Defining the Infinite Atonement
Many thanks to the choir for inviting the Spirit further into this meeting, and many thanks to David for inviting the Spirit in his prayer, and Jan for that very pointed and thoughtful testimony of the Atonement. I’ve always had a great respect for the LDS Business School because I felt that what we ought to do in life ought to be practical as well as spiritual, and I think you have those two great traits here. That’s why your president, President Richards, is such a great leader for this College. I have known him all of my life, and I’ve always thought he was very practical, very business-oriented, and very spiritual. What a wonderful combination to have all of those together. I’m grateful that his sweet wife and my sweet wife can be here today to join with us. And I know that you come prepared, and I’ve prayed also that together we might feel of the Spirit and gain new insights and thoughts and impressions into the Atonement that will help us in our individual lives.
Well, today I would like to speak about the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and specifically I would like to discuss what the Atonement of Jesus Christ is, what are its healing and perfecting powers, and what did it cost to bring it about. Well, this doctrinal subject is far beyond my intellectual and emotional grasp in many ways. I nonetheless hope that today we can develop a sufficient understanding and appreciation for the Atonement that it will become the rock foundation of our lives.
It was Sunday morning some years ago, and the sacrament song had commenced. Our high school-age son and two of his priest-age friends were administering the sacrament. They pulled back the white cloth, and to their dismay, there was no bread. Our son stepped into the preparation room in hopes some could be found, but there was none. Finally, our troubled son went to the bishop and told him of his dilemma. A wise bishop explained to the congregation the situation, and then asked this thought-provoking question: “How would it be if the sacrament table were empty today because there had been no Atonement of Jesus Christ?”
I have thought of that often. What if there were no bread because there was no Crucifixion? No water because there was no shedding of blood? If that were the case, then Dante’s words inscribed on the gates of hell would be tragically applicable to us all: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” But fortunately, there is an Atonement, and it does bring hope and peace and healing into all of our lives.
What then is the Atonement of Jesus Christ? If some of your friends were to ask you that question, “What is the Atonement of Jesus Christ?” how would you respond? No doubt, many of you would give concise and inspired answers to that question. For me, I believe that I would respond as follows: the Atonement of Jesus Christ was the suffering of the Savior and His triumph over four obstacles that prevented us from having happiness in this life and eternal joy in the life to come. Those four obstacles that He overcame are 1) physical death, 2) sin and its consequences, 3) our weaknesses and imperfections, and 4) the common ailments of life, such as depression, rejection, loneliness, and the like.
Christ’s Atonement can ultimately rescue us and save us from each of those conditions, hence His title as the Savior of all mankind. Why, then, is the Atonement necessary?
Some time ago, I met with a group of Muslims. They were good men. It wasn’t long, however, before they asked the inevitable question: “Why is Jesus Christ necessary? Why can’t God, who is all-powerful, just forgive us when we repent or help us overcome our weaknesses without the sacrifice of His Son?”
Well, suppose for a moment a man contemplating an exhilarating free-fall makes a rash decision and spontaneously jumps from a plane. After doing so, he quickly realizes the foolishness of his actions. He wants to land safely, but there is an obstacle: the law of gravity. He moves his arms with astounding speed, hoping to fly, but to no avail. He positions his body to float or to glide so as to slow his descent, but the law of gravity is just unrelenting and unmerciful. He tries to reason with this basic law of nature: “It was a mistake! I will never do it again! I’ve learned my lesson!” But his pleas and petitions fall on deaf ears. The law of gravity, like the law of justice, has no passion. It knows no mercy. It has no forgiveness, and it knows no exceptions.
Fortuitously, though, he suddenly feels something on his back. His friend in the plane, sensing the moment of his foolishness, had placed a parachute there just before the jump. He finds the ripcord and pulls it. Relieved, he floats safely to the ground.
Now, we might ask, was the law of gravity violated or compromised in any way? Or was another law invoked that was compatible yet merciful?
When we sin, we are like the foolish man who jumped from the plane. No matter what we do on our own, only a crash landing awaits us. We have no power to reverse the course. We are subject to the laws of justice, which, like the laws of gravity, are exacting and unforgiving. We can only be saved because the Lord provides us with a parachute of sorts. We call this His grace. If we have faith in Jesus Christ and repent, meaning if we pull the ripcord, then the protective and saving powers of the Atonement are unleashed on our behalf, and we can land unharmed. Without this spiritual parachute, however, there is no hope. But with it, there is every hope of salvation.
I do not know if there is some external law of justice independent of God to which He is subject, or if God determines the laws of justice to which all the beings in the universe, including Himself, must be governed, or a combination of the two. What I do know, and the scriptures confirm, is that a law of justice exists and no fallen man can be saved without the Atonement of Jesus Christ on the one hand and repentance on the other. They are inseparable partners in the saving process.
