Protestant style interpretations of the atonement are becoming increasingly popular among our own membership, in class discussions, and even in popularly authored books on the atonement. These interpretations are not correct, and as the atonement is the most fundamental doctrine of the gospel, insofar as our understanding of that is wrong, the entire gospel structure built on top of it ends up skewed.
One place I have heard such interpretations pull quotes from are the concluding verses of Moroni 10. Phrases like “come unto Christ and be perfected in him”, “if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ”, and “then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ” get forced into a protestant style interpretation of the atonement in which the grace of Christ is a mechanism by which we are proclaimed “perfect in Christ” and receive all the benefits of that perfection at baptism.
Since this is the real atonement that is being taught in Moroni 10, not the protestant atonement, this is not teaching that God will give us all the rewards of being perfect, even though we aren’t, as a consequence of Christ’s intercession for sin. Rather it is presenting part of how Christ’s atonement, through its mediating forgiveness, opens up a path to us that allows us to be redeemed from our sins.
These verses in Moroni become clearer when placed against the backdrop of Alma 13. The two scriptures mutually combine to burn brighter and throw greater light on one another’s meaning. A close comparison of what is described at the end of Moroni 10 and in the middle of Alma 13 makes it clear they are talking about the same thing. In Alma 13 we read that these individuals “were sanctified, and their garments were washed white through the blood of the Lamb.” By comparison, in Moroni 10 we read that the individuals in question who are “perfect in Christ” and “deny not his power” are “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.” The descriptions of just who these two scriptures are talking about match up very well. They are apparently talking about the same thing.
Moroni 10 speaks of those who are “perfect in Christ”. Alma 13 doesn’t use that phrase, but it does state:
Alma 13:12 Now they, after being sanctified by the Holy Ghost, having their garments made white, being pure and spotless before God, could not look upon sin save it were with abhorrence;
This Alma 13 verse sounds like a remarkable description of someone who might reasonably be described as being “perfect in Christ”. This is very different than the protestant style interpretation in which the phrase “perfect in Christ” refers to the state of anyone who manages to at least stay worthy of his or her baptismal covenant.
A protestant interpretation of the atonement would use the phrase “his grace is sufficient” without giving other requirements other than some one time event. That is exactly the point in protestant interpretations of the atonement. But just look at what Moroni 10 says. It says “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“. Wow. Talk about important fine print. People usually don’t like to tack on those criteria: “deny yourselves of all ungodliness” and “love God with all your might, mind and strength” to the phrase “his grace is sufficient”. I mean, don’t get me wrong. We are getting there. Our covenants, if kept, teach us to deny ourselves all ungodliness and we will come in time to love God with all our might, mind and strength. It is the path the gospel provides to us. But our progress is slow, and we make it by keeping our covenants. Saying Christ’s grace is sufficient if you deny yourselves of all ungodliness and love God with all your might, mind and strength is wildly different than saying that because Christ is called the Savior then after baptism we are saved because his grace is sufficient. Salvation requires a Savior, but it is no more finished at baptism than setting up camp at the base gets you to the top of a great mountain.
It is worth pointing out that these sets of scriptures are not referring to a point most members have attained. I know I personally have not come to the point where I cannot “look upon sin save it were with abhorrence”. In my opinion we as a people generally have a long ways to go before we can’t look upon sin save with abhorrence. As things currently stand, it isn’t uncommon for our members to participate in movies, music, books and television that offer up plenty of sin without so much as flinching. We need to turn and instead follow President Monson’s counsel to avoid anything that even uses innuendo.
However, it might be worth noticing that there is a relation between the efforts exerted and the reward offered. It makes sense that if we “deny ourselves of all ungodliness” (from Moroni 10) then in time God will reward us by sanctifying us so that we cannot “look upon sin save it were with abhorrence” (from Alma 13). That fits.
The grace referred to in Moroni 10 is not the protestant grace that simply means that because of the atonement we get everything for practically nothing, rather than having to use the atonement to work out our salvation with fear and trembling as the scriptures require.
These scriptures should certainly also be put with Joseph Smith’s teaching:
“If a man gets a fullness of the priesthood of God he has to get it in the same way that Jesus Christ obtained it, and that was by keeping all the commandments and obeying all the ordinances of the house of the Lord.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith page 308)
That is, salvation, as described in scripture requires making covenants, then obeying those covenants, for which they are rewarded in time with greater spiritual endowments and greater covenants. This starts at baptism, continues with the reception of the priesthoods, the temple endowment, and sealing ordinances, but it doesn’t stop there, and that is exactly what is being described in these verses. The atonement opens the way for us to go from one step to the next with covenants, spiritual endowments, continued repentance, forgiveness and change marking out the steps until we at last are prepared to live with and be one with a God who cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.