116 Lost Pages and the Nature of the Atonement

March 18, 2008 | 36 comments

The last two Sundays, elders’ quorum has been about Joseph Smith and Martin Harris losing the 116 pages.

Their horror and God’s forgiveness was moving. But I noticed that not all the effects of their sin were undone. Martin Harris did not scribe anymore. The 116 pages remained lost, only partially compensated by the small plates.

Over the very long run, sub species aeternitas as it were, I believe that God does wholly compensate for our sins. So why not do it immediately? Or why just compensate for them and not undo them entirely?

Some may say that God *cannot* undo the sin and perhaps they are right. Perhaps what is written in the book of time cannot be unwritten. But I think we can see profounder reasons why God *will not.*

We need to really see the consequences of our sin so that we can really appreciate and be transformed by God’s forgiveness and atonement. We need to see the marks in his hands so we can appreciate that he forgives us for driving the nail. And we need our experience and we need the consequences of our experience, not because of what they teach us, but because they are our own. We need the dignity of being moral agents. We need to be whole, even our sins part of our narrative. Christ preferred to share the pains and consequences of our sins with us, rather than undo them, and all for the love of us. He holds out to us something better than a censored and a prettified life. In his hands are second chances.


36 Responses to 116 Lost Pages and the Nature of the Atonement

  1. Brother Parkin on March 18, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    Oh, man.

    I strongly agree that he doesn’t re-write anything in the book of time. What is changed is our own natures. But the consequences of our past can go on in the lives of other people: potentially forever. That is why forgiveness is such a miracle. That we can be changed and become a person capable of living with God. As I’ve surveyed the damage I’ve done to my children, to the reputation of the church and who even knows what else – I find beyond description God’s grace in rescuing me from being that man anymore. (To the degree that I’m NOT that man anymore. And I’m largely not.)

    Sometimes people have told me I need to forgive myself. I suppose to finally … get past it all. But, I do forgive myself. I just know that I must continue to live with the reality of the consequnces of my past. I do not mean to ever live anywhere but here in the reality I helped to create. I don’t need to get past it all, I need to constantly engage with it.


  2. Adam Greenwood on March 18, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    Its always good when someone gets what I’m saying better than I do. Thanks, Bro. P.

  3. Jim Cobabe on March 18, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    One of the concerns that rises above the background noise is the idea that our actions, even the most trivial, have far-reaching consequences. While in some respects our culture increases sensitivity to this consideration, in other ways we largely seem to grow insensate and dull with respect to the consequences of sin. In our Elder’s quorum discussion, we considerd Mormon’s observations about his own people who found themselves so far down the slippery slope that they were without hope,

    “their sorrowing was not unto repentance, because of the goodness of God; but it was rather the sorrowing of the damned, because the Lord would not always suffer them to take happiness in sin

    And they did not come unto Jesus with broken hearts and contrite spirits, but they did curse God, and wish to die…

    (Mormon 2:10-5).

  4. Eric Nielson on March 18, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    I like your perspective on this. Well done.

  5. Dan on March 18, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    God cannot stop the consequences of our actions without changing far too much of the natural order of things. I prefer that the consequences are left to run their course than for someone to interfere and stop them. It makes one much more cautious in the future from doing the same thing again, knowing, or at least hoping, that intervention would come again.

  6. Jack on March 18, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    Great post.

    It is utterly miraculous how–though there may be genuine loss because of sin–a new path seems to emerge beneath our feet–a path that feels preordained.

  7. Mark M on March 18, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    There is a beautiful principle illustrated by Joseph’s experience with the lost manuscript pages. Our loving and omniscient God sometimes enables our second chance blessings to be even greater than the first chance blessing that we missed.

    See D&C 10:45 and surrounding verses: “… there are many things engraven upon the plates of Nephi which do throw greater views upon my gospel; therefore, it is wisdom in me that you should translate this first part of the engravings…” The Lord indicated to Joseph that what he would eventually publish would be even greater than the unpublished pages that were lost. D&C 10:40: “… the account which is engraven upon the plates of Nephi is more particular concerning the things which, in my wisdom, I would bring to the knowledge of the people in this account.”