Now, how does Christ overcome the four obstacles I previously alluded to? First, as you know, He overcomes death for all men through His resurrection. Paul confirmed this truth: “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
The second consequence of Christ’s Atonement is that He overcomes sin and guilt for those who repent. When we sin, we feel embarrassed, discouraged, unclean, and estranged from God’s Spirit. We lose self-confidence and self-esteem, and thus lose hope in ourselves and in the future. Sometimes, we simply give up. Because we are God’s children and because He loves us, Christ paid the price to bring about a condition that can reverse all of those negative feelings and replace them with hope and self-confidence. This condition is known as repentance. It works like this: if we humble ourselves before God, acknowledge our sins, confess them, make restitution where possible, and turn away from those transgressions—in essence, we do have a change of heart—then He will wash away our sins and make us totally clean.
How can He do that? Because Jesus Christ paid the price of our sins. He voluntarily suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross for the sins of all mankind.
President Boyd K. Packer gave these comforting words: “There is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no transgression, no offense exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness. . . . This is the promise of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.”
Truman Madsen, a learned but also humble religious scholar, spoke similarly in these words, that are so thought-provoking:
If there are . . . some of you who have been tricked into the conviction that you have gone too far, that you have been weighed down on doubts upon which you alone have a monopoly, that you have had the poison of sin that makes it impossible ever again to be what you could have been, then hear me! I bear testimony that you cannot sink farther than the light and sweeping intelligence of Jesus Christ can reach. I bear testimony that as long as there is one spark of the will to repent and reach, He is there! He did not just descend to your condition, He descended below it, that He might be in and through all things the light of truth.
Paul, who had persecuted the members of Christ’s Church before his conversion, declared that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and then said these words: “Of whom I am chief.”
The sons of Mosiah, who became prophets of God, were once “the very vilest of sinners,” as the Book of Mormon tells us. If God in His infinite mercy can save even the chief of sinners and the very vilest of sinners, then can He not likewise save us if we repent?
On occasion, while serving as a Church leader, I met with good members whom I believed had repented but confessed that they still lived with troubled consciences. This struck me forcibly when speaking to a convert to our Church of about fifteen years. He had been faithful and devoted from the day of his baptism, but he wondered, could the Lord possibly forgive him for the checkered life he had lived before accepting the gospel? It just seemed too much to ask.
Some people have innocently but incorrectly placed limits on the Savior’s redemptive powers. They have converted His infinite Atonement to a finite one that somehow falls short of their particular sin. But it is an infinite Atonement because it encompasses and circumscribes every sin, every weakness, every addiction, every wrong, and every finite frailty of man. Once we have repented or emerged from the waters of baptism, there is no black mark on our right ankle that reads “2010 mistake.” There’s no stain behind our left ear that says “2015 transgression.” There is no such thing as a spotted or cream-colored repenter in God’s kingdom. Rather, it is as Isaiah said, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Or as Moroni said of repentance, “Ye become holy, without spot.” That is the miracle and the gift of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
Even though we may believe in the Atonement, the question often arises, “How do I know if and when I have been forgiven of my sins?” The Doctrine and Covenants gives one test: “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.” But I believe there is also another test. If we feel the Spirit in our life when we pray, or read the scriptures, or render service, or teach or testify, or at any other time, then that spiritual witness is our witness that we have been forgiven—or alternatively, that the cleansing process is taking place, for the Spirit cannot dwell in an unclean vessel.
In most cases, the cleansing process takes time because our change in nature takes time. But in the interim, we can proceed with confidence that God approves of our progress to a sufficient degree that we can enjoy some measure of His Spirit in our life.
Some have asked, “But if I am forgiven, why do I still feel guilt?” Perhaps in God’s mercy, the memory of that guilt is a warning, a spiritual “stop sign” of sorts, that cries out when similar temptations confront us—“Don’t go down that road. You know the pain it can bring.” Perhaps, for those in the process of repenting, it is meant to be a protection, not a punishment.
Will our guilt ever go away? The promise of the Lord is certain in that regard. To the repentant, the Lord promised that the time would come when “their joy shall be full forever”—meaning there will come a time when there will be no past twinges or pangs of guilt. The scriptures further confirm this truth: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more . . . sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain.” And then these great lines: “For the former things are passed away”—meaning they are gone.
While the Atonement does not wipe away the past, in some miraculous way it has the power to wipe away all the sorrow and pain associated with the past. Perhaps it is like our experience of breaking a bone. When it completely heals, we can still remember the event that triggered the break, but the pain is now gone. Christ is the Great Physician that has that healing power.
I do not know if we will ever forget our sins, but the consequence will be the same as if we did, for the time will come when the repentant will no longer be troubled by their sins. Such was the case with the Book of Mormon prophets Enos and Alma, each of whom sought a remission of past sins.
