The Atonement is wondrous in its scope – in its breadth and depth. It is the most important act in all of history – the focal act of our Heavenly Father’s creations, and our testimony of it forms the first principle of the gospel. Consequently, the Lord hasn’t kept it a secret. The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob said, “…we knew of Christ, and we had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming; and not only we ourselves had a hope of his glory, but also all the holy prophets which were before us.” (Jacob 4:4), and the Saviour Himself commanded that we study to learn about Him, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.” (John 5:39)
Modern Apostles have repeated this encouragement. Elder Richard G Scott, when speaking to students at Brigham Young University, said, “I energetically encourage you to establish a personal plan to better understand and appreciate the incomparable, eternal, infinite consequences of the perfect fulfillment by Jesus Christ of His divinely appointed calling as our Savior and Redeemer. Profound personal pondering of the scriptures accompanied by searching, heartfelt prayer will fortify your understanding of and appreciation for the Atonement…. please establish for yourself a must-be-accomplished goal to acquire a better understanding of the Atonement…. This may seem to be a significantly added burden that you cannot realize because of the press of all else you are required to do…. However, as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ—and I do not use those words lightly—I testify that your understanding of the Atonement and the insight it provides for your life will greatly enhance your productive use of all of the knowledge, experience, and skills you acquire…. The Atonement is something that none of us can ever adequately appreciate, yet I believe that it is beneficial to try to imagine what it required of both the Father and His willing Son.” (Elder Richard G Scott, To Establish a Secure Foundation for Life, BYU Speeches, 18 Mar 2008)
On another occasion, Elder Scott stated, “Our understanding of and faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ will provide strength and capacity needed for a successful life.” (He Lives! All Glory to His Name, April 2010 General Conference). So here Elder Scott teaches us that our faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice will increase our capacity, so as to improve our success in life. We cannot ever adequately understand or appreciate it in this life, but there remains huge value in our attempt to do so.
Elder Russell M Nelson once said, “Understanding the significance of His atonement is fundamental to choices we make in all facets of our lives…. We are scripturally bound to study it and to teach it.” (Elder Russell M Nelson, Standards of the Lord’s Standard-Bearers, Aug 1991 Ensign) Again, we have an Apostle stating that the Atonement of Jesus Christ covers “all facets of our lives”. The more we understand the Atonement, the better choices we will be able to make in our lives. This implies that the greater understanding of the Atonement we have, the greater our true agency.
To the youth of the Church, President Boyd K Packer wrote, “You should learn… that while the Atonement of Christ applies to humanity in general, the influence of it is individual, very personal, and very useful…. an understanding of the Atonement is of immediate and very practical value in everyday life…. It was through reading the scriptures, and listening, that I could understand, at least in part, the power of the Atonement.” (President Boyd K Packer, Apr 1998 New Era). So here we have an Apostle stating that there is “very practical value in everyday life” to be gained from a greater understanding of the Atonement.
The study of the Atonement is not an intellectual exercise. It is not a scholarly endeavour. It is not for the benefit of some ethereal, intangible spiritual self, which has no tangible impact on our day-to-day lives. Rather, it has “very practical value in everyday life”. The more we understand the Atonement, the more successful we will therefore be in every good endeavour we undertake.
Of the importance of parents teaching about the Atonement to their children, Elder Robert D Hales said, “Faith and testimony must be centered in Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice. We should express to our children our own feelings about the Savior and share scriptures or experiences that have strengthened our testimony of Him. We should help them understand the significance of the Atonement and how it can be a daily blessing in their lives.” (Elder Robert D Hales, Our Parental Duty to God and to the Rising Generation, Aug 2010 Ensign)
As we bring up our children in righteousness and truth; as we teach to them the gospel; we begin with the first and most important principle – the Atonement of Christ. By so doing, we are teaching them something which will have very practical value; something which will increase their capacities for success in life; something which will increase their freedom; something which is fundamental to choices they will have to make in every facet of their life. And just as it is important for my children to learn these things, I too need greater practicality in my life, a greater capacity, and greater wisdom in the choices I must make. So gaining a greater understanding of the Atonement remains the most important thing I can learn in my life for my own benefit, as well as for the benefit of my children and others.