    Personal application: I was single for a LONG time. I have no doubt that God had provided earlier opportunities for joyful marriage that I somehow missed — whether through social ineptness, lack of spiritual sensitivity, overlooking an opportunity, someone else’s personal choice, or whatever. But what kept me going (and eventually marrying at age 40!) was the realization that God could have planned for me as he did for Joseph Smith. He wasn’t going to withhold the best from me just because of earlier failure or folly. He could design my life to allow the “second chance” to be at least as good as the first chance. And based on my current joy and loving family, I believe he did.

  8. Kevinf on March 18, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    Two thoughts on this. First, it reminds me of the old, and repugnant, analogy that was used so often in Seminary when I was growing up of the nail in the board. The teacher would drive the nail, indicating sin (usually geared towards chastity), then talk about repentance, and pull out the nail. But, he would point out, the hole is still there. I always found that problematic, as we are told that when we repent of our sins, He will “remember them no more.” Second, I have been present at two blessings that I can remember (not my own), where it was pronounced that “your sins are forgiven” by the person giving the blessing. These were in connection with advancements in the priesthood. I also have been present at reinstatements following excommunication, where similar statements were made. I prefer to take the atonement at face value, which is that forgiveness is complete, and truly frees us for our sins.

    However, and perhaps this is what you are getting at, we are not told that we will forget our sins. Nor, as you point out, will the consequences of those sins be wiped away, necessarily. However, the other part of the atonement is what allows us, who have been the victims or targets of other’s sins, to both forgive them, and wipe away the consequences of their sins in our lives. Christ, through the atonement, “blots out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance…” (Alma 7:11-13). I have seen through the eyes of some good friends whose marriage was rocked by infidelity come back whole and both more blessed and with greater love through repentance and the atonement, which healed both the sinner and the betrayed spouse. Neither has forgotten the sin, but both have transcended it, and been transformed through the atonement in this life.

  9. Jack on March 18, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    “Our loving and omniscient God sometimes enables our second chance blessings to be even greater than the first chance blessing that we missed.”

    Yes, I’d say our redemption from the Fall seems to do just that. It’s miraculous.

  10. Adam Greenwood on March 18, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    I don’t think that metaphor is repugnant, since I’ve only seen it used to make the same point that I’m making here. But that metaphor isn’t the point of the post–you’re the one who brought it up–and I think we’re mostly in agreement. I like what you say about your married friends.

  11. Kevinf on March 18, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    Adam, it was always repugnant to me. But I think otherwise, we are in agreement. My friends are not likely to forget what happened in their lives, but it no longer is the ever-present undercurrent that colors every waking moment of their lives before the repentance took place.

  12. Kent on March 18, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    For me the issue isn’t Christ paying for sins (a phrase not found in scripture), rather the healing of relationships by overcoming the effects of sin. It isn’t that sin is a tally mark, rather that it estranges me from others.

    What is sin?
    That which creates or maintains alienation in relationships.

    What is salvation/atonement?
    Repairing damaged relationships and experiencing joy in relationships.

    Everything else is details.

    Belief in Jesus as the Savior and his power means nothing if he can’t heal the damage I’ve not only done to myself, but to others I’ve hurt. Any salvation that doesn’t take not only restitution, but also restoration into account, fails to be just.

  13. Jonovitch on March 18, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    In the last week, I’ve noticed an incredible message of grace in 2 Nephi, through the words of Lehi, Jacob, and Nephi.

    Lehi — “There is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Ne 2:8).

    Jacob — “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved” (2 Ne 10:24).

    Nephi — “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that after all we can do, it is by grace that we are saved” (2 Ne 25:23).

    [Note: I purposely reversed the order of the final dependent/subordinate clause ("works") and the independent/ordinate clause ("grace"). Doing so retains the meaning, but reveals the true emphasis of the verse in the context of the rest of the chapter (law of Moses). In Church classes, this line is oft quoted and oft misinterpreted, if you ask me. It's also interesting to note that grammatically, a dependent/subordinate clause cannot stand on its own (as we cannot, and our works cannot elevate us on their own), but an independent/ordinate clause can stand on its own (as he can, and his grace is sufficient for all men). I noticed the March Ensign referenced this verse in a chart, and actually added extra emphasis to the dependent/subordinate clause. That made me sad. I would go so far as to say that emphasizing "what we can do" over "what he has done" smacks of "put(ting) down the power and miracles of God" as Nephi put it (2 Ne 26:20) -- but that's another debate.]