As to Enos, the scriptures read:
And there came a voice unto me saying: Enos thy sins are forgiven thee . . . .
. . . Wherefore, [I said,] my guilt was swept away. . . .
And I said: Lord, how is it done?
And he said unto me: Because of thy faith in Christ.
Enos had faith that Christ’s Atonement could not only cleanse his sins but also remove his guilt.
Alma, while reflecting upon the Atonement and his sinful past, exclaimed,
While I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold . . .
I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou son of God, have mercy on me. . . .
And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.
So complete was this healing process that Alma then adds, “There can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.” Alma didn’t forget his sins; in fact, he was recalling them at that very moment. But somehow the miracle of the Atonement removed all—not just part, but all—of the guilt associated with those wrongful deeds.
The Lamanites, who had committed, as the scriptures say, “many sins and murders,” bore witness that God had “taken away the guilt from our hearts, through the merits of his Son”—meaning Jesus Christ.
The people of King Benjamin listened to his glorious sermon on the Atonement, and then declared that a “mighty change” had been wrought in their hearts. In response, King Benjamin declared, “Therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters. And under this head are ye made free”—not only free from sin, but free from all of the associated guilt.
Whatever our status in life, we can be comforted by the truth that God will ultimately judge us by what we have become, not by what we were. That was the realization of Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. He had so transformed his life that he could now rightfully declare, “I am not the man I was!” And that was the truth taught by Paul the apostle: “Therefore if any man be in Christ”—meaning he repents—“he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”
For the repentant, the guilt will pass away because with perfect honesty they can say, “I am not the man that committed that sin. I am a new creature in Jesus Christ.” In summary, as our faith in Jesus Christ increases and our hearts change, we become new creatures in Jesus Christ. We are born again, and our guilt is taken from us.
President Joseph Fielding Smith shared the story of a woman who had repented of her immoral conduct but was still struggling with feelings of guilt. She asked him what she should do now. In turn, he asked her to read the account of Sodom and Gomorrah, of Lot and of Lot’s wife, who was turned to a pillar of salt when she turned back even though she was told not to do so. Then he asked the woman what lessons those verses held for her.
She answered, “Well, the Lord destroys those who are wicked.”
“Not so,” replied President Smith. “The lesson for you is ‘Don’t look back!’”
And so is that lesson for us. In this regard, Paul counseled us as follows: “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended”—meaning to have become like God yet—“but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind”—my checkered past—“and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God and Christ Jesus.” I strive now to become like Him, a new man. In other words, if we place our faith in Jesus Christ, then we can proceed forward with the glorious assurance that Christ has descended not only beneath our sins but also beneath our guilt, and thereby, one day we will be free of both. Then we will be at perfect peace with God and with ourselves.
The third consequence of the Atonement is that the Savior can help us overcome our weaknesses and imperfections and thus enhance our capability to become like God, even perfect. Some of our weaknesses and imperfections are self-acquired, meaning that we made bad choices. But others have nothing to do with sin; they are simply a manifestation of our mortal condition.
Paul revealed that “there was given to me,” he said, “a thorn in the flesh.” Even though he had prayed repeatedly for its removal, it still remained. But he knew that ultimately he would be the victor, for he wrote, “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.” His knowledge of the Atonement gave him the power to persevere, to not give up.
We all have some weaknesses. There are some who have social inadequacies, or addictions, or abuse issues, or something else. But for every mortal inadequacy, there is also a divine remedy. Moses did not believe he could be the Lord’s spokesman because he was “slow of speech.” To that excuse, the Lord responded, “Who hath made man’s mouth?” The answer was compelling. Could not God, who had created all things, also correct, modify, and perfect when necessary, all His creations? The Atonement is the means of that correction and perfection.
Grace, a term used with great frequency in the scriptures, is the enabling, enhancing, endowing power made possible by the Atonement that can transform a mere mortal, with all his failings, into a Christlike being with all His strengths. The words of the Savior should bring great comfort to all of us who struggle with some weakness:
And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.
But how does the Savior’s Atonement work to overcome these weaknesses and perfect us? Moroni said, “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him . . . by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ.” Somehow, the grace of God, which is made possible through His Atonement, gives to us heavenly power that helps us to overcome our weaknesses and converts them into strengths. Perhaps the reasoning goes something like this: through the ordinance of baptism, we are cleansed because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. As a result of that cleansing, we are eligible to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. With the gift of the Holy Ghost comes the right to receive all the gifts of the Spirit. Each of the gifts of the Spirit—such as faith, wisdom, patience, and so on—represents an attribute of godliness. And thus, as we acquire the gifts of the Spirit, we acquire the attributes of godliness in our life.
