The Atonement of Christ: Infinite in Scope, Intimate in Nature

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Robert MilletDevotional Given at
Brigham Young University–Hawaii

November 10, 2005
Robert L. Millet
Latter-day Sait Author, Scholar

Brothers and sisters, Aloha!

I think I'd like to thank Brother Martins for that introduction. I'd only ask two things of him. One is that he commit it to writing and send it to my wife as soon as possible so that she could believe that, and, number two, I would only ask that he be around at the time of my funeral.

What a delightful thing for me to be with you. I love Brigham Young University Hawaii, and I love the students at BYU-Hawaii and it's just an honor for me to be asked to be here this week and particularly this morning to address you at this devotional. We have spent this year celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of the prophet Joseph Smith.

Magnificent prophet, leader, dispensation head, and it's been an honor for me to be involved in many varied activities throughout the world in celebrating the prophet and holding his name and work and ministry high. As part of that I thought that today in our devotional, we might consider what I believe to be and I know to be the central feature of Joseph Smith's testimony. On many occasions, he was asked the question, "Are you or do you claim to be a prophet of God?"

And he would answer, "Yes, as is every other man who has the testimony of Jesus. For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy."

If Joseph Smith had anything, he had the testimony of Jesus. He had the spirit of prophecy. Joseph Smith was steeped in and thoroughly trained in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it was the focus and the center of all that he did. And I feel today that perhaps the greatest tribute I might pay on this occasion is to bear testimony myself of the person who was the center of Joseph Smith's life, namely, the Savior.

Perhaps there's some of you, and I think all of us at one time or another feel this, that find yourselves wondering on occasion, if perhaps you've slipped and gone a little too far. Perhaps you worry that perhaps your actions or your attitudes have been such that they place you beyond spiritual help. I want to bear testimony, brothers and sisters, as the prophet Joseph Smith said, "That all are within reach of pardoning mercy who has not committed the unpardonable sin." And I don't think there are too many of us today that are even capable of committing the unpardonable sin so I think we're safe.

I want to bear testimony today of the reality and the beauty and the majesty; the magnificence of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and His Atonement. And I want to, at the same time, bear testimony of the intimate and personal nature of that atonement, because I think both of those attitudes both of those perspectives are necessary in order for us to appreciate how powerful He is, and how much we need Him. And for us at the same time to appreciate the fact that He's there, He's available, He's open to us.

I want to draw largely upon the Book of Mormon this morning and talk about the nature of the atonement. I'll quote once in a while from another source, but I'd like to use mostly the Book of Mormon. I'd like to suggest, first of all, some ways in which the scripture teach us that the atonement of Christ is indeed infinite and eternal.

Let me begin with a passage from a book that most of us don't quote too often. From the book of Jarom, in the Book of Mormon; Jarom 1:11 "Wherefore the prophets and the priests and the teachers did labor diligently, exhorting with all long suffering the people to diligence, teaching the law of Moses, and the intent for which it was given, persuading them to look forward to the Messiah," now note this line, "and to believe in Him to come as though He already was."

Now this is some 500 to 600 BC. One of the magnificent messages of the Book of Mormon is the message of Christ's eternal gospel. It is a message, frankly, that the Latter-day Saints hold as a singular message to the world. That is that Christian prophets have declared Christian doctrine and administered Christian ordinances since the days of Adam. That Adam was told, with Eve, to call upon the Father in the name of the Son, who would not come to the earth for another 4,000 years. In other words, that the atonement was in effect from the beginning of time. Indeed as the scriptures say, "Christ is the lamb, slain from the foundation of the world." [Rev 13:8, D&C 76:39, Moses 7:47]

The atonement is infinite in that it is timeless. It is timeless. Notice what Alma says to his son, Corianton, a boy who has been guilty of moral transgression but who more than anything needs direction and needs doctrine in his life. You see, this is what President Packer taught us so beautifully when he taught us, "that true doctrine understood changes attitudes and behavior."

Notice what Alma says to Corianton, "Behold you, {Corianton}, marvel why these things {the Atonement} should be known so long beforehand. Behold I say unto you is not a soul unto this time, {meaning at our time} as precious unto God as the will be soul at the time of His coming? Is it not as necessary that the plan of redemption should be made known unto this people as well as unto their children? Is it not as easy at this time, for the Lord to send His angel to declare these glad tidings unto us as unto our children? Or as after the time of His coming?" [Alma 39:17-19]

For the Nephites and for those who lived before Christ who knew who Jesus would be and knew who the Messiah and the Redeemer would be, for them, prophecy was as history. It was as though He had already come.

