As I think about the scriptural teachings on the atonement there are some marked differences between the way we think about the atonement and what the scriptures teach. There are two great marked differences between the account in the scriptures and the way we teach the doctrine of the atonement.
The first great discrepancy is that we tend to teach that the atonement is meant to save us in our sins, instead of saving us from them, by separating ourselves from them. We almost wear some types of misbehavior as a badge of honor proving that we are “using the atonement”, when of course, those are the things preventing us from partaking more fully of the atonement. The conditions on which we enjoy cleansing from the atonement are always repentance. That key fact seems to be missing from our teaching. We are only cleansed of what we have repented of. So if I am still listening to music that is a little suggestive, rationalizing that is it OK because of the atonement, I am lying to myself. Yes, I can be forgiven through the atonement. But let’s make no mistake: I can be forgiven through the atonement ONCE I REPENT. God will not be mocked.
We have certainly forgotten that God will not be mocked. We have forgotten that he says he is a jealous God, and will have no other God’s before him. We tend to think the atonement nullifies some of the scriptures. But the atonement doesn’t change Christs own words: Matthew 10: 32 He who loveth father and mother more than me, is not worthy of me; and he who loveth son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me.
Not only can we have no other God’s before him, we must have nothing that is more important to us than our obedience and devotion to him.
We tend to gloss over his requirements, quoting to ourselves the phrase “his grace is sufficient” instead of asking ourselves whether our music, movies, websites, and books truly testify that we are “denying ourselves of all ungodliness” with the same desperation that we want to claim the promise “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”.
We know that we must love God. But we seem to forget that God measures our love by our obedience. For Christ says “He that hath my commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me.”
In brief, the first great discrepancy between what the scriptures say and what we teach about the atonement is a dramatic alteration of the requirements of pressing forward diligently, casting off every evil that easily besets us, denying ourselves of all ungodliness, and strictly keeping the commandments, and learning to live and learn truth by the Holy Ghost in order to find redemption. The discrepancy is that we want to be saved in our sins, instead of being saved from them.
The second great discrepancy between what I find in the scriptures and our teachings on the atonement is the scale of the journey God requires us to make. To explain this, imagine that we are the Israelites living as slaves in Egypt, and along comes Moses telling us God wants to deliver us and has promised us a wonderful land to inherit. What is the first concern? Well, the first problem we need to surmount is that we are slaves in Egypt. That is a bit of a problem.
So God delivers us from Egypt and everyone is rightly very excited that we have been freed of our slavery, have left Egypt, and have been delivered across the red sea.
That is like our quest in this life. Our quest in this life is to be born again. So we get baptized, and yes, in a sense, we have been born again. Or we have some great spiritual experience, and yes, in some sense, we have been born again. This is all perfectly fine and is just like the Israelites. They are excited when they leave Egypt. They feel like they were set free at that point. Then the armies come and they are faced with the fact that they aren’t done yet. Then they cross the red sea on dry ground (which is a symbol of baptism) and the Egyptians are destroyed. They are all very excited. They have made great progress. But is the journey done? No. There is a destination, and they must still focus on obtaining it.
That is the other chief discrepancy I see between the scriptural accounts and our discussions of the atonement. We tend to focus on the beginning of the journey, so much so that we are coming to think it is the entire trip.
The scriptures have a bigger picture of what redemption means. It is nicely illustrated with Adam. The spirit of the Lord carries him down into the water to baptize him. Then we read:
Moses 6:65 And thus he was baptized, and the Spirit of God descended upon him, and thus he was born of the Spirit, and became quickened in the inner man.
66 And he heard a voice out of heaven, saying: Thou art baptized wit fire, and with the Holy Ghost. This is the record of the Father, and the Son, from henceforth and forever;
67 And thou art after the order of him who was without beginning of days or end of years, from all eternity to all eternity.
68 Behold, thou art one in me, a son of God; and thus may all become my sons.
Yes, being baptized and getting the gift of the Holy Ghost is being born again in one sense. Yes, there is much more conversion we need along the way, and there are any number of spiritual experiences that we might term being “born again” as we learn to have the Holy Ghost to be with us. But here, with Adam, we see the whole thing all together, and all at once. Adam has been progressing a long, long time before this, and so it all happens at once, where for most of us this is apt to take many years after we are baptized.
