How to “Come unto Christ”

The Book of Mormon clarifies the gospel of Jesus Christ and shows how we come unto him.

How to “Come unto Christ”

The Lord has repeatedly stated that the Book of Mormon contains “the fulness of the gospel” (D&C 20:9; D&C 27:5; D&C 42:12)—meaning that it teaches individuals how to come unto Christ to be saved. This gospel plan is based on the atonement, resurrection, and final judgment of Jesus Christ. (See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 149, 365.) The Savior personally taught the Nephites, “This is the gospel which I have given unto you—that I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me.

“And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me … to stand before me, to be judged of their works.” (3 Ne. 27:13–14.)

This statement is as profound as it is simple: Through Christ’s infinite atonement and unconditional resurrection, we will be raised up as immortal beings at the last day. At that time Jesus will judge us, and the Father will then bless us according to the obedience we have given to him and his Son.

And what must we do to claim the full blessings of the Atonement? The Lord is very clear: “Whoso repenteth and is baptized in my name shall be filled [with the Holy Ghost]; and if he endureth to the end, behold, him will I hold guiltless before my Father at that day when I shall stand to judge the world.” (3 Ne. 27:16.)

Beginning with 1 Nephi, we find these same principles referenced over and over again as a kind of tutorial formula, teaching that if people (1) believe in Christ, (2) repent of their sins, and (3) submit to baptism in water as a witness of their willingness to take Christ’s name upon themselves and keep his commandments, he will (4) pour out his Spirit upon them and cleanse them of their sins in a baptism of fire.

These are the four principles the Prophet Joseph Smith himself identified (see A of F 1:4) as effective summaries of our personal engagement in the process of salvation. There are other concepts discussed in the Book of Mormon as well (both Benjamin and Alma, for example, mention a change of heart), but two—both of which are mentioned by the Savior in the quotation above—are so prevalent that I would like to include them in this discussion as well: All who come unto Christ and (5) endure to the end in keeping his commandments will (6) be found guiltless at the Final Judgment.

This six-point pattern is primarily explanatory, as it does not tell converts to Christ “all things what [they] should do.” This is the function of the Holy Ghost, whose guidance Christ’s followers must constantly seek. (2 Ne. 32:1–5.) Nor does it mention missionary work, temple marriage, redemption of the dead, or home teaching, which are administered by Christ’s church. Although these and the other activities we often associate with the gospel are vital to the Lord’s work in these last days, in the Book of Mormon it is the Atonement itself—with a focus on the principles and ordinances mortals must receive to lay claim on God’s eternal blessings—that takes great precedence. All other aspects of the gospel are inherent within the directive to keep his commandments. (For an extended discussion of gospel see Encyclopedia of Mormonism, s.v. “Gospel of Jesus Christ.”)

Perhaps the most complete explanation of these gospel principles occurs in three separate chapters in the Book of Mormon: 2 Ne. 31; 3 Ne. 11; and 3 Ne. 27. Together, they clarify the Book of Mormon’s position and teach us what we must do to regain our Father’s presence. [2 Ne. 31; 3 Ne. 11; 3 Ne. 27]

The Basic Gospel Elements as Taught by Nephi

The first comprehensive Book of Mormon statement of the gospel occurs in 2 Nephi 31. It affirms that “this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (2 Ne. 31:21.) Nephi then develops the basic gospel elements through a complex presentation that advances five versions of his central message, each containing instructive variations:

  1. 1.

    Nephi first explains the gospel using Christ as an example. (See 2 Ne. 31:4–10.) By humbling himself before the Father and being baptized by water, Christ witnessed that he would be obedient to the Father’s commandments. By doing so, he illustrated “the narrowness of the gate, by which [people] should enter.” (2 Ne. 31:9.)

  2. 2.

    The Father and the Son next identify the aspects of Christ’s example that are expected of all individuals—they must repent and be baptized so that they may receive the Holy Ghost. (See 2 Ne. 31:11–12.)

  3. 3.