Second, the atonement of Jesus Christ is said to be infinite and eternal in the sense that it overcomes that universal phenomenon that we know as death. The one thing that every mortal shares with every other mortal: we are all born; we will all die. Now I wish that weren't true, but it's true. I get up in the morning, and I roll over onto my knees and say my prayers and then get up and then go into the bathroom. I flip on the light, and I look in the mirror, and I want you to know that I have a spiritual experience as I look into that mirror, because there is born to my soul the witness that the fall is a true doctrine, because there I stand looking at myself and I notice that I'm losing what little hair I ever had. I notice that my broad chest and my narrow waist have changed places. I notice that I have no feeling in my feet yet. It takes a while for the blood to get all that way down there, and I realize that I'm actually much closer to death than I am to birth.

The fall is a reality. Every one of us will face, one day, what the world calls a Grim Reaper, but which the Book of Mormon teaches is part of the merciful plan we will face death. But the atonement is infinite and eternal in that it, through the Savior's resurrection, gets around, overcomes that universal thing we call death. Lehi said to Jacob (actually it's Jacob himself), "Wherefore it needs be an infinite atonement, save it should be an infinite atonement, this corruption could not put on incorruption. This corrupt body could not put on incorruption {in the resurrection}. Wherefore the first judgment which came upon man, must needs have remained to an endless duration, and if so, this flesh must lay down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more."[2 Ne.9:7] And so the Atonement is timeless, the Atonement overcomes death.

Third, let me read to you a passage from Alma chapter 34 where Amulek is preaching to the Zoramites concerning the atonement and see if you can understand how he says the Atonement is infinite and eternal. "It is expedient," Amulek says, "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. Now there's not any man that can sacrifice his own blood {meaning an immortal man} which can 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 can be short of an infinite Atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world." [Alma 34:10-12]

Now think about what Amulek is saying. It is: the atonement of Christ is infinite and eternal in the sense that it, it seems almost to defy human law and human logic. The great Christian thinker, C.S. Lewis, put it this way. He said, "Among the Jews, there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if he were God. I mean, he claims to forgive sins. He says he has always existed. He says he's coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offenses against himself. You tread on my toes and I forgive you. You steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden upon, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other man's toes and stealing other men's money. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if he were the party chiefly concerned. The person chiefly offended in all offenses. "This makes sense only," Lewis said, "if he really was the God whose laws were broken, and whose love is wounded in every sin."

The atonement is timeless. The atonement defies human law and logic. The atonement overcomes the universal thing we know as death.

Fourth, in speaking to the Jews, Jesus said, "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. I have power to take it again. {And then he said,} This commandment have I received of my Father."[John 10:17-18] Now in that statement the Savior points out why it was that He was able to perform the Atoning sacrifice and no one else was.

To use again, our friend, Amulek. Notice these words, "Therefore it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice, and then shall there be a stop to the shedding of blood. Then shall the Law of Moses be fulfilled. And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice, and that great and last sacrifice would be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal."[Alma 34:13-14]

The fourth way I suggest that the Book of Mormon teaches that the atonement of Christ is infinite and eternal is in that the one who performed it is, Himself, infinite and eternal. Jesus inherited from His mother, Mary, a mortal woman, mortality: the capacity to die. From His Father, the almighty Elohim, the capacity to live forever, what we call immortality. It was then within His power therefore, truly, to lay down His own life, to determine when He would die. In reality, no one took His life from Him, He gave it freely. His was a free offering. And so the atonement is infinite and eternal because Jesus is infinite and eternal.

Finally number five, the atonement of Christ is infinite in that our Lord and Savior saves and redeems all that He creates. You'll recall that in what we know as the vision of the glories, the 76th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, that after having shown the magnificent vision, or spoken of the magnificent vision that they had seen, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon bore their testimony of the Savior when they said, "And now after the many testimonies which have been given of Him. This is the testimony last of all which we give of Him: that He lives! For we saw Him, even on the right hand of God, and we heard the voice bearing record that He is the only begotten of the Father. That by Him, and through Him and of Him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God." [D&C 76:22-24]

That revelation, that vision was given in February of 1832. Some eleven years later, Joseph Smith committed to writing that vision in poetry. Those verses I've just quoted to you, the prophet rendered poetically as follows, "And I heard a great voice bearing record from heaven, 'He's the Savior and only begotten of God. That by Him and through Him the worlds were all made—even all the careen and the heavens so broad. Whose inhabitants, too, from the first to the last, are saved by the very same Savior of ours and of course, are begotten God's daughters and sons by the very same truths and the very same powers.'"

