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The Atonement of Jesus Christ

This is a simple statement of what I believe about the Atonement of Jesus Christ. It also reflects my understanding of the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which I am a member. This is not, however, an official statement of Church doctrine.

A very good talk on this subject by one leader of the Church is here.

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The Atonement of Jesus Christ is about overcoming death. Jesus overcame two kinds of death for us: physical death (what we usually think of as death), and spiritual death.

Death is a separation. Specifically, physical death is a separation of each person's spirit from his or her physical body. Spiritual death is an individual's separation from our Father in Heaven.

Why do we die physically?

Physical death -- the separation of spirit and body -- came upon all humankind because of the Fall of Adam and Eve. The story of the Fall is not allegorical, but literal. The Lord decreed that Adam and Eve would "surely die" if they ate the fruit of a certain tree. (Genesis 2:17; all Biblical references are to the King James Version.) They partook of the fruit, and their disobedience caused death to come into the world.

The Fall of Adam and Eve was not a great tragedy for the human race, but was part of our Heavenly Father's plan. Adam and Eve had to fall to bring death into the world; without physical death, this time of spiritual testing and growth on Earth would never end, and we would not move on to the next stage of our eternal progression. Heavenly Father foresaw that Adam and Eve would fall, and planned beforehand to provide a Savior who would overcome both physical and spiritual death.

Why do we die spiritually?

Before we came to earth and received our physical bodies, we lived with our Heavenly Father as spirits. Heavenly Father loves each of us more than we can imagine. He is also the epitome of every admirable quality, such as knowledge, patience, kindness, diligence, and, most importantly, love. It is wonderful to live with him, and we yearn to live with him again. Although that yearning, in some people, may have become squelched or clouded or disavowed or overshadowed by fear, it is always there in every human being.

However, as the Book of Mormon says, "No unclean thing can dwell with God." (1 Nephi 10:21.) This is not so much a matter of the Father forbidding an unclean person from entering his presence, but more a matter of the inability of uncleanliness to withstand his presence.

Moreover, because of transgression, all of us are spiritually unclean. Violating a commandment of God constitutes a transgression, and every person has violated the Lord's commandments to one degree or another. As the Apostle Paul taught, "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23.) Similarly, John the Beloved taught, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." (1 John 1:8.) Furthermore, no matter how hard any of us may try to become spiritually cleaner, we cannot, alone, become perfectly clean, as we must be to live with our Heavenly Father again.

The Fall also had a role in bringing spiritual death into the world, in that the transgression of Adam and Eve caused them to die spiritually. Before the Fall, they walked and talked with Heavenly Father face-to-face; after the Fall, neither they nor their offspring could do so. Being out of the presence of God allows each person to choose whether to obey or disobey the Lord's commandments, thus making individual transgression possible. That result of the Fall is also part of our Heavenly Father's plan, for if we did not have the freedom to choose, then we could not learn to make correct choices, and the experiences of this life could not help us to develop the attributes of our Father in Heaven.

The Resolution: A Redeemer

No unclean thing can dwell with God; we are all spiritually unclean because of transgression; and none of us can become perfectly clean on our own. Without more, therefore, we would all be irretrievably lost. But we are not! Into the scene comes a rescuer, a "Redeemer," a "Savior": the Lord Jesus Christ -- the Messiah, or "Anointed One." He performed the "Atonement" for us, by which each of us can become "At one" again with our Father in Heaven -- with each person's body and spirit inseparably connected, and with each person's spirit perfectly clean.

Jesus was the first-born son of our Heavenly Father spiritually, long before this Earth was created, and he was the only earthly son of our Heavenly Father physically. Even before he came to Earth, he was a God, along with our Heavenly Father. Jesus created the earth, under the direction of the Father. As John the Beloved taught, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God [that is, with the Father], and the Word was God.... All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.... And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us...." (John 1:1, 3, 14.) Before coming to Earth, Jesus volunteered to be our Savior; as the Apostle Peter wrote, he "was foreordained before the foundation of the world." (1 Peter 2:20.) Jesus lived a perfectly sinless earthly life, mirroring the completely perfect attributes of our Father in Heaven.

For some reason incomprehensible to us, the voluntary sufferings and death of this perfect, sinless God broke the bands of death, so that the body and spirit of every human being will be united again, and so that each person can become spiritually clean by having faith in Jesus Christ and coming fully unto him spiritually.

