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The Atonement of Jesus Christ, Part 4

TitleThe Atonement of Jesus Christ, Part 4
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1990
AuthorsNibley, Hugh W.
Issue Number10
Date PublishedOctober 1990
KeywordsAtonement; Doctrine; Jesus Christ; Principle; Resurrection

A four-part series that emphasizes that the Book of Mormon teaches the correct principles of the Atonement. The power of resurrection is provided only by the Savior. Only the Book of Mormon teaches the fulness of the truth of the Atonement, why life is as it is, and how one may approach God to be at one with him. Since all fall short, the blood sacrifice of the Savior was the indispensable step. Atonement is both individual and collective and so God’s people must be “of one heart and one mind.” “The Atonement is one of the grand constants in nature.”


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The Atonement of Jesus Christ, Part 4

By Hugh W. Nibley

In Part 3 (September), Brother Nibley reviewed ways by which the Atonement is made effectual in our lives. In this final installment he continues that theme by focusing on the choices and actions we must make to take advantage of Christ’s sacrifice.

Choosing At-one-ment

If we would have God “apply the atoning blood of Christ” (Mosiah 4:2) to our case, we can also reject it. We can take advantage of it, or we can refuse it. The Atonement is either dead to us or in full effect. It is the supreme sacrifice made for us, and to receive it, we must live up to every promise and covenant related to it—the Day of Atonement was the day of covenants, and the place was the temple.

We cannot keep ourselves chaste in a casual and convenient way, nor can we accept chastity as St. Augustine did, as to be operative at some future time—“God give me chastity and continency, only not yet.”1 We cannot enjoy optional obedience to the laws of God, or place our own limits on the law of sacrifice, or mitigate the charges of righteous conduct connected with living the gospel. We cannot be willing to sacrifice only that which is convenient to part with, and then expect a reward. The Atonement is everything; it is not to be had “on the cheap.” God is not mocked in these things; we do not make promises and covenants with mental reservations. Unless we keep our covenants, Satan has power over us—a condition we can easily recognize by the mist of fraud and deception that has enveloped our whole society.

The Real Test

What Benjamin was setting forth in his address to the Nephite nation was the only way by which we can have a claim on the atoning blood of Jesus Christ: “There is none other salvation … neither are there any conditions” other than these. (Mosiah 4:8.) Since “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16), what must we do about it? Nothing short of a supreme sacrifice was demanded of Abraham, whom we are commanded to take as a model if we would have the promises of Abraham. (See D&C 101:4–5.)

Of course, we cannot begin to comprehend the greatness of the supreme sacrifice, but we can make what for us is the supreme sacrifice, as Abraham did when he firmly intended to sacrifice the life of his son in obedience to God’s command. (See Heb. 11:17.) Fortunately, it was not necessary for Abraham or Isaac to go so far. God substituted a ram in Isaac’s place, which in the rites of atonement became forever afterward representative of sacrifice of God’s Only Begotten Son.

Likewise, the Atonement makes all such sacrifice unnecessary; but as with Abraham, the “real intent,” to use the Book of Mormon expression (see Moro. 7:6), must be there: “And [God] said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for now I know that thou fearest God [Elohim], seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.” (Gen. 22:12.)

Thus, no “blood atonement” is required of us, since the sometimes necessary sacrifice of our lives has nothing to do with atonement of our sins. Only one infinite and eternal sacrifice could pay for sin, but God may still expect us to sacrifice our lives if the need should arise as we struggle to build up the kingdom of God on earth.

The point of all this is that atonement requires of the beneficiary nothing less than willingness to part with his most precious possession.

Joined with the requirement of sacrifice is the requirement of consecration, which has no limiting “if necessary” clause; we agree to it unconditionally here and now. It represents our contribution to our salvation.

