Where Justice, Love and Mercy Meet
Updated: Apr 11
Jesus Christ suffered for all of us so that we could be redeemed from our sins, but why did he need to do that, and how did it work?
Avoiding the Wrath of God
The main way that I hear the Atonement of Jesus Christ taught is as a way for us to avoid retributive justice. Typically this is how it is told. God set very high standards for going to heaven, in fact you have to be perfect to get there. But we all make mistakes, so none of us actually will make it there... on our own. That is why God sent Jesus Christ his son to suffer and die for us. By doing this he took upon himself the debt of our sins and allowed us to make it back to heaven.
Now this explanation is true, but it leaves much to be desired. The deficiency of this explanation comes from the atonement being framed solely through retributive justice. Firstly it is easy to misinterpret this explanation. What are the debts of our sins? Why are our sins payed off when Jesus suffers? Do we still have to be perfect to get to heaven? None of these questions are really answered by this explanation, and in fact many different sects have their own answers to these questions. Some say that all you need to do is proclaim the name of Jesus and you will be saved. Others say that everyone will be saved, and others still say that there are very few that will make it to heaven. Are any of these voices correct?
This inconsistency comes from an even bigger issue that arises when we view the atonement this way. There is no point to it. If Jesus just keeps forgiving us forever, then we will never learn, and if his forgiveness only lasts a certain number of times it will be completely ineffective, because we will always continue to make mistakes.
Another flaw of viewing the atonement only through the lens of retributive justice is that it can give the false impression that the atonement only applies in the distant future, when we have died and have been arrayed before God to be judged of our sins. People who believe this miss out on the healing power that the atonement of Jesus Christ could bring into their lives.
What is the debt of our sins?
So maybe there is another way of understanding the atonement. We can understand the atonement through the lens of restorative justice. In restorative justice the price of our sins is clear. That price is the broken relationships, the broken lives, the hardship and the the hard feelings that our sins create. What it means to pay the price for our sins is to mend the lives and relationships that those sins broke.
What this adds to our understanding of the atonement is that our sins carry with them a debt, and Jesus is able to pay it off instead of sending us to an even greater punishment. Notice that Jesus does not take the punishment for our sins for us. In the book of Mormon a missionary named Amulek explains this stating "Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay. But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world."(Alma 34 11-12)
So Jesus is not taking our punishment for us, and he is not removing the law of justice, but instead his infinite atonement can mend the harm caused even by murder. Through his infinite atonement he made it possible to repent, and this is how our sins are paid off.
How do we repent? There are five parts to it. They are:
Stop; we need to stop doing what we know is wrong,
Make Restitution; we need to repair the damage that we caused,
Request Forgiveness; we need to let God, and the person that we harmed know that we want to make things right, but we can only do so with their consent,
Accept Responsibility; sometimes the things we do have long lasting consequences, we need to make sure that those consequences are mitigated as best as possible,
Express Regret; we need to show God, and the person that we harmed that we understand how we have impacted them, and that we wish we hadn't done it to begin with.
These five parts of repentance are also the five steps of an apology. When we repent adequately we mend our broken relationship with God, and with our fellowmen. Jesus Christ's atonement works by making repentance possible. When we understand this we realize that its power is available to us now, and it must be used at all times for it to be the most effective.
There are some things that we could never repay without the atonement of Jesus Christ. If you kill someone for example you can never bring them their life back. If the consequences of your actions extend beyond what you have power over, then you cannot take responsibility for them. Etc.
The atonement of Jesus Christ allows him to make these things right, even though we can't ourselves. He can bring people back to life, and he will in the resurrection. He has power over all things, and he can take responsibility for the things that we cannot control. He can also help us to overcome temptations, so that we have the ability to stop our sinful behavior, and he can help us understand others so that we can apologize properly.
Although Jesus is able to do all these things to help you, he cannot repent for you, that is just not how repentance works. If you refuse to repent then Jesus's atonement will do nothing for you, and you will have to face the punishment for your sins.
