Alma 3:26-27 — LeGrand Baker — meaning of ‘works’

Alma 3:26-27 — LeGrand Baker — meaning of ‘works’

26    And in one year were thousands and tens of thousands of souls sent to the eternal world, that they might reap their rewards according to their works, whether they were good or whether they were bad, to reap eternal happiness or eternal misery, according to the spirit which they listed to obey, whether it be a good spirit or a bad one.
27    For every man receiveth wages of him whom he listeth to obey, and this according to the words of the spirit of prophecy; therefore let it be according to the truth. And thus endeth the fifth year of the reign of the judges (Alma 3:26-27).

This is one of those problematic passages that it is easier to ignore than to deal with. But to ignore it creates multiple problems in understanding the Book of Mormon.

The difficulty is that it seems impossible to square this concept of afterlife with our understanding of the three degrees of glory, or even with the doctrine of a post-life spirit world that is divided into a prison and a paradise. We understand that as soon as the dead repent and have their temple work done for then, they can get out of spirit prison and to go to paradise. Mormon’s appraisal (these are Mormon’s words, not Alma’s) may suggest a paradise and a spirit prison, but because there is no suggestion about a way out of the spirit prison, the ancient BofM doctrine appears to be different from ours. Thus giving rise to an idea that I have heard since my youth, that the people of the Book of Mormon did not understand all the “higher” principles of the gospel. That list usually included temple work, eternal marriage, salvation for the dead, and the three degrees of glory. I believe they understood the gospel in its fullness. So this little essay is an attempt on my part to say that Mormon and the Book of Mormon prophets who taught the same thing knew exactly what they were talking about, and what they wrote is very serious indeed.

For example, the idea that one who is dead can repent and will receive all the blessings the repentant can receive is clearly taught in the Old Testament, Especially in Psalms and Isaiah. Both books are quoted in the Book of Mormon. The last third of Psalm 22 is about the Saviour’s going to “the great congregation” where he taught in the spirit world. Isaiah 61 is about the principle of salvation for the dead. (It is paraphrased extensively in D&C 138, and quoted in verse 42) The Saviour also paraphrased it in the Beatitudes (“Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted.). His doing so presupposes that his audience understood his reference. I think that is sufficient evidence that the doctrine was understood by the authors of the Book of Mormon.

So that presents the dilemma: “If Mormon understood the post-earth life spirit world and the doctrine of salvation for the dead, why didn’t he say so in this passage?” I suppose the answer is this: “That doctrine is not what Mormon was talking about.” If that answer is correct, then we are left with the question: “Then what was Mormon talking about.”

26    And in one year were thousands and tens of thousands of souls sent to the eternal world, that they might reap their rewards according to their works, whether they were good or whether they were bad, to reap eternal happiness or eternal misery, according to the spirit which they listed to obey, whether it be a good spirit or a bad one.
27   For every man receiveth wages of him whom he listeth to obey, and this according to the words of the spirit of prophecy; therefore let it be according to the truth. And thus endeth the fifth year of the reign of the judges (Alma 3:26-27).

In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition of “list” as a verb uses “lust” as a synonym. The second is “listen.” The third is to put a border around, or to enclose. The fourth is that the verb “list” is the same word as enlist. It also further clarifies the meaning of “enclose.” It reads, “In senses 3 and 4 the word is now taken chiefly as an aphetic form of enlist and is written ‘list.” In every instance, it represents a studied desire possess or to actively belong. Mormon’s phrase, “the spirit which they listed to obey,” fits with all of those definitions.

It establishes a relationship between a master and a subordinate. That relationship is further emphasized by the entire clause, “For every man receiveth wages of him whom he listeth to obey”

The idea of being employed by a superior is further clarified by the clause, “that they might reap their rewards according to their works.” So Mormon is not talking about people who are acting on their own volition, but about people who are employed by someone who they are willing to obey.

What they are employed to do is only defined as their “works.” So the entire passage pivots on the meaning of the word “works.” Strong does not help much here. The Greek noun translated “works” simply means “that with which any one is occupied,… that which one undertakes to do…, any thing accomplished…, an act, deed, thing done…” So if one is going to discover its meaning one has to examine the way it is used. When one does that, then its meaning becomes much more explicit. In many places in the scriptures, “works” is a reference to either priesthood ordinances or to keeping covenants.

Works” as ordinances is most apparent when Alma is explaining that Adam and Eve were taught by angels how to pray and how to enter the presence of God.

