So today my personal reading got around to the third and final part of this sermon, where Amulek picks up from where Alma left off. As I was doing so, there was already one subject that loomed large in my mind, but there are several other points that emerged, so I plan to cover these in order of reading. So without futher ado…
All are fallen and are lost
The absolute necessity of the Atonement of Christ, and our need to accept it, is something the Book of Mormon repeatedly teaches. It’s something that not everyone appears to understand, however. I’ve heard a number of people, include those within the Church, conclude that they don’t need to change, because they’re “a good person”. But this is not true: all are fallen, and all are lost. This is not to say that the nature of our sins all reaches the same degree, of course. Most people aren’t Hitler, or anything of that sort. But “not Hitler” is not good enough, and while that may be easy to grasp neither is most people’s definition of a “good person”.
We might class ourselves as such as we mean well most of the time, but meaning well is very different from working righteousness, nor does meaning well erase our moments of weakness, selfishness, cruelty and malice. It is a common temptation to think that if we mostly mean well and don’t harm people most of the time, God “will justify in committing a little sin” (2 Nephi 28:8), but little could be further from the truth. All of us, by our natural attainments, fall far short of the standard of holiness by which it will even be bearable to be in the presence of God (Mormon 9:3-5), let alone to be exalted. And so we need the help of a greater power, even a divine and infinite and eternal power, not just to be forgiven of all those things we do wrong (or did not do right), but also to have our characters transformed and purified. We all need to change, and none of us can accomplish that change by ourselves. We need the Atonement of Christ.
An infinite and eternal sacrifice
And so we turn to the topic that had been on my mind. This has largely been brought up as I’ve heard people claim that the Atonement was “personal” and “for each of us”. In its most extreme variant, I’ve heard the claim that it involved praying personally for everyone by name, a claim which simultaneous makes the Atonement too small (as we shall see), and yet underestimates how long praying for everyone by name would take. Assuming a rough estimate of 25 billion people live or ever have lived on Earth, for example, one would still be at the task!
What has become clear in many of these cases is that those making these claims see the Atonement of Christ as occurring in discrete lots: that is, that Christ suffered a bit for me, then a bit for you, and so on through the whole Human family. There’s problems with such teachings, but by far the biggest is that they aren’t true.
Turning to Amulek in 34:10:
For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice.
It should be noted that Christ was both an infinite and eternal sacrifice, because he wasn’t just human, he was divine. This refers to more than simply the circumstances of his birth too: it’s not simply that he was the only begotten of the Father in a genetic sense, but also because prior to birth he was divine. As the Book of Mormon puts it on the title page, “JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD”. For him to give up his life was to make more than a mortal offering, but to offer the life of a God.
Continuing on with verses 11 and 12:
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.
This is the crucial bit, because what Amulek is teaching is that the way at least some think the Atonement works doesn’t work. If the Atonement consisted of the transfer of a discrete portion of suffering, someone could atone for the sins of the another, but they can’t. And as his own reference to their own law makes clear, it would not be just: their just law will not be satisfied simply with a death, but rather with that of the guilty. The simple transferral of a set amount of suffering, even if done 25 billion times, while unimaginable vast to human beings, is still finite, and would not work. The only solution is an infinite atonement, with an infinite sacrifice.
Why does this matter? For one thing, I think it is important to try, even if we fail, to appreciate the full magnitude of what Christ did, and what only Christ could do, for us. For another, the idea that the Atonement consists of Christ transferring to himself discrete and personalised packets of suffering may even lead people to reject the atonement. I have known of some who felt that they don’t want Christ to experience their bit of pain, either out of a misinformed belief that they didn’t want to “add” that burden to him, or some sort of belief that they can take their own punishment. But it doesn’t work like that. Christ has already atoned for the sins of the world, and did so in such a way that it is impossible to add or reduce the burden he took upon himself. And in doing so, he was doing something that none of us could possibly have done, not even for one person. And his superlative and infinite power can save any one of us, if we accept the gift he has already provided in gratitude.
Work out your salvation with fear before God
There’s many other things in this chapter which deserve attention, but there’s one final passage which stood out to me today:
And now, my beloved brethren, I desire that ye should remember these things, and that ye should work out your salvation with fear before God, and that ye should no more deny the coming of Christ;
This is not an unique sentiment in the scriptures (compare Philippians 2:12 and Mormon 9:27), nor is it the first time I’ve discussed fear (including potential positive aspects). But I was struck by it again, perhaps because I’ve seen a fair few adverts for an event recently, in which many of the performers and speakers seem to speak as if participation in the gospel should bring one continuous joy. Well it will… eventually. But not yet.
There’s a balance in these things. On one hand we should not be in a state of insecurity, where we feel unable to trust in God’s promises, or be oppressed by feelings of perfectionism as if everything depended upon us and any failings were irretrievable mistakes. We are saved by grace, we are instructed to “look unto me in every thought: doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36), and encouraged to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16, my emphasis). At the same time we must avoid complacency, a state of “carnal security” in which we think “all is well in Zion” (2 Nephi 28:21), and indeed work out our salvation before God with fear and trembling. In similar fashion, Christ does offer us peace (John 14:27), and offers us a “fulness of joy” in the world to come (D&C 93:33). But Adam and Eve, in their innocent state, knew “no joy, for they knew no misery” (2 Nephi 2:23), and the promise to those who are joint-heirs with Christ is that “if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:17). We’re not guaranteed unbroken happiness in this life, no matter we live our life. The path of following Christ cannot be reduced just to one dimension, either joy nor suffering. In the course of this life, we will likely experience both, at different times and different places, as indeed 2 Nephi 2 points out that we need to. And indeed, our future joys, especially that fulness of joy may well be linked to sufferings in this life, as Peter points out:
But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.
(1 Peter 4:13)
In essence, we should always remember what Christ himself teaches:
These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.