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The peace and radiance in his countenance were inexplicable. He had been released from prison only days before. Whatever he was incarcerated for had caused the loss of his Church membership, job, and family. Yet in that Twelve-Step meeting he bore one of most moving, humble testimonies of the healing power of Christ I have ever heard. All these years later I feel its power! He seemed to know the meaning of true joy in a way I was still seeking.
How can anyone explain the depth of relief a person feels when they know they are forgiven? How can we find and feel that same joy if we are “fully faithful,” practicing members of Christ’s church with no grievous sins we need to be forgiven for?
In his book The Holy Secret, writer James Ferrell made the profound point that we all have equal need for the Savior’s forgiveness. Just as Adam and Eve were cast out of the presence of God for one transgression, so are we. Any attempt to justify our “small” sins by comparing them with sins that seem “worse” is denying our universally equal need for Christ’s atonement.
I’m grateful for friends who think deeply about the gospel and offer clear insights on topics that affect us all. I’m grateful for the email “conversations” I’ve been having with Jacob whose thoughts I’ve shared in two previous articles: “What Does It Really Mean to Be ‘Saved’?” and “Lord, How Is It Done?” If you missed those articles, you may want to catch up on them before you proceed.
This new article is drawn mostly from Jacob’s recent summary of our universal need for redemption. To avoid confusion, I’m not going to separate his words from mine with quote marks. Just be aware that most of the text and ideas from here on (excluding stories) came from him.
Let’s Not Get the Cart before the Horse
Do we sometimes make our spiritual progress harder than it needs to be? Many accounts in the scriptures speak of being forgiven and of the exquisite joy that forgiveness brings. If we have never felt that joy, perhaps we misunderstand the process.
We may mistakenly think that in order for us to be forgiven of our sins, we need to be keeping all the commandments all of the time and thus already be holy. That faulty perspective is not what the scriptures teach, and indeed, gets the cart before the horse. The scriptures plainly say that our ability to keep the commandments, whatever level that ability is, does not save us. Paul said in Romans 3:20, “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” In other words, the commandments don’t save us, but rather, give us an awareness of our weakness. Look how Nephi said the exact same thing in 2 Nephi 2:5: “The law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified.”
Now look at Romans 10:8-9: “The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”
Similarly, Amulek said, “Cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save” (Alma 34:18).
The repeated process of trying, failing, and being forgiven (justified) and changed, infused with Christ’s power, is what sanctification means. That infusion will enable us to achieve what we could never do on our own.
The fact is that we can only be perfected by asking for and receiving the saving grace of Christ day by day along the way. You may say “But I’m likely to commit the same sin over and over!” Yes, you might. We all need to be forgiven many times, even daily. But forgiveness is there just for the asking! Yes, Christ is that merciful! Yes, the “good news” really is that good!
What vital principles do we learn from these scriptures? Christ doesn’t forgive those who keep the most commandments. He forgives those who ask, even though He knows they will sin again. Not only does He forgive them, He changes them.
Let’s Not Be Tripped Up by the Easiness of the Way
Many think this sounds too easy, too much like being saved by grace alone. Some will not be saved because of the easiness of the way. They simply will not wash in the stream (2 Kings 5), they will not look at the serpent, will not cry for mercy, because it’s too easy. We need to study Alma 37:46, “O my son, do not let us be slothful because of the easiness of the way; for so was it with our fathers; for so was it prepared for them, that if they would look they might live; even so it is with us. The way is prepared, and if we will look we may live forever.”
Those who reject Christ’s grace because they think it makes repentance too easy are missing the main message of the scriptures. [When Jacob read my Meridian article “Are We Missing the Main Message of the Gospel?”, he said he began to get all this in perspective.] All our books of scripture contain examples of this process. Ironically the Book of Mormon contains the best, most detailed examples of how we are forgiven and changed by the grace of Christ, or in other words, how we are born again.
Look for the elements of the process:
- feeling sinful
- asking for mercy
- receiving forgiveness
- feeling joy and love for others
- being changed, having increased desire for righteousness
Gerald Curtis wrote of his personal experience with this process in his landmark book The Worth of a Soul. (Early editions were written under the pen name of Steven Cramer.) An active member, Gerald had a sincere desire to keep the commandments, but kept falling short. More times than he could count he thought he had overcome his pornography addiction. He repeatedly made the determination to live on a higher level, then was drawn back into his sin. Finally, in totally desperation, he planned his suicide. However, before he carried it out he made a final plea to God, pleading for mercy and forgiveness, this time in total humility, complete recognition of his own powerlessness and his own inability to change. (Before he had been pleading for strength to overcome, as if he could do it himself with just a little help. But this time he prayed with full knowledge that he couldn’t.) And that’s when it happened.
