Easter and the Atonement

Happy Easter! He is Risen!

As I begin my talk I am mindful of the words of Elder Bruce R. McConkie in his last testimony. He started by saying:

…the most important doctrine I can declare, and the most powerful testimony I can bear, is of the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. His atonement is the most transcendent event that ever has or ever will occur from Creation’s dawn through all the ages of a never-ending eternity. It is the supreme act of goodness and grace that only a god could perform.

Attendant to this are the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith:

The fundamental principles of our religion is the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, “that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;” and all other things are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion (“Elders’ Journal, July 1838,” p. 44, The Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/elders-journal- july-1838/12).

The centre of our faith is the atonement of the Saviour Jesus Christ. The power of understanding the atonement of the Saviour can transform our lives. In the words of Elder McConkie:

if we are to have faith like Enoch and Elijah we must believe what they believed, know what they knew, and live as they lived… [We must gain] a sound and sure knowledge of the Atonement.

As we contemplate the atonement of Jesus Christ this Easter morning we remember the events of the last week of his life. We perhaps begin our understanding of the atonement with the Last Supper and his sharing of the emblems of his sacrifice; the bread and wine. A practice that we continued today as we partook of the sacrament in remembrance of him. We move with the Saviour to Gethsemane where he sweat blood and took upon himself the pains, sicknesses and sins of the whole of humanity. We cannot comprehend the pains that he experienced; such pain that only a God could endure. His divinity meant that he was able to hold off passing out or dying. One part of his experience that stands out to me, is that the sinless Christ was “amazed’ at the strength of the consequences of sin. This was one part of mortality that he had not experienced up to this point. He had experienced loss when John the Baptist was beheaded; he experienced grief with the death of Lazarus; he understood much of the mortal experience, but this was the first time he experienced the consequences and pains of sin. He was strengthened in Gethsemane by an angel sent from the Father, we assume this was Adam/Michael who initiated the Fall.

We leave the Garden where he is betrayed by a friend; he is mocked and spat upon as he is taken before Caiaphas, Herod and Pilate. He is scourged with a multi-thonged whip, crowned with thorns and forced to carry his own cross to the hill at Calvary. As members of the Church we sometimes skip over the importance of the cross except as a means of his death. It is one of the most gruesome ways to die; but as Elder McConkie outlines, it was not just an instrument of death, “for while he was hanging on the cross… all the infinite agonies and merciless pains of Gethsemane recurred.” Soldiers gambled for his clothes, and horrendously answered his request for something to quench his thirst with vinegar.
Taken down from the cross he was buried in a hurry in the borrowed tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. On the third day, some of his female disciples went to the tomb, and discovered it empty, and Christ Risen. He had broken the bonds of death and enabled all to rise again through his resurrection.

As we contemplate these events, our understanding usually leads us to something called the penal-substitution model of the atonement of Jesus Christ. This is a model that is used throughout the scriptures, and writings of the Apostles and Prophets. The Book of Mormon teaches us, and we understand, that “if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:21). Left to our own strength we would be damned, we would be unprofitable servants because the law of justice would demand satisfaction. The satisfaction is found through the law of mercy, enacted and activated through the atonement of Christ:

And thus we see that all mankind were fallen, and they were in the grasp of justice; yea, the justice of God, which consigned them forever to be cut off from his presence. And now, the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also (Alma 42:14-15).

The consequences of such are further described in The Book of Mormon:

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 (Alma 34:15-16).

Only Christ, as the only Begotten of the Father could perform this atonement and make it efficacious in all of our lives. This model of the atonement encourages us to repent and seek forgiveness. This is important and a central aspect of the atonement which we cannot, and must not, ignore. It is not, however, the only impact and model of the infinite atonement. We need a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the atonement if it is to have the influence it has been designed to have by the Lord.

One of the consequences of the Fall is a separation from God. The choices that we make, and that were initially made by Adam and Eve, draw us away from the Lord. Our sins are part of what separates us from him, but they are indicative of the choices that we make. It is our will and desires that move us away from him. The Lord desires us to overcome the “natural man” and come into that loving relationship with Him. If all we have is the penal substitution model of the atonement then it could be suggested that the motivation behind us coming back into this relationship with Him and overcoming our base desires is out of the fear of punishment. That is not the God I believe in; the relationship that he wants with us is not one of fear. How do I know this? Because this is not the relationship I want with my children. For part of my childhood I was in a home where I behaved because of fear. This was not a happy home, I did not love the father figure in my life, I did as I was told out of fear of the consequences if I didn’t. That’s not what the relationship that the Lord wants with each of us; and it’s certainly not the relationship I want with him. He tells us this in the New Testament: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

There is a second, complementary, understanding of the atonement that is known as the moral compassion theory. It was suggested by Abelard in the twelfth century when he wrote: “Jesus died as the demonstration of God’s love” rather than purely as a satisfaction of a debt; this supreme act of love was to draw people into a relationship with Him. In this view, “the atoning work of Christ is designed first and foremost to effect a change in human beings… The work of Christ chiefly consists of demonstrating to the world the amazing depth of God’s love for sinful humanity. The atonement was directed primarily at humanity, not God” (Beilby and Eddy, ed., The Nature of the Atonement. Four Views, 18-19).

The Book of Mormon teaches of this purpose of the atonement of Christ throughout its pages. We read in 3 Nephi, the Saviour’s own description of the purpose of his atonement:

And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me… (3 Nephi 27:14).

