Alma 41

In the Church today, we often use the word restoration to refer to the restoration of the gospel, and the restoration of the Church. However, in the Book of Mormon other meanings of the word predominate. Thus restoration often refers to the restoration of the house of Israel, of which the restoration of the gospel & Church are elements. In Alma 41, however, restoration is used in yet another sense:

And now, my son, I have somewhat to say concerning the restoration of which has been spoken; for behold, some have wrested the scriptures, and have gone far astray because of this thing. And I perceive that thy mind has been worried also concerning this thing. But behold, I will explain it unto thee.

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. …

(Alma 41:1-2)

What Alma is teaching Corianton here is about the ultimate restoration, that in which God restores all things to their proper place.

This includes the physical resurrection:

… 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.

(v. 2)

It also includes judgment of our works:

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.

And if their works are evil they shall be restored unto them for evil. …

(vv. 3-4)

Reading and thinking about this concept this time around, I really got a sense of how this restoration is part of the atonement, the other side of the coin of that which we tend to appreciate. When we most often think, write and speak about the atonement, I think we tend to think of it in terms of the mercy God and Christ offer us, about the forgiveness and compassion that are extended to us. But Christ’s work is also about fulfilling justice. We sometimes seem to shy away from that, to see justice almost as a bad thing (something I’ve touched on before, particularly as it relates to God). And I think part of that reason is we tend to see justice purely in terms of punishment. But it isn’t. Justice isn’t just about acting against the transgressor (though that is important, particularly as it relates to defending the transgressed). It’s about putting right what was wrong. The Law of Moses, for instance, provided that if someone stole and killed or sold a sheep or and ox, they were to “restore” four or five-fold to the owner (Exodus 22:1). Justice is not only about punishing the thief, it’s also about rewarding the righteous and recompensing the robbed.

Similarly, in this life we sin and are sinned against. Through Christ we can be forgiven of those things, but one reason he has the power to do that is because he has the capacity to restore and make those things right: to repair what we have done against others that we are unable to do ourselves, and to restore to us whatever we have lost as a consequence of others acts against us. The damage of many sins cannot be fixed in this life. Ultimately, however, Christ can and will fix all these things, and restore all things to their proper frame:

… 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—

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.

And so it is on the other hand. If he hath repented of his sins, and desired righteousness until the end of his days, even so he shall be rewarded unto righteousness.

(vv. 4-6)

It is why who we become and develop in this life is of paramount importance. If we yield to our evil inclinations, that becomes our natural state and that is what we will be restored to:

Do not suppose, because it has been spoken concerning restoration, that ye shall be restored from sin to happiness. Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness.

And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; they are without God in the world, and they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness.

And now behold, is the meaning of the word restoration to take a thing of a natural state and place it in an unnatural state, or to place it in a state opposite to its nature?

O, my son, this is not the case; but the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish—good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous; just for that which is just; merciful for that which is merciful.

(vv. 10-13)

This life is often unfair. We do not get what we put in. We may suffer at the hands of others, may fail to receive reward for work well done, may lose out on opportunities through no fault of our own, or simply have bad luck. And on the other hand we may be lucky, may gain fair more than our work warrants, and may have caused others to suffer our our hands. At the end of our lives here, such things are not balanced. But the work of God will balance it all out, in the end. This work of restoration will ensure that the time will come when all of us will feel and know that justice, in all its aspects, has been done, and the law of the harvest fully fulfilled, to either our condemnation or our blessing.

Thus Alma’s words to Corianton here:

Therefore, my son, see that you are merciful unto your brethren; deal justly, judge righteously, and do good continually; and if ye do all these things then shall ye receive your reward; yea, ye shall have mercy restored unto you again; ye shall have justice restored unto you again; ye shall have a righteous judgment restored unto you again; and ye shall have good rewarded unto you again.

For that which ye do send out shall return unto you again, and be restored; therefore, the word restoration more fully condemneth the sinner, and justifieth him not at all.

(vv. 14-15)

Alma 21

We go now for another flashback (within a flashback), to follow Aaron and the others before their imprisonment, including Aaron’s attempts at preaching in “Jerusalem”.

In fact, upon this reading I was quite struck with that:

Now when Ammon and his brethren separated themselves in the borders of the land of the Lamanites, behold Aaron took his journey towards the land which was called by the Lamanites, Jerusalem, calling it after the land of their fathers’ nativity; and it was away joining the borders of Mormon.

Now the Lamanites and the Amalekites and the people of Amulon had built a great city, which was called Jerusalem.

We have here a city that wasn’t just built by the Lamanites, but also by Nephite dissenters, the Amulonites and the Amalekites (which Royal Skousen suggests may in fact be the same people as the Amlicites – who otherwise appear to disappear at this point – due to a scribal error during dictation). That they chose to name the city after the holy city in the old world seems significant, especially when we learn that “they had built synagogues” (v. 4), and indeed on of Aaron’s opponents defends the righteousness of the people on the basis that “we have built sanctuaries, and we do assemble ourselves together to worship God” (v. 6). These were a people, in other words, that had pretensions of serving God. And yet we have the assessment in verse 3:

Now the Lamanites of themselves were sufficiently hardened, but the Amalekites and the Amulonites were still harder; therefore they did cause the Lamanites that they should harden their hearts, that they should wax strong in wickedness and their abominations.

While they lived in a city named after Jerusalem of old, and had built many places of worship which they attended diligently and defended loudly, they were actually worse than many of the people elsewhere. It is an irony, and perhaps a warning, that in fact the Amalekites and Amulonites were so bad that – despite being the ones in their society to speak of worshipping God, and to build sanctuaries and worship at them – the Lamanites within their influence become more hardened than they would otherwise, so that they “wax strong in wickedness and their abominations”.

I’ve been struck before by the initial challenge posed by an Amalekite to Aaron in verse 5:

… What is that thou hast testified? Hast thou seen an angel? Why do not angels appear unto us? Behold are not this people as good as thy people?

As I’ve written before:

The interesting and the ironic thing about the challenge at the end is that the time Aaron saw an angel (and which he is doubtless describing) was when he, his brothers and Alma the Younger were intercepted by an angel as they sought “to destroy the church” (Mosiah 27:10-19). Neither Aaron nor his brothers nor Alma could be described as a good person at that time, and so the angel’s appearance had nothing to do with their personal righteousness.

But it does make me wonder what made the difference – why did an angel appear to them but not the people in this verse. Perhaps God’s knowledge of how they would react played a role? Or perhaps it was the faith and likely prayers of their fathers? And how many spiritual blessings come into our own life undeserved by any goodness on our part, but because of the faith and devotion of others, or God’s extending to us unexpected opportunities?

However, I was also struck this time round by other parts of his response:

Thou also sayest, except we repent we shall perish. How knowest thou the thought and intent of our hearts? How knowest thou that we have cause to repent? How knowest thou that we are not a righteous people? Behold, we have built sanctuaries, and we do assemble ourselves together to worship God. We do believe that God will save all men.

(Alma 21:6)

There’s several elements to this: first he takes the need for repentance as an accusation, something I’ll come back to when I write about my reading of Alma 22 (although it’s worth noting that the only accusation is a general one aimed at everyone: Aaron, based on his history, undoubtedly includes himself in those who need to repent or perish). Having taken it as an accusation, he then rebuts that, claiming Aaron doesn’t know enough to judge them, and then claims on the basis of their aforementioned worship that they are righteous. And then there’s the final element, the profession of Nehorite belief in universalism: “we do believe that God will save all men”, without requirement or condition.

After an exchange in which Aaron asks whether he believes whether “the Son of God shall come to redeem mankind” from their sins (v. 7), which the Amalekite rejects as a “foolish tradition” on the basis of a flat denial of prophecy, (v. 8) Aaron then attempts to convince him otherwise:

Now Aaron began to open the scriptures unto them concerning the coming of Christ, and also concerning the resurrection of the dead, and that there could be no redemption for mankind save it were through the death and sufferings of Christ, and the atonement of his blood.

