The ongoing enabling power of the atonement

April 11, 2015    By: Matt W. @ 5:14 pm   Category: Life

The below is a work in progress in my continuing effort to articulate a theory of the atonement. Feedback needed and welcome.

I remember it well. What had once been one of the most powerful doctrines of the Gospel for me had become now a challenging open sore through which doubt flowed into me. If God was loving and good, why would he punish his son for our sins? Why would he require such a punishment? It had been my faulty assumption, based on the idea that Christ acted as a substitution for the penalty affixed by God, which had led to my hurt and my doubt. It had created distance between myself and God and undermined the power and efficacy of the atonement in my life.

That’s not to say I had not felt the power of the atonement before then, but as my perception of how the atonement worked was shaped, I began to confine it to certain parameters within which it could be utilized, and thus boxed it in. Further, when I had inevitably thought through some of the implications of my misconceptions, it left me troubled and eroded my faith. However, because I persevered and studied and prayed and took it to the Lord with fasting and prayer and a leap of faith, I believe I came to a better understanding of the atonement and became more empowered to feel its power in my life.

This is why I think it is important to have a clear understanding of the atonement and to study beyond the basic assumption that it is penal substitution. I believe we study the atonement because we yearn to better apply it to the challenges of life and to make Christ and Heavenly Father more accessible. The risk, of course, is that in studying the atonement, we end up with a conception formed by man, and miss experiencing the event itself.

That said there are many theories of how the atonement works, most benignly created by well-meaning people focusing on particular metaphors in the scriptures, and I don’t pretend to have any more access or privilege to direct knowledge to how the atonement works than they do. What I do have is access and knowledge to all those who have gone before, from scriptures, apostles, philosophers and lay theologians. With that in mind, I would like to attempt to put forward a view of the atonement which I feel connects the elements I have learned.

First, as a guiding principle, I think any explanation of the workings of the atonement should have at its center the capacity to make the atonement more meaningful and powerful in our lives. Thus any proposition of the atonement which does not have a practical capacity toward beneficial utilization is a non-starter. The atonement needs to be able to make a difference right now.

I am driven to this idea by a number of things, but most recently by reading the urgent rendering of Romans by Adam Miller “Grace is not God’s Backup Plan”. ( This excellent little volume kept me up until deep into the morning, reminding me that grace abounds around us and we must wake up to God’s rescue in our lives. This is difficult and challenging for us because it means accepting we are not the star of the show and are at best, in supporting roles. Jesus Christ is the star of our story and if we can support him in that casting, only then can the story successfully move forward. For Jesus to be the star of my story, he needs to be actively present in that story. If the atonement happened as only the prize at the end of the trudge, it does not put the Savior at the center of my life now. The atonement as a historical event completed 2000 years ago does not put the Savior at the center of my life now. It makes me think of NT Wright’s central message in “How God became King”. The Kingdom of Heaven is here and now. For me at least, that means the atonement is here and now as well.

In “Wrestling the Angel”, Terryl Givens reviews two partial theories on how the atonement is here and now. The first is B.H. Roberts centralizing the atonement in the importance of free will, and the second, focuses on Christ’s influence on us. I’d like to focus on his second theory given, which is really not his, but the masterful work of Eugene England. England puts forth a powerful rendering of what is generally referred to as the moral influence theory. A central idea here is that it is not God’s sense of justice that requires punishment but our own sense of justice. We are after all, the ones who crucified our Lord when he failed to come with swords and wrath. So in taking to himself all the pain and suffering in the world, he thus transfixes us with the event, and we psychologically shift our minds towards peace and goodwill- even today. In England’s own words “The effects of the atonement were not metaphysical but moral and spiritual.” There are three flaws in this. 1. If this is the atonement, it failed, because we haven’t made the turn toward God. 2. If it merely intellectually influences us via the story of it, it didn’t need to happen. 3. If we could have intellectually arrived at the same conclusion without the event happening, then it loses its necessity.