    And finally, this line has remained an inspiration and a hope to me for years: “Yea, and as often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me” (Mosiah 26:30).

    Talk about second chances.


  14. mmiles on March 18, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    Great post. I’m been thinking about this the last few days too.

    I’m not sure I agree. If the Atonement took away the consequences of sin, we wouldn’t grow. We are here, after all, to distinguish between good and evil through our own experience. If it took away any result of our own actions or the actions of others, leaving us as if it hadn’t happened, we would remain as children (entirely different than becoming children). The Atonement takes away those sufferings and allows us to be in the presence of God again, but it doesn’t take away the experience as if it never happened.

  15. Kent on March 18, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    mmiles, we may just be using the word “consequences” differently, as I’m not so much interested in the immediate results of actions, rather how they affect our openness to others (including God). The consequence of sin that I was referring to is alienation in relationships. I agree with you that God doesn’t take away the effects of sin so much as heals them and removes the pain of wrong doing for not only myself but those I have injured.

  16. Adam Greenwood on March 18, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    Belief in Jesus as the Savior and his power means nothing if he can’t heal the damage I’ve not only done to myself, but to others I’ve hurt

    I wouldn’t say that atonement means nothing apart from healing the damage I’ve done others. But I would say that our sins cripple others as much as they cripple ourselves, and over the very long term we can be sure that Christ will balm the hurts we caused and provide the blessings we took away.

  17. Ray on March 18, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    Excellent, Adam.

  18. Kevinf on March 18, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    Adam, # 16, well said. I would, however, submit that often people are more ready to forgive (and thus take advantage of the atonement and it’s healing powers for those sinned against), than to repent (and take advantage of the healing power of the atonement for sin). Casual observation not backed up by anything other than anecdotal evidence, BTW. :)

  19. Blain on March 18, 2008 at 8:11 pm

    This isn’t all that complicated. If I violate the law of chastity, and, in the process of that, acquire a disease and produce a child, I can repent and have the stain of sin removed from my soul, but that’s not going to remove the disease or eliminate the child. If I cut off someone’s limb, and repent, that can remove the stain of sin from my soul, but it doesn’t restore the limb. Repenting of arson doesn’t un-burn the house. I can guess that this is because doing so would remove the need for faith on the part of anybody, and that might be so. But I am certain that repentance does not eliminate all the consequences of sin.

    In 1988, I took the Teacher Development class for the first time, and taught a lesson in a SS class as part of that class. I used the manual that was in use for Course 16 that year, and it was about how repentance is not the same thing as obedience. It used the nails-in-the-fence analogy (included because I’ve heard some question as to whether this was ever taught by the Church recently). That point is quite solid — repentance can restore one’s relationship with God, but it does not produce the same result that would have been produced by obeying the law that was broken. It was stated particularly to spike the guns of the rationalization that one can sin with the intention of repenting later, which is a very good idea IMO. True repentance is very, very hard, and it is harder yet when one has committed a sin with this intention to repent later — I speak from experience here.

    I tend to think that the Atonement has power to change hearts and to blot out guilt, but it does not change facts.

  20. Adam Greenwood on March 18, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    My anecdotes are much likes yours, KevinF, but that might be an artefact of the culture.

  21. Bob on March 18, 2008 at 9:51 pm

    The only thing I find a little uncomfortable in the above posts is: No sin, no growth. No Plan of Salvation, without sin. This all part of God’s preset plan to give us a way to grow. Help me out.

  22. mmiles on March 18, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    Help me out here. What exactly about it makes you uncomfortable?

  23. Mark M on March 19, 2008 at 10:13 am

    Re #18:
    “I tend to think that the Atonement has power to change hearts and to blot out guilt, but it does not change facts.”

    Reminds me of comments by a convert to another person about to be baptized:
    “I had sinned greatly. After my baptism, I could still remember my sins, but the guilt was gone.”

  24. Bob on March 19, 2008 at 10:39 am

    #22 Some of the posts say sin opened their eyes, or set them on the right path. Why then is sin not but the first baby step in our journey on earth, or a tool provided by God for our growth? If so, why is God angered by sin? And by what rule do others suffer for our sins?

  25. Kevinf on March 19, 2008 at 11:37 am


    Never having sinned would be the best path. 2nd Nephi 2 talks about opposition, and how that is a requirement for the plan of salvation. No temptation, no growth. The key is that it is best not to sin. All of us have sinned to one degree or another, and had to go through a repentance process, but in so doing, hopefully have come out stronger on the other end, and more resistant to temptation.

