[T]he atonement of Christ is the most basic and fundamental doctrine of the gospel, and it is the least understood of all our revealed truths.
Bruce R. McConkie, "The Purifying Power of Gethsemane", April 1985 General Conference
This quote has two main points about the atonement, which I will address separately.
I. The atonement is the most basic and fundamental doctrine of the gospel.
I would go further and say that the atonement is the gospel. The Apostle Paul describes the gospel in this way:
The most important reason we go to church is to take the sacrament. It's a memorial of the atonement, and everything else we do or hear at church is secondary and should never upstage it. I've been in wards where for weeks at a time, the only time Jesus is mentioned for the entire block of church is when talks and prayers are closed in His name. This should not be. When talks and lessons about secondary matters ignore Jesus and then purport to close in His name, that is the very essence of taking God's name in vain.Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, ... how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:1 Corinthians 15:1-4
II. The atonement is the least understood of all our revealed truths.
Jesus died for our sins. This is our typical focus, and He did. But there is more.
There are three main points we need to understand about the atonement:
- Through the atonement, we are saved by grace.
- Through the atonement, Jesus suffered our pains and sorrows.
- Through the atonement, the effects of the fall are overcome.
1. Through the atonement, we are saved by grace.
The word "grace" appears 239 times in the standard works, and 28 of those appearances are in the Book of Mormon. We often discount grace at church because we want to differentiate ourselves from a caricature of the beliefs of other churches. However, the scriptures are clear that we are saved by grace.
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved.There is a really great story in the book of Exodus that illustrates this point. When the children of Israel were in the desert, they were bitten by poisonous snakes. Many people became sick. Moses held up a serpent on a stick and told the people that they would be healed if they looked. Many people did look and were healed, but some people didn't look because they thought it was too easy and wouldn't work. The people who didn't look died from the snakebites.
2 Nephi 10:24
We do that, too. We think that "repent and be forgiven" is too easy, so we make extra rules and conditions that God didn't set. There is a tendency to misinterpret the "after all we can do" descriptor regarding salvation by grace as something works-based - that only after we have exhausted ourselves in trying to be better does grace step in. This is a misunderstanding, however. All we can do is repent. When we do, we are saved by the grace of God.
[Author's note: At this point in the talk, I shared the parable of the airplane ticket - a story about how I was able to go home for Christmas. In the interest of space, I'm going to make that its own blog post. When I do, I'll link to it here.]
2. Through the atonement, Jesus suffered our pains and sorrows.
Jesus suffered not just the pains and sorrows of humanity as a whole, but the pains and sorrows of each individual human. He suffered your personal pain and my personal pain. He did this so that He can know perfectly how to lift us up and support us in our sorrows.
It's a remarkable thing. What can a man who lived in the middle east 2000 years ago and worked as a carpenter know of the life of a 21st century American woman who practices law? Because He felt it all in Gethsemane, He knows. There is an excellent quote by Chieko Okazaki, former counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency that beautifully describes this. It is quite lengthy, but it's too good to excerpt, so I'm going to include the whole thing. It can be found in her book Lighten Up.
We know that Jesus experienced the totality of mortal existence in Gethsemane. It’s our faith that he experienced everything- absolutely everything. Sometimes we don’t think through the implications of that belief. We talk in great generalities about the sins of all humankind, about the suffering of the entire human family. But we don’t experience pain in generalities. We experience it individually. That means he knows what it felt like when your mother died of cancer- how it was for your mother, how it still is for you. He knows what it felt like to lose the student body election. He knows that moment when the brakes locked and the car started to skid. He experienced the slave ship sailing from Ghana toward Virginia. He experienced the gas chambers at Dachau. He experienced Napalm in Vietnam. He knows about drug addiction and alcoholism.
Let me go further. There is nothing you have experienced as a woman that he does not also know and recognize. On a profound level, he understands the hunger to hold your baby that sustains you through pregnancy. He understands both the physical pain of giving birth and the immense joy. He knows about PMS and cramps and menopause. He understands about rape and infertility and abortion. His last recorded words to his disciples were, “And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:20) He understands your mother-pain when your five-year-old leaves for kindergarten, when a bully picks on your fifth-grader, when your daughter calls to say that the new baby has Down syndrome. He knows your mother-rage when a trusted babysitter sexually abuses your two-year-old, when someone gives your thirteen-year-old drugs, when someone seduces your seventeen-year-old. He knows the pain you live with when you come home to a quiet apartment where the only children are visitors, when you hear that your former husband and his new wife were sealed in the temple last week, when your fiftieth wedding anniversary rolls around and your husband has been dead for two years. He knows all that. He’s been there. He’s been lower than all that.[Author's note: When I gave the talk in sacrament meeting, I only used the first paragraph because I felt the second paragraph was too graphic to share in a meeting where children were present.]
3. Through the atonement, the effects of the fall are overcome.
For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
1 Corinthians 15:21-22
There are several effects of the fall, but there are three major ones: death; sin and sorrow; and divisions among humankind. Death is conqured by the resurrection of Christ. Sin and sorrow were discussed previously.
The atonement undoes divisions among humankind. We like to divide humanity into categories. We categorize by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sex, etc. However, as Christians, we need to do better.
One of my favorite verses of scripture is in Galatians 3:26-28.
For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
This doesn't mean that we all need to become cookie-cutter and dress, look, and act alike. We are all parts of the body of Christ, and our differences are necessary to the building of the kingdom. But what it does mean is that we should not be creating divisions or hierarchies based on irrelevant worldly distinctions.
This can be most clearly seen in the narrative surrounding the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve lived in the garden, before the fall, there was no distinction between what Adam was to do and what Eve was to do. They were treated the same because they were the same. Then the fall inserted division. The curses placed upon them were just that - conditions of a fallen world, not the true and eternal order of things. Distinctions and hierarchies based on sex or gender are not Godly. They are devilish. Jesus came to set things right and remove those distinctions and hierarchies.
When we perpetuate these distinctions, we are impeding the atonement. When we claim that those distinctions are the will of God, we take the name of God in vain. As Christians, we should be at the forefront of removing barriers that hold back God's children and squelch their spiritual gifts based on what kind of body they were born into.
The atonement is a broad topic that takes a lifetime to fully understand, but it is worth the effort to do so. It is the gospel at its most basic. Christ grants the grace that saves us, bears our burdens, and undoes the effects of the fall.