How much more magnificently could we rejoice in who and what the Savior is and what He has done, than to acknowledge that He redeems all that He creates. He is the Creator of worlds without number. He is the Redeemer of worlds without number. To sort of summarize this, let me quote from Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve. He said this, "His atonement is infinite, without an end. It was also infinite in that all humankind would be saved from never-ending death. It was infinite in terms of His immense suffering. It was infinite in time, putting an end to the preceding prototype of animal sacrifice. It was infinite in scope. It was done, once and for all, and the mercy of the atonement extends not only to the infinite number of people but also to an infinite number of worlds created by Him."

Now at the same time, having understood as I hope we can appreciate that this atonement is magnificent and it is grand. It is at the same time, brothers and sisters, and I bear testimony of this, or it should be, very personal. The "Cosmic" Christ is in fact our personal Savior.

Consider these magnificent words that you know from, from Enoch. Enoch, who lived from 3,000 B.C., who saw this majestic creation of our Father's; who saw the magnificent love of God for His children. He saw God weep over the waywardness of His children, particularly in the days of Noah. Listen to what Enoch said, "How is it that thou canst weep seeing thou art holy and from all eternity to all eternity? And were it possible that man could number the particles of the Earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would not be the beginning of thy creations." And listen to this, "And yet, thou art there, and thy bosom is there, and also thou art just, thou art merciful and kind forever." [Moses 7:29-30]

The atonement of Christ, brothers and sisters, is intimate in that God's (can I say it this way?); God's infinity does not preclude either His immediacy or his intimacy. In ways that we cannot comprehend, even though our Savior is the Savior of an innumerable host of people, He is first and foremost my Savior and your Savior.

Recently, at our General Conference, Elder Merrill J. Bateman of the Seventy made this observation. "For many years," he said, "I have thought of the Savior's experience in the garden and on the cross as places where a large mass of sin of was heaped upon Him. Through the words of Alma, Abinadi ,Isaiah, and other prophets, however, my view has been changed. Instead of an impersonal mass of sin, there was a long line of people. As Jesus felt our infirmities, bore our griefs, carried our sorrows and was bruised for our iniquities."

Elder Bateman continues, "The atonement was an intimate, personal experience in which Jesus came to know how to help each of us. The Pearl of Great Price teaches that Moses was shown all the inhabitants of the earth, which were numberless as the sand upon the seashore. If Moses beheld every soul," Elder Bateman says, "then it seems reasonable that the Creator of the universe has the power to become intimately acquainted with each of us. He learned about your weaknesses and mine. He experienced your pains and sufferings. He experienced mine. I testify that He knows us. He understands the way in which we deal with temptation. He knows our weaknesses, but more than that. More than just knowing us, He knows how to help us if we come to Him in faith." That's the end of the quote from Elder Bateman.

Second, as many of you know, the Arabic or the Aramaic word translated as "atone" is the word khafat which means "to embrace." Notice this beautiful language of Lehi to his children. "The Lord hath redeemed my soul," Lehi exalts. "Redeemed my soul from Hell. I have beheld His glory and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of His love."[2 Nephi 20:20] Notice this language in the Doctrine and Covenants, 6th section. "Be faithful, {the Lord said,} and diligent in keeping the commandments of God. And I will encircle thee in the arms of my love." [D&C 6:20]

Notice this language from the 62nd section of the Doctrine and Covenants, "Behold and hearken, O ye elders of the Church, saith the Lord, your God, even Jesus Christ, your advocate, who knoweth the weakness of man and how to succor them who are tempted." [D&C 62:1] How to help, or literally, how to run to and help.

And then in what I believe to be one of the most profound and expansive passages in all of scripture concerning the depth and breadth and magnificence of our Savior's atoning sacrifice, Alma said to the people of Gideon, "And He shall go forth suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind. And this that the word might be fulfilled which sayeth He will take upon Him the pains and the sicknesses of His people. And He will take upon Him death that He may loose the bands of death which bind his people. And He will take upon Him their infirmities {weaknesses} that His bowels might be filled with mercy according to the flesh. That He may know according to the flesh, how to succor His people according to their infirmities."[Alma 7:11-12]

Alma continues, "Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that He might take upon Him the sins of His people, and that He might blot out their transgressions according to the power of His deliverance." Alma chapter seven. [Alma 7:13]

See what a beautiful statement. We had to go quite a ways in that magnificent testimony before the word sin or transgression was ever mentioned. Our Lord and Savior's atonement is so broad. As Elder Bruce Hafen said some years ago, "Jesus doesn't just suffer for big, bad sinners, but He knows the feelings associated with disappointment, the feelings of apprehension, the feelings of fear. He knows how to help us with our feelings of inadequacy. He knows how to help us face and fight our way through abuse. He knows how to help us learn to forgive. And yes, He knows how to forgive our sins."