    Nephi testifies to his brothers that if they will follow the Son sincerely, repenting of their sins and witnessing to the Father by baptism that they are willing to take upon themselves Christ’s name, they will receive the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost. (See 2 Ne. 31:13.)

  4. 4.

    The Son then repeats the central elements of the gospel, warning that those who follow this path but then deny him will be in a worse condition than before. The Father adds the promise that those who endure to the end will be saved. (See 2 Ne. 31:14–15.)

  5. 5.

    Nephi summarizes by teaching that people cannot be saved unless they endure to the end. Repentance and baptism by water are the gate by which they must enter, followed by a remission of sins by fire and the Holy Ghost. All steps in this process are possible only through faith in Jesus Christ. Enduring to the end implies pressing forward with faith in Christ, complemented by hope and charity. (See 2 Ne. 31:16–20.)

Nephi’s fivefold presentation reinforces these ideas and gives enriched and varied explanations of them:

Repentance is the starting point. (See 2 Ne. 31:17.) Christ did not need to start with repentance because he was holy, yet he still humbled himself before the Father. (See 2 Ne. 31:5, 7.) This humility and sincerity are the keys to repentance. People must follow Christ “with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of [their] sins.” (2 Ne. 31:13.)

Baptism accompanies repentance (see 2 Ne. 31:17)) as an external witness to the Father of an internal commitment “to take upon [oneself] the name of Christ” and “to keep [his] commandments” (2 Ne. 31:13–14).

  • 1.

    Through the Holy Ghost, divine knowledge is communicated, giving to the recipient a power to speak things not previously possible. In Nephi’s words, “then can ye speak with the tongue of angels.” (2 Ne. 31:13.) In chapter 32 he further explains that “angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ.” For this reason, Nephi tells the reader to “feast upon the words of Christ,” which “will tell you all things what ye should do.” (2 Ne. 32:3.) A few verses later, he more simply states: “If ye … receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.” (2 Ne. 32:5.)

  • 2.

    Through the gift of the Holy Ghost, the convert is cleansed and sins are remitted. (See 2 Ne. 31:17.)

  • 3.

    Through the gift of the Holy Ghost, the convert receives a witness “of the Father and the Son,” just as baptism of water is a witness of the convert to the Father. This baptism of fire fulfills the promise that “if ye entered in by the way [repentance and baptism] ye should receive” the Holy Ghost. (2 Ne. 31:18.) Nephi warns that if, after this witness, an individual denies Christ, it would have been better for the person not to have known him. (See 2 Ne. 31:14.)

  • 4.

    The gift of the Holy Ghost helps converts endure to the end in following Christ’s example (2 Ne. 31:15, 16)—for the Holy Ghost “will show unto [them] all things what [they] should do” (2 Ne. 32:5).

For Nephi, enduring to the end implies pressing forward in faith, hope, and charity. These three attributes are clearly indicated in his closing summary, in which he instructs people to “endure to the end” and “press forward with a steadfastness [faith] in Christ,” having “a perfect brightness of hope,” and “a love of God and of all men.” (2 Ne. 31:20.) This trio occurs elsewhere in Book of Mormon sermons as well. (See Ether 12:31–34; Moro. 8:25–26; Moro. 10:20–21.)

In most explications, faith in Jesus Christ is mentioned first. It may be that Nephi places it here in his discourse because he treats the principle as fundamental to those preceding it, tying them together. One cannot have entered the gate opening the way to salvation, he points out, “save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him.” And once on the path, one cannot attain salvation except by pressing “forward with a steadfastness in Christ.” (2 Ne. 31:19, 20.)

Those who endure to the end are promised that they will “be saved in the kingdom of God” and receive eternal life. Nephi insists that unless individuals follow Christ in repenting, being baptized, and enduring to the end, they cannot be saved. (See 2 Ne. 31:15–17, 20, 21.)

“My Doctrine”: Christ’s Explanation to the Nephites

The doctrine Christ delivered to the Nephites when he visited them is also constructed around this gospel formula, inviting the people to “come unto me.” The account of Christ’s visit to the Nephites gives a more complex treatment of the doctrine, presenting it five times, each time with instructive variations:

  • 1.

