A Practical Approach to the Atonement

The greatest dilemma in the entire universe consists of two facts. We can read about the first in Doctrine and Covenants 1:31: “I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.” [D&C 1:31] That means he can’t stand it; he can’t blink, or look the other way, or sweep it under the rug. He can’t tolerate sin in the least degree.

The other side of the dilemma is very simply put: I sin, and so do you.

If those were the only two parts of the equation, we would have to conclude that we, as sinful beings, cannot be tolerated in the presence of God.

But that is not all there is to the equation. The Atonement of Christ is the glorious plan by which this dilemma can be resolved. I would like to share some experiences from my own family that illustrate how the Atonement works to solve this great dilemma.

First is a story about my son, Michael, who did something wrong when he was six or seven years old. He’s my only son. I want him to be better than his dad was even as a boy, and so I expect a great deal of him. So I sent him to his bedroom with the instructions, “Don’t come out until I come and get you.”

And then I forgot. Some hours later, as I was watching television, I heard his door open and tentative footsteps come down the hall. I said, “Oh, no,” and ran to the hall to see him standing there with swollen eyes and tears on his cheeks. He looked up at me—he wasn’t quite sure he should have come out—and said, “Dad, can’t we ever be friends again?” Of course, I hugged him and expressed my love for him. He’s my boy, and I love him, despite anything he may have done.

Like Michael, we all do things that disappoint our Father, that separate us from his presence and Spirit. There are times when we get “sent to our rooms” spiritually. There are sins that wound our spirits. Sometimes we do things that make us feel as if we could never get clean. When that happens, sometimes we ask the Lord, as we lift up our eyes, “O Father, can’t we ever be friends again?”

The answer that can be found in all the scriptures is a resounding “Yes, through the Atonement of Christ.” I particularly like the way it is put in Isaiah 1:18 [Isa. 1:18]:

“Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”

The Lord is saying that whatever you have done, he can make you pure and worthy and innocent and celestial.

Now, to have faith in Jesus Christ is not merely to believe that he is who he says he is, or to believe in Christ. Sometimes, to have faith in Christ is also to believe Christ.

Both as a bishop and as a teacher in the Church, I have learned that there are many who believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the world, but who do not believe that he can save them. They believe in his identity, but not in his power to cleanse and purify and save. To have faith in his identity is only half the principle. To have faith in his power to cleanse and save is the other half. We must not only believe in Christ, but we must also believe Christ when he says that he can cleanse us and make us celestial.

When I was a bishop, some members told me, “Bishop, I’ve sinned too horribly. I can’t have the full blessings of the gospel because I did this or I did that. I’ll come to church, and I’m hoping for a pretty good reward—but I couldn’t receive the full blessings of exaltation in the celestial kingdom after what I’ve done.”

Other members said, “Bishop, I’m just an average Saint. I’m weak and imperfect, and I don’t have all the talents that Brother (or Sister) So-and-So has. I’ll never be in the bishopric, or I’ll never be the Relief Society president. I’m just average. I hope for a place a little further down.”

These statements are variations of the same theme: “I do not believe Christ can do what he claims. I have no faith in his ability to exalt me.”

One fellow said to me, “Bishop, I’m just not celestial material.” Well, I’d had enough, so I said back to him, “Why don’t you admit your real problem? You’re not celestial material? Welcome to the club. None of us is! By ourselves, none of us is perfect as we must be to live in the presence of God. Why don’t you just admit that you don’t have faith in the ability of Christ to do what he says he can do?”

He got angry. “I have a testimony of Jesus,” he said. “I believe in Christ.”

I responded, “Yes, you believe in Christ. But you do not believe Christ when he says that even though you are not celestial material, he can make you celestial material, if you’ll cooperate.”

Why He Is Called the Savior

Sometimes the weight of the demand for perfection makes us despair. Sometimes we fail to believe that most choice truth of the gospel that the Lord can change us and bring us into his kingdom. Let me share an experience that happened about ten years ago.

My wife, Janet, and I were living in Pennsylvania. Things were going pretty well. I had been promoted, and it was a good year for us as a family. But it was a trying year for Janet personally. That year she had our fourth child, graduated from college, passed the exam to become a certified public accountant, and was called to be the ward Relief Society president. We had temple recommends, and we held family home evening. I was serving in the bishopric.

