Become really, really good at repenting thoroughly and quickly. Because the Atonement of Jesus Christ is very practical, you should apply it generously 24/7, for it never runs out. Embrace the Atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance as things that are to be welcomed and applied daily according to the Great Physician’s orders. Establish an attitude of ongoing, happy, joyful repentance by making it your lifestyle of choice. In doing so, beware of the temptation to procrastinate, and don’t expect the world to cheer you on. Keeping your eyes on the Savior, care more about what He thinks of you, and let the consequences follow. Spiritual confidence increases when you voluntarily and joyfully repent of sins, both small and great, in real time by applying the Atonement of Jesus Christ. . . acknowledge and face your weaknesses, but don’t be immobilized by them, because some of them will be your companions until you depart this earth life. No matter what your current status, the very moment you voluntarily choose honest, joyful, daily repentance by striving to simply do and be your very best, the Savior’s Atonement envelops and follows you, as it were, wherever you go. Living in this manner, you can truly “always retain a remission of your sins” every hour of every day, every second of every minute, and thus be fully clean and acceptable before God all the time.
I speak today to those who may be lost and are searching for that lower light to help guide them back. It was understood from the beginning that in mortality we would fall short of being perfect. It was not expected that we would live without transgressing one law or another. “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord.” From the Pearl of Great Price, we understand that “no unclean thing can dwell [in the kingdom of God],” and so a way was provided for all who sin to repent and become worthy of the presence of our Father in Heaven once more. A Mediator, a Redeemer, was chosen, one who would live His life perfectly, commit no sin, and offer “himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.” Concerning the importance of the Atonement, in Alma we learn, “For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; … or else all mankind must unavoidably perish.” If you have made no mistakes, then you do not need the Atonement. If you have made mistakes, and all of us have, whether minor or serious, then you have an enormous need to find out how they can be erased so that you are no longer in darkness. “[Jesus Christ] is the light and the life of the world.” As we fix our gaze on His teachings, we will be guided to the harbor of spiritual safety.
I speak to this generation with some sense of vicarious anticipation in your behalf of what lies ahead—urging you to pour out your hearts in supplication and prayer. There is nothing more powerful than prayer, nothing more masculine or more feminine (at the same time) than prayer. There was more power processed and expended on that single night in Gethsemane, in that small garden, than all the armies and navies have ever expended in all the battles on the land and sea and in the air in all of human history. The catalyst of prayer helped Jesus to cope with suffering, and by his suffering he emancipated all men from death and made possible eternal life. This cardinal fact about the central act of human history, the Atonement, ought to give us pause, therefore, as we face our challenges individually. . . I should like to suggest some (eight) traps into which we can fall, if we are not careful, as we try to meet the challenges that life delivers at our doorsteps.
I bear solemn and grateful witness that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior of the world. Certainly he is the center of our worship and the key to our happiness. Let us follow the Son of God in all ways and all walks of life. Let us make him our exemplar and our guide. We are at a time in the history of the world and the growth of the Church when we must think more of holy things and act more like the Savior would expect his disciples to act. We should at every opportunity ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” and then act more courageously upon the answer. We must be about his work as he was about his Father’s. We should make every effort to become like Christ, the one perfect and sinless example this world has ever seen.
I know this is a delicate and sensitive thing of which I am speaking. There are hardened criminals who may have to be locked up. There are unspeakable crimes, such as deliberate murder and rape, that justify harsh penalties. But there are some who could be saved from long, stultifying years in prison because of an unthoughtful, foolish act. Somehow forgiveness, with love and tolerance, accomplishes miracles that can happen in no other way. The great Atonement was the supreme act of forgiveness. The magnitude of that Atonement is beyond our ability to completely understand. I know only that it happened, and that it was for me and for you. The suffering was so great, the agony so intense, that none of us can comprehend it when the Savior offered Himself as a ransom for the sins of all mankind.
