The Continuous Process of Conversion: An Analysis of the Fourth Article of Faith

Michael Lundberg, “The Continuous Process of Conversion: An Analysis of the Fourth Article of Faith,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium, 2005 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005), 73–83.

The Continuous Process of Conversion: An Analysis of the Fourth Article of Faith

Michael Lundberg

During the 60th Semiannual General Conference of the Church, “the Latter-day Saints . . . readopted the Articles [of Faith] as a guide of faith and conduct.” [1] Subsequently, members of the Church have often memorized the Articles of Faith to enlarge their understanding of the doctrine of the Church. However, memorized doctrine does not always translate into everyday action. Church leaders often encourage members to “be . . . doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). Knowing what one believes is a necessary factor for a meaningful religious lifestyle, but one must also understand the importance of expressing belief through actions. The Articles of Faith declare what Church members believe, but looking at them from a different point of view will show that they also declare how Church members should act—particularly the fourth article of faith.

Missionaries often explain the fourth article of faith to investigators as a four-step process necessary for potential members to complete prior to gaining membership in the Church. The four steps are as follows: “We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Articles of Faith 1:4). Rather than outlining a step-by-step process for gaining membership in Christ’s Church, the fourth article of faith explains “principles and ordinances.” There is no mention of steps at all. A careful study of the scriptures will show that prophets and inspired teachers continually taught these four principles and encouraged their followers to obediently fulfill them. The subject of virtually all scriptural sermons pertains to one of the four principles outlined in the fourth article of faith.

This paper will illustrate the relationship between all four principles and the Savior. It will also show the necessity of avoiding the view that conversion is a four-step process. Many investigators and Church members have the attitude that once they have shown faith they can then repent, be baptized, and recieve the gift of the Holy Ghost, which will then guarantee them celestial glory. This attitude of one-time practice and a desire for instant gratification can be dangerous. Members must implement the four principles into their everyday lives and practice them throughout the remainder of their lives, making it a continuous process of growth (see 2 Peter 1:5–8). An understanding of how to apply each principle necessitates a detailed analysis of the fourth article of faith.

Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ

First and foremost, Jesus Christ must represent the entire focus of one’s faith in order to achieve salvation. Elder James E. Talmage expounded on Christ’s role when he wrote, “Inasmuch as salvation is attainable only through the mediation and atonement of Christ . . . faith in Jesus Christ is indispensable to salvation.” [2] Numerous scriptures support this teaching. [3] Elder Bruce R. McConkie further taught, “As Christ is the way to the Father, faith centers in him and in his redeeming sacrifice.” [4] Entrance to the celestial kingdom, where men dwell in the Father’s presence, only comes through faith in Jesus Christ, or, in other words, to believe that He is the Only Begotten of the Father (see 1 John 4:9) and the Creator of the world (see Hebrews 1:1–2; John 1:1–3), that He was born of Mary (see 1 Nephi 11:14), that He lived a perfect life (see 1 Peter 1:19), that He atoned for the sins of the world (see Isaiah 53:4–5), that He died on the cross and was resurrected (see Matthew 27:50; 28:6), thus providing a way that all may repent (see D&C 19:16) and be resurrected (see Alma 11:42). Faith centered on anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ cannot lead to salvation and will result in eternal condemnation.

Faith is “full confidence and trust” in God. [5] Paul tells us that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). The Prophet Joseph Smith designated faith as “the moving cause of all action . . . in all intelligent beings.” [6] Joseph Smith’s definition of faith implies that life without faith is impossible.

