The Immediate Atonement
The Atonement of Christ is the center of our faith. But it's also the principle of our faith that is probably hardest to understand. Not just because it's infinite beyond the scope of our mortal minds, but because the whole notion that Christ could pay for sins He didn't commit just kind of blows our minds. I don't know anyone who has claimed to look at the calculus of the Plan of Salvation and figured out how it all works out.
Twisting the Atonement
And that's OK. We don't need to completely understand it in order to apply it in our lives. The problem comes when we develop an incorrect idea of how the Atonement of Christ works. There are so many ways to misunderstand the Atonement, but I think there is one way in particular that is especially prevalent among member of the Church. It's the way I misunderstood it for a good chunk of my life. It is a destructive, damaging perspective on the Gospel that ultimately thwarts our eternal progression. Here's how I would have described the Atonement as a teenager. See if it sounds like what you would say:
Everybody sins. Sins disqualify us for heaven (Rom 3:23). The penalty for sins is so great that we are all incapable of bearing it (Mosiah 3:7) and are doomed to never return to God (2 Ne. 9:9). That's why Christ bled from every pore and suffered for us. He paid the portion that we can't bear so that we only need to suffer what is possible for us to suffer (D&C 19:16-19).
But that suffering is still horrible. Alma the Younger describes being "racked with eternal torment," wanting the mountains to come upon him, wanting never to come into the presence of God, and to "become extinct both body and spirit." Repentance is super painful. You have to reach that extreme low point of anguish and hate yourself, acknowledging before God like the prodigl that you are "no more worthy to be called his son."
Then, God will finally forgive you. By that time, you'll know better what the price of sin actually was. You'll be more grateful that Christ paid that price. And you will have gone through so much of your own extreme pain like Alma that you will have learned your lesson and won't want to sin like that ever again. And if you do sin like that again, you have to repent even harder next time because the "former sins return" (D&C 82:7).
Thus we are saved by Christ's grace "after all we can do." Sure, Christ only expects us to suffer .000001% of the weight of our sins, but that's still enough to make you miserable and hate yourself for having ever sinned. This kind of effort is not made in one night or in one youth conference– repentance takes a long time. Sometimes years. You'll never really be 100% clean– there will always be unrepented sins that you will be carrying around that are too new to be repented of.
I quickly found that this lifestyle is not sustainable. I would reach the point of such guilt that I could pray and feel forgiven once in a while, but when I would repeat the sin, I would get angry at myself and think, "I must not have really repented last time." And then I would just be so tired of beating myself up that I just couldn't get myself to feel bad to the point where I felt I deserved repentance. Instead, I would just pray to God and halfheartedly apologize that I can't repent right now because although I'm sorry and want to change, I'm not in tears of anguish, so I must need more humbling. Eventually, I got to the point where I wondered whether I was "past feeling" because I just couldn't seem to muster up the agony required to repent. I wondered if I would ever deserve to be cleansed from my sins, or if this was repentance, but it would just take years of depression before I'd finally have paid my dues for any one sin.
If this sounds even remotely like your concept of repentance and the Atonement, please, please, listen closely: What I described is not the Atonement. That is not how God operates. This is a cleverly crafted counterfeit– a description of the nature of the Atonement that has been twisted by Satan to cover a lot of scriptural and doctrinal bases while denying the nature of God as our Loving Heavenly Father.
Looking back, I can say I was a pretty good kid. I lived the standards of the Gospel and tried never to even come close to approaching the lines the Lord had set in For the Strength of Youth. I think my parents were more worried that I'd be suspended for being too preachy at school than worried about me getting mixed up in something bad. But even though I was striving to live the Gospel, I constantly struggled with a burden of guilt and unworthiness because of this false notion of the Atonement. It was a dark time.
The immediate Atonement
I thought about this dark time in my life when I was reading in 3 Nephi 8 and 9 the other day. The Nephites were still reeling from the destruction that came at the time of the Savior's death. The vapor of darkness still blocked out the sun. But notice that Christ didn't wait for the dust to settle and see if the Nephites were really serious about turning things around. Although the ultimate price was just paid just a few hours before, it seems our Redeemer was eager to throw open the heavens and invite His people to take advantage of their ransom. Through the vapor of darkness came the void of God:
Behold, I am Jesus Christ the Son of God…. I have come unto the world to bring redemption unto the world, to save the world from sin… Will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you? Yea, verily I say unto you, if ye will come unto me ye shall have eternal life. Behold, mine arm of mercy is extended towards you, and whosoever will come, him will I receive.