    The first presentation, recorded in 3 Nephi 9, is given by the voice of Christ as he speaks from heaven. Four of the six gospel principles discussed above are specifically advanced in this passage (baptism of water and enduring to the end are not mentioned until later). Christ says that “if ye will come unto me ye shall have eternal life.” (3 Ne. 9:14.) To come unto him is explained as believing on his name (that is, faith; see 3 Ne. 9:17, 20) and offering for a sacrifice unto him “a broken heart and a contrite spirit” (or repentance; 3 Ne. 9:20, 22). Christ promises those who do this that he will baptize them “with fire and with the Holy Ghost.” (3 Ne. 9:20.)

  • 2.

    Baptism of water is the focus of the Savior’s second declaration. Detailed instructions on baptism are given in 3 Nephi 11 to settle some disputations “concerning the points of my doctrine.” (3 Ne. 9:28.) He emphasizes that this is his doctrine, which the Father has given him. (See 3 Ne. 9:30–32.) All people are to believe in Christ and be baptized if they would be saved. (See 3 Ne. 9:33.) Believers who follow the specified pattern—who repent, become as little children, and are baptized in his name—are visited “with fire and with the Holy Ghost.” (3 Ne. 9:35–38.)

  • 3.

    Jesus then repeats the pattern briefly as an introduction to his sermon at the temple: Those who heed the words of the Twelve and are baptized with water will be baptized by the Lord with fire and the Holy Ghost and “receive a remission of their sins.” (3 Ne. 12:1–2.)

  • 4.

    The sermon at the temple also invokes the basic gospel steps at several points. For example: “Blessed are the poor in spirit who come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (3 Ne. 12:3.) “I have given you the law and the commandments of my Father, that ye shall believe in me, … repent of your sins, and come unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit. … Therefore come unto me and be saved.” (3 Ne. 12:19–20.) “I am the law, and the light. Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live; for unto him that endureth to the end will I give eternal life.” (3 Ne. 15:9.)

  • 5.

    Following these presentations, the disciples minister Jesus’ words to the people, and the people pray for the Holy Ghost. Their request is granted after they are baptized, for they are encircled about “as if it were by fire.” Praying to the Father, Jesus indicates that they have been purified because of their faith. (See 3 Ne. 19:7–28.)

The basic gospel elements introduced by Nephi are developed in Christ’s teachings to the Nephites, with several significant variations of phraseology that enrich the doctrine:

Belief in Christ is listed first. Jesus stresses the importance of believing in him (3 Ne. 12:1, 19), indicating that he chooses his people because of their faith (see 3 Ne. 19:20, 28).

Repentance occurs in almost every restatement of the doctrine, often phrased as a new sacrifice of “a broken heart and a contrite spirit.” (3 Ne. 9:20; 3 Ne. 12:19.) Repentance is linked with humility (see 3 Ne. 12:2) and with becoming “as a little child” (3 Ne. 9:22; 3 Ne. 11:37, 38).

In dictating the baptismal prayer to be used, the Savior describes baptism in terms virtually indistinguishable from Nephi’s description. This prayer makes it clear that immersion is required and that one must be baptized by a person holding authority from Christ. (See 3 Ne. 11:23–26.)

The baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost described earlier by Nephi and now by Christ comes “because of … faith,” bears record of both the Father and the Son, and is linked with the remission of sins. (3 Ne. 9:20; 3 Ne. 11:35; 3 Ne. 12:2.)

Christ also refers to enduring to the end, but he does not elaborate on it. The principle is stated clearly and strongly in one passage. (See 3 Ne. 15:9.)

The final reward promised to those who come unto Christ by obeying these commandments is eternal life. (See 3 Ne. 15:9.) This doctrine includes the idea that they will “become the sons of God” (3 Ne. 9:17) and enter “the kingdom of heaven” (3 Ne. 12:3, 20; 3 Ne. 14:21).

