Strangers in Paradox
by Margaret & Paul Toscano
Metaphors of Salvation
If a Sunday school class of average adult Mormons were asked to define “the gospel,” they would undoubtedly generate on the blackboard a long and familiar list of everything from prayer to Sunday school parties. Unfortunately most of us have come to see the gospel as either a catalogue of commandments or as an inventory of “all truth.” But is Jesus’ gospel merely an index? Can it be summed up glibly as a list of do’s and don’ts? Must we keep all the commandments and believe in all the right doctrines before we can be said to truly be living the gospel? The Book of Mormon, we are told, contains “the fullness of the gospel.” Yet the Book of Mormon contains very few commandments and does not begin to deal with “all truth.” What then precisely is “the fullness of the gospel?”
In our view the gospel of Jesus Christ is a small, distinct body of teachings and rituals enabling us to receive the power of God and be transformed into creatures of light who will eventually mature into beings like God. The gospel then is not all truth but the pathway to all truth. It is not a list of commandments but the power to keep the commandments. The gospel of Jesus is the spirit which helps us overcome our mortal plight. It is the formula for grace, the way to regain the lost glory of Eden.
We have an old friend who is fond of saying, “The gospel is one of the best kept secrets in the church.” His point is that many Mormons, though active and devout, have only a vague notion of what the gospel really is. The religion of Jesus has been expounded in many languages, in many cultures, by many teachers, and in many ways. Some teachers describe the gospel as a series of steps. Others explain it in terms of covenants or of being born or planting a seed. Still others describe it in the legal sense of being acquitted of an offense against the law. Embedded [p.131] in these views are various symbols or figures, which often conflict and obscure rather than clarify understanding.
Perhaps the simplest, most straight-forward approach to the gospel is the step-by-step method which focuses on its first principles and ordinances:
First, faith in Jesus Christ as Redeemer and Savior of humanity (not just as creator, elder brother, or co-pilot), obtained by hearing or reading the word of God and being convinced of its truth by the power of the spirit.
Second, repentance, by which we mean not a change in behavior or mood, but a change of heart, in which we reject all lesser gods and trust in and rely upon Jesus with a willingness to endure whatsoever he sees fit to inflict upon us.
Third, baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, by which we ritually reenact the condescension, incarnation, the death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus as the only enduring and effective means of salvation; in this way, we impute our sins and weaknesses to him, and he imputes his spiritual power and righteousness to us.
Fourth, the reception of the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, by which Christ imparts to us the gift of the constant companionship of his spirit—the divine transforming power whose indwelling in us in fullness is the end purpose of the gospel.
This checklist approach to explaining the plan of salvation has the advantage of providing a simple outline of what we must do to subscribe to Christ’s atonement. It also demonstrates that gospel responsibilities extend beyond mere declaration of belief in and reliance on Jesus. However, this method tends to reinforce the false view that salvation depends mostly on our efforts. This can be corrected by presenting the gospel as a set of principles or doctrines. In 3 Nephi 27:1-22 in the Book of Mormon Jesus makes a speech which yields the following list of gospel principles:
(1) The Incarnation: Jesus Christ is God and was begotten from above, born of the Virgin Mary, and lived as a mortal on earth.
(2) The Messianic Mission: Jesus Christ entered into his creation with the power and authority necessary to redeem us from our state of helplessness and powerlessness.
(3) The Atonement: Jesus Christ suffered in Gethsemane and died on the cross to take responsibility for the sins of the world, to show forth his unconditional love, and to grant to us immortality and eternal life.
[p.132] (4) The Redemption: because of Christ’s sacrifice all people who have faith in him and repent and forgive and accept his power are redeemed from the plight of mortality and are saved from spiritual death.
(5) The Universal Resurrection: because of Christ’s sacrifice physical death will not have an enduring hold upon us.
(6) The Judgment: Jesus Christ assumed upon his own person the judgment decreed upon us for our sins; we who accept his salvific work will be judged as if we were Christ just as Christ was judged as if he were each of us; but those of us who reject his work will be judged by our own meager works.
(7) The Justice of God: we cannot be trusted with the powers of heaven unless we are made pure even as Christ is pure.
(8) The Mercy of God: God willingly accepts responsibility for having allowed our imperfections and sins and takes upon himself punishment for them; if we repent, God justifies and purifies us by the power of his spirit.