The physical Atonement

Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea during the reign of Caesar Augustus. At the age of about thirty-three years, he was crucified outside Jerusalem. The local religious leaders, who, like Jesus, were Jewish, brought to bear sufficient political and popular pressure that the Roman conquerors carried out the execution.

As a God and the Only Begotten son of our Father in Heaven, Jesus had power over death. He voluntarily "gave up the ghost" while hanging on the Cross. (Luke 23:46; John 19:30.) His spirit departed, and his physical body was laid in a tomb. On the third day after his death, Jesus's spirit returned and re-entered his body, and he rose again or "resurrected."

Somehow, because of Jesus's resurrection, all of our Heavenly Father's children will, at some point, also be resurrected. "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." (1 Corinthians 15:22.)

The spiritual Atonement

During his Last Supper before the Crucifixion, Jesus celebrated the Passover with his Apostles. The Passover, which the Israelites had celebrated for centuries, is highly symbolic of the Messiah foreseen by Old Testament prophets. For example, as part of the yearly Passover, each Israelite household killed a lamb without blemish, and sprinkled its blood around the door of the home. During the first Passover in Egypt, that blood protected the Israelites from death. Similarly, Jesus, the "Lamb of God," was without the spiritual blemish of transgression, and the blood of his Atonement overcomes physical and spiritual death. (1 Peter 1:19.)

After the Last Supper, Jesus went to a garden called Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem. There he began to offer the supreme sacrifice that had been foreshadowed for centuries by the ancient Passover that he had just celebrated. As Matthew records:

"Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder.
"And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy.
"Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.
"And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt." (Matthew 26:36-39.)

Then, according to Luke:

"And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground." (Luke 22:43-44.)

Jesus's anxiety was not caused by personal concern about what the Jewish leaders or the Romans might do to him. Rather, by some mechanism unknown to us, his "agony" was a compound of the spiritual, emotional, and mental guilt of all transgression. To one extent or another (depending on the seriousness of the transgression and the degree to which the individual is trying to be clean spiritually), transgression causes the transgressor to feel mental and emotional anguish -- the "godly sorrow" about which the Apostle Paul wrote (2 Corinthians 7:10). Jesus had not transgressed, but he voluntarily took upon himself the consequences of all of the transgressions of the human race. His suffering in Gethsemane was a multiplication of all of the suffering for every transgression that had been and would be committed by our Heavenly Father's children.

Because of this extreme emotional, mental, and spiritual burden, blood oozed from Jesus's pores while he prayed in Gethsemane. This is a documented medical condition. According to a 1986 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association:

"Although this is a very rare phenomenon, bloody sweat (hematidrosis or hemohidrosis) may occur in highly emotional states or in persons with bleeding disorders. As a result of hemorrhage into the sweat glands, the skin becomes fragile and tender. Luke's description supports the diagnosis of hematidrosis rather than eccrine chromidrosis (brown or yellow-green sweat) or stigmatization (blood oozing from the palms or elsewhere)." (William D. Edwards, MD, et al., "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ," JAMA 255:1455 (Mar. 21, 1986) (footnotes omitted).)

To say the least, Jesus's suffering for all of our transgressions was a "highly emotional state."

As Isaiah wrote, our Savior, Jesus Christ, "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." (Isaiah 53:5.)

What do we have to do?

The physical effect of the Atonement is automatic, whereas the spiritual effect of the Atonement is conditional.

That is, to receive the physical portion of the Atonement, we do not have to do anything. Every human being will be resurrected, no matter how serious or numerous his or her transgressions may have been, and regardless of any desire not to be resurrected. At some point, the body of each person who has lived or will live on the earth will be reorganized and renewed; the spirit will re-enter the body; and the body and the spirit will become inseparably connected.

In contrast, Christ's overcoming of spiritual death is conditional. Each of us has to do certain things to make this part of the Atonement effective for him or her individually. Specifically, as reflected in the Bible, we need to have faith in Jesus Christ and repent of individual transgression. Additionally, Jesus taught and demonstrated that baptism, performed in a certain way and by the proper authority, is necessary "to fulfill all righteousness"; and his Apostles taught that receiving the "gift of the Holy Ghost" must follow baptism. (Matthew 3:15; Acts 2:38.) Finally, we have to "endure unto the end" in obedience. (Matthew 24:13; Mark 13:13.)

1. Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ

Faith is a strong belief, short of pure knowledge, in something that is not seen, but true. (Hebrews 11:1.) It is a belief strong enough to prompt action. Faith in Jesus Christ -- faith that he lives and that his Atonement can make us spiritually clean -- is necessary to prompt us to repent, be baptized, and obey the commandments. According to the epistle to the Hebrews, "he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him." (Hebrews 11:6.) Without that faith, he will not fully "come" to God.

The ancient prophets in the Book of Mormon often testified regarding the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ. Here are some examples, from four different Book of Mormon prophets:

"I say unto you, that I know that Jesus Christ shall come, yea, the Son, the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace, and mercy, and truth. And behold, it is he that cometh to take away the sins of the world, yea, the sins of every man who steadfastly believeth on his name." (Alma 5:48.)
"And he shall come into the world to redeem his people; and he shall take upon him the transgressions of those who believe on his name; and these are they that shall have eternal life, and salvation cometh to none else." (Alma 11:40.)
"For no man can be saved, according to the words of Christ, save they shall have faith in his name . . . ." (Moroni 7:38.)
"And moreover, I say unto you, that there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent." (Mosiah 3:17.)

2. Repentance

Obviously, however, the Atonement of Jesus Christ will not cleanse anyone who does not want to be clean. This is where repentance comes in. By repenting of our transgressions, we make ourselves as clean as we can on our own, and show the Father that we are sincere in wanting to become clean enough to live with him again. If one's belief in Christ is strong enough to be called faith, it will prompt repentance. As the Book of Mormon says: "And if ye believe on his [that is, Jesus's] name ye will repent of all your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through his merits." (Helaman 14:13.) To repent of transgression, we must recognize the transgression; feel "godly sorrow" for having disappointed our Father in Heaven (2 Corinthians 7:10); acknowledge the transgression to the Lord and to any person whom the transgression has harmed; undo any harm caused by the transgression (as much as possible); and forsake the transgression. (Ezekiel 18:30-32; Proverbs 28:13.)

3. Baptism by immersion

Baptism, the next requirement, is a definite, physical act that culminates our initial repentance and formally starts us on the path toward living with Heavenly Father again. The Bible speaks of "baptism for the remission of sins" (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Acts 2:38), and Ananias told Saul to "arise, and be baptized, and wash away [his] sins." (Acts 22:16.) Jesus's example shows the necessity of baptism. When John the Baptist balked at baptizing him because of Jesus's spiritual purity, Jesus reminded him that baptism is necessary to "fulfill all righteousness." (Matthew 3:15.)

Jesus's example also shows us how we have to be baptized. First, Jesus did not come to just anyone to be baptized. Why did he go to John? Because John had the proper authority from God. The fact that John was duly authorized to baptize is reflected in Jesus's testimony of him, and in a statement of John himself. Jesus testified that John was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi, who was apparently quoting our Father in Heaven when he wrote: "Behold, I will send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee." (Luke 7:26; see Malachi 3:1.) Thus, John was authorized by the Father to baptize. Also, John himself said that someone else had sent him to baptize: "he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost [that is, the Savior]." (John 1:33.) (I'll say more about this authority later.)

Second, Jesus was baptized by being completely immersed in the water. That's why the Bible says that John performed baptisms where there was "much water," and that Jesus "went up straightway out of the water" after he was baptized. (John 3:23; Matthew 3:16.) That's also why the Apostle Paul could compare our being baptized to Jesus's entering and then leaving the tomb:

"Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
"For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection." (Romans 6:4-5.)

This "burial" and "planting" analogy would make sense only if Jesus (and the members of his ancient Church) were baptized by complete immersion.

4. The Gift of the Holy Ghost

In addition to baptism, the Bible reflects that another definite physical act is required. The Apostle Peter taught, on the Day of Pentecost: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." (Acts 2:38.) Receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost is the culmination of coming unto Christ and preparing to become completely clean in him.

Jesus taught that the role of the Holy Ghost is to teach, testify, remind, and guide:

"But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you." (John 14:26.)
"But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me." (John 15:26.)
"Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come." (John 16:13.)

One valuable purpose of the Holy Ghost's testifying and guiding is to strengthen and guide us in keeping the commandments.

An incident in the Book of Acts illustrates that the gift of the Holy Ghost is not conferred automatically after baptism, and that it must be conferred (just as baptism must be performed) by someone having the proper authority. Philip went to the city of Samaria to preach of Christ, and baptized a number of people who believed. (Acts 8:5-8, 12.) Philip apparently did not, however, have the authority to confer the gift of the Holy Ghost, because "when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost. (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost." (Act 8:14-17.) If Philip had had the authority to lay on hands to confer the gift of the Holy Ghost, or if he could have taken that authority upon himself unilaterally, the Apostles would not have had to send Peter and John to confer the gift on those who had been baptized.

