Repent! A Commandment, or an Invitation?

While the scriptures are filled with invitations, the word “invite” or “invitation” only appears a few times, and only twice in in any meaningful way. Both of these are found in same chapter of the Book of Mormon. Alma 5. At a time when the church began to slip into apostasy, Alma, who had been serving as High Priest and Chief Judge, gave up the judgment seat to minister full-time, “That he might preach the word of God unto them, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty, and that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people, seeing no way that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down in pure testimony against them” (Alma 4:19). His preaching to the people of Zarahemla, recorded in Alma chapter 5, stands as one of the most powerful pleas for repentance found anywhere in scripture. Alma 5 contains enough for a lifetime of studying, but during some recent study I noticed Alma uses the word “Invitation” twice:

Alma 5:33: "Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith, repent, and I will receive you."

This invitation to repent is fundamental premise of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Throughout the rest of the sermon, Alma reiterates the invitation and the consequences of accepting or rejecting it. But the concept of inviting itself is important, too. The word “invitation” implies that we can choose. We don’t “have to” repent. We have agency. If ever the Latter-Day Saints had a pet doctrine, it might be the importance of agency. Knowing via modern revelation that Satan sought to take away the agency of man (Moses 4:3) and that our Heavenly Father insisted that we remain free to choose (see 2 Nephi 2:27), we understand the fundamental importance of agency in his plan.

In the last two sentences of the sermon, Alma makes this interesting statement:

61 And now I, Alma, do command you in the language of him who hath commanded me, that ye observe to do the words which i have spoken unto you. 62 I speak by way of commandment unto you that belong to the church; and unto those who do not belong to the church I speak by way of invitation, saying: come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye also may be partakers of the fruit of the tree of life. (emphasis added)

Here, specifically addressing baptized members, Alma switches from what might’ve been an invitation to a command. “I command you,” he says in verse 61, and “I speak by way of commandment unto you that belong to the church,” he repeats in 62. Why the stronger language? Do we have any less agency as members of the Church? Do we "have to" to repent? Of course not. (side note: We do if we want to obtain eternal life!) This is a nod to accountability. Why is it a commandment for members to repent? Because we've promised to. Because of what we know and the covenants we've made, the stakes are higher. We are under covenant obligation to repent and follow Christ. Thus the shift to the weightier term, commandment.

But I was also struck that he makes it clear that it’s not a commandment for those who haven’t made the baptismal covenant. “Unto those who do not belong to the church I speak by way of invitation.” It seems that Alma is making a clear distinction between baptized members who are commanded to repent because of the covenant they have made, and those who have not made covenants, do not have the same obligation, and therefore receive an invitation not a commandment.

Does it matter? I had two questions for myself after noticing the distinction:

  1. Do I take seriously the commandment to repent? Simple question to ask, but the commitment to always remember Christ and keep his commandments is not for the faint of heart.
  2. Do I judge those who are not under covenant for not keeping commandments, when instead I should be inviting them to repent and experience the blessings of the gospel? This mistake can be so easy to slip into. It’s important that we do not place the burden of our covenant obligations on the shoulders of those who have not made the covenant yet. 

Central to my testimony is the truth that God will hold me accountable according to my knowledge, understanding, covenants, and obedience. I hope to increase each of these so I can receive all the blessings God has in store. Meanwhile, I need to make sure that I truly live up to my level of covenant obligation, and respect others at theirs. 

Do you think this distinction is accurate? Do you know any related talks or scriptures? I'm still processing this whole concept, and I'd love your thoughts. As always, thanks for reading.