My sister stopped me in the hall at church. “Have you ever heard anyone use the phrase ”activating the Atonement” before?” She was referring to a talk that was recently given by one of our High Councilors. The phrase bothered her. To my sister, this phrase was offensive because, as she explained, the Atonement is always active. In fact, I don’t believe I had ever heard anyone use this phrase. Is it correct? What could have been meant by it?
To many in the general (non-LDS) Christian world, it is believed that the Atonement effectively saves all men from their sins regardless of their actions. I believe this is what my sister pictured when she heard the phrase “activating the Atonement”–Jesus came to earth, pushed the bright red “save everyone” button, and that was that. Atonement activated!
Those who hold this belief often point to passages like John 3:16 for support:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
“Look!” they say. “Belief, alone, is required for salvation!” The mistake, however, lies in the choice to elevate a point made in a few verses, while ignoring the rest of the Bible. When interpreting the scriptures we must be cautious: the Savior and His Apostles spoke to many different groups at different times and locations, and with different goals and purposes in mind for each time and location. They knew much more about the Gospel than they ever revealed. In fact, they told their audience so on at least one occasion.
“I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able” (1 Cor. 3:2).
If our scriptures–the ones we must live our lives by–are nothing but the records of what Jesus and His Apostles said to these people, and if what they got was milk, then where is the meat?
We begin to see the larger picture, though, when we look for clarifications in the scriptures, themselves. Gospel truth, like all truth, is established in layers. Our finite minds are incapable of instantly comprehending the depths of all Gospel truths, just as we are incapable of comprehending Calculus without previous layers of the basics, beginning with addition, subtraction, division, and so forth. Thankfully, different aspects of Gospel truths were defined by Jesus and the Apostles in each discussion, and we can find deeper understanding by taking these different aspects into account.
James tells us that “faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2:17). Here we learn from an Apostle that faith needs works, and if faith is not accompanied by works, it does not exist. No works = no faith. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith is not just any belief, then, like claiming to believe in Santa Claus or the flying spaghetti monster, but it is belief supported by the witness of the Holy Ghost. So, if the Holy Ghost witnesses to us that Jesus is the Messiah, and we believe it, this is true faith.
If what? If we do something about it!
“Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works” (James 2:18). This was a challenge: “Go ahead, show me your faith without performing any works!” Can it be done? If I believe in something and do nothing about it, how am I any different than a man who does not believe? Men often choose to justify inaction by saying “It’s the thought that counts.” If this were true, why didn’t Jesus stay in Heaven and just think about saving us?
At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Himself gave support to this interpretation, when He said, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). According to Him, doing the will of the Father (works) trumps calling Him Lord (faith). He wants action!
How does this apply to the Atonement? Lds.org gives the following definition for Atonement:
“As used in the scriptures, to atone is to suffer the penalty for sins, thereby removing the effects of sin from the repentant sinner and allowing him or her to be reconciled to God… Because of [Jesus’] Atonement, all people will be resurrected, and those who obey His gospel will receive the gift of eternal life with God.”
In latter-day scripture, the Savior explained, “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I” (D&C 19:16-17). You will suffer for your own sins if you do not repent and allow the Savior to do it. The catch is that while your suffering will satisfy the demands of justice, it can never justify an eternal reward. Your lack of repentance will keep you from receiving the blessings your Heavenly Father wants to give you.
The scriptures speak regularly of a Judgment Day, but how could we be judged if our actions didn’t matter? Is God going to judge our faith? No. But wait, some will object that this is a day of judgment only for the unbelievers. If faith is the only requirement, then how can there be sinners in Zion, as Isaiah describes in Isaiah 33:14? In the same verse, Isaiah calls these people hypocrites. What is a hypocrite? Someone who says one thing but does another. You see, actions trump words!
But what about faith? Doesn’t that count for anything? I thought the scriptures said we would be saved if we had it. Indeed, they do. But ask yourself: what is faith? It is belief, is it not? It is also trust. If you believe in and trust the Savior, won’t you do what he says?
Many today claim that baptism is unnecessary. “It’s like a wedding ring,” they say. “You’re just as married without it!” Of course, if we believe in the Savior, and trust what He tells us, how can we disregard the counsel of the resurrected Christ in Mark 16:16 that “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved…”? When he said to have faith, did He say that was all? No, it is a starting point. When He added that baptism is required, did he say that that was all? No, it is the next step. The scriptures are full of counsel we are expected to follow. Otherwise, the Bible would be a pamphlet with one verse in it–John 3:16. But it isn’t.
Modern-day Mormons often fall into this same false comfort, believing that if they are worthy to attend the temple they are also worthy of the Celestial Kingdom. But this is not so. We often hear that the temple is the goal, everyone worthy and holding a recommend–and don’t get me wrong, it is a goal!–but the temple is not the ultimate destination. The Celestial Kingdom is! King Benjamin pointed out, in Mosiah 4:29, that there are more ways to sin than we could ever count, and the Lord says that He “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (Alma 45:16).
This is why we are commanded to “endure to the end” (Matt. 24:13).
Has the atonement been “activated” in your life? I hope so, and I hope that you will continue to use it, once it has been activated, to keep yourself in good standing before the Lord. The last thing we want is to be turned away from the Judgment Bar of Christ as hypocrites and sinners.
Gospel Topics, “Atonement”. lds.org. <https://www.lds.org/topics/atonement-of-jesus-christ?lang=eng, accessed 2015-06-21>