The remission of sins is only the basic mission of the Atonement. There are higher, transformative properties. Receiving forgiveness is not the end-all; it is the beginning. Faith, repentance, and baptism are entry-level actions with entry-level results.
–Elder David A. Bednar
One morning I was meeting with a husband and wife who were in need of renewing their temple recommends. My wife and I are good friends with this couple, and we have established a fun rapport over the years. I share this story with permission, but will not use names.
While the husband waited outside the interview room, I first met with the wife. Whenever I meet with members in a formal capacity, e.g., recommend renewals, extending callings, &c., I always have three objectives:
- Objective 1: Help members recognize the influence of the Holy Ghost during the meeting
- Objective 2: Deepen my personal relationship with the member (if Objective 1 is accomplished, so is Objective 2)
- Objective 3: Accomplish the task at hand (in this case, renew the temple recommend of the member)
To deepen the relationship, I first spend a few moments visiting with members (Objective 2) before proceeding into the recommend interview questions (Objective 3). Since the recommend renewal process can be mechanical and rote, typically with only “yes” or “no” responses, I like to include one or two questions that get them thinking. The right question can invite the Holy Ghost (Objective 1) and help them recall–and even relive, to a degree–sacred spiritual milestones in their lives.
On this particular morning, I asked my friend the prescribed question on if she has a testimony of the Atonement of Christ. “Yes” was her one-word response. I followed this up with, “Now, this isn’t one of the interview questions, but would you mind sharing with me how you received your testimony of Christ’s Atonement?”
It was a serious question. I don’t ask it every time, but when I do it always makes the person sit back and think about it. In those moments, they recall an experience they had with the Spirit, whether it was a trial they were carried through, or some other special moment where they received a spiritual witness.
I hoped to be strengthened through the answer of my friend, a spiritually powerful woman. However, to my very serious question she decided to give a very playful response. With a smile that I will describe as mischievously witty, she replied, “through sinning! aaand then repenting.” 😀
I smiled with her, getting the joke, and we shared a moment of levity. Then we paused to acknowledge the truthfulness of her remark: yes, forgiveness of sin through our repentance is a part of what Christ’s Atonement does for us. Therefore what she perhaps intended to be a light-hearted comment ended up being true for all of us who seek improvement in our lives, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
After mutually agreeing to the veracity of her initially snarky response, I recalled a thought that I had written in my journal from a few years prior when Elder David A. Bednar had spoken at the Institute of Religion adjacent to Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho–the same words you read at the top of these current writings:
The remission of sins is only the basic mission of the Atonement. There are higher, transformative properties. Receiving forgiveness is not the end-all; it is the beginning. Faith, repentance, and baptism are entry-level actions with entry-level results.
I shared this with her, and again we experienced mutual agreement, this time with the teachings of an ordained Apostle. As we considered what Elder Bednar was expressing, we both felt the Holy Ghost permeate the room, testifying first of Elder Bednar’s words, and ultimately of the Atonement of Christ, which, in case you’ve forgotten, was the basis of the original question. Any time the Spirit is present is a sacred time, and in this spiritual setting my friend then graciously shared some experiences that strengthened her faith. The interview continued in this spirit, and no further sass was expressed by either of us.
The “A-Ha!” Moment
When Elder Bednar said these words to a group of 18-30 year-olds, he was in the middle of diplomatically expressing one of his greatest concerns with the general body of the Church, namely that we are not partaking of the higher blessings made available to us by virtue of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. While I cannot repeat his other words verbatim like I have done with the foundational quote of this article, he also explained that so many Latter-day Saints are living only the most basic laws and commandments, i.e., trying their best but falling short, praying for forgiveness, then coming to church on Sunday and partaking of the sacrament. Then repeat, week after week.
Yes, it is both a solemn and joyous experience to understand through spiritual feelings that where I was once at odds with God, I am now square with Him, through Christ’s Atonement. I myself continuously learn this first hand “through sinning, and then repenting”, as my friend put it, and then receiving forgiveness.
But Elder Bednar taught that this sin/repent cycle is an “entry-level” action with an “entry-level” result of being forgiven, and he expressed sorrow in the fact that so many of us stop there, stuck in that cycle and failing to attain “higher-level” blessings.
