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The Atonement: An Amorphous entity?

As I was driving down the road the other day I was behind a car that had two bumper stickers. On the left side of the bumper, it said 'Jesus'. On the right side, it said 'Saves'. As a backdrop for what was going through my mind, I began to think how far my thinking has come. I would use to see something like that and scoff at the idea; not because I didn't believe Jesus couldn't save, but because of the missing pieces that we believe has been lost to modern Christianity. My mind would think something like this:

"Sure Jesus saves, but he only saves as we access the atonement through priesthood and ordinances. This poor person has watered down the saving process to be simply about accepting Jesus."

During this occasion though, driving behind this car, a quote from President Nelson came to mind. It is a quote that softened my heart a bit from being so judgemental towards what I originally thought was a trite line:

"There is no amorphous entity called “the Atonement” upon which we may call for succor, healing, forgiveness, or power. Jesus Christ is the source. Sacred terms such as Atonement and Resurrection describe what the Savior did, according to the Father’s plan, so that we may live with hope in this life and gain eternal life in the world to come. The Savior’s atoning sacrifice—the central act of all human history—is best understood and appreciated when we expressly and clearly connect it to Him." (1)

The purpose of my post today grows out of a goal I have set up for myself to limit the use of the phrase "the atonement" in my vernacular. In the same line of thought, I would seek to grow a relationship to Him instead of trying to "access the atonement".


It is often suggested that the word כִּפֻּר, kippur, means 'to cover'. We think sometimes that if we 'access the atonement' our sins and weaknesses will be covered and then all things will be alright. Dr. John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and a PhD in Hebrew Studies, suggests that the idea of kippur taken to mean "cover" is a translation that borrows meaning from incorrect roots "and should be discarded." (2)

Dr. Walton further suggests that the word atonement is a ritual term:
"In context, this verbal action is accomplished by applying blood to something sacred (sancta). It is applied because there has been some desecration or defilement of the sancta through impurity or sin. The blood accomplishes kipper by eliminating that defilement. Thus the blood is an agent of elimination, and when it does so, this act is described as kipper... The end result of kipper is that the person bringing the sacrifice may then be forgiven, i.e., restored to relationship... just as in the Old Testament the blood eliminated the defilement on the sancta so that God’s presence could be preserved, so when we are ready to become the temple (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19), the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin, preparing us to become sacred space housing the presence of God." (3)

In the ancient Israelite world, Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) was the most important day of the year. On this day, the High Priest would pass through the veil into the Holy of Holies carrying all of Israel upon his shoulders (he would have 12 small stones on his shoulders that would represent such). The High Priest's garment was of very similar color and material that the veil was made out of. The High Priest would carry two containers in with him. One contained the blood of a goat and the other the blood of a bull. The symbolism of this is wonderful and illustrates what is mean by 'atonement'.

The High Priest represented Christ, The Great High Priest (see Hebrews 4:14), as he would carry all of Israel on his shoulders through the veil. The veil represented the flesh of Christ as well. We must pass through him and begin to acquire His likeness before we can permeate the veil. The blood of the bull represented us while the blood of the goat represented Christ. The blood would be poured out upon the mercy seat, the throne of God, in order to purify the temple and to make an atonement for all Israel. The combining of the blood of the bull and the goat symbolized the full assumption of the Divine Nature in the presence of God in the heavenly Holy of Holies. 

The Hebrew roots for the word atonement, therefore, meant restitution of our relationship to God so that we could endure his presence. It further meant a ritual purification that returned that relationship.


A survey of the scriptures also highlights some important themes regarding the atonement of Jesus Christ. In restoration scripture (i.e. The Book of Mormon, D&C, Pearl of Great Price) the word 'atonement' is used 29 times. In every instance is the idea directly connected to Jesus Christ. While this might seem obvious, it ought to be pointed out that ancient prophets were amazingly consistent in their word associations and it might be helpful if we were as well. To reflect back on President Nelson's words, we often (myself included) discuss the Saviors atonement without connecting Him to it. This is a reflection of our relationship to Him in my opinion, and President Nelson appears to agree.

Even further, the following are scriptures that paint the idea beautifully:

"ye have sought for happiness in doing iniquity, which thing is contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and Eternal Head." (3)

"Wherefore, my beloved brethren, have miracles ceased because Christ hath ascended into heaven, and hath sat down on the right hand of God, to claim of the Father his rights of mercy which he hath upon the children of men?" (4)

"He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." (5)

"God exalted Him on his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins." (Acts 5:31, NT: Translation for Latter-Day Saints, Thomas Wayment, p. 218)

There are literally hundreds of other scriptures that express these similar ideas. The idea is that if we want to 'access the atonement' you are going to have to go through Him to get it. Or, more accurately and less crass, the power that centers in Him can only be given by Him. Many of our conversations about 'the atonement' can be compared to feeling the sunlight and being grateful for the warmth instead of the source.

The following scriptures put it plainly:

"And now, my beloved brethren, I would that ye should come unto Christ, who is the Holy One of Israel, and partake of his salvation, and the power of his redemption. Yea, come unto him, and offer your whole souls as an offering unto him, and continue in fasting and praying, and endure to the end; and as the Lord liveth ye will be saved." (6) (bold added for emphasis)

"Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.
And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot." (7)


In reflecting on all this I have come to find that it is incomplete to speak only of Christ as the individual who suffered for my sins. It is incomplete to speak of Christ as the one who suffered for my pains and weaknesses. It is incomplete to speak of Christ as the Son of God and as our Elder Brother. It is incomplete to speak of Christ and to separate priesthood power from him (the Light of Christ that centers in him IS priesthood power). It is incomplete to speak of Christ in light of the Plan of Salvation as the fellow who helps us overcome our second estate. It is incomplete to speak of Christ as the one who 'unlocks the atonement'.

He is the atonement.
He is our lawgiver.
He is our God.
He is priesthood power.
He is forgiveness.
He is the mercy giver.
He is the good news.
He is eternal.
He is the plan of salvation.
He is the one we come unto, NOT the atonement.

What significance does this have? Our focus becomes about our relationship to him. The ordinances of the temple become clearer as they are about restoring that relationship and not just about accessing "the atonement". We see that the divine ascent in the endowment is literally a panoramic view of what coming unto Christ looks like.  We can read the scriptures with more power and notice the abundance of Christ and not "the atonement" in the scriptures. We can understand what is meant by "the atonement of Christ" in the scriptures; that we covenant with Him so He can symbolically walk us through the veil, as the High Priest, and purify us and endow us with the Divine Nature in the presence of God.


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