Elder George Q. Cannon, an apostle, spoke of man’s shortcomings and the divine solution to perfection. Recognizing this link between grace, gifts, and godhood, he fervently pled with the members of the Church to overcome each personal weakness through the acquisition of a countermanding gift of strength known as the gift of the Spirit.
He said, “No man ought to say, ‘Oh, I cannot help this; it is my nature.’ He is not justified in it, for the reason that God has promised to give strength to correct these things, and to give gifts that will eradicate them. . . . If any of us are imperfect, it is our duty to pray for the gift that will make us perfect.”
We can pray for the gifts of the Spirit made possible by the Atonement that will lift us above our mortal weaknesses and further our pursuit of godhood. No wonder the Lord commanded us on multiple occasions to pray for and seek after the gifts of the Spirit.
The fourth consequence of the Atonement is the Savior can help us overcome the common ailments of life. President Ezra Taft Benson, one of our prophets, taught as follows: “Indeed there is no human condition—be it suffering, incapacity, inadequacy, mental deficiency, or sin—which He cannot comprehend or for which His love will not reach out to the individual.”
The scriptures tell us that Christ “descended below all things,” meaning he descended beneath and suffered the consequences, not only of every sin and weakness, but also of every disease, every rejection, every disappointment, and every ailment of every soul who has ever lived. Nothing has escaped His grasp or His suffering.
The prophet Alma was most specific on this subject: “And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind . . . that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.”
In other words, no one will ever be able to go to the Savior and say, “You didn’t understand my plight in life. It was unique. It was beyond anything you ever experienced.” Neither the abuser nor the abused, neither the addict nor the victim is outside the ambit of the Savior’s healing powers. He can comfort us in all things because He descended below all things. This descent not only allowed Him to empathize with us but to heal us and strengthen us.
Isaiah taught of the Savior’s healing powers in these beautiful words: “He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted . . . to comfort all that mourn.” And then, to me, some of the most beautiful words in all scripture: “To give unto them beauty for ashes.”
Even though our life should be in ashes, He can reconstruct and make it beautiful again. For every hurt we may have, He has a remedy of superior healing power. With this knowledge, we can forge ahead in life with good cheer, whatever the challenges or obstacles may be. In the most difficult week of the Savior’s life, He could nonetheless give us this hope: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
Once the Atonement took place, there is no external event, no outside circumstance—be it death, disease, disaster or the like—that can rob us of our exaltation. But oh, what a cost to make it possible! It cost the life and blood and suffering of the holiest man this world has ever known.
In His own words, He said, “Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain.” Some have contended that His suffering was not real, not akin to man’s suffering, because He was half divine and half mortal and His divinity protected Him from being hungry after a fast, or tired after a long day’s journey.
Well, in order to demonstrate the truth of this, my wife and I were teaching a seminary class. We invited one of our students to come forward, and we took a marking pen and drew a line right down the middle of his face. We gave him in his right hand a shield; this half of his body was to represent the divine side of the Savior, and the other half was to represent the mortal side.
Then we invited up one of the young ladies, and we gave her four balls, paper-wrapped and taped. And the first one said “Death.” We said, “Throw it at him as hard as you can.” And she did, and he blocked it. He could have, with his divinity, blocked it. And then we gave her the next one, which said “Sin,” and she threw it at him, and with his shield he blocked it. And the next one that said, “Weaknesses and imperfections,” and she threw it, and he blocked it. And the next one, “The common ailments of life, rejection, and loneliness,” and she threw it, and he blocked it.
Jesus Christ had the divine shield to block those things, but He didn’t.
We then took back the four balls, and we said, “Now, you throw them at him as hard as you can,” but we told the young man, “Do not raise the shield.” So with great delight, she threw the first one as hard as she could, “Death,” and it hit him. And the next one, “Sin,” and it hit him. And the next one, “Weaknesses and imperfections,” and it hit him. And “Common ailments of life,” and it hit him.
The principle that we were teaching was that He had the divine shield, but He never raised it. In fact, to the reverse, he only used His divinity to enlarge the cup of suffering that He would take upon Him. You and all of us as mortals have within us a release valve. And when the pain gets so great, that release valve kicks in and we either become unconscious or we die. But for the Savior, He used his divinity to keep that release valve open until He had suffered the pain of all men of all ages of all worlds. And that is why King Benjamin declared that He should suffer “even more than man can suffer.”
I bear my solemn witness that Jesus Christ is all He claimed to be. He is the Savior and Redeemer of the world. He did save and rescue us from death and from sin—if we will repent from our weaknesses and ailments, if we seek His help—and from the common maladies of life, rejection, and so forth. He saves us from each of those conditions, has the power to do so, and thus is the Savior of all mankind. Of that I bear my witness, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.