One of the central messages from this round of zone conferences was the Doctrine of Christ. This is a term that captures in a few words the purpose of missionaries in assisting our Father and his Son in their work upon the earth. The missionaries repeat from memory this doctrine in the recitations before every zone conference: “Our purpose is to invite others to come unto Christ by helping them receive the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement, repentance, baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end.”
We spoke at length about the atonement during our zone conference. What follows is my teaching to the missionaries which incorporates liberally from Elder Tad R. Callister’s book, The Infinite Atonement:
The Doctrine of Christ – The Infinite Atonement
Zone Conferences – President Sweeney
The Doctrine of Christ is a missionary’s most fundamental reason for being a missionary. It includes the steps necessary to obtain salvation:
• Faith in Jesus Christ
• Faith in his Atonement
• Receiving the Gift of the Holy Ghost
• Enduring to the End
Elder Bruce R. McConkie said:
Now, the atonement of Christ is the most basic and fundamental doctrine of the gospel, and it is the least understood of all our revealed truths. (The Purifying Power of the Atonement, May 1985 Ensign)
Some parts of the atonement we completely understand and accept: The fact that we will be resurrected with a perfected body, for example. As we become older, we see before us evidence of our mortality. Wrinkles, gray hair – no hair – battle scars from life – all appear without invitation. It does not take much effort to see that this body will require divine intervention to become immortal.
I also believe we accept the miraculous power of the atonement to cleanse us from sin. If you have ever, even once, prayed for forgiveness of your sins and experienced the miraculous lifting of the burden of sin, you know this part of the atonement is real. These two blessings are extraordinarily powerful. But there are other aspects of the atonement that are less commonly understood – as Elder McConkie affirmed. It is those aspects that we will focus on today for they are particularly relevant to our missionary purpose.
The Infinite Atonement
The atonement is infinite in many ways.
• Infinite in power to redeem – Godhood comes with power. The Savior received not of the fullness at first, but continued grace for grace until he had received all power (D&C 93: 12 – 17). After he had accomplished his work, even the atonement. He is so generous with us. It is his great joy to have us receive what He has – and be co-heirs (Romans 8:17) Even we, when we have completed the required preparation of receiving the new and everlasting covenant, will have “all power” (D&C 132:20.
• Infinite in time – Q. who believed in Christ before his birth receive a remission of sins based on their faith in an act that had not taken place, or were they required to wait until the atonement was offered? “Based on the pledge given by the Son, we had faith in him. Based on that covenant the Father could promise remission of sins prior to the atoning sacrifice because he knew his Son would not fail. This issue was not that he could not break his covenant, but rather, he would not.” (Tad McAllister, The Infinite Atonement) See Alma 39 chapter headnote, Mosiah 3:13, Enos 5 – 9 and Moses 7:47. Q. Does it cover premortal sins? Could we sin there? “God gave his children their free agency even in the spirit world, by which the individual spirits had the privilege, just as men have here, of choosing the good and rejecting the evil… Because of this, some were more faithful than others in keeping the commandments of the Lord.” (Joseph Fielding Smith) See also 2 Peter 2:4 “God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell.” The effects of Christ’s atonement are eternal, the time for repentance is not. And since the resurrection is eternal, the effects of the atonement are infinite in time. Hebrews 10:12, “offered one sacrifice for sins for ever.”
