Due to the length & substantial nature of Alma 5, and the fact that the “Come Follow Me” schedule only has three chapters this week, I’ve decided to read Alma 5 this time round over the course of several days rather than all at once, and so this post will the culmination of several days reading (though again, it’s not a comprehensive or exhaustive post; it might actually be possible to write an entire book about Alma 5).
I love how Alma begins his sermon. I think it’s one of the greatest sermon introductions out there. It starts almost gently, recapping the story of the Church being organized (v. 3), and then being delivered from King Noah (v. 4), and then from the Lamanites and it being established in the land of Zarahemla (v. 5).
Then Alma begins with the first set of questions that he poses to his audience. A significant part of this sermon is built around the questions Alma aims at the listener/reader, but I find this first set often get missed when people discuss them:
And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, you that belong to this church, have you sufficiently retained in remembrance the captivity of your fathers? Yea, and have you sufficiently retained in remembrance his mercy and long-suffering towards them? And moreover, have ye sufficiently retained in remembrance that he has delivered their souls from hell?
It’s interesting this first set are all based around the importance of remembering, something of a recurrent theme in both the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament. Alma’s three questions here also appear to increase in intensity: a) do you remember the captivity of your ancestors? b) do you remember God’s mercy towards them (in delivering them?)? c) do you remember that he has delivered their souls from hell?
There then comes one of those passages that is both powerful, and has such wonderful turns of phrase (especially in verse 7), as Alma builds upon this reminder on how God delivered their fathers not just from earthly oppression, but from eternal damnation:
Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word; yea, they were encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell, and an everlasting destruction did await them.
And now I ask of you, my brethren, were they destroyed? Behold, I say unto you, Nay, they were not.
And again I ask, were the bands of death broken, and the chains of hell which encircled them about, were they loosed? I say unto you, Yea, they were loosed, and their souls did expand, and they did sing redeeming love. And I say unto you that they are saved.
“On what conditions are they saved?”
Having reminded his audience that their forebears were saved, Alma moves to his next set of questions, asking how their forebears were saved:
And now I ask of you on what conditions are they saved? Yea, what grounds had they to hope for salvation? What is the cause of their being loosed from the bands of death, yea, and also the chains of hell?
He begins his answer with a set of rhetorical questions about Alma, his father:
Behold, I can tell you—did not my father Alma believe in the words which were delivered by the mouth of Abinadi? And was he not a holy prophet? Did he not speak the words of God, and my father Alma believe them?
Here we have the pivotal role of belief: Alma believed Abinadi, and Abinadi was speaking the words of God. It sometimes seems we can underestimate the role of belief (compared to testimony, and action) in the modern Church, but Alma (the younger) puts it front and centre of Alma (the elder)’s salvation. Yet I think it’s important to realise it’s not the act of believing in and of itself that’s pivotal. One after all could believe something that isn’t true, and that has no saving value at all. Rather, it is who and what we choose to believe that is significant. I think it no coincidence that this verse emphasises those very elements: Alma chose to believe a prophet of God, and chose to believe what were the words of God.
And why is what we choose to believe important?
And according to his faith there was a mighty change wrought in his heart. Behold I say unto you that this is all true.
Alma’s faith, and his belief in the word of God, was a key that allowed the power of God to change his heart (I’m reminded of John 17:17: “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth”). It is choosing to believe God’s word that allows the transforming power of the Gospel to convert us; to change us into a new creature (meaning a new creation). This is vital: we cannot fight our own faults through our sheer unaided willpower alone, since every one of us has a part of us that is on the other side. We have predilections and tendencies (the exact nature of which will vary from person to person, but we all have them), that seek to lead us away from God and right. But this isn’t inevitable. Our natures can become purified and cleansed, as God’s sanctifying power strengthens our desires and will to do good and helps us defeat the desire to do evil.
That this does not just apply to Alma senior alone is made plain in the very next verse:
And behold, he preached the word unto your fathers, and a mighty change was also wrought in their hearts, and they humbled themselves and put their trust in the true and living God. And behold, they were faithful until the end; therefore they were saved.
Alma heard the words of God as preached by Abinadi, believed them, and his heart was changed. He in turn preached the same word to others, who likewise believed and their hearts were changed. And in response, they humbled themselves, put their trust in God and were faithful to him, and so they were saved. I particularly like how this verse helps show the connection between our having faith in God, and showing faithfulness to God, linked but not identical concepts that are often different sides of the same coin. We can have faith (trust) in God because he is always faithful – trustworthy – in fulfilling his promises, and then we in turn show and act upon our faith in him by being faithful – that is, loyal – to him.
“Have ye spiritually be born of God?”
At this point Alma now turns his questions upon his audience, and implicitly us. I’ll be quoting a lot here since I don’t think any measure of paraphrasing will do justice to this questions.
Firstly Alma asks us whether we have experienced this change of hearts that he has been talking about:
And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?
He then moves forward without pausing to the moment of judgment:
Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body?
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?
These are powerful questions. Have we experienced a change of heart? Do we have faith in Christ so we can look forward to that moment of judgment with hope? Or… well then Alma’s questions take a more accusing tone:
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?
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?
Alma is very good at evoking the potential horror we might experience if unprepared for the final judgment; he does the same in Alma 12:12-18. I think in part this is because he himself felt some of this fear during his own conversion experience, in which he describes feeling that “the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror” (Alma 36:14, see also v. 15). These are perhaps thoughts people don’t want to dwell on, and yet the judgment is a situation we will all inevitable experience.