(Alma 21:9)

What stood out to me in all this exchange was the contrast between the two messages: on the one hand “we do believe that God will save all men”, and on the other “except we repent we shall perish” and “there could be no redemption for mankind save it were through the death and sufferings of Christ, and the atonement of his blood”. On one hand, it makes clear precisely what that sort of universalism rejects: the need for repentance and the atonement of Christ. It is also interesting to me because I am sure that for many moderns it is the first message that would seem more “loving” and even that much approved term “inclusive”, compared to the perceived exclusivity and judgment and grimness of the latter two. And yet it is the latter two which are true, and rejecting them which has “unloving” effects, not just in the eternities, but – as we learn from the effects the Amalekites and Amulonites have on the Lamanites – in the here and now. And I think some of the true character of that belief is borne out in the crowd’s response in verse 10:

And it came to pass as he began to expound these things unto them they were angry with him, and began to mock him; and they would not hear the words which he spake.

Anger, mockery, and a refusal to listen. Like the Amalekites themselves, this belief in universal and unconditional salvation may outwardly appear good and right, but it has noxious fruits.

 

 

Alma 13

I remember trying to memorise the first part of Alma 13 on my mission – it was in one of the later parts of my mission’s memorisation programme – with some difficulty. I found that if one could work out how a passage should be said – its rhythm, so to speak – memorisation came easily to me, but that first part of Alma 13 is quite clunky to speak, and so trying to find a way to say it in which it flowed proved challenging. Got there in the end though.

While it might prove a bit of a mouthful for the unwary, however, Alma 13 does teach a lot of important things. It’s the one chapter of the Book of Mormon that really talks about the priesthood as priesthood (others speak of authority, and even “holy order”, but the word is only used elsewhere once, in Alma 4:20), about Melchizedek, and about foreordination, those bearing the priesthood being “called and prepared from the foundation of the world”. Some people have supposed this due to qualities – “their exceeding faith and good works” – expressed in pre-mortal life, but the fact that God knows about these due to “the foreknowledge of God” suggests against this. Another writer has suggested it isn’t talking about foreordination at all; I respond to their article here in which I delve into this chapter some more (I conclude they’re right it isn’t speaking of pre-mortal life, but that their other conclusions – including about foreordination – are flawed).

One thought that struck me when reading today, however, is not one that I’ve had previously. Verse 5 states (my emphasis):

Or in fine, in the first place they were on the same standing with their brethren; thus this holy calling being prepared from the foundation of the world for such as would not harden their hearts, being in and through the atonement of the Only Begotten Son, who was prepared

I was struck by the line that I’ve highlighted. It’s speaking here that being called to the priesthood (and presumably all that goes along with it) is in and through the atonement of the Only Begotten. It struck me when reading this that ordination to the priesthood, that possibility of divine power being delegated to human beings, is only possible due to the atonement of Christ. That it’s only due to the atonement that that delegation is even possible, and that without the atonement no one could hold the priesthood. That people can bear the priesthood at all, can perform ordinances, and exercise that divine power on behalf of others, is another blessing given through the atonement of Christ.

Which really makes sense in retrospect, so maybe this has been obvious to others long before. After all, repentance is mentioned as a key condition (v. 10), and its only the atonement that allows the possibility of repentance. But this was a profound thought for me.

Of course, it might be wondered why Alma is going into so much depth about the priesthood at this point in its sermon, where again it might come across as a digression. Once again I suggest we should resist such conclusions. In this case, I think there is a clear thread running through: that of repentance. First Alma speaks of those ordained to the priesthood being so in part because they had chose to repent (v. 10). He then speaks of them becoming sanctified, and urges his audience to follow that example of obedience in verses 11 to 13:

Therefore they were called after this holy order, and were sanctified, and their garments were washed white through the blood of the Lamb.

Now they, after being sanctified by the Holy Ghost, having their garments made white, being pure and spotless before God, could not look upon sin save it were with abhorrence; and there were many, exceedingly great many, who were made pure and entered into the rest of the Lord their God.

And now, my brethren, I would that ye should humble yourselves before God, and bring forth fruit meet for repentance, that ye may also enter into that rest.

Then in verse 14 he switches to a related example, that of Melchizedek, who was a high priest, and the people he was trying to teach:

Yea, humble yourselves even as the people in the days of Melchizedek, who was also a high priest after this same order which I have spoken, who also took upon him the high priesthood forever.

Now this Melchizedek was a king over the land of Salem; and his people had waxed strong in iniquity and abomination; yea, they had all gone astray; they were full of all manner of wickedness;

But Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God, did preach repentance unto his people. And behold, they did repent; and Melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days; therefore he was called the prince of peace, for he was the king of Salem; and he did reign under his father.

(Alma 13:14, 17-18)

Here I think Alma is drawing a deliberate, though unspoken, parallel: Alma, like Melchizedek, is a high priest after the order of the Son of God. And the people of Ammonihah, like the people of Salem, have “waxed strong in iniquity and abomination”, so much so that God has commanded Alma to threaten the people with destruction unless they repent. Follow the example of the people of Salem, Alma implies, and you too can have peace in the land instead, under the “Prince of Peace”, Christ, whose order the priesthood is, and of whom Melchizedek and the priesthood itself (v. 16) are types, helping people to “look forward to him for a remission of their sins”.

And then Alma makes this central thread more clear, beginning the last section of this chapter (and the conclusion of whole sermon) with a direct appeal in verse 21:

And now it came to pass that when Alma had said these words unto them, he stretched forth his hand unto them and cried with a mighty voice, saying: Now is the time to repent, for the day of salvation draweth nigh;

That, after all, has been the very point of this sermon. It can always help us to understand a passage if we consider its purpose and what question it is addressing. In the case of this sermon to the people of Ammonihah, while it has ranged over matters of the resurrection and judgment, the mysteries of God, the fall and the purpose of death and now the priesthood, the central aim all along has been to persuade these people to forsake their sins and repent.

There are, of course, a lot of other interesting things in this chapter to consider too. Verse 23 is another verse that suggests that – as I’ve stated before – the Nephites were a special case in terms of how clearly they were taught of Christ and the gospel:

And they are made known unto us in plain terms, that we may understand, that we cannot err; and this because of our being wanderers in a strange land; therefore, we are thus highly favored, for we have these glad tidings declared unto us in all parts of our vineyard.

Another thing from this chapter to ponder might be the various ways in which the priesthood and the manner of ordination is a type of Christ. I’ve had a few thoughts over the years: One is that Christ too was foreordained from the foundation of the world. Another is that, just like everyone must receive priesthood ordinances from someone else (we cannot lay hands on our own head), so to must everyone look to someone else – Christ – for our salvation. But I am sure there are others.

Alma 7

Alma 7 is Alma’s sermon to the people of Gideon, who he hopes (and is vindicated in that hope) don’t quite have the same problems as the people of Zarahemla. This chapter has attracted quite a bit of attention over the last few decades, particularly for the concept taught in Alma 7:11-12:

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

This is the notion that Christ also took upon himself our pains and sufferings, and not just our sins. I actually sometimes find it amusing and/or frustrating that people will still teach this as some brand new thing, as some shocking revelation, when people have been talking about this concept for a couple of decades (at least) by now, but it’s still important. However, it’s also worth pointing out what this scripture teaches compared to what people think it teaches. I get the impression – from having heard a number of people speak about it – that people believe that this is speaking of some sort of vicarious suffering (particularly in the Garden of Gethsemane). Yet it doesn’t mention the garden at all (indeed, it’s not mentioned often in the Book of Mormon), and verse 11 follows on from verse 10 which is speaking of Christ’s birth (stating that Mary shall “bring forth a son, yea, even the son of God”). That is, the point from which Christ shall “go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind”, which fulfils the prophetic promise that “he will take upon him the pains and sicknesses of his people”, is his birth. And indeed, if we look at King Benjamin’s lists of Christ’s experiences (“temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue…”, Mosiah 3:7), we can see they encompass earlier experiences in his life (the temptations in the wilderness for instance), as well as the sufferings in the Garden (“blood cometh from every pore”) and on the cross (Mosiah 3:9). Christ didn’t just share in our sufferings in some mystical way: he experienced the bad that life has to suffer the same way we did, by actually physically going through them. Likewise he took upon himself mortal infirmities in the same way we do, by actually living with them.

Why is this important? I think there’s a few reasons (including how we look at his mortal life), but particularly because of something that’s taught in verse 12 and verse 13 (my emphasis):

And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.

