“Most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost”. (Alma 39:5) This is the phrase that Alma uses as he chastises his son, Corianton in chapter 39 of Alma after Corianton had left the ministry and gone after the harlot, Isabel.
But Alma is not talking about sexual sin. Fornication and adultery certainly are serious sins, but they are not the ones Alma is talking about. A close reading of this chapter reveals that he is talking about something more destructive; the sin of abetting the spiritual death of another person.
Alma remonstrates Corianton in verse 2 for his boasting in his strength and wisdom. Corianton seems to have been a cocky fellow, the sort of overly confident person who is generally unaware or dismissive of the effect of his actions on others. When called to be a missionary he, after awhile, left the ministry (v. 3) to pursue Isabel, likely thinking about nothing much more than his own interests and desires, ignoring completely the effect of such actions on others. Alma is very clear in verse 3 about what Corianton SHOULD have been doing instead. And it is not chastity he talks about, it is the abandonment of his calling to teach people about Christ and the light and truth of his gospel. “Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou was entrusted,” says Alma, “Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord?” (verse 5)
Now it’s easy to think that the “these things” refer to sexual sins, but there is a brilliant exposition in verse 6 that shows that "these things" is something else.
In verse 5 Alma says Corianton’s sin as almost as abominable as the sins of the shedding of innocent blood (consciously causing the untimely physical death of someone else) or denying the Holy Ghost (choosing spiritual death for yourself). In verse 6 he lays out clearly the latter of those two sins and its analogy to the sin of which he accuses Corianton. Watch the parallel.
“For behold, if ye deny the Holy Ghost when it once had place in you, and ye know that ye deny I, behold this is a sin which is unpardonable;
Yea, AND whosoever murdereth against the light and knowledge of God, it is not easy for him to obtain forgiveness.”
Alma is telling Corianton that his serious sins has been that abandoning his calling to teach light and life and, not only that, then acting in ways that actually abet the spiritual death of others. Alma elaborates in verses 11 through 13 when he again warns Corianton not only to avoid Isabel but to avoid being led away by any vain or foolish thing because “Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words. And now the Lord doth say unto me: Command thy children to do good, lest they lead away the hearts of many people to destruction…turn to the Lord…that ye lead away the hearts of no more to do wickedly”.
The three great sins are not denial of the Holy Ghost (choosing your own spiritual death), murder (causing the physical death of another) and breaking the law of chastity. The three great sins are denial of the Holy Ghost (choosing your own spiritual death), murder (causing the physical death of another) and this third one: aiding and abetting another person’s spiritual death. Christ’s great work for us is the effectuation of redemption from physical death and spiritual death. You can see why it might be therefore that our greatest sins are committed when we work directly against that, causing physical death or spiritual death in ourselves or in others.
This is the reason Alma spends the rest of chapter 39 admonishing Corianton to repent and return to the Lord and his calling to the ministry “that ye lead away the hearts of no more to do wickedly” and declare the word to the people “that salvation might come unto them, that they may prepare the minds of their children to hear the word at the time of his coming” (verses 13 and 16) . He is calling upon Corianton to cease committing the sin of abetting spiritual death and to take up the work of encouraging spiritual life.
Perhaps we take too lightly this sin, or perhaps we, like Corianton simply are oblivious to the seriousness of it. Jesus however did not and was not.
Matthew 18: 6-7:
And whoso shall offend (GR: cause to stumble) one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come: but woe to that man by whom the offence commeth!
Sexual sin is a serious sin, but it is not the sin Alma is talking about in Alma 39:5. It is the sin of self-indulgently and unconcernedly causing, aiding or abetting another’s spiritual death and rejection of light, making it harder for them to find and return to the Lord’s presence thereby “lead[ing] away the hearts of many people to destruction” (vs.12), particularly when we have been called and accepted a call to bring them spiritual light and life, that the Lord decries so seriously and that Alma calls “most abominable in the sight of the Lord save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost.”