• Infinite in coverage (all of God’s creations) – Q. Will the plants and animals be resurrected? ‘I suppose John saw beings there [in heaven], that had been saved from 10,000 earths like this, strange beasts of which we have no conception all might be seen in heaven.” (Joseph Smith, Words of) Further explaining John’s vision in the book of Revelation and the place of animals in the afterlife, the Prophet Joseph explained that all animals “might be seen in heaven.” He also stated: “John learned that God glorified Himself by saving all that His hands had made, whether beasts, fowls, fishes, or men. …” (DHC, vol. 5, p. 343.) Q. Will the earth be resurrected? The earth shall likewise die and be resurrected through the atonement. D&C 88:26, “It shall be sanctified, yea, notwithstanding it shall die, it shall be quickened again, and shall abide the power by which it is quickened, and the righteous shall inherit it.” “This earth will be rolled back into the presence of God, and crowned with celestial glory.” (Joseph Smith) The earth’s sanctification will occur in 2 phases. The first will occur at the second coming: Tenth Article of Faith “We believe … that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.” The second will come at the end of the millennium: The Prophet taught the following on April 2, 1843, later recorded in D&C 130: “This earth, in its sanctified and immortal state, will be made like unto crystal and will be a Urim and Thummim to the inhabitants who dwell thereon, whereby all things pertaining to an inferior kingdom, or all kingdoms of a lower order, will be manifest to those who dwell on it; and this earth will be Christ’s.” “Our Lord’s jurisdiction and power extend far beyond the limits of this one small earth on which we dwell. He is, under the Father, the Creator of worlds without number. (See Moses 1:33). And through the power of his atonement the inhabitants of these worlds, the revelation says, are ‘begotten sons and daughters unto God’ (D&C 76:24) which means that the atonement of Christ, being literally and truly infinite, applies to an infinite number of earths.” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine p. 65) “Except for his mortal ministry accomplished on this earth, his service and relationship to other worlds and their inhabitants are the same as his service and relationship to this earth and its inhabitants.” (Marion G. Romney, Jesus Christ, Lord of the Universe) Q. Why was the Savior sent here? We do not know of a surety, but it seems likely that no other world would have slain their Savior. “and there is none other nation on earth that would crucify their God” (2 Nephi 10:3). Marry this up with Moses 7:36“…and among all the workmanship of mine hands there has not been so great wickedness as among thy brethren” and we see that this world WAS the most wicked of all of the creations. But, by the law of compensatory blessings, this means the most righteous were also sent here.
• Infinite in depth/scope (physical pain, mistakes, all sin). D&C 88:6 “He descended below all things.” ‘It encompassed all suffering caused by sin, all suffering that flows from innocent transgressions, all suffering related to infirmities, weaknesses, inadequacies or trials that have nothing to do with sin. It would even include the suffering of those who chose not to repent.” (Tad Callister, The Infinite Atonement) “The Savior paid the full debt, whether you receive the gift or not.” (Brigham Young) D&C 18:11 “He suffered the pains of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him.” “I bear testimony that you cannot sink farther than the light and sweeping intelligence of Jesus Christ can reach. I bear testimony that as long as there is one spark of the will to repent and to reach, he is there. He did not just descend to your condition, he descended below it, ‘that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth.’ ” Truman Madsen
• Did the Savior ever have to go to the edge of the light and into the darkness? Was he ever pushed to the limits of our faith as we are? And even beyond. Did he, too, suffer the anxiety we face of the unknown? Yes! “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.” (Lorenzo Snow) The statements of the Prophets and Christ himself confirm he was alone in his most difficult experience in his existence. I have trodden the winepress alone. (Isa. 63:3) My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Matt 27:46) It seems obvious that the Savior’s response to Joseph Smith’s plea reflected back on this experience, which seems to have included a terrifying moment or two where he forged ahead with no foreknowledge of what would happen. “If the sentence of death [be] passed upon thee, “even” if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee” that “the Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:7-8)
In times of trouble – and we are in that period of the earth’s existence where we have been promised that the world would be in more or less constant turmoil and calamity that would be unsolvable by even the brightest minds (“And he answered them, and said, In the generation in which the times of the Gentiles shall be fulfilled, there shall be…upon the earth distress of nations with perplexity…). If we are to survive – even thrive – in these days when “men’s hearts shall fail them,” we must understand and allow all aspects of the atonement into our lives.
The Sacrament – The Gift the Savior Gives – and Receives
In one of his last acts in mortality, the Savior introduced a new ordinance – the Sacrament. This ordinance was meant to both remind us of his atonement – wherein he suffered both in body and Spirit to redeem us both body and spirit – and remind us of the atonement-derived blessing we are eligible for as we keep our sacramental promises. Despite its commonplace administration, I submit to you that the Sacrament is one of the lesser understood aspects of the atonement.
What is the blessing the Savior promised to those who worthily partake of the Sacrament? It is contained in the words of the Sacrament prayer: “that they may always have his Spirit to be with them.” Outside of the temple blessings, this promise is the most important the Lord gives to us. To have his Spirit to always (emphasis added) be with us can give us daily comfort in this lone and increasingly dreary world. Do you see that no matter how hard and long the way, no matter what mortal so-called friends desert us, we have the promise of a constant companion – the Holy Ghost. The use of the word “may” in the sacrament prayer instead of “will” is meant to remind us of our responsibility to strive to be worthy and repent – but perhaps even more so to remind us of our responsibility to desire – to invite the Spirit into our lives.
