Cover image via Gospel Media Library.
What is the Atonement of Jesus Christ? How does it affect my daily life? How does it affect my eternal life? How do I receive the Savior’s redeeming power in my life? How can He help me with real, deep-down worries like these:
- “I feel so inadequate so much of the time. My efforts are just crumbs compared to what I ought to be doing.”
- “I know the aim of the Church is to help us become like the Savior; but in my case, that’s not a likely prospect.”
- “I feel so guilty so much of the time. I know there are people all around me who need help. I could do so much more in my calling. Frankly, thinking about it all makes me very tired.”
- “We don’t have a perfect family—far from it. And we’re not exactly examples of unconditional love. Well, except maybe the dog.”
- “I know the Savior paid the price of my sins, but I just keep adding to the debt, then repenting, and then sinning again. I’m hopeless, aren’t I? I mean, really?”
To understand the full meaning and scope of the Atonement of Christ is probably not possible in mortality. It is an “infinite and eternal” subject; thus, we’d have to see beyond the veil to grasp all its consequences. For that reason, it seems a lofty doctrine, high up and far away. But the Atonement of Christ is the remedy for our deep, often unexpressed worries here and now.
The Doctrine and Covenants helps us understand how to apply the Atonement of Jesus Christ to the things that shake our troubled hearts today.
Apply the Atonement of Jesus Christ to Your Life
The very purpose of the Atonement is to help us become like the Atoner. It is the great “enabling act” that permits us to have peace in this world and eternal life in the world to come.
We started out like Him in some respects. He is the Firstborn of all God’s children. We are also God’s children, and the Christ prepared this mortal home for us: “By him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God” (D&C 7:24). His Father is our Father: “I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn. . . Ye were also in the beginning with the Father” (D&C 93:21, 23).
He went through the same pains and problems we go through, relying on the grace of our Father in Heaven to become as He is: “He received not of the fullness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness; and thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first” (D&C 93:13).
So the Savior Himself went through a process of perfection, “from grace to grace,” just as we do until we too receive the kind of “fulness” that He has received: “If you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace” (D&C 93:20).
Apply the Atonement by Receiving “Grace for Grace”
The purpose of our mortal life is to continue the process of becoming like the Firstborn—a daunting goal, but achievable because of His Atonement.
Some who have only the Bible to read might not fully understand that we began where the Savior began and belong to His family. There was no inherent difference between His pre-mortal self and our pre-mortal selves, and He not only expects but pleads with us to follow Him, “that where I am ye may be also” (John 14:3).
This truth revolutionizes our understanding of ourselves. I believe that to a great extent, we are discouraged by the “cultural religion” that surrounds us. For many who don’t have access to these revealed doctrines, the Savior is a being wholly different from us: We are not sons and daughters of God but wretched creatures, “corrupted, distorted versions” of what God intended.
Our culture copes in various ways with this old cultural idea that we are sick, stunted, inadequate creatures. Some recoil from it, some find odd satisfaction in it, some even accept it as the basis for a whole theology of our existence.
The revealed understanding that we are literally offspring of God with divine potential can erase these incapacitating notions from our hearts. We are capable of receiving “grace for grace”—that is, divine understanding added upon by more divine understanding until we receive a fulness of truth.
Because of this understanding, we also know that we are taking part in a great mortal school whose object is to form us into beings like our Savior. Like all analogies, the school analogy goes only so far, but in literal reality we are children who have been sent away to school: “Behold, ye are little children and ye cannot bear all things now; ye must grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth” (D&C 50:40).
This simple revelation beautifully and precisely describes our situation in this life. Our task here is to grow and learn. Everyone knows how excited and nervous a little child is just starting school for the first time. We adults also know that it’s only the beginning of a long, sometimes difficult quest—but that promising child can come out mature and capable of great things in the end.
We also know that there is no other way to get to the fulness of glory that our Savior enjoys. If we want the fruits of an education, there’s no way around the laborious but exhilarating process of schooling. The child starts her schooling with simple things, for she “cannot bear all things now,” but with experience and training, she will grow in knowledge. In this process, she has to put forth her own effort or the school is useless to her. She must do what she can, or she will not fulfill the mighty potential she was born with.
In this school, we children grow not only in knowledge of the truth but also in grace. Because of the Atonement of Christ, a great compensating power applies to those who do what they can. That power is called the “grace of God.” The term “grace” comes from the New Testament word charis—also the root of the word “charity.” At root, charis meant something like “to favor, to lean over, to hover.” He has charity for us, which is pure love.
