It is crucial that every individual know our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ and gain an understanding of the Atonement wrought on our behalf. Our eternal happiness depends upon it. The Savior taught, “This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). Concerning the centrality of the mission and Atonement of Christ, President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said: “Through Him [Jesus Christ] mercy can be fully extended to each of us without offending the eternal law of justice. This truth is the very root of Christian doctrine. You may know much about the gospel as it branches from there, but if you only know the branches and those branches do not touch the root, if they have been cut free from that truth, there will be no life nor substance nor redemption in them.”1
The basic concept of why we need an atonement may be summarized fairly simply: You and I lived before this life in a celestial home with our heavenly parents. We came to this earth to obtain a physical body and to learn and grow by our own experiences. We also came to be proven to see whether we would obey all of God’s commandments (see Abr. 3:25). However, we are unclean, for we disobey to some extent the commandments of God. Therefore, that which we desire most in life, to return to our heavenly home, is denied us, for no unclean thing can dwell in His presence. There is, however, a remedy. In His love and mercy, God our Father has accepted the offer of His perfect Son to suffer for our sins, that we might not suffer if we would repent (see D&C 19:16). We may thus be rendered clean, without guilt before God, and be welcomed back into His presence.
Sadly, many do not believe in a Redeemer or understand the need for an atonement, even though they acknowledge human failings. They are left to believe, therefore, that we can never be truly happy, that this life is all there is, and that we must find pleasure here and there as best we can. Without a Savior to redeem and reform us, there is little hope of lasting improvement in humanity. Such a dismal view of life can be corrected by a study of the Book of Mormon. Father Lehi taught that “redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.
“Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit. …
“Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth” (2 Ne. 2:6–8).
Many Church members have been taught the concepts of why we need an atonement, but there are elements of this doctrine that are often misunderstood. Errors in thinking can lessen the hope and joy they ought to feel or cause them to wander into byways of sin or despair. I would like to address a few common misunderstandings about the Atonement.
1. Some have a difficult time accepting in their hearts that when the Lord says “all” He means them too. They seem to say to themselves, “I believe that Jesus Christ died for the sins of mankind, but what I have done is so terrible or so repeated that I don’t think the Atonement will work for me.” Some who are faithful members of the Church actually seem to believe that they will never make it back to Heavenly Father’s presence. It is the idea that Christ can save all mankind, but He may not be able to save me. This kind of feeling is terribly discouraging, and it can become an excuse to dabble in sin. “After all,” some rationalize, “I’m not going to make it anyway.”
Others can sense that this idea is false and that Christ can save them, but they are not sure He will. The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob taught, “He cometh into the world that he may save all men if they will hearken to his voice; for behold, he suffereth … the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children” (2 Ne.:21). The question is not whether we are perfect or whether we are worth forgiving, but whether we are willing to admit when we do wrong, feel sorry, confess as appropriate, do all we can to set things right, and ask the Lord to forgive us. This is what the Savior meant when He said we must have “a broken heart and a contrite spirit” (3 Ne. 9:20). I know that the Lord is ready, even anxious, to forgive each of us personally if we will but come to Him (see Mosiah 26:30).
2. Another mistake is to believe that the Atonement really only comes into effect at the very end, that is, at the time of Final Judgment. This line of thinking is “I know I should live the gospel, but I often fall short. I am just hoping that I will do well enough overall that at the end the Lord will apply His generous mercy to me and I will get in to heaven.” While this thinking is not completely false, it is incomplete. It does include the fact that we must sincerely strive to do what is right, and it includes the idea that the Lord can in His mercy take away our sins. Yet who among us can afford to wait until the Final Judgment to receive the Lord’s help and healing? As a favorite hymn teaches:
I need thy presence ev’ry passing hour.
What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s pow’r?
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me!2
I testify that the Lord hears our prayers and that He will make us clean and bless us with His Spirit here and now, if we will trust in Him and repent. We partake of the sacrament each week to renew our covenants and feel that cleansing power anew. We are exhorted to retain a remission of our sins from day to day (see Mosiah 4:26). When we end each prayer “in the name of Jesus Christ, amen,” we are petitioning the Father that we might enter His presence through the mediation of Jesus Christ, who is pleading our cause before Him (see D&C 45:3–5). Surely our Lord desires to succor us at any time, for in Him “we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feelings of our infirmities” (Heb. 4:15).