Christ’s Summary to His Nephite Leadership

The Savior’s first teachings to the Nephites, described above, were aimed at settling disputations about the points of his doctrine. (See 3 Ne. 11:28.) His later visit to the disciples, described in 3 Nephi 27, focuses similarly on another public disputation, this time regarding the name of his church. (See 3 Ne. 27:3.) The Savior’s response is to point to the gospel. Just as individuals are instructed to take upon themselves Christ’s name, the church will be Christ’s if it is called in his name and “if it so be that they are built upon my gospel.” (3 Ne. 27:8.) The necessity of being built upon his gospel is stated four times. (See 3 Ne. 27:5–13.)

  • 1.

    Whoever repents and is baptized will be filled (with the Holy Ghost); and if the person endures to the end, he or she will be held guiltless at the day of judgment. Those who do not endure to the end will be cast into fire. (See 3 Ne. 27:16–17.)

  • 2.

    The Savior’s second articulation emphasizes the role of faith: “Nothing entereth into [the Father’s] rest save it be those who have washed their garments in my blood, because of their faith, and the repentance of all their sins, and their faithfulness unto the end.” (3 Ne. 27:19.) This verse does not explicitly mention baptism of water or of fire and of the Holy Ghost, but they are implied in the idea of washing one’s garments in Christ’s blood.

  • 3.

    His third articulation clarifies this last point: “Repent, … come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day.” (3 Ne. 27:20.)

This series of statements in 3 Nephi 27 is framed by verse 13 and the concluding reaffirmation in verse 21 [3 Ne. 27:13, 21]: “Verily, verily, … this is my gospel.” As brief as these statements are, further insights on Christ’s doctrine emerge:

Faith and repentance lead to the baptisms of water and fire, by which people wash their garments in Christ’s blood, and are key to endurance, or “faithfulness unto the end.” (3 Ne. 27:19.)

Likewise, baptism, mentioned two times, is included in the concept of washing garments clean in the Savior’s blood. (See 3 Ne. 27:16, 19–20.)

Baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost is mentioned or implied three times, but in different terms. The promise that those who are baptized will be filled (see 3 Ne. 27:16) refers to the Holy Ghost in light of 3 Nephi 12:6. [3 Ne. 12:6] The statement that those who come unto Christ and are baptized will be “sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost” elaborates on the cleansing power of the baptism of fire and its implicit inclusion in the washing of garments in the blood of Christ. (See 3 Ne. 27:20.)

Enduring to the end is, in one articulation, defined as “faithfulness unto the end.” (3 Ne. 27:19.)

With the focus on judgment in this chapter, the rewards of the faithful are defined as being held “guiltless” at the judgment day. (See 3 Ne. 27:16.) The Savior also discusses the rewards in terms of entering his Father’s kingdom or rest. (See 3 Ne. 27:19.) The judgment context reappears in the final articulation, in which the Lord promises the faithful that they will be able to “stand spotless before [him] at the last day.” (3 Ne. 27:20.)

Scriptural Shorthand for the Basic Gospel of Jesus Christ

These three major discussions—one by Nephi and two by the Lord himself—provide thorough definitions of the gospel of Jesus Christ as found in the Book of Mormon. Each account cites the Atonement as the central doctrine, then rehearses the basic principles necessary to secure all the blessings of the Atonement. However, these three presentations represent only a small portion of the total number of Book of Mormon statements on the doctrine. Additional statements appear throughout the book, often containing instructive variations of terminology.

Most of these statements are elliptical as well—meaning that they leave out one or more of the six principles we have discussed. This, however, was no problem for congregations of Saints familiar with the basic pattern, for reference to any part of the plan was immediately understood to refer to the whole. For example, a prophet could state that believing in Jesus and enduring to the end is life eternal. (See 2 Ne. 33:4.) We know that there are other elements in the gospel list, but they need not be mentioned because reference to one or more of its parts includes an implicit reference to the entire list. A conservative count reveals at least 200 such references. (See Noel B. Reynolds, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ as Taught by the Nephite Prophets,” BYU Studies, Sept. 1991.)

