The Practical Atonement

December 4, 2013 | 17 comments
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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?

17 Responses to The Practical Atonement

  1. Abu Casey on December 4, 2013 at 1:32 am

    As for the first question of the post: Sadly, very little. I recognize my need for the atonement, but I’m terrible at praying, repenting, and seeking the atonement in my life.

    As for other approaches to grace, last year Joe Spencer blogged on Robinson’s book, producing a rather long series about grace (here: http://feastuponthewordblog.org/2012/06/01/announcing-a-series-_believing-christ_-revisited/). I really enjoyed it. One of his main arguments is the idea that Robinson’s arguments about grace, while important for their time, get grace backwards–that it’s not a response to our sinfulness, but that it exists ex ante and our rejection of grace is a rejection of our dependence on God. There’s a lot more there.

  2. Niklas on December 4, 2013 at 2:41 am

    It is interesting that Hafen’s article in EoM focus on works. At the same time Hafen’s article ‘Beauty for Ashes’ (http://www.lds.org/ensign/1990/04/beauty-for-ashes-the-atonement-of-jesus-christ ) has helped me to understand better what is meant with grace. I shall read that article again and see if it was such a great sermon as I remembered it to be.

  3. ji on December 4, 2013 at 6:37 am

    As a convert, I have somewhat a different view of grace — my non-Mormon learning informs my Mormon learning — it is a delicate balance — some (including perhaps the general trend of LDS thought) tend to under-emphasize grace, and some others seem to over-emphasize it. But it is sad, and somehow ironic, for this to become a point of disputation and discord. I believe, like Paul in Romans ch. 14, that each person needs to be fully persuaded in his or her own mind, and do the best he or she can, and above all avoid putting a stumblingblock in front of his or her neighbor. After all, we’re all pilgrims on the same journey, and all of us will have occasion to change our minds about matters like this as our life experiences progress.

    I think one’s understanding of grace will be, in part at least, a function of his or her faith and his or her learning that comes directly from the Holy Spirit. I am afraid of any academic explanation of grace. It seems to me that any definition of grace has to be very personal and comes from one’s heart rather than his or her head. And to me, this allows for differing explanations all of which can be “true” as long as they are sincere. Yes, one person’s “truth” as revealed by the Holy Spirit can differ a little from someone else’s “truth” as revealed by the Holy Spirit — both are merely individual reflections on something they’re seeing and discerning.

  4. ji on December 4, 2013 at 7:04 am

    I appreciate the invitation to re-consider the Atonement, and to re-consider grace… Thanks!

  5. Steve Martin on December 4, 2013 at 7:19 am

    #1
    “I recognize my need for the atonement, but I’m terrible at praying, repenting, and seeking the atonement in my life.”

    Join the club.

    We are so often so self-consumed that we fail to do those things in the ways that maybe we ought.

    That’s one of the reasons that we value so highly the external Word that comes to us from outside of ourselves. And we return to our Baptisms daily. where that atonement was put into concrete tangible form that we can trust in, no matter how we feel about it on any given day.

  6. Dave on December 4, 2013 at 10:02 am

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Abu (#1), thanks for linking to the series by Joe Spencer on Believing Christ. I can’t believe I wasn’t aware of it.

    Niklas (#2), Hafen has certainly written more broadly on the subject of faith, grace, and the atonement, in particular his heart trilogy (The Believing Heart, The Two Hearts, The Return of the Heart). Uh, I might be confusing the titles a bit. I have heard it is a fine series.

    ji (#4), thanks for the comment. It is too easy, when blogging, to fall into the trap of making every post “My Problem with X.” I force myself to write a positive, uplifting post once in a while to help keep my natural cynicism under control.

    Steve Martin (#5), I wish more people had an empathetic “join the club” mentality rather than a judgmental “what’s his problem?” view of life.

  7. Old Man on December 4, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    I used to think that the atonement was wrought for forgiveness of sins. Then a personal experience tore me from that paradigm. It is about Christ becoming at-one with us, healing us of the effects of not just our sins, but harsh situations beyond our control, including the actions of others.

    Priesthood blessings are an extension of atoning power through the institutional church. We serve better if we are instruments of the atonement and bring others into an atoning relationship with our Lord.

  8. Jacob J on December 4, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    I think atonement theory (from your last post) is important because of the questions in this post. My vocal opposition to penal-substitution is rooted in the fact that I think it damages our ability to practically apply the atonement in daily life. If the badness of sin is that it requires suffering, if forgiveness is predicated on a certain amount of suffering, if repentance is centered around sorrow and confession and restitution (as opposed to reform), we can get a very skewed sense of how to apply the atonement. Our worship and appreciation of the atonement can become dominated by our need to feel badly about what Christ suffered in our place. We get stories like “he took my lickin’ for me” as the main ways we connect with the atonement. People become attached to the idea that Christ suffered individually for each sin we commit.