To the very end of his mortal life Jesus was demonstrating the grandeur of his spirit and the magnitude of his strength. He was not, even at this late hour, selfishly engrossed with his own sorrows or contemplating the impending pain. He was anxiously attending to the present and future needs of his beloved followers. He knew their own safety, individually and as a church, lay only in their unconditional love one for another. His entire energies seem to have been directed toward their needs, thus teaching by example what he was teaching by precept. He gave them words of comfort and commandment and caution. “Let not your heart be troubled,” he said, for he sensed their fear and sorrow. “In my father’s house are many mansions. … I go to prepare a place for you. … I am the way, the truth, and the life. … Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do. … I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever. … I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. … Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. … These things I command you, that ye love one another.”
Our everyday usage of the word hope includes how we “hope” to arrive at a certain destination by a certain time. We “hope” the world economy will improve. We “hope” for the visit of a loved one. Such typify our sincere but proximate hopes. Life’s disappointments often represent the debris of our failed, proximate hopes. Instead, however, I speak of the crucial need for ultimate hope. Ultimate hope is a different matter. It is tied to Jesus and the blessings of the great Atonement, blessings resulting in the universal Resurrection and the precious opportunity provided thereby for us to practice emancipating repentance, making possible what the scriptures call “a perfect brightness of hope” Moroni confirmed: “What is it that ye shall hope for? Behold I say unto you that ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ” Real hope, therefore, is not associated with things mercurial, but rather with things immortal and eternal! Unsurprisingly, hope is intertwined with other gospel doctrines, especially faith and patience. Just as doubt, despair, and desensitization go together, so do faith, hope, charity, and patience. The latter qualities must be carefully and constantly nurtured, however, whereas doubt and despair, like dandelions, need little encouragement in order to sprout and spread. Alas, despair comes so naturally to the natural man! Patience, for example, permits us to deal more evenly with the unevenness of life’s experiences. Faith and hope are constantly interactive and are not always easily or precisely distinguished. Nevertheless, ultimate hope’s expectations are “with surety” true. Yet in the geometry of the restored theology, hope corresponds to faith but sometimes has a greater circumference. . . Such ultimate hope constitutes the “anchor of the soul” and is retained through the gift of the Holy Ghost and faith in Christ. In contrast, viewing life without the prospect of immortality can diminish not only hope but also the sense of personal accountability.
The gospel of the Savior is not simply about avoiding bad in our lives; it also is essentially about doing and becoming good. And the Atonement provides help for us to overcome and avoid bad and to do and become good. There is help from the Savior for the entire journey of life—from bad to good to better and to change our very nature. I am not trying to suggest that the redeeming and enabling powers of the Atonement are separate and discrete. Rather, these two dimensions of the Atonement are connected and complementary; they both need to be operational during all phases of the journey of life. And it is eternally important for all of us to recognize that both of these essential elements of the journey of life—both putting off the natural man and becoming a saint, both overcoming bad and becoming good—are accomplished through the power of the Atonement. Individual willpower, personal determination and motivation, and effective planning and goal setting are necessary but ultimately insufficient to triumphantly complete this mortal journey. Truly we must come to rely upon “the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah”.
Because Jesus was brilliant beyond our comprehension, he knew even premortally, though intellectually, what he was volunteering to do. Yet he had to experience it all personally—especially the awful agony of Gethsemane and Calvary. He who is “more intelligent than they all” is also more meek than they all! He went meekly forward and partook of the most bitter cup—and did so without becoming bitter! Jesus descended below all things in order to be able to comprehend all things. Thus he is not only a fully atoning Savior but is a fully comprehending Savior as well! Christ somehow came to know—just as specifically prophesied—our griefs, sorrows, pains, sicknesses, afflictions, and infirmities. He did so, declared Alma, that he might know, according to the flesh, how to succor and to help us in the midst of our infirmities. Only in restoration scriptures—specifically the Book of Mormon—is Jesus’ atonement referred to as the “infinite atonement”. It was “infinite” in several dimensions. First, in what is called the “great and last sacrifice,” the sacrifice of a mere animal or an imperfect mortal would not do. It required the sacrifice of an infinite being, an eternal and sinless God. Jesus, you will recall, volunteered premortally: “Here am I, send me”. Never has anyone offered to do so much for so many with so few words! As an infinite being, Jesus had the unique power to put down and take up his life. Jesus’ atonement also had infinite impact affecting all mankind. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive”. Third, his atonement involved infinite suffering—suffering beyond our comprehension. I will note especially some of his suffering. The Atonement fulfills many prophesies. Jesus was to be spat upon, struck, scourged. He would be given vinegar and gall. He would issue a soul cry, the very words of which were prophesied by David in a Messianic psalm. None of his bones was to be broken.