The same rule applied in Israel. Every seventh year there was a release of debts, so that there should be no poor among them. “Therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.” (Deut. 15:11.) Moreover, every fiftieth year, on the Day of Atonement, a great assembly of the entire nation was held, “an holy convocation … [to] afflict your souls” (Lev. 23:27), for the purpose of bringing a special “sin offering of atonement” (Num. 29:11). The trumpet of the Jubilee was sounded, “proclaiming liberty to all the inhabitants” and announcing the Jubilee year when all debts were cancelled and no profits were taken. (Lev. 25:8–10, 14–17.)

This is an indispensable step to achieving atonement for the people, since it is temporal inequality that keeps the Saints from being one. (See D&C 49:20.) This is made clear in the Lord’s prayer. True atonement is the object: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:10.) This is expressed as a wish, and it is followed by two specific requests—the only things that we ask for outright in the prayer. Strangely enough, they are of a strictly temporal, bread-and-butter nature—to have our daily bread given to us (no talk of earning it, as King Benjamin says in Mosiah 2:21), and to do away with all debts.

The word discretely rendered trespasses in the King James Version is strictly a business term (opheilenmata) as it is correctly rendered in the Book of Mormon. The meaning is perfectly clear: If the kingdom of heaven is to be established on earth, the two great obstacles to it—the whips that we hold over each other (i.e., the need for food, no matter what, and the devices by which men put each other under the burden of debt)—must be eliminated, along with the motivation, the temptation, that allows those obstacles to exist.2

It is a depressing thought that the law of consecration should be the hardest sacrifice for us to make, instead of the easiest. But this is made perfectly clear to us in the story of the rich young man who zealously kept all the commandments but was stopped cold by that one: “But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions,” and Jesus sorrowfully let him go—there was no deal, no mitigation of the terms. (Matt. 19:22—23.) The Lord has said, “If ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27; italics added), and we cannot be one in spiritual things unless we are one in temporal things (see D&C 70:14).

Atonement is both individual and collective. That is what Zion is—the people must be “of one heart and one mind” (Moses 7:18), not only one with each other, but one with the Lord. So in 3 Nephi 11, after the Lord had contact with every member of the multitude personally, “one by one” (3 Ne. 11:15), “when they had all gone forth and had witnessed for themselves, they did cry out with one accord, saying: Hosannah! Blessed be the name of the Most High God! And they did fall down at the feet of Jesus, and did worship him” (3 Ne. 11:16–17). That was a true at-one-ment.

The law of consecration is expressly designed for the establishment of Zion, where “they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18.) For that, we must consecrate everything we have to the whole; and yet we lose nothing, for we are all one. To consecrate means to set apart, sanctify, and relinquish our own personal interest in the manner designated in the book of Doctrine and Covenants. It is the final, decisive law and covenant by which we formally accept the Atonement and merit a share in it.

It is at the climax of his great discourse on the Atonement that Jacob cries out, “But wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor.” This is a very important statement, setting down as a general principle that the rich as a matter of course despise the poor, for “their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also.” (2 Ne. 9:30.)

Why does Jacob make this number one in his explicit list of offenses against God? Because it is the number-one device among the enticings of “that cunning one” (2 Ne. 9:39), who knows that riches are his most effective weapon in leading men astray. You must choose between being at one with God or with mammon; you cannot be one with both (see Matt. 6:24); the one promises everything in this world for money, the other a place in the kingdom after you have “endured the crosses of the world, and despised the shame of it,” for only so can you “inherit the kingdom of God, which was prepared for them from the foundation of the world,” where your “joy shall be full forever” (2 Ne. 9:18).

Need we point out that the main reason for having money is precisely to avoid “the crosses of the world, and … the shame of it?” The objection to the law of consecration is that it is hard to keep. We want eternal life in the presence of God and the angels, but we think that consecration is too high a price to pay! God has commanded, and we have accepted, but then we have added a proviso: “We will gladly observe and keep the law of consecration as soon as conditions make it less trying and more convenient for us to do so.” And we expect atonement for that? We are clearly told in the Book of Mormon that when God commands us to do something, no matter how hard, he will open the way for us if we put our hearts into it: “For I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” (1 Ne. 3:7.) Nephi had an excellent excuse for postponing his “mission impossible” to Jerusalem for the plates, but that was just the point of his assignment—he was being tested, as we are.

