I gave a sermon in church a little bit ago, and while I was studying for it I had my eyes opened to a message about how some people knowing what is good, and some people do what is good, but neither one of these alone is quite the same as being what is good.
And I know that what God intends for all of us is to be the good. He doesn’t want us to be limited to just knowing theory or only doing good things out of duty. He wants our very hearts to change, for us to become His children. That’s what His gospel is really geared towards. I felt like I only scratched the surface of this topic when I was preparing for that sermon, and now I want to really dig in deeper.
And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
And he said unto him…if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
He saith unto him, Which?
Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
…if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments
As I have already suggested, the act of becoming is more important than the act of doing, and indeed the rest of this scriptural recounting bears that notion out. But I do not mean to suggest that doing good is not important. Frankly no one will become a Christ-like person without doing Christ-like actions. The process generally is one does first, and in so doing gradually becomes. Hence in this moment Christ begins by asking for the doing of good, and already promises blessings for meeting that call.
All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
And yet this young man still feels that something is missing in life. He’s been checking everything off the list but still isn’t satisfied. I appreciate his honesty. It doesn’t seem that he came to boast, to have Jesus validate his perfection. It seems he authentically wanted to know what the next level of discipleship entailed.
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor
Note the wording here. Jesus does not say “if thou wilt do perfectly,” he says “if thou wilt be perfect.” And while I still believe there is a reward for those that keep the commandments merely as a rite of duty, Jesus is teaching that there is a greater reward for those which become something more.
But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
But in this moment the young man isn’t willing to face that sacrifice. The more I think about it the more I am certain Jesus knew that giving away riches would test that man to the breaking point, which is exactly why that was called for. Because since it wasn’t in that man’s heart naturally to let go of his possessions, it was only going to occur by there being a change of heart. If giving to the poor would have been easy to the man, then Jesus would have asked him to do something else that was hard instead.
I think of my own life, and there are some commandments which are easy for me to keep and some which are hard. Take for example the commandment inherent in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: that my body is a temple and I must treat it as sacred.
Now there are multiple facets of this commandment. Partaking in illicit drugs has personally never been a temptation for me, but for a very long time I did not give my body any exercise, nor the healthy food that it deserves.
And so when God came to prick my conscience it was not to abstain from illicit drugs, I would be able to consent to that with absolutely no change of my heart whatsoever. No, instead He pricked my heart about the exercising and eating healthy food, because He knew that was only ever going to happen with a real change of heart.
Just so you know, I’d say he’s gotten about a 50% change out of me so far. I still struggle with the food aspect, but I’m not done working on my heart and certainly neither is He!
Matthew 16:15-17, Luke 22:32
He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
And Simon 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 Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.
The above passages represent Jesus addressing Simon Peter at two different points in time: one in the middle of his ministry, and the other immediately before Jesus’s atoning sacrifice and crucifixion.
The significance of these two scriptures laid side-by-side I cannot claim to have discovered myself. Rather I will present two excerpts from Elder Dallin H. Oaks’ October 2000 address entitled The Challenge to Become:
…And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven
Peter had a testimony. He knew that Jesus was the Christ, the promised Messiah, and he declared it. To testify is to know and to declare.
I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.
In order to strengthen his brethren—to nourish and lead the flock of God—this man who had followed Jesus for three years, who had been given the authority of the holy apostleship, who had been a valiant teacher and testifier of the Christian gospel, and whose testimony had caused the Master to declare him blessed still had to be “converted.”
Jesus’ challenge shows that the conversion He required for those who would enter the kingdom of heaven was far more than just being converted to testify to the truthfulness of the gospel. To testify is to know and to declare. The gospel challenges us to be “converted,” which requires us to do and to become. If any of us relies solely upon our knowledge and testimony of the gospel, we are in the same position as the blessed but still unfinished Apostles whom Jesus challenged to be “converted.”
Matthew 26:33-35, 73-75
Peter answered and said unto him, Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended.
Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.
Peter said unto him, Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee. Likewise also said all the disciples.
And after a while came unto him they that stood by, and said to Peter, Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech bewrayeth thee.
Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew.
And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.
Previously we observed that Peter had a testimony of the Savior, yet Jesus declared that he still needed a conversion. That Jesus was correct in this appraisal is evident from the passages above. Peter claimed that he would stay by his master’s side to death, and likely he sincerely felt he had it in him at the time. But when the prospect of martyrdom drew uncomfortably near he gave in to fear and denied his discipleship.
Notice that the accusation made to him is not of what he knows, or what he does, it is of who he is: “thou art one of them.” He denies that, and by so doing confesses that by word and deed he may have been a follower of Christ, but a part of his heart has still remained unconverted. There is some becoming that he still lacks.
Fortunately his journey does not end here, as we all know he eventually does become the rock upon which Christ can build his church. Tomorrow we will study how that process of becoming occurred.
John 21:3, 15-17, 19
Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing.
So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.
He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me.
Peter the apostle had his trial of identity during Jesus’s own trial, and we have examined how he ultimately found himself falling short, unwilling to be the disciple he had thought he would be. These next passages are taken shortly after the death the Savior. Here Peter and a few other disciples decide to go out fishing, returning to the pattern of life they have always known. It is hard to blame Peter. He had been tested and found wanting, perhaps he didn’t feel worthy of his calling anymore.
In this moment Jesus comes and, as at the first time, calls Peter back to the work. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland paraphrased in his October 2012 address entitled The First Great Commandment:
Peter, why are you here? Why are we back on this same shore, by these same nets, having this same conversation? Wasn’t it obvious then and isn’t it obvious now that if I want fish, I can get fish? What I need, Peter, are disciples—and I need them forever. I need someone to feed my sheep and save my lambs.
I can definitely sympathize with Peter. I too have felt ashamed of going astray, and have felt that the call to become no longer applied. I have returned back to what I was comfortable with, wanting to identify myself with something lesser, something that doesn’t require faith.
But like Peter, I have found the Savior doesn’t give up on me, even if I have. He ever calls me to try again, to become the child of God he knows I truly am.
Matthew 4:6, 27:40, 3:17
And when the tempter came to him, he said…If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross.
And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
Peter’s test was to be challenged in his commitment to his identity. He called himself a disciple of Jesus, but when pressed by fear he then denied that. It is tragic, but also very relatable. For many of us our crisis of faith involves us similarly questioning who we really are.
Maybe we feel we don’t know as much as we should and maybe we feel we don’t do as much as we should, but where the guilt of these failings comes to their full agony is when they make us feel that maybe then we aren’t the person we should be. At one point or another we have all asked: Am I really a child of God?
And when the tempter came to him, he said…If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down…
If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross.
In these crises of identity it may be helpful to recall that Jesus was tempted in the exact same fashion. Very early in his ministry Satan came to tempt him, and Satan’s attack was immediately to cast doubt on Jesus’s identity. If thou be the Son of God.
But the accusations did not end after that initial temptation. In fact, in the Savior’s final moments on the cross the exact same doubt was cast by the people at his feet. If thou be the Son of God.
The similarity between these moments are astounding. In fact each calls for the same action: come down. It is the same demand made of each of us. Stop thinking you can be a worthy son or daughter of God, come down.
This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
Fortunately there is another voice as well, and one that repudiates the tempter. God knows our identities are challenged, and He speaks to reaffirm our worthiness. This is my beloved Son. He establishes identity, being, and character.
I am convinced that of all the truths God wants me to have faith in, this is the one He wants most of all: You are my son. If I allow myself to be His son, then the knowing and the doing will just naturally flow from that.
Jeremiah 24:7, Ezekiel 11:19, Psalm 51:10
And I will give them an heart to know me, that I am the Lord: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: for they shall return unto me with their whole heart.
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.
Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.
Thus far we’ve studied examples that illustrate how God wants us to become a good person, more than He wants us to merely know or do good things. As we recognize and accept that divine identity within us, goodness naturally flows from us without coercion.
But the idea that God wants us to become something presents a difficult quandary and it invites all manner of anxious questions. How exactly do I change myself into something new? What if I can’t make myself better? What if I haven’t figured out how to change my heart with the flip of a switch?
