A friend of mind recently spoke in his ward's Sacrament Meeting. He sent me a copy of his talk and I appreciated the things he shared. I asked him for permission to post it here. I wish a talk like this could be given at General Conference:
|Photo taken at sunrise on the shore of the Sea of Galilee on May 11, 2010|
There is a parable in Matthew 13 that I think about often. Jesus said:
"The kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: Which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away. So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." vs 47-50
Jesus gave many parables on this topic, and there are many statements about it in scripture. The story is consistent – There are good fish and bad fish, wheat and tares, caught in the net of the Church. They are all going to receive the ministry of angels. The good fish will be gathered by the angels into vessels to be preserved. The bad will meet the angels when they return with Christ at his second coming (as Moroni said to Joseph Smith in 1823, “They that come shall burn them”).
The missionary work that brings people to baptism and confirmation is just a preliminary gathering. All kinds of fish are gathered in the net.
What is conversion in the context of this parable? Is it getting in the net through baptism? Staying in the net at all costs? Studying the net? We talk about being “converted to the church,” and when people become estranged from the gospel of Christ we say they “left the Church.” Is it a good thing for the fish to be “converted to the net?” The net isn't permanent and it's very prone to wearing out and breaking up, so don't get too attached. God is willing and able to cast a new net whenever he sees fit. Conversion here means following the voice of the spirit so that you are fit to be gathered by the angels and preserved.
To better understand what this kind of conversion, we can discuss its opposite. Let’s listen to Joseph Smith describe the fish who aren’t gathered out of the net:
" the servants of God go forth warning the nations, both priests and people, and as they harden their hearts and reject the light of truth, these first being delivered over to the buffetings of Satan, and the law and the testimony being closed up, as it was in the case of the Jews, they are left in darkness, and delivered over unto the day of burning; thus being bound up by their creeds, and their bands being made strong by their priests, are prepared for the fulfilment of the saying of the Savior--"The Son of Man shall send forth His angels, and gather out of His Kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire, there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth."" 
The greatest condemnation here falls not on the unchurched or godless, but on the devoutly religious. Joseph says that in the last days it will be with the gentiles as it was with the Jews two thousand years ago, specifically among those with the right to claim that they are God’s covenant people, those of the holy city. This group is to be severed from the righteous and bound to prepare for burning, but they are not bound physically. Joseph said they were bound mentally and religiously, “bound up by their creeds, and their bands being made strong by their priests.”
Webster’s 1828 dictionary gives us the use of the term “Creed” in Joseph’s time:
- 1. A brief summary of the articles of Christian faith;
- 2. That which is believed; any system of principles which are believed or professed;
The scriptures have a lot to say about these people. They tend to be:
- Very well-studied in their system of religion (Lawyers, business people, priesthood leaders)
- A key element in Joseph's description, seen all over the scriptures, is their trust in religious leaders, taking the current gospel creed defined by their leaders, the currently correlated system, as gospel truth
- They use those creeds to measure and interpret scripture, rather than measuring their system of religion against the scripture. They assume the religion described in the scriptures must be their religion, so they read that meaning into the scriptures. In textual studies this is called “eisegesis”, and in the study of History it’s called “presentism.”
- Like Laman and Lemuel, they will bear fervent testimony that they know their religion is true, and that their leaders are righteous and inerrant. The scriptures have a term for their certainty that they are already right, and their unwillingness to be persuaded by reason – that term is “a hard heart”
- Like the Zoramites on their rameumptom, they tend to speak in trite cliches when expressing religious conviction, dwelling on the feelings of joy and peace they get from membership in the group. The thought of believing differently scares them because they fear alienation. Since they tend to alienate those who believe differently, their fears are probably justified.
- Like the Pharisees they become obsessed with appearances, dress codes, dietary choices and other patterns of behavior that signify membership in the group. This thick overlay of expectations becomes a meta-gospel, a hedge about the law, an unwritten order of things that they can use to police the boundaries of their group. Culture becomes guidelines, guidelines become policies, and policies become a new set of commandments, as they teach for doctrines the commandments of men.
- Like the Nazarenes, Sadducees, Pharisees, Nephites, Zoramites, Palmyrans, and almost every other conceivable group, they become aggressive when people question or contradict their traditions, They even expel people from their town, village, synagogue or church who publicly question their creeds.
