Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Sin and the Atonement

WARNING! This is LONG! I’ll explain it in my next post

This Semester I have studied the New Testament with a desire to better understand the Atonement, the Sacrament, and Prayer. I selected particular questions that I felt would be helpful in deepening my understanding of these principles. It is interesting to me that while I feel that my understanding of these principles has been greatly enlarged, deepened, and in some ways corrected, many of the questions I felt were important remain unanswered while others now seem superficial and irrelevant. As I have studied the New Testament, my thoughts have been influenced greatly by a book that I read early in the semester. The Peacegiver, by James Ferrell, offers many great insights into the atonement of Jesus Christ. So now, I hope to capture the feelings and thoughts of this humble heart of mine on paper. In doing so I seek the inspiration and guidance of the spirit.

Before we can truly understand the blessing and saving power of the Atonement we need to understand what it is we are being saved from. In announcing his own mission, Christ quoted the prophecy of Isaiah saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.”[1] Christ was to become known as the Savior, the Redeemer, the Deliverer. Indeed, He preached deliverance to the captives. Who are these captives and to what are they captive?

Christ later taught that “Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.”[2] It appears form this verse that when we sin we become subject to “the power and captivity of the devil.”[3] John taught that “he that sinneth is of the Devil.” But what does this mean? How are we subject to the devil? James E. Talmage taught in Jesus the Christ that Judas Iscariot had, through sin, effectively surrendered his agency to Satan. In other words when we sin we sacrifice a portion of our agency to the enemy of our souls. We are no longer completely free to make our own choices. As Paul counseled “let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body.”[4]

Paul also taught that we should be careful “lest any of [us] be hardened through eh deceitfulness of sin.”[5] James Ferrell explained that this hardening and deception is illustrated in the response of Adam to the Lord when asked if he had partaken of the fruit. Adam began to justify himself and blame Eve. Eve likewise blamed the serpent. When we sin, our natures become changed. They become corrupted so that the way we see the world is distorted. We see ourselves as guiltless. We don’t need the Savior. Someone else is to blame.[6] In this sin “we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”[7]

Another of Satan’s lies to which we become subject when we sin is described by Elder Uchtdorf. He said, “Satan, “the father of all lies”, “the father of contention”, “the author of all sin”, and the “enemy unto God”, uses the forces of evil to convince us that this concept applies whenever we have sinned. The scriptures call him the “accuser” because he wants us to feel that we are beyond forgiveness. Satan wants us to think that when we have sinned we have gone past a “point of no return”—that it is too late to change our course. In our beautiful but also troubled world, it is a sad reality that this attitude is the source of great sorrow, grief, and distress to families, marriages, and individual lives. Satan tries to counterfeit the work of God, and by doing this he may deceive many. To make us lose hope, feel miserable like himself, and believe that we are beyond forgiveness, Satan might even misuse words from the scriptures that emphasize the justice of God, in order to imply that there is no mercy.”[8]

Sin is not a system of carefully kept tally marks in the heavens. Nor is it a card system of all our transgressions which will keep us from entering heaven. Nor is Sin truly a single stain on our robes that must be removed before we are worthy to enter into the Celestial Kingdom. Sin and righteousness are not some abstract things external to our souls. In fact the very nature of our souls is changed when we Sin. This change takes us away from Christ and our Heavenly Father. It blinds us to the reality of the plan of Salvation and gives the Devil power over our decisions. How then are we free?

Christ taught that “Truth shall make you free.”[9] How does truth make us free? When we se the truth of our own sinless and helpless state; when we see that we cannot possible overcome the bonds of sin by ourselves, we have an opportunity in that moment to turn to Christ to free us. As He himself said, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.”[10]

How does Christ save us from the captivity of sin, in effect save us from ourselves? With the understanding of the true nature of sin and why we must be saved from it, we can better understand just what the atonement was. Alma taught that Christ would “take upon him the sins of the his people.”[11] Knowing that sin subjects us to the power of the devil, in Gethsemane, Christ was in as Talmage said: “the supreme contest with the powers of evil” an “hour of anguish when Christ had to meet and overcome all the horrors that Satan could inflict.”[12] The Savior’s perfectly righteous character allowed Him to remain sinless even when bound with the same chains which bind us. This is what Paul meant when he said that Christ “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.”[13] Paul also explained that Christ “who knew no sin,” “was made to be sin.”[14]

Christ was therefore placed under the exact same temptations I am. He was handicapped by the effects of my previous sins, as well as the afflictions, pains, sicknesses, and infirmities, that I have suffered. Yet, because of the attributes which made his character perfect, he was able to resist and overcome the power of the Devil. He overcame the effects, the captivity, of sin. He broke the bands of the second death which is spiritual death.

Because He has literally and perfectly been “where we are,” and yet remained sinless, when we turn to Him and qualify ourselves for His grace through our humility, broken hearts, and contrite spirits, He “knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations.”[15] As Paul taught, “For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succor them that are tempted.”[16] Christ’s temptations were not just those he experienced in his own mortal life. He does not understand temptation in general terms. Rather he knows intimately and perfectly the temptations that we face and the sum influence of our previous choices as well as the circumstances over which we have no control. Having broken free of the same chains which bind us, He knows just what character attributes he needs to bestow upon us to enable us to likewise break free. This is the enabling power of the Atonement: the Grace, or divinely given strength, to do more than we ourselves are able.

