Summary: When we talk about the atonement of Christ, we’re referring to the fact that Christ paid the penalty for our sins by dying on the cross, but why did he pay that penalty? We say that because of the pure love Jesus has for us that he was willing to lay down his life for us, but that still doesn’t answer the question. And now that Jesus has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, was that all he had to do to bring about our salvation? This article examines these questions to find the answer to them.
Amulek taught the people of Ammoniah, “For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made’ (Alma 34:9).
When we talk about the atonement of Christ, we’re referring to the fact that Christ paid the penalty for our sins by dying on the cross, but many people only have a limited understanding of why he paid that penalty. The suffering Jesus endured to make that payment is beyond our current ability to comprehend. It was so great that no regular mortal could have survived it because their physical body would not be capable of withstanding the pain. And that pain wasn’t just experienced on the cross but was more intensely felt in the garden of Gethsemane. That’s where Jesus plead to have the bitter cup removed from him.
We say that Jesus so loved the world that he gave his life to save us. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we talk about “the pure love of Christ” (Moroni 7:47) and it was that love that motivated Christ to suffer for our sins, but that doesn’t fully answer the question of why he died for our sins. To gain a better understanding of the atonement we have to realize that Jesus willing endured unimaginable pain because he wants to save us. That is his overriding desire and what motivates his behavior.
We sometimes have the idea that Jesus did his part by dying on the cross and has therefore earned the right to sit on the right hand of God, but now we’re expected to do our part to become worthy of becoming exalted ourselves. However, such a view of the atonement couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Jesus didn’t go through all of that inexpressible suffering just because his Father in heaven asked him to. To appreciate the atonement, we have to understand that the reason why Jesus willing died for our sins is because he personally WANTS to save us. Yet, as crucial and absolutely essential as it was for that debt to be paid, it’s only one part of what Christ is doing to bring about our salvation.
After Jesus was resurrected and ascended into heaven, that wasn’t the end of his mission. His desire to save each and every one of his Father’s children continues, and he won’t stop trying to do that until the last person has been resurrected. That means, most of his time and efforts are devoted to doing everything he can to save as many of us as he possibly can.
The first step in that process is getting people to accept him as their Savior and to do that takes persuading and convincing people to come unto him and be willing to follow his commandments. We call that effort doing missionary work. The reason why it’s necessary for us to keep God’s commandments is because they teach us what we have to know and do to become like God, which then prepares us to be crowned with everlasting glory and honor.
But once someone commits to accepting Christ, which is signified by their willingness to be baptized, then comes the second and more important step, which is helping people to remain on the path that leads to exaltation, or what the prophet, President Nelson, refers to as the covenant path. The scriptures refer to this process as perfecting the saints (Ephesians 4:12), and to aid us in this process, one of the precious gifts the Lord provides us with is the church.
Since Christ is perfect, the reason why he has established a church is to help us measure up to the full stature of Christ. As Latter-day saints we say that Jesus Christ is the head of our church and is guiding and directing it, but what that means is that he is personally taking charge in making sure it is doing all it can to help as many of God’s children become as perfect as he and our father in heaven are perfect. This is his sole mission. This is what he’s spending all of his time and effort striving to do. It’s his full-time activity and he’s fully committed to it.
However, he must do his work within the bounds of eternal laws, and one of those laws is that men must be free to choose eternal life or eternal death for themselves. Ammon, who was one of the sons of King Mosiah, had a burning desire to bring people to Christ and exclaimed, “Oh that I were an angel and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people.” But then he added, “But behold, I am a man and do sin in my wish” (Alma 29:1,3).
As much as Ammon wanted to help save people, Jesus has a far greater desire to bring people everywhere to repentance and save them into the kingdom of God, his Father, but he can’t force people to do that. He has to allow them the freedom to make that choice for themselves. Since “every soul is free, to choose his life and what he’ll be … this eternal truth is given, that God will force no man to heaven. He’ll call, persuade, direct aright, and bless with wisdom, love, and light. In nameless ways be good and kind, but never force the human mind” (LDS hymn #240 “Know This that Every Man is Free”)
[Therefore, Jesus has to convince people to accept him and follow his ways through the use of persuasion, and one way he does that is through the instrumentality of others. We become his hands, feet, and voice as we allow ourselves to be directed by his Spirit. But, in doing this Christ is also teaching us how to do what he does, which is teaching us how to become more like him.]
Because of his great desire to save all mankind, no one is so bad that Jesus doesn’t want to save them. If Jesus paid the penalty for every sin that every person has ever committed, then that clearly means he wants to save everyone. If there are certain people whose sins are so bad that they’re not worth saving, then there would have been no point in Jesus suffering for their sins. But since Jesus did die to atone for everyone’s sins, then he has a vested interest in saving everyone if they’ll let him.
To illustrate why, if someone invested their entire life’s savings into helping someone start a new business, they would have a keen interest in wanting that business to succeed. And after spending that much money, they would also do whatever else they could to help keep that business from failing because if it did, they themselves would be deeply affected by that failure.
Jesus gave all that he had in paying the price needed to redeem us therefore, if we fail to become saved, then he suffered for us for nothing. However, that’s going to happen anyway because Jesus can’t force us to be saved any more than an investor can force a business to be successful. What that means is, everyone who chooses not to keep the commandments of God and doesn’t repent of their sins, are required by eternal law to pay the penalty for those unrepentant sins because it’s only through repentance that Christ can extend his mercy and forgiveness. Therefore, when we don’t repent of our sins, it’s as though Jesus suffered for those sins for nothing.
Imagine someone paying a huge amount of money to pay for someone’s debt and only to find out that that that person has to also pay that same amount of money to satisfy the same debt. Yet, that’s exactly what Jesus willingly did for each and every one of us, knowing ahead of time that there would be many people who would have to suffer for their sins when they could have had their sins forgiven.