These are common problems with the Moral Influence theory, but I still believe England’s addition to our understanding of the atonement is a great starting point. If we take this and add to it some of the work of Blake Ostler in his “Exploring Mormon Thought” series, we can expand the “moral and spiritual” influence of God to see that by suffering, God incorporates into his experience our experience as an immanent spirit that is instantly acted upon by us and acting upon us. If we look at the work of Jacob Morgan we can add that because of this immanence from Christ there is an additional halo-effect where we are each imbued with light and knowledge from Christ, which we term conscience or the light of Christ. If we borrow from the online discussions of Geoff Johnston and Jonathon Stapley, which especially focus on Alma 7, we see an emphasis on Christ taking to himself our sins and other faults so as to imbue himself with authentic experience and understanding, enabling his knowledge to convert to divine wisdom.

This gets me back to Adam Miller’s “Grace is not God’s Backup Plan”. If I can paraphrase and perhaps ultimately butcher Miller’s thoughts, grace came first- God’s love for us and help for us to become as he is and to be in a loving relationship with him in a meaningful sense came first. He knew we would need to turn to him and rely on him to do this, and so established the world, the commandments, and the ordinances for this express purpose- to turn us toward him. He knew we would fail to live up to the expectations in these and gave us Christ so that when we failed, we would not give up, but would further turn toward him. Sin is ultimately rejecting this connection with him, which Christ, in atoning for us, exposes to us moment by moment, reaching out to us still.

Where I believe this gets us is that Jesus Christ, through his taking to himself humanity and especially his supernal experience going from Gethsemane through the resurrection, was able to position himself as an ongoing influence on humans to help them through the challenges of life and to bring them toward a transcendent state of being (in an I-Thou relationship with God) they would otherwise be unable to accomplish on their own.

Christ could not have the influential power on us in the moment if he could not authentically connect with each and every one of us in compassion and loving kindness with a perfect understanding and authentic capacity to show us he did endure with us the trials we faced with the limitations we face them with. We would not accept Christ’s empathy and compassion if we did not feel in our spirits that he had genuinely suffered each and every issue we now faced. So Christ ultimately suffered in order to offer us hope and power to move forward in any situation as we turn toward him and accept his help in the moment.

Thus to practically apply the atonement more fully we need only call upon Christ’s aid with faith and the Holy Ghost will deliver authentic, soul to soul succor and strength from Christ to us, which gives us peace, happiness, and love in this life and in the eternities. This capacity to carry on is infinite in scope, impacting both the living and the dead, enabling the resurrection, not preventing our sins of commission or omission, and not eliminating the consequences here in life, but rather standing in as a mediator for us, acting as the responsible party to release us from the pain of being sinned against and the self-deception, selfishness and self-destruction of sinning against others.

Through this the Atonement is a ransom from the traps we set for ourselves, it is Christ victorious, and it is Christ taking our licking for us. It is the mediator easing our debts. It is Justification and Sanctification. The Atonement is governmental and moral influence. It is all the flavors of atonement soup found in the hymns and scriptures. They are metaphors of course, and imperfect snapshots, but all express a form we can understand. It is Christ doing all he can for us to be at one with the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. It is Christ doing all he can for us while we suffer the vicissitudes of the mortal fallen world.

It is Christ actively being a part of every moment of our life knowing exactly what we need as the situations arise, mourning with us as we mourn, comforting us when we are in need of comfort, and standing as the great witness of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that we may be in, even until death, that we may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection that we may have eternal life.



  1. Thank you for that thought provoking summary. So much of what you said reminds me of Isaiah 53 which I think Alma was interpreting when he preached that sermon in Gideon. Is there a sense that Gethsemane and Calvary are happening concurrently with our lived experience? In other words, as I live out my life, suffer, fail, and yearn, is Christ really “experiencing” those things 2000 years ago or is he “experiencing” them right now and succoring me through them in our mutual Gethsemanes? Could this be atonement in a (somehow) non-linear universe? Does the sacrament and the other ordinances tap into that occurrence in terms of D&C 84:20-21? Do ordinances make the atonement concurrent? Hope I’m not derailing.

