It was a time of political and social corruption, a time when even the people of the Church had succumbed to worldly pride and had set their hearts upon riches and vanity. Some members envied other members, and pride and contention and persecution afflicted even the Saints. It was a time when the prince of this world was exerting great energy to lead the people astray and to destroy the divine work of the Lord’s church.
This was the world of Alma the Younger. (See Alma 4:8–9.) And if the echoes sound uncomfortably familiar, we shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, as President Ezra Taft Benson has often reminded us, the Book of Mormon was written for our day. Its lessons were meant for us.
How, then, did Alma deal with these problems? And what lessons does the story have for us?
The story began in Zarahemla, the capital city of the Nephite culture. Seeing the attacks being made upon and within the Church, Alma resigned as chief judge in order to preach the gospel. The results of his missionary effort would be a great spiritual reformation within the Church. The key to his success would be a simple question.
Imagine for a moment that you have been transported back in time to the Zarahemla of 83 B.C. Further imagine that you are there as Alma speaks to the members of the Church: “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?” (Alma 5:14.)
Would Alma move among the congregation? Imagine that as he does, he stops in front of you, gazes into your eyes, and asks, calling you by name, “Have you spiritually been born of God? Have you received his image in your countenance? Have you experienced a mighty change in your heart?”
You might stammer, “I’m not sure.”
Such a response would not be unusual. It is not uncommon to be unsure what Alma means when he refers to being spiritually born of God. To understand and appreciate, on a personal level, what he means, we must seek the guidance of the Spirit, so that the message will reach deep into our hearts and not just into our minds. To do this, we must set aside the philosophies we have learned from the world and feast upon the holy scriptures.
As we try to understand Alma’s meaning, we will consider three aspects of his question: spiritual rebirth as a separate experience that does not necessarily occur at the time of water baptism or the laying on the hands, the changes that occur when this rebirth takes place, and the necessary conditions that bring about this transformation.
We recall that Nicodemus approached the Savior inquiring how one might enter the kingdom of God. Although the Apostle John did not record Nicodemus’s specific questions, he did record the Savior’s response: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3.) Moments later, the Savior clarified what he meant: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5; italics added.) After Alma had been “born of the Spirit,” he announced that all mankind must be similarly “born again” or they can “in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.” (Mosiah 27:24–26.) Clearly, the rebirth experience is a necessary prerequisite to enter the kingdom of God.
While among the Nephites, the Lord taught the same doctrine, identifying two distinct baptisms involved in the process of being spiritually born of God: “And after that ye are baptized with water, behold, I will baptize you with fire and with the Holy Ghost.” (3 Ne. 12:1.) Similarly, Mormon, speaking by prophecy to the remnants of his people in the latter days, promised that all would be well with them “if it so be that ye believe in Christ, and are baptized, first with water, then with fire and the Holy Ghost.” (Morm. 7:10.) This phrase—“baptized … with fire and the Holy Ghost”—is an echo of the very words Adam heard from heaven when he himself “was born of the Spirit, and became quickened in the inner man.” (Moses 6:64–66.)
The Lord is the same today, tomorrow, and forever, and so is his gospel. Today, prophets and Apostles teach the same doctrine—that “to gain salvation every accountable person must receive two baptisms. They are baptism of water and of the Spirit. … The baptism of the Spirit is called the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost.”1 It is extremely important to distinguish between being spiritually born of God through the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost from receiving the ordinance of confirmation into the Church by the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. President Ezra Taft Benson stated it this way: “In addition to the physical ordinance of baptism and the laying on of hands, one must be spiritually born again to gain exaltation and eternal life.”2
While there are many changes that occur within the human soul as a result of being spiritually born of God, the major change occurs within the human heart. The people of King Benjamin, following their spiritual rebirth, “cried with one voice” proclaiming that the Spirit of the Lord had “wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 5:2.)
The Lord told Alma that those who are born of God are “changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, … and thus they become new creatures.” (Mosiah 27:25–26.) This mighty change involves a cleansing and purging, “as if with fire” (Hel. 5:45), of the evil desires of the heart. Thereafter, one so changed begins to walk, as Paul described it to the Romans, “in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:4.) There is a burning desire within the soul to be “zealous for keeping the commandments of God” (Alma 21:23) and to serve the Lord with all your body, mind, and spirit.
If we are thus born of the Spirit, “we are made alive in Christ. … We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ.” (2 Ne. 25:25–26.) We are willing to obey God’s commandments “in all things that he shall command us, all the remainder of our days.” (Mosiah 5:5.) In short, our conduct is characterized by obedience, service, and sacrifice.
