The scriptures make frequent reference to being born of God, being born of the Spirit, even being baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost. Just what is that rebirth, and how is it brought about?
Sacrifice and the Birth of the Spirit
In the Book of Mormon King Benjamin taught that the nature of mortal man was alien to God’s nature. He also defined, in the same verse, the desired status of a saint: “submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him.” (Mosiah 3:19.) A true saint is willing to be completely submissive to God.
Joseph Smith gives a similar definition:
Let us here observe, that a religion that does not re quire the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for, from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things….
It is in vain for persons to fancy to themselves that they are heirs with those, or can be heirs with them, who have offered their all in sacrifice, … unless they, in like manner, offer unto him the same sacrifice, and through that offering obtain the knowledge that they are accepted of him. (Lec haes on Faith, Salt Lake City: N. B. Lundwall, n.d., 6:7-8.)
Note that Latter-day Saints, under Prophet Joseph Smith, or under any ensuing prophet, have never been required to sacrifice all things (except for those who were martyred in the early days of the Church). However, many of the faithful were willing, and could see how temporary and unworthy worldly things were when compared to the value of the gospel and salvation.
Being Born Again
Nicodemus went to Jesus by night desiring to know what the requirements were for salvation. Succinctly, Jesus replied, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Not under standing, thinking Jesus was referring to a second mortal birth, Nicodemus asked how such could be. Then the Savior further defined the requirement: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” John 3:5.)
Thus the requirements were outlined for entrance into God’s kingdom. “Born of water” is certainly water baptism. Have we fulfilled this ordinance? For those of us in the Church of Jesus Christ, the answer is yes.
But have we been “born of the Spirit”? That is not quite so easy to answer. We have received the ordinance of laying on of hands called confirmation [for the receiving of the companionship of the Holy Ghost], but is that all there is to it? Does everything happen automatically after hands are laid upon our heads by those who have the Melchizedek Priesthood?
Have we been born of the Spirit? Have we been baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost?
Let Alma ask it in a different way: “And now behold, 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; italics added.)
Of course, there is no simple answer to the question, “Have you been spiritually reborn?” But there is an answer. To understand it, we must first understand the two separate and distinct blessings that can result from the ordinance of confirmation — first, the right of enjoyment of certain gifts of the Spirit; and second, that marvelous change that comes from the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost.
Gifts of the Spirit
The scriptures specify that the gifts of the Spirit are to
– know that Jesus is the Christ
– believe on the words of those that know
– know the differences of administrations
– have the gift of discernment
– have the word of knowledge
– have the gift of wisdom
– have the faith to be healed
– have the faith to heal
– have the opportunity of working miracles
– have the gift of prophecy
– speak in tongues
– have interpretation of tongues.
None of the preceding gifts speak of the mighty change that must be wrought upon the heart of man or of the forgiveness of sins that comes with the birth of the Spirit. Elder Bruce R. McConkie defines the “Gifts of the Spirit” as follows:
By the grace of God-following devotion, faith, and obedience on man’s part-certain special spiritual blessings called gifts of the Spirit are bestowed upon man….
Their purpose is to enlighten, encourage, and edify the faithful so that they will inherit peace in this life and be guided toward eternal life in the world to come….
Faithful persons are expected to seek the gifts of the Spirit with all their hearts. They are to “covet earnestly the best gifts.” … To some will be given one gift; to others, another…. (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 314.)
Baptism of Fire
Contrast the preceding comments on the gifts of the Spirit with Elder McConkie’s definition under “Baptism of Fire”:
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. … By the power of the Holy Ghost- who is the sanctifier (3 Nephi 27:19-21) -dross,iniquity,carnality,sensuality, and every evil thing is burned out of the human soul as if by fire; the cleansed person becomes literally a new creature of the Holy Ghost. (Mosiah 27:24-26.) He is born again.
The baptism of fire is not something in addition to the receipt of the Holy Ghost; rather, it is the actual enjoyment of the gift which is offered by the laying on of hands at the time of baptism. “Remission of sins,” the Lord says, comes “by baptism and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost.” (D & C 19:31; 2 Nephi 31:17.) Those who receive the baptism of fire are “filled as if with fire.” (Helaman 5:45.) (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed., p. 73; italics added.)