Therefore when we repent and come unto Christ, we are truly made “a new creature.”[17] This freedom from the power of sin to cloud our minds, is what the Bible Dictionary means when it teaches that repentance is: “a change of mind, i.e., a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world.”[18]

Elder Bednar taught about repentance. He also teaches about the next step in our progress to “be perfect, even as [He] is.” “The gospel of Jesus Christ encompasses much more than avoiding, overcoming, and being cleansed from sin and the bad influences in our lives; it also essentially entails doing good, being good, and becoming better. Repenting of our sins and seeking forgiveness are spiritually necessary, and we must always do so. But remission of sin is not the only or even the ultimate purpose of the gospel. To have our hearts changed by the Holy Spirit such that “we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually”, as did King Benjamin’s people, is the covenant responsibility we have accepted. This mighty change is not simply the result of working harder or developing greater individual discipline. Rather, it is the consequence of a fundamental change in our desires, our motives, and our natures made possible through the Atonement of Christ the Lord. Our spiritual purpose is to overcome both sin and the desire to sin, both the taint and the tyranny of sin.”[19]

This change of heart that comes about through the power and grace of the Atonement is one of the greatest goals we can have here in mortality. The freedom from the taint of sin leads so smoothly to the development of Christ-like attributes. Elder Hafen Described the process this way: “We grow in two ways—removing negative weeds and cultivating positive flowers. The Savior's grace blesses both parts—if we do our part. First and repeatedly we must uproot the weeds of sin and bad choices. It isn't enough just to mow the weeds. Yank them out by the roots, repenting fully to satisfy the conditions of mercy. But being forgiven is only part of our growth. We are not just paying a debt. Our purpose is to become celestial beings. So once we've cleared our heartland, we must continually plant, weed, and nourish the seeds of divine qualities.”[20]

An integral part of overcoming the damning power of sin, is recognizing the need for the Savior and humbling ourselves sufficiently to seek his help with real intent. The Lord taught that, “The Sabbath was made for man.”[21] Perhaps the most important thing we can do on the Sabbath is partake of the Sacrament. As we eat and drink, “in remembrance of [Him]”[22] we are given an opportunity to realize anew our dependence and need for the intercession of the Savior.

Perhaps that is why Paul, in talking about the armor of God, about protection from the power of sin, said that we must “pray always.”[23] It seems that if there is always a prayer in our hearts, that is if out thought and desires are turned to God continually, that we would always retain in remembrance our need for the Savior. We are less likely to be deceived by darkness when we are focusing on the Light of the World.

In this vein I can better understand James admonition to “count it a joy when ye fall into many afflictions,”[24] and Paul’s exclamation that “we glory in tribulations.”[25] Trials and afflictions are in reality opportunities to remember the Redeemer and our need for his help, thereby taking the first step in freeing ourselves for the captivity of sin.

Likewise our weaknesses and imperfections should be seen as a wonderful opportunity to remember and experience the grace of God in our lives. In Paul’s words: “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”[26]

This understanding has been an invaluable blessing to my life as I have struggled with my trials. For reasons I do not understand the Lord has allowed me to be tempted and afflicted with feelings of Same Gender Attraction. But understanding the nature of sin and the compensatory power of the Atonement has greatly increased my faith in the Savior’s ability to save me from the chains that I have allowed the devil to place upon me. I know that He can give me the strength necessary to break my own addictions to pornography and masturbation. I am completely unable to do so myself. I have tainted my own soul by yielding to the enticing temptations of that evil one who is seeking the destruction of my soul. However, the infinite power of the Atonement, of which I am not worthy, can break those bonds and free me. I have witnessed and felt that power in my own life. I know that these things are true. As I continue to strive to do good and become more Christ-like, the Savior will bless me with his own attributes. I am eternally grateful for what Christ has done for me. He has made it possible for me to leave this world ready to meet Him. “For I shall see Him as He is, and I shall be like Him.”[27]


[1] Luke 4:18

[2] John 8:34

[3] 2 Nephi 2:27

[4] Romans 6:12

[5] Hebrews 3:13

[6] The Peacegiver, James Ferrell

[7] 1 John 1:8

[8] Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Point of No Return,” Ensign May 2007.

[9] John 8:32

[10] John 8:36

[11] Alma 7:13

[12] James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ

[13] Hebrews 4:15

[14] 2 Corinthians 5:21

[15] 2 Peter 2:9

[16] Hebrews 2:18

[17] 2 Corinthians 5:17

[18] Bible Dictionary, “Repentance.”

[19] Elder David A. Bednar, “Clean Hands and A Pure Heart.” Ensign, November 2007.

[20] Elder Bruce C. Hafen, “The Atonement: All for All.” Ensign, May 2004

[21] Mark 6:27

[22] Luke 22:19

[23] Ephesians 6:18

[24] James 1:2

[25] Romans 5:3

[26] 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

[27] 1 John 3:2

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