For this reason, Jesus has an overwhelming desire to save everyone he possibly can because he has put everything he had into saving all of mankind. For him, it’s personal because he wants to see his investment of blood, sweat, and tears succeed. Therefore, he’s going to put his whole heart and soul into doing whatever he can to save as many people as is possible.
When active members of the church feel they’re not good enough, that Christ only cares about the truly righteous, who have strong testimonies and are keeping all the commandments, they don’t understand what the atonement of Christ is all about.
When active members of the church feel that Christ doesn’t care about them because they have too many faults, too many spiritual weaknesses, make too many mistakes, and aren’t living the gospel as well as they should, they don’t understand what the atonement is all about.
If someone is an active member of Christ’s church, Jesus views them as low hanging fruit that’s easy to save because they’re at least trying to do what’s right. They at least have a desire to be saved and they’re at least putting in some effort to keep the commandments. These people are like good timber that only needs a little shaping to turn them into something beautiful. Some may need more chipping and sanding than others, but the basic material is good.
Then there are those who join Christ’s restored church but who later fall into inactivity. It doesn’t matter to Christ what their reason was for falling away. All he knows is that they once felt his Spirit and responded to it, therefore, his attitude is that if they responded to him in the past, then there’s a good chance they can be persuaded to come back to him, and so he doubles his efforts to save them.
Then there are those who hear the gospel and are touched by the Lord’s Spirit, but don’t want to commit themselves to joining Christ’s church and keeping his commandments. As any good salesman knows, you don’t give up trying to make the sale the first time the customer says no. What every good salesman does is look for what the customer wants and then appeals to that want in an effort to convince them to buy their product or service.
If Jesus is determined to save as many souls as possible, he doesn’t give up on people the first time they say no to his proposal of salvation. He keeps coming back to them over and over again, giving them multiple opportunities to accept his offer. For some people that opportunity might be to have many different sets of missionaries teach them the gospel over many years. For some, that opportunity might come in the form of being associated with a member of the church who sets an example for them. For others, the opportunity may come in the form of a disaster or calamity in their life that leads them back to God. There are innumerable ways that God gives people multiple opportunities to accept the gospel, and on judgment day no one will be able to complain that God didn’t give them sufficient opportunities to do come unto Christ.
The hardest people to save are those who harden their hearts to the Spirit and incline their ear to the promptings of the devil. These are the ones who openly fight against all that God stands for, who call good evil and evil good, who delight in doing all that is unrighteous, and who persecute the saints. If anyone could be classified as being beyond God’s salvation, it would be these people, yet Christ suffered and died to pay the price for even their sins.
However, for them to access Christ’s atonement they need to repent, and we learn to repent through hearing the gospel being preached. If the purpose of the atonement is to save people, and Jesus wants to save everyone, and salvation comes to those who repent, then Jesus is working hard to do what he can to bring the message of repentance to even the most wicked. The fact that they don’t want to hear that message is irrelevant. What’s important is that they are given the chance (often multiple times) to hear and accept Christ’s message of salvation.
We see this situation in the 4th chapter of the Book of Helaman, where we read that the Lamanites had attacked the Nephites and conquered all the land south of the city of Zarahemla (which was originally in the center of the Land of Zarahemla), then they conquered the city of Zarahemla, and then began conquering all the land up to the city of Bountiful, which was at the northern most part of the land of Zarahemla. In other words, the Lamanites had just about conquered the entire land of Zarahemla, with the exception of one small northen portion of it.
Mormon explains, “Now this great loss of the Nephites, and the great slaughter which was among them, would not have happened had it not been for their wickedness and their abomination which was among them; yea, and it was among those also who professed to belong to the church of God” (verse 11). Yet, despite the hardness of their hearts we’re told, “But behold, Moronihah did preach many things unto the people because of their iniquity, and also Nephi and Lehi, who were the sons of Helaman, did preach many things unto the people, yea, and did prophesy many things unto them concerning their iniquities, and what should come unto them if they did not repent of their sins. And it came to pass that they did repent, and inasmuch as they did repent they did begin to prosper” (verses 12,15)
Here we see where preaching the gospel to a hardened people was successful, but such was not the case with those who lived in the days of Mormon for he wrote, “And I did cry unto this people, but it was in vain; and they did not realize that it was the Lord that had spared them and granted unto them a chance for repentance. And behold they did harden their hearts against the Lord their God” (Mormon 3: 3). “But now, behold, they are led about by Satan, even as chaff is driven before the wind, or as a vessel is tossed about upon the waves, without sail or anchor, or without anything wherewith to steer her” (5:18).
Despite the hardness of their heart, and even knowing it wouldn’t do any good to preach repentance to his people, Mormon nevertheless preached to them. On judgment day they will be left without excuse that they hadn’t been given the opportunity to repent. And so we see that perhaps Christ’s greatest work for the salvation of man is among the most wicked as he tries over and over again to persuade even them to come unto him.
But what about those who are the faithful followers of Christ? Does he leave them to struggle on their own while he spends his efforts helping the less faithful come unto him? Not at all. He’s not only helping them to stay on the path that leads to salvation, but he is strengthening them, teaching them, sanctifying them and helping them to improve their efforts to become more like him.
Christ work of salvation didn’t end when he died on the cross or when he rose from the grave. As important and as crucial as that is to our salvation, Christ is still working hard, striving to do all he possibly can to save every single one of God’s children. And when we fail to do what is necessary for our own salvation, Christ works that much harder to help save us. We many give up on ourselves, but no matter who we are, he never, no never, no never gives up on us.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of God