In one sense Christ did not need to experience the same sufferings to know about them: “the Spirit knoweth all things”. But what these verses bring out is that there is sometimes a distinction in different forms of knowing. Here it is between knowing according to the spirit, and knowing according to the flesh. The spirit knows all things, but because Christ personally experienced these things, he knows them, and what they feel like, according to the flesh. That knowing means he can have perfect empathy for us, and can help us, because he too knows by experience what that feels like. This is not the only reason he suffered “according to the flesh” (as verse 13 makes clear, it’s also that “he might take upon him the sins of his people”), but is an important part of it.

A more minor issue, but verse 10 sometimes attracts some attention. Speaking of Christ’s birth, Alma teaches:

And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.

This sometimes attracts critics, who claim this is an error because, as everyone knows, Christ was born in Bethlehem. Which is a trifle silly, because of course that “everyone” would have included anyone that claim as a potential 19th century author too. However, more to the point it should be noted that Alma speaks of “Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers”. Book of Mormon geographical terminology is in fact very consistent: the authors always refer to cities, and then the lands around those cities by the same name (so there’s the cities of Zarahemla, Nephi, Gideon, Bountiful etc, and the lands that surround them). Bethlehem is of course very very close to Jerusalem; the picture of me on this blog’s banner was actually taken while I was on the southern edge of Jerusalem looking at Bethlehem (I was unaware a camera was in the vicinity, or I would have hidden). By Book of Mormon terminology, Bethlehem is indeed in the land of Jerusalem,

However, it’s also worth pointing out (and indeed I make more of this in my speculation on the subject) that the New Testament does include a group of people who clearly know of Christ’s birth, and who even receive revelations from God, but who – not having access to Micah 5:2 – aren’t quite sure where Christ is going to be born and so end up stumbling around Jerusalem in their attempts to look.

 

 

Mosiah 14

This is, of course, an explicit quotation of Isaiah 53, and in this case there’s very few textual differences between the passage as we have it here and as we find it in the King James Version (for those differences – and an example of part of the same passage being quoted very differently in Alma 7:11//Isaiah 53:4 – see the appendix in The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible)

One thing that struck me when reading this passage today – and this was actually prompted by a question from someone about verse 12 – is how so much of this chapter is about the various paradoxes and ironies that are part and parcel of the atonement itself. Going through the chapter itself:

For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground; he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him there is no beauty that we should desire him.

(Mosiah 14:2//Isaiah 53:2)

Despite being the long looked for Saviour and deliverer, he will not be seen as an attractive figure. Our expectations are so different you still see it (our expectations) in our artwork.

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

(Mosiah 14:3//Isaiah 53:3)

Instead he shall be rejected; I believe this refers not just to those who rejected him at the time, but those who learn of him and reject him now, who reject his teachings and regad his life with little esteem. While bringing a message of ultimate joy he himself will experience sorrow and be “acquainted with grief”.

Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

(Mosiah 14:4//Isaiah 53:4)

Indeed, he’ll bare our pains and sorrows, but people won’t see that, and will regard him as suffering on his own account.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

(Mosiah 14:5//Isaiah 53:5)

Yet out of his wounds and sufferings will come peace and healing for us.

All we, like sheep, have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquities of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb so he opened not his mouth.

(Mosiah 14:6-7//Isaiah 53:6-7)

Christ will have placed upon him all our iniquities, and be taken like a sheep to be slaughtered, yet it is we who are the sheep who have gone astray, and who have done all that he is suffering the penalty for.

He was taken from prison and from judgment; and who shall declare his generation? For he was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgressions of my people was he stricken.

Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief; when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

(Mosiah 14:8, 10//Isaiah 53:8, 10)

Christ will be cut out of the land of the living with no descendants for our transgressions, and yet Christ shall also see his seed (his children: us) and “prolong his days” (live forever more).

And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no evil, neither was any deceit in his mouth.

(Mosiah 14:9//Isaiah 53:9)

Christ, despite being innocent of any evil and any deceit, will be executed and placed amongst the wicked (think the thieves – robbers – being crucified alongside him) and despite his poverty, placed amongst the rich in his death (my thought here is of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb).

He shall see the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied; by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.

Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death; and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bore the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

(Mosiah 14:11-12//Isaiah 53:11-12)

Christ will be “numbered with the transgressors” in the mode of his death, suffering the death of a vile criminal in what surely looks like a defeat. And yet by that death he bears our sins and intercedes for the actual transgressors, namely us. And that apparent defeat, that loss to death, will paradoxically be the greatest victory over death, and so he will be numbered amongst the greatest of conquerors and rulers: the act of dividing the spoil is associated with the victorious in war (see for instance 1 Samuel 30:16-26). By his victory he has delivered many, allowing us to take our place as subjects of his kingdom, and before him every knee shall bow, including all those great kings and strong ones of the past. Moreover, while those worldly conquerors before him have merely conquered cities, nations and peoples, he has taken death itself as his captive and conquered sin, those enemies which have defeated all before and since. For the greatest paradox of the atonement is that from his death comes life.

 

The Cross in the Book of Mormon

The Cross in the Book of Mormon

Easter is approaching once more, and with it my thoughts turn once more to what we commemorate and celebrate at this time of year. Not spring, as nice as that can be (albeit with restricted access in our Covid-19 world!), nor chocolate (which – alas – I must restrict!), but the atoning work of our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. Just under 2000 years ago now, he performed that pivotal labour, that act which grants our existence hope, which means we have more to look forward to than the cold grave or endless aeons damned as demons in hell.

I exaggerate not, as Jacob taught:

O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace! For behold, if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more.
And our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself; yea, to that being who beguiled our first parents, who transformeth himself nigh unto an angel of light, and stirreth up the children of men unto secret combinations of murder and all manner of secret works of darkness.

(2 Nephi 9:8–9)

However, as I think about it this year, and especially in conjunction with what is taught about it in the Book of Mormon (since that is the Sunday School reading this year), I find my mind catching on the image of the cross. I think we don’t talk much about the cross on a popular level within the Church; that is, within our local meetings and so on. In fact it sometimes seems like Christ’s sufferings in the garden of Gethsemane are more prominent. On one hand this is partly understandable: due to a few passages of modern scripture (one in the Book of Mormon, mentioned below, the other Doctrine and Covenants 19), we understand that the trial that Christ faced there was not one of mere anticipation of sufferings to come, but that his more than mortal, vicarious suffering for the sins and pains of mankind began there. As such, we have more to work with than the biblical account alone, which describes the bloody sweat (Luke 22:44), but in terms which have left some in the rest of Christianity unsure as to whether this was mere metaphor.

On the other hand, however, sometimes there’s an overcorrection. When I hear some mistakenly teach that the atonement was completed in the garden, that his offering was done entirely there, and indeed teach misguided ideas about the atonement of Christ on that basis, then I know there has been some level of misunderstanding. This is a topic I’ve addressed before, writing about Easter last year. Christ’s atoning work was one whole, it is perhaps a human tendency to subdivide and categorise. As to why the popular misunderstanding errs in this direction, I’m not sure why. Perhaps there’s a natural tendency to emphasise what we teach differently from others, even where that detracts from true teachings that we share in common. The same perhaps happened with teaching on grace, a word and concept that was seemingly much avoided in some Latter-day circles in the mid-twentieth century. What happened there was that – perhaps as a consequence of President Benson prophetically re-emphasising the importance of the book – people began finding the teaching of grace all throughout the Book of Mormon, and as people turned to the teachings there (and as it was taught in conference), a greater understanding of grace returned.

Similarly, some readers of the Book of Mormon may be surprised at the prominence the Book of Mormon gives to the cross, especially in comparison to the garden. There are few specific references to Christ’s sufferings in the garden at all. In fact, indeed there is only one clear reference that I can find:

And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.