He taught of “higher, transformative properties” that could be applied to our lives. To what, exactly, was he referring? Are we to transform into something other than what we currently are?
He essentially classified the first principles and ordinances of the gospel (see Articles of Faith 1:4) as “entry-level” actions, and the receiving of forgiveness, i.e., the remission of sins, as an “entry-level” result. Does that perhaps imply that there exist “mid-level” actions with “mid-level” results?
If those are the “first principles and ordinances”, does that also imply that there are additional principles and ordinances?
Then can we further suppose that there are “high-level” actions with “high-level” results, too? And essentially an entire continuum of results-based actions, behaviors, and states-of-being? And that the “highest-level” actions would result in the “highest-level” results?
Yes. Yes. Yes!
If any reading this can think of a result higher than Eternal Life, i.e., Exaltation, please let me know–and be sure to cite your source. This article will operate under the assumption that Exaltation is the ultimate result.
And now, if this concept is new to you, I earnestly hope that you are experiencing a genuine “a-ha!” moment, and are excited to learn what and how and where to begin elevating beyond the “entry-level” cycle and pattern which Elder Bednar–and ultimately Heavenly Father–hopes we will break out of.
“Milk before meat,” as the old saying goes. That is, babies first consume milk. As they grow, different foods are introduced into a diet which progresses to more complex foods until they are eventually are able to consume and digest meat. But you can’t start out feeding prime rib to a newborn, right?
The Old Testament teaches this principle this way in Isaiah 28:9-10:
9 ¶ Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts.
10 For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:
We understand that even Jesus Christ Himself followed this natural order of growth and progression, as taught in the Doctrine and Covenants 93:12-14:
12 And I, John, saw that he received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace;
13 And he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness;
14 And thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first.
One of my final classes in my undergraduate studies focused on intercultural and international business and marketing. I retained only one thing from that course: the term “upward harmonization”.
This terms describes the process through which a country becomes eligible to join the European Union (EU). To be brief, an applying country will be scrutinized against standards that include economic stability, existence and enforcement of human rights laws, acceptable governmental structure, and so on. If the applicant fails to meet the criteria, e.g., the country does not have enough laws to protect the rights of minorities, it is not allowed to join.
However, if the country makes the needed changes, it may later become eligible if the admitting bodies are satisfied that the country has fully adopted the higher values of the EU. I.e., there is an “upward” movement and general improvement that is in “harmony” with the values and identities of the other EU member nations.
While the principle of upward harmonization is the basis and the objective of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, consider how difficult it would be to change the laws of a country. To be truly effective, long-held world views, behaviors, and basically the heart of each citizen would need to be changed. Otherwise, enforcement would quickly fail. Change management strategies would be the key to success here, organically leading the citizens to want to adopt the legislation, rather than simply be subjected to the requirements. Here also, we see the necessity of the “milk-before-meat”, “line-upon-line” approach.
Likewise, Christ seeks the result of the heart of each child of God to be changed, that our standards will continue grow upward until they are in perfect harmony with Celestial being and doing.
The line-upon-line principle is in full effect in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. For example, we can observe a gradual progression in the expected standard of living as we progress through the covenants we make with God, demarcated into the milestones of the saving ordinances. Consider how you have already participated in this process.
As you read on, please note that words like “behavior” or”action”, refer to doing something, like abstaining from drugs, saying daily prayers, or providing meaningful service. Yet the progressive nature of these ordinances is to help us matriculate from immature gospel novices to Exalted gospel masters. Where a newly-baptized eight-year-old child might simply be doing what s/he has been taught to do, the seasoned disciple of Christ has actually become a Christlike woman or man. To quote Elder Lynn G. Robbins:
“While He recognized the importance of do, the Savior identified be as a ‘weightier matter.’
“Because be begets do and is the motive behind do, teaching be will improve behavior more effectively than focusing on do will improve behavior.”
And yet, we start with do, because the more we do, the greater the opportunity we have to catch the spirit behind our actions, and we slowly be-come more like Christ as a result.
