Alma 14:6-7, LeGrand Baker, sin is apostasy against Self
6 And it came to pass that Zeezrom was astonished at the words which had been spoken; and he also knew concerning the blindness of the minds, which he had caused among the people by his lying words; and his soul began to be harrowed up under a consciousness of his own guilt; yea, he began to be encircled about by the pains of hell.
7 And it came to pass that he began to cry unto the people, saying: Behold, I am guilty, and these men are spotless before God. And he began to plead for them from that time forth; but they reviled him, saying: Art thou also possessed with the devil? And they spit upon him, and cast him out from among them, and also all those who believed in the words which had been spoken by Alma and Amulek; and they cast them out, and sent men to cast stones at them.
8 And they brought their wives and children together, and whosoever believed or had been taught to believe in the word of God they caused that they should be cast into the fire; and they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire.
Repentance is, and must be, commensurate with the sin. It must also be balanced on the scale of one’s prior knowledge of the seriousness of the sin. John Thompson has pointed out to me that in the Law of Moses, the sin offerings were to make an atonement for sins committed unawares, but there was no sacrifice or offering that made atonement for deliberate sins.
The whole system of salvation for the dead is founded upon the understanding that when one is unaware, one is not irrevocably guilty. But, as this story demonstrates, repentance from deliberate sin is more difficult, and more painful—but also not impossible. Sin is a violation of the law of one’s own being, and that law of self is defined and sustained for each of us by the light of Christ. Sin is an apostasy from what one is, against one’s on sense of right and wrong, and against the common decencies that are inherent in the innate human sense of fair play.
As is often the case, when an individual (or a culture) begins to apostatize from the directives of his own conscience, he also begins to apostatize—and to support the apostasy of others—from the principles of human dignity and decency. Thus, a moral apostasy often results in a political apostasy as well, just as had happened with these people.
The idea of the reality of a political apostasy was first introduced to me by this extraordinary statement by President Wilford Woodruff.
“I will here say, before closing, that two weeks before I left St. George, the spirits of the dead gathered around me, wanting to know why we did not redeem them. Said they, “You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever done for us. We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remained true to it and were faithful to God.” These were the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and they waited on me for two days and two nights. I thought it very singular, that notwithstanding so much work had been done, and yet nothing had been done for them. The thought never entered my heart, form the fact, I suppose, that heretofore our minds were reaching after our more immediate friends and relatives. I straightway went into the baptismal font and called upon brother McCallister to baptize me for the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and fifty other eminent men, making one hundred in all, including John Wesley, Columbus, and others; I then baptized him for every President of the United States, except three; and when their cause is just, somebody will do the work for them.
“I have felt to rejoice exceedingly in this work of redeeming the dead. I do not wonder at President Young saying he felt moved upon to call upon the Latter-day Saints to hurry up the building of these Temples.” (Sunday, September 16, 1877, Journal of Discourses, 19:229)
The Founding Fathers believed that there is an innate sense of right and wrong that is the same in all people, and that the legitimate function of government is to make laws that are consistent with that universal sense of morality: to pass laws making wrong things illegal and to support things that are right. The Declaration of Independence is a catalogue of what they believed were those correct principles, and the Constitution is the functional authority that enabled governmental righteousness.
We (both as individuals and as a society) would do well to maintain intact the standard from which the Founding Fathers refused to apostatize. They believed that no person or government has the right to violate the legitimate sense of self— the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit happiness—of any other human being.
In that regard, these verses in Alma contain another warning that is also relevant to us in our time. Not everything that one’s dominant culture defines as sin is actually a violation of eternal principle. In this story, as is true in many human cultures, people defined good as evil, and evil as good. In our time, we would do well to be watchful that we do not expend our energy fighting against “sin” that is only identified as sin by our culture, but is not a sin in the eyes of God.