Apply the Atonement by Accepting the Chastisement of a Loving Lord
Grace is what we experience from a loving Lord who hovers over us, watching and guiding, stepping in to help when needed. We’ve all seen dedicated teachers at work: They literally stand over or with their students, attending carefully to their progress. The Savior in His grace is like that.
Once when I injured my shoulder, a physical therapist was a lot of help to me. He showed me how to lift weights to build strength around the weakened joint. He corrected my stance and guided me on how to balance the weight for maximum effect. I grew in strength.
In one sense, my therapist’s approach to me is like the grace the Savior shows us (again, this is not a perfect analogy). He is attentive. He does not lift the weight for us, or we wouldn’t get stronger, we wouldn’t heal, and there would be no point to the exercise; but He teaches us carefully how to bear the weight. He corrects our efforts so we can benefit the most from the exercise, for “My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom” (D&C 136:31).
In our culture, the word “chastisement” means “punishment.” But that was not the original meaning of the word at all—it comes from the Latin castigare, “to correct or make pure.” The Lord’s chastisement is intended to guide and purify our efforts until “doing it right” becomes habitual. So, my therapist was always correcting my routine until I mastered it; when I got there, we both celebrated.
I noticed other patients in the gym who didn’t take correction well. Some of the men disputed the therapist’s counsel, especially those who had been “going to the gym” for years. They’d say, “That’s not how it’s done” or “How will that help me?” Then they would do it their own way, which was wrong in the context of therapy. Once the therapist got alarmed when a patient tried something with the exercise machine that was way too hard for him: “Please!” he yelped. “You’ll injure yourself.” Still others wouldn’t put forth the effort and gave up.
These people didn’t fully trust the expert’s eye. For one thing, he didn’t ask us to do very much. I was a little skeptical myself at first. The early exercises he prescribed didn’t seem strenuous enough to do any good. I too thought, but didn’t say, “How will this help me?” I was a little child; I couldn’t “bear all things now.” But over time, I was amazed at how much better I felt, how much more flexibility I attained in my shoulder by doing simple exercises over and over. “Out of small things proceedeth that which is great” (D&C 64:33).
Of course, in time the therapist gave me more demanding exercises; but because I had followed counsel, I was ready for them. Some days I lifted the weight until I could lift no more; at that instant, he would catch the weight so it wouldn’t fall on me.
He explained that the muscles around my shoulder needed to be stronger to compensate for the weakened joint. He also showed me that the more strain on the muscle fibers, the more they would grow to compensate. For my own good, he taught me, I needed the heavy weight; I needed to be pushed to the breaking point in order to improve.
But he was always there to catch the burden I could no longer carry. Although the weight was hard for me to bear, I was safe in His hands. And one day, the pain in my shoulder was gone!
The grace of God is the favor, attention, guidance, and careful discipline provided by a loving Savior who hovers over us and who meticulously steers us toward our best selves—and who welcomes us to “cast our burdens” upon him.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “We should regularly apply the Atonement for self-improvement, while enduring to the end. If we choose the course of steady improvement, which is clearly the course of discipleship, we will become more righteous and can move from what may be initially a mere acknowledgment of Jesus on to admiration of Jesus, then on to adoration of Jesus, and finally to emulation of Jesus. In that process of striving to become more like Him through steady improvement, we must be in the posture of repentance.” (Neal A. Maxwell, “Testifying of the Great and Glorious Atonement,” Ensign, November 2001.)
Apply the Atonement Through Repentance and Improvement
“The posture of repentance” is not to punish us but to help us improve. The Greek New Testament word for repentance is metanoia, which literally means “change of mind.” When we repent, we accept the Lord’s correction and resolve to improve. We abandon our way and trust His way. President Russell M. Nelson teaches that repentance is the key to applying the Atonement in our lives. “When Jesus asks you and me to ‘repent,’ He is inviting us to change our mind, our knowledge, our spirit—even the way we breathe. He is asking us to change the way we love, think, serve, spend our time, treat our wives, teach our children, and even care for our bodies.
“Nothing is more liberating, more ennobling, or more crucial to our individual progression than is a regular, daily focus on repentance. Repentance is not an event; it is a process. It is the key to happiness and peace of mind. When coupled with faith, repentance opens our access to the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.” (Russell M. Nelson, “We Can Do Better and Be Better,” General Conference, April 2019.)
