The personal and individual experience of “following the prophet” can only happen through having an active testimony in Jesus Christ. When a testimony of Jesus Christ suffers and a personal and individual relationship of continued revelation with God is decreased, the ability of the individual to follow the prophet is gone. Mere physical compliance to prophetic counsel is not enough to obey the command to “follow the prophet”; an active testimony and relationship with Jesus Christ is imperative. Otherwise, the relationship of the individual to the prophet becomes idolatrous. Faith can only exist in Jesus Christ, which in turn lends to trusting the words of his prophet. Without faith in Jesus Christ, the individual’s placement of faith solely in a man’s word becomes idolatrous.
Faith is the fundamental building block of any active relationship between man and God. Faith is not idle, but is “the moving cause of all action in… intelligent beings” (Smith 8). This is not to say that without faith all matter would cease motion. Rather, this denotes the substantial element of righteous action from other worldly and non-celestial endeavors. In other words, faith is the source of all righteous action in intelligent beings.
Physical compliance and corporeal devotion alone to divine command does not denote faithful action. Obedience is a center point of faith. Logical obedience – the reasoned course of action based on a balance of actions, causes, and consequences – does not comprise faithful obedience. Only the man who does the will of the Father will enter the Kingdom, but action alone is not enough. As one man who had cast out devils and had done many mighty miracles learned, Christ only knows those who displace iniquity (Matt. 7.21-23). Not only is the Lord concerned that the physical is in compliance and obedient, but to receive a knowledge of Christ the spirit must be contrite and obedient as well. Only in the course of repentance can mere physical movement turn into faithful obedience. If not, lip service is soon condemned (Matt 21.28-31).
Faith leads the individual to repentance. In other words, faith leads to the changing of the mind and heart to view God more intimately and personally (“Repentance”). Repentance and faith are inseparably connected. Faith cannot exist without the individual perceiving God differently and within a more intimate relationship. At any point when repentance (the continual renewing of the self in relation to the divine) has ceased, faith in Christ has dwindled.
Faith is established on truth and is only faith when it is in Jesus Christ unto repentance. Only faith in that which is true produces any fruit unto salvation. As Joseph Smith taught, “for faith could not center in a being of whose existence we have no idea, because the idea of his existence in the first instance is essential to the exercise of faith in him” (Smith 25).
Testimony of Christ
Faith leads the individual to seek for truth in the process of learning more about that being in which he has faith. It is through faith unto repentance and learning that the individual develops a testimony. This testimony is knowledge or revelation of truth that comes from the Holy Ghost as it is sought in faith. The promptings of the Holy Ghost are only realized by those who place faith in Christ. It is through testimony that Christ becomes affecter to the individual. The individual’s subsequent actions, after receiving a testimony, are done through affection of Christ through the Holy Ghost.
Testimony is only gained through faith in Jesus Christ unto repentance. As the individual learns to place more faith in Christ, his understanding is increased to comprehend truths beyond his own ability. While the mental faculties and reason of the individual assist him in learning eternal truths, only through the Holy Ghost can the individual come to a testimony of truth. Eternal truths are only made known “by the Holy Spirit of God” (Alma 5:46), but reasoned argument for the existence of Christ alone does not constitute a testimony of Him.
A testimony of Jesus Christ goes beyond any empirical reason or physical proof of his existence. It is through revelation by the Holy Ghost that we “have all things as a testimony” concerning the truth of his nature (Alma 30:41). It is in testimony that we find ourselves as children of God, as we learn the nature and being of that God we call “Father”. Revelation through repentance establishes a new relationship with God wherein we discover our own individuality, and we learn of our place in this life in relationship to all creation. Without personal revelation from the divine, there is no testimony at all. Furthermore, the testimony that is given, if not continually exercised, is taken away “until [the individual] know[s] nothing of the mysteries” (Alma 12:9–11). As the Latter-day Saint Apostle Bruce R. McConkie taught, every valid testimony requires three things.
Three great truths must be included in every valid testimony: 1. That Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world (D&C 46:13); 2. That Joseph Smith is the Prophet of God through whom the gospel was restored in this dispensation; and 3. That The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30). (McConkie 786).
It is of note that the first two principles of a testimony are of Jesus Christ and the prophet. Every testimony thereafter stems from these three.