As temporal and spiritual death came by the fall of Adam, so immortality and eternal life come by the atonement of Christ. Such was and is and ever shall be the plan of the Father. Adam was sent to earth to fall, and Christ came to ransom men from the fall. Thus the Father sent forth this call in the councils of eternity: “Whom shall I send to be my Son, to ransom all people from temporal and spiritual death, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man, to put into full operation all the terms and conditions of my eternal plan of redemption and salvation?” Christ is the Redeemer of men and the Savior of the world because his Father sent him and gave him power to do the assigned work. He said he had power to lay down his life and to take it again because he had been so commanded by the Father. Lehi said he rose from the dead “by the power of the Spirit” (2 Nephi 2:8). The great and eternal redemption, in all its phases, was wrought by Christ using the power of the Father.
Christ came to save us. If we have taken a wrong course, the Atonement of Jesus Christ can give us the assurance that sin is not a point of no return. A safe return is possible if we will follow God’s plan for our salvation. We have received this plan from the highest authority in the universe, even God, our Heavenly Father. This plan was prepared from before the foundation of the earth. It is a great plan of happiness, a plan of mercy, a plan of redemption, a plan of salvation. This plan enables us to experience a physical existence, including mortality, a time of probation, and to return to the presence of God and live in eternal happiness and glory. It is explained in the doctrines of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Following this plan has beautiful eternal consequences for us individually, for our families, for generations to come, and even for generations who went before. The plan includes divine reconciliation and forgiveness.
I feel, and the Spirit seems to accord, that the most important doctrine I can declare, and the most powerful testimony I can bear, is of the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. His atonement is the most transcendent event that ever has or ever will occur from Creation’s dawn through all the ages of a never-ending eternity. It is the supreme act of goodness and grace that only a god could perform. Through it, all of the terms and conditions of the Father’s eternal plan of salvation became operative. Through it are brought to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. Through it, all men are saved from death, hell, the devil, and endless torment. And through it, all who believe and obey the glorious gospel of God, all who are true and faithful and overcome the world, all who suffer for Christ and his word, all who are chastened and scourged in the Cause of him whose we are—all shall become as their Maker and sit with him on his throne and reign with him forever in everlasting glory. . . And now, as pertaining to this perfect atonement, wrought by the shedding of the blood of God—I testify that it took place in Gethsemane and at Golgotha, and as pertaining to Jesus Christ, I testify that he is the Son of the Living God and was crucified for the sins of the world. He is our Lord, our God, and our King. This I know of myself independent of any other person. I am one of his witnesses, and in a coming day I shall feel the nail marks in his hands and in his feet and shall wet his feet with my tears. But I shall not know any better then than I know now that he is God’s Almighty Son, that he is our Savior and Redeemer, and that salvation comes in and through his atoning blood and in no other way.
When the Lord used the expression “savor of men,” he was speaking of those who represent him. He was referring to those who have repented, who have been washed clean in the waters of baptism, and who have covenanted to take upon them his name and his cause. Moreover, he was speaking of those who would share by covenant his priesthood power. He was speaking of you and me. A world-renowned chemist told me that salt will not lose its savor with age. Savor is lost through mixture and contamination. Similarly, priesthood power does not dissipate with age; it, too, is lost through mixture and contamination. When a young man or older man mixes his thoughts with pornographic literature, he suffers a loss of savor. When a priesthood bearer mixes his speech with lies or profanity, he suffers a loss of savor.When one of us follows the crowd and becomes involved in immoral acts and the use of drugs, tobacco, alcohol, and other injurious substances, he loses savor. Flavor and quality flee a man when he contaminates his mind with unclean thoughts, desecrates his mouth by speaking less than the truth, and misapplies his strength in performing evil acts. King Benjamin cautioned, “Watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God”. I would offer these simple guidelines, especially to the young men, as the means to preserve one’s savor: If it is not clean, do not think it; if it is not true, do not speak it; if it is not good, do not do it.
