Beauty for Ashes: The Atonement of Jesus Christ


Some Church members feel weighed down with discouragement about the circumstances of their personal lives, even when they are making sustained and admirable efforts. Frequently, these feelings of self-disappointment come not from wrongdoing, but from stresses and troubles for which we may not be fully to blame. The Atonement of Jesus Christ applies to these experiences because it applies to all of life. The Savior can wipe away all of our tears, after all we can do.

In Luke 4:18, Jesus quotes part of a passage from Isaiah that describes the heart of his ministry. The Isaiah passage reads: “The Spirit of the Lord … hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; … to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, … to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion … beauty for ashes.” (Isa. 61:1, 3; italics added.)

The Savior’s atonement is thus portrayed as the healing power not only for sin, but also for carelessness, inadequacy, and all mortal bitterness. The Atonement is not just for sinners.

We need to understand the Atonement more fully than we do, both because outsiders may misperceive our doctrine and because we may view the Atonement too narrowly in our own lives. For example, Newsweek magazine has stated: “Unlike orthodox Christians, Mormons believe that men are born free of sin and earn their way to godhood by the proper exercise of free will, rather than through the grace of Jesus Christ. Thus Jesus’ suffering and death in the Mormon view … do not atone for the sins of others.” (Newsweek, 1 Sept. 1980, p. 68.)

It disturbs me that Newsweek would miss the point of our core doctrine, even though the article purported not to summarize our theology but to report what Latter-day Saints actually believe. It is unfortunate when we convey incorrect ideas to others; but it is worse when we, by our limited doctrinal understanding, deny ourselves the reassurance and guidance we may desperately need at pivotal moments in our lives.

Our reluctance to stress the doctrine of grace is understandable. Nephi wrote, “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” (2 Ne. 25:23; italics added.) A constant public emphasis on grace might encourage some people to ignore the crucial “all we can do” in that two-part process. They might then accept the erroneous notion that we can be saved by divine grace even while choosing to live in our sins. Some Christians do believe they will be saved by grace in spite of whatever they may do. At the extreme, this doctrine denies free will altogether, implying that God will elect those he will save without regard to their conduct or even their preference.

Similarly, some Church members feel entitled to “a few free ones” as they sow their wild oats and walk constantly along the edge of transgression. Or they believe that repentance requires little more than saying they are sorry. Constant emphasis on the availability of forgiveness can be counterproductive in such cases, suggesting—wrongly—that they can “live it up” now and repent easily later without harmful consequences.

Despite these reasons for caution, the blessing of making the Atonement more central to our lives outweighs any associated risks. When we habitually understate the Atonement’s broad meaning, we do more harm than leaving one another without comforting reassurances—for some may simply drop out of the race, weighed down beyond the breaking point with self-doubt and spiritual fatigue.

The Savior himself was not concerned that he would seem too forgiving or soft on sin. Said he, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28, 30.) He spoke these comforting words in the context of asking his followers to develop a love pure enough to extinguish hatred, lust, and anger. His yoke is easy—but he asks for all our hearts.

His words do not describe an event, but a process. He does not request the answer to a yes-or-no question, but an essay, written in the winding trail of our experience. As we move along that trail, we will find that he is not only aware of our limitations, but that he will also in due course compensate for them, “after all we can do.” That, in addition to forgiveness for sin, is a crucial part of the good news of the gospel, part of the victory, part of the Atonement.

The basic doctrines of the holy Atonement relate first to the transgression of Adam and Eve and to our personal sins. The Fall subjected Adam and Eve and their children to death, sin, and other characteristics of mortality that separated them from God. To allow mankind again to be “at one” with God, divine justice required compensation for these consequences of the Fall. God’s mercy allowed the Savior to make that compensation through the great “at-one-ment.”

Through his sinless life, his genetic nature as the Only Begotten of the Father, and his willingness to drink the bitter cup of justice, the Savior was able to atone unconditionally for Adam and Eve’s transgression and for physical death, and to atone conditionally for our personal sins. The unconditional part of the Atonement is a free gift of grace requiring no further action on our part. The conditional part, however, requires our repentance as the condition of applying mercy to our personal sins. If we do not repent, we must suffer even as the Lord did to satisfy the demands of justice. (See D&C 19:15–17.)

