The Prophet Joseph Smith once declared that all things “which pertain to our religion are only appendages” to the Atonement of Jesus Christ.1 In like manner and for the same reasons, every truth that a missionary or member teaches is only an appendage to the central message of all time—that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the world.
Our basic message is that with a complete offering of His body, His blood, and the anguish of His spirit, Christ atoned for the initial transgression of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and also for the personal sins of everyone else who would ever live in this world from Adam to the end of time.
Some of those blessings are unconditional, such as the gift of the Resurrection. Other of the blessings are very conditional, requiring the keeping of commandments, the performance of ordinances, and living the life of a disciple of Christ.
Either way, the essential message of the gospel is this from the Master’s own lips: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”2 Thus the Atonement of Christ, which makes that return to the Father possible, is the central fact, the crucial foundation, and the chief doctrine of the great and eternal plan of salvation, which we are called to teach.
Probably there are very few missionaries, if any, who do not know the centrality of this doctrine. But I have been surprised to discover that this is not something that readily comes forward in a discussion of missionary work.
For example, in zone conferences, I have asked missionaries what it is they want investigators to do as a result of their discussions with them.
“Be baptized!” is shouted forward in an absolute chorus.
“Yes,” I say, “but what has to precede that?”
Now they are a little leery. Aha, they think. This is a test. It is a test on the first discussion. “Read the Book of Mormon!” someone shouts. “Pray!” an elder roars. “Attend church!” one of the sisters declares. “Receive all of the discussions!” someone else offers.
“Well, you have pretty much covered the commitments in the first discussion,” I say, “but what else do you want your investigators to do?”
“Be baptized!” The chorus comes a second time.
“Elders and sisters,” I plead, “you have already told me about baptism, and I am still asking!”
I have to say that almost never do the missionaries get around to identifying the two most fundamental things we want investigators to do prior to baptism: have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and repent of their sins. Yet “we believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; [then] third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.”3
A convert’s new life is to be built upon faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His redeeming sacrifice—a conviction that He really is the Son of God, that He lives this very moment, that He alone holds the key to our salvation and exaltation. That belief is to be followed by true repentance, repentance which shows our desire to be clean and renewed and whole, repentance that allows us to lay claim to the full blessings of the Atonement.
Then comes baptism for the remission of sins. Yes, baptism is also for membership in the Church, but that isn’t what the Prophet Joseph Smith chose to stress in that article of faith. He stressed that it was baptism for the remission of sins—focusing you and me, the missionary and the investigator again on the Atonement, on salvation, on the gift Christ gives us.
Let me suggest some things all of us might do to keep Christ and His Atonement in the forefront of members’ and investigators’ consciousness.
Encourage in every way possible more spiritual Church meetings, especially sacrament meetings. Investigators deserve to feel essentially the same spirit in sacrament meeting that they feel when being taught by the missionaries.
Help orient investigators by explaining the ordinance of the sacrament that they will be witnessing. Missionaries could read to these investigators the sacramental prayers as found in the scriptures, they could share some of the words of favorite sacrament hymns, or they could do any number of other things that would help these new visitors have a powerful learning experience when they visit a sacrament meeting.
In like manner, do all that you can to make your baptismal services a spiritual, Christ-centered experience. A new convert deserves to have this be a sacred, carefully planned, and spiritually uplifting moment. The prayers, the hymns, surely the talks that are given—all ought to be focused on the significance of this ordinance and the Atonement of Christ, which makes it efficacious. Missionaries, don’t get so consumed with the desire to record a baptism that you forget what this baptism represents and what it must mean in the life of this new member.
Throughout the teaching experience, missionaries must bear testimony of the Savior and His gift of salvation to us. Obviously you should bear testimony regularly of all the principles you are teaching, but it is especially important that you bear testimony of this central doctrine in the plan of our Heavenly Father.
There are several reasons for bearing testimony. One is that when you declare the truth, it will bring an echo, an unconscious memory to the investigator, that they have heard this truth before—and of course they have. A missionary’s testimony invokes a great legacy of testimony dating back to the councils in heaven before this world was. There, in an earlier place, these same people heard this same plan outlined and heard there the role that Jesus Christ would play in their salvation.
The fact of the matter is investigators are not only hearing our testimony of Christ, but they are hearing echoes of other, earlier testimonies, including their own testimony of Him, for they were on the side of the faithful who kept their first estate and earned the privilege of a second estate. We must always remember that these investigators were among the valiant who once overcame Satan by the power of their testimony of Christ!4
“Whoso believeth in me believeth in the Father also; and unto him [the investigator] will the Father bear record of me, for he will visit him [the investigator] with fire and with the Holy Ghost.
“And thus will the Father bear record of me, and the Holy Ghost will bear record unto him [the investigator] of the Father and me; for the Father, and I, and the Holy Ghost are one. …
“… This is my doctrine, and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.”6
So why should we bear frequent and powerful testimony of Christ? Because doing so invites and becomes part of the divine power of testimony borne by God the Father and by the Holy Ghost, a testimony borne on wings of fire to the very hearts of investigators. Such a divine testimony of Christ is the rock upon which every new convert must build. Only this testimony of the atoning Anointed, Victorious One will prevail against the gates of hell.