Well, I won’t leave you in suspense, you can’t and you won’t. You need to be changed at your core, and that frankly is not within your power.
And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you
It is God who changes the heart and God alone. If ever we are to experience a real transformation it is purely by an act of grace from Him.
Certainly it is within our power to do good works which invite God to change us, but make no mistake that it is still God who does the actual changing. We get ourselves to the right place, then He does the miracle.
But that might bring up other anxious questions. What if God just doesn’t show up for me? What if I do my part and then He never makes that change in my heart?
It really goes against our grain to depend on someone else like that. Our human natures balk at the idea of giving up direct control to trust in someone else. We would much rather that God just give us a to-do list and send us on our way.
If I knew that I needed to utter so many hours of prayer, attend church for so many weeks, and read so many verse of scripture, then that would mean it was entirely up to me whether I made it into heaven or not. That is how I would prefer it.
But that is not how it works, is it? You simply cannot earn your way into heaven. God knows that this is uncomfortable for us, and frankly He designed it to be so. God requires us to be humble, to rely on faith, and to depend on Him. You’re right that if He didn’t show up for you it would be very bad, but He promises that He will.
As you submit to that you’ll probably feel something hard and heavy breaking and falling away from you in the process. That would be your pride.
I really enjoyed doing this study. It really felt like delving into the heart of the gospel, and coming to really understand God’s purposes for me. Not only that, but I also came to better understand my own obstacles to achieving those purposes. I don’t blame myself for having obstacles, the ones I have are common to all mankind: pride, a desire for control, a lack of faith. But now that I know what they are I know what to work on. Let’s take a look at some of the things we’ve observed.
having a testimony and Doing Good Works are Important
The last thing I would want anyone to assume from this study is that I am saying learning the gospel and keeping the commandments are somehow unnecessary. Conversion is the culmination of these two, and doesn’t happen without them. We need to increase our testimony and we need to do good deeds. We need to do these even when they don’t come naturally to us, and Jesus has called “blessed” those that do.
Matthew 16:17- And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
Matthew 19:17- If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
We Increase Our testimony and Do Good So That We Might Be Changed
While still valuing our testimony and righteousness for their own sake, we can still ask for a conversion to be added to them. As I mentioned above, sometimes exercising faith and keeping the commandments may come unnaturally to us. That’s alright, but the hope is that one day we’ll be changed so that they become much more a part of us.
God wants children who do good because they love the good, not because they are afraid of being punished otherwise. As anyone who has tried to follow God’s plan can attest to, it is in the doing that the love enters the heart.
Ezekiel 11:19- 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.
Psalm 51:10- Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.
the change that comes is a miracle
All of us want to feel that we are in control of our own growth. We want to be assigned specific homework that we know if we complete will garner us a specific grade. Peter was looking for this when he asked the Lord how many times exactly he had to forgive another.
The fact is for our hearts to be changed is outside of our power. It’s going to literally take an act of God for anyone to truly transform into someone else. That means handing our hearts over to God and trusting that He will work a miracle to change it for us.
Matthew 6:27- Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?
Jeremiah 24:7- And I will give them an heart to know me, that I am the Lord: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: for they shall return unto me with their whole heart.
change follows A TRIAL
The Savior taught us that new wine cannot be put into old bottles. Often we try to ask God for that new of heart, while still trying to hold onto our old one. It’s understandable to be afraid and to want to stay where we feel familiar and safe…but we simply can’t have it both ways.
What holds us back is fear, and that fear is not of God. As he did to Jesus and Peter, Satan comes to us all and says “no, you are your old and sinful self, you cannot be anything different.” He casts doubt on God’s ability to change us, tries to convince us we will never be anything more than our basest selves.
I held myself back from God for a long while because I was afraid He would take from me all the parts I loved best. It took a lot of love and care from Him before I started to see that I could trust Him. Bit by bit He convinced me that He would be careful with my heart. I’m so very glad that He did.
Matthew 19:21-22- Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
Luke 22:32- But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.