Monday, July 14, 2014

Analyzing Scripture: Mosiah 3:19 - "The Natural (Wo)man"

The full wording of Mosiah 3:19 is:
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

Here is the parsed version, phrase by phrase:

“For the natural

(“natural” is not defined here, but the term “natural man” is found in other passages in our canon [ironically, once and only once in each book of scripture in addition to Mosiah 3:19]. In each case [1 Corin. 2:14, Alma 2:21, D&C 67:12 and Moses 1:14], the term is used to reference those who are not in tune with the Spirit.

In that light, the best definitions from the dictionary are: “in a state of nature; uncultivated” and “having undergone little or no processing”. It appears that “natural” in this usage applies to those who have not been cultivated by the Spirit – who have not been involved in the repentance process. The other Book of Mormon verse is the most relevant, having been included by the same abridger, Mormon – and that verse clearly defines the “natural man” as that man who is unrepentant.)


Due to the subsequent discussion of becoming like a child, it is clear that this “natural man” does not refer to children when they are born. Rather, it applies to those who have have reached adulthood without previously having been “cultivated” and “processed” by the Spirit – who are unrepentant once they are accountable and no longer exempted from condemnation as children are. Also, this obviously is a generic use of “man” to include all “mankind” or “humanity” – including women.

“is an enemy to God,”

“Enemies” are those who fight or oppose someone. God’s work and glory is to change us [cultivate and process/refine us], so the unrepentant stand in direct opposition to that work and glory. Thus, they are “enemies to God”.

“and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever

ALL unrepentant adults – no exceptions


leads into examples of how not to be “natural”

“he yields

“gives up or surrenders” – This is the perfect word to describe what an enemy does to cease being an enemy.

“to the enticings of the Holy Spirit,”

Again, the Holy Spirit is the key, since it is the Spirit that drives repentance. “Enticings” is an interesting choice of words, since it means “things that attract by arousing hope or desire”. So, putting off the natural man means surrendering to the cultivation of the Spirit, because of an attraction to something that causes hope or desire - not as the result of a threat. Alma’s statement that a simple desire to know is enough of a catalyst to exercise faith is reflective of accepting the enticings of the Holy Spirit. Read Alma 32:27-28 in this light; the similarity is striking, especially since there is NO shared vocabulary of consequence in the two verses.

“and putteth off the natural man”

“Putteth off” is a description of action, similar to the concept of laying one’s burden at the Lord’s feet (Psalms 55:22) or taking his yoke upon you (Matt. 11:28-30). Interestingly, “putting off” a garment can be termed “changing clothes” – and repentance at its most basic level simply means “to change”. Therefore, putting off the natural man is the direct result of yielding to the enticings of the Holy Spirit and repenting.

and becometh a saint

“saint” means, at its most basic and common level, “a person of great holiness, virtue, or benevolence” – which all are listed in various places as manifestations of the Spirit and characteristics of godliness. Again, the qualifying factor is one’s willingness to quit fighting God and follow the Spirit.

“through the atonement of Christ the Lord,”

This occurs through the atonement of Christ, the Lord – and is reflective of Jesus’ statement that if He had not gone from the disciples, the Holy Ghost would not have come to dwell with them. [John 16:7]

“and becometh as a child,”

Given the focus thus far on a connection to the Spirit being the cure for the natural man, this could be a bit confusing if not followed by an explicit explanation.

“submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love,”

Each of these characteristics is central to the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, and about every other description of godliness. More importantly, they all are characteristics associated with listening for and following instructions – of a malleability that children possess but that is lacking in many adults who have been “hardened” by mortality.

“willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him,

“submit” means “give over or yield to the power or authority of another” – another perfect choice of words, given the use of “enemy” and “yield” earlier in the verse; “inflict” means “to impose as something that must be borne or suffered; to impose anything unwelcome”. This is fascinating, as it refers back to “the natural man” as not “welcoming” of anything that might be considered to be unfair or forced or demanding adherence simply due to another’s authority. It also is fascinating that the majority of definitions for “impose” are negative – showing how “natural” it is to not accept anything that is “inflicted” upon us 

even as a child doth submit to his father.”

What an amazing way to come full circle and highlight what happens when the Spirit changes the perception of a “natural [unrepentant and combative] (wo)man” who is an “enemy to God” into that of a “child” who submits to the authority of his “father”. The uncultivated, unprocessed man fights the cultivation and processing; the trusting child submits to that cultivation and processing. 


This verse does NOT describe children being born in a sinful state – or a blank slate. Rather, it describes children as being willing to obey the parents they see as authority figures – to allow those parents to shape and cultivate them through a process of alteration. The challenge, it seems, is for adults to transfer that childlike willingness to submit to an authority figure they can see into FAITH in somewhat hidden heavenly parents through feelings and promptings of the Spirit that can be dismissed as nothing more than emotions.

In other words:

Children act in full view of their earthly parents. The challenge is for adults to let go of their “hardness” and “intelligence” and “certainty in their own understanding” and become “pliable” and “teachable” and more “uncertain of their own expertise” once more (like little children) – turning to the Holy Ghost to help them “see” their Heavenly Parents and submit to that authority as they once submitted to the authority of their earthly parents.


Patty said...

I love how you've broken this down and defined the terms. I'm going to share this with a friend who I think will also appreciate it. :)

Bryan said...

It is interesting to me that we are to gain as much knowledge and intelligence as we can, while at the same time becoming humble, teachable, and uncertain of our own expertise. I think all of that can go hand in hand very nicely, even if we become confident in some areas of expertise.

Richard Alger said...