Then one night, something happened to my wife that I can describe only as “dying spiritually.” She wouldn’t talk about it or tell me what was wrong. For me, that was the worst part. For a couple of weeks she did not wish to participate in spiritual things, and she asked to be released from her callings.

Finally, after about two weeks, it came out. She said, “All right. You want to know what’s wrong? I’ll tell you what’s wrong. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t get up at 5:30 in the morning and bake bread and sew clothes and help my kids with their homework and do my own homework and do my Relief Society work and get my genealogy done and go to the parent-teacher meetings at school and write to the missionaries.” And she named off one burden after another that had been laid on her.

Then she listed her flaws and imperfections. She said, “I don’t have the talent that Sister Morrell has. I can’t do what Sister Childs does. I try not to yell at the kids, but I lose control and yell at them anyway. I’ve just finally admitted that I’m not perfect and that I’m not ever going to be perfect. I’m not going to make it to the celestial kingdom, and I can’t pretend that I am. So I’ve given up. Why break my back trying to do what I can’t?”

Well, we started to talk, and it was a long night. I asked her, “Janet, do you have a testimony?”

She said, “Of course I do! That’s what’s so terrible. I know it’s true. I just can’t do it.”

“Have you kept the covenants you made when you were baptized?”

She said, “I’ve tried and I’ve tried, but I cannot keep all the commandments all the time.”

Then I rejoiced because I knew that her problem wasn’t any of those horrible things I had thought it might be. It is possible to be an active member of the Church, to have a testimony of its truthfulness, to hold leadership positions—and still to lose track of the “good news” at the gospel’s core. This is what had happened to Janet. She was trying to save herself. She knew why Jesus is an adviser and a teacher. She knew why he is an example, the head of the Church, our Elder Brother, and even God. She knew all of that, but she did not understand why he is called the Savior.

Janet was tying to save herself, with Jesus as an adviser. But we can’t do that. No one is perfect. In Ether 3:2 we read about one of the greatest prophets who ever lived, the brother of Jared. His faith was so great that he was about to pierce the veil and see the spirit body of Christ. Yet, as he began to pray, he said:

“Now behold, O Lord, and do not be angry with thy servant because of his weakness before thee [notice that he starts his prayer with an apology as an imperfect being for approaching a perfect God]; for we know that thou art holy and dwellest in the heavens, and that we are unworthy before thee; because of the fall our natures have become evil continually; nevertheless, O Lord, thou hast given us a commandment that we must call upon thee, that from thee we may receive according to our desires.”

Of course we fail at the celestial level. That’s why we need a savior and why we are commanded to approach God and to call upon him so we may receive according to our desires. The Savior said, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled” (Matt. 5:6). We misinterpret this scripture frequently. We think it says, “Blessed are the righteous,” but it does not. When are you hungry? When are you thirsty? When you don’t have the object of your desire. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after the righteousness that God has, after the righteousness of the celestial kingdom. As that becomes the desire of their hearts, it will be given to them—they will be filled. We receive “according to our desires.”

Becoming One

In mortality, perfection comes to us only through the Atonement of Christ. We cannot achieve it ourselves. We must become one with the Lord, who is a perfect being. This is what the business world would call a merger. When a small, bankrupt firm that’s about ready to collapse merges with a strong corporation, what happens? Assets and liabilities of the two companies flow together, and the new entity that is created is solvent.

When Janet and I got married, I was financially pressed, and Janet had money in the bank. When we entered into the covenant relationship of marriage, we formed a joint account at the bank. No longer was there an “I,” and no longer a “she”—now, financially speaking, it was “we.” My liabilities and her assets flowed into each other in this joint account, and for the first time in months I was solvent.

Spiritually, this is what happens when we enter into the covenant relationship with our Savior. We have liabilities; he has assets. He proposes to us a covenant relationship. I use the word propose on purpose because it is a marriage of a spiritual sort that is being proposed. That is why he is called the Bridegroom. This covenant relationship is so intimate that it is described in scriptures as a marriage. I become one with Christ, and as partners we work together for my salvation. My liabilities and his assets flow into each other. I do all that I can do, and he does what I cannot yet do. The two of us together are perfect.

This is why the Savior says, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). What heavier load is there than the demand for perfection, the idea that you must make yourself perfect in this life before you can have any hope in the next? What heavier burden is there than the yoke of the law?