The key to keeping this commandment is, of course, faith, and faith is never without hope (anticipating and envisioning the results), and neither of these is of the slightest avail without charity. (See Moro. 7:41–44.) So we pray with energy for charity, which seeks not its own self-interest. (See 1 Cor. 13:4–5.) For “this love which [God has] for the children of men is charity”; without it, there is no “place … prepared in the mansions of [the] Father” (Ether 12:34, 37)—that is to say, there is no atonement.

Charity alone should answer all our pious arguments for putting the law of consecration on hold: “Ye have procrastinated the day of your salvation until it is everlastingly too late, … for ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain.” (Hel. 13:38.) Even lots of money cannot guarantee security.

But Is It Real?

Alma took up the scriptures “to explain things beyond.” (Alma 12:1.) Having come this far, I ask myself with Alma, “O then, is not this real?” (Alma 32:35). And I find the answer in Jacob, who faces the issue fairly and squarely by placing the two conflicting views of reality side by side. First he speaks of prophecy: “For the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls.” (Jacob 4:13.) But most people will have none of this. “They despised the words of plainness,” refusing to take the word literally. They are always missing the point “by looking beyond the mark.” They want to explore “many things which they cannot understand,” and God permits them to go their way, “that they may stumble” (Jacob 4:14), which they are bound to do if they insist on finding ultimate reality in learned debate or even in the laboratory.

The first argument in favor of the reality that Jacob insists on is that it gives us a correct and incisive view of our present world. This is not a rigmarole or primitive mumbo jumbo. It gets down to the basic facts of life and begins the argument on a solid premise. You do not have to be an inspired prophet to know that man’s state is fraught with danger, that life is more than we can handle, and death is more than we can face. Nothing is more real in this life than the constant awareness that things could be better than they are. The Atonement does not take full effect in this world at all, and hereafter it will take effect completely only when this world is made part of the celestial order. The unreality is all on this side of the great and awful gulf. If there is anything manifestly evident about the doings in the great and spacious building (see 1 Ne. 11:36), it is the hollow laughter and silly pretensions of the people in it. Today the sense of unreality is beginning to haunt us all—life has become a TV spectacular to which we are beginning to adapt our own behavior. In this age of theatromania, where everything is a contrived spectacle, our lives reflect an endless procession of futility.3

For the pre-neo-Darwinist Korihor, the Atonement was nothing but wishful thinking, “the effect of a frenzied mind.” (Alma 30:16.) But as Lord Raglan has shown at length, such a doctrine is the last thing in the world that a seeker for an easy and blissfully happy land would invent.4 The rigorous terms of the Atonement, which demands the active participation of all its beneficiaries and passes the bitter cup of sacrifice to all of them, has made it unpopular to the point of total rejection by the general public—hardly a product of wishful thinking or human invention!

But is that other world—the world of at-one-ment with God—any more real? It is the standard by which we judge this one. It is hard to argue with the voices that keep telling us that we are strangers here, that there must be some better place. Whence this nostalgia, the “intimations of immortality” of which Wordsworth spoke,5 the yearning for the good, true, and beautiful, the ideal which we recognize in Plato’s anamnesis? It is so vivid and compelling that we must actually fight to suppress it.

Many birds and animals have a powerful and mysterious homing instinct that drives them for thousands of miles. This is real. When we feel overpowering nostalgia, can it be ignored as utterly meaningless? Our growing revulsion to this mad world is matched by a growing yearning for another that can become very real for us. We can recognize the pieces of a more complete and perfect order surviving in the wreckage around us. From all of this, we can easily reconstruct or imagine a more perfect antetype. We would not come down here unless something was to be done; the work is not finished, the story is not over. There is something very powerful at work beyond our world and our ken.

How Much Pain?

Another question that the Atonement raises, which has puzzled me for years, is that to achieve the Atonement, the Lord “suffereth the pains of all men, yea, … of every living creature … who belong to the family of Adam.” (2 Ne. 9:21; see also D&C 18:11.)