29   Therefore he [God] sent angels to converse with them, who caused men to behold of his glory.
30   And they began from that time forth to call on his name; therefore God conversed with men, and made known unto them the plan of redemption, which had been prepared from the foundation of the world; and this he made known unto them according to their faith [the tokens of the covenants] and repentance and their holy works [ordinances]. (Alma 12:29-30)

But it is apparent that it is not limited to the ordinances we receive, but seems to apply to any act associated with the power and authority of God. Moroni uses it that way.

17   And now, as I, Moroni, said I could not make a full account of these things which are written, therefore it sufficeth me to say that Jesus showed himself unto this man in the spirit, even after the manner and in the likeness of the same body even as he showed himself unto the Nephites.
18   And he ministered unto him even as he ministered unto the Nephites; and all this, that this man might know that he was God, because of the many great works which the Lord had showed unto him. (Ether 3:17-18)

Three passages from the gospel of John make that meaning very clear.

3   Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works [exercise of priesthood power] of God should be made manifest in him.
4   I must work the works [exercise of priesthood power] of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.
5   As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.(John 9:3-5)


25   Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works [exercise of priesthood power] that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me. (John 10:25)


10   Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works [exercise of priesthood power].
11   Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works’ [exercise of priesthood power] sake.
12   Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works [exercise of priesthood power] that I do shall he do also; and greater works [exercise of priesthood power] than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.
13   And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. (John 14:10-13)

Perhaps the most conclusive evidence of that is the way “works” is used by James. There he shows the relationship between faith and works. The word translated “faith” is pistis, which is, as Paul says, “the evidence” of things unseen. It means an evidence of fidelity, or the token of a covenant.

17   Even so faith [Here James uses the Greek word, pistis – the tokens of the covenants], if it hath not works [the ordinances], is dead, being alone.
18   Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
19   Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
20   But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
21   Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
22   Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? (James 2:17-22.)

Alma certainly used it that way. In the phrase “works of righteousness,” “Righteousness” was, no doubt, zedek which means correctness, especially in temple things.

16   I say unto you, can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord, saying unto you, in that day: Come unto me ye blessed, for behold, your works have been the works of righteousness upon the face of the earth?
17   Or do ye imagine to yourselves that ye can lie unto the Lord in that day, and say—Lord, our works have been righteous works upon the face of the earth—and that he will save you?
18   Or otherwise, can ye imagine yourselves brought before the tribunal of God with your souls filled with guilt and remorse, having a remembrance of all your guilt, yea, a perfect remembrance of all your wickedness, yea, a remembrance that ye have set at defiance the commandments of God?
19   I say unto you, can ye look up to God at that day with a pure heart and clean hands? I say unto you, can you look up, having the image of God engraven upon your countenances? (Alma 5:16-17)


24   And see that ye have faith, hope, and charity, and then ye will always abound in good works.
25   And may the Lord bless you, and keep your garments spotless, that ye may at last be brought to sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the holy prophets who have been ever since the world began, having your garments spotless even as their garments are spotless, in the kingdom of heaven to go no more out. (Alma 7:24-25)

Alma gives the qualifications of those who were ordained by Heavenly Father at the Council in Heaven as having “exceeding faith and good works.”

And this is the manner after which they were ordained—being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such. (Alma 13:3)

Throughout the Book of Mormon, “works” is also used to denote the proper exercise of priesthood power. The Lamanite queen is quoted as having used the word in that way.

And she said unto him: The servants of my husband have made it known unto me that thou art a prophet of a holy God, and that thou hast power to do many mighty works in his name; (Alma 19:4)

Samuel the Lamanite used it the same way.

And may God grant, in his great fulness, that men might be brought unto repentance and good works, that they might be restored unto grace for grace, according to their works. (Helaman 12:24)

As does the Saviour at the conclusion of the Beatitudes.

14   Verily, verily, I say unto you, I give unto you to be the light of this people. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.

15   Behold, do men light a candle and put it under a bushel? Nay, but on a candlestick, and it giveth light to all that are in the house;
16   Therefore let your light so shine before this people, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
17   Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets. I am not come to destroy but to fulfil; (3 Nephi 12:14-17)

King Benjamin uses the phrase “good works” to mean the things one must do to have eternal life.

Therefore, I would that ye should be steadfast and immovable, always abounding in good works, that Christ, the Lord God Omnipotent, may seal you his, that you may be brought to heaven, that ye may have everlasting salvation and eternal life, through the wisdom, and power, and justice, and mercy of him who created all things, in heaven and in earth, who is God above all. Amen. (Mosiah 5:15)

However, the Book of Mormon also uses the word “works” to mean the criterion for going to hell. The word is used to refer to the most unrighteous covenantal relationships.