Christ's invitation was an immediate one. It reminded me of the "here and now" invitation of Alma:
Yea, I would that ye would come forth and harden not your hearts any longer; for behold, now is the time and the day of your salvation; and therefore, if ye will repent and harden not your hearts, immediately shall the great plan of redemption be brought about unto you.
Do you hear that? Salvation can come now. The plan of redemption can brought into effect in our lives immediately. It doesn't require a thousand years. And a broken heart doesn't necessarily mean Alma levels of anguish. Repentance requires a decision. And it's a decision we can make today. For normal, day-to-day sins, we can apply normal day-to-day repentance. I wish I could have heard Elder Klebingat say these words about 12 years before he actually spoke in General Conference:
Whenever the adversary cannot persuade imperfect yet striving Saints such as you to abandon your belief in a personal and loving God, he employs a vicious campaign to put as much distance as possible between you and God… He will seek access to your heart to tell you lies– lies that Heavenly Father is disappointed in you, that the Atonement is beyond your reach, that there is no point in even trying, that everyone else is better than you, that you are unworthy, and a thousand variations of that same evil theme.
As long as you allow these voices to chisel away at your soul, you can't approach the throne of God with real confidence. Whatever you do, whatever you pray for, whatever hopes for a miracle you may have, there will always be just enough self-doubt chipping away at your faith– not only your faith in God but also your confidence in yourself. Living the gospel in this manner is no fun, nor is it very healthy. Above all, it is completely unnecessary! The decision to change is yours– and yours alone…
Because the Atonement of Jesus Christ is very practical, you should apply it generously 24/7, for it never runs out. Embrace the Atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance as things that are to be welcomed and applied daily according to the Great Physician’s orders. Establish an attitude of ongoing, happy, joyful repentance by making it your lifestyle of choice. In doing so, beware of the temptation to procrastinate, and don’t expect the world to cheer you on. Keeping your eyes on the Savior, care more about what He thinks of you, and let the consequences follow. Spiritual confidence increases when you voluntarily and joyfully repent of sins, both small and great, in real time by applying the Atonement of Jesus Christ…
The very moment you voluntarily choose honest, joyful, daily repentance by striving to simply do and be your very best, the Savior’s Atonement envelops and follows you, as it were, wherever you go. Living in this manner, you can truly "always retain a remission of your sins" (Mosiah 4:12) every hour of every day, every second of every minute, and thus be fully clean and acceptable before God all the time.
Teaching the Atonement
This lesson took me years and years to learn. And I had to learn it the hard way. I spent years in a spiritual funk when I could have been enjoying the joyful confidence of knowing I was doing my best, and that I was clean. So how did I get such a twisted, damaging idea of the Atonement into my head anyway?
Church. I developed that perspective from the lessons I was taught at Church.
See, in the LDS Church, we differ substantially from other Christian faiths in that we do believe God expects us to put some skin in the game in order to receive salvation. After all, God does not cheat justice and deny us the lessons we can only learn through struggling to overcome our sins. Repentance does require work on our part, and in many cases, can take longer than we may like. For serious transgressions, we even have to get our priesthood leaders involved in helping us. So I think we are very cautious not to understate the work and effort that true repentance can entail on our end.
But I worry that perhaps we overemphasize that sometimes. Perhaps we are so careful not to paint an unrealistic picture of repentance by downplaying the work involved on our part that we shortchange God's mercy, too. I think this is especially true in the way we teach youth. We recognize the barrage of temptations they face. We know the weight of the peer pressure they bear. We recognize that their testimonies are still in flux. So I wonder if perhaps we might subconsciously be overemphasizing the pain of repentance as a deterrent to sin in the first place.
As a result, you get people like me. Good members who won't forgive themselves– even when God has already forgiven them long ago. We need to be sure we teach our students that repentance is joyful and that it should be applied daily. And that even when repentance does take time and struggle and priesthood leadership, there is relief available now. If you listen to those who have had to go through "sore repentance," you'll often hear about how a portion of their weight was lifted the moment they confessed to the Bishop. The prodigal son hadn't had time to actually confess and repent of all his "riotous living" abroad by the time he returned home. I'm sure there was a lot of work to do for months or years after he returned. But that didn't keep his father from running towards home the moment he crested into view on the horizon, embracing him, and comforting him.
That is a comfort we all need. And we need it now.