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“I am a child of God, and he has sent me here” (Hymn 301). “We are daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves us, and we love him” (Young Women Theme). From primary and throughout our lives, we sing and learn of being children of God. Because this knowledge is so ingrained in us, we often assume it is something everyone believes. In fact, the doctrine of being the literal spirit children of God is a unique Latter-day Saint doctrine that is not shared with the rest of the religious world. Not only is it unique, but it is foundational to all that we believe about God and man and the entire Plan of Salvation. How we came to know this beautiful truth, and why others choose to reject it, is an important concept for Latter-day Saints to understand.
Who the Creeds Say We Are
One major reason why the Christian world rejects the doctrine of being literal spirit children of God is because of how their creeds define God. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has explained,
“In the year A.D. 325 the Roman emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea to address—among other things—the growing issue of God’s alleged ‘trinity in unity.’ What emerged from the heated contentions of churchmen, philosophers, and ecclesiastical dignitaries came to be known (after another 125 years and three more major councils) as the Nicene Creed, with later reformulations such as the Athanasian Creed. These various evolutions and iterations of creeds—and others to come over the centuries—declared the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to be abstract, absolute, transcendent, immanent, consubstantial, coeternal, and unknowable, without body, parts, or passions and dwelling outside space and time.
“In such creeds all three members are separate persons, but they are a single being, the oft-noted ‘mystery of the trinity.’ They are three distinct persons, yet not three Gods but one. All three persons are incomprehensible, yet it is one God who is incomprehensible. We agree with our critics on at least that point—that such a formulation for divinity is truly incomprehensible” (Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Ensign, Nov. 2007, emphasis added).
Most Latter-day Saints understand that this view of God is strikingly different from our own belief in a personal God who has a physical body (D&C 130:22), but many do not understand the full implications. As defined by the Christian creeds, God is not just a spirit personage without a physical body (like how we view the Holy Ghost), but he is without form at all. The common phrase is that he is “without body, parts, and passions” (Westminster Confession of Faith). This implies that God is a formless spirit essence that does not look like man at all. We are not literally created in the image of such a God. As a result, he is not and can not be our literal Heavenly Father because he is literally nothing like us.
As one LDS historian has explained, “Since the fifth century, Christian orthodoxy had imposed an almost impassable gulf between the Creator and His creations. Humankind, Christians came to believe, was created from nothing. God was not a craftsman who refashioned existing materials but wholly different and apart from His creation—mysterious and unknowable. The Bible’s parent-child description of God’s relationship to us was understood largely as a metaphor instead of a literal kinship. To suggest otherwise, in the estimation of most Christian thinkers, blasphemously lessened God or dangerously elevated humankind” (McBride, Revelations in Context, p. 192).
From this we can see that a major problem with the creeds is not just that it defines God as having no physical body, but that it separates man from God by defining him as not really being our Heavenly Father. Fatherhood is central to all that God is and all that he has revealed about himself. Indeed, “it is significant that of all the titles of respect and honor and admiration” God “has asked us to address Him as Father” (Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, see June 2002 Ensign). As our first Article of Faith states, “we believe in God the Eternal Father” (emphasis added). To redefine God as a spirit essence without body, parts, and passions is to deny God his Fatherhood and distance him from what he holds most dear—his children.
By denying the true Fatherhood of God, the creeds also rob us of our birthright as the sons and daughters of God. For if God is not really our Heavenly Father then have no right to aspire to ever become like Him. Because this simple notion is what the whole Plan of Salvation is based on, this one false doctrine has done more to destroy man’s understanding of God’s Plan than any other ever devised. Surely, this is one reason why God appeared in person to Joseph Smith, so that he could reveal to mankind who he really is and by implication who we really are. Is it any wonder that on that occasion God declared that “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight?” (JS-H 1:19)
Who we Really are
Although revelations in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Pearl of Great Price all refer to mankind as the children of God, these statements only hint at the full and literal meaning of this term. The first time this doctrine was revealed plainly in this dispensation was in Doctrine and Covenants section 93. After Christ revealed that he had a premortal life “in the beginning with God” as the “Firstborn,” he then revealed that we “were also in the beginning with the Father” as “spirits” (D&C 93:21,23). This simple announcement, reveals that before we came to this earth we had a premortal spirit existence in heaven as the literal spirit children of God.