However, if we refuse to repent, and thereby must satisfy justice by suffering for our own sins, we will remain unprepared to enter the celestial kingdom. Unless we accept the Savior’s invitation to carry our sins, we will not experience the complete rehabilitation that occurs through a combination of divine assistance and genuine repentance. By analogy, criminals are not necessarily rehabilitated by serving a fixed number of years to pay their debt to society. A prison term may satisfy our sense of retribution, but real rehabilitation requires a positive process of character change.

Mercy and repentance are rehabilitative, not retributive. The Savior asks us to repent not just to repay him for paying our debt to justice, but also to induce us to undergo the personal development that will purify our very nature. The “natural man” will remain an enemy to God forever—even after paying for his own sins—unless he also “becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord.” (Mosiah 3:19.)

Some of us make repentance too easy, and others make it too hard. Those who make it too easy don’t see any big sins in their lives, or they believe that breezy apologies alone are enough. These people should read President Spencer W. Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness, which reviews many sins of both commission and omission. And while forgiveness is a miracle, it is not won without penitent and strenuous effort.

At the other extreme are those who feel that repentance asks more than they can possibly give. Many of them believe they are fully responsible to compensate for their own sins. To be sure, repentance requires that transgressors make full restitution to the limit of their ability. But there are times when we cannot fully compensate. It is simply impossible to return stolen virtue the way one might return a stolen car. Because we lack the power to compensate fully for the effects of our transgressions, we are utterly dependent on Christ for ultimate restitution, no matter how earnest our repentance.

Even after the Savior accepts our sincere repentance and blesses us with his mercy, we are then only ready to enter the “strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life.” (2 Ne. 31:17–18.) Then we must consider the additional dimensions of becoming a saint through the Atonement—the process of moving from the messy slate of sin through the clean slate of forgiveness to the beautifully full slate of a divine nature. There are at least two realms in which the Lord’s grace blesses us well beyond compensating for our sins: sweetening the bitter and attaining divine perfection.

First, consider the concept of tasting the bitter in order to prize the good. Adam’s and Eve’s transgression was not really a wrongful act of “sin” as we usually use that term. While their choice violated the command against partaking of the fruit, that same choice was necessary to enable their obedience to the command to have children. Their “transgression” was thus a painful but correct, even eternally glorious, choice: “Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption.” (Moses 5:11.)

Thus, when the Atonement was first applied to any human act, it compensated for the harmful consequences of a choice that was more like a close judgment call than it was a true sin. Like Adam and Eve, we make many judgment-call choices that inflict pain or trouble upon others and upon ourselves. Some of our judgments may be wise, but some are not so wise. Think of accidents caused by carelessness, such as dozing at the wheel. They can have devastating effects, as tragic as deliberate violence. Think of unkind words and forgotten promises among family members. Such incidents can lead to ugly consequences, but not all of them are the result of conscious sin.

In an important sense, our judgment calls lead us to the tree of knowledge, just as Adam’s and Eve’s choice led them to that same tree. By confronting the sad or happy consequences of our choices, we can learn through our own experience, as they did, to distinguish the bitter from the sweet.

A young piano student once became very discouraged by her mistakes. Each time she learned a piece, her teacher assigned a new and more difficult piece, and the student would begin playing wrong notes all over again. She concluded that she wasn’t learning anything, because she would always make mistakes in her new pieces. Then her teacher explained that nobody ever learned to play the piano without making many, many mistakes. The successful students are those who learn from their mistakes.

We learn many other life skills the same way—through the practice of trial and error. We can learn to love, for example, by responding to the sour sounds of wrong notes that jangle in our emotional ears when we thoughtlessly hurt someone close to us.

Life is a school, a place for us to learn and grow. We, like Adam and Eve, experience “growing pains” through the sorrow and contamination of a lone and dreary world. These experiences may include sin, but they also include mistakes, disappointments, and the undeserved pain of adversity. The blessed news of the gospel is that the Atonement of Jesus Christ can purify all the uncleanness and sweeten all the bitterness we taste.