5. "Endure to the end"

Unfortunately, one who has been baptized and received the gift of the Holy Ghost can abandon his faith in Christ, commit serious transgression, and turn from the Lord. Obviously, someone in such a rebellious, heedless state of transgression is far from spiritually clean, regardless of his or her previous state of repentance, and should not be able to become perfectly clean and worthy to live with Heavenly Father by relying on the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Therefore, to continue to make the Atonement effective in our individual lives, we must "endure unto the end" by continuing to exercise faith, striving to stay clean by keeping the commandments, and repenting incrementally to become as clean as possible. (Matthew 24:13; Mark 13:13.)

The scriptures attest abundantly that the effectiveness of the Atonement is conditioned on striving to keep the Lord's commandments. For example, the Savior himself said: "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven." (Matthew 7:21.) John the Beloved echoed this principle beautifully in his first epistle:

"My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous:
"And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.
"And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.
"He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
"But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him.
"He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked." (1 John 2:1-6.)

But then, after we've done all we can, we need to exercise peaceful faith in the Atonement, and realize that Jesus Christ will make up for what we cannot do. We cannot, and we are not expected to, become perfectly clean on our own. Ultimately, as the Book of Mormon says, "It is by grace that we are saved," though we must each do "all we can do." (2 Nephi 25:23.) For me, this longer passage from the Book of Mormon sums it up beautifully:

"Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.
"And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot." (Moroni 10:32-33.)

In summary, only "in Christ" can we become perfectly "without spot," which we must be to live with our precious, loving Heavenly Father again. I feel as Paul did when he wrote, "Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift" -- for the Lord Jesus Christ and his infinite Atonement! (2 Corinthians 9:15.)

What about people who did not have a chance in this life?

What about people who did not have an opportunity, in this life, to develop faith in Jesus Christ or to be baptized as Jesus was baptized? For example, many people lived and died in places where, during their lives, the name of Jesus Christ was not known. Also, so many, many babies and other small children have died without being baptized in the name of Christ. Are these people (and others who did not satisfy all of the conditions during life) going to be spiritually dead for eternity, never able to dwell with their Heavenly Father again, regardless of how kind or patient or loving they might have been during their earthly lives? No!!!

The answer is most obvious in relation to babies and small children: They are already spiritually clean! They do not need the cleansing power of the Atonement to overcome spiritual death. Therefore, if someone has died before reaching the age at which we become accountable for our actions, he or she will be assured of a place in Heavenly Father's presence. To quote the Book of Mormon: "little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin ... little children need no repentance, neither baptism." (Moroni 8:8, 11.)

In contrast, those who did reach the age of accountability in this life became spiritually unclean, to one degree or another, because of individual transgression. They can develop faith in Jesus Christ and repent of their transgressions as spirits after death, although those things are harder to do in the absence of the purifying trials and learning experiences of mortal life. They cannot, however, be baptized or receive the gift of the Holy Ghost as spirits, because those acts are performed in the body -- by immersion in water and by the laying on of hands.

Therefore, whenever the proper authority has been on the earth among mortals, our Father in Heaven has provided for those acts to be performed vicariously, by those who are still in the body, on behalf of those who have died physically. For example, vicarious baptisms for the dead were apparently performed in the ancient Church of Christ. As one of several arguments attempting to prove the reality of the resurrection, the Apostle Paul said this in his first surviving epistle to the Corinthians: "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?" (1 Corinthians 15:29.) In other words, Paul was saying, if there were no resurrection -- if death were the end -- then there would be no reason to bother with being baptized for the dead.

Today, these essential acts -- baptism and conferring the gift of the Holy Ghost -- are performed vicariously for those who have died who did not receive them in the proper way and by the proper authority while living. They are performed in the temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Of course, the persons for whom these acts are performed in the temples will have the choice whether to accept or reject them. A leader of the Church has given an excellent talk on this subject, called "The Redemption of the Dead and the Testimony of Jesus."

This is what I believe and know in my heart regarding the Atonement of Jesus Christ. The Holy Ghost has spoken to my heart and soul that these things are true.

This is only a simple statement of some of my beliefs. Would you like to know more about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its beliefs? Please see these links on Church scriptures and doctrine.

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This page was last updated on December 9, 2010.

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