(Mosiah 3:7)

This verse augments the witness of Luke concerning the bloody sweat, and directly ties it to his suffering for our wickedness and abominations. Note however that it also places it into a context of his suffering temptations, pain of body, hunger, thirst, fatigue and so on, all of which apparently encompasses earlier parts of his life (that this is “more than man can suffer, except it be unto death” is still surely true when we factor in, for instance, the 40 days Christ fasted in the wilderness). These are part and parcel too: the beginning of Christ experiencing the pains and sorrows we face in mortality was not in the Gethsemane, but in Bethlehem. I can find no other such references to the suffering in the garden; one could perhaps equate the “bitter cup” Christ announces he has drunk out of in 3 Nephi 11:11 with that he speaks about in Doctrine & Covenants 19:18 and the “cup” he wishes could “pass” from him in Matthew 26:39 & 42, but while the latter two verses take place in the garden, that term might rightly be judged to apply to the whole event.

In contrast, the cross and the crucifixion are specifically referred to on many occasions in the Book of Mormon (bold text is my emphasis):

And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.
And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.

(1 Nephi 11:32-33)

And the God of our fathers, who were led out of Egypt, out of bondage, and also were preserved in the wilderness by him, yea, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, yieldeth himself, according to the words of the angel, as a man, into the hands of wicked men, to be lifted up, according to the words of Zenock, and to be crucified, according to the words of Neum, and to be buried in a sepulchre, according to the words of Zenos, which he spake concerning the three days of darkness, which should be a sign given of his death unto those who should inhabit the isles of the sea, more especially given unto those who are of the house of Israel.

(1 Nephi 19:10)

And as for those who are at Jerusalem, saith the prophet, they shall be scourged by all people, because they crucify the God of Israel, and turn their hearts aside, rejecting signs and wonders, and the power and glory of the God of Israel.

(1 Nephi 19:13)

Nevertheless, the Lord has shown unto me that they should return again. And he also has shown unto me that the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, should manifest himself unto them in the flesh; and after he should manifest himself they should scourge him and crucify him, according to the words of the angel who spake it unto me.

(2 Nephi 6:9)

But, behold, the righteous, the saints of the Holy One of Israel, they who have believed in the Holy One of Israel, they who have endured the crosses of the world, and despised the shame of it, they shall inherit the kingdom of God, which was prepared for them from the foundation of the world, and their joy shall be full forever.

(2 Nephi 9:18)

Wherefore, as I said unto you, it must needs be expedient that Christ—for in the last night the angel spake unto me that this should be his name—should come among the Jews, among those who are the more wicked part of the world; and they shall crucify him—for thus it behooveth our God, and there is none other nation on earth that would crucify their God.
For should the mighty miracles be wrought among other nations they would repent, and know that he be their God.
But because of priestcrafts and iniquities, they at Jerusalem will stiffen their necks against him, that he be crucified.

(2 Nephi 10:3–5)

But, behold, they shall have wars, and rumors of wars; and when the day cometh that the Only Begotten of the Father, yea, even the Father of heaven and of earth, shall manifest himself unto them in the flesh, behold, they will reject him, because of their iniquities, and the hardness of their hearts, and the stiffness of their necks.
Behold, they will crucify him; and after he is laid in a sepulchre for the space of three days he shall rise from the dead, with healing in his wings; and all those who shall believe on his name shall be saved in the kingdom of God. Wherefore, my soul delighteth to prophesy concerning him, for I have seen his day, and my heart doth magnify his holy name.

(2 Nephi 25:12–13)

Wherefore, we would to God that we could persuade all men not to rebel against God, to provoke him to anger, but that all men would believe in Christ, and view his death, and suffer his cross and bear the shame of the world; wherefore, I, Jacob, take it upon me to fulfil the commandment of my brother Nephi.

(Jacob 1:8)

And lo, he cometh unto his own, that salvation might come unto the children of men even through faith on his name; and even after all this they shall consider him a man, and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him, and shall crucify him.

(Mosiah 3:9)

Yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father.

(Mosiah 15:7)

Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world.
And it came to pass that the multitude went forth, and thrust their hands into his side, and did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet; and this they did do, going forth one by one until they had all gone forth, and did see with their eyes and did feel with their hands, and did know of a surety and did bear record, that it was he, of whom it was written by the prophets, that should come.

(3 Nephi 11:14–15)

For it is better that ye should deny yourselves of these things, wherein ye will take up your cross, than that ye should be cast into hell.

(3 Nephi 12:30, note while a quotation of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:30 does not contain any reference to the cross. Of course, that predated the crucifixion, while in 3 Nephi 12 it is the risen Christ who is speaking)

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—
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.

(3 Nephi 27:14–15)

And he said unto them: Behold, I know your thoughts, and ye have desired the thing which John, my beloved, who was with me in my ministry, before that I was lifted up by the Jews, desired of me.

(3 Nephi 28:6)

Of these, two verses (2 Nephi 9:18, 3 Nephi 12:30) are speaking of crosses in a metaphorical sense – that is, speaking of the “cross” all believers are to bear – but still must allude to the cross to be understood. The rest, to a greater or lesser degree, are clear and direct references to the crucifixion. There are 14 such specific references in total, when counting multiple references in one passage as a singular reference, and there are 9 uses of variations of the term “crucify” in the Book of Mormon alone (and 11 in the Doctrine and Covenants, lest anyone think that is also sparing). This is not including more general references to Christ being slain or his death, of which there are many (e.g. 2 Nephi 9:5, Alma 21:9 and many others).

I take it as a key in interpreting the scriptures, that whatever is mentioned most matters most. As such this repeated mention of the cross in the Book of Mormon suggests this particular episode was an important part of Christ’s atoning work. Of course, it is possible to overcorrect too far in the other direction, to obscure the rest of the atonement of Christ by focusing solely on the actual event of the crucifixion (and indeed, the Book of Mormon is hardly sparing in mentioning the resurrection either!). But we are hardly in danger of that at the moment, and the prominence the Book of Mormon affords the cross and the crucifixion suggest this should play a significant role whenever we reflect and remember what Christ has done for us.

So why the particular importance attached to this event? Why should this be a particular part of our own remembrance of Christ? Some thoughts:

1) In the garden, Christ began the process of vicariously suffering for the sin of Mankind, and taking upon himself our pains and sufferings. But it is the cross that that he most directly suffered at the hands of other human beings, the point at which he suffered most for the injustice of his trial, and so symbolically experienced judgment at the hands of all mankind (1 Nephi 11:32, 2 Nephi 9:5). It is because of this, according to Jacob, that he in turn has the power to judge mankind. The crucifixion also most signifies his own people’s then rejection of him (Mark 8:31, 2 Nephi 10:3–5, 2 Nephi 25:12, Mosiah 3:9). Thus Christ becomes just as the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement, which was driven into the wilderness, symbolically bearing the sins of the people (see Leviticus 16, especially verses 5, 8-10, 20-22).

2) Then there is the imagery of being “lifted up” (a phrase the Book of Mormon plays with): by being crucified, Christ was physically hoisted up, and made a public spectacle, subject to mockery and an execution that was considered shameful (Hebrews 12:2, Jacob 1:8). And yet it was through this that God wrought the greatest victory (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23-24), so that while nominally lifted up for mockery and shame, in eternal reality, his act on our behalf blesses us with victory over death, and inspires us to follow him (3 Nephi 27:14-15). Because he has been lifted up upon the cross, so too will all men be lifted up: not to instruments of execution, but in the resurrection to newness of life. But likewise, to follow him we too must endure “crosses” and bear the shame the world would cast at us (2 Ne 9:18).

3) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this was the key moment of offering: one crucial aspect of the atonement of Christ is that it is a sacrifical offering on our behalf, much as on the Day of Atonement. However, in this offering Christ played all three roles: as High priest (as the offerer), as the sacrifice (as the offering himself), and as the scapegoat (bearing our sins away). It is why only he could do it: only a perfect and eternal high priest could offer a such an offering that would last forever (Hebrews 7:22-28), only an infinite and eternal sacrifice could suffice for the sins of the world and only a divine scapegoat could truly and justly bear another’s sins (see Alma 34:10-12, Alma 42:15)

But this sacrifice was not simply one of pain: it was an offering of life. Only by offering his infinite life – and thus his death – would suffice to atone for the sins of the world (Alma 22:14), and bring to pass the resurrection of mankind (Alma 11:42, Helaman 14:14-16). And while Christ began his more than natural sufferings in the garden, it was on the cross that he offered up his life and gave it up. It was on the cross too that he was cast out of the camp of this world, bearing the sins of the people into the wilderness without. And his offering not simply his physical life either, for it is on the cross that he experienced the withdrawal of the presence of the Father (“Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, Matthew 27:46). When we are separated from God, we call that spiritual death. Christ offered up his life, and so experienced death in every way that each of us does.