Testimony of a Prophet
By having a testimony in the prophet I mean to say that someone has received a witness of the Holy Ghost about that divine calling from the Lord. Following the prophet is rooted in the individual’s testimony of that prophet. Any testimony of the prophet as a mouthpiece of God originated from the primary testimony of Jesus Christ Himself; otherwise, any perceived testimony of a prophet is no testimony at all, but it is only the belief in the existence of a wise man. If God did not call the prophet, then he is no prophet at all. Without a testimony of Jesus Christ, there is no real testimony of a prophet.
A perceived testimony of the prophet, without a previous testimony of Christ, is an accidental belief originating from a cognitive thought (e.g. “the prophet tells me true things, therefore, the prophet must be true”) and not from enlightenment of the divine (e.g. “the prophet speaks the word of God, which is true, therefore the doctrines of Christ are true”). A man who knows nothing of God may look on a prophet and be moved upon by the Holy Ghost to know that the prophet is a man of God; however, this new experience does not originate with the Prophet but with the Holy Ghost whose purpose is to testify of Jesus Christ. Indeed, such a man who knew nothing of God must indeed be impressed by the Holy Ghost to understand something of his God before he will receive a testimony of that prophet.
Follow the Prophet
When an individual follows the prophet, he is doing more than following the counsels of a wise man or of an interpreter of scripture. The prophet is more than an ecclesiastical leader. The individual sustains the prophet as a personal witness of Christ and an ordained priesthood leader, because the individual has a personal testimony of Christ. He follows his words with his heart, might, mind, and strength because they are God’s words, not the prophet’s. The testimony that Christ lives and directs His people today is strengthened by hearing His words – as relayed through the prophet – and then acting on those words. It is in this way that following the prophet becomes worship of Christ.
Faith in Christ reveals that the individual can trust the prophet to speak His truths, and when one follows those words, one is showing Christ that one does have faith in Him. The individual follows the prophet because he has faith in Christ, unto a testimony that he can trust the prophet, not because of any merits the prophet might have on his own.
It is because of this special relationship and of worship when following the prophet that one must follow in an active relationship with God. The individual knows he can follow the prophet because he knows God. He knows God has ordained the prophet. Whether he knows the prophet or not makes little difference, for if he knows God, and knows God has ordained that man – and that is enough to follow. This is how he faithfully obeys and follows the prophet.
The prophet has his own relationship with God. Because of his ordination and special calling, his words are the same as God, and can be followed as if they were directly from God (Doctrine and Covenants, 1.38). This relationship cements the prophet’s role as a leader of Christ’s church, but says nothing regarding the relationships of the individual to God or the individual to the prophet. The individual’s relationship to the prophet in following him is determined by the relationship he has with God. In order to truly follow the prophet, he must follow God first.
Idolatry occurs when actions comply with the words of the prophet, but the heart is not in line with God. Action is in accordance with the counsel and commands of the prophet, but outside of the relationship that should exist with God. The individual does not acknowledge Christ. He does not have faith in Christ. He does not have a testimony of Christ, nor of Christ’s relationship to the prophet. Therefore, he does not worship Christ when he complies with the words of the prophet.
Without that faith in Christ to center one’s actions, the trust that one shows in the prophet becomes faith in the prophet. The prophet becomes the center of the individual’s testimony and his action of obeying the prophet’s words become worship of the prophet, not of God. The individual has then lost his faith in Christ and the Holy Ghost can no longer reveal truth unto him. Furthermore, his relationship with God has diminished, if not completely vanished, and his actions become those of an idolater worshiping a man based on his merits alone. Christ’s affection within that individual has ceased, and the individual is left alone to his own cognition. It is at this point that he is no longer following a prophet, but he is following a man, and caught in idolatry.
Once an individual has ceased to repent, or renew his personal relationship with God, he is no longer exercising his faith. That faith becomes dormant, or dwindles completely, and revelation through a personal relationship God has ceased. That individual has denied his relationship to God, denied revelation, and no longer has a testimony of Christ. Without that testimony, he can no longer recognize the prophet as an agent of God. At that point, the prophet – to the experience of the individual – becomes just a man, wise or otherwise it makes no difference, he is merely a man. When that individual then puts his trust in that man unto obeying his words, he is practicing idolatry. He is putting the prophet before God and making him an idol unto himself.
McConkie, Bruce R. Mormon Doctrine. Salt Lake City: Utah, 1979.
“Repentence.” Bible Dictionary. Salt Lake City: Utah, 1992
Smith, Joseph. Lectures on Faith. American Fork: Utah, 2005