Another question Alma asked the people of Zarahemla also deserves our attention: “If ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?” (Alma 5:26.) Let us recognize that to be spiritually born of God and receive the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost is, as the scriptures attest, a glorious and wonderful event that prepares us to pursue eternal life. But it does not immediately translate us into perfect beings ready for celestial glory. It does not mean that we will never make a mistake or sin again. Hence, we see the great need to apply the principle of repentance continuously as we strive daily to serve God and keep his commandments.
We must also recognize that sanctification is something we cannot achieve on our own. The Lord must be our companion, and his Spirit our guide: “I am the vine,” the Lord declared to his disciples, “ye are the branches: … for without me ye can do nothing.” (John 15:5.) Ammon told King Lamoni: “And a portion of that Spirit dwelleth in me, which giveth me knowledge, and also power according to my faith and desires which are in God.” (Alma 18:35.) It is that Spirit that is the true source of our power to resist evil and live righteously. And that Spirit is strengthened in us through our continual repentance. It is the Spirit that leads us to Christ and gives us guidance, comfort, encouragement, and strength to endure in our new life until we receive the promise of eternal life.
When presented with the plan of salvation, King Lamoni’s father pleaded: “What shall I do that I may be born of God, having this wicked spirit [or the natural man] rooted out of my breast, and receive his Spirit, that I may be filled with joy?” (Alma 22:15.) Well might we ask the same question.
The scriptures testify that the first step is to acknowledge our sins and desire to forsake them. King Lamoni’s father told the Lord, “I will give away all my sins to know thee.” (Alma 22:18.) King Benjamin taught that we “must repent of [our] sins and forsake them, and humble [ourselves] before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive [us].” (Mosiah 4:10.) Our repentance must be “in sincerity of heart” whereby we humble ourselves, “even in the depths of humility.” (Mosiah 4:11.)
What triggers that desire? For Alma and the sons of Mosiah it was the appearance of an angel. For Enos, it was words his father, Jacob, had often taught him, words “concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints” that sank “deep into [his] heart.” (Enos 1:3.) For certain Zoramites, it was their “exceeding poverty” and “their afflictions [which] had truly humbled them” and prepared them “to hear the word.” (Alma 32:5–6.) For the people of King Benjamin, “the fear of the Lord had come upon them. And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state.” They were greatly humbled and sought forgiveness of their sins. (Mosiah 4:1–2.)
Depending upon the individual, many situations have the potential to trigger the desire to come unto Christ. The important thing is that we open up our hearts to the word of God—to the beautiful message of the gospel. This message may be delivered by an inspired missionary, or through the example set by a Latter-day Saint, or, as Moroni promised, through reading the Book of Mormon with sincerity of heart.
For some, hearing the word of God, coming to a knowledge of their sins, and sincerely desiring to forsake them initiates a rebirth process that progresses rather quickly. For others, the process may extend over a period of many years. In either case, it involves a lifetime of learning and growing, line upon line and precept upon precept.
But while events that trigger the process of rebirth may be different for each person, the preparatory elements remain the same: humility, recognition of personal sin, a knowledge of Christ’s atonement, and repentance with real intent to keep the Lord’s commandments. Accompanied by the baptism of water, these preparatory conditions lay the spiritual foundation required to experience the spiritual rebirth described by Alma, the people of King Benjamin, and many others.
The key to spiritual rebirth consists in presenting to our Savior at some point our sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit. As we do so, we become increasingly aware, as never before, of the tremendous debt that he paid for us. We become increasingly aware of our Savior’s suffering of body and spirit and how we have contributed to that suffering through our sins. As the knowledge and understanding of this reality bursts upon us—the reality of Gethsemane and Golgotha—it begins to kindle a burning fire within our hearts. As that fire grows, it begins to burn away the layers of rationalizations we have placed protectively around our hearts. We see our remaining sins clearly, and, truly humbling ourselves, we feel our hearts changing as we remove the protective layers of rationalizations from around our hearts. Paradoxically, as we find our old life of sin dying, we discover “that we have no more disposition to do evil” (Mosiah 5:2); we find ourselves coming alive to our new, Christlike potential.
The Savior himself explained this process clearly: “And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost.” (3 Ne. 9:20.) Such a person desires to do Christ’s works, live his way of life, and become as he is.
It is important that we answer Alma’s questions! Our eternal happiness depends on it.
Have we truly been spiritually born of God? Is Christ’s image reflected in our countenances? Have we experienced a mighty change of heart?
Some of us may fear to face such questions, but there is no need for fear or confusion. As we honestly seek these answers with full purpose of heart, fighting the valiant fight of faith, we will discover that “the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” (1 Ne. 3:7.)