Gerald felt the Savior’s love, amazed that the Lord could love anyone so weak, so sinful as he felt he was. And Gerald learned in a deeper way that the only path to forgiveness and the strength to overcome is through the Savior’s mercy and grace and healing power. He became one of the most beloved writers in the LDS arena. One of my favorite of his books is In the Arms of His Love. He has helped countless people feel God’s love and forgiveness. His story is a good illustration of the five steps listed above.
More Examples of the Five Steps
Now let’s look at some scriptural examples of that 5-step process: Most people describe the story of Alma as a conversion story. But the details clearly illustrate the process of being born again, forgiven and changed. Alma has anguish of soul, pleads for mercy, and then receives forgiveness and exquisite joy. For a better understanding, let’s look at his story in Alma 36:
Alma 36:16-20 (emphasis mine), “For three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul. And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world. Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death. And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more. And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!
You may say, well of course Alma had to experience anguish of soul; he was an extremely wicked man. True, but his wickedness makes his forgiveness even more remarkable. If he was so wicked, why was he forgiven so quickly, even changed to a state of righteousness? (Mosiah 27:25)
Let’s look at another example of forgiveness. The people of King Benjamin were the opposite of Alma; they were a righteous people, “diligent in keeping the commandments, highly favored, filled with love of God.” (Read Mosiah 1:11, 2:3, 4, 2:31.) But as we have pointed out, no one keeps all the commandments all the time. As “righteous” as they were, they too needed to plead for forgiveness.
After feeling the fear of the Lord, they too are forgiven and changed simply by pleading to Christ for mercy. In Mosiah 4:2-3 we read, “And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men. And it came to pass that after they had spoken these words the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ.”
Remember Christ said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The poor in spirit are those who want more righteousness than they have.
Do you remember when Elder Holland was the last to speak in the April 2016 conference? He so tenderly tutored us when he said,
Please remember tomorrow, and all the days after that, that the Lord blesses those who want to improve, who accept the need for commandments and try to keep them, who cherish Christ-like virtues and strive to the best of their ability to acquire them. If you stumble in that pursuit, so does everyone; the Savior is there to help you keep going. If you fall, summon His strength. Call out like Alma, “O Jesus, … have mercy on me.” He will help you get back up. He will help you repent, repair, fix whatever you have to fix, and keep going. Soon enough you will have the success you seek. (Jeffery R. Holland, “Tomorrow the Lord Will Do Wonders among You,” April 2016 General Conference.)
When we feel fear, or guilt, or despair, or misery, where do we turn? To ourselves? Do we redouble our efforts? Quit going to church? Take antidepressants when often they are not the answer? Or do we turn to the only source of salvation and peace and hope. Do we turn to Jesus Christ?
HOW DO WE “TURN”?
This process is not just for the few weak ones; it is for everyone. In so many scriptural accounts the way of turning to Christ is asking for mercy. For example,
- Paul does it in Romans 7
- Lehi in 1 Nephi 8:5-8
- Nephi does this in 2 Nephi 4:17-19
- Lamoni in Alma 18
- Enos in his amazing discourse.
The power of simply asking for forgiveness and mercy could not be taught more plainly than by the Savior in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. Luke 18:10-14 spells it out: “Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. . . . And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (emphasis mine).
The Grace of Christ Is the Key to All Spiritual Progress
Who forgives sins? Who purifies your heart? Who wrought the mighty change that the people of King Benjamin had no more disposition to do evil? Who changed Alma from being wicked to a state of righteousness? The Savior alone does all those things!
Author and educator Robert Millet says, “Truly the poor in spirit, those who recognize their own spiritual bankruptcy and who then come unto Christ, these are they who inherit the kingdom of heaven (blessed are the poor in spirit). All of us—every man, woman, and child—need the Lord. We need him desperately. We are eternally indebted and eternally dependent (Mosiah 2:19-24). Without God, without Christ, we are less than the dust of the earth (Mosiah 2:25; 4:2; Helaman 12:7-8). The sooner we internalize that mighty truth, the sooner we begin to make progress toward life eternal. A transcendent paradox of the gospel plan is that the heartfelt recognition of weakness opens the channel for unspeakable strength and power, the Lord’s power.” (Robert L. Millet, Alive in Christ: The Miracle of Spiritual Rebirth [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1997], 74.)
Mosiah 27:25-26 reminds us that being redeemed, being forgiven, changed to a state of righteousness is available to each of us today and every day for the asking! The fact that we must continue to repent, continue to ask does not make the principle any less valid.
And the Lord said unto me: 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.