And it came to pass as he was thus pondering—being much cast down because of the wickedness of the people of the Nephites, their secret works of darkness, and their murderings, and their plunderings, and all manner of iniquities—and it came to pass as he was thus pondering in his heart, behold, a voice came unto him saying: (Helaman 10:3)

The Saviour explained,

10   And if it so be that the church is built upon my gospel then will the Father show forth his own works in it.
11   But if it be not built upon my gospel, and is built upon the works of men, or upon the works of the devil, verily I say unto you they have joy in their works for a season, and by and by the end cometh, and they are hewn down and cast into the fire, from whence there is no return.
12   For their works do follow them, for it is because of their works that they are hewn down; therefore remember the things that I have told you.
13   Behold I have given unto you my gospel, and this is the gospel which I have given unto you—that I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me.
14   And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil—
15   And for this cause have I been lifted up; therefore, according to the power of the Father I will draw all men unto me, that they may be judged according to their works.….
32   But behold, it sorroweth me because of the fourth generation from this generation, for they are led away captive by him even as was the son of perdition; for they will sell me for silver and for gold, and for that which moth doth corrupt and which thieves can break through and steal.
33   And in that day will I visit them, even in turning their works upon their own heads. (3 Nephi 27:1-33)

That prophecy is shown to have been fulfilled by Mormon’s description of the Nephite apostasy.

27  And it came to pass that when two hundred and ten years had passed away there were many churches in the land; yea, there were many churches which professed to know the Christ, and yet they did deny the more parts of his gospel, insomuch that they did receive all manner of wickedness, and did administer that which was sacred unto him to whom it had been forbidden because of unworthiness. (4 Nephi 1:27)

Given this understanding of “works,” that is, that is that “works” means the Satanic activities of humans, then a whole series of scriptures in the Book of Mormon takes on an entirely new meaning.

10   Even this mortal shall put on immortality, and this corruption shall put on incorruption, and shall be brought to stand before the bar of God, to be judged of him according to their works whether they be good or whether they be evil—
11   If they be good, to the resurrection of endless life and happiness; and if they be evil, to the resurrection of endless damnation, being delivered up to the devil, who hath subjected them, which is damnation—(Mosiah 16:10-11)

And Alma’s famous discussion of justice and mercy.

2   I say unto thee, my son, that the plan of restoration is requisite with the justice of God; for it is requisite that all things should be restored to their proper order. Behold, it is requisite and just, according to the power and resurrection of Christ, that the soul of man should be restored to its body, and that every part of the body should be restored to itself.
3   And it is requisite with the justice of God that men should be judged according to their works; and if their works were good in this life, and the desires of their hearts were good, that they should also, at the last day, be restored unto that which is good.
4   And if their works are evil they shall be restored unto them for evil. Therefore, all things shall be restored to their proper order, every thing to its natural frame—mortality raised to immortality, corruption to incorruption—raised to endless happiness to inherit the kingdom of God, or to endless misery to inherit the kingdom of the devil, the one on one hand, the other on the other—
5   The one raised to happiness according to his desires of happiness, or good according to his desires of good; and the other to evil according to his desires of evil; for as he has desired to do evil all the day long even so shall he have his reward of evil when the night cometh. (Alma 41:2-5)

The Book of Mormon makes little or no distinction between one whose works are overtly wicked and those who pretend to righteousness. That is shown in this famous passage spoken by the Saviour.

22   Many will say to me in that day: Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name have cast out devils, and in thy name done many wonderful works?
23     And then will I profess unto them: I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity. (3 Nephi 14:22-23)

But it is reiterated in Mormon’s great discourse on faith, hope, and charity.

4   And now my brethren, I judge these things of you because of your peaceable walk with the children of men.
5   For I remember the word of God which saith by their works ye shall know them; for if their works be good, then they are good also.
6   For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing. (Moroni 7:4-6)

Without using the word “works” the Prophet Joseph taught the same principle.

34   Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?
35     Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—
36  That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.
37   That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man. (D&C 121:34-37)


Given the consistency in the use of the word “works,” and the widespread consistency in the Book of Mormon doctrine about our being judged by our works, I think it is reasonable to assert that our passage in Alma does not imply that Mormon did not understand either the doctrines of salvation for the dead or of the three degrees of glory. What it does imply is that people who, with full understanding of what they are doing, toy with sacred ordinances and covenants are in permanent and very serious trouble.

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