Study the scriptures conscientiously and become familiar with those passages that teach and testify of Christ’s redeeming mission. Nothing will so touch your heart and stir your soul like the truths of which I have been speaking.
I would particularly ask full-time and member missionaries to study from and teach the Atonement of Christ out of the Book of Mormon. I say that in a very biased way, because it was on my own mission that I came to love the Book of Mormon and the majesty of the Son of God which is revealed there. In its unparalleled focus on the Savior of the world, the Book of Mormon is literally a new testament or “another testament” of Jesus Christ, declaring to all that through the Atonement of the Son of God, “as thou hast fallen thou mayest be redeemed, and all mankind, even as many as will.”7
Consider this from Nephi early in his ministry:
“And the world, because of their iniquity, shall judge him to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it, because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards the children of men.
“And the God of our fathers, … yea, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, yieldeth himself … as a man, into the hands of wicked men, to be lifted up, according to the words of Zenock, and to be crucified, according to the words of Neum, and to be buried in a sepulchre, according to the words of Zenos. …
“And all these things must surely come, saith the prophet Zenos. And the rocks of the earth must rend; and because of the groanings of the earth, many of the kings of the isles of the sea shall be wrought upon by the Spirit of God, to exclaim: The God of nature suffers.”8
Or this from Nephi’s remarkable brother Jacob, who gave a two-day sermon on the Fall and the Atonement!
“O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit. …
“And he cometh into the world that he may save all men if they will hearken unto his voice; for behold, he suffereth the pains of all men, yea, the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children, who belong to the family of Adam.
“And he suffereth this that the resurrection might pass upon all men. …
“And he commandeth all men that they must repent, and be baptized in his name, having perfect faith in the Holy One of Israel, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God.”9
Or, as a last example, this from the great patriarch Lehi:
“Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah. …
“Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.
“Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.
“Wherefore, he is the firstfruits unto God, inasmuch as he shall make intercession for all the children of men; and they that believe in him shall be saved.”10
Obviously, you recognize that these samples are testimonies from just the first pages of the Book of Mormon. Perhaps this is enough to give you a feel for the urgent, impressive theme that runs all through that sacred record. The Book of Mormon was the first—and is still the greatest—missionary tract of this dispensation.
I testify to you that we will change lives, including our own, if we will teach the Atonement through the Book of Mormon as well as, of course, from all of the other scriptures.
Anyone who does any kind of missionary work will have occasion to ask, Why is this so hard? Why can’t our success be more rapid? Why aren’t there more people joining the Church? Why isn’t the only risk in missionary work that of pneumonia from being soaking wet all day and all night in the baptismal font?
I have thought about this a great deal. I offer this as my personal feeling. I am convinced that missionary work is not easy because salvation is not a cheap experience. Salvation never was easy. We are The Church of Jesus Christ, this is the truth, and He is our Great Eternal Head. How could we believe it would be easy for us when it was never, ever easy for Him? It seems to me that missionaries and mission leaders have to spend at least a few moments in Gethsemane. Missionaries and mission leaders have to take at least a step or two toward the summit of Calvary.
Now, please don’t misunderstand. I’m not talking about anything anywhere near what Christ experienced. That would be presumptuous and sacrilegious. But I believe that missionaries and investigators, to come to the truth, to come to salvation, to know something of this price that has been paid, will have to pay a token of that same price.
For that reason I don’t believe missionary work has ever been easy, nor that conversion is, nor that retention is, nor that continued faithfulness is. I believe it is supposed to require some effort, something from the depths of our soul.
If He could come forward in the night, kneel down, fall on His face, bleed from every pore, and cry, “Abba, Father (Papa), if this cup can pass, let it pass,”11 then little wonder that salvation is not an easy thing for us. If you wonder if there isn’t an easier way, you should remember you are not the first one to ask that. Someone a lot greater and a lot grander asked a long time ago if there wasn’t an easier way.
When you struggle, when you are rejected, when you are spit upon and cast out, you are standing with the best life this world has ever known, the only pure and perfect life ever lived. You have reason to stand tall and be grateful that the Living Son of the Living God knows all about your sorrows and afflictions. The only way to salvation is through Gethsemane and on to Calvary. The only way to eternity is through Him—the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
I testify that the living God is our Eternal Father and that Jesus Christ is His living and Only Begotten Son in the flesh. I testify that this Jesus, who was slain and hanged on a tree,12 lives. The whole triumph of the gospel is that He lives, and because He does, so will we.
On that first Resurrection Sunday, Mary Magdalene first thought she saw a gardener. Well, she did—the Gardener who cultivated Eden and who endured Gethsemane. The Gardener who gave us the tree of life.
I declare Him to be the Savior of the world. I know that we are lifted up unto life because He was lifted up unto death. I bear witness that He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities, that He was a man of sorrows acquainted with grief because upon Him were laid the transgressions of us all.13
I bear witness that He came from God as a God to bind up the brokenhearted, to dry the tears from every eye, to proclaim liberty to the captive and open the prison doors to them that are bound.14 I promise that because of your faithful response to the call to spread the gospel, He will bind up your broken hearts, dry your tears, and set you and your families free. That is my missionary promise to you and your missionary message to the world.