    Comment by jacob brazell — April 14, 2015 @ 3:04 pm

  2. I tend to think it is the real human lived experience he had at gethsemane, calvary and in life are those things which give him the absolute ability to give us the succor we need in our moments now. Not just because he needed to experience those things to gain knowledge, but more importantly because we needed him to experience those things to receive genuine succor. I think linearity in the universe overcomplicates it. In any sense, we know we have access to the compassionate grace of christ right now in this very moment.

    I see ordinances as God’s method of making the grace of God manifest. I am not sure what you mean by concurrent? Do you mean that ordinances bring Christs and Our experience to the same point in time? I believe the atonement applies to those who do not receive the ordinances.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 15, 2015 @ 7:22 pm

  3. Nice article, Matt. This is where I got over ten years ago. But, I had to back off. I am glad members/the Church is finally getting it.

    Comment by CEF — April 16, 2015 @ 8:39 am

  4. I can see the attraction of this theory of atonement. However, I think it fails the empirical test. It is a tiny percentage of people who now live or who have ever lived who have any kind of connection to or relationship with Jesus. When you say that “in order to apply the atonement more fully we need only call upon Christ’s aid with faith and the Holy Ghost will deliver authentic, soul to soul succor and strength” that is a pretty big “only” for it is open only to a select few. The vast majority of people have lived and will live their lives knowing nothing of him. Although I find the penal substitution theory of atonement to be deeply flawed, at least I can see how it applies to all of humanity.

    Comment by Gary — April 16, 2015 @ 9:04 am

  5. CEF: thanks

    Gary: interesting objection. Your objection is that this fails because in this moment few people are aware Jesus exists and so can not call upon him. So from your perspective the atonement needs to be benefiting people directly whether they are aware of Christ or not. This is true. There is a resurrection and all are taken home to the God who gave them life and to Christ who strengthens them. That does not mean that there can not be a further benefit of believing in Christ and accessing his aid. Further we do not even need to be aware it is Christ’s aid when the Holy Ghost transmits this succor from Christ to us.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 17, 2015 @ 5:41 am

  6. Matt: I am trying to tease out a couple of different issues which I think you have raised. I think that one of your points is that Christ learned through his sufferings what it really means to be human, and what it really means for each of us to endure the trials we endure. This allows him to be perfectly compassionate and understanding and allows his spirit to be with all of humanity. I think I understand this point. I don’t know whether I am convinced that his suffering was essential to that understanding (was it really essential for the very creator of universe to suffer in order to understand what it is like to suffer from ALS?), but I guess I can see the point.

    However, you are also saying that “we would not accept Christ’s empathy and compassion if we did not feel in our spirits that he had genuinely suffered each and every issue we now faced. So Christ ultimately suffered in order to offer us hope and power to move forward in any situation as we turn toward him and accept his help in the moment.” I don’t believe this is true. For example, I in fact do not believe that he suffered each and every issue I face, but nor do I care. I don’t think many believers subscribe to this theory either, but they also do not seem to care. They still have faith in his ability to understand and to succor them and it would never occur to them they can have this confidence in the very creator of the universe only because he suffered and died.

    Furthermore,I just have trouble seeing that Christ is in fact succoring the vast majority of people who suffer. I suppose I can never know for sure, but it does not appear that was a lot of succoring going on in the gas chambers, or in Darfur.

    I suppose I can see your point if you are arguing that this suffering gives him compassion and allows him to ultimately judge mercifully and justly. But I don’t see the atonement as the vehicle that allows God to succor his people,especially if that benefit is conditioned on them knowing that he has suffered what they are suffering.

    Comment by Gary — April 17, 2015 @ 4:37 pm

  7. Gary:

    Glad we agree on the empathy issue. I do not feel it is conditional on our knowledge that he has suffered. I believe it is much more subconscious than that. I think there are times in life (or after-life) where we all hit a wall and feel alienated.

    If Christ suffered merely to gain empathy, it would be a deficiency in him that he was atoning for. This is not the case. He atones for a deficiency in us, as he had no deficiency. Alma 7 and Mosiah 3 suggest Christ suffered a super set of trials and troubles in Gethsemane and again on the Cross. These pains, sicknesses, afflictions, sins, and death that he suffered were not for his benefit but for ours.

