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What the Doctrine and Covenants Says About the Atonement

The Doctrine and Covenants is a small book of modern revelations given to prophets of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most came to Joseph Smith, with a few coming in later times. The revelations generally came in response to specific questions the prophets had, sometimes in relation to events or policies, and other times in response to a need for doctrinal clarification.
A painting depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.Three sections of the book offer  new insights into the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. These help us to realize the power of the atonement. They demonstrate just how loving and fair God is and also help us to understand the purpose of life.

In Section 74, Joseph Smith explained that he had asked God for an explanation of 1 Corinthians 7:14:

For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.

He learned that it referred to husbands who had not accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ and who, after circumcision and the law of Moses ended, continued to practice them and to insist their children be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. Even if the wife was a follower of Jesus Christ, in that day, children were raised according to the mandate of the father, which meant the children would be kept from the truth and become unholy.

The Jews believed little children could be unholy, which is not true.

That their children might remain without circumcision; and that the tradition might be done away, which saith that little children are unholy; for it was had among the Jews;   But little children are holy, being sanctified through the atonement of Jesus Christ; and this is what the scriptures mean. (See Doctrine and Covenants 74:1-5.)

Mormons teach that children under the age of eight cannot sin and are not accountable for the sins of Adam. Everyone, in fact, is accountable only for what he himself knowingly does, but children in particular are protected. The atonement of Jesus Christ removed original sin and children under the age of eight are too young to be accountable for their choices. Jesus Christ took their sins and if they die unbaptized they are returned to God, being perfect by virtue of the atonement.

While doing an inspired translation of John 5:29 in the Bible, Joseph Smith and his scribe, Sidney Rigdon, saw a vision that answered their questions about what happened after death. The revelation can be found in Doctrine and Covenants 76.

They were puzzled by the information in the Bible that showed that Jesus would judge each of us according to our choices in life and then our eternal future would be determined accordingly. There are so many levels of good and bad behavior. Surely the same fate doesn’t await someone who tells a white lie as does a person who tells a lie that creates a lot of heart-ache. He learned that there are multiple levels of Heaven.

This does not mean we can work our way into Heaven. Salvation comes through the atonement of Jesus Christ. Without that atonement, none of us could be forgiven for our sins. With it, we can repent and be forgiven. Un-repented of sins, however, must be dealt with at the judgment seat, as shown in the above-lined verse.

Jesus Christ will judge as, the Bible says. There are varying places of reward for those who were not evil and did not reject a completely sure testimony of the Savior. We know that no unclean thing can dwell in God’s presence. Furthermore, our behavior on Earth, if we believe in Jesus Christ, is a reflection of our love for and commitment to the Savior. The more we know and love Him, the more closely we will align our lives to His. It is obvious such devotion would be rewarded accordingly. However, it is the atonement that makes it possible because even the most faith-filled and loving person will make mistakes.

This principle was clarified in a vision given to Joseph F. Smith, the son of Joseph Smith’s brother Hyrum, and at the time the prophet of the Church:

That through his atonement, and by obedience to the principles of the gospel, mankind might be saved (Doctrine and Covenants 138:4).

This verse reflects what Joseph F. Smith was thinking about—the Lord Jesus Christ’s atonement—when he received a vision that helped him to understand what happened after Jesus died. The Bible reports that during the three days between the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Savior was preaching to those in spirit prison.

He reflected on the following verses:

“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: “By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;

“Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” (1 Peter 3:18–20.)

“For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” (1 Peter 4:6.)

In the vision, President Smith saw that the good who had died before Christ were anxiously awaiting the resurrection. Christ came to them, but not yet to the wicked or to those who had knowingly rejected Jesus Christ.

This helped President Smith understand how Jesus had preached for three years on Earth, but only converted a few, but was able to convert so many in those three days in Heaven. He had preached to those who had been eagerly awaiting Him. And yet, there were so many of them and Jesus had such a short time. President Smith learned that Jesus had organized and authorized certain worthy followers to conduct missionary work among the dead. His three days, then, were largely in choosing, organizing and training these missionaries, who could then teach the gospel in more depth to those who did not know about Jesus Christ or understand His gospel. This would allow them to make an informed choice, just as they would have had the gospel been preached to them on Earth.

Because accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior and being baptized is required to be saved, it is obvious that a loving God would provide a way for everyone to have a fair chance at salvation. The atonement of Jesus Christ made it possible for fairness to occur in the eternities. Linda K. Burton, General Relief Society (the official women’s auxiliary) president for the entire Church said, “All that is unfair about life can be made right through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.”

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