In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord commanded us to become perfect even as our Father in Heaven is perfect. In the Book of Mormon the resurrected Lord asked the rhetorical question, “What manner of men ought ye to be?” and then he answered his own question, “Even as I am” In the Upper Room, just before the Lord left to go to the Garden of Gethsemane, He lifted up His eyes to heaven and in the presence of His Apostles offered what has come to be called the intercessory prayer. The prayer is found in John, chapter 17. President David O. McKay said that there is no more important chapter in the Bible. In that unique setting, the Lord prayed over and over that His disciples would become one as He and His Father were one. How are they one? They know perfectly what the ideal person ought to be, and that is exactly what they are. There is a perfect oneness or congruity between their ideal and actual lives. They are one. That is not always the case with us. We often do not actually measure up to what we know we ideally ought to be. Sometimes we are not “one” as we are commanded to become. In order to become one, we need to engage in the process of the “at-one-ment,” or making the Atonement of Jesus Christ operative in our lives. We can grow toward that perfect oneness by applying those basic principles of faith in Christ unto repentance. Thus we can change, and our actual lives will come closer each day to becoming one with our ideal selves. If we are moving in that positive direction, the Spirit will be with us, but if we are going in the other direction, it will not. As the Lord said, “Be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine”.
Each worshipper at the conference could extract their own personally satisfying and needed messages from the talks, but I got mine in three words that took me back to a previous time. A young man whose beginnings in the Church had not been auspicious or helpful and who said he knew nothing about the gospel had been sent to me for help in learning about it. I asked him how he would like to go about learning or where he would like to start. He said that he didn’t know enough to know, so how about starting with the alphabet. I said, “Okay, we’ll start with the A’s.” And in the conference this time, those three A’s that I talked to him about came immediately to the fore: atonement, agency, and accountability. . . Without the Atonement we could not have what we have of assurance, and we could not have the wonderful privilege of responding through our agency, moral agency, which is not only our privilege but our inescapable responsibility to carry and respond to.
And thus it is that salvation is in Christ, that his atoning sacrifice is the heart and core and center of revealed religion, and that he—in Gethsemane of sorrowful memory and on the cross of Calvary—put into full operation all the terms and conditions of his Father’s plan. He is the resurrection and the life. He is the Redeemer of the world and the Savior of men. He “hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”. It was his work and his glory to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. And his is the only name given under heaven whereby man may be saved. If there had been no atonement of Christ, there would be no resurrection, no breaking of the bands of death, no coming forth from the grave. If there had been no atonement, there would be no remission of sins; no return to the presence of God; no salvation of any sort, kind, or nature; no eternal life; no exaltation; no continuation of the family unit in eternity. If there were no atonement of Christ, all men would be subject to “that awful monster the devil, and death, and hell, and that lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment”. If there were no atonement of Christ, “our spirits” would have become “like unto” Lucifer’s, “and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself”. If there were no atonement of Christ, all men would be damned everlastingly, all would be sons of perdition, and the whole purpose of God and his eternal plan of salvation would utterly fail. All things center in, revolve around, are anchored to, and are built upon the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no language given to men or angels to proclaim these truths with the power and verity and dignity that should attend them. Let it be blazoned in burning fire through all the sidereal heavens that salvation is in Christ and comes because of his atoning sacrifice. Now this atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ—grand and infinite, glorious and eternal as it is—does not stand alone. It is not simply a sudden blaze of light in a universe of darkness and despair. It is not by itself alone a great sun rising in celestial splendor to dispel the gloom of endless night. It is not merely a manifestation of the grace of an infinite God toward his fallen children. However much the atonement may be and is all these things—and more!—yet it does not stand alone. It is not a child born without parents. It has roots; it has a reason for being; it came because other events called it forth.