    Different atonement theories stress different concepts and can change our outlook on the nature of repentance and grace. I prefer theories of the atonement which stress repentance as reform and forgiveness as a healed relationship with God that is offered almost immediately as we turn back to God even before we have fully repented. I think Blake’s Compassion Theory is excellent in this regard in that it focuses the suffering of Christ as stemming from his relationship with us rather than as paying a cosmic debt. This is such a more useful concept of atonement and it evokes an image of the atonment that is much more personal and current (not just something Christ did thousands of years ago, but what he is doing today to help me reach my full potential).

  9. Steve on December 4, 2013 at 6:45 pm

    I still prefer the suffering for our personal “cosmic debt[s]” model. I find it more scriptural, and no less personal or current (see below), but far more significant and infinite in scope.

    “The great Jehovah contemplated the whole of the events connected with the earth, pertaining to the plan of salvation, before it rolled into existence…the past, the present, and the future were and are, with Him, one eternal now” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church 4:597.)

    “The same which knoweth all things, for all things are present
    before mine eyes.” (D&C 38:2)

    I’m not a fan of Blake Ostler needlessly limiting God’s foreknowledge in his model.

    I do, however, like viewing the atonement as far more comprehensive than the suffering/forgiveness of sins, and free resurrection/salvation part of grace (since that basically only puts us back to zero), but additionally seeing the enabling power of grace (that we can access in greater measure through authorized ordinances) as also part of the atonement–perhaps even the primary part. I liked how Brad Wilcox simplified this view in his talk “His Grace is Sufficient” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLXr9it_pbY)

  10. Steve on December 4, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    I think Br. Wilcox’s talk also outlines well how this model applies practically–that I don’t need to feel downtrodden by my sins, for Christ has already paid the debt, He has already overcome them, and repentance and forgiveness are easily accessible to all, including me, if I but desire to change and ask, and in time any wounds from my mistakes will also be healed. This then makes me free, and makes my time on earth a probationary state, where I can practice.

    Additionally, I know that Christ will help me in my practice; and with prayer and through making covenants in heaven-recognized ordinances, I can access even more divine help as I learn to become better in the face of opposition each day, that I have the hope of one day becoming even as He is. It means, that despite my sins, weaknesses, and shortcomings, I can have joy in the journey as I strive to become better, and as I do I will continually be cleansed and filled with greater love and a capacity to feel even greater joy.

  11. Steve Martin on December 4, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    Dave @ #6

    “I wish more people had an empathetic “join the club” mentality rather than a judgmental “what’s his problem?” view of life.”

    When the law is preached HARD…to expose the hearer…and not lite, to make the person a “better Christian”…then we realize that we just are not up to the task. And we can live in repentance and forgiveness. Instead of focusing inward and putting ourselves on the religious ascendancy project.

    Thanks, friend.

  12. Mark D. on December 5, 2013 at 1:39 am

    “The Atonement” literally means the at-one-ment, i.e. the reconciliation, and it doesn’t seem particularly helpful to treat it solely in terms of the dispensation of divine grace. Everything involved in reconciling us to God and to each other is part of the Atonement. Christ’s suffering, divine blessings, our service, sacrifice, and obedience, and so on. As I see it, that is the At-one-ment – the unification of the body of Christ – at one with God and with each other.

    Take this scripture for example: “Therefore, blessed are ye if ye continue in my goodness, a light unto the Gentiles, and through this priesthood, a savior unto my people Israel. The Lord hath said it. Amen.” – D&C 86:11

  13. Rameumptom on December 5, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    EOM and Robinson’s Believing Christ came out just as LDS thoughts on works and grace were beginning to change. Prior to that time, the Church focused on works. Why? I believe they backed away from grace, as a kneejerk reaction to some of the versions of grace being offered by traditional Christians. Instead, they sought something where “obedience is the first law of heaven”, even though the scriptures never state that.
    But with the deaths of those strong GA speakers from the mid-20th century AND with Pres Benson’s encouragement to study the Book of Mormon, we suddenly ‘discovered’ that the Book of Mormon says a LOT about Grace. A LOT.

    We find that we are “saved by grace after all we can do” does not necessarily mean we must kill ourselves in obedience, but as the Lamanite king stated, “all we can do is repent.” That faith brings the Holy Spirit down upon us, which then causes a desire within us to “no more do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 4:1-4; 5:1-4). Faith in Christ and Repentance are restored as the First Principles of the Gospel.
    Meanwhile, as noted above regarding Joe Spencer’s discussion of “Believing Christ”, it gets things backwards. But only because Robinson’s concepts were coming forth out of decades of misunderstanding the atonement. How misread? I recall in the late 1970s having an Institute professor say that there were some LDS leaders and scholars that believed one really could “earn his way into exaltation.” If that’s the case, then why have an atonement?

