The Restored Doctrine of the Atonement
December 1993

“The Restored Doctrine of the Atonement,” Ensign, Dec. 1993, 7

Doctrines That Make a Difference

The Restored Doctrine of the Atonement

The truths of the Atonement remain hidden from a society that has been cleverly persuaded that the Church knows least—when in fact it knows most—about Jesus Christ’s role as our Savior. The adversary has ben engaged in one of history’s greatest cover-ups.

A friend of mine is a successful physician and a stake president who lives with his family in the eastern part of the United States. Some time ago, he and his wife enrolled several of their children in an academically strong Christian school, where their children were well liked and among the school’s best students. Yet because of the fears of other parents who were convinced that Mormons are not Christians, the school eventually required my friend and his wife to withdraw their children from the school permanently.

Another friend who is a community-oriented priesthood leader in a West Coast city applied for membership in an interdenominational organization of local Christian religious leaders. He was told that a Mormon would fit more appropriately with the city’s association for non-Christian religions.

Some of these puzzling attitudes are caused by widespread and completely erroneous perceptions about Latter-day Saint doctrines concerning the atonement and grace of Jesus Christ. As Newsweek magazine incorrectly put it a few years ago, “Unlike orthodox Christians, Mormons believe that men … earn their way to godhood by the proper exercise of free will, rather than through the grace of Jesus Christ. Thus, Jesus’ suffering and death in the Mormon view were brotherly acts of compassion, but they do not atone for the sins of others.” (1 Sept. 1980, p. 68.)

There is massive irony in these mistaken impressions, because the doctrines of the Restoration actually make the Savior’s grace and atonement meaningful and accessible to people in a way that traditional Protestant and Catholic doctrines have simply been unable to do. And this has occurred at a time when society is literally starving with spiritual hunger.

For example, Yale University Press recently published a book called Heaven: A History, in which two historians, Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang, describe both popular and religious beliefs about the concept of heaven in Western history. The authors studied this subject because “it reflects a deep and profound longing in Christianity … to experience more fully the divine.” Indeed, they think their subject is “a key to [understanding] Western culture.” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988, p. xiii.)

Their study concludes with an assessment of the concept of heaven in twentieth-century Christianity. They note two major findings. First, 71 percent of modern Americans believe “there is a heaven where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded.” (Ibid., p. 307.) In attitudes reflected in cultural symbols ranging from cemeteries to love songs, people from all Christian denominations still express their instinctive belief in “the eternal nature of love and the hope for heavenly reunion,” especially with their family members. (Ibid., p. 312.)

This yearning for eternal belonging also reflects attitudes toward God. A 1983 survey in a prominent Catholic publication revealed that many American Catholics “want to ‘hug God’ when they arrive in heaven.” To these writers, this response echoes “the hopes of earlier generations: God will be a personal character willing to be hugged, individuals will retain their personalities, [and] families will reunite.” (Ibid., p. 309.)

Reading of this hunger to “hug God” in the light of gospel teachings on that sacred subject makes me want to let all these hopeful people know the glad tidings of the Restoration: In the Lord’s words to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, “Be faithful and diligent in keeping the commandments of God, and I will encircle thee in the arms of my love.” (D&C 6:20.)

A Longing for Everlasting Ties

Let us consider now the second and more sobering finding about the idea of heaven in modern America. McDannell and Lang observe that despite the surprising strength of today’s personal beliefs in a real heaven, the mainline Christian churches offer little serious theological response to the natural intuition of their members. Rather, today’s “ideas about what happens after death are only popular sentiments and are not integrated into Protestant and Catholic theological systems.” (Heaven: A History, p. 308.) These systems seem to assume that ideas about immortality are no longer socially relevant and that they are too speculative to be acceptable to modern scholarship.

But then these historians note one “major exception” to their generalization regarding today’s theological vacuum about heaven—namely, “the theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” They summarize a range of LDS teachings, from eternal marriage to genealogy and ordinances for the dead, then conclude that “the understanding of life after death in the LDS Church is the clearest [known] example of the continuation of the modern heaven into the twentieth century.” (Ibid., p. 320.)

How poignant that so many people today yearn for everlasting ties to God and to each other, yet how sad and ironic that other Christian denominations’ theology offers no developed reply to these deeply felt needs. The Restoration offers these people not only the hope of an embrace with the Lord but also a full understanding of what that embrace can mean. For being “clasped in the arms of Jesus” (Morm. 5:11) symbolizes the fulfillment of his atonement in our lives—becoming literally “at one” with him, belonging to him, in mortality as well as in heaven.

