The LDS View of Jesus’ Atonement

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Written by Mark Cares At the last LDS General Conference, Gary E. Stevenson, the Presiding Bishop of the LDS Church, gave a talk directly to the youth of the church.  It is entitled “Your Four Minutes”.  He began by talking about the Olympic athlete who trained her entire life for the four 60-second runs she made down the skeleton course at the last winter Olympics.  He then uses those four minutes as an analogy for life.   “In the presence of a loving Heavenly Father you trained and prepared to come to earth for a brief moment and well, perform.  This life is your four minutes.”

His entire talk is an encouragement to the youth to live a good life and perform well.  He clearly states that he believes that their receiving eternal life depends on their performance.  “While you are here, your actions will determine whether you win the prize of eternal life.”  He emphasizes the need for them to be dedicated to being good.  “Self-discipline is needed.  Daily prayer, scripture study, and church attendance must be the foundation of your training.  A consistent pattern of obeying the commandments, keeping the covenants you have made, and following the Lord’s standard found in For the Strength of Youth is required.” His entire talk centers on the importance of performing well.

In this connection he briefly mentions Jesus’ atonement.  The little bit he has to say about it is summarized in this sentence.  “The miracle of the Atonement can make up for the imperfections in our performance.”

That little sentence is worth looking at because it accurately reflects the LDS view of the Atonement. It illustrates the following four points.

1) Mormons often refer to Jesus’ atonement but rarely do they emphasize it.  As indicated above, Bishop Stevenson’s whole emphasis in on what the youth need to do, not on what Jesus did.  I say that even though that sentence about Jesus’ atonement is the sub-title of his printed talk.  In fact, that sub-title was the thing that first caught my interest and caused me to read his talk.  I figured I would be reading a lot about the Atonement.  Was I wrong!  But using Jesus’ atonement as no little more than window dressing is not unusual in Mormonism.

2) Closely connected to the previous point is that Mormonism rarely explains Jesus’ atonement.  This is in striking contrast to how Christians treats it.  Millions of Christians, for example, spend the six weeks of the Lenten Season exploring various aspects of it.  And not just then.  Christ’s cross is not just the focal point of Christian churches, it is the focal point of the Christian message.  The reasons why Jesus had to die and the results of his death are regularly expanded on in sermons and Bible classes.

3) Particularly striking is how Bishop Stevenson doesn’t talk about sin but instead uses the word “imperfections”.  That too is not an anomaly but follows Mormonism’s pattern.  It often labels things that are clearly sinful from a biblical perspective as mistakes, failures, shortcomings and the like.  In this way, Mormonism downplays sin – a fact that many Mormons vehemently disagree with.  But that is the truth.  And it is something that it has to do if its main message is the one reflected in this talk, namely, that you can perform well.  The only way that such encouragement can be given to sinful human beings is by drastically lowering the bar.  In subtle and not so subtle ways, Mormonism does exactly that.

4) The last point deals with his statement that the Atonement “can make up” for imperfections.  I don’t know about you, but when I first read that, I just shook my head.  Really?  That is all that Jesus’ tremendous sacrifice accomplished?  It made up for some imperfections?  But again Stevenson is accurately reflecting Mormonism.  The oft-quoted Book of Mormon passage states:  “For we know that is by grace we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23).  In Mormonism, the greatest responsibility for an individual’s salvation lies with the individual.  Or as Stevenson says, it all depends on people performing well.

How much more glorious is the biblical message

  • that “we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:10)
  • that “by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14)
  • that “he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2)
  • that “the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23)

Along with King David we say:  “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.’ (Psalm 32:1).  But sadly, when a Mormon turns to that passage in their Bibles they see a footnote with Joseph Smith’s translation of this verse which says:  “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and who have no sins to be covered.”

That, my friends, is why our LDS friends so desperately need us to speak the truth of God’s amazing love to them.