We might think of the degree of our personal fault for the bad things that happen in our lives as a continuum ranging from sin to adversity, with the degree of our fault dropping from high at one end of the spectrum to zero at the other. At the “sin” end of the continuum, we bear grave responsibility, for we bring the bitter fruits of sin fully upon ourselves. But at the other end of the spectrum, marked by “adversity,” we may bear no responsibility at all. The bitterness of adversity may come to us, as it did to Job in the Old Testament, regardless of our actual, conscious fault.

Along this fault-level continuum, between the poles of sin and adversity, lie such intermediate points as unwise choices and hasty judgments. In these cases, it may be unclear just how much personal fault we bear for the bitter fruits we may taste or cause others to taste. Bitterness may taste the same, whatever its source, and it can destroy our peace, break our hearts, and separate us from God. Could it be that the great “at-one-ment” of Christ could put back together the broken parts and give beauty to the ashes of experience such as this?

I believe that it does, because tasting the bitter in all its forms is a deliberate part of the great plan of life. This consequence of the Fall was not just a terrible mistake; rather, it gives mortality its profound meaning: “They taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good.” (Moses 6:55; italics added.)

The Atonement can heal the effects of tasting all of this bitterness. This healing power cleanses our spirits, upon condition of repentance, when our souls are soiled with sin. It can also compensate, “after all we can do,” not only for the consequences of our sins, but also for the harmful effects of our ignorance and neglect.

I once had a sad and tender conversation with a stalwart priesthood leader who felt totally responsible for the rebellion of his wayward son. He had tried fervently to control the boy, but could not. He said the scriptures teach that if a man can’t manage his own house, how can he take care of the Church? (See 1 Tim. 3:5.) He wondered, should he be released from his calling?

It was impossible for me to know, and probably impossible for him to know, just how much blame was really his for what his son was doing. But we didn’t need to know the answer to that question in order to know whether the reach of the Lord’s healing power extended to him. Seeing the tears in his eyes, I thought of the prophet Alma, who had such a son. I thought of Adam and Eve, who had such a son. I thought of other parents whose children misuse their agency.

I thought also that, while no other success of ours can compensate for our failures within or outside our homes, there is a success that can compensate when we cannot, after we conscientiously do all we can. That success is the Atonement of Jesus Christ, which can mend what for us is beyond repair. Perhaps, I thought, that holy influence could even do for this man’s son what it did for the younger Alma.

Second, the Savior’s grace can bless us, beyond its compensation for our sins, in our quest for divine perfection. While much of the perfection process involves a healing from sin and bitterness, the process involves an additional, affirmative dimension through which we may acquire a Christlike nature, becoming even as the Father and Son are.

In his own development toward perfection, the Savior received the Father’s grace. He “received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace … until he received a fulness.” (D&C 93:12–13.) His life was sinless; hence, he received grace not to compensate for his sins, but to empower his personal growth:

“Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered;

“And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation.” (Heb. 5:8–9; italics added.)

Our relationship with him can mirror his relationship with the Father: “For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; [thus] you shall receive grace for grace.” (D&C 93:19–20; italics added.)

When the Atonement and our repentance satisfy the laws of justice and mercy, we are, in effect, free from sin. But just as the sinless Christ was “made perfect” through interaction with his Father’s grace, so his atoning grace can move us beyond the remission of sins to the perfection of a divine nature. Those who inherit the celestial kingdom are “just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood.” (D&C 76:69.) As Moroni put it, “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him … by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ.” (Moro. 10:32–33.)

These scriptures make it clear that we do not achieve perfection solely through our own efforts. Knowing just that much is a source of new perspective. Because we feel overwhelmed with the scriptural injunction to seek perfection, the idea that divine grace is the final source of our perfection may seem too good to be true. That is how Christ’s grace appears to those carrying the burden of truly serious sins. Honest people called “Saints” may feel the same way as they stumble daily through the discouraging debris of their obvious imperfections. But the gospel has good news not only for the serious transgressor, but for all who long to be better than they are.

Through the Holy Ghost, the Atonement makes possible certain spiritual endowments that actually purify our nature and enable us to live a more “eternal” or Godlike life. At that ultimate stage, we will eat the fruit of the tree of life and partake of God’s divine nature. Then we will exhibit divine character not just because we think we should, but because that is the way we are.