    Elder Neal Maxwell stepped it further along, as he discussed his “infinite atonement”, showing how important it is, and that we cannot save ourselves.

    Now, GAs and scholars speak more on grace than ever before. It brings salvation and exaltation back to its Founder: Jesus Christ. And it causes that the atonement didn’t just happen 2000 years ago and now we must do everything ourselves; but that the atonement is ongoing, unceasing, and doesn’t require obedience as the Pharisees obeyed the rules; but devotion brought about by faith and repentance/change on Christ and sanctified by the infusion of the Holy Ghost to change the individual.

  14. Jacob J on December 5, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    The cosmic debt model may seem more scriptural (I don’t think it actually is) but at the end of the day it doesn’t make any sense. It requires that cosmic “justice” demands an injustice in order to be satisfied, which is the height of contradiction. As to limiting God’s foreknowledge, this doesn’t play a big part in Ostler’s atonement theory, that was a topic in Vol 1 of his series, but again this is in reaction to the fact that complete foreknowledge of one actual future makes the gospel incoherent. In both cases, I prefer a theology that makes sense.

  15. Steve on December 5, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    Jacob, maybe I’m missing the problems/contradictions you see, but to my mind both concepts make total sense.

    I actually think the reason for suffering can be seen as essentially the same in Ostler’s model and the cosmic debt model, if I’m understanding both well enough, only that I’m suggesting that Christ in the garden and on the cross saw as He sees as an eternal being today–which is to say he saw past, present, and future as an eternal now, and thus was able to enter into a relationship with us then and there taking upon him our pains, sorrows, and consequences of sin, etc. at that time. I think Ostler doesn’t go this way because He doesn’t believe in a complete foreknowledge of one actual future, and that is why I believe he unnecessarily reduced the events in the garden and the cross to have hardly any substantial value/meaning in the suffering/forgiveness process. But his reasoning for disbelieving in such a foreknowledge is flawed from the beginning, and so other theories like this one of the atonement likewise get constricted in unnecessary ways.

    I guess I don’t understand why you believe it was an injustice that Christ desired to take these things upon Himself that we might be free in the one model, but don’t find it to be an injustice in the other.

  16. JeffC on December 5, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    Although I’ve followed this and a number of other LDS blogs for quite some time I’ve never posted a reply before, but given the atonement is my favourite topic (to the extent that I’ve just started my own blog specifically on the topic) I can’t help but reply to this – particularly given the closing question.

    My favourite scripture on the topic is Alma 33:16 “Thou art angry, O Lord, with this people, because they will not understand thy mercies which thou hast bestowed upon them because of thy Son.” For me there is no better description of how important the Lord thinks it is for us to understand the practical applications of the atonement.

    And my favourite GA quote on the subject is Elder Scott, “I energetically encourage you to establish a personal plan to understand the incomparable, eternal, infinite consequences of the perfect fulfilment by Jesus Christ of his divinely appointed calling as our Savior and Redeemer…. I testify that your understanding of the atonement and the insight it provides for your life will greatly enhance your productive use of all of the knowledge, experience, and skills you acquire….”

    I enjoy reading and discussing how the atonement applies in our lives, although I think we can sometimes get caught up in trying to work out which theory is right – or at least which is better than another. It seems to be that in doing that we can miss the wood for the trees. We’ll never fully grasp the atonement in this life if only because our finite minds aren’t capable of it, but I suspect all of the various theories have some parts which capture elements of it, and miss in other important ways. From that perspective I think Stephen Robinson’s book is excellent; but I wouldn’t see it as a definitive explanation of how the atonement applies any more than any other book written by mortal man would be able to do so.

    Ultimately the atonement is a very personal act with very personal consequences and how I experience its blessings in my life will be at least partly different from how anyone else experiences its blessings – if only because my life experiences are different from anyone else and so my need for the atonement’s blessings differ.

    In that respect, I don’t think it’s a problem if people see the atonement in part as “he took my lickin’ for me”. The problem is if we stop there, as we are unlikely to see just how all-encompassing this supreme act was and we will miss important blessings in our lives.

  17. Abu Casey on December 6, 2013 at 9:39 am

    Steve (#5), thanks for the invite!

    I was sort of half-listening to a Mormon Matters podcast on grace today (http://mormonmatters.org/2012/09/23/127-grace/). Joe Spencer was one of the guests, as well as an Evangelical minister. It was interesting, as they pointed to a couple of LDS works on grace that I was not familiar with (most are available at the link).