Saturday, April 4, 2015

Deeply Understanding the Atonement

Note: I wrote and gave this talk a year ago on Sunday, April 20, 2014. A sister in my ward asked me for a copy, and I kept putting off typing up the edits I made to it on the stand (as I am wont to do when giving a talk). But now here it is, in the form I delivered it. I hope you enjoy it this Easter season!

In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Nephi quoted Isaiah extensively. Afterwards, he recorded his own prophecies of Christ. He gave this explanation for such a record:

“For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God, for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do… and we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.”

The source for the remission of our sins is our Savior, Jesus Christ, and my purpose in this talk is to “persuade [my] children, and also [you, my] brethren [and sisters], to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God”, and perhaps together we can come to better remember that source, Jesus Christ.

At a literacy conference I attended last month I learned something about how we come to remember things. One of the presenters was discussing techniques to teach reading comprehension to students. She said, “Children remember what they deeply understand.” I would say this applies to all of us as well. I wasn’t looking for a gospel connection at the time, but unexpectedly found one the following Sunday during a Relief Society lesson on the sacrament.

In that week’s lesson, Joseph Fielding Smith said, “To eat in remembrance of him. Does that mean that I would just remember that nearly 2,000 years ago wicked men took him, hung him on the cross, drove nails in his hands and feet and left him there to die? To me it has a far deeper meaning than that. To remember him—why was he on the cross? What benefit comes to [me] because he was on the cross? What suffering did he go through on the cross that I might be redeemed or relieved of my sins?” To remember the Savior means more than just to remember what happened. Remembering the Savior involves striving to more deeply understand this monumental gift we have been given.

For the past few months I have been studying the atonement with a greater purpose than I have in several years. In the years since I last made a meaningful study of the atonement, I have studied various principles of the gospel, and with great fervor. However, none of that studying as changed my heart and my life as much as the past few months have. Elder Tad R. Callister explained this change in his book, The Infinite Atonement, “Every attempt to reflect upon the Atonement, to study it, to embrace it, to express appreciation for it, however small or feeble it may be, will kindle the fires of faith and work its miracle towards a more Christlike life. It is an inescapable consequence of so doing.”

I would like to share a few of the things with you that I have learned about the atonement in the past few months - probably nothing new to many of you, but maybe, like me, you put your study of the atonement on the back burner for a while as you studied other gospel topics, and so a refresher might be nice. If these concepts seem new to you, and even if they aren’t new, I challenge you to immerse yourself in a study of the atonement of Jesus Christ and see if it doesn’t change your life for the better.

One of the most life-changing principles of the atonement is that it is infinite. The word infinite probably conjures up images of eternity, or the number of grains of sand on the beach. But when we talk about the atonement being infinite, what we mean is that the atonement covers everything. The atonement of our Savior, Jesus Christ is so much more far-reaching than any one of us has probably ever experienced. But I am sure that if you look in your own life you can see the atonement touching you in many different ways.

If you have repented of a serious sin, you have experienced the atonement.

If you have lost a loved one and found peace after their death, you have experienced the atonement.

If you have been given what seemed like an insurmountable task and found motivation and strength to achieve it, you have experienced the atonement.

If you have suffered at the hands of another and been able to find healing and forgiveness, you have experienced the atonement.

If you have struggled through physical ailments or infirmities and received healing, or simply the fortitude to endure, you have experienced the atonement.

If you have ached because of the injustices of this life but been given the gifts of patience and compassion, you have experienced the atonement.

If you have struggled with the idea of being perfect, feeling like you can never do enough, and felt that burden of perfection lifted as you took upon you the Savior’s yoke, you have experienced the atonement.

I hope you can see the connection between all of these situations, even though they may not seem to have much in common. Committing a sin may seem different than suffering at the hands of an abuser, but the underlying theme is the healing, peace, and perfection that can come through the atonement of Jesus Christ.

In the New Testament is recorded a story about a young ruler who came to the Savior asking what he could do. The young man asked the Savior, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” The Savior proceeded to list the ten commandments, to which the young man, apparently free of any major sins, responded, “All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?” Of course, when the Savior responded with the higher laws of consecration and discipleship, the young man either decided that he didn’t have what it takes or he didn’t have the desire to make that kind of commitment, and so he left, sorrowful.

This young man had kept all of the commandments from his youth until the day he questioned the Savior. To me it appears that he had not committed any grievous sins, and had lived a reasonably good life. This young man had probably never needed to confess a sin to his bishop and work through the painful process of repentance for a serious transgression. But the atonement is so much more than just a tool for the abandonment of serious sin.

General Relief Society President Linda K. Burton taught, “Like the rich young man in Jesus’ day, sometimes we are tempted to give up or turn back because maybe we think we can’t do it alone. And we are right! We cannot do the difficult things we have been asked to do without help. Help comes through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the guidance of the holy Ghost, and the helping hands of others.”