Just as the restored Church offers the most complete available theology about heaven, the Restoration also fills a similar—and more substantial—theological void about the Atonement. Moreover, the Restoration teaches of Christ’s mission in a way that lets his life and his death speak to our most profound human needs in everyday life, just as an understanding of heaven fulfills our hopes for life after death.

This bold assertion of the Restoration’s revolutionary implications for Christianity’s most central doctrine finds strong support in the work of a noted scholar on the Protestant Reformation, John Dillenberger. In a 1978 essay comparing Martin Luther with Joseph Smith on the question of grace and works, Dillenberger wrote: “Mormonism brought understanding to what had become an untenable problem within evangelicalism: how to reconcile the new power of humanity with the negative inherited views of humanity, without abandoning the necessity of grace.” (“Grace and Works in Martin Luther and Joseph Smith,” in Reflections on Mormonism: Judeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen, Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1978, p. 179.)

Doctrines of Grace: A Brief History

To explore Dillenberger’s provocative insight, we must take a brief journey through history that will show how the great apostasy changed the underlying premises of the Atonement and mission of Christ. Since the fourth century A.D., the teachings of traditional Christianity regarding man’s nature and the need for Christ’s grace began with the assumption that each person has an inherently evil nature. According to Catholic teachings, this effect of original sin can be overcome only by the grace of Christ as dispensed through the official sacraments (ordinances) of the Church. Protestant theology is even more pessimistic about humankind’s fallen nature, and it departs from Catholic doctrine by teaching that grace comes not from Church sacraments but only from the unearned gift that God may bestow directly upon an elect few.

Significantly, the idea of man’s fallen and evil nature originated not in the teachings of Christ, but in St. Augustine’s personal struggles with sexual sin in the fourth century A.D. As Princeton religion scholar Elaine Pagels has recently written, Augustine’s highly original teaching on “original sin” reordered the very foundations of Christianity, even though his ideas essentially abandoned the moral freedom taught by the Old Testament and the doctrine of free will and personal responsibility that had prevailed among Christians since the time of Christ. In exploring why Augustine’s unorthodox views were so widely accepted, Pagels notes the great intellectual power of his writing. But she also finds a broader explanation in historical and political reality.

The Roman emperor Constantine had declared Christianity the official religion of the vast Roman empire not long before Augustine’s time. Augustine’s views provided a believable justification for the emperor’s assertion of governmental and religious power over an unruly population: because people by their fallen nature could not govern themselves, they required a powerful state and a forceful church structure. This political imperative moved Augustine’s ideas into the center of Western history, surpassing the influence of any other church father.

In the centuries that followed, the church of the Middle Ages erected an elaborate structure of doctrine and practice on the foundation of Augustine’s assumptions about man’s evil nature. In about 1500 A.D., Martin Luther’s experience reinforced these assumptions as the linchpin of Christian theology. Luther struggled with his personal weaknesses in an ordeal similar to Augustine’s, trying in vain to satisfy his desperate need for grace through the church’s sacraments. He agreed with Augustine that his problem lay in his unavoidably depraved nature, but in a massive theological “Protest”—the basis for the Protestant break with Catholicism—Luther concluded that God bestows undeserved grace not through the sacraments of the Catholic church but directly on chosen individuals. This idea removes any need for the church as an intermediary.

By breaking the Catholic church’s control over grace, Luther permanently undermined the church’s social and political authority. Indeed, just as Augustine’s views were used earlier to justify authoritarian regimes, Luther provided a rationale for the claims of new individualistic political forces that sought to overthrow centralized authoritarian structures. Luther was courageous and articulate, but as had happened with Augustine, historic need gave wings to his thought that its religious merit alone might not have warranted.

Depravity’s End

This sketch illustrates Professor Dillenberger’s comments about the “negative inherited views” and “the misery of humanity” in Christian history. (Ibid., p. 179.) By 1820, these ideas had created an impossible theological problem, because neither the intellectual developments of recent centuries nor popular common sense took seriously the notion of man’s uncontrollably evil nature. For example, a leading authority on Puritanism writes that within a century after the Puritans (who traced their theological lineage to Luther through John Calvin) came to America in 1620, “the theory of the utter dependence of man on … God ceased to have any relevance to the facts of the Puritan experience. [Still,] the preachers continued to preach it and the laymen continued to hear it; not because either of them believed it, but because they cherished it.” (Herbert W. Schneider, The Puritan Mind, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1958, pp. 34–35.)

One reason people stopped believing in man’s natural depravity was that European and American history between Luther’s time and Joseph Smith’s time amassed irresistible evidence of the wonder of human abilities. Drawing on classical Greek optimism about man’s powers, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment fueled true revolutions in the sciences, in the arts, in the commercial/industrial world, and in the political sphere—as witnessed by the French and American revolutions. The independent and robust America of the early nineteenth century was fairly bursting with confidence in the ability of men and women to subdue the earth and take charge of their lives.

