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The first principles and ordinances of the gospel describe the steps of the journey we are each on to come to be at-one again with God. Stephen E. Robinson in Believing Christ illustrates our mortal condition with a story. He said, “I have five lovely daughters, but only one son. I’m pretty hard on Michael, my son, because I love him and because I want him to grow up better than his father did. One day when Michael was five or six years old, he did something that I thought was particularly vile, so I swatted him yelled at him, and sent him to his room, saying,’And don’t you dare come out of your room until I come and get you!’
“Then I forgot all about him. Hours passed. I remember that I washed the cars and mowed the lawn, and I was about halfway through a football game on TV when I heard Michael’s door open down the long hallway off the living room. ‘Oh, no,” I said in self-reproach as I remembered Michael. Leaping to my feet, I ran to the hallway. There at the other end of the hall was my little son. His eyes were swollen, his face was red, and tears were on his cheeks. He was a little nervous and hesitant, for he had been told to stay in his room until I came to get him, but looked up at me from the other end of the hall and said, ‘Daddy, isn’t there anyway we can ever be friends again?’
“Well, he broke my heart. I ran to him and hugged him and assured him that no little boy had ever been loved by a father more than he was loved by me.
The Great Dilemma
“Spiritually, we are all in the same boat that Michael was in. We all know what it feels like to be ‘sent to our rooms’ spiritually, that is to be alienated from our Heavenly Father, to be cut off and alone.” In mortality we are on the horns of what Brother Robinson calls the Great Dilemma.
On the one hand, we learn from Doctrine and Covenants in 1:31, “For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.”
“This seems a harsh scripture,” Brother Robinson writes, “for it clearly states that God cannot tolerate sin or sinfulness in any degree. He can’t wink at it, or ignore it, or turn and look the other way. He won’t sweep it under the rug or say, ‘well, it’s just a little sin. It’ll be all right.’ God’s standard, the celestial standard is absolute, and it allows no exceptions. There is no wiggle room.”
President Spencer W. Kimball said it this way in Miracle of Forgiveness. , “To man the word [unclean] may be relative in meaning-one minute speck of dirt does not make a white shirt or dress unclean, for example. But to God who is perfection cleanliness means moral and personal cleanliness. Less than that is, in one degree or another, uncleanliness and hence cannot dwell with God.”
Yet to be mortal is also to have sinned for as Paul tells us in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”
This means, of course, that even the best among us with our imperfections and shortcomings are cut off from the presence of God. We may look at others and assume that they do not labor under the flaws and faults which we know all too well haunt us, but in reality none, except the sinless Christ, has met the Celestial standard on his own. In this fallen world, despite our best efforts we make mistakes and misjudgments, we become subject to all kinds of bitter possibilities. Our best efforts are not enough, and out of the frailty of our hearts issues regrettable words, choices and attitudes. We cannot work hard enough to change this situation. Manufacturing self-improvement plans and running to excel will never have the power to solve the great dilemma we find ourselves in as mortals-with that nagging sense that we have fallen short.
By Grace We Are Saved
There is only one way to come to wholeness and peace, to be at-one again with God. Nephi told us “that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23) Sometimes the part of that scripture that rings in our ears is “after all we can do,” and we hurry along through life trying somehow to be good enough. What that scripture is telling us, however, is that our efforts will never be enough, and we are saved through a monumental act of love. It is by grace we are saved.
From the difficult and impossible place we find ourselves, Christ comes to rescue us, saying, “he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted. (Luke 4:18) Isaiah adds, “To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness…” (Isaiah 61:3) With his towering atonement that far overshadows any other blessing that has come into our lives, he has offered a rescuing arm. We may not be enough, but he is. We may be cut off from our God, but Christ’s effort is sufficient to reconcile us.
It is in the context of the place we are in in mortality that the first principles and ordinances of the gospel can be best understood. They spell out our journey to being at-one again with God. It is the process through which we can make the atonement fully operative in our lives.
M. Catherine Thomas noted in her essay “Living the Spirit of At-one-ment” that William Tyndale introduced the word atonement into the English language when he translated the Greek New Testament in 1526. It comes from the Greek word katalge which means a reconciliation or to come back into a relationship after a period of estrangement.
It is this reconciliation with God that is at the heart of the gospel. First, then, is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. What kind of faith in him saves us? It is the faith not only that he is who he said he is and that he performed the mighty atonement for us. It is also a faith that the atonement can lift us personally from our beds of sorrow, grief and disappointment. We cannot heal ourselves, but he can heal us. The world seems not to believe that he has such powers-that the sins we commit and those that are committed against us can be healed through his grace, but the good news of the gospel is that it is true.
Jacob told his people, “Look unto God with firmness of mind, and pray unto him with exceeding faith, and he will console you in your affliction, and he will plead your cause” (Jacob 3:1) When we think of his mighty power to heal, we see the Nephites lined up one by one to be touched and blessed by him when he visited the Americas. “And it came to pass that when he had thus spoken, all the multitude with one accord, did go forth with their sick and their afflicted, and their lame, and with their blind, and with their dumb, and with all them that were afflicted in any manner, and he did heal them every one as they were brought forth unto him” (3 Nephi 17:9)
He did heal them every one-no matter what their affliction! That healing includes making whole our broken spirits and hearts and cleansing us from our sins.
Understanding that that kind of healing descends to wherever we are is having faith in Christ. We must come to know that he is able to do his work with us.
Repentance, Baptism, and Gift of the Holy Ghost
When we have faith in Christ, we are empowered to repentance. Repentance is not a heavy, sorrowful thing, but a way of coming to him that our yoke may be easy and our burden light.
It means a turning our face from the darkness back toward the light and as such, it eases our soul. Burdens seem lighter and easier to bear because we are giving them to him. We understand that there is a way of life that is not guilt-laden and full of self-recriminations, but instead full of seeking to learn and see things as God does. We do not have to carry with us like Marley’s ghost, the chains we forge every day, but we are set free.
Baptism is not only a cleansing but an entering into a new life. It is symbolized by our being completely buried in the water-that the natural man in us may die and we may be reborn in Christ. Each week as we partake of the sacrament, we are again partaking in the cleansing power of the atonement as we take upon ourselves Christ’s holy name. We are recognizing our great dilemma and acknowledging that his is the power to resolve it.
The gift of the Holy Ghost is given to us that we might be strengthened and guided to fulfill what we intend through our faith and repentance-that is to live in such a way that the atonement is upon us. The Holy Ghost testifies truth to us, brings light into our minds, teaches us of Christ and how we can take full advantage of the gift that has been given to us. Through baptism we enter the gate of the kingdom of God; through the Holy Ghost we are led along the path that finally leads to His throne.
Our dilemma in mortality would indeed by impossible without the first principles and ordinances of the gospel, but they are extended to us in great love from our Father who would have us with him again.