That said, let’s review the saving ordinances:
Baptism and Receiving the Gift of the Holy Ghost
Before a person can enter into this first covenant, the candidate must satisfy a “gatekeeper” (bishops for eight-year-olds, mission presidents for converts, but typically delegated to youth missionary leaders) that he or she (1) has received a spiritual witness of the truthfulness of the Church and its teachings, i.e., has a testimony, and (2) is willing and worthy to live in accordance to a basic required standard of living. This includes abstention from tobacco, drugs, alcohol; paying tithes; living a chaste life; participating in church meetings and activities; and so on.
When the candidate demonstrates a faith-based pattern of compliance to these expected behaviors, making needed changes where necessary, they have satisfied the first “entry-level” principles of the gospel.
At this stage, you might expect a great deal of doing, with perhaps less of being. But this all depends on the maturity level of the baptismal candidate. In essence, this milestone is the first instance of upward harmonization connected to making a covenant with God.
The male counterpart and complement to motherhood is the conferral of the priesthood. Obtaining the priesthood is required for the “highest-level” result of Exaltation, and Heavenly Father makes an oath and covenant with those who enter into this priesthood and again improve both their doing and being, primarily focusing on serving and blessing the lives of others.
Even within the priesthood offices we witness the line-upon-line principle at work, starting with the Aaronic priesthood offices of deacon, teacher, and priest, followed by ordination to the Melchizedek priesthood office of elder.
The wording of this oath and covenant also reveals another progression in the promised blessings, likewise eventually culminating in Exaltation.
Here again, we must satisfy gatekeepers who help us determine whether or not we meet the standard of both testimony and behavior, and thus qualify to receive the ordinances and associated blessings.
Again: as we do more, what have we become in the process? Priesthood ordination is yet another instance of upward harmonization connected to making a covenant with God.
Temple Endowment and Sealing
The next ordinances are available to men and women. These are the temple ordinances of washing, anointing, and endowment, and of course the sealing ordinance which requires one of each sex. I feel the need to separate this out into three sections, because we must first be living the standard of behavior to even enter the temple, then while in the temple we agree and covenant to abide by an even higher standard of behavior–both doing and being. Then after we make the covenants, have they made any difference in what we do and who we are and how we will be in our daily lives ongoing?
Gatekeepers will again ask us testimony- and behavior-related questions. However, the standard of living and behavior is more than was required at the time of baptism–we’ve been weaned from the milk for a while by now. In other words, to be baptized one must agree to continue to live laws a, b, and c. To enter the temple, one must be living laws a, b, and c, but also d, e, and f–upward harmonization! As the bar continues to rise, a more Christlike person is the expected result. As laws a through f are observed, we are technically “worthy” to enter the temple, where we will agree to live by yet more laws, g, h, i, j, and k.
Built into the temple ordinances are further covenants to which we agree to abide. These describe an even higher and holier mode of thinking and behaving. They enable us for a future time when we will encounter yet more gatekeepers, where we will be required again to prove ourselves.
When we covenant to live laws a–k, we also covenant to live in an upward trajectory that will eventually see us exalted with Heavenly Parents. But so many fail struggle here, and feel as though the temple experience is over, and they can rest on their laurels. They mistakenly believe that they are complete, that their fruits are sufficiently ripe, and they are shoo-ins for Exaltation.
Wrong! Temple ordinances are designed to make us more accountable from there-on-out. We should see an increase in our level of commitment and discipleship, not less! You see, gospel knowledge and a life full of righteous actions will not suffice. Even if we can satisfy the Heavenly gatekeepers with our knowledge of things we learn in the temple, mere recitation cannot exalt us. The time for doing without being has long-since passed. A lifetime of 100% home teaching will “fail” (Moroni 7:46) if the doing of home teaching was not the expression of a heart filled with charity, i.e., Heavenly Father’s goal of how He would like us to be.
The standard that allows us to enter the temple will NOT exalt us. Speaking of “‘honorable’ members who are skimming over the surface instead of deepening their discipleship and who are casually engaged rather than ‘anxiously engaged,'” Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught that “[t]hey may even pass through our holy temples, but, alas, they do not let the holy temples pass through them.”