These widely recognized powers contradicted traditional beliefs in humankind’s evil nature to the point that many people not only saw little practical need for God’s grace, they adopted the humanistic assumption that humans are good by nature. Given the centuries-old belief that we need grace primarily to overcome our evil nature, the assumption that man is naturally good eliminated, in the minds of many, the need for Christ’s grace. Individuals still violated divine laws, but this new line of thinking concluded that poverty and other collective urban failures were more persuasive explanations for these failings than was any idea of inborn depravity.

The abstractions of Christian theology seemed increasingly out of touch with daily experience in the twentieth century—to such an extent that in 1965, Protestant theologian Harvey Cox pronounced traditional Christianity totally irrelevant to modern society. His book was called The Secular City. (New York: The MacMillan Co.) This title deliberately and symbolically rejected the preoccupation with the evil of this world and the goodness of God’s world evident in Augustine’s famous book from the fourth century, The City of God. Cox urged the Christian churches to give up dreaming of heavenly cities and focus instead on the social problems of earthly cities; until they did so, he said, Christianity would play no meaningful role in American life. Despite the continuing belief in Augustine’s assumptions among a few theologically conservative Protestant groups today, experience demonstrates that most churches and theologians have taken Cox’s advice. That is one reason why there is such a vacuum of religious teaching about heaven in today’s world.

The Restoration of Grace

As we survey the modern wreckage of a once-elaborate Christian theological structure, Dillenberger’s observation about Mormon doctrine seems even more compelling. “In stressing human possibilities,” he wrote, “Mormonism brought things into line, not by abandoning the centrality of grace but by insisting that the powers of humanity were [also] real and that they reflected the actual state of humanity as such.” (“Grace and Works,” p. 179; emphasis added.)

With the error and the impracticality of Augustinian teaching now clearly unmasked, consider briefly the Restoration’s distinctive teachings on the relationship among human nature, the Atonement, and the way in which belonging to Christ can sustain us in times of personal need. I am drawn toward this personal dimension because I am saddened by seeing so many decent people outside (and inside) the Church who have no theological support for embracing and belonging to the authentic, personal Christ—not only on heaven but on earth. The Restoration, like the Atonement, offers not only an abstract historical message but an intensely personal one.

According to Christ’s original doctrine as restored through Joseph Smith, the Fall made both possible and necessary the Savior’s atoning for our sins. Human nature is neither inherently evil nor inherently good. We become evil or good based on interaction between the Lord’s influence and the choices we make—choices unavailable in the garden before Adam and Eve fell and only made possible because of the Savior’s atonement.

In fulfillment of his intended purpose, God expelled Adam and Eve from Eden into a world that was subject to the forces of life and death, good and evil. Yet He soon taught them that “the Son of God hath atoned for original guilt”; therefore, Adam’s children were neither evil nor good but were “whole from the foundation of the world.” (Moses 6:54; emphasis added.) Thus, “every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning; and God having redeemed man from the fall, men became again, in their infant state, innocent before God.” (D&C 93:38; emphasis added.)

As Adam’s and Eve’s descendants become accountable for their own sins at age eight, they all taste sin to one degree or another because of their experiences in a free environment. Those who come to love “Satan more than God” (Moses 5:28) will to that degree become “carnal, sensual, and devilish” (Moses 5:13; Moses 6:49) by nature—“natural men.” On the other hand, those who accept Christ’s grace by their faith, repentance, baptism, and continued striving will ultimately put off “the natural man” and become “a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord.” (Mosiah 3:19.) They will then be good by nature.

In LDS theology, then, grace is the absolutely indispensable source of three categories of blessings. First are the unconditional blessings—gifts requiring no individual action on our part. God’s grace in this sense includes the very Creation, as well as making the plan of salvation known to us. It also includes resurrection for all from physical death and forgiveness for Adam and Eve’s original transgression.

Second, the Savior has atoned for our personal sins on the condition of our repentance. Personal repentance is a necessary condition of salvation but is not by itself sufficient to assure salvation. Without the Atonement, our repentance will not save us. One must also accept the ordinances of baptism and receive the Holy Ghost, by which one is born again as a spiritual child of Christ.

