The Atoning Sacrifice: Latter-day Prophets Testify


“There would be no Christmas if there had not been Easter,” explains President Gordon B. Hinckley. “The babe Jesus of Bethlehem would be but another baby without the redeeming Christ of Gethsemane and Calvary, and the triumphant fact of the Resurrection” (“The Wondrous and True Story of Christmas,” Liahona, December 2000, 6).

The great fact of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the very heart of the gospel, is what makes our Savior’s birth—as well as His death—so significant. Here we present some of the teachings of this dispensation’s prophets—from Joseph Smith to Gordon B. Hinckley—on the centrality of the Savior’s sacrifice.

Joseph Smith (1805–44)

“And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives!

“For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father—

“That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God” (D&C 76:22–24).

Brigham Young (1801–77)

“The Latter-day Saints believe in Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the Father [in the flesh], who came in the meridian of time, performed his work, suffered the penalty and paid the debt of man’s original sin by offering up himself, was resurrected from the dead, and ascended to his Father; and as Jesus descended below all things, so he will ascend above all things. We believe that Jesus Christ will come again. …

“… There is not one thing that the Lord could do for the salvation of the human family that he has neglected to do; and it remains for the children of men to receive the truth or reject it; all that can be accomplished for their salvation, independent of them, has been accomplished in and by the Savior. … He is now King of kings and Lord of lords, and the time will come when every knee will bow and every tongue confess [see Mosiah 27:31], to the glory of God the Father, that Jesus is the Christ [see Philip. 2:10–11]. That very character that was looked upon, not as the Savior, but as an outcast, who was crucified between two thieves and treated with scorn and derision, will be greeted by all men as the only Being through whom they can obtain salvation” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young [1997], 31–32).

John Taylor (1808–87)

“We are told [in 2 Ne. 9:7] that the atonement must needs be infinite. Why did it need [to be] an infinite atonement? For the simple reason that a stream can never rise higher than its fountain; and man having assumed a fleshly body and become of the earth earthy, and through the violation of a law having cut himself off from his association with his Father, and become subject to death; in this condition, as the mortal life of man was short, and in and of himself he could have no hope of benefitting himself, or redeeming himself from his fallen condition, or of bringing himself back to the presence of his Father, some superior agency was needed to elevate him above his low and degraded position. This superior agency was the Son of God, who had not, as man had, violated a law of His Father, but was yet one with His Father, possessing His glory, His power, His authority, His dominion” (The Mediation and Atonement [1882], 145).

Wilford Woodruff (1807–98)

“When men are called upon to repent of their sins, the call has reference to their own individual sins, not to Adam’s transgressions. What is called the original sin was atoned for through the death of Christ irrespective of any action on the part of man; also man’s individual sin was atoned for by the same sacrifice, but on condition of his obedience to the Gospel plan of salvation when proclaimed in his hearing” (Millennial Star, 21 October 1889, 659).

Lorenzo Snow (1814–1901)

“Jesus, the Son of God, … had to make a great sacrifice. It required all the power that He had and all the faith that He could summon for Him to accomplish that which the Father required of Him. Had He fallen in the moment of temptation, what do you suppose would have become [of] us? … But He did not fail, though the trial was so severe that He sweat great drops of blood. … He had in His heart continually to say, ‘Father, not my will, but Thine be done.’ It was a dark hour for Him: and every man and woman who serves the Lord, no matter how faithful they may be, have their dark hours; but if they have lived faithfully, light will burst upon them and relief will be furnished. …

“… The Lord has determined in His heart that He will try us until He knows what He can do with us. He tried His Son Jesus. Thousands of years before He came upon earth the Father had watched His course and knew that He could depend upon Him when the salvation of worlds should be at stake; and He was not disappointed” (Millennial Star, 24 August 1899, 531–32).

Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918)

“The object of our earthly existence is that we may have a fulness of joy, and that we may become the sons and daughters of God, in the fullest sense of the word, being heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ, to be kings and priests unto God, to inherit glory, dominion, exaltation, thrones and every power and attribute developed and possessed by our Heavenly Father. This is the object of our being on this earth. In order to attain unto this exalted position, it is necessary that we go through this mortal experience, or probation, by which we may prove ourselves worthy, through the aid of our elder brother Jesus.