    I don’t have to go through the process of infidelity to a spouse to know it’s wrong. I have seen this vicariously through friends and others, and I like to believe I am stronger for it. Other issues of honesty have sometimes been a problem for me, and through repentance, I believe I am stronger for it. Both have had the same result, but I sure wish I hadn’t struggled through some sins that I have committed. God is angered by sin, because it drives us farther from him, and halts us in our path towards exaltation. Both resisting temptation and repentance are tools of obedience, but the first is preferable to the other. The temptations, however, are always there.

  26. Adam Greenwood on March 19, 2008 at 11:46 am

    Excellent, KevinF.

    And by what rule do others suffer for our sins?

    Bob, if God lets us be in a position to affect others lives for the better he has to let us be in a position to affect others lives for the worse too. The Samaritan suffers when the robbers sin by beating him almost to death, that’s just the way of things.

  27. bfwebster on March 19, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    My first marriage struggled for nearly 10 years — in spite of our love for one another — and finally ended in divorce. The source of the problem? My (former) wife was sexually molested for several years as a young girl by her stepfather (who was not LDS and who subsequently was divorced by my former wife’s mother). The consequences of that abuse showed up early in our marriage and became worse — not better — in spite of time and therapy, until she finally came and asked me for a divorce.

    Now suppose my wife’s stepfather at some later point had truly repented and then joined the Church, being baptized in the process, being truly forgiven and washed clean. Would that somehow put our family back together or bring my children into the Church or heal the absolutely devastating pain that she, our kids, and I went through? Would it reverse the impact of that divorce? (Three of our four kids are inactive.)

    A lot of members don’t like the ‘nail hole in the wood’ analogy, but to deny it is to deny that our sins have consequences beyond our ability to repair. To a real extent, it denies our agency. As C. S. Lewis noted (I believe in one of the Narnia tales), the one thing that God doesn’t let us do is go back and undo our actions — we don’t to turn the clock back and we don’t get to know what would have happened had we chosen differently. ..bruce..

  28. ScottO on March 19, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    I would like to respond to \\\”And by what rule do others suffer for our sins? \\\”
    It is perhaps NOT the way of things but rather, the way of God……

    President Faust once spoke of the \\\”Refining Fire\\\”
    \\\”The thorns that prick, that stick in the flesh, that hurt, often change lives which seem robbed of significance and hope. This change comes about through a refining process which often seems cruel and hard. In this way the soul can become like soft clay in the hands of the Master in building lives of faith, usefulness, beauty, and strength. For some, the refiner’s fire causes a loss of belief and faith in God, but those with eternal perspective understand that such refining is part of the perfection process\\\”.
    The Apostle Paul referred to his own challenge: “And lest I should be exalted above measure … , there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me.”

    as for #18 response above, the atonement is merely a portion of salvation, one must also realize repentence and endurance, correct? The atonement offers forgiveness, not forgetfulness.

  29. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 19, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    Re #13 (Jonovitch)–I agree. 2 Nephi 25:23 is often quoted only as to the concluding phrases, i.e. “It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” But the real intent of Nephi is not understood without the lead up to that, parallel with verse 26 which follows: “For we labor diligently” etc. is clearly in an ironic juxtaposition with the conclusion, the point that Nephi is “laboring diligently” to persuade his family about: That it is GRACE that saves us, NOT our diligent labor. I have thought that we might understand these verses better if we were listening to them being read by Dennis Miller with his sarcasm. Nephi is saying that all his personal efforts (getting the brass plates, hunting food in the wilderness, trekking across Arabia, building a ship, sailing around the world, building a city and a temple and a new civilization, creating a metal record) have been poured into teaching that personal effort is futile, but for the grace of God.

  30. jrl on March 19, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    I have enjoyed all of the comments. I just want to add a favorite quote from Elder Holland, about holes in posts:

    We learn that when repentance is complete we are born again and leave behind forever the self we once were. To me, none of the many approaches to teaching repentance falls more short than the well-intentioned suggestion that “although a nail may be removed from a wooden post, there will forever be a hole in that post.”

    We know that repentance (the removal of that nail, if you will) can be a very long and painful and difficult task. Unfortunately, some will never have the incentive to undertake it. We even know that there are a very few sins for which no repentance is possible.

