This focuses on some of the most popularized works on the atonement, “The Continuous Atonement” by Brad Wilcox, and “Believing Christ” by Stephen Robinson. The book “Believing Christ” is notable for making false protestant ideas on the atonement mainstream in Mormonism. It’s spiritual successor, quite popular right now, appears to be “The Continuous Atonement”.
In our current culture of “everything is true” these protestant teachings coexist side by side with older, correct ideas about the atonement and most members don’t even notice the direct contradictions. Coexist isn’t the right word however. These false teachings seem to be overwhelming ancient truths in the minds of far too many.
For example, let’s compare teachings from the scriptures, the Lectures on Faith, and from these two books.
Take the following text from page 12 of “The Continuous Atonement”:
“I love Brother Stephen Robinson’s parable [of the bicycle]. He has helped us all see that there are two essential parts that must be completed in order for the atonement to be fully effective in our lives. But I think of the Atonement more like this: Jesus already bought the whole bike. The few coins He asks from me are not so much to help pay for the bike, but rather to help me appreciate it, value it, and use it correctly”.
What this is claiming is that choosing the right after baptism is not something that has anything to do with our exaltation because Christ purchased our exaltation in full already. It then answers the implicit question “If keeping the commandments has nothing to do with our salvation, then why do we need to choose the right?” by claiming that we need to choose the right so we can appreciate, value, and use the atonement correctly.
But that is completely wrong. It is bizarre to claim that choosing the right perfectly was required of Christ, but that choosing the right has nothing to do with our own salvation besides “appreciating, valuing, and using the atonement correctly”. The whole perspective is wrong. It turns salvation and exaltation into something one acquires, like a bicycle. It turns salvation into something that we are trying to get God to agree to hand over to us. But that isn’t what they are at all. Exaltation is to be a certain something. Exaltation is not a like a college degree that is simply rewarded whether you got C’s, B’s or A’s. Exaltation is to become a certain type of being.
So what is the Savior’s role in regard to exaltation? Could we get it without him? No, absolutely not. We need his intercession so that we can be cleansed of our errors.
But that cleansing never exceeds what we actually choosing in our daily walk. We are never more clean through the atonement than way we are actually living. It is for remission of the sins we have stopped doing.
Helaman 5:10 And remember also the words which Amulek spake unto Zeezrom, in the city of Ammonihah; for he said unto him that the Lord surely should come to redeem his people, but that he should not come to redeem them in their sins, but to redeem them from their sins.
11 And he hath power given unto him from the Father to redeem them from their sins because of repentance; therefore he hath sent his angels to declare the tidings of the conditions of repentance, which bringeth unto the power of the Redeemer, unto the salvation of their souls.
So it is only as we repent and change that we enjoy cleanliness. And we all experience that. We all experience fixing something in our lives that we were neglecting or doing wrong and finding ourselves enjoying a greater measure of the Holy Ghost.
That is the other thing about these false protestant teachings. Not only do they disagree with the scriptures and teachings of modern prophets, they also disagree with our own experiences. Do we find ourselves enjoying the spiritual benefits of 100% perfection and goodness just because we are baptized. According to the doctrine they teach, that is what we should be enjoying, because that is the reality that is achieved through the atonement.
But that isn’t what we experience. What we experience is that when we do wrong, we feel spiritually unclean. When we do right, we feel greater peace and joy. When we make lasting changes, repenting of some misbehavior or other, then our lives are boosted and we enjoy a somewhat greater peace and joy than we did before. What we experience is traveling a path of progress that brings us greater light and a greater measure of the Holy Ghost. We experience greater cleanness as we choose better actions. That is the opposite of what should happen if these books that are preaching protestant ideas about the atonement teach. They teach that we enjoy the full measure of cleanness from baptism onwards. And that isn’t what we experience.
Now there is no question that exaltation is a reward. But it is unlike human rewards. It is given by becoming it. The reward is to become a type of being. The conditions on which we will be able to reach that in eternity are that we are pressing forward, seeking it diligently during mortality.
This was taught quite pointedly by Joseph Smith in the School of the Prophets.
But to be a little more particular, let us ask, where shall we find a prototype into whose likeness we may be assimulated, in order that we may be made partakers of life and salvation? or in other words, where shall we find a saved being? for if we can find a saved being, we may ascertain, without much difficulty, what all others must be, in order to be saved—they must be like that individual or they cannot be saved: we think, that it will not be a matter of dispute, that two beings, who are unlike each other, cannot both be saved; for whatever constitutes the salvation of one, will constitute the salvation of every creature which will be saved: and if we find one saved being in all existence, we may see what all others must be, or else not be saved. We ask, then, where is the prototype? or where is the saved being? We conclude as to the answer of this question there will be no dispute among those who believe the bible, that it is Christ: all will agree in this that he is the prototype or standard of salvation, or in other words, that he is a saved being. And if we should continue our interrogation, and ask how it is that he is saved, the answer would be, because he is a just and holy being; and if he were any thing different from what he is he would not be saved; for his salvation depends on his being precisely what he is and nothing else; for if it were possible for him to change in the least degree, so sure he would fail of salvation and lose all his dominion, power, authority and glory, which constitutes salvation; for salvation consists in the glory, authority, majesty, power and dominion which Jehovah possesses, and in nothing else; and no being can possess it but himself or one like him: Thus says John, in his first epistle, 3:2 and 3: Behold, now we are the sons of God, and it doth not appear what we shall be; but we know, that when he shall appear we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And any man that has this hope in him purifies himself, even as he is pure.—Why purify himself as he is pure? because, if they do not they cannot be like him.
15 It is scarcely necessary here to observe what we have previously noticed: That the glory which the Father and the Son have, is because they are just and holy beings; and that if they were lacking in one attribute or perfection which they have, the glory which they have, never could be enjoyed by them; for it requires them to be precisely what they are in order to enjoy it: and if the Savior gives this glory to any others, he must do it in the very way set forth in his prayer to his Father: by making them one with him, as he and the Father are one.—In so doing he would give them the glory which the Father has given him; and when his disciples are made one with the Father and the Son, as the Father and the Son are one, who cannot see the propriety of the Savior’s saying, The works which I do, shall they do; and greater works than these shall they do, be cause I go to the Father?
16 These teachings of the Savior must clearly show unto us the nature of salvation; and what he proposed unto the human family when he proposed to save them—That he proposed to make them like unto himself; and he was like the Father, the great prototype of all saved beings: And for any portion of the human family to be assimilated into their likeness is to be saved; and to be unlike them is to be destroyed: and on this hinge turns the door of salvation. (Lectures on Faith 7:9,15-16)
Yes, there is forgiveness when we err. Yes, we have many flaws and faults. Yes, we have a long way to go. But the purpose of the atonement is to make it so that we can travel that long path, not to act as a substitute for traveling it.
The purpose of the atonement is to grant forgiveness as we change our behavior. It is not meant as a substitute for change. Instead, it grants the forgiveness necessary AS we change so that we can enjoy greater cleanness, and consequently, also greater spiritual blessings.
But, once again, the atonement is not meant as a substitute for change. By very design, it cannot substitute for change. We gain access to its forgiveness on condition of repentance.
This is part of what is meant by the phrase “he should not come to redeem them in their sins, but to redeem them from their sins.” (Helaman 5:10)