- Since actual conversion is impossible for institutions to measure, these people tend to focus on measurable outcomes as the fruit of their religion, including membership numbers, construction of a large quantity or high quality of buildings, religious rituals, and other data. Their logic seems to be “how could our beliefs be wrong when we built these awe-inspiring and lovely buildings?” If the kingdom of God is a tree, these are just leaves and branches, being labeled fruit. No matter how many magic markers you wear out in that process, you’re still just re-labeling leaves.
- They tend to enforce a system of priestcraft, where religious leaders become popular among and beloved by their followers, cease laboring with their hands for their own livelihood, and are instead supported by the people.
- As Alma 12 says, their certainty that they are already right allows them to be led by Satan, fully convinced they are God’s chosen people. They are in what Lehi calls “the sleep of hell,” and waking up is very very hard.
We shouldn’t get the idea that these scriptural examples were preserved by God only to condemn other Christian churches. After all, some of the strongest critiques of religious people come from the Book of Mormon, which primarily addresses those who will bother to read it: the Latter-day Saints.
Shortly before his death, Joseph said
“[There] has been a great difficulty in getting anything into the heads of this generation it has been like splitting hemlock knots with a Corn doger for a wedge & a pumpkin for a beetle, [That’s like trying to split a really stubborn log, but instead of an iron wedge and a heavy hammer you have a pancake and a pumpkin to smash it with]. Even the Saints are slow to understand. I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God, but we frequently see some of them after suffering all they have for the work of God will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions, they cannot stand the fire at all, How mnay will be able to abide a Celestial law and go through and recieve their exaltation. I am unable to say but many are called and few are chosen. 
Keep in mind these are the Latter-day Saints he’s talking about. These are the people that transmitted the religion we've inherited. They, like us, served diligently and met their religious obligations. They had to suffer for their religion, at the worst we have to clean toilets. Yet all that work doesn’t save them, nor does meeting our religious obligations save us. Their salvation and ours has to begin with true beliefs.
What about the fish who are gathered out of the net? They are best defined in two ways:
1. What they do differently, and
2. How God responds to them
Here are some of their characteristics:
They are willing to be persuaded. They don’t become entrenched in their assumptions of what "must be so" and what “couldn’t possibly be”. They do as Christ directs, and become like little children. Joseph said:
All those who are disposed to set up stakes for the almighty--will come short of the glory of god. To becom a joint heir of the heirship of the son he must put away all his traditions.
Tradition has never been a good measure for truth. Some false ideas have been around since Adam and Eve, yet they are just as false today as then. A false idea cannot save you, no matter how old or popular.
They study the scriptures diligently looking to get rid of their false religious traditions. As Mosiah said to his sons:
I say unto you, my sons, were it not for [the scriptures] which have been kept and preserved by the hand of God, that we might read and understand of his mysteries, and have his commandments always before our eyes, that even our fathers would have dwindled in unbelief, and we should have been like unto our brethren, the Lamanites, who know nothing concerning these things, or even do not believe them when they are taught them, because of the traditions of their fathers, which are not correct.
Notice the use of the word “unbelief” to describe false religious traditions. If we don’t bother studying the scriptures, or if we treat them as second fiddle to our traditions, then we may as well not have them. Treated properly, they can be a urim and thummim, giving us a view of God and his mysteries. Correct beliefs are the foundation for faith. The good fish understand that they don’t have a guarantee that anything taught over any pulpit (Sacrament Meeting or General Conference) will be true, and they need to know the scriptures well enough to discern truth from error.
Having studied diligently to understand, they DO what the scriptures invite them to do, letting the revelations of God create their religion. Shortly after the organization of the Church, the Lord said this about the Latter-day Saints:
“And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received—Which vanity and unbelief [There’s that word again] have brought the whole church under condemnation. And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all. And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written— That they may bring forth fruit meet for their Father’s kingdom; otherwise there remaineth a scourge and judgment to be poured out upon the children of Zion. Vs 54-58
This condemnation continues, according to Ezra Taft Benson. It endures as long as we rely on creeds more than scripture, To the degree that we have done so, we have inherited scourges and judgment, and there remains more to be poured out.
In all of this seeking, what they want most is further instructions from God. They look to him directly as their primary source of light and knowledge. They read the scriptures enough to know that when Nephi says “feast upon the words of Christ”, he isn’t referencing the written word of scripture, but the living word coming to your heart through personal revelation. They understand that they are only reading accounts of others revelations to teach them how to obtain their own.
