following:
“Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else.”. .
“Thou shalt not speak evil of thy neighbor, nor do him any harm.”22
The 88th Section also includes some interesting commandments:
“I give unto you a commandment that ye shall continue in prayer and fasting from this time forth.”23
“And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.
“Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God;”24
“Cease to be idle; cease to be unclean; cease to find fault one with another; cease to sleep longer than is needful; retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated.
“And above all things, clothe yourselves with the bond of charity, as with a mantle, which is the bond of perfectness and peace.
“Pray always, that ye may not faint, until I come.”25
In 1833, the revelations received by the Prophet Joseph Smith were published under the title A Book of Commandments for the Government of the Church of Christ. An enlarged compilation of revelations was published two years later as the Doctrine and Covenants.26
The law of tithing is also a commandment. In Section 119, the saints are directed to – “pay one tenth of all their interest annually; and this shall be a standing law unto them forever.”27
Altogether, I have counted over two hundred directives recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants that could be considered commandments for all of us. Truly, as promised, the Saints were “blessed with commandments not a few.”
The Lord warned, “it is not meet that I should command in all things.”
During the prophetic ministry of Joseph Smith, the faithful saints eagerly received the commandments, as it helped to know what the Lord expected of them. However, many sought the prophet for divine directions on trivial matters that one could decide merely by praying and using good judgment. So through the prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord counseled the saints:
“For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.
“Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;
“For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.
“But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned.”28.
While additional commandments were given during Joseph’s ministry, from the time the saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, our prophets and other leaders have given inspired directions without typically labeling them as commandments. An exception to this occurred in 1851, after the saints had settled in the Salt Lake Valley. Brigham Young proposed that the Word of Wisdom, initially given as a “principle with a promise,”29 be accepted as a commandment, which was accepted unanimously by the Saints.30
We receive inspired counsel in general and stake conferences, in official church proclamations, and in regular publications of the Church. We have been counseled to follow the directions of the leadership of the Church, whether or not their directions are labeled “commandments.”
Summary commandments simplify the keeping of God’s commandments.
There are many commandments and directions which we are expected to obey as Latter-day Saints. So how does one keep so many command-ments and instructions in mind so that we can feel we are doing God’s will in all things? The comforting assurance by Nephi would apply to the challenge of complying with all of God’s commandments:
“. . . I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.”31
Fortunately, the Lord has provided a way of simplifying the process of keeping his many commandments or instructions. He has provided what we might call “summary commandments.”
The Ten Commandments were given to Moses as part of a set of “carnal commandments”32 with detailed instructions on many aspects life for the children of Israel. These directions were expanded by the Jews until they became such a long list of rules and observances that they were quite burdensome. Some began to wonder where to put their emphasis. When a Pharisee who was a lawyer challenged Jesus: “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said unto him,
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
“This is the first and great commandment.
“And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”33
What a comforting assurance! If we truly love God, we will naturally do those things that please Him. We would keep the Sabbath day holy and honor our parents. We would not take the Lord’s name in vain, commit adultery, or do anything else that would offend God. And if we love our neighbors, we would not do anything to hurt them, such as kill or steal or lie. We would not covet their spouse or belongings. And to reinforce their importance, the two “great commandments” to love God and our neighbor were repeated in our dispensation. However, it is stated differently:
“Wherefore, I give unto them a commandment, saying thus: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy might, mind, and strength; and in the name of Jesus Christ thou shalt serve him.34
Indeed, one of the best ways to show our love of God is to serve him.
The second great commandment as given in our day includes added clarification:
“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Thou shalt not steal; neither commit adultery, nor kill, nor do anything like unto it.”35 “Anything like unto it” could include a wide variety of fraudulent or exploitive practices, pornography, and domestic violence.
Another helpful summary commandment was given in 1833 through the prophet Joseph Smith:
“And I give unto you a commandment, that ye shall forsake all evil and cleave unto all good, that ye shall live by every word which proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God.”36
This commandment truly incorporates all the others, especially when coupled with this statement of the Lord Jesus Christ: “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, . . whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.”37
From these summary commandments, we can assume that when with the help of the Spirit we make every effort to choose good over evil and when we obey the counsel of our living prophet and other inspired leaders of the Church, we are keeping God’s commandments. When we do so, we will know it by enjoying the Spirit of the Lord as promised in the prayer on the bread during the ordinance of the sacrament:
“ . . and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them; that they may always have his Spirit to be with them.”38 As we partake of the sacrament, we can with confidence know what we are promising to do when we covenant to “keep His commandments which He has given them.”
We could conclude that God’s commandments include all the directions, laws, covenants, revelations, and requirements God gives us through his inspired prophets, as well as directions from the Holy Spirit to us personally to warn and guide us and to provide protection, peace, and joy in this world and eternal life in the world to come. Keeping God’s commandments is as much an attitude of obedience to God’s will – and love of God and our neighbors – as it is compliance with a fixed set of rules.
The blessings from keeping his commandments are beautifully expressed in the comforting assurance of King Benjamin:
“And moreover, I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and if they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness.”39
- Exodus 20:3-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21
- Doctrine & Covenants 42:18-21,24); 59:6,10
- 3Nephi 12:19-20
- Two of the Ten Commandments do not begin with these expressions.
- Abraham 3:25
- April 2005 General Conference, quoted in May 2005 Ensign
- Quoted in Stephen W. Gibson, “Presidency Meets the Press,” Church News, July 15, 1972
- Ecclesiastes 12: 13
- 1 Nephi 15:25
- Doctrine & Covenants 25:15
- Doctrine & Covenants 42:29
- Doctrine & Covenants. 20:77
- Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (1968 edition), p. 255.
- Doctrine & Covenants. 82:8-9
- 2 Nephi 4:4
- John 14:21
- 1 Nephi 4:6-18
- Luke 6:1-5
- Doctrine & Covenants 1:17, 36
- Doctrine & Covenants 59: 3-4
- Doctrine & Covenants 59:3-10, 12-13
- 22. Doctrine & Covenants 42:22, 27
- Doctrine & Covenants 88:76
- Doctrine & Covenants 88:118-119
- Doctrine & Covenants 88:124-126
- “Book of Commandments,” from The Guide to the Scriptures on lds.org
- Doctrine & Covenants 119:4
- Doctrine & Covenants 58:26-29
- Doctrine & Covenants 89:2
- “Minutes of the General Conference,” Millennial Star, 1 Feb. 1852, p. 35. Quoted in Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual
- 1 Nephi 3:7
- Doctrine & Covenants 84:27
- Matthew 22:35-40
- Doctrine & Covenants 59:5
- Doctrine & Covenants 59:6
- Doctrine & Covenants 98:11
- Doctrine & Covenants. 1:38
- Doctrine & Covenants 20:77
- Mosiah 2:41