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me,” said the Savior; “for I am meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29–30).

“Trust Me”

The prophet Nephi was one of the great prophets, yet he had a sense of his need for and his reliance upon the Savior. He says, “O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.

“I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.

“And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins” (2 Ne. 4:17–19).

Did Nephi have an appreciation for his mortal condition, for his need of the Savior to save him from his sins? Yes, and the key is what comes next: “Nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted” (2 Ne. 4:19).

Nephi realized that he was imperfect. His sins bothered him. He was not celestial yet. But he knew in whom he trusted. Nephi trusted in the power of Jesus Christ to cleanse him of his sins and to bring him into the kingdom of God.

I had a friend who used to say quite frequently, “I figure my life is half over, and I’m halfway to the celestial kingdom, so I’m right on schedule.”

One day I asked her, “Judy, what happens if you die tomorrow?” It was the first time that thought had ever occurred to her.

“Let’s see,” she said, “halfway to the celestial kingdom is … mid-terrestrial. That’s not good enough.”

We need to know that in this covenant relationship we have with the Savior, if we should die tomorrow we have hope of the celestial kingdom. That hope is one of the promised blessings of the covenant relationship. Yet many of us do not understand it or take advantage of it.

When our twin daughters were small, we decided to take them to the public pool and teach them how to swim. I remember starting with Rebekah. As I went down into the water with her, I was thinking, “I’m going to teach Becky how to swim.” But in her mind was the thought, “My dad is going to drown me. I’m going to die!” The water was only three-and-a-half feet deep, but Becky was only three feet tall. She was so frightened that she began to scream and cry and kick and scratch. She was unteachable.

Finally, I threw my arms around her and held her and said, “Becky, I’ve got you. I’m your dad. I love you. I’m not going to let anything bad happen to you. Now relax.” Bless her heart, she trusted me. She relaxed, and then I put my arms under her and said, “Okay, now kick your legs.” And she began to learn how to swim.

Spiritually there are some of us who are similarly frightened by these questions. “Am I celestial? Am I going to make it? Was I good enough today?” We’re so terrified of whether we’re going to live or die, or whether we’ve made it to the kingdom or not, that we cannot make any progress. At those times, the Savior, in a sense, throws his arms around us and says, “I’ve got you. I love you. I’m not going to let you die. Now relax and trust me.” If we can relax and trust him and believe him, as well as believe in him, then together we can begin to learn to live the gospel. Then he says, “Okay, now begin to pay tithing. Very good. Now pay a full tithing.” And so we begin to make progress.

In Alma 34:14–16, we read:

“Behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal.

“And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.

“And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety.”

The arms of safety—that is my favorite phrase in the Book of Mormon.

Do Latter-day Saints believe in “being saved”? If I ask my religion students that question with the right tone of voice—“Do we believe in being saved?”—I can generally get about a third of them to shake their heads and say, “Oh, no, no. Those other religions believe in that.” What a tragedy! We most certainly do believe in being saved. That’s why Jesus is called the Savior. What good is it to have a Savior if no one is saved? It’s like having a lifeguard who won’t get out of the chair. “Oops, there goes another swimmer down. Hey, try the backstroke! Oh, too bad he didn’t make it.” We have a Savior who can save us from ourselves, from what we lack, from our imperfections, from the carnal individual within us.

In Joseph Smith’s vision of the celestial kingdom, he describes those who are there in these terms:

“These are they whose names are written in heaven, where God and Christ are the judge of all.

“These are they who are just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant” (D&C 76:68–69).

Just men and women, good men and women, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, are made perfect through Jesus Christ, the mediator of the new covenant.

Give Him All That We Have

As my wife and I talked about her feeling of inadequacy and her feeling that she couldn’t make it, I recalled something that had happened in our family just a couple of months earlier. We call it the parable of the bicycle.

After I had come home one day, I was sitting in a chair reading the newspaper. My daughter Sarah, who was seven years old, came in and said, “Dad, can I have a bike? I’m the only kid on the block who doesn’t have a bike.”

Well, I didn’t think I could afford to buy her a bike, so I tried to stall her by saying, “Sure, Sarah.”

She asked, “How? When?”

I said, “You save all your pennies, and pretty soon you’ll have enough for a bike.” And she went away.

