ARTICLE 3-We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.
The Atonement of Christ is taught as a leading doctrine by all sects professing Christianity. The expression is so common a one, and the essential point of its signification is so generally admitted, that definitions may appear to be superfluous; nevertheless, there is a peculiar importance attached to the use of the word “atonement” in a theological sense. The doctrine of the atonement comprises proof of the divinity of Christ’s earthly ministry, and the vicarious nature of His death as a foreordained and voluntary sacrifice, intended for and efficacious as a propitiation for the sins of mankind, thus becoming the means whereby salvation may be secured.
The New Testament, which is properly regarded as the scripture of Christ’s mission among men, is imbued throughout with the doctrine of salvation through the work of atonement wrought by the Savior; and yet the word, atonement, occurs but once in the record; and in that single instance, according to the opinion of most Biblical authorities, it is misused. The instance referred to is found in the words of Paul addressed to the saints at Rome: “But we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.” The marginal rendering gives, instead of atonement, “reconciliation,” and of this word a related form is used in the preceding verse. A consistent translation, giving a full agreement between the English and the Greek, would make the verse quoted, and that immediately preceding it, read in this way: For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the reconciliation. The term “atonement” occurs repeatedly in the Old Testament, with marked frequency in three of the books of the Pentateuch, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers; and the sense in which it is employed is that of a sacrifice of propitiation, usually associated with the death of an acceptable victim, whereby reconciliation was to be effected between God and men.
The structure of the word in its present form is suggestive of the true meaning; it is literally at-one-ment, “denoting reconciliation, or the bringing into agreement of those who have been estranged.” And such is the significance of the saving sacrifice of the Redeemer, whereby He expiated the transgression of the fall, through which death came into the world, and provided ready and efficient means for man’s attainment of immortality through reconciliation with God.
Nature of the Atonement-The atonement wrought by Jesus Christ is a necessary sequel of the transgression of Adam; and, as the infinite foreknowledge of God made clear to Him the one even before Adam was placed upon the earth, so the Father’s mercy prepared a Savior for mankind before the world was framed. Through the fall Adam and Eve have entailed the conditions of mortality upon their descendants; therefore all beings born of earthly parents are subject to bodily death. The sentence of banishment from the presence of God was in the nature of a spiritual death; and that penalty, which was visited upon our first parents in the day of their transgression, has likewise followed as the common heritage of humanity. As this penalty came into the world through an individual act, it would be manifestly unjust to cause all to eternally suffer therefrom without means of deliverance. Therefore was the promised sacrifice of Jesus Christ ordained as a propitiation for broken law, whereby Justice could be fully satisfied, and Mercy be left free to exercise her beneficent influence over the souls of mankind. All the details of the glorious plan, by which the salvation of the human family is assured, may not lie within the understanding of man; but man has learned, even from his futile attempts to fathom the primary causes of the phenomena of nature, that his powers of comprehension are limited; and he will admit, that to deny an effect because of his inability to elucidate its cause would be to forfeit his claims as an observing and reasoning being.
Simple as is the plan of redemption in its general features, it is confessedly a mystery in detail to the finite mind. President John Taylor has written in this wise: “In some mysterious, incomprehensible way, Jesus assumed the responsibility which naturally would have devolved upon Adam; but which could only be accomplished through the mediation of Himself, and by taking upon Himself their sorrows, assuming their responsibilities, and bearing their transgressions or sins. In a manner to us incomprehensible and inexplicable, He bore the weight of the sins of the whole world, not only of Adam, but of his posterity; and in doing that, opened the kingdom of heaven, not only to all believers and all who obeyed the law of God, but to more than one-half of the human family who die before they come to years of maturity, as well as to the heathen, who, having died without law, will through His mediation be resurrected without law, and be judged without law, and thus participate, according to their capacity, works, and worth, in the blessings of His atonement.”
However incomplete may be our comprehension of the scheme of redemption through Christ’s vicarious sacrifice in all its parts, we cannot reject it without becoming infidel; for it stands as the fundamental doctrine of all scripture, the very essence of the spirit of prophecy and revelation, the most prominent of all the declarations of God unto man.
The Atonement a Vicarious Sacrifice-It is to many a matter of surpassing wonder that the voluntary sacrifice of a single being could be made to operate as a means of ransom for the rest of mankind. In this, as in other things, the scriptures are explicable by the spirit of scriptural interpretation. The sacred writings of ancient times, the inspired utterances of latter-day prophets, the traditions of mankind, the rites of sacrifice, and even the sacrileges of heathen idolatries, all involve the idea of vicarious atonement. God has never refused to accept an offering made by one who is authorized on behalf of those who are in any way incapable of doing the required service themselves. The scapegoat and the altar victim of ancient Israel, if offered with repentance and contrition, were accepted by the Lord in mitigation of the sins of the people. It is interesting to note that while the ceremonies of sacrifice formed so large and so essential a part of the Mosaic requirements, these rites long antedated the establishment of Israel as a distinct people; for, as already shown, altar sacrifice was rendered by Adam. The symbolism of the immolating of animals as a prototype of the great sacrifice to follow on Calvary was thus instituted with the beginning of human history.
The many kinds of sacrifice prescribed by the Mosaic law are classifiable as bloody and bloodless. Offerings of the first order only, involving the infliction of death, were acceptable in propitiation or atonement for sin, and the victim had to be clean, healthy, and without spot or blemish. So for the great sacrifice, the effects of which were to be infinite, only an innocent subject could be accepted. It was Christ’s right to become the Savior as the only sinless being on earth, and as the Only Begotten of the Father, and above all as the one ordained in the heavens to be the Redeemer of mankind; and though the exercise of this right involved a sacrifice, the extent of which man cannot comprehend, yet Christ made that sacrifice willingly and voluntarily. To the last He had the means of terminating the tortures of His persecutors, by the exercise of His inherent powers. In some way, though that way may be inexplicable to us, Christ took upon Himself the burdensome onus of the sins of mankind. The means may be to our finite minds a mystery, yet the results are our salvation.
Something of the Savior’s agony as He groaned under this load of guilt, which to Him, as a type of purity, must have been in itself bitter in the extreme, He has told us in this day: “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, 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.” Further instances of the validity of vicarious service are found in the rites of baptism for the dead as taught in apostolic and modern times, and in the institution of other temple ordinances in the current dispensation.
Christ’s Sacrifice was Voluntary and Love-inspired-We have noted in passing that Christ gave His life willingly and voluntarily for the redemption of mankind. He had offered Himself, in the primeval council in heaven, as the subject of the atoning sacrifice made necessary by the foreseen transgression of the first man; and the free agency shown and exercised in this, the early stage of His saving mission, was retained to the very last of the agonizing fulfilment of the accepted plan. Though He lived on earth a man in every particular that concerns us in our regard for Him as an example of godliness in humanity, yet it is to be remembered that, though born of a mortal mother, he was begotten in the flesh by an immortal Father; and so combined within His being the capacity to die, and the power to hold death indefinitely in abeyance. He gave up His life; it was not taken from Him against His will. Note the significance of His own declaration: “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.” On another occasion Jesus testified of Himself in this way: “For as the Father hath life in himself, so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself; And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of Man.” Amidst the tragic scenes of the betrayal, when one who had been a professed follower and friend gave Him with a traitorous kiss to His persecutors, and when Peter, with a rashness prompted by personal zeal, drew and used the sword in His defense, the Master said: “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?” And on to the bitter end, marked by the expiring though triumphant cry “It is finished,” the incarnated God held in subjection within Himself the power to thwart His torturers had He so willed.