Alma continues with his questions, all of which are aimed at this point: the degree to which we have become truly converted, so that we have “the image of God engraven on our countenances” (Alma 5:19, and that’s an interesting thought: we speak of mankind being made in the image of God, and yet Alma is speaking of an important sense in which that image is conditional, and has to be engraven upon us) and have clean hands; and the degree to which we have fallen short, in which we have “yielded [our]selves to become subjects to the devil” (v. 20) and have “stained” our “garments” with our wickedness (v. 22-23). These are questions designed to probe our readiness to meet God, for as Alma points out:
I say unto you, ye will know at that day that ye cannot be saved; for there can no man be saved except his garments are washed white; yea, his garments must be purified until they are cleansed from all stain, through the blood of him of whom it has been spoken by our fathers, who should come to redeem his people from their sins.
“Can ye feel so now?”
At verse 26, Alma changes the focus a little, addressing directly those who have already experienced this change of heart:
And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?
We may have experienced and felt and tasted of the goodness of God. We may have felt the gift of his forgiveness, experienced his grace, seen his hand extended in power. But can we do so now? Just as Alma the elder’s people were saved because they had faith, had the change of heart and then were faithful “until the end”, we too need to be faithful until the end. Thus Alma asks those who have been converted:
Have ye walked, keeping yourselves blameless before God? Could ye say, if ye were called to die at this time, within yourselves, that ye have been sufficiently humble? That your garments have been cleansed and made white through the blood of Christ, who will come to redeem his people from their sins?
Behold, are ye stripped of pride? I say unto you, if ye are not ye are not prepared to meet God. Behold ye must prepare quickly; for the kingdom of heaven is soon at hand, and such an one hath not eternal life.
Behold, I say, is there one among you who is not stripped of envy? I say unto you that such an one is not prepared; and I would that he should prepare quickly, for the hour is close at hand, and he knoweth not when the time shall come; for such an one is not found guiltless.
And again I say unto you, is there one among you that doth make a mock of his brother, or that heapeth upon him persecutions?
Wo unto such an one, for he is not prepared, and the time is at hand that he must repent or he cannot be saved!
Even if we have been “born of God” in the past, if we don’t remain faithful and keep to that path we will not be found spotless. But I also find interesting the sins that are singled out here: not murder or adultery or so on (though Alma frequently mentions those too – indeed murder got mentioned in verse 23). But being insufficiently humble, being proud, being envious, and mocking others. Like all these questions, it prompts serious reflection of one’s own conduct and state.
“Soon at hand”
Much of this sermon is about the need for all to repent, to seriously prepare for the judgment of God, and about how the time or hour is “close at hand”. And indeed, I suppose that that time can arrive quicker than any of us expect, being one “accidentally stepping in front of the bus” away. But there’s also another sense in which these people are being told things are “soon at hand”, as Alma teaches in verse 50:
Yea, thus saith the Spirit: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, for the kingdom of heaven is soon at hand; yea, the Son of God cometh in his glory, in his might, majesty, power, and dominion. Yea, my beloved brethren, I say unto you, that the Spirit saith: Behold the glory of the King of all the earth; and also the King of heaven shall very soon shine forth among all the children of men.
Alma is speaking here of Christ’s incarnation amongst man, which is just over 80 years away. His appearance amongst the Nephites following his resurrection – in which he will indeed come in glory and majesty, and which will be accompanied by a degree of judgment upon the wicked – is just over a century away. And indeed, that is not very far in the great scheme of things.
I was struck – not for the first time – when reading this verse today that this verse also applies to us, but speaking of Christ’s second coming, in which Christ will most certainly appear “in his glory, in his might, majesty, power, and dominion”, and which will likewise bring a defining point of judgment upon the world. We don’t know precisely when that will happen – there’s some things that have to happen first, some of which have, and others which have yet to occur – but it will at some point, and is likewise “soon at hand”, and which may be sooner than some imagine. Which underlines the relevance of the next few verses, not just for Alma and his audience, anticipating the first appearance of Christ, but also for us, anticipating the second:
And also the Spirit saith unto me, yea, crieth unto me with a mighty voice, saying: Go forth and say unto this people—Repent, for except ye repent ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of heaven.
And again I say unto you, the Spirit saith: Behold, the ax is laid at the root of the tree; therefore every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be hewn down and cast into the fire, yea, a fire which cannot be consumed, even an unquenchable fire. Behold, and remember, the Holy One hath spoken it.
The time to repent is now, whether it be in preparation for this appearance, or for an unexpected appointment that is much sooner.
After more urging to repent, including of specific sins, and an exhortation to separate from the wicked, Alma warns of wolves:
For what shepherd is there among you having many sheep doth not watch over them, that the wolves enter not and devour his flock? And behold, if a wolf enter his flock doth he not drive him out? Yea, and at the last, if he can, he will destroy him.
And now I say unto you that the good shepherd doth call after you; and if you will hearken unto his voice he will bring you into his fold, and ye are his sheep; and he commandeth you that ye suffer no ravenous wolf to enter among you, that ye may not be destroyed.
I’ve written about this concept at greater length here, but I mention it here because it always catches my eye. Indeed Alma appears to be warning some of his audience against being wolves (it comes right after he states “if ye speak against it, it matters not, for the word of God must be fulfilled” in verse 58), something he’d know about, for he was a wolf that became a sheep (or a shepherd). There are others who make the opposite journey. We are required, of course, to be merciful, loving, and to refrain from judgment (or from unjust judgments in those areas that we have a duty to judge). At no time, however, does that require us to leave the sheep defenceless against the wolves, to allow people to victimise or hurt others in the name of “compassion”, nor to mercilessly sacrifice the innocent upon an altar of mercy for their predators. The Good Shepherd defends his sheep, including against those who’d prey upon them.