There are numerous other quotes that could be used that either explicitly or implicitly teach us that we should study and learn about Christ and His atoning sacrifice. My favourite scripture on the subject is in the book of Alma in the Book of Mormon, when he quotes Zenock as saying, “Thou art angry, O Lord, with this people, because they will not understand thy mercies which thou hast bestowed upon them because of thy Son.” (Alma 33:16) It offends the Lord when we fail to study His Atonement.
Many of us have made covenants to follow Him, to be His disciples – indeed, to take upon ourselves His name – and then we too often fail to study the act that is central to the entire gospel; is the very reason why we have made those covenants; and is the means by which we are enabled to fulfil those covenants. We have access to healing, and peace, and joy, and blessing beyond measure; and then we fail to learn about the act that enables us to have these blessings in our lives. I’m sure the Lord weeps when He sees us suffer so needlessly; when if we would but learn of the Saviour, and then allow Him to lift our burdens, such suffering could be at least reduced.
The first principle of the gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (see Article of Faith 4), and Joseph Smith in his Lectures on Faith taught that the first two things necessary to exercise faith were; firstly, an idea that He exists; and secondly, a correct understanding of His character, perfections, and attributes. This very clearly implies that if we want to have the blessings that come from faith in Christ’s Atonement, then we need to have a fuller understanding of it. The LDS Bible Dictionary defines knowledge as follows, “Knowledge. One of the attributes of God (Isa. 46:9–10; Acts 15:18; 2 Ne. 9:20). Knowledge of divine and spiritual things is absolutely essential for one’s salvation; hence the gospel is to be taught to every soul. “How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” (Rom. 10:14). Knowledge is not obtained all at once, even by revelation, but line upon line, precept upon precept (Isa. 28:9–10). The scriptures, and also living prophets, are given so that the people might have knowledge of things of God and “know how to worship, and know what you worship” (cf. D&C 93:19). Knowledge is one of the endowments of the Holy Ghost (John 14:26; 16:13; D&C 34:10; 121:26–33) and one of the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:8; Moro. 10:10; D&C 46:18). Peter lists knowledge along with faith, patience, kindness, and virtue as necessary acquisitions for one who would seek for a divine nature (2 Pet. 1:3–9).” (LDS Bible Dictionary, page 721)
“It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance.”, the Lord tells us in the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 131:6). And President James E Faust said, “Our salvation depends on believing in and accepting the Atonement. Such acceptance requires a continual effort to understand it more fully.” (October 2001 General Conference) The more we understand the Atonement, the more its blessings can be applied in our lives.
And so we seek to study and learn more about the Atonement, so that we can have it more fully in our lives, and in the lives of those we love. I was once struck when we were discussing in a Sunday School class the events leading up to the Atonement, in the Garden of Gethsemane, with words that had never really meant much to me before. In the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament, the Saviour takes His disciples to the garden, and leaves 8 of the 11 in the outer parts of the garden, taking Peter, James and John with Him. These three He takes with Him further into the Garden, and then gives them a command to tarry, “and watch” (Mark 14:34). It struck me that the Saviour was commanding those who would shortly be those to lead of His Church to witness His atoning sacrifice. These would be the only three mortals to see first-hand the greatest and most important event of all of history, as it happened – the event that has eternal impact on every living thing. But either because they did not understand, or because they themselves felt too much pain and sorrow at seeing the Saviour suffer, they struggled to keep this command to witness, and three times the Saviour came to awaken them.
Would you or I fall asleep if we had the opportunity to witness this event of all events? I would hazard a guess and suggest that most of us would be pretty adamant that we would stay awake if given that rare opportunity to witness the most sacred act ever performed; truly the crowning act of eternity. But the reality is that you and I are constantly asked to partake of the power of the Atonement and all too often we refuse the offer. We are asked to repent, yet we persist in our favourite little sins. We are asked to forgive others, and yet we hold grudges. We are asked to cast upon Him all our burdens, but we cling on to them, stubbornly refusing to be healed.
May we accept the Saviour’s invitation to learn of Him. May we heed the call of latter-day prophets and apostles to make the study of the Saviour’s Atoning sacrifice a part of our lives. In so doing, I believe that His power will become more evident in our lives. We will have a greater power to resist evil and to triumph over it. We will have greater power to overcome challenges. We will have support to overcome our natural and acquired weaknesses and shortcomings. In short, we will thus have more of the power of the Atonement in our lives, to make us whole – to fully and completely heal us.