There are two questions here. The first is, How is such suffering possible or conceivable? We are told that, as a mortal, Christ suffered “temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death.” (Mosiah 3:7; see also Alma 7:11.)

Here death seems to place a limit on suffering; but Christ’s suffering was more than physical pain, “for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and abominations of his people.” (Mosiah 3:7; see D&C 19:18.) This, rather than physical pain, was the cause of the suffering of which we cannot conceive but which is perfectly believable. Many thousands suffered crucifixion under Roman law, but it was in the stillness of the garden that the Lord bled at every pore in anguish over our sins.

But how could a few hours in Gethsemane and on the cross be effective through infinite time? Even in our limited sphere of action, one can never know how one’s actions affect the lives of others for good or ill.

The fifth-century rhetorician Isocrates once observed that if every man in Greece could lift twice as much, run twice as fast, jump twice as far, etc., the world would be little better off—animals and machinery do the fast and heavy work anyway. “But if just one man could think properly all mankind willing to share his ideas would benefit.”6 Here is a kind of action that has infinite leverage, and what gives it that leverage is faith.

Vicarious Suffering?

And this raises the second question: How is it possible that one person should suffer for another? How can anyone else suffer pain for me? Since we are speaking of mental anguish, we can safely say that it happens all the time.

The possibility of suffering for another becomes real by the principle of substitution, which is a central doctrine of the Atonement. The sacrifice itself is vicarious; as a ram was a vicarious sacrifice for Isaac, so Isaac himself was to be sacrificed for others—by his actions he expressed his own willingness to be offered up, and that was all God asked of him. But blood still had to be shed, hence the substitute. (So also in that other arrested sacrifice—circumcision, with its real but token shedding of blood.) The blood of the bullock, ram, or lamb was considered to be the blood of the officiator who laid his hands upon its head. The whole economy of the temple balances justice, which demands fulfillment of the law, against the mercy which spares the life of the individual. Is this just a game of make-believe, then? Far from it; real intent is required of all who would profit by the great atoning sacrifice.

What makes the vicarious sacrifice valid? It is the intent of the ransomed: “For now I know. …” (Gen. 22:12.) As the law of sacrifice teaches, those of whom the sacrifice is required may “if necessary” actually have to go through with it, so that the substitute sacrifice is entirely acceptable if it is made in good faith. That is why the law of consecration is so important. It is, before all, a test of our good faith. A sincere sacrifice is required of all.7

The Silent Treatment

And now we have another question. What good is a teaching or a teacher that nobody accepts or listens to? What a strange phenomenon! Why does it seem that the most important principle of our existence is almost totally ignored? Moses and the prophets complained that Israel did not heed it; John the Baptist and the Savior were voices in the wilderness; people only accepted the doctrine for three generations in Book of Mormon times; the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price are both addressed to reluctant audiences. And even when the message was accepted in each dispensation, righteousness was soon overtaken by self-righteousness.

It is as if someone had died and left us a bequest in which we have no interest, since accepting it would entail a change in our life-style. Benjamin invites us to awaken to “a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state” and to “always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures.” (Mosiah 4:5, 11.) But who wants to accept the Atonement on such terms? So cool has been the reception of this message that through the centuries, while heated controversy and debate have raged over evolution, atheism, the sacraments, the Trinity, authority, predestination, faith and works, etc., there has been virtually no argument or discussion at all about the meaning of the Atonement. Why were there no debates or pronouncements in the synods? People either do not care enough or do not know enough even to argue about it.

Give Us Smooth Things!

In matters of atonement, the scriptures engage us in a very serious, thoughtful, and lifelong project; but the minimal involvement which makes for popular religion plainly shows that something has been removed which has caused the Gentiles to stumble. It was known from the beginning that “the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehend[eth] it not.” (John 1:5.) “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” (John 1:10–11.)

So why bother with this hopelessly unpopular doctrine? Because there are always some who do accept it: “But as many as received him, to them he gave the power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12–13.)

That makes them the children of God before they lived in the flesh, and what more consummate at-one-ment than to resume their status as sons of God? For their sake, it was all worth it.

