The doctrine and covenants contains about as perfect as scripture describing Christ’s atoning sacrifice in Gethsemane and what he won by that as you could ask for:
D&C 19:16 For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
17 But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
18 Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—
19 Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.
20 Wherefore, I command you again to repent, lest I humble you with my almighty power; and that you confess your sins, lest you suffer these punishments of which I have spoken, of which in the smallest, yea, even in the least degree you have tasted at the time I withdrew my Spirit.
There it is. We have, somehow or other, made a great mystery of the atonement. But there the Lord lays it out for us so plainly that we cannot misunderstand.
“I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might no suffer if they would repent, but if they would not repent they must suffer even as I”.
We read of the Jews:
Jacob 4: 14 But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble.
And sadly, this seems to be becoming true of us. Remission of our sins no longer makes us feel overwhelming gratitude. Remission of sins only on condition of repentance definitely doesn’t. We need something new and better and bigger and grander. We were grateful for remission of sins yesterday, and we are so spoiled that we need something new to be grateful for today. That is compounded by the fact that we are actually quite fond of some of our sins, and would like to put aside some of the words of plainness. Most of all, most particularly, we want to watch and read things that are indecent and play indecent music and indecent computer games in our home. We also want to lie when we need to in order to advertise or sell something. We want to put aside proclaiming the truth and warning our neighbor to fit in better with the world. We want to proclaim that we are cool with every immorality the world has to offer, even if we don’t do it ourselves, and we want to never be caught saying that any of it is wrong where men of the world can see or hear what we said. We want to ignore the standard of modesty set by temple garments. Our women want to wear clothing that is ridiculously snug at all times and in all places, even while taking the Sacrament. We want to go out to eat and go shopping on Sundays. We want to be embarrassed of God and moral decency in our public politics, ignoring the fact that a free country could only be founded by appealing to God and standing firmly by self evident truths.
As we grow firmer in our despising the words of plainness, so also we begin to look beyond the mark. I have heard far, far more in church Sacrament meetings in praise of the atonement for solving emotional, mental, and physical woes over the last five years than I have heard in praise of the atonement for offering remission of sins. We are infatuated with all the other things we want the atonement to be able to do. You hear people speculate and express a desire to understand all the ways the atonement can help them.
They want that because they don’t want any more of the way the atonement really does help them. They don’t want to change more. They don’t want to “strip themselves of all uncleanness”. They don’t want to “deny themselves of all ungodliness”. They want something different than that from the atonement, and thus they despise the words of plainness and look beyond the mark, seeking for things they cannot understand.
Of necessity, when we despise the words of plainness, we begin looking beyond the mark. For remission of sins, and particularly, remission of sins on condition of repentance no longer stirs up feelings of worship because it wasn’t what we really wanted anyway, at least not what we wanted except for the sins that are either real doozies, or that violate our overdeveloped sense of politeness and weren’t really even sins at all.
The verses I recalled from D&C 19 lay out the meaning of the atonement in all possible plainness. They are as plain as word can be.
But I have even heard people express great joy that they were physically healed by God for some ailment “through the atonement”. And at that point we are simply denying that God the Father is, actually, God. God, being as he is God, has power over the elements independent of the atonement. He can heal a man or woman physically because he is the God who created the earth. And it is easier to heal a sick person than it is to create the earth. The atonement is the crux of eternity, but it is not the source of God’s power.
Our fascination with all the other things we think the atonement can do, but which seem somehow a bit hard to understand and nail down is simply the same thing described in Jacob 4. As we despise the words of plainness because we are not so very interested in repentance, then we are looking beyond the mark and putting aside the atonement, seeking for things we cannot understand. All the while we are making an enormous noise about the atonement, and how it grants us new and better things than plain old delivering us from unspeakable suffering through remission of sins on condition of repentance.