I repeat: The standard that allows us to enter the temple will NOT exalt us.
The purpose of the gospel is … to make bad men good and good men better, and to change human nature.
–David O. McKay
The Book of Mormon prophet King Benjamin gave one of the most seminal sermons recorded in our canon. Philosophies taught by Benjamin (Mosiah 2-5) are found in sermons given by prophets through to the end of The Book of Mormon, culminating in Moroni 7:44-47.
A key verse describing the mindset of a Christian disciple who is well down the continuum approaching “highest-level” being is found in Mosiah 5:2. Benjamin has concluded the teaching of his people, and they respond in this manner:
2 And they all cried with one voice, saying: Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.
Read that last bit again, specifically that the Holy Ghost “has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” Modern-day prophets have simplified these humble words into the phrase “change of nature”. In other words, they teach us that the Atonement of Christ has the ability to change our natures. Here are a few places where this concept is taught:
This change of nature is mercifully designed to occur gradually over time. Milk before meat. Line upon line. Start out with faith in Christ and repentance. Get baptized and receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost. Then priesthood ordination for some. Proceed to the temple standard. After that, further upwardly harmonize your being and doing as your trajectory hopefully continues in the same direction, ever becoming incrementally more and more like Jesus Christ.
First, please think of how you were 1 year ago. 5 years ago. 20 years ago.
Then internalize these words of caution, and apply to yourself:
Never discourage anyone who continually makes progress, no matter how slow.
“Especially yourself.” –I added that last part myself.
Finally, with those merciful words of wisdom in mind, please consider, “In the past X years,”:
- Has my nature been changed through the Atonement of Christ?
- Have my behaviors and state of being been on a path of upward harmonization, approaching (however slowly or quickly) the nature of Heavenly Parents?
- Am I exposing my own spirit to holy words as found in the scriptures and other prophetic pronouncements?
- Do I spend time in introspective thought and meditation, allowing the Holy Ghost to teach me what my next step is?
- Do I merely obey the commandments without seeking to understand why they are important?
- Am I stuck in the cycle of sin/repent/obtain-forgiveness? or am I actively considering “higher-level” actions?
- Have I developed meaningful interdependent relationships with my family members, friends, ward members, &c.?
Please be kind to yourself. Father is less concerned with velocity than he is with direction. Another teaching from Elder Maxwell: “direction first, then velocity!”
I must conclude with the statement of fact that no matter how hard we try to become like our Savior, we can never accomplish this feat on our own.
These are the final concepts we need to consider. Here is where I preach about Charity.
Even if I can tick all the check boxes of the saving ordinances, even if I can claim 100% home or visiting teaching, even if I have served as an elders quorum or relief society president, even if I die with a current temple recommend, none of those actions will help me gain exaltation when I approach those final gatekeepers. Let’s revisit Moroni 7:46-47:
46 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail—
47 But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.
Home teaching stats won’t help me. Being “possessed of [charity]” is the only thing that will exalt me, “for all things must fail” except for charity. The temple ordinances I have completed–including sealing to spouse–will be meaningless. They will fail, unless I am possessed of charity. Any service I was conscripted to render will fail unless I am possessed of charity.
The Lord will consider less where in the church you served than how you served: were you possessed of charity?
More importantly, how were your interpersonal relationships, particularly as a spouse, parent, sibling, son, or daughter? Did you honor, respect, love, forgive (especially forgive) in your family life? In this most ultimate area of your life, were you possessed of charity?
But what does being possessed of charity have to do with my earlier statement, of not being able to accomplish this feat on our own?
I will (finally!) conclude with two quotes. The first comes again from Elder Bednar:
Let me suggest that you and I must be praying and yearning and striving and working to cultivate a Christlike character if we hope to receive the spiritual gift of charity–the pure love of Christ. Charity is not a trait or characteristic we acquire exclusively through our own purposive persistence and determination. Indeed we must honor our covenants and live worthily and do all that we can do to qualify for the gift; but ultimately the gift of charity possesses us–we do not posses it (see Moroni 7:47). The Lord determines if and when we receive all spiritual gifts, but we must do all in our power to desire and yearn and invite and qualify for such gifts. As we increasingly act in a manner congruent with the character of Christ, then perhaps we are indicating to heaven in a most powerful manner our desire for the supernal spiritual gift of charity. And clearly we are being blessed with this marvelous gift as we increasingly reach outward when the natural man or woman in us would typically turn inward.