“Men can only be saved and exalted in the kingdom of God in righteousness, therefore we must repent of our sins, and walk in the light as Christ is in the light, that his blood may cleanse us from all sins, and that we may have fellowship with God and receive of his glory and exaltation” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith [1998], 100–101).

Heber J. Grant (1856–1945)

“‘We believe that through the atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.’

“In other words, we do not believe that the mere confession of faith, when a man is dying, is going to save him. …

“‘We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ—’ and when I say ‘faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,’ we want it distinctly understood that we believe absolutely in Jesus Christ, that He was the Son of God, and that He did come to the earth with a divinely-appointed mission, to die as the Redeemer of mankind, on the cross. We do not believe that He was just a ‘great moral teacher,’ but that He is our Redeemer” (“Articles of Faith Explained,” Deseret News, 3 September 1938, 7).

George Albert Smith (1870–1951)

“I thank [my Heavenly Father] for the knowledge that has been burned into my soul; I know that my Heavenly Father lives, I know that Jesus Christ is the Savior of mankind, and that there is no other name under heaven whereby men and women may be exalted, but the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. I do know that he came into the world in this latter day, that he bestowed divine authority upon a humble boy who was seeking the truth, and the result of that has been the organization of the Church with which we are identified; and there is with it the power of God unto salvation to all those who believe. Knowing that as I know that I live, I bear you witness of it” (in Conference Report, October 1927, 50).

David O. McKay (1873–1970)

“In the meridian of the earth’s history came the Son of Man declaring the eternal truth so opposed to the promises of the earth, that he that would save his life must lose it.

“His was a life of unselfish service—always helping those who were living incompletely to live completely—whether the incomplete living was caused by a physical defect such as blindness or deafness, or whether through a moral defect such as the woman taken in sin—His mission was to give them life. …

“In His life and death, therefore, Christ not only fulfilled the law of sacrifice but He fulfilled every conceivable condition necessary for man to know in order to rise or progress from earthly life to eternal life. ‘And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.’ (John 12:32.)

“In this I think I glimpse, though ever so dimly, a reason for Christ’s shedding His blood—in addition to the one generally offered for the redemption of man from the Fall. I confess that the latter has moved me less than the realization that in His life He lived for His fellow men, and in His death, He triumphed over all earthly elements, over the power of Death, Hell and the Evil One, and arose from the grave, an eternal Being—our Guide, our Saviour, our God” (“The Atonement,” Instructor, March 1959, 66).

Joseph Fielding Smith (1876–1972)

Jesus did come into the world to ransom it. Through his atonement we were bought from death and hell. Death and hell were paid—paid in full—and Christ was the only one who could pay that debt.

“… He carried, in some way that I cannot understand and you cannot understand, the burden of the combined weight of the sins of the world. It is hard enough for me to carry my own transgressions, and it is hard enough for you to carry yours. … I have seen [people] cry out in anguish because of their transgressions—just one individual’s sins. Can you comprehend the suffering of Jesus Christ when he carried, not merely by physical manifestation but in some spiritual and mental condition or manner, the combined weight of sin? …

“… This extreme suffering—which was beyond the power of mortal man either to accomplish or endure—was undertaken because of the great love which the Father and the Son had for mankind. …

“We will never be able to pay the debt. The gratitude of our hearts should be filled to overflowing in love and obedience for his great and tender mercy. For what he has done, we should never fail him” (Doctrines of Salvation, compiled by Bruce R. McConkie, 3 volumes [1954–56], 1:125–32).

Harold B. Lee (1899–1973)

“The only thing the Savior expects from us in return for his suffering is that we repent of our sins and keep his commandments. Although his sufferings were so intense that he the Son of God was caused ‘to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that [he] might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink,’ ([D&C] 19:18) yet he … counts it all worth-while if, at the end of the earth, mankind, for whom he died, might gain eternal life and become his sons and daughters eternally through the acceptance of his gospel, which is God’s plan for man’s salvation” (Youth and the Church [1945], 117–18).

Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985)

“When we think of the great sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ and the sufferings he endured for us, we would be ingrates if we did not appreciate it so far as our power made it possible. He suffered and died for us, yet if we do not repent, all his anguish and pain on our account are futile. …

“Forgiveness of sins is one of the most glorious principles God ever gave to man. Just as repentance is a divine principle, so also is forgiveness. Were it not for this principle, there would be no point in crying repentance. But because of this principle the divine invitation is held out to all—Come, repent of your sins and be forgiven!” (The Miracle of Forgiveness [1969], 145, 360).

Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994)

“Because He was God—even the Son of God—He could carry the weight and burden of other men’s sins on Himself. Isaiah prophesied our Savior’s willingness to do this in these words: ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: …

“‘He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed’ (Isa. 53:4–5).

“That holy, unselfish act of voluntarily taking on Himself the sins of all men and women is the Atonement. How one could bear the sins for all is beyond the comprehension of mortal man. But this I know: He did take on Himself the sins of all and did so out of His infinite love for each of us” (“Jesus Christ: Our Savior, Our God,” Tambuli, December 1991, 4).

Howard W. Hunter (1907–95)

“Christ’s supreme sacrifice can find full fruition in our lives only as we accept the invitation to follow him. This call is not irrelevant, unrealistic, or impossible. …

“Let us follow the Son of God in all ways and in all walks of life. Let us make him our exemplar and our guide. We should at every opportunity ask ourselves, ‘What would Jesus do?’ and then be more courageous to act upon the answer. We must follow Christ, in the best sense of that word. We must be about his work as he was about his Father’s. We should try to be like him. … To the extent that our mortal powers permit, we should make every effort to become like Christ—the one perfect and sinless example this world has ever seen. …

“We must know Christ better than we know him; we must remember him more often than we remember him; we must serve him more valiantly than we serve him. Then will we drink water springing up unto eternal life and will eat the bread of life.

“What manner of men and women ought we to be? Even as he is” (“He Invites Us to Follow Him,” Tambuli, October 1994, 4–6).

Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–)

“When all is said and done, when all of history is examined, when the deepest depths of the human mind have been explored, nothing is so wonderful, so majestic, so tremendous as this act of grace when the Son of the Almighty, the Prince of His Father’s royal household, He who had once spoken as Jehovah, He who had condescended to come to earth as a babe born in Bethlehem, gave His life in ignominy and pain so that all of the sons and daughters of God of all generations of time, every one of whom must die, might walk again and live eternally. He did for us what none of us could do for ourselves. …

“This is the wondrous and true story of Christmas. The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem of Judea is preface. The three-year ministry of the Master is prologue. The magnificent substance of the story is His sacrifice, the totally selfless act of dying in pain on the cross of Calvary to atone for the sins of all of us.

“The epilogue is the miracle of the Resurrection, bringing the assurance that ‘as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive’ (1 Cor. 15:22).

“There would be no Christmas if there had not been Easter. The babe Jesus of Bethlehem would be but another baby without the redeeming Christ of Gethsemane and Calvary, and the triumphant fact of the Resurrection” (“The Wondrous and True Story of Christmas,” Liahona, December 2000, 4–6).

[illustration] Left: Detail from The Birth of Jesus, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, courtesy of the National Historic Museum at Frederiksborg in Hillerød, Denmark

[illustration] Right: Christ in Gethsemane, by Heinrich Hofmann

[illustration] Portrait by Alvin Gittins

[illustration] Portrait by John Willard Clawson

[illustration] Inset: Simeon Reverencing the Christ Child © Greg K. Olsen, courtesy of the artist and Mill Pond Press, Inc.

[illustration] Left: The Crucifixion of Christ, artist unknown

[illustration] Portrait by A. Westwood

[illustration] Portrait by H. E. Peterson

[illustration] Portrait by Lewis A. Ramsey

[illustration] Portrait by Albert E. Salzbrenner

[illustration] Left: The Burial of Christ, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, courtesy of the National Historic Museum at Frederiksborg in Hillerød, Denmark

[illustration] Portrait by Charles J. Fox

[illustration] Portrait by Lee Greene Richards

[illustration] Portrait by Alvin Gittins

[illustration] Right: Detail from Christ in the Temple, by Heinrich Hofmann

[illustration] Portrait by Shauna Clinger

[illustration] Portrait by David Ahrnsbrak

[illustration] Portrait by Judith Mehr

[illustration] Left: Christ Raising the Daughter of Jairus, by Greg K. Olsen

[illustration] Right: Christ at Emmaus, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, courtesy of the National Historic Museum at Frederiksborg in Hillerød, Denmark

[illustration] Left: The Resurrection, by Harry Anderson

[illustration] Right: The Ascension, by Harry Anderson

[photo] Photograph of President Hinckley by Jed A. Clark