(9) The Priesthood: Christ has offered to all who come to him the opportunity to mature in the powers and gifts and callings of the spirit, to become like him and to hold his authority to bestow these spiritual powers on others; this is the priesthood, a necessary component of spiritual growth, maturation, and sanctification.
(10) Continuing Revelation: Christ will continue to pour light and knowledge on those who seek him; thus they may be led into all truth.
This doctrinal approach works quite well, but it implies that the gospel is essentially an intellectual affair—a plan of study rather than a plan of rescue worked out by God at great sacrifice to himself. Summarizing the responsibilities which devolve upon Christ and upon us within the gospel plan helps correct this emphasis on intellect.
Christ’s responsibilities include: creating the earth as a place of probation for mortals; setting aside his glory and transcendent nature, entering into mortality, assuming the aspect of his children, taking responsibility for the sins of the world, suffering for those sins, dying on the cross, and rising from the dead; dealing with humans out of divine love rather than divine condemnation; accepting all those who love him as members of the body of Christ, pouring out his spirit and striving with them for the sake of their redemption.
Our responsibilities are: faith, repentance, baptism, receiving the Holy Spirit, enduring in the spirit, and forgiving and repenting unto death.
This approach also has its limitations. It gives the impression that salvation is a tit for tat proposition, a kind of penny-in-the-slot theory with Christ’s efforts matched by our own. This error can be corrected [p.133] by another metaphor. The gospel is an exchange. We give to God our corruption, and he gives us his incorruption. We give him our weaknesses, and he gives us his glory. We impute to him our sins, and he imputes to us his righteousness. We place upon him the heavy burden of achievement and self-atonement, and he gives us the bright and buoyant yoke of his affectionate grace. This is what the Book of Mormon means when it says we are saved by the merits of Christ (2 Ne. 2:8, 31:19; Al. 24:10; He. 4:13; Mor. 6:4). In this way we become “new creatures,” members of the family of Christ, whose sins have been acquitted and who are justified by the reception of the spirit. With the spirit our imperfections fade as we grow toward spiritual maturity and there flowers in us the fruits and gifts of the spirit: love, forgiveness, peace, gentleness, meekness, mercy, justice, courage, and strength. And if we seek them, we are also promised revelations, visions, and powerful spiritual insights. We are promised the words of eternal life in this world and eternal life in the world to come.
Possibly the best metaphor of salvation is the comparison between salvation and birth. Mormon scriptural texts refer to four ways we can be born: of the flesh, of the word, of water, and of the spirit (sometimes referred to as born of fire and the Holy Ghost). These births are followed by a period of spiritual maturation, which includes receiving priesthood in the temple in preparation for union with God.
We are born of the flesh when we come into the world as infants and receive physical bodies. Physical birth and development involves conception and fetal maturation, birth out of the amniotic waters of the womb, a washing and cleansing of the newborn, the rubbing down of the newborn’s skin with oil or salt, the wrapping of the infant in swaddling clothes, and the naming of the child. Then the child is nurtured. Eventually, it grows to adulthood and acquires the powers of sexuality and procreation. We mention these stages because in Mormonism they are ritually reenacted as ordinances of spiritual rebirth and growth.
Mormon doctrine teaches that before our sojourn on earth, we existed first as primary intelligences and then as beings with spirit bodies who lived in the presence of God. We came to earth as a matter of choice to receive bodies of flesh and blood to begin the process of maturing spiritually in order to be reunited with God in a more profound way. Paradoxically then, our physical birth into mortality is an indispensable step of our spiritual birth.
Once born of the flesh we must be reborn of the spirit. Jesus told [p.134] Nicodemus: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except [one] be born again, [one] cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Joseph Smith taught that being born to see the kingdom is different from being born to enter (TPJS, 328). Being born to see refers to the process by which a person hears or reads the word of God and, touched by the spirit, is able to see and understand the things of God and to know that they are true. This event in our spiritual life is similar to physical conception. We and God connect, as do the egg and sperm, to create a new spiritual life.
Spiritual conception is followed by a period similar to fetal maturation. During this time we are nurtured within the protecting womb of God’s grace. This period may take a few hours or many years. During this time we sort out the meaning of God’s call to us, change our hearts and minds, and repent, giving up our idols and accepting the will of Christ as our will.