Here is an analogy which I love, taken from the final two paragraphs of chapter 3 of James E. Talmage’s Jesus the Christ:
Such then is the need of a Redeemer, for without Him mankind would forever remain in a fallen state, and as to hope of eternal progression would be inevitably lost. The mortal probation is provided as an opportunity for advancement; but so great are the difficulties and the dangers, so strong is the influence of evil in the world, and so weak is man in resistance thereto, that without the aid of a power above that of humanity no soul would find its way back to God from whom it came. The need of a Redeemer lies in the inability of man to raise himself from the temporal to the spiritual plane, from the lower kingdom to the higher. In this conception we are not without analogies in the natural world. We recognize a fundamental distinction between inanimate and living matter, between the inorganic and the organic, between the lifeless mineral on the one hand and the living plant or animal on the other. Within the limitations of its order the dead mineral grows by accretion of substance, and may attain a relatively perfect condition of structure and form as is seen in the crystal. But mineral matter, though acted upon favorably by the forces of nature—light, heat, electric energy and others—can never become a living organism; nor can the dead elements, through any process of chemical combination dissociated from life, enter into the tissues of the plant as essential parts thereof. But the plant, which is of a higher order, sends its rootlets into the earth, spreads its leaves in the atmosphere, and through these organs absorbs the solutions of the soil, inspires the gases of the air, and from such lifeless materials weaves the tissue of its wondrous structure. No mineral particle, no dead chemical substance has ever been made a constituent of organic tissue except through the agency of life. We may, perhaps with profit, carry the analogy a step farther. The plant is unable to advance its own tissue to the animal plane. Though it be the recognized order of nature that the “animal kingdom” is dependent upon the “vegetable kingdom” for its sustenance, the substance of the plant may become part of the animal organism only as the latter reaches down from its higher plane and by its own vital action incorporates the vegetable compounds with itself. In turn, animal matter can never become, even transitorily, part of a human body, except as the living man assimilates it, and by the vital processes of his own existence lifts, for the time being, the substance of the animal that supplied him food to the higher plane of his own existence. The comparison herein employed is admittedly defective if carried beyond reasonable limits of application; for the raising of mineral matter to the plane of the plant, vegetable tissue to the level of the animal, and the elevation of either to the human plane, is but a temporary change; with the dissolution of the higher tissues the material thereof falls again to the level of the inanimate and the dead. But, as a means of illustration the analogy may not be wholly without value.
So, for the advancement of man from his present fallen and relatively degenerate state to the higher condition of spiritual life, a power above his own must cooperate. Through the operation of the laws obtaining in the higher kingdom man may be reached and lifted; himself he cannot save by his own unaided effort. A Redeemer and Savior of mankind is beyond all question essential to the realization of the plan of the Eternal Father, “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man”; and that Redeemer and Savior is Jesus the Christ, beside whom there is and can be none other.
It is my hope and prayer that we seek the Holy Ghost. He will teach us our next step–our “higher-level” step–and will do it with love and patience. He will be less critical than we will be of ourselves, but he will also provide us of an idea of our eventual goal. He will motivate and inspire us. He will help us become possessed of charity. He will help us upwardly harmonize. He will change our natures. He will transform us into a higher form of life. He will help cause the holy temple to pass through us as we pass through it. He will teach us the direction to go, then assist us in our velocity, as we put our own skin into the game.
He will help elevate us from our sin/repent/obtain-forgiveness cycle which my friend referred to that morning, and into the stream of thought and action, doing and being, that leads to Exaltation. But nobody is exalted by accident–it requires our involvement as we upwardly harmonize our philosophies, being, and doing, until ultimately the Ultimate Being will mercifully change our natures through His Atonement, and assimilate us into His kingdom as exalted beings, one with Him.