    But where repentance is possible and its requirements are faithfully pursued and completed, there is no “hole left in the post” for the bold reason that it is no longer the same post. It is a new post. We can start again, utterly clean, with a new will and a new way of life.

    Jeffrey R. Holland, “Alma, Son of Alma,” Ensign, Mar 1977, 79

  31. Kevinf on March 19, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    Bruce, # 27, as you are well aware, sin has “consequences beyond our ability to repair” both for the sinner, and those victims of their sins. The atonement is the only way that these things can be repaired, and often the healing is a work of decades, if not longer. But that is the promise of the atonement, that we can truly overcome, as sinner or innocent victim. As you have all eloquently pointed out, we have control over our actions, but not consequences. I view Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery in their later returns to the church as sad figures, not able to ever completely regain what was lost in this life.

    ScottO, # 28, the Atoning Sacrifice has been done, repentance is what we do to make it begin to work in our lives. And to truly take advantage of the atonement is to not sin again, and endure. Sins are “forgotten” in the sense of my married friends I mentioned above. The sin is no longer the first thing that they think of in the morning, nor the last thing at night. Days go by for them, that they don’t even think of it. Yet the memory is still there. As to the nil in the wood analogy, ultimately, it will be as if the sin never happened, or there would be no hope of exaltation and eternal life. For some of us, the big challenge of the millennium may be forgiving others who have wronged us, even as they have already repented. As some of you have pointed out, the consequences can be awful. Forgiving is non-trivial in the extreme. Yet, that hope is held out for us. It gives me something to cling ot.

  32. SBUnrau on March 19, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    I agree that the consequences of sin cannot be undone by repentance. As a family law attorney (in Zion, of all things!) I see the harrowing effects of teen pregnancy, broken families, abuse and other ills/sins. I see, thankfully, many many who repent and change their lives for the good forever, yet they cannot always – or even often – escape the messy paths their lives have created.

    Ultimately, though, all victims can choose out of victimhood. That has nothing to do with the repentance (or not) of the victimizer; rather, it has to do with applying the atonement in one’s own life in the act of forgiving (especially forgiving onesself) and moving on.

  33. Bob on March 19, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    Adam, In my view, sin has very little to do with the daily lives of most man. Yet it is spoken here as it was the main issue. This is new to Mormonism, ( again in my view). Works use to be the center of Mormonism. How we treated our family and our follow man. I am not a defender of “Mormon Doctrine”. But if you look at it, you will see different definitions of Sin, Ransom, Redeemer, Atonement, than are now being used. Anyway, a good topic for Easter.

  34. Kevinf on March 19, 2008 at 7:36 pm


    You raise a valid point. This all goes back to Pres. Benson’s condemnation of the church for not studying and know the Book of Mormon in the 80′s. From that came a truly different understanding of grace & works, and a changing view of the atonement.

    25 years ago, you hardly ever heard the word “grace” spoken inside the walls of an LDS chapel. Now, it is in the lesson manuals, and in much more common usage. I came to a new understanding of the atonement while serving as a bishop in the late 90′s to 2002. I now know things I never imagined growing up in the church, and have seen some huge leaps in understanding taught to me by men I revere as prophets and seers.

    FYI, I haven’t cracked my copy of MD in probably 10 years, despite great respect for Elder. McConkie.

  35. Kevinf on March 19, 2008 at 7:40 pm


    I forgot to add that charity, as I am interpreting your use of works, is still key. All I have to do is read the 25th Chapter of Matthew about the parable of the sheep and goats, and I know I still have huge progress to make in truly loving.

    35 years ago, “works’ was usually defined in terms of ordinances and ordinations, at least to my understanding of the times. Required, but that’s not going to be all that’s involved in obtaining exaltation and eternal life.

  36. Bob on March 19, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    # 35: I hope people read me as a Grace, Charity, Love, Forgiveness, kind-of-guy and not a defender of Bruce McConkie thinking. But ” Mormon Doctrine”, (in my opinion), is a prefect “Time Capsule” of the thinking of his day. Sin he talks of the is the “Sin of Mankind or Adam” The Atonement was the Ransom paid by Christ for “Mankind’s or Adam’s sin” (not our Adam here). The song we sang: “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin”, Was about Adam’s sin, not the sin of we individualizes today.


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