    I find it unreasonable that this benefited us because God was a wrathful being who would punish Christ in our place. I find it untenable that the Universe itself would require Christ to be punished in our place. Satan would not be able to require such a punishment that a loving heavenly father would not overrule. That leaves only one cohort that could require the suffering and pain of Christ. Us. Jesus Christ suffered, bled and died for us. We required it of him.

    There are multiple possible reasons for our requiring the suffering, bleeding and death of our God. To me, the most passive reason that we needed that suffering, bleeding and death is so that we could spiritually have hope enough to (not intellectually have knowledge enough, not even just belief enough, but more deeply, via the light of Christ, hope) become what we must to endure the gas chambers and the Darfur and to forgive the sinners and aid the victims.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 18, 2015 @ 6:53 am

  8. Gary, I wanted to come back to one point you made. I want to disagree with you. You seem to handcuff the atonement in saying it must be equally potent to all. I think there is a different in the efficacy of the atonement between the average human and one who has made covenants and given their life over to it. That has been the experience I my life.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 26, 2015 @ 8:29 am

  9. I think one way of putting it is that grace and love functionally end up equivalent. Most of what I do for my children I do not because they deserve it but because I love them. We can debate what kids deserve, but ultimately I love them and try to act accordingly.

    We can think of grace in terms of overcoming our flaws. That’s looking at grace in terms of what we lack.

    Or we can think of grace from God’s perspective which is just the outpouring of his love in everything. Literally everything he comes in contact with he influences. Everything he does is an act of creation. From this God’s eye perspective sin is the lack due to our withholding so we create the lack.

    The problem is that either way of looking at grace misses a key component: knowledge. God can love us perfectly because of his understanding. I try and love my kids but even as I act in love I screwup in ignorance and weakness due to my finite nature. That finitude is important and is, itself, part of God’s grace. The whole point of this probationary state is to be finite, ignorant and limited.

    If we just look at grace from God’s perspective in the broad picture we miss the details. We often talk of missing the forest for the trees. But sometimes we miss the trees for the forest. The details matter. I think the other aspects of grace we focus on are the trees. The important details that matter.

    Some of that is being inspired psychologically by Christ’s example. Some of that is being inspired and empowered by the spirit and the gifts of the spirit. Some of it is opportunity that turns us to inquiry so we learn to do more on our own. It’s all grace. But the details matter.

    Comment by Clark — April 27, 2015 @ 8:37 pm

  10. I think we are on the same page. The challenge with the details is that they are so varied and different. So we end up with a blind men and elephant scenario in attempting to explain the the atonement, and why I am prone to say that all the metaphors are at least partially right.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 29, 2015 @ 9:20 pm

  11. On my mission, our president called for a mission-wide fast to rededicate ourselves to the work (it was my first area). It was to start on a Thursday night and persist until Saturday morning. My companion and I participated. Come Friday night, I was feeling pretty hungry. Once back home for the night, I consciously realized that my thoughts kept returning to food. I thought about what I wanted to eat, was visualizing fast food commercials, etc. I decided that that wasn’t really in the spirit of the fast, but it was hard to help myself.

    In that moment, I had a thought. I knew that Christ suffered not just our sins in the atonement, but all the consequences of the fall of Adam, such as physical and emotional pain – and hunger. I realized that Christ had felt my hunger. Not just that I’ve been hungry, but the very hunger I was experiencing at that moment. I reasoned that it was unjust for two people to suffer the same thing. Since Christ already suffered my hunger, I decided to pray and ask God to take away my hunger so I could focus on the fast.

    He did immediately. After my prayer, I wasn’t hungry anymore. I was able to control my thoughts more effectively, but more importantly, it was among the lessons that have helped me to understand the scope of the atonement.

    It is the power to change our very natures. It is the power to sanctify us from fallen creatures all the way to perfected, divine beings. It has the power, for example, to change a person who is gay (yes, they are born gay) into a person who is straight.

    Comment by Eso — May 20, 2015 @ 4:41 pm