Sunday, November 23, 2014

Why I Believe: Evidence Twenty: Joseph Smith and the “New Heart” Promised for the Last Days

101 Reasons Why I Believe Joseph Smith Was A Prophet

Evidence Twenty:  
Joseph Smith and the “New Heart” Promised for the Last Days© 

Last Sunday I taught the Gospel Doctrine lesson in Sunday School.  The material came from the book of Jeremiah. For me, Jeremiah in some ways is an interesting contrast to Isaiah.  While Isaiah is obscured by the metaphorical language of Hebrew poetry, Jeremiah is rather plain and straight forward, though he too uses a lot of symbolism. In any case, last week’s lesson gave rise to another “evidence” for the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. It is one I felt was worth sharing more widely than Sunday School.

The lesson combined two seemingly unrelated topics–the gathering of Israel and Jeremiah’s great prophecy about how in the last days the Lord would write God’s law in their hearts. Many modern Mormons find the “gathering of Israel” a fairly dry if not boring subject. That is sad because Joseph Smith said it was one of the more important doctrines in the last days. Indeed, he returned to the subject numerous times and his commentary on the parables in Matthew 13 on that subject is a masterpiece.  But that is for another day. It was an important topic for Jeremiah as well.  Fifteen of the fifty-two chapters (29%) in his book contain significant statements about the gathering. Of those fifteen, three entire chapters and significant portions of three more are devoted to the subject. In each instance prophecies of the scattering and gathering of Israel are generally found together. Judah would have found his prophecies of the scattering and the judgments and destruction attendant to it as disheartening and depressing messages. But, it is as if Jeremiah felt compelled to hold out hope for the future by also  predicting a glorious gathering attendant with the supreme blessings of the Lord.  

According to Jeremiah and Ezekiel the judgments and scattering came upon Judah because of the extreme corruption and wickedness of the society, caused by corrupt and wicked leaders.  In Jeremiah 16 following a litany of accusations and a prediction of the scattering, the people have the temerity to question the prophet as to why those judgments were to come upon them. He mentions the wickedness of their fathers, and then in verse twelve he says, “And ye have done worse than your fathers; for behold, ye walk every one after the evil imagination [Heb. reads “stubbornness” or “hardness”] of his evil heart, that they may not hearken unto me....” So, the important principle to mention here is that one of the major reasons for the scattering in 587 BC, was because of the hard and evil hearts of the people. This phrase appears thirteen times in the Old Testament, eight of which are in the book of Jeremiah.(1) Obviously the stubborn or hard hearts of the leaders and the people were at the root of the wickedness of Israelite society in this period.

Jeremiah was a prophet for 40 years and during part of that time he was contemporary with Lehi, who also predicted judgments upon and scattering of the people because of the wicked state of their society. Lest we think Lehi may have overdone things a bit when he claimed that he fled because the people were seeking his life because of his predictions and accusations, Jeremiah himself tells of the prophet Urijah who was also their contemporary. He fled to Egypt because they also sought his life.  Jeremiah says that Jehoiakim sent men after him. They tracked him down and brought him back to Jerusalem. Then Jeremiah reports that Urijah was brought unto Jehoiakim “who slew him with the sword, and cast his dead body into the graves of the common people.”(2) That qualifies as exhibit “A” for a hard heart, and shows us that the accounts of the conditions in Jerusalem given to us by Jeremiah and Lehi are accurate.

But, Jeremiah said a day would come when things would be different.  His famous prophecy is found in chapter 31: 31-33:
31) Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: 32) Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord: 33) But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel: After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
The prophet Ezekiel spoke similarly:(3)
19) And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh: That they may walk in my statutes, and keep mine ordinances, and do them: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
Here is the main point of this essay. If the problem was a hard and wicked heart, the solution is a soft, open, willing, and obedient heart. The statements of both Jeremiah and Ezekiel state that in the latter day the soft open hearts of the people would be due exclusively to the action of God–he would give them a soft heart of flesh and write his law in their hearts. This is perfectly acceptable to many Protestants, particularly those who closely follow Luther and Calvin. Reformed Calvinists in particular would say this is exactly in line with the  “by grace ye are saved, not by works” doctrine.

Some reflection, however, raises the question as to how meaningful that changed heart would really be if it is caused solely by the actions of God without anything being done on the part of the individual to assist in its development. Predestination or the fickle will of God could be the only explanation for God holding one group of people accountable for having obdurate hearts and giving a soft heart to another, completely different group and promising them glorious blessings.  But this only heightens how meaningless a discussion of a new heart really is with those who deny any requirement or value of  personal effort. Moreover, how can prophecies about a new heart on those conditions give any hope to Jeremiah’s contemporaries with hard hearts? It also ignores an imperative passage in Ezekiel 18:31 which says, “... and make you a new heart and a new spirit....” This implies some effort on the part of the individual. But it is not as Elder Bednar once characterized the beliefs of some Saints that “we must make the journey from good to better and become a saint all by ourselves, through sheer grit, willpower, and discipline....”(4)  It is not an “all-or-none” situation either way.

If we accept this latter statement from Ezekiel it suggests that the process of having a new heart is dual in nature, it requires effort on our part as well as the actions of God in our behalf. If we assume with Paul, that we really do have to do something in working out our own salvation, then unfortunately, we look in vain  for any detailed discussion of this issue in the Bible as we have it. The problem is correctly identified and the Lord promises it will be reversed in a future day, but there is no explanation as to how man carries out his role in the process.

