This is the third of three posts on the atonement (see here and here). What effect, if any, does the atonement have on your day-to-day life? Does it change how you think, how you feel, or how you act? I think most Latter-day Saints would agree that the atonement is not simply about something that will happen at some distant point in the future (Judgment Day) when, thanks to the atonement, one might be pronounced sinless and eligible to enter a resplendently glorious celestial world instead of being cast down to hell, away to outer darkness, or off to a dimly glorious telestial world. But how exactly does the atonement work for us in the here and now? And why do so many Mormons not feel cleansed, redeemed, and confidently hopeful in the here and now thanks to the atonement but rather feel guilty and inadequate? What are we missing?
First, take a look at Stephen E. Robinson’s talk Believing Christ: A Practical Approach to the Atonement (the BYU devotional for May 29, 1990). A simplified version of that talk appeared in the April 1992 Ensign and an expanded version of the talk was published by Deseret Book in 1992 as Believing Christ. Robinson tries very hard to move Latter-day Saints from a position of faith, worry, and self-doubt toward faith and hope rooted in the atonement. Here is an excerpt from the second chapter of the book that hits the main point (emphasis in original, but shown here as bolded rather than italicized text).
Unfortunately, there are many members of the Church who simply do not believe this [that God can forgive their sin and remove their guilt]. Though they claim to have testimonies of Christ and of his gospel, they reject the witness of the scriptures and the prophets about the good news of Christ’s atonement. … They believe in Christ, but they do not believe Christ. … Yet the “good news” of the gospel is good news to me not because it promises that other people who are better than I am can be saved, but because it promises that I can be saved — wretched, inadequate, and imperfect me.
Second, consider the missing discussion of grace within LDS discourse. As Wikipedia tells us, “Grace in Christianity is the free and unmerited favour of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowing of blessings.” In LDS discourse, grace as the gift of salvation to sinners (the first part of the Wikipedia definition) is part of our doctrine of the atonement. Oddly, when grace is addressed as part of an LDS discussion of the atonement, the purpose is often to qualify and even to simply deny the essence of grace, that it is a free, unmerited gift. Consider Bruce C. Hafen’s article “Grace” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which is simply a discussion of the LDS doctrine of atonement and why we think the efficacy of the atonement for a given individual is dependent on good works rather than unmerited grace.
The second part of the Wikipedia definition of grace, “the bestowing of blessings,” is, within LDS discourse, swallowed up in our incessant discussion of blessings, the reception of which, like salvation, is again often depicted as dependent on our good works. Furthermore, in the case of illness, injury, or disease, we don’t necessarily pray for a dispensation of God’s grace. Instead, we call the home teachers for a priesthood blessing or obtain one from available male family members. So grace, the primary concept under which God’s present action on our behalf is discussed in other denominations, is largely missing from LDS discourse and religious practice. As a result we Mormons have a hard time conceptualizing God’s present action in our lives. If we talked more about grace, it would be easier to conceptualize the atonement as having present operation in our day-to-day lives.
To help move that discussion along, here are a few quotations on grace from LDS sources. The entry for “grace” in the LDS Bible Dictionary states:
It is through the grace of the Lord Jesus, made possible by His atoning sacrifice, that mankind will be raised in immortality, every person receiving his body from the grave in a condition of everlasting life. It is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means.
More helpful, perhaps, is Robert L. Millet’s long entry on “grace” in LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference (Deseret Book, 2011). Millet’s discussion expands the idea of grace to include blessings from God, outpourings of the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, and strength and endurance granted to the weak. The entry begins:
From a doctrinal perspective, God’s grace is his mercy, his love, his condescension toward the children of men. Grace is unmerited favor, unearned divine assistance, goodwill, heavenly benefit, lovingkindness, tender mercy.
Finally, consider Robinson’s own discussion of grace at pages 61-69 of Believing Christ. He notes that the words translated as grace in the Bible are also translated as “favor, pleasure, thanks, graciousness, or goodness,” and that the term is also used “for a gift, benefit, or gesture offered in token of these attitudes.” He continues:
However, in the New Testament, “grace” most often refers to the grace or favor of God, and this is usually understood as an attitude of goodwill that predisposes God to act positively toward human beings. … Grace in this sense is not something that I can trigger, manipulate, earn, deserve, or control, for it is a preexisting aspect of God’s attitude toward me.
That’s reassuring. Robinson goes on to give another sense of grace:
Nevertheless, the term grace is sometimes used in a different sense to describe a quality that is responsive or reactive to human behavior. When spoken of in this sense, God’s favor or grace is not a preexisting given but is something that can be sought after, increased, decreased, or even lost completely by an individual’s own actions.
So I’ve given two suggestions for making the atonement more practical and more relevant in the here and now: ponder the expanded concept of grace, and read Robinson’s book. Any other suggestions?