According to Elder Bruce C. Hafen, we repent “not because we must ‘repay’ Christ in exchange for his paying our debt to justice, but because repentance initiates a developmental process that, with the Savior’s help, leads us along the path to a saintly character.” (Bruce C. Hafen, The Broken Heart: Applying the Atonement to Life’s Experiences (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989, 149.)
The way to apply the Atonement in our lives is to accept the grace of God. To do that, we “choose the course of steady improvement” and “endure to the end” of the course, as I tried to do with my therapist. The grace of God, which the Atonement makes possible, is, as Elder David A. Bednar explains, “the divine assistance or heavenly help each of us desperately needs to qualify for the celestial kingdom.”
Of course, Christ the Atoner does far more for us than teach and guide us. In his atoning sacrifice, He carried a burden for us—a burden we create through our sins—that would crush us under its infinite weight if we were forced to carry it. If we turn away from Him and refuse to accept his Atonement, we will collapse under that weight ourselves, as He testified in this great revelation:
“I command you to repent—repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not. For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; but if they would not repent, they must suffer even as I; which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore.” (D&C 19:15-18.)
Apply the Atonement by Always Remembering Him
We have a sacred duty to “always remember Him” and to repent of our sins continually. We apply the Atonement at the sacrament table when we make a covenant to remember Him and keep His commandments. We honor His Atonement only if we take full advantage of the gift of repentance. It is the key to our growth, but it is only part of our growth. As Elder David A. Bednar says, “The enabling power of the Atonement strengthens us to do and be good and to serve beyond our own individual desire and natural capacity.
“In my personal scripture study, I often insert the term ‘enabling power’ whenever I encounter the word grace. Consider, for example, this verse with which we are all familiar: ‘We know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do’ (2 Nephi 25:23). I believe we can learn much about this vital aspect of the Atonement if we will insert ‘enabling and strengthening power’ each time we find the word grace in the scriptures.” (David A. Bednar, “The Atonement and the Journey of Mortality,” Ensign, May 2012.)
An “enabler” is a person who makes it possible for someone else to achieve a goal. This is what Jesus does for us. He opens the way, clears the path, provides the map and the provisions, teaches lessons to make the path easier, redeems us when we fall from the path. He does all of this because He is also our dearest friend: “I will call you friends, for you are my friends, and ye shall have an inheritance with me” (D&C 93:45).
From Christ, we receive the perfect love, loyalty, and compassion only a perfect friend could provide. He does not take the journey for us, but He takes it with us every step of the way.
Christ is not waiting impatiently for you on the dais at your graduation to see if you will show up or not; He is by your side, late into the night, helping with each test and each assignment. He is the stabilizing force on the path of life, the Iron Rod, which is the “word of God” that will safely guide us through. Please remember that He is the Word (John 1:1).
Our divine Atoner—our Teacher, Provider, Stabilizer, Redeemer, and Friend—is also our Great Enabler, making it possible for us in every way to graduate successfully from the School of Mortality. Nothing we experience is beyond His help and understanding, for “He descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth” (D&C 93:6).
No matter how often you stumble along the path, He will come down and help you get up and keep going if you will put your hand in His. The strength of that Hand is unlimited. No matter how discouraged you get or how far down you fall, He can pull you up if you reach out to Him. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland says, “It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Laborers in the Vineyard,” Ensign, May 2012.)
The true meaning of the Atonement will not come clear for you until that moment—foreshadowed in the temple—that was promised in the Doctrine and Covenants: “Be faithful and diligent in keeping the commandments of God, and I will encircle thee in the arms of my love” (DC 6:20).
The old English word atonement literally means “at-one-ment”—being made one with Christ. In this life you can feel that warm embrace through your faith and diligence; and when the journey is over and you have done what you can do (which for the best of us isn’t much), He will take you in His arms in a loving embrace. This is the moment of Atonement, when you become one with Him.
I’ve asked myself what I would trade for that experience of being enfolded in the arms of a loving Savior and receiving His blessing. The answer—I wouldn’t trade anything. I know something about that feeling of being enfolded in His arms, and in my weakness and unworthiness I really long for it. That’s why I keep at it, not giving up despite my failings: I know Jesus is there to enable and enfold me. He is with me, and He will be there when I wake up in His morning.
This article is excerpted from Breck England, The Dews of Heaven: Answers to Life’s Questions from the Doctrine and Covenants, Cedar Fort, 2012.