This is the draft I used for a talk at the Union Park (Utah) Stake Third Ward sacrament meeting today:
A few years ago, on the weekend that our oldest son graduated from Indiana University, he and I had the privilege of visiting a university library known for its collection of rare books. Under the supervision of a library employee, we were able to touch and leaf through first editions of two of the most well-known American books of the 19th century – the Book of Mormon and On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. I’m not sure how many people enter that library with the intent of viewing those two specific books, but it would be hard to come up with two books of that time period that have been more influential, although in far different ways.
Since this is a church service and not a biology class, I won’t have more to say about Darwin’s book. But it would be hard to overstate the influence that the Book of Mormon has had. It has been translated to about 100 languages, including languages most of us have never heard of, such as Chuukese and Bislama. About 3 million copies are printed each year – far fewer than the Bible, of course, but far more than the typical New York Times bestseller. More important than numbers, however, is the influence that the Book of Mormon has had on people’s lives. The gospel of Jesus Christ permeates its pages. It instructs us, it warns us, it inspires us.
Unlike many of you here, I didn’t grow up with the Book of Mormon, although I did grow up with the Bible. One thing President Gordon B. Hinckley did before I joined the church was to invite nonmembers to take what they have and to allow The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints add to it. As a result, I adopted the Book of Mormon as an additional scripture for me, and it has become a source for inspiration and reflection. For me, the greatest value of the Book of Mormon has been the way it adapts, explains, reinforces, clarifies and expounds on the Biblical themes I have been familiar with since childhood.
What I would like to do today is to shared five teachings from the Book of Mormon that I find meaningful. This is a list that is personal to me, and I’m not claiming that they’re objectively the five most important, nor even that you should agree with my interpretations of the book that we often call the keystone of our religion. But these teachings and my understanding of them all play a role in my faith as an active member of this church.
1. We are saved by grace
The first teaching I’ll mention is the one I think is most important: We are saved by grace. “Grace” as a word appears 30-some times in the Book of Mormon, but the concept shows up everywhere.
Grace. Grace. Now there’s a word that scares us sometimes. Emphasize grace, we fear, and we’ll start becoming like those Protestants who think that we’re saved by grace and it doesn’t matter what we do. Aside from the fact that perspective is a caricature of what others believe rather than something that is usually taught, it’s a fear that has been around since the earliest days of Christianity. Even the apostle Paul rhetorically asked: “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” Teach grace, we fear, and people will use that as an excuse to deliberately sin. And, by the way, Paul’s answer to his question was no.
But the Book of Mormon doesn’t flinch from treating grace as an essential aspect of the Christian faith.
There are at least two relevant definitions of grace, which in the Bible is a translation of the Greek word charis. One definition, the one used by most Christians, has to do with the kindness of God, the favor of God we receive even when we have done nothing to deserve it. The second definition developed later in Greek and has to do with spiritual or divine power that can influence even beyond the grave. So substitute either “divine kindness” or “divine power” for the word “grace” whenever you see it, and you won’t be far off the mark.
Time and time again, the Book of Mormon teaches that we are incapable of saving ourselves, and it is God’s or Christ’s grace that saves us. Simply put, we can’t work our way to heaven. The first mention of grace in the Book of Mormon, not counting the introduction, comes in Lehi’s words to Jacob (2 Nephi 2:8):
There is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah.
This idea, that only through the work Christ can we be reconciled through God, is a theme that is present in most of the book. Jacob must have learned his lesson well, for we’re told shortly afterwards that he taught his brothers (2 Nephi 10:24):
Remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved.
And of course we have the words of Nephi (2 Nephi 25:23, 26):
For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do. … And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.
It is by grace that we are saved. After all we can do, and whatever we do, it isn’t our works that save us, but grace. Our actions can’t even become close. To put it another way, again using the words of Jacob (2 Nephi 2:4):
Salvation is free.
Since salvation is free, it isn’t something we can earn, not even in part. Through grace, salvation is a gift of God. And as Moroni teaches near the end of his book, God’s goodness and grace are infinite. (See Moroni 8:3.)
2. The Atonement is infinite
And where does this grace come from? It comes from or through the Atonement, which brings me to the second teaching of the Book of Mormon I’ll emphasize today: Just as grace is infinite, so must be the Atonement. In the words of Amulek (Alma 34:12):
There can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.
Yes, the atonement is infinite. Thanks to what Jesus did for us, there is no limit to the goodness we can receive from God. As any one of you receive of God’s mercy through the Atonement, there is still an infinite amount of mercy left for the person sitting next to you. I don’t know if we have any mathematicians in the room, but I can tell you that the normal laws of math don’t apply when we’re talking about infinities. God’s kindness and mercy are for everyone. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, it doesn’t matter how much you fall short, the power of the Atonement will never run out.
3. God wants us to have joy and to be transformed
But for what purpose? That brings us to the third truth of the Book of Mormon I’ll share today: God wants us to have joy (2 Nephi 2:25), and God wants us to become like him, and I suspect the two of those are very close to being the same thing. The purpose of the grace we receive through the Atonement isn’t merely for forgiveness of sins. Grace and the Atonement don’t merely rescue us from our sins, they transform us. I think some of the most beautiful words of the Book of Mormon can be found in the sermon of King Benjamin, where he teaches that as we put our trust in Christ, we will be given the desire to do the things that God has asked us to do (Mosiah 4:13-16).
Ye will not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably, and to render to every man according to that which is his due. And ye will not suffer your children that they go hungry, or naked; neither will ye suffer that they transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel one with another, and serve the devil, who is the master of sin, or who is the devil spirit which hath been spoken of by our fathers, he being an enemy to all righteousness. But ye will teach them to walk in the ways of truth and soberness; ye will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another. And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.
To do those things is what it means to have faith in Christ. In other words, as we trust in Christ, we receive the desire and the ability to show others the same kind of mercy that God has shown us. Grace doesn’t mean there is nothing to do; what is does mean is that our motive for action isn’t to earn God’s love or approval, but to respond to the love and approval he has given us.
Moroni calls this a mighty change (Moroni 5:12):
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.
Some theologians refer to this as sanctification.
4. We will become like God
The fourth truth is that the end result of this process of sanctification, of receiving and acting on the grace we receive, is that we will become like God. As explained by Moroni in words that echo those of Paul the apostle (Moroni 7:48):
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure.
5. We are all alike unto God
I’ll close my talk with a fifth truth from the Book of Mormon. This gospel, this gospel of divine mercy and divine power, this gospel of gaining the goodness of God, is available to all. God will not turn any of us away when we seek him. It is available to every one of us here, whether you feel you deserve God’s love or not. In the words of Nephi (2 Nephi 26:33):
[The Lord] inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
Let those words sink in: All are alike unto God. In other words, it doesn’t matter who you are.
If we were putting this in the language of 2019, we might say something like this: “Whether you’re black or white or native or Asian or brown, whether you’re male or female, whether you’re here legally or not, whether you’re gay or straight, whether you are rich or poor, whether you’ve lived a life of crime or not, whether you’re a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or have some other belief system, whatever and whoever you are, God is inviting you and God will not turn you away.”
God wants you to have a life of joy, even an eternity of joy, a joy that comes from putting your faith in Christ and following his example of love for all people.
I speak in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Photo: Sculpture near the Hill Cumorah. Photo by John Collier/CC SA 2.0.