I’m sure there are perhaps more reasons, and perhaps this is as good a time as any to ponder them. In any case it seems appropriate that when thinking the Saviour’s sacrifice that we not neglect a dimension of which the scriptures amply teach, and let the episode of the cross take its proper place in our remembrance of his work for us.

Mosiah 3

This is a very well known and oft quoted chapter, particularly the portions relating to the prophecy of  Christ’s mortal ministry and atoning sacrifice (vv. 5-10) and the famous passage that really encapsulates the core of the Gospel:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

That really covers almost everything important: the fallenness of man, guidance through the Holy Ghost, repentance and sanctification through the Atonement of Christ and how we should be as disciples and God’s children.

Perhaps one bit of that verse that catches a little less attention is that whole bit about being ‘willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him’. I think it’s easy to read the verse, and see it as being willing to submit to everything God may ask of us and in addition what he permits may happen to us. But the word inflict is rather more active than that, in that it requires us to accept and submit to what God may do to us, even if unpleasant. An interesting article I’ve already linked to in this blog which discusses the concept of an Abrahamic Test quotes this verse in that context, noting that the scriptures teach that God both chastens us (which is correction or punishment upon those that have disobedient) and tries us, in which the refiners fire falls upon the righteous. It is interesting that a crucial part of our discipleship is the degree to which we accept both of these processes.

I don’t know whether I can say I’m grateful for any of the trials I’ve experienced, and in many respects I’m quite fortunate, so I don’t know how others may feel about that either. But I’ve certainly found with some unpleasant experiences that – often given time and opportunity to reflect – I’ve been able to perceive some of the positive results of them too. I don’t know that we’re actually being asked to be glad about unpleasant things (though perhaps with sufficient perspective we can be; thinking about it there are a couple of things I think I can now say I am appreciative for). But perhaps what this is really getting at is the core measure of our trust and loyalty towards him, the capacity to say “not my will, but thine be done”, no matter what that appears to entail for us.

Linked to this verse, but really catching my attention today, was verse 16:

And even if it were possible that little children could sin they could not be saved; but I say unto you they are blessed; for behold, as in Adam, or by nature, they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins.

It’s an interesting point in general that the Atonement establishes both justice and mercy (for instance, see v. 10-11 and 2 Nephi 9:26). But what attracted my eye today was the whole phrase about ‘in Adam, or by nature, they fall’. When we talk of the fall, we often talk of Adam and Eve, but really in a sense each of us falls as we grow up. We are born innocent before God (D&C 93:38), and we are not held responsible for the sins of our forebears (Moses 6:54). But as a consequence of the fall, human nature is opposed to God, and our natures mean that as we grow ‘sin conceive[s] in [our] hearts’ (Moses 6:55) and we yield to our unrighteous instincts (‘the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein’, 2 Nephi 2:29) and become fallen people. We each experience the fall individually; I guess in a similar manner to the way in which while Christ atoned once for sins in an infinite and eternal offering, we must experience the power of that redemption individually too.

I think it’s also important to remember this self-sabotaging nature that we all inevitably have. We can become ground down trying to perfect ourselves, or we might try to persuade ourselves that some inner tendencies can’t possibly be wrong, or why would we have them? But human nature as it is is morally flawed, and is not perfectible by our efforts alone. But there’s two crucial caveats there, which again verse 19 addresses: our current nature is not the nature God wishes for us to carry into the eternities, and we can put off that nature and become something else – a saint, that is holy – as we “yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” and accept the power of Christ’s atonement into our lives. God wants us to change, and through Christ’s power we can.

2020 edit:

I’m beginning to think there’s some kind of weird joke: once again when reading there’s certain verses that leap out at me, and once again I find it’s exactly the same verses I’ve already written about. Admittedly, this seems to be particularly the case in posts like this, where the first part was written not that long ago (less than a year). Furthermore, while it’s the same verses that have stood out on this occasion, there’s somewhat different aspects.

So back to Mosiah 3:16:

And even if it were possible that little children could sin they could not be saved; but I say unto you they are blessed; for behold, as in Adam, or by nature, they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins.

What caught my attention this time was the notion that “the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins” – that is, the sins of little children. I would partly credit Elder James Rasband’s talk this past general conference for this, in which – citing this very verse – he stated that “[a] righteous judgment also required, he taught, that “the blood of Christ atoneth for” the sins of little children.” That phrase stood out to me because I’ve never heard it put as bluntly as that. Indeed I suspect there might be some who’d recoil from that phrase. But it’s quite clearly there in Mosiah 3:16, although perhaps we may pass over it all too easily by not enquiring as to who “their” refers to. But there is only one possible referent.

How do we square this with what Mormon writes in Moroni 8, which states that “little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin” (Mormon 8:8)? Some points are worth considering.

Firstly, Mormon is speaking of the world in which the atonement of Christ is a given fact, while King Benjamin is speaking of what would have happened if the atonement had never taken place, and what the atonement does. Mormon concurs with the role of the atonement in this, as he continues in verse 8 to relay the Lord’s statement that “wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it have no power over them; and the law of circumcision is done away in me”. It is through the Lord’s atonement that little children have become whole. Indeed, even the condition of innocence in infancy is through the atonement of Christ, as stated in the Doctrine and Covenants: “Every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning; and God having redeemed man from the fall, men became again, in their infant state, innocent before God” (D&C 93:38, bold is my emphasis – it should also be remembered that innocent is not the same thing as good).

Secondly, we must refer back to the fall, and how pervasive and powerful it is. Without the atonement, its influence would be so powerful no human being could possibly escape it. Would that be just? No, but that’s just the point: the atonement of Christ is not just a means of mercy, but also establishes justice, as is taught by Jacob in 2 Nephi 9:26 and by Elder Rasband in his talk.

Thirdly, the principle of accountability is important to understand why the effects of the atonement vary in their application. Little children (and presumably others such as the mentally handicapped) have limited accountability. Their “sins” are not sins of their own volition, in the same way ours are, and they have limited capacity to repent: thus their sins are atoned for automatically. Those who “died not knowing the will of God concerning them, or who have ignorantly sinned” (Mosiah 3:11), who did not know enough to be considered fully accountable, likewise have their sins atoned for. However, the time of such ignorance is limited:

And moreover, I say unto you, that the time shall come when the knowledge of a Savior shall spread throughout every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.

And behold, when that time cometh, none shall be found blameless before God, except it be little children, only through repentance and faith on the name of the Lord God Omnipotent.

(Mosiah 3:20-21)

As for those who are accountable and have a necessary level of knowledge, and so have committed sin of our own volition, then atonement for sin is conditional, “for salvation cometh to none such except it be through repentance and Faith on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Mosiah 3:12). Thus Mormon instructs Moroni to teach “repentance and baptism unto those who are accountable and capable of committing sin” (Moroni 8:10), surely meaning in this case, those capable of choosing to sin and knowing that it is wrong.

It is perhaps not always entirely necessary to know more that what Mormon teaches in this case. And yet, perhaps it may help some to appreciate even more what Christ has done for all of us, to realise that the salvation of little children was not “free”, but was likewise brought with the blood of Christ.

The forgotten fall

As might be inferred from my statement at the beginning of this edit, the other verse which caught my attention this time around was indeed verse 19 again. In this case, it was particularly the first few clauses:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless…

Obviously there’s a pretty big “unless” there – indeed the whole heart of the gospel, the “good news”, is contained and followed by that “unless”. And yet we cannot truly appreciate that “unless”, and indeed the very choices we face on a day to day basis, unless we truly understand and keep in mind those first few clauses.

Over the last decade, I have come to the conclusion that the Fall has become somewhat of a forgotten doctrine in Christianity at large. One can see this in various discussions which hinge on claims of “God made me this way”, or in which it is assumed that what is natural must be good. Even some Latter-day Saint scholars appear to misunderstand the fall, if for different reasons: it seems some get caught up so much in understanding that the fall was a necessary part of God’s plan that they forget the negative effects of the fall (negative effects which, if anything, Latter-day scripture is even more explicit about). Likewise, in their desire to defend Adam and (especially) Eve, they appear to conflate the perspective they both enjoyed at a later date after a great revelation (Moses 5:9-11), with the far more limited perspective they would have had at the time.