Why must one continue to exercise and develop faith even after gaining membership in the Church? The answer lies in one of the most important sermons of the Book of Mormon—Alma’s sermon to the dejected poor among the Zoramites who desired to worship once again in the synagogue (see Alma 32:5). Alma responds by telling them that they should worship God more than just once a week (see Alma 32:11), implying the importance of continuously demonstrating faith. Alma proceeds to give a parable in which he compares “the word unto a seed” (Alma 32:28). The seed that Alma speaks of is the word of God as contained in the scriptures and in the messages of the Lord’s living prophets. Alma explains that those seeking faith should plant this seed in their hearts or, in other words, begin to live according to the teachings of the gospel. If the seekers will put this experiment into practice, then the seed will begin to grow; in other words, the first stirrings of faith will appear. Alma teaches that as the tree grows “ye will say: Let us nourish it with great care, that it may get root, that it may grow up, and bring forth fruit unto us” (Alma 32:37). The seekers should continue to “nourish” the word by adhering to it and prayerfully asking for confirmation of its truthfulness. Such action will result in a tree that bears fruit, or true faith. Similarly, Joseph Smith taught, “Faith comes by hearing the word of God, through the testimony of the servants of God.” [7] Conversely, neglect of the tree, or word, will result in the absence of fruit, or faith. Alma compares one’s neglect to cultivate faith to a gardener failing to water and nourish a plant. Without proper nourishment, the plant “will not get any root” and will eventually wither away (Alma 32:38).

At this point, one would ask, what is to be done with the fruit? A harvester would, of course, eat it. Otherwise, it would come to no good. Just as fruit goes to waste if not consumed, so does faith go to waste if the believer does not exercise it. “Faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2:17). At this point, the necessity of continuing to develop faith is evident. To continue Alma’s analogy, one may ask, what lies inside the fruit? What else but more seeds! When the seeker obtains true faith, a desire for further study and further knowledge of the gospel, or word, often follows. The seeker must then plant the additional knowledge of the word in his or her heart that it may bring forth additional faith. Comments of the Lord’s Apostles showed that even the most spiritual people must work unceasingly to strengthen their faith: “And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5).

Repentance

The natural reaction to gaining a deep faith in Jesus Christ is a desire to live according to the principles of Christ’s gospel. The Lord commanded everyone, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The Lord understands that no one will be able to live according to this teaching at all times. Everyone will make mistakes in attempting to live as the Savior lived, in part due to the Fall of Adam. The Fall “was the cause of all mankind becoming carnal, sensual, devilish, knowing evil from good, subjecting themselves to the devil” (Mosiah 16:3). Failure to obey the Savior’s commandments results in sin, thus necessitating repentance.

Elder James E. Talmage taught that repentance represents “the duty required of all who would obtain forgiveness for transgression.” [8] Elder Talmage makes it clear that repentance provides a means of obtaining forgiveness and ultimately of achieving celestial glory. Repentance is necessary because sin makes the sinner unclean and “no unclean thing can dwell with God” (1 Nephi 10:21).

The atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, performed in the Garden of Gethsemane and upon the cross at Golgotha, makes repentance possible. He “suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent” (D&C 19:16). One cannot fully understand how Christ took upon Himself the sins of the world, but a lack of understanding does not change the fact that He did. A true seeker can obtain a testimony of Christ’s Atonement by implementing Alma’s experiment.

Repentance consists of “(1) a conviction of guilt; (2) a desire to be relieved from the hurtful effects of sin; and (3) an earnest determination to forsake sin and to accomplish good.” [9] Once we have made the “determination to forsake sin” we must make a proper confession. The proper authority to whom we must confess is dependent upon the seriousness of the sin. Once we have done all in our power to correct the wrongdoing, we may ask for forgiveness from those we injured and from God. If we sincerely repent, the Lord will forgive us for committing the sin and He will “remember [it] no more” (D&C 58:42). No worldly pleasure is equal to the sublime joy of receiving forgiveness for one’s sins. Alma contrasted the pain from his sin, which was “exquisite” and “bitter,” with the joy of receiving forgiveness, which was “exquisite” and “sweet” (Alma 36:21). He said he saw a “marvelous light . . . and [his] soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was [his] pain” (Alma 36:20).