He also states under the section “Born Again”:
To gain salvation in the celestial kingdom men must be born again (Alma 7:14); born of water and of the Spirit (John 3:1-13); born of God, so that they are changed from their “carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness,” becoming new creatures of the Holy Ghost. (Mosiah 27:24-29.) They must become newborn babes in Christ (1 Peter 2:2); they must be “spiritually begotten” of God, be born of Christ, thus becoming his sons and daughters. (Mosiah 5:7.)
… The elements of water, blood, and Spirit are present in both births. (Moses 6:59-60.) The second birth begins when men are baptized in water by a legal administrator; it is completed when they actually receive the companionship of the Holy Ghost, becoming new creatures by the cleansing power of that member of the Godhead. (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed., p. 101.)
From Elder McConkie’s discussion, describing the gifts of the Spirit and birth of the Spirit, it is easy to discern the differences. First, the birth of the Spirit is essential to salvation, while the gifts of the Spirit are available as a great blessing to assist and give comfort to the Saints as they pursue the course of their lives. Second, the birth of the Spirit purges and sanctifies an individual so that as a “new creature of the Holy Ghost” he is capable of a life that approaches the standard necessary for exaltation–he is willing to sacrifice all earthly things.
Becoming a “New Creature in Christ”
The ancient prophets made it clear that a baptism of fire is necessary for us to be able to live in God’s presence eternally. One good example is Nephi’s explanation of what is required to be “in the straight and narrow way”:
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism – yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, according to his word, behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels, and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel. (2 Nephi 31:13; italics added.)
A few verses later Nephi reiterates what we must do to be born again:
Wherefore, do the things which I have told you I have seen that your Lord and your Redeemer should do; for, for this cause have they been shown unto me, that ye might know the gate by which ye should enter. For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission o,f your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost. (2 Nephi 31:17; italics added.)
Alma, during his great discourse on priesthood, states:
Therefore they were called after this holy order, and were sanctified, and their garments were washed white through the blood of the lamb.
Now they, after being sanctified by the Holy Ghost, having their garments made white, being pure and spotless before God, could not look upon sin save it were with abhorrence; and there were many, exceeding great many, who were made pure and entered into the rest of the Lord their God. (Alma 13:11-12; italics added.)
Alma also vividly describes his own conversion:
… I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit. And the Lord said unto me: Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in no wise inherit the kingdom of God. I say unto you, unless this be the case, they must be cast off ….Nevertheless, after wandering through much tribulation, repenting nigh unto death, the Lord in mercy hath seen fit to snatch me out of an everlasting burning, and I am born of God. (Mosiah 27:24-28; italics added.)
As the Savior taught the Nephites, he specifically declared their need to be born of the Spirit, saying: “After that ye are baptized with water, behold, I will baptize you with fire and with the Holy Ghost; therefore blessed are ye if ye shall believe in me and be baptized, after that ye have seen me and know that I am.” (3 Nephi 12:1; italics added.)
The Nephites then prayed that they would receive this great blessing, and
” … when they were all baptized and had come up out of the water, the Holy Ghost did fall upon them, and they were filled with the Holy Ghost and with fire.
“And behold, they were encircled about as if it were by fire; and it came down from heaven, … and angels did come down out of heaven and did minister unto them.” (3 Nephi 19:13-14; italics added.)
Next listen to Orson Pratt:
Without the aid of the Holy Ghost, a person who has long been accustomed to love sin, and whose affections and desires have long run with delight in the degraded channel of vice, would have but very little power to change his mind, at once, from its habituated course, and to walk in newness of life. Though his sins may have been cleansed away, yet so great is the force of habit that he would, without being renewed by the Holy Ghost, be easily overcome, and contaminated again by sin. Hence, it is infinitely important that the affections and desires should be, in a measure, changed and renewed, so as to cause him to hate that which he before loved, and to love that which he before hated: to thus renew the mind of man is the work of the Holy Ghost . ...The Baptism of fire, without doubt, had reference to the purifying qualities of the Holy Ghost, which, like fire, consumes or destroys the unholy affections of those who are made partakers of it. (N. B. Lundwall, comp., Discourses on the Holy Ghost, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, Inc., pp. 33, 35; italics added.)