Third comes the bestowal of grace after baptism along the path toward a Christlike nature. Once we have repented and are baptized unto forgiveness of sin, we have only “entered in by the gate” to the “strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life.” (2 Ne. 31:17–20.) This postbaptism stage of spiritual development does not require perfection in mortality, but it does require our good-faith effort to “endure to the end” (2 Ne. 31:20) and to become perfect, “even as [our] Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). This effort includes the ordinances of the temple and an ongoing repentance process as needed to retain a remission of our sins from day to day. (See Mosiah 4:12, 26.)

Developing the Attributes of Christ

In the teachings of Augustine and Luther, man’s fallen nature made self-generated righteous acts impossible. In LDS doctrine, by contrast, “men should … do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;

“For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves.” (D&C 58:27–28.)

Yet we clearly lack the capacity to develop a Christlike nature by our own effort alone. Thus, the perfecting attributes, which include hope, charity, and finally the divine nature that is inherently part of eternal life, are ultimately “bestowed upon all who are true followers of … Jesus Christ” (Moro. 7:48; emphasis added) by the grace that was made possible by the Savior’s atonement. In LDS theology, this interactive relationship between human will and divine powers derives from the significance the gospel attaches to free will and from optimism about the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22) among “those who love me and keep all my commandments, and him that seeketh so to do” (D&C 46:9; emphasis added).

God bestows these additional, perfecting expressions of grace conditionally, as he does the grace that allows forgiveness of sin. They are given “after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23)—that is, they are given as an essential supplement to our best efforts. We prove worthy and capable of receiving these gifts not only by obeying particular commandments but also by demonstrating certain personal attitudes and attributes, such as “meekness and lowliness of heart” (Moro. 8:26) and “a broken heart and a contrite spirit” (3 Ne. 9:20).

In addition, those who enter into the covenants of the gospel of Jesus Christ may also be spiritually sustained by him. This is the relationship we celebrate and renew each time we partake of the sacrament. Through it, the Savior grants not only a continuing remission of our sins, but he will also help compensate for our inadequacies, heal the bruises caused by our unintentional errors, and strengthen us far beyond our natural capacity in times of acute need.

Both we and our friends outside the Lord’s church need this Atonement-based relationship more than we need any other form of therapy or support: “O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.

“When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.

“For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour.” (Isa. 43:1–3; emphasis added.)

Encircled in the Arms of His Love

Sometimes we do not fully recognize the strength of the Church’s position on the most crucial doctrines of Christianity. This remarkable strength derives not just from family values and healthy living, as important as those are. It derives from the pure theology of the restored gospel—which is the last, best, and only hope of Christianity and of all humankind. The Restoration not only resolves post-Augustinian Christianity’s central doctrinal dilemmas, it also offers the most complete solution to our greatest problems, social or personal.

Yet the gospel’s insights remain relatively hidden from a society that has been consciously and cleverly persuaded by the evil one that the church of the Restoration knows least—when in fact it knows most—about Jesus Christ’s role as our personal Savior. The adversary has known exactly what he is doing. He has been engaged in one of history’s greatest cover-ups.

But now, not only the restored church’s lifestyle but the more fundamental contribution of the restored church’s doctrine is beginning to come forth from obscurity. The widespread circulation in major libraries of the new Encyclopedia of Mormonism is a wonderful step in that direction. Also significant, a random survey in the United States of five thousand readers by the Book of the Month Club recently asked people what was the most influential book in their lives. They reported that the Bible still ranks first, and the Book of Mormon now ranks eighth. (The Daily Universe, 22 Nov. 1991, p. 1.) As the Book of Mormon’s influence spreads, so will the good news that access to the living grace of the living God has been restored in fulness.

Today, many people feel a longing for heaven, where, they want to believe, they will be welcomed not only into the arms of their families but into the arms of God. The Restoration offers a complete fulfillment of that longing, not just as some momentary emotion but as the fully developed doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We hear him saying to all those within and outside the Church who hunger and thirst to find him in times of personal famine: “Behold, ye are little children and ye cannot bear all things now; ye must grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth.

“Fear not, little children, for you are mine, and I have overcome the world, and you are of them that my Father hath given me;

“And none of them that my Father hath given me shall be lost; …

“And inasmuch as ye have received me, ye are in me and I in you.” (D&C 50:40–43.)

“Be faithful and diligent in keeping the commandments of God, and I will encircle thee in the arms of my love.” (D&C 6:20.)

  • Bruce C. Hafen is provost at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

Detail from Christ and the Rich Young Ruler, by Heinrich Hofmann. Inset: The First Vision, by Greg K. Olsen.

Illustrated by Mitchell Heinze and Robert T. Barrett. Inset: The Empty Tomb, by Clark Kelley Price.

Illustrated by Mitchell Heinze. Inset: Christ in Gethsemane, by William Henry Margetson.

Illustrated by Mitchell Heinze