The fall is the necessary counterpoint to the atonement of Christ. Without understanding the fall, we cannot understand the atonement. If we negate the importance of the fall, and its negative effects, we negate the importance of the atonement, and its positive effects. Moreover understanding the fall is crucial to understanding ourselves and the situation we face right now, in our mortal lives, and the choice that has been provided to us by Christ. Understanding the fall answers so many of the questions the modern age seems otherwise confused by.

Because of the fall, none of us is as God eventually intends us, nor is this earth. Nature I’ve already written about, if in a rather speculative tone. The facts of non-human “nature”, however, should surely establish that an awful lot of it isn’t presently good: the naturalistic fallacy (the idea what if something is “natural”, it is therefore “good”) should fall apart in the face of things like infanticide amongst lions, never mind those wasps that lay their larvae in other creatures and which eat their way out.

Likewise, amongst human beings, understanding the fall means understanding that due to the fall, we must all contend against “the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein” (2 Nephi 2:29), that “because of the fall our natures have become evil continually” (Ether 3:2), and that as King Benjamin points out “the natural man is an enemy to God” (Mosiah 3:19). Each of us has a part of us that doesn’t want to do good. It thus should not disturb us, should there be any who appear to have inherent tendencies that lead away from obedience to God’s commandments, because we all have such inherent tendencies. Such tendencies may be in areas that aren’t obsessed about or approved by our culture: we may have tendencies towards alcoholism, or kleptomania, or greed, or road-rage, or wanting to crush our enemies and see them driven before us. But whichever direction our fallen part would propel us, we all may have such a fallen part.

Now, the great and glorious and wonderful good news of the gospel is that we don’t have to give in to that part: we all have a choice. Due to the atonement of Christ, we are free to “choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit; And not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein”. It’s not necessarily an easy choice, indeed it’s a choice I think we have to make over and over again until it sticks. But as Mosiah 3:19 teaches, we can “[put] off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord”. That fallen nature need not be who we eternally are, it need not be the inherent part of ourselves, but can be shed. The body can become subject to the spirit, and become sanctified so that when we stand before God we might be entirely holy. We cannot do this alone, it is true, but we do not have to: Christ purchased this choice for us, with his own life; he atones for our sins and anything in which we err; and he can give us grace and strength and power to choose his will whatever the natural man would have us do, until the glorious day when it can be kicked off entire, “that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure” (Moroni 7:48).

The Good News

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Almost two thousand years ago, in a minor province of the Roman empire and in the space of just a few days, the most important event in human history took place. More than history even, for the events of those days will have consequences beyond history and throughout eternity, when many “historical” events will seem mere footnotes. Moreover, those events matter not just two thousand years ago, nor just in eternities beyond the end of time itself, but I find myself reflecting on this Easter on the way they matter today.

It seems a human tendency to want to break things up, and subdivide them, perhaps so we can get our head around them. Thus some depictions of Christ’s redeeming work have focused on the Crucifixion. In Latter-day Saint culture, there’s been a tendency to focus on the suffering in the garden of Gethsemane (I specify culture; the Book of Mormon itself refers to the Cross more frequently than to the Garden). But in reality these are all part of one big redemptive work. It arguably began long before Gethsemane itself, as Christ’s experienced the sufferings endemic to mortal life throughout his mortal life (Alma 7:11). He faced hunger and thirst in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil, sorrow at the tomb of Lazarus, and abandonment by many of his former followers: such happenings and others like them were all part and parcel of him taking upon himself mortal pains so that he might help us in ours.

It is in the garden, however, that the more than natural sufferings clearly began. In addition to his sorrowing “unto death”, so much that he “fell on his face” (Matt. 26:38-39), in some way that we do not fully comprehend he began the process by which he took upon himself the sin of the world, suffering so much so that he sweat blood (Luke 22:44; Mosiah 3:7; D&C 19:18). He was then betrayed by Judas, abandoned by all, unjustly tried and condemned, abused, scourged and then sentenced to death on the Cross. Yet his spiritual sufferings did not end in the garden, for there was more to Christ’s pain on the Cross than the physical agony of crucifixion, and more to his atoning sacrifice that the suffering endured in the Garden beforehand.

Indeed, suffering alone wasn’t Christ’s offering. The penalty of sin is death (Romans 5:12;  6:23), death and hell, or death of the body and death of the spirit (2 Nephi 9:10). In the first our spirit is separated from our body, in the second it is separated from God. The price to redeem us from these deaths required an infinite offering: “not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast” (Alma 34:10), nor simply a discrete amount of suffering, no matter how multiplied. There is no straightforward arithmetic of atonement that allows trading off one life for another, and so only “an infinite atonement [would] suffice for the sins of the world” (v. 11-12). Thus Christ needed to offer up his own, infinite and eternal divine life as the offering: his sufferings alone would not suffice, but his death was required also (Alma 22:14). Not even his physical life could be taken from him without his will (John 19:11), as reflected in the curious phrasing by which Moses and Elijah discuss “his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31, my emphasis). But just like the death we face due to our sins is both physical and spiritual, so Christ’s offering likewise required both. Thus, while in Gethsemane he received strength from an angel (Luke 22:43), on the Cross he experienced the withdrawal of the Father’s presence, causing him to exclaim “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).

So Christ offered up every drop of his infinite and eternal life. And yet that is not the conclusion of his atonement, for the victory would yet be incomplete. That came several days later, on the day we commemorate with Easter itself. It is on that day that the bands of death and hell were broken, when Christ rose from his tomb. Notice how he tells Mary Magdalene, the first to see him, to not touch him “for I am not yet ascended to my Father”, but for her to go and specifically tell his brethren “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17 – the fact that those who saw him later could touch him suggest that said ascension took place swiftly). His rising was not just taking up his body again, even in perfect form, but a rising into a fullness of both physical and spiritual life, the ascension of his body from the tomb, and his ascension – body and spirit both – to the Father. Thus our redemption is “brought to pass through the power, and sufferings, and death of Christ, and his resurrection and ascension into heaven” (Mosiah 18:2).

There are those, both of Christ’s followers at the time and others since, who have had the opportunity to bear physical witness of his resurrection, to have “heard”, “seen” and “handled” (Ep. of John 1:1). For others, including myself, there is the witness of the Holy Ghost. In all such cases, however, we have the promise symbolised by the empty tomb, a promise that can bring power and peace into our lives now by assuring us of good things to come. It may be easy, looking around the world, to feel a measure of disquiet at the way things are and the way they’re heading. Even when things are good, no society lasts forever. And then in our personal lives, we may – indeed almost all do – experience loss, or grief, or failure, or feelings of failure. We may feel frustration or pain that life has gone in undesired directions, whether due to our mistakes or the vicissitudes of life. Sometimes life is just rubbish, and sometimes we may simply feel we’ve messed it up.

But the promise of that Easter Morning – the “good news” which is literally the meaning of the word gospel – is that this life is not it. There is more to come than the ephemeral things of this life, and no failure need be final. No matter what setbacks we face, what trials we experience or pain we go through in the present, that empty tomb is a promise that better things are in store if we look to the one who is risen and hold on faithful. It is a promise that we need not be forever defined by our sins nor our failures, nor any other imperfection, for Christ has conquered death and hell, and can put all enemies under his feet.

Enos

I’ve not added any post recently as I’ve been quite ill, and have more to come. I thought, however, upon reading Enos this morning and finding it wasn’t on my list that I’d add a few observations upon reading it today. I’m partly cheating, as the last one will simply be an excerpt from The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, but that’s not simply laziness or fatigue, it’s the fact that I can’t help but think of that point when I read this chapter now. But more on that later.

I was struck, as I always am, by Enos 4:

And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.

It’s not the praying all night and day that quite gets my attention, but rather the desire implicit in that “and my soul hungered”. I can’t take any credit for this observation (the Church film produced for Seminary makes much the same point), but the crux of Enos’ experience was how badly he wanted something, and what he was prepared to do to get it.