3. A third misunderstanding is a pernicious lie that goes like this: “It doesn’t really matter what I do. The Lord is going to forgive and save everybody. Why not sample in the meantime a bit of what the world has to offer? After all, everyone else is doing it.” The prophet Nephi accurately predicted this way of thinking long ago (see 2 Ne. 28:8).
The Lord, of course, can and wants to forgive everyone, but a full measure of His mercy will only come with complete and deep repentance. If we have not suffered, we have not repented. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said, “Repentance of necessity involves suffering and sorrow. Anyone who thinks otherwise has not read the life of the young Alma, nor tried to personally repent. In the process of repentance we are granted just a taste of the suffering we would endure if we failed to turn away from evil. That pain, though only momentary for the repentant, is the most bitter of cups.”3
What a terrible thing to believe mistakenly that sin will be happiness and that repentance will be easy, for one of the terrible consequences of sin is the loss of the Spirit. “Wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10), and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
It is also folly to assume that we can premeditatedly sin, repent, and then have the Lord immediately remove all the natural consequences of our sins. When we choose to sin, we also choose the results of those sins. Suppose two people conceive a baby outside of marriage, then repent and are forgiven by the Lord. Will the baby suddenly go away? Obviously not; someone must care for that baby. Though the baby will doubtless bring joy to many lives, some of the consequences of our sins may be difficult to bear. Also, these consequences may not be quickly or easily resolved. We may have to wrestle with some of them for much of our mortal lives. This principle does not detract in any way from the complete and infinite cleansing power of the Atonement. When we truly repent, the Lord fully forgives us and our guilt is swept away (see Enos 1:6). But it is important to understand that the Lord has placed us in a physical world where there are real consequences for our choices.
There is great saving power in deepening our understanding of the Atonement. There are many scriptural accounts that can enlarge our understanding and comfort our hearts when viewed in the light of that singular event. These accounts can teach us symbolically of the power and abundance of the Savior’s atoning grace. A beautiful example is the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000.
When Jesus and His disciples attempted to privately get away for some rest into a solitary place, the people caught sight of them and “ran afoot thither out of all cities, and outran them, and came together unto him” (see JST, Mark 6:32–34). Jesus “was moved with compassion toward them” and “began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). As evening came, the disciples became concerned for the hunger of the people and urged the Savior to send them away to find food. Jesus asked that the disciples go and buy food for them, but they could not possibly muster the resources required (see Mark 6:37, footnote a). The Lord then asked how much food the people had with them. After a search, Andrew reported, “There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?” (John 6:9). Jesus then organized the people at the hands of His disciples and blessed and divided the loaves and fish. His disciples distributed it to the people. “And they did all eat, and were filled. And they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments” (Mark 6:42–43).
Now consider this story for what it can teach us about the Atonement: (1) The people ran to be with Jesus. Similarly, we need to come to Him without delay. (2) Jesus has great compassion for us, as He did for them. (3) Jesus was miraculously able to take away the hunger of so many just as He is able to take away our sins. (4) The Savior often administers His blessings through His appointed priesthood leaders. (5) When we partake of the food Jesus offers, namely the sacrament, in remembrance of the Savior’s atoning sacrifice, we can also be filled, but with the Holy Spirit. (6) His grace is truly abundant and more than sufficient to meet all our needs (see D&C 17:8).
It is significant to observe from this account the implication that the Master not only spoke symbolically often in parables, but often acted symbolically as well. This realization may profitably lead us to look for other acts of Jesus that are symbolic of the Atonement.
It is comforting and inspiring to note the many ways in which the Lord teaches us about His Atonement. An accurate understanding of this doctrine is the one of the most important things a person can acquire. In fact, our eternal lives depend on it, for “this is life eternal, that [we] might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3).
More on this topic: See Spencer J. Condie, “The Fall and Infinite Atonement,”Ensign, Jan. 1996, 22–27; Richard G. Scott, “Finding Forgiveness,”Ensign, May 1995, 75–77; Hugh W. Nibley, “The Atonement of Jesus Christ, Part 1,”Ensign, July 1990, 18–23, “Part 2,” Aug. 1990, 30–34, “Part 3,” Sept. 1990, 22–26; James E. Faust, “The Supernal Gift of the Atonement,”Ensign, Nov. 1988, 12–14.