The idea that we would be given commandments and expected to keep them is a fundamental part of the gospel. We make a covenant at baptism. A covenant is a two way promise between us and the Lord.
The Lord’s plan is that it is possible for us to obtain forgiveness for our sins, to be made clean of them, through his atonement, so that even though we have made mistakes we can repent and be cleansed of those mistakes. The scriptures state that God cannot look on sin with the least degree of allowance. The atonement doesn’t alter that fact. It doesn’t make those scriptures untrue.
The wonderful news of the atonement is that any sin we repent of we can be cleansed of through the atonement. The news of the atonement is NOT that there is no need for repentance, that we are cleansed without repenting at all. The news of the atonement is NOT that we can be saved in our sins. It is that if we repent, we can be cleansed of them.
To understand the need for the atonement, we must recognize that even our PAST sins, long dead and gone, are enough to keep us out of the kingdom of heaven, even the least of them. God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance. But Christ made a way of intervention, where the penalty of those past sins could be completely wiped away. Through his intervention, though our sins be red as scarlet, he can make them white as snow. The condition of that forgiveness is repentance. Any sin, including the least of them, even so much as a sin of omission, is not forgiven until we repent. If I withhold required charitable feelings from my neighbor or from someone I run across during the day that is a very small sin. Even though it is small, it is enough to keep me out of the kingdom of heaven unless I am cleansed by the atonement of Christ.
However, and this is important, the conditions of that cleansing are repentance on my part. There is no way I can say my repentance is genuine while I am still committing that sin on a consistent basis. That is not what repentance is. Repentance involves forsaking a sin. Thus my degree of cleansing is always limited by my degree of repentance and obedience. Our forgiveness and cleansing through the atonement never outstrips our willingness to repent and live cleanly.
Reading that you may immediately ask “Then who can be saved”? The answer is everyone who takes upon them the name of Christ through baptism and endures to the end. This is the day of our probation. Anyone who is still alive still has the opportunity to choose. This is the day we set our course. This is the day we choose our kingdom of glory. We don’t expect to reach perfection in this life, but this is the day of probation. That doesn’t mean it is the day when our work is completed. It is the day when we set our course. The atonement continues beyond mortality. Its affects in our life do not complete, or even culminate, at baptism. Its effects are only completed in our life when it has brought us to exaltation, but that is a long time after death has taken us.
Do we think that we can be exalted, as the Father is, without forsaking all of our sins? Of course we do not. Do we think we could ever be as pure as the Father and the Son while still having even the least sin? Ridiculous. The path may not be completed in this life, but the path Christ offers is that we are forgiven and cleansed as we repent. There is time between death and the resurrection. This time serves an important purpose in the plan. It is not just a waiting place, it is a place we can continue our progress on the path we have chosen. This is additional time granted in the spirit world for us to follow the path Christ provided for us before we dwell in the Celestial Kingdom, the place where the Father and the Son dwell, because no unclean thing can dwell in the Kingdom of Heaven, and we need to be given more time than we have in this life to prepare to enter it. The spirit world is not our final resting place with the Father and the Son. The spirit world is not where they dwell. The spirit world is here on this earth as Joseph Smith plainly taught. The kind of place where God dwells is not like this earth:
D&C 130:6 The angels do not reside on a planet like this earth;
7 But they reside in the presence of God, on a globe like a sea of glass and fire, where all things for their glory are manifest, past, present, and future, and are continually before the Lord.
8 The place where God resides is a great Urim and Thummim.
We thus have more time granted in the spirit world to prepare to enter the presence of God, to repent, and by repentance, to be able to be cleansed of our sins and receive exaltation. There is a great work of preaching the gospel to the dead to be done there, and pursuing that work will help transform us there as surely as teaching the gospel, saving our families, and redeeming the dead will save us here. In fact, Joseph Smith even makes clear that while on this side of the veil we seek to gather our dead ancestors, some who have passed on seek to gather their living descendants:
“The Kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed. The mustard seed is small, but brings forth a large tree, and the fowls lodge in the branches. The fowls are the angels. Thus angels come down, combine together to gather their children, and gather them. We cannot be made perfect without them, nor they without us; when these things are done, the Son of Man will descend, the Ancient of Days sit; we may come to an innumerable company of angels, have communion with and receive instruction from them.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Section Four 1839-42, p.159)
We will thus continue there in the same work we had here: to prepare ourselves and others to enter the celestial kingdom of God.