And that strikes me as something that’s true for all of us, particularly when it comes to matters of the Spirit. We can’t force the Spirit, but much of our experience depends on the strength of our desires. If we want to know if something is true, but only out of mild curiosity, we can’t expect the heavens to open up to us. As James says about those that waver in seeking wisdom from God: “let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord” (James 1:7).

Why did I particularly think on this verse today? I was thinking of Ward Conference several weeks back, when the question was posed (I can’t remember if by one of the speakers outright, or by myself in my notes in response to something they said): are you closer to Christ than you were a year ago? And I don’t think I could honestly answer yes. Not that I’ve completely wandered off the reservation or anything, but closer? I’m not sure that’s true. But I think it should be, and it’s something I want to be different. In which case, how badly do I want that, and what am I prepared to do?

I likewise had my attention caught on verse 23, a verse that probably gets a lot less attention:

And there was nothing save it was exceeding harshness, preaching and prophesying of wars, and contentions, and destructions, and continually reminding them of death, and the duration of eternity, and the judgments and the power of God, and all these things—stirring them up continually to keep them in the fear of the Lord. I say there was nothing short of these things, and exceedingly great plainness of speech, would keep them from going down speedily to destruction. And after this manner do I write concerning them.

I guess I found two things interesting about this. One is the fact that what needs to be said to people, and what needs to be stressed, depends greatly on where someone is. Plenty of times people need to be reminded of the love of God. These people were in a different place, and needed to be reminded of the judgment of God. I’m sure what we need to hear varies across our life too. But I was also struck about the elements singled out here: reminding people of death, of eternity, and the judgment and power of God. Unwittingly, these are the very elements I’ve been stressing in something I’m working on (whether that is true in that work’s final form remains very much to be seen).

And now to the final point, which genuinely crossed my mind while reading once again, but which I have better described elsewhere:

However, the Book of Mormon adopts an unusual approach to time not just in how it speaks of future events, but also in how it views cause and effect. Thus Enos, seeking forgiveness of sins some four centuries before the birth of Christ according to the narrative, is told by revelation when he asks how he is forgiven:

And he said unto me: Because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou hast never before heard nor seen. And many years pass away before he shall manifest himself in the flesh; wherefore, go to, thy faith hath made thee whole. (Enos 1:8)

Thus it is through Christ that Enos is forgiven, but in a particularly retro-causal turn the answer he receives emphasises that the cause of his forgiveness lies far into the future. God himself is not subject to time, for ‘all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men’ (Alma 40:8). Because God is not subject to time, the Book of Mormon sees no logical obstacles to Lehi being able to quote from future scripture, or God informing human beings of future events:

And now I will ease your mind somewhat on this subject. Behold, you marvel why these things should be known so long beforehand. Behold, I say unto you, is not a soul at this time as precious unto God as a soul will be at the time of his coming?
Is it not as necessary that the plan of redemption should be made known unto this people as well as unto their children?
Is it not as easy at this time for the Lord to send his angel to declare these glad tidings unto us as unto our children, or as after the time of his coming? (Alma 39:17-19)

Or as described in Jacob 4 itself:

And now, beloved, marvel not that I tell you these things; for why not speak of the atonement of Christ, and attain to a perfect knowledge of him, as to attain to the knowledge of a resurrection and the world to come? (Jacob 4:12)

It is upon this basis that the book defends its ‘pre-Christian Christianity’: on the grounds that God is able to reveal Christ, his atonement and the ‘plan of redemption’ at any time of his choosing. This includes phrases otherwise unique to the New Testament, such as Lehi’s quotation of John the Baptist in 1 Nephi 10:8, or (for an example especially pertinent to Jacob 5) the quotation of Matthew 3:10 in Alma 5:52, a quotation attributed to what ‘the spirit saith’. The Book of Mormon’s use of ‘plain terms’ is attributed to the result of revelation from a God who is not subject to time and whose use of the ‘same words’ is described as an intentional effort:

The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, p. 264-265

I always like a bit of retrocausality. This one – that Christ’s atonement was so perfect and infinite that its effects could precede its cause, and bring forgiveness to anyone, regardless of where they were in time – is perhaps the most important.

2020 Edit:

My attention was caught by a thread picked up in the very first verse:

Behold, it came to pass that I, Enos, knowing my father that he was a just man—for he taught me in his language, and also in the nurture and admonition of the Lord—and blessed be the name of my God for it

I was struck by reading this that Enos’ knowledge of the righteousness of his father rests on the fact that he taught him, including about the gospel.

As the same time, however, the gospel simply being taught is only one half of the picture. Enos still had to choose to respond to those teachings, and he did so in full at some distance from those teaching experiences. It was up to Enos to have that “wrestle… before God”, and no one else could do it for him, regardless of how effectively he was taught. I believe this is true of everyone who accepts the gospel; sure, not everyone does it as such a singular, all-in-one, experience as Enos does. For many people it might be multiple steps, or a path carved out over time. But the choice to respond to the message of the gospel must be taken by those receiving it. In one sense it’s comforting: for those called to teach the gospel, that’s all they’re called to do: to teach it, not to ensure that those listening accept it. But on the other hand, that’s partly because they cannot ensure that their audience responds; whether someone responds to the message of the gospel with faith and repentance is not up to the teacher, but to the listener, and no one can bind or force their choice, and indeed they may end up responding some time after receiving the message. All someone teaching the gospel can do is present the message they are called to do with faith and with the spirit, and hope that the listeners will respond. Whether it will bear fruit or not is something that may not be known for some time, and one cannot measure success in sharing the gospel by how many people immediately respond.

An example of that occurs later in the chapter, where Enos records the reactions of the Lamanites to his people’s efforts to share the gospel:

For at the present our strugglings were vain in restoring them to the true faith. And they swore in their wrath that, if it were possible, they would destroy our records and us, and also all the traditions of our fathers.

(Enos 1:14)

And I bear record that the people of Nephi did seek diligently to restore the Lamanites unto the true faith in God. But our labors were vain; their hatred was fixed, and they were led by their evil nature that they became wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness…

(Enos 1:20)

Enos’ and his people’s efforts were without success. In the chapter immediately preceding, Jacob likewise records a similar result:

And it came to pass that many means were devised to reclaim and restore the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth; but it all was vain, for they delighted in wars and bloodshed, and they had an eternal hatred against us, their brethren. And they sought by the power of their arms to destroy us continually.

(Jacob 7:24)

I remember some years ago that the contrast with the later (“successful”) missions of the Sons of Mosiah really dawned on me. What struck me at the time – and ties in with what stuck out to me today – is that the difference between what Jacob and Enos got, and what the Sons of Mosiah got, wasn’t down to the faithfulness or diligence or obedience of those giving the message. Jacob, after all, records some of his people having so much faith that they have power over the elements! The difference wasn’t in the righteousness or diligence of those teaching; there were other factors. When the Sons of Mosiah taught, there were people prepared to hear the message. Perhaps they were prepared to do so with the likes of Abish and her father in their midst. Perhaps other things made a difference too. The difference between the two experiences wasn’t down to any difference in the diligence of the teacher, but in the willingness of the listeners to respond and repent, and perhaps too in the will of God and his timing. Only God can know and account for both those factors. By the standards of the only measuring rod available to us mortals, all we can measure is diligence and faithfulness in sharing the message, and by that account both Jacob and Enos were as “successful” as the Sons of Mosiah.

Bouncing back a bit in the chapter, I was also struck by this statement of Enos:

And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.

And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away.

(Enos 1:5-6)

Why was Enos’ guilt “swept away”. Because he knew God could not lie, and so believed him when God told him he had been forgiven. As I’ve written before, the great statement of faith that gave the brother of Jared admittance into the presence of God was “Yea, Lord, I know that thou speakest the truth, for thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie” (Ether 3:12, my emphasis). There’s a great power of faith in knowing that God always speaks the truth and so choosing to trust what he tells us (whatever that assurance may be about). I wonder if many of us fall short of experiencing that power. If Enos had not taken God at his word, would he have had such a wonderful feeling, or would he still have been troubled (needlessly, since he was forgiven)? Could such feelings have caused him further difficulties? Are there assurances God has given us that have yet to have their full power in our heart because we have not yet trusted them as sweepingly as Enos or the brother of Jared did?