The Unforgivable Sin
There is one other condition where Jesus does not have to help someone pay the price for their sins. That is set out by the law of retributive justice, which states that if someone does not show mercy, they do not deserve mercy.
If you are unable to forgive someone, even after they repent, and even after Jesus Christ has payed the debt that that person could not, then Jesus does not have to show you mercy. Jesus explains in this parable:
23 “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24 In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. 25 He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.
26 “But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ 27 Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
28 “But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.
29 “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30 But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.
31 “When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. 32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.
35 “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.” (Matthew 18: 23-35, New Living Translation)
The only way for restorative justice to work is if one person adequately apologizes, and the other person forgives. If you refuse to forgive, then you are sabotaging the atonement of Jesus Christ. This forgiveness does not mean that you have to become best friends with the person that harmed you, you don't even have to trust them afterward, you just have to not give them any further punishment after an adequate apology is made.
The only way to know for certain that someone's sins have been fully payed off is to have a testimony of the atonement of Jesus Christ given to you by the power of the Holy Ghost. For this reason Jesus calls the unforgiveable sin "blasphem[ing] against the Holy Ghost." (Mark 3: 29)
Why did Jesus suffer?
But if Jesus did not suffer the punishment of our sins, then why did he have to suffer?
The reason Jesus suffered for our sins is mentioned in Alma 7:12,13.
He will take upon himself death that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.
Alma mentions several different reasons for Christ's suffering. The first is that he died so that he could loose the bands of death. I used to think that this meant that resurrection was somehow physically impossible before Jesus was resurrected, and he unlocked the power of resurrection when he was resurrected, like unlocking a new ability in a video game or something. But actually God has always had the power to perform the resurrection. He just couldn't resurrect us until our purpose on earth was fulfilled.
To properly understand the chains of death we should go back to when they were first applied. Adam and Eve were cursed to die when they partook of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. Since then this life has been a time of our probation where we can learn to choose good or evil. However we would all fail our probationary period and fall short of heaven if we weren't able to repent. (2 Nephi 2:21)
Christ's atonement made repentance possible, which gave a purpose to mortality, and a reason for us to be resurrected. This loosed the bands of death from his people. (2 Nephi 26-27)
Another thing he did to loose the bands of death was visiting the spirit world upon his death. While there he ordained his followers who had passed away to preach the gospel to the people who died without knowing God. This prepares them for their resurrection and judgement, and also frees them from the prison of ignorance which holds those who pass on without knowing God. (D&C 138:30-32)
Second he took upon himself our infirmities so that he could feel merciful toward us and give us strength in our time of need. This is called God's grace, or the enabling power of the atonement. With Christ's help we will have the power to endure all of our trials, withstand any temptation, and heal from any spiritual wound. He knows what you are going through, because he has gone through it, and he is eager to help you. (Alma 7:12)
Third he suffered to take upon himself our sins. He did this to blot out our transgressions. Our transgressions are blotted out through repentance and baptism, so taking upon himself our sins means that he will help us to repent and overcome them. Jesus revealed to the prophet Joseph Smith why taking upon himself our sins caused him to suffer. He said, “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, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—
“Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men” (Doctrine and Covenants 19:16–19)
We know the punishments that Jesus suffered, because the wicked must suffer them if they do not repent. King Benjamin said that those who are evil will be “consigned to an awful view of their own guilt and abominations, which doth cause them to shrink from the presence of the Lord into a state of misery and endless torment.”(Mosiah 3:29) Jesus has felt the guilt and despair that are brought about by our sins, and he has felt the torment of leaving the presence of God, so that he could help you to repent, and come back into the presence of the Lord.
Because He understands our sins, and has felt our guilt, he also knows how to comfort those whom we have hurt, he can tell us how to comfort them as well.
After we have repented of our sins God promises to blot them out, but only if we make a promise to him that we will do our best to follow the example of Jesus Christ from then on. We make this promise, and our sins are blotted out, when we are baptized. Afterwards God will remember our sins no more.
This Easter season we celebrate how Christ's atonement has made it possible for all mankind to be saved through obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.