Saturday, March 28, 2009

Justification, Sanctification and the Remission of Sins

The 20th section of the Doctrine and Covenants is best known for its instruction to priesthood holders, but it is also--and perhaps more importantly, at least when it was written--the founding document of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. When the church was founded on April 6, 1830, this was the revelation that the Lord gave to Joseph Smith, the revelation that explained to him and the other five inaugural members exactly why a restoration was necessary.

After acknowledging that He has entrusted the church to fallible mortal men, the Lord explains that the Book of Mormon contains "the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ" and that "those who receive it in faith, and work righteousness, shall receive a crown of eternal life." (D&C 20:9, 14). Having established that the Book of Mormon is the foundation upon which the new church will rest, the Lord explains that "By these things"--meaning the Book of Mormon--"we know..." and proceeds to lay out the plan of salvation. He identifies every major doctrine of the plan of salvation:

1. Nature of God (v. 17)
2. Creation (v. 17-19)
3. Fall (v. 20)
4. Atonement (v. 21-25)
5. Extension of Atonement's blessings to all dispensations (v. 26-27)

For a fledgling church just struggling into existence, I suspect that these first 27 verses, which set forth the meat of the restored gospel in a plain manner, were more significant than the practical verses on priesthood duties and organization that we emphasize today. But there is yet another part to section 20, and it is the part I am most interested in today.

Immediately after explaining the plan of salvation as revealed through the Book of Mormon, the Lord situates his church with respect to other contemporary religious denominations so that His first six members will know where they stand in relation to their neighbors. In Doctrine and Covenants 20:30-34 we read:

30 And we know that justification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true;
31 And we know also, that sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true, to all those who love and serve God with all their mights, minds, and strength.
32 But there is a possibility that man may fall from grace and depart from the living God;
33 Therefore let the church take heed and pray always, lest they fall into temptation;
34 Yea, and even let those who are sanctified take heed also.

In the modern church, we have stopped using several of the words contained in these verses, and most members of the church are not familiar with the language of early nineteenth-century evangelism, so we have lost an appreciation for what these verses meant to the saints. For Protestants (and all of the first six members of the church were originally Protestants of one denomination or another), the word justification indicates the point at which an individual is forgiven of his or her sins. Mormons might identify the moment of baptism or the taking of the sacrament as points in time when they are justified (it should be noted that for most Protestants, this is a one-time event). By contrast, sanctification is a process by which an individual loses the will to do evil. As King Benjamin put it, sanctification occurs when an individual "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" (Mosiah 3:19). Justification involves the forgiveness of sins; sanctification involves the forsaking of sin.

Now, these verses and terms would have been important to nineteenth-century church members because they position the church relative to the two major movements of the period. Verse 31 makes it clear that salvation (justification and sanctification) is available "to all those who love and serve God," contradicting the tenets of Calvinism. In Calvinist doctrine (think Congregationalists and Presbyterians), salvation is an involuntary process limited to a select group whom God has already chosen. Strict Calvinists believe that there is nothing one can do to "earn" salvation if God has not elected you and that there are a limited number of the elect. Verse 31 indicates that salvation is universally available to all who use their agency to "serve God with all their mights, minds, and strength."

Verses 32-34 warn that salvation is conditional, that even individuals who have been sanctified and justified can "fall into temptation." This emphasis on the fallibility of the saints (reiterated for a general audience after Joseph was singled out for chastisement in verse 5) positions the fledgling church with respect to doctrines of perfectionism. Charles Finney of the Methodists in particular, and liberal Protestants of the period in general, argued that those who had been sanctified could never again willfully sin against God. This doctrine is clearly refuted by the warning in verse 34: "...let those who are sanctified take heed also."

The story that these words (justification and sanctification) tell in section 20 is worth writing about in and of itself: the degree to which these verses respond to the need of a new church for foundational doctrine is astonishing. But thinking about the words justification and sanctification led me to another, more interesting question: How do we receive a "remission of sins"?

I went to a convert baptism this morning, and there was a wonderful spirit. My elders quorum president, a man I deeply admire, stood and welcomed the newly baptized brother into our quorum. He said something to the effect of, "Now that you've been baptized, your sins have been remitted." I corrected him in my head. After all, I had given a talk at another convert baptism only six weeks ago, and I remembered the words of Nephi, who said that "the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost" (2 Ne. 31:17). Nephi, whose plainness is a matter of pride, clearly indicates that the remission of sins is a product of the Holy Ghost's companionship; other scriptures testify to the Holy Ghost's part in the remission of sins: Mosiah 4:3, D&C 19:31. My elders quorum president had misspoken.

Or had he?

According to the fourth article of faith, we believe in "Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins." In recounting the ministry of Nephi, son of Nephi, son of Helaman, Mormon apparently contradicts the original Nephi, stating that "Nephi went forth among the people, and also many others, baptizing unto repentance, in the which there was a great remission of sins" (3 Ne. 1:23). Other scriptures (3 Ne. 30:2, Moroni 8:11, 10:33, among others) clearly indicate that the remission of sins is a product of baptism by immersion.

Or is it?