Unfortunately, some members of the Church view repentance as “something to be shunned and avoided,” but it is actually “a heaven-sent boon.” [10] Continual repentance is necessary for the simple reason that everyone continually falls short of perfection. Joseph Smith taught that “daily transgression and daily repentance is not that which is pleasing in the sight of God.” [11] He did not mean that the Lord does not approve of daily repentance, but that He disapproves of daily transgression, followed by insincere repentance with no intent to change. Even the most righteous mortals must repent, for repentance is “not limited to those who are outside the fold of Christ.” [12]

Christ came into the world not to heal those that are whole but to heal those that are sick (Matthew 9:12). It is up to us to realize that no one is whole but that everyone is sick, and, therefore, everyone is in need of the Great Physician.

Baptism by Immersion for the Remission of Sins

In order to receive the blessings of membership in Christ’s Church, a person must receive the ordinance of baptism. Baptism entails “immersion in water as a visible, public, and outward sign that a penitent person has come unto Christ, accepted his gospel, and taken our Lord’s yoke upon him.” [13] Immersion in water symbolizes Christ’s death, burial, and Resurrection (Romans 6:4). Therefore, it also symbolizes the rebirth of the baptized—a new life washed clean of sin. As Elder James E. Talmage wrote, “What symbol more expressive of a cleansing from sin could be given than that of baptism in water?” [14]

Baptism must be performed by one holding the priesthood, or the authority to act in God’s name. Any baptism performed without this authority is a false baptism. Paul demonstrated a correct understanding of priesthood authority when, upon discovering that the disciples in Ephesus were improperly baptized, he baptized them “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5).

Except under extraordinary circumstances, the actual ordinance of baptism is performed only once. [15] However, a baptized member of the Church keeps the baptismal covenant throughout life by a constant expression and development of faith and repentance. Nephi described baptism as a gate at the beginning of a path leading to eternal life (2 Nephi 31:17). In this sense baptism represents “not an end to itself” but a “beginning of a new way of life.” [16] A close examination of the baptismal covenant reinforces the truthfulness of Nephi’s teachings concerning the doctrine of baptism.

The Doctrine and Covenants states that all baptized members must “take upon them the name of Jesus Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end, and truly manifest by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ” (D&C 20:37; emphasis added). Clearly, one should continuously keep the baptismal covenant. Elder Dale E. Miller pointed out that the subjects of King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon renewed this covenant when they said that they would “do [God’s] will, and . . . be obedient to his commandments in all things that he shall command us, all the remainder of our days.” [17] When baptizing at the Waters of Mormon, Alma the Elder further elaborated on the necessity to continue the baptismal covenant after baptism. He encouraged all baptized members to continue “to bear one another’s burdens . . . to mourn with those that mourn . . . comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death” (Mosiah 18:8–9). Members renew this covenant every week when they partake of the sacrament.

Christ’s choice to receive baptism Himself underscores the necessity of this saving ordinance for all people. He kept perfectly His baptismal covenant throughout His entire life and set an example for all of His disciples to follow (see 2 Nephi 31: 5, 7, 9).

Laying on of Hands for the Gift of the Holy Ghost

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “you might as well baptize a bag of sand as a man” if there is no intention to confer the gift of the Holy Ghost. [18] Prophets have referred to the gift of the Holy Ghost as a baptism of fire (see Matthew 3:11). As Joseph Smith pointed out, baptism of water and baptism of fire are inseparable. Christ told Nicodemus that entrance to the celestial kingdom requires baptism “of water and of the Spirit” (John 3:5). Nephi stated that remission of sins requires not only baptism by water but that it comes “by fire and by the Holy Ghost” (2 Nephi 31:17). While the cleansing power of water has deep symbolism in the remission of sins, one should not forget the effects of fire as a “purifying agent.” [19] The remission of sins that comes with baptism is incomplete without the bestowal of the gift of the Holy Ghost (see Moroni 6:4). Those who hold the Melchizedek Priesthood may confirm members of Church and bestow upon them the gift of the Holy Ghost.