In viewing his suffering and death as an act of moral influence, that draws people into a relationship with Christ, I am minded to extend the understanding of the atonement to include all of his life. Every aspect of his life is an act of humility and service that through reflection on can motivate us to seek a relationship with him. His birth in the lowliest of circumstances to a woman about whom there would have been whispers enables us to understand that however lowly our beginnings, the Saviour has been there. The Lord wasn’t joking when he said: “The Son of Man hath descended below them all, art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122). I think of his encounter with the woman caught in adultery and his compassionate response that highlighted the hypocrisy of the onlookers. In this event, whether I place myself in the woman’s shoes, or in one of the men judging her, I have a desire to draw close to the Saviour because I want to be forgiven and not be found in hypocrisy. When he calls Matthew, or shows love to Mary Magdalene and his mother, Mary; I learn that the Saviour can look beyond anything that others would condemn. His whole life is an inspiration and a call to discipleship; a call to be in a relationship with the Lord. Viewing his life which is full of love, rejection, human emotion, loss, grief, friendship, compassion, and lots more I am called or compelled to love him. Why do I love him? As the scriptures tell me, I love him, because he loved me first (1 John 4:19).

The scriptures tell us that the purpose of the atonement of Christ is to draw us into this relationship with the Lord, and every aspect of that discipleship, which will include aspects of his suffering:

Wherefore, we would to God that we could persuade all men not to rebel against God, to provoke him to anger, but that all men would believe in Christ, and view his death, and suffer his cross and bear the shame of the world; wherefore, I, Jacob, take it upon me to fulfil the commandment of my brother Nephi (Jacob 1:8).

When we are drawn into the relationship with Christ, all of our problems will not be at an end. We will still fall, we will still experience pains, sicknesses and sin; but the beauty of the atonement is that as we “suffer his cross and bear the shame of the world” we will never be alone, and we will find ourselves yoked with the Saviour, and our burdens become light. We read in The Book of Mormon of Alma and his people who have a burden placed upon them but they are blessed through their love of the Saviour:

And I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage; and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions. And now it came to pass that the burdens which were laid upon Alma and his brethren were made light; yea, the Lord did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease, and they did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord (Mosiah 24:14-15).

The burdens are not removed but we know that the Lord is with us; and in experiencing the vicissitudes of life, we have a Saviour who suffers and weeps with us. He is not an uninterested bystander to our pains and sufferings; rather he is intimately involved in each of our lives. When the Saviour learns of Lazarus’ death he weeps with Mary and Martha. Enoch saw the Lord weep:

And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept… (Moses 7:28).

Enoch questioned how such a thing is possible. The Lord replied:

The Lord said unto Enoch: Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency; And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood;… (Moses 7:32-33).

The Lord is heart broken when we suffer. Through his atonement, and through his love he cries with us, he celebrates with us, he strengthens us, he enables us sometimes to put one foot in front of the other. We are promised that we will be encircled in the arms of his love (D&C 6); this is made possible for through the Saviour’s life and atoning acts throughout that life:

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succour his people according to their infirmities (Alma 7:11-12).

This is what is meant by the enabling power of the atonement. It is not, and has never been, just above the forgiveness of sins. It is about drawing us into a relationship with Him that transforms us and makes us new creatures in Christ Jesus. Living in such a close, personal relationship with Him enables us to become like him. That is one of the key aspects of the atonement of Jesus Christ; he wants us to come to him but will not force us. But through the strength of his example I have been compelled to live in a relationship with Him, and by so doing I find strength and hope. We are told, in one of the Gospel’s great ironies, that:

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it (Luke 9:24).

If we seek our own self-interest and draw away from the Lord we will be lost, even though we think we are gaining our self and our independence. Only through giving our life to the Lord and allowing his to make of us what he will, will we truly find ourselves and our full potential. Christ is the ultimate alchemist- he takes that which is base- meaning everything that we have and are and turns them into gold. He makes so much more of us than we can make of ourselves. It is only possible through living in a relationship with him.

When we view the atonement of Christ as purely a transactional repentance process, we are not embracing its full potential. The atonement invites us into a relationship with the Lord that will transform us, and will affect every aspect of our lives, and every moment of every day. It will enable us to view others as children of God, it will enable us to forgive, it will enable us to love more deeply, it will enable us to gain perspective in our lives and struggles. If we place the Saviour and his atonement at the heart of all we do, and who we are, we will find the peace and joy of the atonement in this life, and exaltation in the life to come.

That is the beauty of the Risen Christ. His influence is not just two thousand years ago, but is felt today in each of our lives. The Risen Christ which we celebrate this Easter Sunday isn’t an onlooker from heaven; the atonement, meaning his experiences of life, and his sufferings in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross at Calvary, mean that he is at the heart of all that we do and are. Elder Uchtdorf recently encapsulated this when he said:

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is not just one of many things we do. The Saviour is the motivating power behind all that we do. He is not a rest stop in our journey. He is not a scenic byway or even a major landmark. He is “the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by [Jesus Christ].” That is the Way and our ultimate destination.

Our responsibility is to draw close to him through following his example, and expressing his love. King Benjamin promises us that “When we are in the service of our fellow beings, we are only in the service of our God.” Those feelings of Christlike love enables us to serve and know God as he is in all that we do, and all of those whom we serve.

My dear brothers and sisters, on this Easter morning I want to share with you that I know that Christ is Risen, and that He lives. I know this because I am able to experience his influence in my life through his atonement. I try each day to place everything I am into his hands. The blessing of the atonement is that if I fail I can be forgiven; he will always guide and strengthen. Through the Holy Spirit he activates the power of his grace in my life. I testify that the events of nearly two thousand years ago continue to bless us today and forever. I love my Saviour Jesus Christ. He is the Alpha and the Omega. He is the beginning and end of my faith. I invite us all to make his atonement and his influence more a part of our daily lives. I love him, and I love you, but only because he loved me first.


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