Although that is a basic doctrine we have heard our whole lives, this verse is where it was first revealed. Implied in it is that if Christ was the firstborn then we were also begotten and born and raised as God’s literal spirit children. This was confirmed by an official statement from the First Presidency who explained, “The doctrine of the pre-existence,—revealed so plainly, particularly in latter days, pours a wonderful flood of light upon the otherwise mysterious problem of man’s origin. It shows that man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents, and reared to maturity in the eternal mansions of the Father, prior to coming upon the earth” (President Joseph F. Smith, 1909 First Presidency, Origin of Man).
The doctrine is clear. We were literally begotten and born as spirit children of God and raised in eternity by our Heavenly Father and Mother. The Family Proclamation confirms and further elaborates on this truth by stating that “All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Liahona, Oct. 2004, 49; Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102).
The revelation of D&C 93 continues to explain that our spirits were not created out of nothing, as many have supposed, but that they were made of “intelligence” which “was not created or made, neither indeed can be” (DC 93:29). Although there is much speculation about what this eternal intelligence is, the Church’s official definition simply describes it as the “spirit element that existed before we were begotten as spirit children” (Intelligence, Guide to the Scriptures). Apparently, this “spirit matter” (D&C 131:7) is a divine substance (D&C 93:36), and it is of this material that our spirits were made when we were born as the spirit children of God.
As a result, Abraham calls spirit children of God “the intelligences that were organized before the world was … for he stood among those that were spirits” (Abr 3:22-23 emphasis added; “Intelligences” in this verse is officially defined as “spirit children of God” in Guide to the Scriptures and as “personal spirits” by the First Presidency in 1916, see April 2002 Ensign. See also Abr. 3 footnote 22a “Man, a spirit child of Heavenly Father”).
Although there was a moment in eternity when we were born the spirit children of God, we are still properly called eternal beings. As President Dieter F. Uchtdorf explained, “We are made of the stuff of eternity. We are eternal beings, children of the Almighty God, whose name is Endless and who promises eternal blessings without number. Endings are not our destiny” (President Uchtdorf, May 2014 Ensign).
From this we learn several reasons why we are appropriately called “eternal beings,” including that our spirits are made of eternal material, we are the children of Eternal Parents, and we will live for all eternity. Another reason we are eternal is that we were born as spirits in premortal eternity and from our limited mortal perspective it as if we have always existed. Indeed, it is as if we had no beginning because we “existed before” the beginning of this earth and “shall exist after” the end of the earth, we are therefore properly called “eternal” in scriptural language (Abr. 3:18).
What We Can Become
The doctrine that we are the literal spirit children of God is an ennobling and inspiring truth that leads us to recognize our divine potential. As one former BYU religion professor explained, “To know what God is is to know what man is and what he can become. The loss of this knowledge goes far to explain the present plight of humanity. Man, like water, cannot rise higher than his beginnings. If an ever increasing number of men and women are choosing to wallow in the mire of carnality we must not forget that they are taught that the human race was spawned in the mire. We have little desire to reach for the stars if we do not believe we came from the stars.” (Rodney Turner, Studies in Scripture, Vol. 2, The Pearl of Great Price, 45 emphasis added).
When we realize we came from heaven as the spirit children of God, it instills in us a desire to return to heaven and become like our Heavenly Parents. It is not by coincidence that the same revelation that first teaches us that we are the spirit children of God, also reveals that the highest form of worship is not simply to praise God or even pray to him, it is to become like our Heavenly Father, just as Jesus Christ did.
The Lord explained, “I give unto you these sayings that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness. For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace.” (D&C 93:19-20).
This simple basic truth, that we are the spirit children of God with the capacity to become like Him is central to the Plan of Salvation. When our Savior Jesus Christ invites us to follow him, this is where he is trying to lead us—to become like God, just as he did! As amazing as such a prospect may seem to us now, it is possible precisely because we are the children of God.
As the First Presidency once explained, “Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes, and even as the infant son of an earthly father and mother is capable in due time of becoming a man, so the undeveloped offspring of celestial parentage is capable, by experience through ages and aeons, of evolving into a God (Messages of the First Presidency, 4:206). May we always remember the profound power found in that simple truth—I am a child of God.