The scriptural term for this mix of attributes is “Repentance”
So what is God’s response to these people who approach him seeking further light and knowledge? If they bring forth fruit meet for the Father’s kingdom, he opens his kingdom to their view. Since this is sacred ground I will let Joseph Smith’s words teach the doctrine:
June 1839 commentary Willard Richards Pocket Companion
After a person hath faith in Christ, repents of his sins & is Baptized for the remission of his sins & received the Holy Ghost, which is the first Comforter then let him continue to humble himself before God, hungering & thirsting after Righteousness. & living by every word of God
[Jesus says] “I will pray the father& he shall send you another Comforter to abide with you forever, reach to things within the vail, know that you are Sealed. I will not have you comfortless, I will come to you, abide with you forever, Seal you up to Eternal life. If a man love me he will keep my words,& my father will love him, & We both me & my father will take our abode with him.” when any man obtains this last Comforter he will have the personage of Jesus Christ to attend him or appear unto him from time to time. & even he will manifest the Father unto him & they will take up their abode with him, & the visions of the heavens will be opened unto him & the Lord will teach him face to face & he may have a perfect knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of God, The Father could not be glorified in the Son on any other principle than we coming to God, asking, receiving, heavens open, visions& c.--They are done away because of unbelief—… [There’s that word, “unbelief”, again!]
Lecture on Faith 6:8 It is in vain for persons to fancy to themselves that they are heirs with those, or can be heirs with them, who have offered their all in sacrifice, and by this means obtained faith in God and favor with him so as to obtain eternal life, unless they in like manner offer unto him the same sacrifice, and through that offering obtain the knowledge that they are accepted of him.
It is the nature of our lives that we all must be offered systems of religion that allow us to fancy ourselves that we will be heirs with those past saints who offered their all in sacrifice, when we have neither offered the same sacrifice, nor received the same manifestation from God promising us salvation with and oath and covenant. We have to choose between that system, and the religion that redeemed Adam, Enoch, Noah, the Brother of Jared, Lehi, Nephi, Jacob, Alma and his son and grandsons, and Joseph Smith. If we wish to be gathered out of the net and preserved with them, we need to do what they did. If you want the blessings of Abraham, do the works of Abraham.
False religious beliefs do their damage by convincing you that you don’t have the same access to God; that you he will not respond to you as readily as he did to Joseph Smith; that you don’t need to know God to be saved; that your receiving these blessings depends on the unknowable will of God rather than your own repentance, or that you can delay that repentance until after your death and still be exalted. Any and all of those ideas will damn you.
In all of this, the thing that is most sure, most certain, is that God will respond to you as surely as he did them, with the same visions, blessings, manifestations, and promises, because he is not capricious. He is not arbitrary. He is no respecter of persons. He operates according to law and his laws are eternal. You have the same privileges they had.
 “If Zion [meaning the gentile Latter-day Saints] will not purify herself, so as to be approved of in all things, in His sight, He will seek another people;” – TPJS p. 18; D&C 124:32; D&C 101:43-62; JST Matthew 21; 3 Nephi 16:10-11
 We have always been busy defining creeds and imposing them on one another. The explicit purpose of the Correlation efforts of the Church was to define the system of beliefs that a model Latter-day Saint must have. Our whole curriculum is dedicated to that.
 JS, Sermon, 21 January 1844. Wilford Woodruff recorder
 JS, Sermon, 27 August 1843. Smith Journal
 Mosiah 1:5
 These are the false ideas that primarily concerned Joseph Smith as he observed them in the minds of the Latter-day Saints. The revelations given to Joseph in the early 1830s promise great spiritual outpourings, visions, and visitations to the saints. The School of the Prophets was established in Kirtland to teach the Saints to receive these great blessings, thereby becoming prophets. The Lectures on Faith were the curriculum carefully composed for that school, and put forth robust arguments against each of these falsehoods.
 Lecture on Faith 3:23 “But it is also necessary that men should have an idea that he is no respecter of persons; for with the idea of all the other excellencies in his character, and this one wanting, men could not exercise faith in him, because if he were a respecter of persons, they could not tell what their privileges were, nor how far they were authorized to exercise faith in him, or whether they were authorized to do it at all, but all must be confusion; but no sooner are the minds of men made acquainted with the truth on this point, that he is no respecter of persons, than they see that they have authority by faith to lay hold on eternal life the richest boon of heaven, because God is no respecter of persons, and that every man in every nation has an equal privilege.”