Enter the Book of Mormon.  The incomparable Alma speaks of the “mighty change” which took place in his own heart and that of his people, but later he asks his audience if they have experienced this mighty change.(5)  Yet, even that important reference is superceded by the great temple sermon of King Benjamin early in the book of Mosiah. There it becomes evident that there are several spiritual steps leading up to the mighty change of heart and it is clear that both the Atonement of Christ and the actions of the people are necessary for the mighty change of heart to take place. Here are just four pertinent passages from that sermon, beginning with Mosiah 2:9, 3:19 and 4:2 (my emphasis added):

Preparation:   
9) My brethren, all ye that have assembled yourselves together, you that can hear my words which I shall speak unto you this day; for I have not commanded you to come up hither to trifle with the words which I shall speak, but that you should hearken unto me, and open your ears that ye may hear, and your hearts that ye may understand, and your minds that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view.
Put off the natural man, put on Christlike qualities :  
19) For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, for ever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.
Pray for mercy and the benefits of the Atonement:  
2) And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth.  And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified... (6)
There follows a lengthy discussion about the proper treatment of the poor and then in Mosiah 5:2 we are instructed about,

The Spirit’s work:  
2) And they all cried with one voice, saying: “yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also we know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.(7)
The above process may be perfectly summarized by this passage found in Helaman 3:35:
35) Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God.
As I said above, I do not know of any comparable discussion about the changing of the heart in any Biblical passage! Yet, that, according to Jeremiah and Ezekiel is what will be needed in the last days when Israel and Judah are gathered again and the temple built. Does anyone really believe that young Joseph Smith read the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel and discovered the major reason for the Lord’s displeasure with Judah about 600 B.C. was that the people had hard hearts which led them into all sorts of spiritual difficulties, so he went searching through the Bible for an explanation how to correct the problem–how to soften people’s hearts–but he couldn’t find any; so, he presumed to make up a story in the Book of Mormon that would provide it? Really? That explanation for the passages in Mosiah 2-5 and Alma 5 does not wash with me. So, we are faced with the wonderful reality of those remarkable chapters which so seamlessly answer the need expressed in Jeremiah and Ezekiel! To me it is another evidence of the Lord’s almost imperceptible guiding hand, bringing together in one in this dispensation all important things from all previous dispensations. As I have pointed out before, Joseph Smith is a man with the answers to many of the most important spiritual questions of all time. Yet sometimes those answers are so subtly woven into the fabric of the Standard Works and the Gospel that it is easy for us to overlook their uniqueness, to miss the singularity of their existence and appreciate the depth of their importance.

For me, of course, this kind of thing simply adds to the evidences we are considering in this topic. It adds evidence and testimony that Joseph Smith was a prophet, inspired by God to bring forth the scriptures and revelations which he did and of their superlative importance in these last days as the Lord prepares the earth for its glorious conclusion.

Thank God for Joseph Smith, man with the answers.

Lets think together again, soon.

Notes:
1. See, 3:17, 7:24, 9:14, 11:8, 13:10, 16:12, 18:12, and 23:17.
2. See Jer. 26:20-23.
3. Ezek. 11:19-20.  See also  Ezek. 36:24-28.
4. David A. Bednar, “The Atonement and the Journey of Mortality,” Ensign (May 2012), p. 42. 
5. See Alma 5:2, 12-14.
6. In connection with items 2 and 3 above from Mosiah, it is evident we must repent.  According to Elder Russell M. Nelson, “Each personal imperfection is an opportunity to change–to repent.  Repentance, at any age, provides needed progress.  It leads to a mighty change of heart, which leads to a love of God and your neighbor, especially that neighbor to whom you are married.  Repentance includes forgiveness, and forgiveness is a commandment.”  See, Russell M. Nelson, “The Doctrinal Importance of Marriage and Children,” address to The Worldwide Leadership Training meeting, February 2012, Internet edition.
7. The reader will also benefit greatly by reading, Wilford W. Andersen, “Receiving and Retaining a Mighty Change,” Ensign, (April 2012): 35-37, in which he stresses that it is the process of entering into the covenant of baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, the agent that sanctifies and purifies us, whereby we experience this mighty change of heart.  What he teaches and what I have added from King Benjamin, are in my mind saying essentially the same thing.   However, Elder Andersen goes on to point  out that we "retain" that mighty change by partaking of the Sacrament weekly.  This growth and change for most people is “slow, almost imperceptible.”  See, Ezra Taft Benson, “A Mighty Change of Heart,” Ensign (October 1989), p. 5.

4 comments:

  1. Very insightful and uplifting. I really enjoyed the essay. I think I will use it for a the lesson.

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    1. Thanks Eric. Always nice to hear from you.

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  2. Thank you for this well written entry. I was familiar with all of the scriptures about the "new heart" and "mighty change" before reading this post but hadn't ever tied them together like you did. After reading your entries I come away with a greater understanding of doctrine and a deeper desire to become a gospel scholar.

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    1. Thanks Matt. The Gospel is more exciting than ever for me. It is great to have the time to study and do a little writing.

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