Eventually this period leads us to the first outward ordinances of the gospel. Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Verily, verily I say unto thee, except [one] be born of water and the Spirit, [one] cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Though faith in Christ brings life, to endure we must be born out of the protective waters and become spiritually independent. In baptism we reenact Christ’s death and resurrection and also our own awakening from the deadness of human limitation into a newness of spiritual life. In baptism our sins are remitted, and we are acquitted of guilt. We are born. In this new birth Christ’s blood rather than our own covers us. We are, as the scriptures state, “washed clean through the blood of the Lamb.” Baptism is our entrance into the straight and narrow way. These are all metaphors for God’s act of justification or spiritual renewal.
Baptism is followed by the ordinance of confirmation, a ritual which memorializes the imputation to us of God’s spirit, power, and righteousness. Once empowered with this spirit, we are capable of genuine spiritual growth, of being transformed into the image and likeness of God. Throughout this period of growth, we abide in the grace of God and have the inspiration of the spirit to guide and comfort us. Confirmation is comparable to the moment a newborn takes its first breath. From this moment we begin to enjoy the powers of the spirit independent of those individuals who spiritually nourished us.
In Mormonism the process of sanctification or spiritual purification and growth entails the reception of other ordinances, including the initiatory ordinances of the temple, the endowment, the marriage [p.135] sealing, and the final ordinances of the temple. The temple rituals extend the rebirth metaphor—washing away the blood of birth, anointing with oil, clothing in new garments, and acquiring a new name. All these ordinances are ritual symbols of the journey of Christ, the journey of Adam and Eve, and our journey back toward union with the godhead.
Within the context of the gospel metaphors we have been presenting, faith and repentance taken together are referred to as “being born of the word.” This concept is the same as “being born to see” (John 3:3). Baptism is “being born of water,” and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost is “being born of the spirit” or “being born of fire and the Holy Ghost.” (Sometimes the endowment as an extension of confirmation is referred to as “being born of fire”: D&C 95:8-10; Lk. 24:49; He. 2:1-4; TPJS, 274).
The metaphor of birth has been linked to the agricultural metaphor of planting the seed, which is used in the Book of Mormon in Alma 32. There the “seed” is God’s word or spirit, and faith is referred to as the planting of the seed. The nourishing of the seed involves repentance (breaking the ground) and baptism (watering) and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost (sunlight).
Another gospel metaphor is drawn from the world of business, money, and trade. In this context Christ is said to have paid the “debt” of justice. If we accept his “offer” of salvation, we are “ransomed” or “redeemed” from the just penalty, which condemns us to the debtors’ prison of death and hell.
When the gospel is set forth in legal metaphors, faith is equated with obtaining a “witness” or “testimony.” Repentance is associated with “confessing” our sinful state to God. Baptism is linked with making a “covenant” with God and with being “acquitted” from sin or having our sins “remitted” and being “adopted” into the family of Christ. The laying on of hands is called “confirmation”—a “ratification” or “seal” placed upon the “deed.”
The “covenant” metaphor has had both good and bad effects. On the positive side it suggests that our arrangements with God are based on freedom, on our willingness to follow the voice of God based on our own free will and choice. On the negative side, however, the “covenant” metaphor has led some people to misperceive salvation as a contractual affair in which we pay for redemption with our good works. But the covenant we make with Christ is to put off our human nature and take upon ourselves the divine nature, to trade our powerlessness for [p.136] the gift of his glory. The word “covenant” refers not to a bargained-for exchange but to a gift. We give Christ nothing but our sins. We unload upon him our chains, and he gives us the freedom of eternal life. This is not a bargain. We do not earn it. What we can earn, we don’t want: “The wages of sin is death.” Salvation is a bequest: “The gift of God is eternal life” (Rom. 6:23).
All these metaphors refer to the mechanism of salvation, Christ’s outline for receiving God’s spirit. The condition of those who accept the gospel is also described with various metaphors. In the context of the birth metaphor, this state of grace is referred to as “being alive in Christ” or having been “born again” or having “the image of Christ in your countenance.” In the context of the legal metaphor, the resulting state is referred to as “justification” or “adoption into the family of Christ.” Employing the agricultural metaphor, the state of grace is compared to the “fruits and gifts of the spirit.”