A beautiful description of the effect of a spiritual rebirth is given by Elder B. H. Roberts:
In addition to this splendid array of powers and gifts of the Holy Ghost, we are told that the result of possessing him “is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, good ness, faith, meekness, and temperance.” Indeed we may say with the Apostle Parley P. Pratt – though slightly changing his language-the Holy Spirit adapts himself to all the organs and attributes of man. His influence quickens all the intellectual faculties, increases, enlarges, expands and purifies all the natural passions and affections; and adapts them by the gift of wisdom to their lawful use. It inspires, develops, cultivates and matures all the fine-toned sympathies, joys, tastes, kindred feelings and affections of our nature. It inspires virtue, kindness, goodness, tender ness, gentleness and charity. It develops beauty of person, form and feature. It tends to health, vigor, animation and social feeling. It develops and invigorates all the faculties of the physical and intellectual man. It strengthens, in vigorates and gives tone to the nerves. In short, it is, as it were, marrow to the bone, joy to the heart, light to the eyes, music to the ears, and life to the whole being. (Key to Theol ogy, p. 102) (TheGospel,9th ed., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1950, pp. 204-5.)
No Automatic Bestowal
With the preceding powerful statements of ancient and modern prophets fresh in our minds, some may be led to say in their hearts: “I have received the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands; why have I not received such an experience?”
The answer to that may well be that indeed they have not received the “gift” of the Holy Ghost! The ordinance of laying on of hands only entitles one to the gift when he qualifies for it. Listen to Elder McConkie:
Mere compliance with the formality of the ordinance of baptism does not mean that a person has been born again. No one can be born again without baptism, but the immersion in water and the laying on of hands to confer the Holy Ghost do not of themselves guarantee that a person has been or will be born again. The new birth takes place only for those who actually enjoy the gift or companionship of the Holy Ghost, only for those who are fully converted, who have given themselves without restraint to the Lord. Thus Alma addressed himself to his “brethren of the church,” and pointedly asked them if they had “spiritually been born of God,” received the Lord’s image in their countenances, and had the “mighty change” in their hearts which always attends the birth of the Spirit. (Alma 5:14-31.) (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed., p. 101.)
The birth of the Spirit will not come automatically. A person must make a concentrated effort in seeking this great blessing. Sometimes months and years of preparation will be required.
Will we know when we receive the birth of the Spirit? Does it come gradually so that we may have received it already and do not recognize it? There is no question that spiritual preparation to receive this “new birth” could be a long, gradual process. But the distinctive change spoken of by Alma leads me to believe that one cannot receive such an experience without a powerful awareness of it. Like the “witness of the Spirit,” we will easily recognize this gift when it comes, and we will know the day and the hour we receive it.
Another reason I believe we will know when the birth of the Spirit comes is that at that point our sins will be cleansed from us – an experience described by such words as “fire” and “burning.” Surely such an inward purging will be noticeable.
A modern prophet. President Marion G. Romney, says:
Conversion is effected by divine forgiveness, which remits sins. The sequence is something like this. An honest seeker hears the message. He asks the Lord in prayer if it is true. The Holy Spirit gives him a witness. This is a testimony. If one’s testimony is strong enough, he repents and obeys the commandments. By such obedience he receives divine forgive ness wlzich remits sin. Thus he is converted to a newness of life. His spirit is healed. (Improvement Era, Dec. 1963, p. 1066; italics added.)
Rebirth Experiences of Believers
Perhaps if we look at some of those who have experienced the spiritual rebirth we can better identify and relate to the process. A good starting point is the experience of Peter; his spiritual development is clearly delineated in the scriptures. Peter was closely associated with the Savior throughout most of His three-year ministry. Peter saw the healing of the sick, the raising of the dead, the calming of the seas. He saw Christ transfigured with Moses and Elias on the mount and heard the voice of God declare, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 17:5.)
Can we say that Peter had a testimony prior to the Savior’s death?
Most certainly we can. At one point Jesus asked his disciples, “Whom say ye that I am?” And “Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
“And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:15-17; italics added.) Here Jesus con firmed that Peter did indeed know, by revelation, of the divinity of Christ’s mission.
But even though Peter had a testimony, he still wasn’t converted. A year later Jesus said to him, “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” (Luke 22:32; italics added.)