Many of these “shorthand” references to the gospel use the same basic language. For example, Mormon urges the latter-day Gentiles to repent, come unto Christ, and be baptized in his name, that they may receive a remission of their sins, be filled with the Holy Ghost, and be numbered with Christ’s people. (See 3 Ne. 30:2.) Jacob is just as clear and concise, warning all people that “if they will not repent and believe in [Christ’s] name, and be baptized in his name, and endure to the end, they must be damned.” (2 Ne. 9:24.)

Other passages convey the same message with a more complex vocabulary. Nephi indicates that there is no hope for the Gentiles “except they shall be reconciled unto Christ, and enter into the narrow gate, and walk in the strait path which leads to life, and continue in the path until the end of the day of probation.” (2 Ne. 33:9.) Moroni’s final farewell invites all people to come unto Christ and be perfected in him by denying themselves of all ungodliness. Then they will be sanctified “through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of [their] sins, that [they] become holy, without spot.” (Moro. 10:32–33.)

This gospel pattern, either in its full or abbreviated form, provides an interpretive framework for many historical Nephite and Lamanite experiences. Examples include the response of Benjamin’s people to his great sermon (Mosiah 5), the effort by Limhi’s people to form a church based on principles taught by Alma (see Mosiah 21:30–35), Alma’s organization of a church among the Nephites (see Mosiah 25), Alma the Younger’s conversion (see Mosiah 27), the confrontation of Nephi and Lehi with their captors in prison (see Hel. 5), Samuel’s description of the Lamanite conversions (see Hel. 15), and the establishment of the Church among the Nephites by Christ’s disciples (see 4 Ne. 1). These events, understood in the context of the principles we have discussed, illustrate the process people follow in coming to Christ.

Book of Mormon discussions of ordinances invoke the same doctrine. Examples include the baptismal instructions of Alma at the waters of Mormon (see Mosiah 18:7–17), of Christ among the Nephites (see 3 Ne. 11), and of Moroni (see Moro. 6), as well as the introduction of the sacrament (see 3 Ne. 20; Moro. 4–5) and the pattern for ordaining priests and teachers as reported by Moroni (see Moro. 3). This last reference records the actual ordination prayer used by the Nephites. The ordainer speaks “in the name of Jesus Christ” and ordains the candidate to preach repentance and remission of sins through Christ by the “endurance of faith on his name to the end.” (Moro. 3:3.) Moroni further explains that they ordained “by the power of the Holy Ghost.” (Moro. 3:4.)

The language and logic of many Book of Mormon sermons would also be unintelligible without an implied gospel context. Examples include Jacob’s sermon on redemption (see 2 Ne. 9), Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree (see Jacob 5), Benjamin’s valedictory sermon (see Mosiah 2–5), Alma’s discourse on priesthood (see Alma 13), Moroni’s discourse on faith, hope, and charity (see Moro. 7), and Mormon’s discussion of the baptism of children (see Moro. 8).

The other LDS scriptures contain references to the gospel of Jesus Christ similar to those in the Book of Mormon, often in an abbreviated form. (See D&C 10:63–70; D&C 11:9–24; D&C 19:29–32; D&C 20:37; D&C 33:10–13; D&C 39:4–6; D&C 68:25; Moses 5:14–15, 57–59; Moses 6:50–68; A of F 1:4.) The same can be said of many New Testament passages. For example, Paul’s statement that “by grace are ye saved through faith” implicitly invokes all elements of the gospel, even though only faith and salvation, the first and last, are mentioned. (Eph. 2:8; see also Matt. 3:11; Matt. 24:13–14; Acts 2:38; Acts 19:4–6; Rom. 1:16–17.)

Of all the standard works, however, the Book of Mormon provides the best extended definitions of the gospel of Jesus Christ, teaching that anyone who has faith in Jesus Christ, repents, is baptized, receives the Holy Ghost, and endures to the end will be saved in the kingdom of heaven.

[photos] Photography by Jed Clark

Noel B. Reynolds, BYU professor of political science and president of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), is the scholar in residence at BYU’s Jerusalem Center.