October 2010, LDS General Conference, Sunday afternoon session.
I’m usually sound asleep by this session of conference. There is nothing else in the world that puts me to sleep like General Conference. Nevertheless, I remember a particular talk by Elder David Bednar that I reflect on frequently.
His sermon was entitled Receive the Holy Ghost.
I’ll wait a moment while you read or listen to it.
A whisper from the Audience: “Sssh, be quiet, he thinks we’re reading.”
Okay, so there is one particular paragraph that I love.
These four words—“Receive the Holy Ghost”—are not a passive pronouncement; rather, they constitute a priesthood injunction—an authoritative admonition to act and not simply to be acted upon (see 2 Nephi 2:26). The Holy Ghost does not become operative in our lives merely because hands are placed upon our heads and those four important words are spoken. As we receive this ordinance, each of us accepts a sacred and ongoing responsibility to desire, to seek, to work, and to so live that we indeed “receive the Holy Ghost” and its attendant spiritual gifts.
Whenever I think about the gift of the Holy Ghost, I think to myself: “The gift of the Holy Ghost is a priesthood injunction.”
What does this mean?
How does seeing the “gift” as an injunction change the nature of the gift?
Or, in other words, what do we, as a church, misunderstand about the gift of the Holy Ghost? Do we see it as an entitlement?
Holy Ghost as Evidence
In Acts 10, a series of miraculous events unfolds to conduct Peter to the house of Cornelius where he encountered a group of gentile believers. While Peter was addressing them:
… the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (NIV Acts 10:44-47)
So these gentiles received the “gift of the Holy Ghost” (KJV Acts 10:45) without a laying on of hands by a church authority.
The normal order of baptism and receipt of the Holy Ghost is here reversed. Peter and his cohorts do not question that the Holy Ghost has been granted to the new believers. They do not question that the Holy Ghost was given without the laying on of hands.
They figure: “Okay, well that part’s done. Now, let’s formalize your sanctification with baptism as a evidence to God and community that you are a follower of Jesus. Who’s first?”
Granted, there may have been some other formalities, such as filling out the necessary forms in triplicate, printing certificates, and other such tasks, but the apostles didn’t say: “Hey, you can’t do that, you haven’t been confirmed a member of the church yet.”
In the New Testament, there is the often expectation that the Holy Ghost provides evidentiary gifts; a visible sign that someone has received the gift of the Holy Ghost and a witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is generally not a passive pronouncement or formality, but an event of significance that seals the testimony of Christ into the hearts of those affected. Peter understood this and accepted the experience of these gentiles as valid testimony of the gift they received.
Who Else Gets The Gift?
In the LDS church we are fond of codifying belief and worthiness, but we would be poor Christians if claimed that God’s love for his children is constrained by paper forms and name badges.
Regardless of faith tradition, I expect that elevating truth, willful love, and righteous desires are validated by the Holy Ghost to the heart of the believer. To claim otherwise would dishonor scripture and the testimonies of millions of other Christians.
Personally, I don’t think that quibbling over distinctions between power of, testimony of, and gift of the Holy Ghost is a productive or fruitful distinction in this respect. It seems much better to acknowledge that the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit testifies of truth and enlightens those that sincerely choose to do the will of God. I am not in a position to judge those who would lay claim to God’s Spirit as unworthy or deceived, when their fruits often show otherwise.
Speaking of the period of time between the deaths of Christ’s apostles and the restoration, President John Taylor said something that I think is representative of my point.
There were men in those dark ages who could commune with God, and who, by the power of faith, could draw aside the curtain of eternity and gaze upon the invisible world. … There were men who could gaze upon the face of God, have the ministering of angels, and unfold the destinies of the world. If those were dark ages I pray God to give me a little darkness. (as quoted in The Crucible of Doubt, pg 56)
So, What Can We Claim?
From the Audience: “If the gift of the Holy Ghost can be received by those not of our church, what do we have that makes our faith exclusive or unique among other faith traditions?”
I suppose it comes down to priesthood authority of the restoration and—dare I say—submission to that authority. I don’t mean submission to the specific priesthood holder that performs the confirmation or even the church hierarchy, but something more personal.
It isn’t accidental that the “confirmation” as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the injunction to receive the Holy Ghost are both contained in the same priesthood action. The receiver of this confirmation is essentially being bound to a commitment to support other believers (See Mosiah 18:8) and acknowledge the body of principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that govern righteousness—as taught by the restored church and the priesthood thereof. You might say a person is sealed to the church.
Accepting the injunction implies a commitment to action in order to make it effective, which is what Christ wants, a willing (acting) heart. In the words of Elder Bednar:
Let me suggest that we need to
(1) sincerely desire to receive the Holy Ghost,
(2) appropriately invite the Holy Ghost into our lives, and
(3) faithfully obey God’s commandments.
If you want expansion on these points, you’ll have to read Elder Bednar’s talk.
So, rather than worrying about who gets or got what, may we each seek the gift of the Holy Ghost, the fruit of which is “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. … Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” (NIV Galatians 5:22-26)
Have you received the Holy Ghost?