What happens? The Father himself testifies that the record of the Father and the Son is, from now on, that Adam is baptized with fire and the Holy Ghost, that Adam is after the order of him who is without beginning of days or end of years, from eternity to all eternity, and Adam is one in him and is now his Son. This is what is referred to in Moses 6:59 when it speaks of enjoying the words of eternal life in this world.
It concludes with the critical phrase “and thus may all become my sons”.
Now I hope our spiritual vanity is not so great that we think that you or I is yet “one in the Father” or that the Father has testified from Heaven that we are his son. But this does happen. We read of it.
Joseph Smith taught “The other Comforter spoken of is a subject of great interest, and perhaps understood by few of this generation. After a person has faith in Christ, repents of his sins, and is baptized for the remission of his sins and receives the Holy Ghost, (by the laying on of hands), which is the first Comforter, then let him continue to humble himself before God, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, and living by every word of God, and the Lord will soon say unto him, Son, thou shalt be exalted.”
We find the same thing in 2 Nephi 31:20
2 Nephi 31:20 Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.
We see the same thing in Lehi’s dream. We like to think we have already arrived at the tree. Nephi says the tree is the Son of God, and the angel agrees, as that is a good enough answer for the time being. Visions are never meant to be understood in a moment. Strong inspiration from God usually grows and develops into far more than it first appeared to be. And so it is in that case. To say the tree of life is the Son of God is an OK description. But more accurately, it is the sonship of Christ, and more particularly, it is the sonship God offers to us through Christ. It is the opportunity to, after pressing forward many days, become a son of god just as Adam did. The tree that Lehi sees is a family tree. It is God’s family tree. We need to press forward to that family tree, as reaching it represents becoming part of God’s own family tree. It is what it fully means to be “born again”. We are “born” into a new family tree, and become a Son of God.
And we need not wonder. For the Father himself will testify that we have become his Son, just as he did with Adam at his baptism and with Christ at his. This was the pattern at Christ’s own baptism, which was unusual like Adam’s in that he had prepared many days, and received the whole of the matter right at baptism. There was no need for him to press forward many days after his baptism, for he had already done so. And so he received the full matter right at his baptism.
The second great discrepancy I see between our teachings on the atonement and the scriptural teachings, is that the scriptures give accounts that lay out the full route for us. But we do not do so in our own teaching. It is as if the scriptures say “well, you need to leave Egypt, cross the red sea, spend 40 years in the wilderness, take on Joshua as a leader, and cross the river Jordan and claim the promised land”. Whereas when we speak of the atonement we only say “Leave Egypt, cross the Red sea, and then just don’t get killed”. We leave off the destination. We have forgotten that the point was not to leave Egypt, but to obtain a promised land.
Faith, repentance, baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost put our feet on the path. But entering the path wasn’t the point of the atonement. The point of the atonement is the destination. The point of the atonement is for us to press forward sufficiently, feasting on the words of Christ, that we become a Son or Daughter.
Yes, the scriptures will give us the short version frequently, but they ALSO give a much larger picture of what the atonement expects of us and what constitutes redemption through the atonement repeatedly. They do so in 2 Nephi 31. They do so in Moses 6. They do so in 2 Peter 1. Lehi’s dream is actually such a picture, for the gate to the path is baptism as we learn in 2 Nephi 31, and reaching the tree is to become a son of god as Adam did.
For thus may all become his sons.
We need the bigger picture of redemption brought back into our minds, or I don’t see how we can possibly press forward in the way that is needed to obtain all that the Lord has laid out for us. The Lord knows we need this bigger view to complete the course. Such verses are, in fact, the only scripture that come with a specific command that it is to be taught, not only occasionally, but taught freely to our children. We disobey at our peril.
Moses 6:58 Therefore I give unto you a commandment, to teach these things freely unto your children, saying:
59 That by reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory;
60 For by the water ye keep the commandment; by the Spirit ye are justified, and by the blood ye are sanctified;