Friday, August 21, 2009

Do Mormons Believe in Being Born Again?

The question arises: Do Mormons believe that one must be born again? The answer is an unequivocal and resounding "YES."

The only question is how? My definition is simple: It constitutes true conversion, not just nominal membership in "Club Mormon."

To be truly converted is to change from one state to another. In the Church and out of it there are people who are unconverted and people who are converted. Outwardly they appear to be the same. The scriptures, particularly The Book of Mormon, provide several examples of being born again. Joseph Smith definitively declared: "Being born again comes by the spirit of God through ordinances." (TPJS, 162). Ammon converted King Lamoni, then Aaron converted his father. Both are stirring accounts of true "born again" conversions. (See Alma 18-19; Alma 22).

The father of Lamoni is filled with desire that we would do well to emulate: "What shall I do that I may have this eternal life of which thou has spoken? Yea, what shall I do that I may be born of God, having this wicked spirit rooted out of my breast, and receive his Spirit, that I may be filled with joy, that I may not be cast off at the last day? Behold, said he, I will give up all that I possess, yea, I will forsake my kingdom, that I may receive this great joy. But Aaron said unto him: If thou desirest this thing, if thou wilt bow down before God, yea, if thou wilt repent of all thy sins, and will bow down before God, and call on his name, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, then shalt thou receive the hope which thou desirest." (See Alma 22:15-16, emphasis mine). The king desired to obtain eternal life. Aaron told him how to obtain the hope that he would receive it. It is a pattern for each of us to follow. It is not difficult, it is not mired in a tangled web of theological mumbo jumbo -- it is just that simple. And any of God's children so disposed may obtain.

Read particularly the account of Alma the younger in Mosiah 27. The chapter tells of how he was visited by the angel in answer to his father's perpetual prayer that his son might be reclaimed. I have often speculated that it might have been Alma's grandfather who was that ministering angel, but I digress. Alma was temporarily smitten in the presence of the angel, he descended into an unconscious trance of some kind, stayed there for a couple of days while his father, the high priest, and the members of the church fasted for his well-being and recovery.

Then we learn how Alma the younger, no doubt a wayward, but previously baptized member, came out of the trance and announced, "I have been born again." He declares the Lord told him to ". . . marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again, yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; and thus they become new creatures: and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God." (Mosiah 27:25-26, emphasis mine). Note: he says men must be changed from their carnal and fallen state to a state of righteousness, being born again, becoming the Lord's sons and his daughters.

Those statements imply much more than nominal membership in the Church. There is a process involved here, rather than a one time profession of faith in Christ. Every person who is in the world, who has ever been born into the world, who arrives at the years of accountability (age eight) without being baptized, dies spiritually. It makes no difference who they are, because Alma's statement covers ALL -- every one without discrimination as to race, creed, or nationality.

Since Adam and Eve fell in the garden, all accountable men, women and children have become carnal, sensual, and devilish by nature, meaning because they are mortal beings. This is called the "natural man." (See Mosiah 3:19). What is required in the true conversion process is to gradually and consistently over a lifetime of obedience and sacrifice put off the natural man and to become a true saint by applying the the forgiving power of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. And only in this manner are people born again. They become changed from one state -- a carnal and fallen state -- to another state of being, a state of righteousness.

I love the way Paul describes it: "Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him [meaning Christ], that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin." (Romans 6:6). The symbol of the baptism ordinance is that our old man of sin is buried in the watery grave, and we come forth in a newness of life pertaining to the things of righteousness, and that does not normally happen in an instant. The object of applying the atoning blood of Christ to our lives is that the symbol becomes reality. What is needed to be born again is the constant and sanctifying power that enters our life in our relationship with the Holy Ghost as we claim companionship with the third member of the Godhead. Joseph Smith identified him in yesterday's post as the "Testator."

The Holy Ghost does this transformative work on our souls in two ways: He is a witness to the truth, bears testimony of the truth, and we thus obtain a testimony by revelation; but he is more because he is a sanctifier with power to cleanse and perfect the human soul, to wash evil and iniquity out and to replace it with righteousness.

I was once seated many years ago next to our stake patriarch outside the bishop's office while we waited to be interviewed for our temple recommends. He was a wonderful man in his mid-eighties still going strong. In a whimsical mood, I dared to ask him, "Brother Nelson, do you ever lose the desire to sin?" To which he responded with a wink, "Never the desire, only the ability." I've thought a lot about that response. To be truly born again is to submit willingly, not kicking and screaming when old age overtakes us.