This state, however it is described, is not a state of perfection or rest. In God’s grace we suffer ups and downs and even slips from virtue, but we continue to be connected to God through the spirit. Grace does not eliminate the need for forgiveness and repentance. However, the repentance required to enter the state of grace refers to accepting Christ and his spirit, while the repentance required to abide in a state of grace refers to living by the whisperings of his spirit as it leads us to perfection and truth.
As Mormons we do not usually think of repentance in either of these ways. We usually think of the list of rules and regulations we mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. We tend to lose sight of the fact that Jesus came to earth to introduce his gospel for the express purpose of freeing us from the obligation to obey legalistic prescriptions. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus freed us from the strictness of the law, but he gave us the new responsibility of living by his spirit. This is what grace is all about.
Many Mormons object to this view of Jesus’ gospel, often for the reason that it sounds too Protestant. As Mormons we tend to reject any religious teaching not uniquely Mormon. We like to think of ourselves as the elect, the chosen. We forget that before the gospel was restored through Joseph Smith, people had faith in Christ, repented of their sins, and trusted in him. This is true today. Throughout the world people claim to be the “people of the Lord.” Most believe their faith in Christ, their repentance, and their attempts to live by the spirit and [p.137] love of God are sufficient to save them. Because we Mormons emphasize the importance of the ordinances of salvation administered by “proper authority,” we tend to forget that faith and repentance are gospel principles with power to transform lives without priesthood intervention.
It is, we believe, narcissistic and egocentric to think that such individuals are without the gospel. Joseph Smith did not tell the converts of his day that their former faith and repentance were vain. True, one revelation (D&C 22) chastises some early Mormon converts who wished to rely on their old baptisms rather than to be rebaptized. But the point of this revelation is that for those who accept the new and everlasting covenant within the context of Mormonism, all the former ordinances become obsolete. This is not to say, however, that the ordinances of other religions are dead to those who accept them in faith, sincerity, and love. People who have faith in Christ and repent accept the gospel. This is not the fullness of the gospel, but it is the gospel. Mormonism teaches that faith and repentance constitute the heart of the gospel and are necessary before the ordinances administered through the priesthood can have effect.
In our view God calls different people by different rituals and metaphors to different religious traditions. These differences are not mistakes. They are inspired by God to teach the hard lesson that no religion, no matter how favored or wise, is all-sufficient. In spite of its divine origins, Mormonism can be instructed by the traditions, myths, and rituals of others. This, we think, is one of the meanings of the parable of the olive tree in the Book of Jacob. The Lord has planted many trees in his vineyard. He uses the graft from one to strengthen the weakness in another.
Often when we Mormons are exposed to the powerful religious views and sincere devotion of others, we are shaken. We ask ourselves, “If our church is ‘true,’ how can the spirit be so palpable among this other, alien people?” This same question is asked by others when they feel the spirit working among us. We forget that Jesus is not merely a Mormon. He is a Jew and a Catholic and a Protestant and a Muslim and a pagan. We are all his people. He does not love us more than he loves them. He has died for all, not for a chosen few. His elect are all who elect him by whatever name and in whatever inherited tradition. This is not to say that all religious traditions are equally true, equally approved, or equally holy. But God does not distance himself because [p.138] of religious affiliation or doctrine or ritual. He accepts all who seek him, yearn for him, love him, and desire him. Jesus accepts the worship of all people as true worship of himself if it is rendered sincerely and not obviously directed toward the powers of darkness. Our callings to a religious tradition should not promote pride or elitism or narcissism but rather humility, love, and acceptance of God’s work among all people everywhere.
We are here again called to a paradox. We are required to be true to a specific tradition with specific promises and specific blessings. And at the same time we are expected to accept God’s work and spirit among other religious traditions and respect them as we do our own. We concur with the observation that “Although all roads can lead to Rome… , we can travel but one at a time. When our own chosen method, whatever it turns out to be, is entered in depth and with commitment, then all the others can be seen to lead in the same direction, however divergent and ‘absurd’ their outer symbolism may appear” (Blair, 250). For this reason, we believe that our message to the faithful in other religious traditions should be:
Friends, we know you are not novices in faith. You have loved God. We rejoice when you accept our way. But whether or not you do, please help us bear our burdens and we will help bear yours. Comfort us and we will comfort you. Mourn with us and we will mourn with you. Let us forgive one another. Let us bear witness of God and of the marvelous work he does in the world. Pray for us, find we will pray for you. And let us keep our hearts open to the Spirit and to the many things which God will yet reveal to us in ways we cannot know. If we cannot be one in doctrine, ritual, and authority, if we cannot share in the rituals of salvation, let us, while being true to our various faiths, be one in love with all who have longed for God, until all things are made clear and we inherit the peace that passes understanding.