Back in Doctrine and Covenants section 20, the section of scripture given as a guideline for the new church, the Lord seems to indicate otherwise: "And again, by way of commandment to the church concerning the manner of baptism--All those who humble themselves before God, and desire to be baptized, and come forth with broken hearts and contrite spirits, and witness before the church that they have truly repented of all their sins, and are willing to take upon them the name of Jesus Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end, and truly manifest by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins, shall be received by baptism into his church" (v. 37). Here, the remission of sins seems to precede baptism; it is brought about by faith, repentance and the Spirit of Christ (different from the Holy Ghost--but that's a subject for another day). Again, other scriptures indicate that the remission of sins is the product of faith and repentance, something that precedes baptism (Alma 12:33-34, 3 Ne. 7:16, 25).

So which is it? Does a remission of our sins come from the Holy Ghost, through baptism by immersion or by faith as a preparation for baptism? Do I owe my EQP an apology?

Yes. Each of these scriptures teach complementary truths. A remission of sins is available to us through faith and repentance, both before and after baptism, through baptism by immersion, and through the sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost. When Jacob refers to an "infinite Atonement," I believe he references an Atonement that is both infinitely powerful and infinitely available--that we can receive a remission of our sins in a variety of ways and through a variety of processes. None of this is meant to diminish the importance of baptism and the sacrament--only to suggest that we can receive a remission of our sins on Saturday night as we prepare for the sacrament just as easily as we can during the precise moment we take the bread and water on Sunday.

Let me give one example that I think makes this point. In Mark 2, Jesus heals the man who is sick with palsy and who has been brought to the Lord by four friends:

5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee.
6 But there were certain of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts,
7 Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only?
8 And immediately when Jesus perceived in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, he said unto them, Why reason ye these things in your hearts?
9 Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk?
10 But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (he saith to the sick of the palsy,)
11 I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house.

Here Christ conflates healing and the remission of sins, in no small part because both acts draw upon the power of the Atonement--they are two sides of the same coin. But we know that healing takes place in many different ways during Christ's ministry. At times during his mortal ministry, Christ healed at a distance without the knowledge or presence of the afflicted (the centurion's son). At times Christ healed with a verbal command (ten lepers). Most of the time, Christ healed by the laying on of hands--and even then there were significant differences (sometimes a simple touch; at other times, the repeated anointing of clay and spittle). The point is that Christ uses the power of the Atonement to heal people physically through different mechanisms. Why shouldn't the remission of sins be available to us in different mechanisms (through faith and repentance, baptism and the sacrament, and the cleansing power of the Holy Ghost) as well?

In the April 2009 Ensign, President Eyring makes a beautiful statement: "Because we need the Holy Ghost, we must be cautious and careful not to go beyond teaching true doctrine. The Holy Ghost is the Spirit of Truth. His confirmation is invited by our avoiding speculation or personal interpretation." I hope that my thoughts on the remission of sins avoid unwise speculation; it has been a spiritually enlightening study for me and (if you made it this far), hopefully for you too.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Why You Should Never Open Your Eyes at the Colosseum

I'd like to share a passage from the book The Age of the Gladiators: Savagery and Spectacle in Ancient Rome that was introduced to me by my brother Jarrod:

"Even the great Christian Augustine of Hippo was more worried about the effect the games had on the viewer than on the hapless men dying in the sand. He wrote about a young friend of his named Alypius whowent to Rome to study law. One day this virtuous young Christian met some pagan friends in the street after lunch. They were off to the Colosseum to watch a gladitorial combat and invited Alypius to join them. He refused, but they dragged him off with them anyway. Alypius declared, 'You can drag my body there, but don't imagine that you can make me watch. Though I shall be there, I shall not be there. In this way I shall have the better of you and of your show.' The group of friends found seats, but Alypius sat with his eyes firmly shut. Augustine takes up the story:

'In the course of the fight a man fell and there was a great roar from the vast crowd of spectators which struck his ears. He was overcome by curiosity and opened his eyes, perfectly prepared to treat whatever he might see with scorn. He saw the blood and he gulped down the savagery. Far from turning away, he fixed his eyes on it. Without knowing what was happening, he drank in madness, he was delighted with the contest, drunk with the lust of blood. He was no longer the man who had come there, but was one of the mob. He was a true companion to those who had brought him. There is little more to be said. He looked, he shouted, he raved. He took away with him madness which would goad him to come back again and again. And he would not only come with those who first got him there, but would drag others with him.'

It is interesting to note what Augustine says about the effect all this had on young Alypius. 'He received in his soul a worse wound than the gladiator had received in his body. His own fall was more wretched than that of the man which had caused all the shouting that caused him to open his eyes and so made an opening of for the thrust which was to overpower his soul'" (117-118).

Spiritually speaking, most of us are at the Colosseum every day--albeit unwillingly and with our eyes closed. We are surrounded by media saturated with images and ideas potentially destructive to our souls--various factions would persuade us that pornography is natural, that marriage is an institution created by men, that we ought to depend on government instead of God. Only we can decide whether to open our eyes and minds to these influences. If we do, we, like Alypius, will suffer a fall far worse than that of the gladiator, whose physical death has passed; our spiritual deaths will linger and fester in our souls for an eternity. Can you keep your eyes closed while the crowd roars around you?