The Atonement has practical, personal, everyday value; apply it in your life. It can be activated with so simple a beginning as prayer. You will not thereafter be free from trouble and mistakes but can erase the guilt through repentance and be at peace. I quoted the third article of faith. It has two parts: “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, [then the conditions] by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” Justice requires that there be a punishment. Guilt is not erased without pain. There are laws to obey and ordinances to receive, and there are penalties to pay. Physical pain requires treatment and a change in lifestyle. So it is with spiritual pain. There must be repentance and discipline, most of which is self-discipline. But to restore our innocence after serious transgressions, there must be confession to our bishop, who is the appointed judge. The Lord promised, “A new heart … will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you.” That spiritual heart surgery, like in the body, may cause you pain and require a change in habits and conduct. But in both cases, recovery brings renewed life and peace of mind. . . As one who stands among His Apostles, I testify of Him and of the ever-present power of His Atonement. From the lofty words of justice and mercy and of warning and hope in the verses of scripture, I turn to the very same message in verses of a simple poem: ’Twas battered and scarred, and the auctioneer, Thought it scarcely worth his while, To waste much time on the old violin . . . see more.
Joseph Smith said: The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it. In the temple recommend interview, we are asked, “Do you have a testimony of the Atonement of Christ and of His role as Savior and Redeemer?” In my experience as a bishop and a stake president, I can happily report that I have never had anyone answer that question other than yes; yet I have long had a concern that we don’t fully appreciate that question. I think it significant that of the many roles of Christ, we are asked about only two: His role as Savior and His role as Redeemer. There must be something about these roles that is particularly important to the temple—a place where He binds us to Himself through covenants. . . Brothers and sisters, we must come to know in great detail and with insight and feeling the events that make up the Atonement of Christ. We find in the Restoration of the gospel much help.
I do not know the details of what happened on this planet before that, but I do know these two were created under the divine hand of God, that for a time they lived alone in a paradisiacal setting where there was neither human death nor future family, and that through a sequence of choices they transgressed a commandment of God which required that they leave their garden setting but which allowed them to have children before facing physical death.3 To add further sorrow and complexity to their circumstance, their transgression had spiritual consequences as well, cutting them off from the presence of God forever. Because we were then born into that fallen world and because we too would transgress the laws of God, we also were sentenced to the same penalties that Adam and Eve faced. What a plight! The entire human race in free fall—every man, woman, and child in it physically tumbling toward permanent death, spiritually plunging toward eternal anguish. Is that what life was meant to be? Is this the grand finale of the human experience? Are we all just hanging in a cold canyon somewhere in an indifferent universe, each of us searching for a toehold, each of us seeking for something to grip—with nothing but the feeling of sand sliding under our fingers, nothing to save us, nothing to hold on to, much less anything to hold on to us? Is our only purpose in life an empty existential exercise—simply to leap as high as we can, hang on for our prescribed three score years and ten, then fail and fall, and keep falling forever? The answer to those questions is an unequivocal and eternal no! With prophets ancient and modern, I testify that “all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.” Thus, from the moment those first parents stepped out of the Garden of Eden, the God and Father of us all, anticipating Adam and Eve’s decision, dispatched the very angels of heaven to declare to them—and down through time to us—that this entire sequence was designed for our eternal happiness. It was part of His divine plan, which provided for a Savior, the very Son of God Himself—another “Adam,” the Apostle Paul would call Him—who would come in the meridian of time to atone for the first Adam’s transgression. That Atonement would achieve complete victory over physical death, unconditionally granting resurrection to every person who has been born or ever will be born into this world. Mercifully it would also provide forgiveness for the personal sins of all, from Adam to the end of the world, conditioned upon repentance and obedience to divine commandments.