Now, one more aspect of the Sacrament. We understand the sacrament from our perspective, but have you ever considered what our partaking of the Sacrament means to the Savior.
Truman Madsen had a dream about the sacrament:
“I was in Amman, Jordan some years ago. We had just come from a parched visit to Egypt where even the native Bedouin can survive, at most, three hours without water. ..That night I had a dream. I was beaten down to my hands and knees and was conscious of a burning thirst. In the illogic of dreams there was somehow a small cup filled with liquid—an unearthly liquid. It was radiant. It was delicious. It was cool. But as I lifted it to my lips it was as if two hands were placed behind me, not touching, but close to my head, and from them came a kind of throb, a comfort, a warm feeling, and then the miracle. As I drank in relief, the cup filled again and again. The more I sought to quench my thirst, the more it flowed. A wave of gratitude came over me to the Christ—for in the dream it was Christ. My impulse was to turn around, stop drinking, and thank him. But then came the sweet assurance that my drinking was His thanks—that this was what He most wanted—that this was His reward, even his glory, like a gracious hostess, who takes delight in seeing her family and guests eat heartily. I knew and I knew He knew, so I drank and drank until I was full. Only then was He gone.” (The Savior, The Sacrament and Self Worth, BYU Womens Conference, 1999)
To receive the fullness of the atonement, we must receive the fullness of the Sacrament!
After All We Can Do
There is a scripture in 2 Nephi that is one we Latter-day Saints turn to because it clarifies the ambiguity in the New Testament over salvation by grace or by works. Here is what Nephi said: “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” (2N 25:23)
It sounds true. Surely effort is required to be saved. But this scripture seems to imply that we must struggle through this entire life and arrive at the judgment seat of the Savior – and only then will his grace pay the balance.
I reject that interpretation! I believe the Lord’s atonement allows us to experience his grace throughout our lives – even in situations where we clearly don’t “deserve” it – for he is “mighty to save.” Consider the story of Enos. Here is a rebellious young man. He admits that. One can only imagine what his particular sins were – but they were clearly of a nature that they weighed him down and caused him to plead to the Savior for forgiveness. Usually, repentance requires more than confession – it requires some time to demonstrate a changed heart by “walking a godly walk” (DC 20:69) – but in this case, after Enos had pleaded “all day and into the night” the grace of the Savior paid it forward and a divine voice told him “thy sins are forgiven thee.” Enos experienced the grace of the Savior before “all he could do.”
And one more important thing: what if he went home and “messed up” again? What then?
A few years ago, I received this email:
“I’m feeling really badly these days. I haven’t read my scriptures in forever, I hit and miss but I haven’t studied like I’ve been known to study and I’m not praying like I should either. I’m unhappy at work, I can’t stick to my diet and I’m lost. I really feel lost. I ask you if I can still pull it together because I asked this same thing about a year ago. How many chances do I get? Do others love the Lord as much as I do and still struggle? Is it possible? Is there still time for me?
Do you see yourself in her words? Have you felt similarly?
What is the extent of the atonement’s reach to those of us who fall short repeatedly?
Let me offer these quotes:
Elder Bruce C. Hafen said, “The Savior’s gift of grace to us is not necessarily limited in time to “after” all we can do. We may receive his grace before, during and after the time when we expend our own efforts.” (Broken Heart, p. 155)
Brad Wilcox, a BYU professor and author said “There is always hope in Christ. We hear many words associated with the Atonement: infinite, eternal , everlasting….however, there is another word that must be closely associated with the Atonement if we are ever able to be able to maintain hope in a world full of [sin], and that word is continuous – the continuous Atonement.” (The Continuous Atonement, p. 13)
Do you believe it? I testify the Savior’s continuous atonement is real!
The answer to the discouraged Sister is “of course there is hope!” Though we should never trifle with sin, yet in our mortal probation, we will not always overcome on the first, second or even third attempt. Some vices require life-long effort. In Preach My Gospel it states: “Ideally, repenting of a specific sin should be necessary only once. However, if the sin is repeated, repentance is available as a means of healing. Repentance may involve an emotional and physical process….thus, both repentance and recovery may take time.” (p. 187-88)
So, to all of the words we use to describe the atonement, let us add one more: continuous.
May we more fully appreciate this most marvelous gift until it is the most well understood doctrine. Of His love for us, I testify of in His holy name.