Elder Neal A. Maxwell said this in speaking of the Savior's atonement. "Can we," he asked, "even in the depths of disease, tell Christ anything at all about suffering? In ways we cannot comprehend, our sicknesses and infirmities were born by Him even before they were born by us. The very weight of our combined sins caused Him to descend below all. We have never been nor will we be in depths such as He has known. Thus His atonement made perfect His empathy, and His mercy, and His capacity to succor us for which we can be everlastingly grateful as He tutors us in our trials. There was no ram in the thicket at Calvary to spare Him, this friend of Abraham and Isaac."

I'd like to suggest finally, brothers and sisters, that the atonement of Christ is intimate in nature because, more than anything else, Jesus loves us.

One of the great religious thinkers of the twentieth century, a man by the name of Carl Bart, a great Protestant theologian, after a lifetime of writing, I suppose tens of thousands of pages on Christ and the atonement, he was asked, "What, what do you think is the most significant thing you have discovered in your studies?"

Without much hesitation he said, "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

Elder Jeffrey Holland, some years ago, quoted the passage from the Savior in the New Testament, John 14:27 in which the Savior said, "Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." And then Elder Holland said this, "I submit to you that, {that is to let not our hearts be troubled neither let it be afraid} that may be one of the Savior's commandments that is, even in the hearts of otherwise faithful Latter-day Saints, almost universally disobeyed. Even in the hearts of otherwise faithful people, and yet I wonder," he said, "whether our resistance to this invitation [to not be afraid] could be any more grievous to the Lord's merciful heart. I can tell you that as a parent that as concerned as I would be if somewhere in their lives one of my children were seriously troubled or unhappy or disobedient. Nevertheless I would be infinitely more devastated if I felt that at such a time, that child could not trust me to help or thought his or her interest was unimportant to me or unsafe in my care. In that same spirit I'm convinced that none of us can appreciate how deeply it wounds the loving heart of the Savior of the world when He finds that His people do not feel confident in His care, or secure in His hands, or trust in His commandments."

Elder Holland continues, "Just because God is God. Just because Christ is Christ, they cannot do other than care for us and bless us and help us. If we would but come unto them, approaching their throne of grace in meekness and lowliness of heart, they can't help but bless us. They have to. It is their nature to help us. When the Savior says, 'Come follow me,' it means that He knows where the quicksand is, and where the thorns are and the best way to handle the slippery slope near the summit of our personal mountains. He knows it all, and He knows the way. He is the way." That's the end of the quote.

Let me close, brothers and sisters, with this sweet testimony of President Gordon B. Hinckley. "I sense in a measure," President Hinckley said, "the meaning of His atonement. I cannot comprehend it all. It is so vast in its reach, and yet so intimate in its affect that it defies comprehension. When all is said and done," President Hinckley said, "When all of history is examined. When the deepest depths of the human mind have been explored, there is nothing so wonderful, so majestic, so tremendous as this act of grace when the Son of the Almighty, the Prince of His Father's royal household gave His life in ignominy and pain, so that all of the sons and daughters of God, of all the generations of time, of whom, everyone of whom must die, might walk again and live eternally."

I have come to know more about the Savior, more about His infinite sacrifice, more about His intimate sacrifice because of the grand call and great ministry and magnificent teaching of the Prophet, Joseph Smith. I bear testimony of Joseph Smith, and I bear testimony of the One of which he bore witness. Joseph Smith stands as God's preeminent, prophetic witness of Christ and of the plan of salvation in these last days. I bear testimony that God is our Father. He loves us and there is no truth more central to improvement, no truth more fundamental to progress than to know that God loves us and there is nothing you and I can do to change that. And that the greatest manifestation of that is that He sent a man to die for us who didn't need to die. A man who didn't deserve to die, but a man who volunteered to die because He loved us.

May we not take lightly that atonement which is infinite in scope but intimate in nature, but may we herald the Lord's living sacrifice and make of ourselves a living sacrifice as we put our natural men and women upon the altar and become new men, new women, new creatures in Christ is my prayer. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.