Alma 34

So today my personal reading got around to the third and final part of this sermon, where Amulek picks up from where Alma left off. As I was doing so, there was already one subject that loomed large in my mind, but there are several other points that emerged, so I plan to cover these in order of reading. So without futher ado…

All are fallen and are lost

The absolute necessity of the Atonement of Christ, and our need to accept it, is something the Book of Mormon repeatedly teaches. It’s something that not everyone appears to understand, however. I’ve heard a number of people, include those within the Church, conclude that they don’t need to change, because they’re “a good person”. But this is not true: all are fallen, and all are lost. This is not to say that the nature of our sins all reaches the same degree, of course. Most people aren’t Hitler, or anything of that sort. But “not Hitler” is not good enough, and while that may be easy to grasp neither is most people’s definition of a “good person”.

We might class ourselves as such as we mean well most of the time, but meaning well is very different from working righteousness, nor does meaning well erase our moments of weakness, selfishness, cruelty and malice. It is a common temptation to think that if we mostly mean well and don’t harm people most of the time, God “will justify in committing a little sin” (2 Nephi 28:8), but little could be further from the truth. All of us, by our natural attainments, fall far short of the standard of holiness by which it will even be bearable to be in the presence of God (Mormon 9:3-5), let alone to be exalted. And so we need the help of a greater power, even a divine and infinite and eternal power, not just to be forgiven of all those things we do wrong (or did not do right), but also to have our characters transformed and purified. We all need to change, and none of us can accomplish that change by ourselves. We need the Atonement of Christ.

An infinite and eternal sacrifice

And so we turn to the topic that had been on my mind. This has largely been brought up as I’ve heard people claim that the Atonement was “personal” and “for each of us”. In its most extreme variant, I’ve heard the claim that it involved praying personally for everyone by name, a claim which simultaneous makes the Atonement too small (as we shall see), and yet underestimates how long praying for everyone by name would take. Assuming a rough estimate of 25 billion people live or ever have lived on Earth, for example, one would still be at the task!

What has become clear in many of these cases is that those making these claims see the Atonement of Christ as occurring in discrete lots: that is, that Christ suffered a bit for me, then a bit for you, and so on through the whole Human family. There’s problems with such teachings, but by far the biggest is that they aren’t true.

Turning to Amulek in 34:10:

For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice.

It should be noted that Christ was both an infinite and eternal sacrifice, because he wasn’t just human, he was divine. This refers to more than simply the circumstances of his birth too: it’s not simply that he was the only begotten of the Father in a genetic sense, but also because prior to birth he was divine. As the Book of Mormon puts it on the title page, “JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD”. For him to give up his life was to make more than a mortal offering, but to offer the life of a God.

Continuing on with verses 11 and 12:

Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay.

But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.

This is the crucial bit, because what Amulek is teaching is that the way at least some think the Atonement works doesn’t work. If the Atonement consisted of the transfer of a discrete portion of suffering, someone could atone for the sins of the another, but they can’t. And as his own reference to their own law makes clear, it would not be just: their just law will not be satisfied simply with a death, but rather with that of the guilty.  The simple transferral of a set amount of suffering, even if done 25 billion times, while unimaginable vast to human beings, is still finite, and would not work. The only solution is an infinite atonement, with an infinite sacrifice.

Why does this matter? For one thing, I think it is important to try, even if we fail, to appreciate the full magnitude of what Christ did, and what only Christ could do, for us. For another, the idea that the Atonement consists of Christ transferring to himself discrete and personalised packets of suffering may even lead people to reject the atonement. I have known of some who felt that they don’t want Christ to experience their bit of pain, either out of a misinformed belief that they didn’t want to “add” that burden to him, or some sort of belief that they can take their own punishment. But it doesn’t work like that. Christ has already atoned for the sins of the world, and did so in such a way that it is impossible to add or reduce the burden he took upon himself. And in doing so, he was doing something that none of us could possibly have done, not even for one person. And his superlative and infinite power can save any one of us, if we accept the gift he has already provided in gratitude.

Work out your salvation with fear before God

There’s many other things in this chapter which deserve attention, but there’s one final passage which stood out to me today:

And now, my beloved brethren, I desire that ye should remember these things, and that ye should work out your salvation with fear before God, and that ye should no more deny the coming of Christ;

(Alma 34:37)

This is not an unique sentiment in the scriptures (compare Philippians 2:12 and Mormon 9:27), nor is it the first time I’ve discussed fear (including potential positive aspects). But I was struck by it again, perhaps because I’ve seen a fair few adverts for an event recently, in which many of the performers and speakers seem to speak as if participation in the gospel should bring one continuous joy. Well it will… eventually. But not yet.

There’s a balance in these things. On one hand we should not be in a state of insecurity, where we feel unable to trust in God’s promises, or be oppressed by feelings of perfectionism as if everything depended upon us and any failings were irretrievable mistakes. We are saved by grace, we are instructed to “look unto me in every thought: doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36), and encouraged to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16, my emphasis). At the same time we must avoid complacency, a state of “carnal security” in which we think “all is well in Zion” (2 Nephi 28:21), and indeed work out our salvation before God with fear and trembling. In similar fashion, Christ does offer us peace (John 14:27), and offers us a “fulness of joy” in the world to come (D&C 93:33). But Adam and Eve, in their innocent state, knew “no joy, for they knew no misery” (2 Nephi 2:23), and the promise to those who are joint-heirs with Christ is that “if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:17). We’re not guaranteed unbroken happiness in this life, no matter we live our life. The path of following Christ cannot be reduced just to one dimension, either joy nor suffering. In the course of this life, we will likely experience both, at different times and different places, as indeed 2 Nephi 2 points out that we need to. And indeed, our future joys, especially that fulness of joy may well be linked to sufferings in this life, as Peter points out:

But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.

(1 Peter 4:13)

In essence, we should always remember what Christ himself teaches:

These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

(John 16:33)

2020 Edit:

My original post here is fairly substantial, so I don’t want to dilute it too much. There’s simply a few verses that caught my eye while reading today.

First up is verse 2, one of those verses I think I have often passed over, but which today seemed to have fresh insight:

My brethren, I think that it is impossible that ye should be ignorant of the things which have been spoken concerning the coming of Christ, who is taught by us to be the Son of God; yea, I know that these things were taught unto you bountifully before your dissension from among us.

Reason I mention it is that I have just discovered that there seem to be certain parts of my mind – particularly those to do with lessons learned from emotional reflection and so on – that seem to wake up later than the rest of me. So certain things can seem very fresh and raw in the morning, but then I feel better as what I had learned and processed about such things on previous days comes back to me as the day goes on. Not that I’d forgotten such things, but it seems like I’m only aware of them first thing in the morning, and it takes time for the emotional power of such lessons and reflections to have a renewed effect, and that this is a daily, cyclical thing. The human psyche seems very odd at times.

Anyway, the connection with this verse is that sometimes, we’ve actually already been taught the answer or solution to a question or problem we have, and this can apply in spiritual things too. Sometimes we already have it, but don’t realise it. The Zoramites had been taught “bountifully” about Christ before their dissension, and so already had the answers to their dilemma, but needed to be reminded of those answers by Alma and Amulek. And sometimes the same is true about us.

Verses 32-34 are simply favourites of mine, and I think important verses for reminding us that time is pressing, that we cannot afford to be complacent, that we cannot count on some future period to change our course:

For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.

And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.

Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.

Connected with this, in a more hopeful vein, is the end of verse 31: “if ye will repent and harden not your hearts, immediately shall the great plan of redemption be brought about unto you” (my emphasis).

Finally my attention was drawn by the last two verses, 40-41:

And now my beloved brethren, I would exhort you to have patience, and that ye bear with all manner of afflictions; that ye do not revile against those who do cast you out because of your exceeding poverty, lest ye become sinners like unto them;

But that ye have patience, and bear with those afflictions, with a firm hope that ye shall one day rest from all your afflictions.

These people had been persecuted after all; because of their poverty they had been deemed not be part of “the elect”, and had been cast out and barred from the places of worship they had helped build. They have been wronged. And they will be wronged more in the future. And yet they are instructed not to revile against those who have done so, but to “have patience, and bear with those afflictions, with a firm hope that ye shall one day rest from all your afflictions”. This strikes me as an important lesson.