If I had given this talk before my FC, I would have been less pointed about the shortcomings of the gospel of duty.
To paraphrase Paul as he stood before King Agrippa: after the straitest sect of Mormonism I was raised a Pharisee.
Now, I need to make it clear that my parents and youth leaders are truly wonderful, Christlike people who taught me the best version of the gospel they knew. The gospel of my youth seemed to center on the concept of duty and its execution. I learned to do all the gospel things: saying personal and family prayers, holding personal and family scripture study, keeping the Word of Wisdom, paying tithing, doing home teaching, holding family home evening, magnifying callings, bearing testimony, doing family history work, attending the temple, and above all, keeping the commandments and repenting when I failed. These are important things. I was taught to do them out of love.
But the gospel of duty gives no hope; instead, it weighs down with guilt. It strains at a gnat and swallows a camel (Matthew 23:24). It denies the mercies of Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit, and puts trust in dead works (Moroni 8:23). Its yoke is not easy, and its burden is not light (Matthew 11:30). When I left home, I thought I honored the Lord by obeying his laws, but my heart was far from him (Matthew 15:8). I served a rather joyless two-year proselyting mission, not humbly sharing the good news, but instead triumphantly proclaiming THE TRUTH. Because surely it’s better for everyone to live miserably in the truth than it is to live without it. Right?
Let me share some ideas I thought were the truth, but were actually false.
I once heard my grandfather say that he was sure he wasn’t going to make the Celestial Kingdom, but that he would keep loving and serving others anyway, and accept whatever reward he was worthy of.
I was taught more than once that I’d never be as clean as I was on the day of my baptism.
I thought of the atonement as a bar of soap, and repentance as scrubbing myself clean.
I heard multiple times that missionaries who die right after their missions get a ticket straight to the Celestial Kingdom. On the way home from my mission, I secretly hoped my plane would crash. I shouldn’t have to tell you that this was a little messed up.
Lastly, I was taught that the thing that mattered most was that I was moving in the right direction. If I died moving upward, I would keep moving upward and in that way I would eventually become perfect.
Have you heard ideas like these before?
Let me be absolutely clear: all of these ideas are false. My grandfather will be saved in the Celestial Kingdom. All of us who are worthy to take the sacrament are as clean as when we were baptized. Repentance isn’t using a bar of soap to become clean again, it’s turning our hearts so that we remain clean. Missionaries, as wonderful as they may be, don’t have special claim to Celestial glory. Lastly, we don’t become perfect through our own works, even in the hereafter - we’re made perfect, because of our faith.
I finally learned true doctrine - I learned the gospel of hope - when the gospel of duty failed me. It was about 10 years ago. I was trying to finish my master’s degree while working to support my family and doing all the gospel things. I had a lot on my plate - so much, in fact, that I found myself unable to make progress on my degree. Weighed down with fear and guilt, I began to descend into depression. My relationships with my wife and children suffered, which of course made me feel even more guilty. In every way I knew to judge my worthiness before God, I was going backwards, and I didn’t see an end to it. One day, overcome with the consciousness of everything I was getting wrong, I fell on my knees and begged my Heavenly Father to know if there was any way he was happy with me.
I learned immediately that he was. He was very happy with me. And this made no sense at all, because I hadn’t yet learned the gospel of hope.
I learned the gospel of hope over the next year or so. I learned it partly from discussions with a good friend who had already learned it. Mostly, I learned the gospel of hope by reading the Book of Mormon without assuming I already knew what it said. I had obviously made a faulty assumption at some point, so I dumped all of my assumptions and started over.
I learned that I had been wrong about how salvation works. I had thought that it happened after this life and that I had to earn it, with some help from the gift of the Holy Ghost. Not so. I learned from the Book of Mormon that salvation is immediate, complete, and free. If there’s exactly one thing you remember from this talk, I hope it’s this: that salvation is immediate, complete, and free.
Let me illustrate with a story from the Book of Mormon.
Alma the Younger was a wicked and idolatrous man. He and King Mosiah’s sons went about trying to destroy the Church of God. Alma later said that he was guilty of spiritual murder. While he and King Mosiah’s sons were out killing people spiritually, an angel appeared, said he was sent from God at Alma’s father’s request, and said that Alma’s work of destruction would cease in one way or another, even if it meant Alma would be destroyed. The angel left, and then Alma and King Mosiah’s sons fell to the earth. Alma was the worst off:
Alma’s father and the priests fasted for two days and two nights, after which Alma stood, bid them to be of good comfort, and said, “For I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit.”And now the astonishment of Alma was so great that he became dumb, that he could not open his mouth; yea, and he became weak, even that he could not move his hands; therefore he was taken by those that were with him, and carried helpless, even until he was laid before his father.
So what was happening inside Alma’s head? Here’s what he told his son later:
Notice how long it took for Alma to be saved: about zero seconds. The days and nights leading up to his salvation were the space in which he repented. As soon as he asked for mercy, he had it. Then, after he obtained mercy, he went about repairing the wrongs he had done - and not as a condition of repentance. So why did he do it? The Book of Mormon doesn’t say, but it does say why King Mosiah’s sons went to preach to the Lamanites: because they couldn’t bear the thought that any human soul should perish.I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins.
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.
Lest you think this is an isolated case, I invite you to consider the other repentance stories in the Book of Mormon: the story of Enos, Zeezrom, King Lamoni, King Lamoni’s father, the Lamanites who went to the prison to kill Nephi and Lehi. They all follow the same pattern: an initial period of fear and guilt, then repentance, and then immediate redemption. At no time do we see them in anguish again over their sins. They are redeemed. Their guilt is swept away. Their salvation is complete, in an instant. For any malady, physical or spiritual, the Lord has never healed anyone halfway.
Lastly, salvation is free. In fact, Alma the Younger was incapable of doing anything before he was saved! He couldn’t even move his hands. Elsewhere, the Book of Mormon is very clear and consistent on who is doing the work of salvation: it’s always God. For example, Moroni says that after baptism, members of the church were wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost. Perhaps my favorite quote on this is from Alma the Younger:
He asks the Church if they’ve received the image of God in their countenances. He doesn’t ask if they’ve tried their best to chisel the face of God into their own. Speaking from experience and observation, that doesn’t work. If we try it, not knowing the face of God, we’ll try to remake God after our own ideal image, berate ourselves for not getting it right, and berate others for not being enough like us.And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?
Again, speaking from experience, if instead we receive the image of God, we won’t overspend ourselves in a vain attempt to gain God’s favor, which we already have. We’ll immediately rejoice in God’s success, and then rejoice in finding the image of God in everyone around us.
This is what Jacob means when he invites us to come to the living waters; “and he that hath no money, come buy and eat; yea, come buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
After the straitest sect of Mormonism I was raised a Pharisee. But like Alma, now I behold the marvelous light of God, and my soul is pained no more. I have discovered the gospel of hope.