A couple of weeks later as I was sitting in the same chair, I was aware that Sarah was doing something for her mother and getting paid. She went into the other room, and I heard “Clink, clink.” I asked, “Sarah, what are you doing?”

She came out and showed me a little jar all cleaned up with a slit cut in the lid and a bunch of pennies in the bottom. She looked at me and said, “You promised me that if I saved all my pennies, pretty soon I’d have enough for a bike. And, Daddy, I’ve saved every single one of them.”

My heart was filled with love for her. She was doing everything in her power to follow my instructions. I hadn’t actually lied to her. If she saved all of her pennies, she eventually would have enough for a bike, but by then she would want a car! Her needs weren’t being met. So I said, “Let’s go downtown and look at bikes.”

We went to every store in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Finally we found it—the perfect bicycle. She got up on that bike, and she was thrilled. But when she saw how much the bicycle cost, her face fell, and she started to cry. She said, “Oh, Dad, I’ll never have enough for a bicycle.”

So I said, “Sarah, how much do you have?”

She answered, “Sixty-one cents.”

“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “You give me everything you’ve got and a hug and a kiss, and the bike is yours.” She gave me a hug, a kiss—and the sixty-one cents. I paid for the bicycle. Then I had to drive home very slowly because she wouldn’t get off the bike; she rode home on the sidewalk. And as I drove along slowly beside her, it occurred to me that this was a parable for the Atonement of Christ.

We all want something desperately—something far more than a bicycle. We want the celestial kingdom. We want to be with our Father in Heaven. And no matter how hard we try, we come up short. At some point we realize, “I can’t do this!” That was the point my wife, Janet, had reached. At that point, we taste the sweetness of the gospel covenant as the Savior proposes, “All right, you’re not perfect. Give me all you have, and I’ll pay the rest. Give me a hug and a kiss—that is, enter into a personal relationship with me—and I will do what remains undone.”

There is good news and bad news. The bad news is that he still requires our best effort. We must try, we must work—we must do all that we can. But the good news is that, having done all we can, it is enough—for now. Together we’ll make progress in the eternities, and eventually we will become perfect. But in the meantime, we are perfect only in a partnership, in a covenant relationship with him. Only by tapping his perfection can we hope to qualify.

As Janet and I discussed how it worked, she finally understood. I remember her saying through her tears, “I’ve always believed he is the Son of God. I have always believed that he suffered and died for me. But now I realize that he can save me from myself, from my sins, from my weakness, inadequacy, and lack of talent.”

How many of us forget the words of Nephi: “There is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Ne. 2:8).

There is no other way. Many of us are trying to save ourselves, holding the Atonement of Jesus Christ at arm’s distance and saying, “When I’ve done it, when I’ve perfected myself, when I’ve made myself worthy—then I’ll be worthy of the Atonement. Then I will allow him in.” We cannot do it. That’s like saying, “When I am well, I’ll take the medicine. I’ll be worthy of it then.” That’s not how it was designed to work.

One of my favorite hymns says, “Oh, dearly, dearly has he loved! And we must love him too, And trust in his redeeming blood, And try his works to do” (“There Is a Green Hill Far Away,” Hymns, 1985, no. 194). I think one of the reasons I love that hymn so much is that it expresses both sides of that covenant relationship. We must “try his works to do” with all that is in us. We must do all that we can, and having done all, then we must “trust in his redeeming blood” and in his ability to do for us what we cannot yet do.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie used to call this being in the gospel harness. When we are in the gospel harness, we are pulling for the kingdom with our eyes on that goal. Although we are not yet there, we can have confidence that just as that is our goal in life, so it will be our goal in eternity. Through the Atonement of Christ we can have hope of achieving and an expectation of receiving that goal.

Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. He is our individual Savior, if only we will enter into that glorious covenant relationship with him and give him all we have. Whether it be sixty-one cents, or a dollar and a half, or two cents, we must hold nothing back; we must give it all. And then we must have faith and trust in his ability to do for us what we cannot yet accomplish, to make up what we yet lack of perfection. This is the yoke that is easy and the burden that is light.

[illustration] The Atonement, by Harry Anderson; courtesy of Pacific Press Publishing

[photos] Photography by Steve Bunderson

[illustration] The Last Judgment, by John Scott

Stephen E. Robinson is Department Chair of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University.