Spendlove outlines examples of “witnesses”—signs or tokens that accompany scriptural covenants—and argues that the ordinances of baptism and the sacrament are intended to be witnesses to covenants rather than the covenants themselves. He believes that covenantal witnesses should receive greater emphasis in gospel teaching, to the point that we could encourage individuals to enter a covenant to live the gospel even before being baptized.
In this article, Loren Blake Spendlove explores a series of scriptural covenants, pointing out the signs or tokens that serve to publicly declare each covenant (as opposed to secretly doing so), a concept that he assigns the collective term “witnesses of the covenant.” Rather than using the modern meaning of “a person who sees an event take place,” Spendlove uses a broader definition, applying it to anything that attests or provides evidence of given event, with witnesses being reminders or warnings to be faithful to the stipulations of the covenant. He takes us on the following tour of biblical and Book of Mormon covenants and their associated witnesses:
- Noah. With Noah, God establishes what appears to be a unilateral and unconditional covenant to never again destroy the earth, with the rainbow used as a sign of that covenant. Specifically, that sign is used to prompt remembrance of that covenant, which in a Hebrew context implies following through with or acting on his promise.
- Abraham. With this covenant, God promises to make Abram a father of nations, on the condition that he “walks before [God] faithfully,” with Abram receiving a new (and meaningful) name as a witness of that covenant.
- Sinai. The camp of Israel is promised that if they obey God’s voice, then they will become his people. According to Spendlove, the people’s vocal response to that promise (along with the book of the Torah) serves as a witness of that covenant.
- Moab. A covenant recorded in Deuteronomy where God promises Israel prosperity in Canaan if they will keep his commandments and turn their hearts and soul to him. This covenant is witnessed with a song, as well as with the law itself. Interestingly, the song is a witness is that Israel would ultimately reject the covenant, as had happened in the past.
- Transjordanian tribes. The tribes that settled on the east side of the Jordan river built a large altar in witness of their commitment to God.
- Shechem. The Sinai and Moab covenants were reaffirmed by Joshua at Shechem, with a large stone erected as a witness of that renewed covenant, and the Israelites themselves serving as witnesses of their stated commitment to God.
- Nehemiah. After their return from Babylon, Israel entered a binding oath to follow the Mosaic Law, witnessed through a signed document and a covenant renewal ceremony, the Festival of Booths.
- Lehi. Lehi mentions a covenant he made with God to obtain the promised land, and though he does not specifically mention a witness, Spendlove sees Nephi’s vision of the fulfillment of that promise as a witness of Lehi’s covenant.
- Benjamin. In his final address, Benjamin establishes a covenant to obey God’s commandments, so that they could avoid the wrath of God. As a witness, the names of those making the covenant were written down, with the people encouraged to take upon themselves Christ’s name.
- Anti-Nephi-Lehi. The converted Lamanites enter into a covenant to never again use weapons to shed blood. As witness, they bury their weapons, and communally change their people’s name to Anti-Nephi-Lehi.
- Captain Moroni. Moroni’s Title of Liberty, as well as the people’s own rent garments, serves as a visual witness of the Nephites covenant that God could similarly rend them if they transgressed God’s commandments.
- Stripling Soldiers. The sons of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies covenanted that they would fight to protect themselves and the Nephites from bondage. As witness, they both took up arms and began to call themselves Nephites.
Spendlove focuses on baptism as his primary example of a covenant witness. Though baptism and its associated covenant are sometimes treated interchangeably, he points out that the Book of Mormon clearly teaches that baptism is a witness rather than a covenant. In support of this, he cites 2 Nephi, Mosiah, Alma, and 3 Nephi, all of which refer to baptism as a witness of repentance and a remission of sins. In the case of the people of Limhi, the covenant is entered into some time prior to being baptized, leading Spendlove to believe that the same could be done in the modern day. He suggests that encouraging prospective members to enter into covenants early would help them be more prepared to live a life of covenant discipleship. Spendlove also argues against other common ideas ascribed to baptism, such as the belief that it’s baptism itself that washes away sins, rather than the blood of the lamb.
The ordinance of the sacrament represents another important covenantal witness, one which leads us to a sense of divine remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice and of covenants already entered into, including the covenant to take upon us Christ’s name. A failure to keep God’s commandments risks us taking that name upon ourselves in vain (i.e., with false intent or deceit), which essentially turn us into false witnesses of those covenantal promises. As Spendlove concludes:
As modern Israel, it is incumbent on all members of the Church to fully live the gospel covenant to keep God’s commandments. And just as important, we need to appropriately witness to God and to others that we are sincere and honest covenant keepers. We witness this when we are baptized, and we renew this witness when we worthily partake of the sacrament…While covenanting is important and necessary for our salvation, consistently and faithfully witnessing the gospel covenant…will qualify us to be “washed in the blood of the Lamb”.
Spendlove does well in reminding us of the distinction between covenants and covenantal witnesses. Knowing the role that ordinances serve—as reminders to put our promises into action—helps us to put them in proper perspective and appropriately make use of them to prompt repentance and spiritual renewal. But I can’t help but think about Spendlove’s potentially controversial suggestion that we should encourage making covenants before we get baptized. I think, for instance, about the role of authority in covenant-making. We rightly place a lot of emphasis on proper priesthood authority when performing ordinances and entering covenants. In my view, that authority helps emphasize that people aren’t just throwing out promises into the void—that there’s a real God who recognizes their covenants and responds in kind. Would that authority be needed to enter into a pre-baptism covenant? If so, how would that authority be signified? And would people be tempted to create new “witnesses” or even full-on ordinances to mark the making of those covenants? ("Chastity promises" and "promise rings" come to mind, for instance.)
Also, Spendlove’s suggestion that early covenant-making would help better prepare people to enter further covenants is, for me, an empirical question. Working in government you get a bit of a sixth sense for the kinds of policy changes that will actually make a difference and which won’t, and moving up the making of covenants a few weeks or months doesn’t strike me as a particularly impactful change. It also has the potential to backfire, as aligning covenants and witnesses (as is the case with almost all the covenants on Spendlove’s list) may have a useful synergy that helps the participants take the covenant more seriously. Though I agree with Spendlove that early covenants would be possible, I’m less persuaded that they would be ideal. Ultimately, though, what matters is, as Spendlove emphasizes, the saving power of the blood of the Lamb, and our ability to access that power through covenant.