And that is the process of true born again conversion. It is not, I repeat, a one time event. We gradually grow into a powerful testimony obtained from the Holy Spirit when that member of the Godhead tells us that the work of God on this earth and in the spirit world and in the resurrection is true, and his great function in that field is to bear testimony of the truth.

For example, at seven weeks old when our youngest child, Adrienne, died unexpectedly in the night, there was burned into my soul by the power of the Holy Ghost a firm and unshakable conviction that the literal resurrection of her body (and by extension all of ours) would allow her to come forth from the grave someday, and that death could claim no victory. When other much-beloved family members have died similar droplets of testimony were vouched safe to us -- we knew then, and the witness grows stronger with each passing year we will someday see them and be reunited beyond the grave. The Holy Ghost is the source of those powerful assurances as the Testator bears witness to our souls.

Beyond the witness, we are cleansed from sin and are born again and become converted to the truth when we receive the constant companionship of that member of the Godhead. Remember, it is an invitation to accept a gift from our Father in Heaven of the Holy Ghost, not an automatic berth in which we repose without effort on our part to comply to the terms of the covenant. Each week in the sacramental prayers on the bread and water symbols we covenant to remember Christ's atonement for us so that we may always have the Spirit of the Holy Ghost to be with us. (D&C 20:77; 79).

It goes without saying that nobody actually has that companionship of the Holy Ghost all the time, because no one is perfect and no one lives in the ideal and perfect state consistently. But we are admonished by the Spirit continually to do the very best we can, and to get enough of the companionship of the Holy Ghost to have our sins burned out of us as though by fire. And that is what we mean when we say "the baptism of fire," meaning the baptism of the Holy Ghost. That is symbolism that means dross and evil are being burned out of us as thoroughly as if a fire were set ablaze within us. It is the only way to become a new creature, as Alma explained.

So you become "born again." You become something new -- a new creature. There has been a discernible if not a complete change. There has been a true conversion. In the past you walked after the manner of the world, but now you walk as becomes a saint of God. The question is often asked, and sometimes we become discouraged, and sometimes we wonder, "How do I know that this change is happening?" My answer is that there are token payments made in spiritual confirmation that may not seem like much as they happen, but the fact that they are happening routinely in your life means you are becoming a partaker of the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:4), even though you may not be in the Spirit every waking moment of your life -- the tokens you receive -- the "still, small voice" experiences along your journey -- are ample evidence that you are on the strait and narrow path leading toward eternal life despite your remaining imperfections.

We are a testimony-bearing people. Everywhere and always in our meetings somebody is saying, "I know that the gospel is true, or I know the Church is true, or I know the plan of salvation is true." The ultimate expression of knowledge is to get the witness that we are true. This is sound and this is good; Joseph Smith even went so far as to say, "This is good doctrine. It tastes good. I can taste the principles of eternal life, and so can you." (TPJS, 355). I love that way of expressing it! This is the way things ought to be. We ought to bear testimony nearly all the time, because when we bear testimony it strengthens the testimonies of other people. We are then partaking of a delicious meal together, feasting at the ample banquet table of the Lord. We get to dispense the tokens of eternal life to one another by the power of the Holy Ghost!

Sometimes it is more important to bear testimony than it is to teach doctrine. We have each had experience with that. Some do not have a strong doctrinal or scriptural foundation, but they are pillars of power in testimony. Don't ever excuse yourself from an expression of testimony because you may fear your lack in doctrinal horsepower. Bear testimony of the things the Holy Ghost has revealed to you. Remember what Joseph Smith said: "It is one thing to see the kingdom of God, and another thing to enter into it. We must have a change of heart to see the kingdom of God, and subscribe the articles of adoption to enter therein. No man can receive the Holy Ghost without receiving revelations. The Holy Ghost is a revelator." (TPJS, 328). The doctrines can be accumulated in due course.

I'm always intrigued with Alma's sudden and miraculous 180 degree turnaround. His testimony was acquired suddenly, instantly. It is not always thus. We may have testimonies without being converted. But all of us ought to be in the process of getting converted — and it is a process.

