Key statements from general conference that we wouldn't want to miss.
We believe that one of the responsibilities of the Prophets is to declare doctrine. This belief seems to be more theoretical than practical for some members today, at least compared to the early days of the Church when paradigm-shifting truths were being revealed in quick succession. While it’s true that such profound fundamentals are not still coming forth regularly, if we pay attention we will notice that the prophets continue to refine, clarify, and indeed declare doctrine just as we believe they will. (I would note that this shift from foundational doctrine to refined doctrine makes logical sense and isn't a concern for me.)
I’ve noticed in the last few general conferences that while most of what we are taught is not “new,’ if I listen closely I'll find that there are at least a few statements of doctrine that have never been said before. They’re hard to catch because really you'd have to check them against everything that’s been said by all other prophets to see if it really is new. I don’t always go through this exercise, but since I get to spend so much time reviewing the teachings of prophets I have a decent idea when something hasn’t been taught before. (Not that “newness” really matters. Doctrine, being eternal, is never “new” but it can be new to us.)
Elder Russell M. Nelson caught my attention as he taught about the Atonement of Jesus Christ during this past April conference. His underlying message about the Atonement was not new, but he did make one point that was new to me:
"As Latter-day Saints, we refer to His mission as the Atonement of Jesus Christ, which made resurrection a reality for all and made eternal life possible for those who repent of their sins and receive and keep essential ordinances and covenants.
It is doctrinally incomplete to speak the Lord’s atoning sacrifice by shortcut phrases, such as “the Atonement” or “the enabling power of the Atonement: or “applying the Atonement" or "being strengthened by the Atonement.” These expressions present real risk of misdirecting faith by treating the event as if it had living existence and capabilities independent of our Heavenly Father and HIs Son, Jesus Christ.”
There are two noteworthy elements here: First is the mistaken way we refer to the Atonement independent of Jesus Christ. (Add this to a long list of prophetic warnings about doctrinal “slippage” in typical Mormonspeak. Maybe I'll try to compile that list sometime!) Second, clarifying that the series of events we call “the Atonement” has no power independent of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. This insight has tremendous power to draw us closer to the Savior, understanding that there is no healing, strength, or forgiveness because of the Atonement but in and through Jesus Christ. I’m struck by how easily statements like these seem to slip past the general population of the Church. No, this clarification wasn’t necessary for Joseph Smith to lay the foundations of the Church, but it’s still essential and fundamental.
The prophets are twisting the dials all the time, fine tuning our doctrinal understanding and bringing us closer and closer to a crystal clear picture of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, if we pay attention. I love it.