The atonement is the source of power that allows us to “do all things”, as the apostle Paul wrote, “through Christ who strengtheneth [us].” The atonement of Jesus Christ can give us strength to do those things that seem impossible to do. Former Relief Society president Sheri Dew said, “Our responsibility is to learn to draw upon the power of the Atonement. Otherwise we walk through mortality relying solely on our own strength. And to do that is to invite the frustration of failure and to refuse the most resplendent gift in time or eternity. “For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed … and he receive not the gift?””
We must learn to access the atonement if we want to receive power to “do all things” and “be perfect.”
But what about if we aren’t quite where the young ruler was yet? What if we aren’t ready to say, “What lack I yet?” because we are caught up in sin? What if we were once like the young ruler, able to say that we have kept the commandments from our youth, but today we have stumbled and fallen and now feel as if our perfect record has been tarnished?

Former General Relief Society president Julie B. Beck said, “Everyone makes mistakes… I often hear about the chosen, royal generation of this dispensation, but I have never heard it called the perfect generation. Teenagers are especially vulnerable because the power of Satan is real, and they are making their first big, independent choices. Consequently, they are also making their first big mistakes.”

First, do not despair. Isaiah wrote, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” If you have ever spilled red punch on a white blouse, you know how hard it is to get those red stains out of that white cloth. More often than not, the white clothing is tarnished forever and good for nothing but a rag. Our lives are much more precious to God than a piece of clothing, and He has given us the ultimate stain remover. The atonement of Jesus Christ can surely erase those sins and cleanse our souls so that not only are we white again, but we can be even better than before. The only barrier between our crimson present and our pure white future is true repentance.

President Beck taught, “We are commanded to repent. The Savior taught that unless we repent and “become as a little child, … [we] can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.” We must not let one little cup of coffee, one bad habit, one bad choice, one wrong decision derail us for a lifetime.” When we take a step off the path, we must not let despair or feelings of failure keep us from continuing to step forward and allowing the atonement of Jesus Christ to change our very nature.

The repentance process can change us in a very real way, but true repentance requires us to really gain a deeper understanding of the atonement. True repentance cannot be reduced to a process with steps that we simply check off as we proceed through them. Teaching a five step process to children is useful, but later insufficient for us to develop the understanding of the atonement that we will need in order to truly change. Elder Callister describes repentance as “a melting, softening, refining process that brings about a mighty change of heart… It is a burning resolve to make amends with God at any cost.”

But even with that burning resolve, President Beck explained that, “It is not possible to make real change all by ourselves. Our own willpower and our own good intentions are not enough. When we make mistakes or choose poorly, we must have the help of our Savior to get back on track. We partake of the sacrament week after week to show our faith in His power to change us. We confess our sins and promise to forsake them.” We cannot change on our own. All the burning resolve in the world will not change us if we do not allow the atonement to change us. Elder Callister taught that the power of the atonement is key to that change, (quote) “If there were no atonement, there would be no opportunity to repent. Men might feel sorrow; they might change their behavior within certain parameters; but no divine rehabilitation process would be in operation. Simply stated, without the atonement, there would be no cleansing of the sinner’s soul regardless of any actions on his part.” (close quote)

We need the atonement in order to truly change and become more than we are, better than we were yesterday.

So how do we allow the atonement to change us, to change our lives? Whether we are seeking purification from a transgression, or healing for a wounded heart, or strength to become perfect through Christ, the power of the atonement can help us, if we can only figure out how to access that power.

I suggest that the key to accessing the power of the atonement is through studying the atonement. It seems like such a simple thing, to study the atonement of Jesus Christ - but the doctrine of the atonement is more complicated than one family home evening lesson, one Sunday school lesson, one Conference talk, or one read through of the Book of Mormon can unravel. There is a depth and breadth to the atonement of Jesus Christ that we will only come to understand as we make the atonement a focus of our regular gospel study. The prophet Joseph Smith taught, “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” Because the atonement of Jesus Christ is the central doctrine of His gospel, a study of that atonement can change our lives more than a study of any other gospel doctrine will change our lives. Elder Callister wrote, “As our vision of the atonement is enhanced, our motivation to embrace its full effects is proportionally increased.” An understanding of the atonement inspires us to live the gospel more fully. President Howard W. Hunter gave this promise, “As we come to understand [Christ’s] mission and the atonement which He wrought, we will desire to be more like him.” and Elder Neal A. Maxwell testified, “The more we know of Jesus’ Atonement, the more we will humbly and gladly glorify Him, His Atonement, and His character.”

If you aren’t convinced that a deep understanding of the atonement can change our hearts and our lives, let me leave you with an example of such a change. In Mosiah chapters 3 and 4 we find one of the most beautiful discourses on the atonement. King Benjamin taught his people about the atonement of Jesus Christ, about his life, suffering, death, and resurrection. After hearing King Benjamin’s teachings and testimony, his people shouted, “Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.”

King Benjamin’s discourse brought the spirit into the lives of the people, and their hearts were changed by the power of his words and testimony. The evidence of their change of heart was that they had “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” We will find this evidence in our own lives as we study the atonement of Jesus Christ and come to more deeply understand that central doctrine of the gospel, is my testimony.
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