|Does “the plan of salvation” have more to do with the premortal life and the spirit world, or with sin and atonement?
|Recap: The plan of salvation can be summarized through the Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement. These three doctrines consist of six important events in every person’s progress: spiritual birth, death, and rebirth, and physical birth, death, and rebirth (resurrection).
I and my sister, Sarah, were both home from college one summer, and she had an evangelical free Christian friend who was taking a writing course at the community college. The friend (I can’t remember his name, but let’s call him John) was required to write a paper that involved interviewing and trying to learn about someone else’s view on some topic which he strongly disagreed on, like politics, the environment, morality, etc. He decided to interview Sarah about Mormon beliefs, and Sarah asked me to be there for it.
We talked around our kitchen table for about three hours. At one point, John asked me, “So, could you summarize the Mormon plan of salvation for me?” I said something like this: “We lived with God in the premortal life, then we came to earth and received a body. After we die, we go to the spirit world. Then after the Judgment, we each go to one of the three degrees of glory, depending on our choices.” In other words, I was following the familiar chart many of us have seen in Sunday school:
“Where am I going?”
After I finished, he asked me a question that made me feel kind of sheepish: “So, where is Jesus Christ in all that?” I realized that I had summarized the plan of salvation without mentioning Jesus Christ! Of course his role is in there implicitly, but I was talking about the plan of salvation as though it were a series of places. This traditional schematic we use, while helpful in answering certain questions like “Where do I come from?” or “What happens to me when I die?” focuses on locations, and thus is not equipped to answer other types of questions about the plan of salvation. For that reason, I think of it now as the “Location View” because it asks, “Where am I going?”
In contrast, I think of the three pillars schematic as the “Condition View” because it asks, “What am I becoming?” It focuses on my current state, and how similar (or dissimilar) it is to my Heavenly Father’s state.
“What am I becoming?”
I don’t know that it’s necessarily better than the more conventional Location View, but it certainly answers different questions. And I don’t think it would have left John asking, “So, where is Jesus Christ in all that?”
Whom Call Ye Father?
A second examples of how this model of the plan of salvation can give us new perspectives or ways of organizing our doctrinal knowledge has to do with the title “Father.” Using scriptural language, there will be three people in our lives whom we can refer to as “Father”: our earthly dads, Heavenly Father, and Jesus Christ. In each case the reason we do so is because that person provided us some type of birth.
The obvious one is our dads, who brought us into this world by means of physical birth. We call God our Father because he created our spirits, an event we sometimes call spiritual birth.((For example, see L. Lionel Kendrick, “Personal Revelation“, Ensign, Sep. 1999, p. 7.)) We can rightly call Jesus Christ “Father” because he gives us new life. As the First Presidency has explained, “If it be proper to speak of those who accept and abide in the Gospel as Christ’s sons and daughters [see Mosiah 5:7] … it is consistently proper to speak of Jesus Christ as the Father of the righteous, they having become His children and He having been made their Father through the second birthâ€”the baptismal regeneration.”((Joseph F. Smith, “The Father and the Son,” reprinted in Ensign, Apr. 2002, p. 13; quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, p. 353.)) Since Jesus Christ makes possible both spiritual rebirth and resurrection (physical “rebirth”), he is doubly worthy of the title “Father.”((The previously mentioned doctrinal exposition by the First Presidency, “The Father and the Son,” explains that Jesus Christ is also called Father because he created the world (“the father of heaven and earth”) and because he is perfectly united with God and represents him to mankind (“divine investiture of authority”).)) These usages of the name-title “Father” might be a little easier to keep straight if we place them on our Six Events chart:((If you wanted to, you could even add Father Adam to this chart, since he brought both physical and spiritual death to all of us. As Bruce R. McConkie noted, “Existence came from God; death came by Adam; and immortality and eternal life come through Christ” (Bruce R. McConkie, “Christ and the Creation,” Ensign, Jun. 1982, p. 9).))
Names of Christ
We can also organize several of the names of Christ on this chart, such as Only Begotten, Firstborn, and Firstfruits, as well as his important victory at the Ascension. Each of these names of Christ refers to one of the four births we experience in the plan of salvation.
Jesus Christ is the Only Begotten (John 1:14; 3:16) in that he is the only person whose physical birth into a mortal body stemmed from Heavenly Father himself. He is also referred to as the Firstborn. We often think of this as referring to his status as the first of God’s spirit children in the premortal life (e.g., D&C 93:21), which would thus be speaking of spirit birth. But this title is also used to refer to the fact that Jesus Christ was the first person to rise from the dead (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:15, 18), thus speaking of physical rebirth, or resurrection.((“Many do not see the double meaning of the word firstborn as it is used in these verses. Modern revelation helps make it clear. Jesus Christ is the Firstborn, then, in two senses of the word: he is the first spirit child born to God the Father in the premortal world, and he was the first one on this earth to be resurrected, or born from the grave.” Larry E. Dahl, “The Morning Breaks, the Shadows Flee,” Ensign, Apr. 1997, p. 12.)) A similar title is Firstfruits (e.g., 2 Ne. 2:8â€“9), which also refers to Christ’s resurrection. Finally, an oft mentioned but not fully appreciated doctrine is that of Christ’s Ascension. Just as he was the first to overcome physical death by reuniting with his body at the Resurrection, he was also the first to overcome spiritual death by reuniting with Father at the Ascension. Thus, the Ascension was just as earth-shattering an event as the Resurrection, for it was the first time in history that a descendant of Adam had bridged the separation from God. Just as we all will follow Christ in physical resurrection, we also hope to follow him in spiritual rebirth by walking back into the presence of God.
I hope this illustrates some of the insights waiting to be discovered by using the Creation-Fall-Atonement pattern to approach familiar doctrines. It may be interesting to note that generally speaking, non-LDS Christians would probably find this chart of six events useful as well. However, there is one particular way that we strongly differ with them in how we formulate this doctrine. I will explain it in my next post.