Some are bound to object to this view because the scriptures seem to confirm the idea that the world is divided into US and THEM. After all is not God a God of judgment? Don’t the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Nephi, John the Revelator, and Jesus, speak of judgments to be visited upon the wicked, the non-believers, the errant? How do such promised judgments square with the view that God works in all religions?
We have mentioned elsewhere that nearly every aspect of the Judeo-Christian tradition can be viewed either from the perspective of the “letter of the law” or of the “spirit of grace.” This is true of the divine [p.139] judgments too. From the letter-of-the-law position, these judgments represent God’s punishment for sin and disobedience. But the scriptures do not present judgment in this light. The scriptures almost always portray the judgments as an extension of God’s mercy. Whom the Lord chastens, the Lord loves (D&C 95:1). Christ’s love is without conditions. He pours out his spirit without measure upon every individual, every family, every race and nation, every culture and religion. He lets the rain fall on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45). Not all perceive it. Not all receive it. Not all employ it. Some reject it. Some despise it. Nevertheless Christ’s grace is unshakable.
But God does not always approve of what we think and say and do. We are given wide latitude for growth. God lets us take risks, but if we begin to settle into patterns of evil such as self-deception, narcissisre, elitism, authoritarianism, jealousy, envy, spite or if we deny our sins or project them on self-made scapegoats, then God, who is loving, merciful, and caring, is bound to reprove us—sometimes with sharpness. The judgments of God are reproofs not punishments. They are administered not to condemn us but to redeem us. This is why in the scripture the threat of divine judgment is so often attended by the assertion of God’s undying love (think of Isaiah and Jeremiah). Thus the bonds of divine love “are stronger than the cords of death” (D&C 121:44).
Of course not every natural disaster and social upheaval should be attributed to God. Most of the problems we suffer in mortality have nothing to do with judgment. They follow from the temporal nature of life. Certainly some people view every calamity as divine retribution on some other person or group—usually an unpopular, powerless, envied, or despised group. But this view of judgment forms no part of our thinking. Rather than blame others for wars, diseases, and droughts, we should examine ourselves. This is one of the themes of the story of Oedipus, the king of Thebes. When his country was cursed with a plague, he sought to placate the gods by finding the murderer of the former king, Laius. In the end Oedipus discovered that he was the murderer. The judgments of God should not serve as a basis for condemning others but for searching our own souls and purifying our own hearts.
We do not believe God concocts catastrophes and inflicts them on various segments of the human race. In our view judgments occur because God withdraws the Holy Spirit. God thus demonstrates that unless God is ever present, we will be overwhelmed by the consequences [p.140] of our accumulated errors, shortcomings, and sins. The judgments of God then do not take the form God creates for them but the form we create for them.
It is important to remember too that God can revoke judgment. We learn this from the story of Jonah and from other revelations (D&C 56:4-6). Perhaps some of the predicted judgments may no longer obtain. But if they do come, we must not think that God stands apart from them. God suffers with those judged. We are all part of the divine, cosmic tabernacle. A judgment rendered upon God is a judgment rendered upon us. This is what makes possible the condescension of God on our behalf. By the same token any judgment rendered upon us is also rendered upon God. The Divine Parents not only rejoice with us when we are blessed, they suffer with us when we are chastened. The tension between God’s mercy and judgment is but another of the paradoxes of Christianity, which can be resolved only if we change our frame of reference. When we see judgment not as punishment but as God working to redeem us (even when we have rejected God’s mercy), the tensions of the paradox begin to relax.
The judgments of God predicted in scripture constitute another symbol of God’s love for us, another metaphor of the divine passion for our salvation. These metaphors are as diverse as God’s dealings with us are various and mysterious. We believe all people have received dispensations of truth from God. No one has all the truth. And more truth will be revealed. When it comes, not only will others be required to change, but so will we. For us there is but one true way to God, but there are many roads leading to the point of departure. [p.143]