It is interesting to see the remarkable change that took place in Peter when he did become converted. The power and strength of Peter in the book of Acts is beyond question. When did Peter receive this “mighty change” in his heart? Keep in mind that Peter’s preaching in Acts was directed to the very people who had killed Christ and could do the same to him. The “mighty change” that drove out the fear, intensified the commitment, and gave power to his testimony came forty-nine days after the res urrection of our Savior at Pentacost with the bestowal of the Holy Ghost upon the Church.
Could it be that the Twelve Apostles were “born of fire” at this time? I believe they were. Peter’s experience not only verifies the difference between testimony and conversion, but it also dramatically reveals the intensity of the impact which the “mighty change” makes upon the hearts of men.Some more modern examples may also help the reader to evaluate his status relative to spiritual rebirth. Note how similar these examples are to the scriptural accounts. Elder Parley P. Pratt recounts the following incident in his autobiography:
My dear wife had now lived to accomplish her destiny; and when the child was dressed, and she had looked upon it and embraced it, she ceased to live in the flesh. Her death happened about three hours after the birth of this child of promise. A few days previous to her death she had a vision in open day while sitting in her room. She was overwhelmed or immersed in a pillar of fire, which seemed to fill the whole room, as if it would consume it and all things therein; and the Spirit whispered to her mind, saying: “Thou art baptized with fire and the Holy Ghost.” It also intimated to her that she should have the privilege of departing from this world of sorrow and pain, and of going to the Paradise of rest as soon as she had fulfilled the prophecy in relation to the promised son. This vision was repeated on the next day at the same hour, viz: twelve o’clock. She was overwhelmed with a joy and peace indescribable, and seemed changed in her whole nature from that time forth. (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1972. p. 166; italics added.)
President Lorenzo Snow also relates the choice experience of his rebirth:
Some two or three weeks after I was baptized, one day while engaged in my studies, I began to reflect upon the fact that I had not obtained a knowledge of the truth of the work … and I began to feel very uneasy. I laid aside my books, left the house, and wandered around through the fields under the oppressive influence of a gloomy, disconsolate spirit, while an indescribable cloud of darkness seemed to envelope me. I had been accustomed, at the close of the day, to retire for secret prayer, to a grove … but at this time I felt no inclination to do so. The spirit of prayer had departed and the heavens seemed like brass over my head. At length, realizing that the usual time had come for secret prayer, I concluded I would not forego my evening service, and, as a matter of formality, knelt as I was in the habit of doing, and in my accustomed retired place, but not feeling as I was wont to feel.
I had no sooner opened my lips in an effort to pray, than I heard a sound, just above my head, like the rustling of silken robes, and immediately the Spirit of God descended upon me, completely enveloping my whole person, filling me, from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet, and 0, the joy and happiness I felt! No language can describe the almost instantaneous transition from a dense cloud of mental and spiritual darkness into a refulgence of light and knowledge, as it was at that time imparted to my understanding…. It was a complete baptism a tangible immersion in the heavenly principle or element, the Holy Ghost; and even more real and physical in its effects upon every part of my system than the immersion by water; dispelling forever, so long as reason and memory last, all possibility of doubt. …
I cannot tell how long I remained in the full flow of the blissful enjoyment and divine enlightenment, but it was several minutes before the celestial element which filled and surrounded me began gradually to withdraw. On arising from my kneeling posture, … I knew.’ that He had conferred on me what only an omnipotent being can confer – that which is of greater value than all the wealth and honors worlds can bestow. That night, as I retired to rest, the same wonderful manifestations were repeated, and continued to be for several successive nights. The sweet remembrance of those glorious experiences … impart[s] an inspiring influence … and I trust will to the close of my earthly existence. (Biography a11d Family Record of Lorenzo Snow, comp. Eliza R. Snow, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1884, pp. 7-9; most italics added.)
With these examples fresh in your mind, can you visualize the spiritual impact of such an experience? Can you picture how those who have been reborn can more fully live the law of sacrifice after such a rebirth? Can you see how the ability to live much closer to the standard of a Christlike life would be increased? The desirability of the spiritual rebirth is beyond question.
Have we had that experience? As Alma asked: “Have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?”
*Adapted from Born of the Spirit by E. Richard Packham, CFI Publishers, Springville, Utah, 2008.
Gale is Managing Editor for More Good Foundation. She is a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.