It was the same in Old Testament times. “The house of Israel,” as Jacob reminds us, “are a stiffnecked and a gainsaying people; but as many as will not harden their hearts shall be saved in the kingdom of God.” (Jacob 6:4.) As for the others, they must be given the benefit of the doubt in the days of their probation: “If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin: but now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father.” (John 15:24.)

The Power Behind It

In its sweep and scope, the Atonement takes on the aspect of one of the grand constants in nature—omnipresent, unalterable, such as gravity or the speed of light. Just as for them, it is always there, easily forgotten, hard to explain, and hard to believe in without an explanation. But we are constantly exposed to its effects, whether we are aware of them or not, and to ignore it can be fatal. It is waiting at our disposal to draw us on. When the multitude were overwhelmed by King Benjamin’s speech, “and they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth … they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, … for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men.” (Mosiah 4:2; italics added.) The blessing is there waiting all the time, needing only to be applied when the people are ready for it.

In discoursing on the nature of the Atonement, the Book of Mormon writers constantly refer to power. “My soul delighteth in the covenants of the Lord … in his grace, and in his justice, and power, and mercy in the great and eternal plan of deliverance from death.” (2 Ne. 11:5; italics added; see also 2 Ne. 9:12, 25.)

That would seem to be the final word by way of explaining things. The word power occurs no less than 365 times in the Book of Mormon and 276 times in the Bible. The power of the devil is also referred to, but that is only the power we give him when we “choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate, to bring you down to hell, that he may reign over you in his own kingdom.” (2 Ne. 2:29.)

But whence comes this power? Does it begin with love, faith, hope, or charity? Yes, for they all work together:

“The Lord God prepareth the way that the residue of men may have faith in Christ, that the Holy Ghost may have place in their hearts, according to the power thereof; and after this manner bringeth to pass the Father, the covenants which he hath made unto the children of men.” (Moro. 7:32; see also vv. 37–38.)

Moroni says that the power source is faith: “By faith, they did lay hold upon every good thing; [for as] Christ hath said: If ye will have faith in me ye shall have power to do whatsoever thing is expedient in me.” (Moro. 7:25, 33.)

And what greater thing could we possibly “lay hold upon” than the eternal life that all the prophets have sought? It is the faith and the power that Moroni spoke of that are able to bring one into the embrace of the Lord, to be “encircled about eternally in the arms of his love” (2 Ne. 1:15) and to return and “have a place” in the presence of the Father (see Alma 5:24). It is at this point that the atonement of Christ is operative in one’s life. This is the true at-one-ment. As to the ordinances on earth—and in the spirit of Article of Faith 8 [A of F 1:8] (“We believe the Bible … as far as it is translated correctly”), a few words in the text deserve new treatment—the Lord was clear in his prayer just prior to his suffering in Gethsemane: “While I was with them in the world, I [tested] them in thy name [by which thou didst endow me]; those that thou gavest me [have] kept [the secret], and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled.” (John 17:12.) “I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of [do not come out of] the world, even as I am not of the world.” (John 17:14.) “And the glory which thou gavest me I have given to them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me” (John 17:22–23), that we may be endowed (initiated, completed) to make one, “so have I also sent them into the world” (John 17:18).

But if the disciple is to be sent into the world, he is not sent without help and hope: “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. … If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. … These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you. … Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice [they are sorrowing because they do not understand it], because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I. … Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me.” (John 14:18, 23, 25, 28, 30.) Clearly, the Atonement begins in this world but is completed in the other world.

There are more than a dozen enlightening discourses on the Atonement in the Book of Mormon.8 None is more remarkable than the impressive epitome contained in a single verse, the conclusion of Enos’s movingly personal story:

“And I soon go to the place of my rest, which is with my Redeemer; for I know that in him I shall rest. And I rejoice in the day when my mortal shall put on immortality, and shall stand before him; then shall I see his face with pleasure, and he will say unto me: Come unto me, ye blessed, there is a place prepared for you in the mansions of my Father. Amen.” (Enos 1:27.)