The gift of charity illustrates this process, although charity is only part of “the greatest of all the gifts of God”—eternal life. (D&C 14:7.) This love, the very “love which [the Lord hath] had for the children of men” (Ether 12:34), is not developed entirely by our own power, even though our faithfulness is a necessary qualification to receive it. Rather, charity is “bestowed upon” the “true followers” of Christ. (Moro. 7:48.) Its source, like all other blessings of the Atonement, is the grace of God. Said Moroni, “I prayed unto the Lord that he would give unto the Gentiles grace, that they might have charity.” (Ether 12:36.)

The purpose of the endowment of charity is not merely to cause Christ’s followers to engage in charitable acts toward others, desirable as that is. The ultimate purpose is to transform his followers to become like him: “he hath bestowed [this love] upon all who are true followers of his Son, … that when he shall appear we shall be like him.” (Moro. 7:48.) “At-one-ment” thus seems to mean not only being with God, but also being like God.

Another affirmative endowment of grace is the gift of hope, which blesses us with the state of mind necessary to deal with the gap between where we are and where we seek to be. As the remission of our sins makes us lowly of heart and meek enough to receive the Holy Ghost, the Comforter fills us with “hope.” (See Moro. 8:25–26.) The gift of hope offers peace and perspective, like the encouragement we feel when a close friend gives us insight about a difficult problem and we sense that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Such hope can be literally life-sustaining when given us by the Savior, for the light at the end of life’s darkest tunnels is the Light and the Life of the world.

The Savior desires to save us from our inadequacies as well as from our sins. Inadequacy is not the same as sinfulness—we have far more control over the choice to sin than we may have over our innate capacity. The Lord will not save us in our sins, but from them. However, he can save us in our inadequacies as well as from them. A sense of falling short or falling down is not only natural, but essential to the mortal experience. But, after all we can do, the Atonement can fill that which is empty, straighten our bent parts, and make strong that which is weak.

In their admirable and sometimes blindly dogged sense of personal responsibility, some believe that in the quest for eternal life, the Atonement is only for big-time sinners. As everyday Latter-day Saints who just have to try harder, they feel that they must make it on their own.

The truth is not that we must make it on our own, but that he will make us His own.

After Adam and Eve had partaken of the tree of knowledge, the Lord barred the way to the tree of life. They needed the time and space and shaping purpose of mortality. (See Alma 42:5.) They needed to taste the bitter in order to “prize”—to grasp the meaning of—“the good” represented by the second tree. The Lord never intended that we should partake of the tree of life and thereby gain full access to perfecting grace before we have stumbled and groped to learn all we can from the disappointments and surprises of this vale of tears. We, like Adam and Eve, must make the best of our circumstances. We need not apologize for the typical untidiness of those circumstances. It is their very lone and dreary nature that allows them to shape us as they do. Perhaps we can only appreciate and comprehend the gift of eternal life after we do all we can do. Until we are prepared in what may look like very imperfect ways to receive them, we are not ready for the gifts that perfect our nature.

In his dream of the tree of life, Lehi found himself in a dark and dreary wasteland and saw others surrounded by a great mist of darkness. The pathway home from this darkness was the way to the tree of life—the same tree, I suppose, as the one from which Adam and Eve were barred until they, too, had walked the trail Lehi took. The path was marked by the iron rod, the word of God. (See 1 Ne. 8:7–30.) Holding fast to this rod in the mists of darkness, we, as did Lehi, grope and move our way homeward. As we do, we are likely to find that the cold rod of iron will begin to feel in our hands as the warm, firm, loving hand of him who literally pulls us along the way. We find that hand strong enough to rescue us, warm enough to tell us that home is not far away; and we summon our deepest resources to reciprocate, until we are again “at one” in the arms of the Lord.

It is so important for us to be on the Lord’s side. But we should never forget that the Lord is also on our side.

Each of us will taste the bitter ashes of life, from sin and neglect to sorrow and disappointment. But the atonement of Christ can lift us up in beauty from our ashes on the wings of a sure promise of immortality and eternal life. He will thus lift us up, not only at the end of life, but in each day of our lives.

“Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God … giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might, he increaseth strength. … They that wait upon the Lord shall … mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” (Isa. 40:28–31.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Wilson Ong

Bruce C. Hafen, Provost at Brigham Young University, teaches Sunday School in the Sharon Fifth Ward, Orem Utah Sharon Stake.