A person may get converted in a moment, miraculously. That is what happened to Alma the younger. He had been baptized in his youth, he had been promised the Holy Ghost, invited to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, but he had never received it. He thought himself superior in some way -- too knowledgeable, too sophisticated. He went off with the sons of Mosiah to destroy the Church and to do away with the teachings of his father, who in effect was President of the Church. He was fighting in opposition to the truth. He was like the college freshman who thinks he knows more than the Lord because he has learned a little science, and he may think the theory of evolution is more fact than the mere testimony of his parents. Alma was immersed in his rebellious state when this miraculous new light came into his soul. He was changed in an instant from his fallen and carnal state to a state of righteousness. His conversion is what the parents of wayward children dream about and hope for their own.

However, do not be deceived. This is not the way it happens with most people. With most of us true conversion, being born again, is a process. We go timid and furtive step by step by step, degree by degree, level by level, from a lower state to a higher, from grace to grace (see D&C 93:12-20 that describes this beautifully), until the time we can recognize within ourselves that we are wholly turned and passionately more interested in righteousness than wickedness. This means we gradually overcome -- one sin today, another sin tomorrow.

We perfect our lives by the power of the Holy Ghost building our altars of sacrifice brick by brick. I always liked the way Elder Neal A. Maxwell expressed it: "Real, personal sacrifice never was placing an animal on the altar. Instead, it is a willingness to put the animal in us upon the altar and letting it be consumed!" (Ensign, May 1995, 68). We daily sacrifice our tendency to do wickedly. We do it by offering up our moral agency, the only really unique gift we can give back to God, since He has imbued us with everything else already. The conversion process goes on until it is completed, until we become, literally, as King Benjamin admonishes, saints of God instead of natural men (Mosiah 3:19).

We overuse a word in the Church: striving. It's useful only if we recognize that striving is not arriving. What we are striving to do is to be converted. It is not enough to have a testimony. We read in D&C 76:71-80 about the terrestrial kingdom. And it says that those who are not valiant in the testimony of Jesus, do not obtain the kingdom of our God. If people who are not valiant in testimony go to the terrestrial kingdom, who is it that goes to the celestial, which is the kingdom of God? Obviously, the way you go to the celestial kingdom is to be valiant in testimony. I think it means we are working at it. Too often we see those who assent with their lips that the Church is a good idea, that it's a good way of life in which to raise a good family. We engage in a wishful "going along to get along" lack of commitment kind of fuzzy thinking. Instead, we need to make of our religion a working, living thing in our lives. The way we measure our performance in whether we are truly striving or just thinking we have arrived is embodied in three expressions: "Strengthen thy brethren," "Feed my sheep," and "Keep my commandments." (See John 15:7-14; 21:15-17; D&C 76:5-10).

Here's a self-correcting test proposed by Elder Bruce R. McConkie:

Try a little test on yourself. You know you have a testimony; that is not open to question. You already know the work is true. Are you converted? Have you been born again? Read the fifth chapter of Alma for the recitation of the tests that tell a person whether he has been born again and how he knows. You know if you have been born again, or you know the degree to which you have been born again; it is the measure to which you keep the commandments and feed the Lord's sheep and strengthen your brethren. In other words, it is the measure of your involvement in the things of the Spirit, in the things of the Church.

Religion is not just a theological matter. It is not just a matter of analyzing some passages of scripture and coming up with some conclusions. Religion is a matter of doing something.

"Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). That is two things. It is involvement and service, which means righteous living. It is visiting the fatherless and the widows; it is strengthening your brethren; it is keeping the commandments, being thereby unspotted from the world.

Religion is a thing that has to live in the lives of people, and hence all these expressions to the effect that we show our faith by our works (James 2:18), and that we are not hearers only, but doers (James 1:22), or should be. You can be a hearer if all that is involved in religion is this matter of theology, of studying and analyzing passages of scripture. But you are a doer if you get religion into operation in your life. You are a hearer, in part at least, if all that you have is testimony. But you become a doer when you add to a testimony this pure conversion of which we are speaking. Peter is the classical example, as long as we understand that in the experiences of his life he was as he was because the Holy Ghost had not yet been given in full.

The Holy Ghost has been given in full in our day in the sense that the companionship of that member of the Godhead is available to us.

We want to be involved in the things of the Spirit. We do not want to sit on the sidelines and look in at some people who are converted. We want to be converted and participate in religion; we want to feel the promptings of the Spirit; we want to work miracles. We want to heal our sick; we want the gifts and graces that God gives the faithful. And they come when we get involved in the religion that he has so graciously and beneficently given us in this day. ("Be Ye Converted," BYU First Stake Conference, 11 February 1968).

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