The primary mission of the Holy Ghost, who acts as the third member of the Godhead, is to testify of Christ (see John 15:26). An earnest seeker of truth will gain a testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel and “of all things” (Moroni 10:5) through the power of the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost will also guide the humble in making decisions. As Elder Bruce R. McConkie succinctly said, “There is nothing as important as having the companionship of the Holy Ghost.” [20]

What, then, is the gift of the Holy Ghost? Joseph Smith taught that the Holy Ghost and the gift of the Holy Ghost differ from one another. [21] Elder McConkie wrote, “The Holy Ghost is a personage of Spirit; the gift of the Holy Ghost is the right to receive the companionship and association of the Spirit.” [22] Therefore, the Father gives His children the gift of the Holy Ghost and they in turn receive it.

During confirmation, the priesthood holder, acting as the voice in performing the ordinance, commands the recently baptized member to receive the Holy Ghost. Like the ordinance of baptism, members receive the ordinance of confirmation and the gift of the Holy Ghost only once. However, through faith and repentance, a member can repeatedly receive the blessings of the companionship of the Holy Ghost, “for the Spirit of the Lord will not always strive with man” (2 Nephi 26:11). The Spirit guides those who live in such a way so as to merit its direction. Paul gave a marvelous parable about this doctrine when he taught that “ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you” (1 Corinthians 3:16). Mormon added to this, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord doth not dwell in unholy temples” (Helaman 4:24). In other words, those who desire to have the Holy Ghost as a constant companion and guide must continuously avoid sin and repent in order to be prepared to receive the guidance of the Holy Ghost.

Conclusion

At the October 2004 general conference of the Church, Elder Dale E. Miller stated: “Conversion does not normally come all at once. . . . It comes in stages, until a person becomes at heart a new person.” [23] He went on to say that a person can become truly converted to the gospel and thereby enter the celestial kingdom only “by continued repentance and obedience and faithful keeping of the covenants made.” [24] Thus, conversion and gaining admittance to Christ’s Church and the celestial kingdom is not accomplished by a four-step process. We obtain exaltation only through an approach that requires ongoing faith, repentance, keeping the baptismal covenant, being prepared to receive the companionship of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end. Above all, we must rely wholly on the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, whose name is the only “name given whereby salvation cometh” (Mosiah 5:8).

Notes

[1] James E. Talmage, Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990), 6.

[2] Talmage, Articles of Faith, 96.

[3] See John 3:16; 2 Nephi 2:9; D&C 45:5; and Moses 6:52.

[4] Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 185; see also John 14:6.

[5] Talmage, Articles of Faith, 87.

[6] McConkie, A New Witness, 163.

[7] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 148.

[8] Talmage, Articles of Faith, 99.

[9] Talmage, Articles of Faith, 99.

[10] McConkie, A New Witness, 212.

[11] Smith, Teachings, 148.

[12] McConkie, A New Witness, 221.

[13] McConkie, A New Witness, 241.

[14] Talmage, Articles of Faith, 109.

[15] “Oftentimes Latter-day Saints had been rebaptized in conjunction with important milestones, such as marriage or entering into the United Order or sometimes for improvement of health. These rebaptisms were recorded on Church membership records. The First Presidency grew concerned that some members were substituting rebaptism for true repentance. In 1893, stake presidents were instructed not to require rebaptism of Saints wishing to attend the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple, and in 1897 the practice of rebaptism was discontinued altogether. As President George Q. Cannon explained, ‘It is repentance from sin that will save you, not rebaptism’” (Church Educational System, Church History in the Fulness of Times, 2nd ed. [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 2000], 448).

[16] McConkie, A New Witness, 249.

[17] Dale E. Miller, “Bringing Peace and Healing to Your Soul,” Ensign, November 2004, 12.

[18] Smith, Teachings, 314.

[19] Bible Dictionary, “Fire,” 674.

[20] McConkie, A New Witness, 253.

[21] McConkie, A New Witness, 256.

[22] McConkie, A New Witness, 256.

[23] Miller, “Bringing Peace,” 1.

[24] Miller, “Bringing Peace,” 3.