Differing Views of the Atonement
Recently one of my sisters gave me a book to read, called Believing Christ, by Stephen E. Robinson. The book is about Christ and his atonement, and knowing how strongly I believe in grace, she thought I would really like it. At the time, she had become mostly inactive in the church following a difficult divorce which took place seventeen years and six children after her temple marriage. But what she read in this book seemed to give her hope to try again, and it was a factor in her new non-member husband's decision to be baptized.
I'm usually not very enthusiastic about theological works published by Deseret Book, but after listening to her sing the book's praises for quite some time, I told her I would read it. At first I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Even though Robinson didn't take the concept of grace as far as I would, he seemed to take it further than anything else I'd ever read or been taught in church. Given the strict religious atmosphere we were raised in, I could easily see why my sister liked this book so much.
But the longer I read, the more uneasy I began to feel about what I was reading. What Robinson was saying sounded like grace, but parts of it just didn't feel like grace to me. So I went back to the start and began to go through it again, this time with a fine-tooth comb, to try and ferret out the cause of my discomfort. Twenty-seven pages of notes later, I had a pretty clear picture of what it was.
I'd like to begin with what I really liked about the book – those parts I found to be compatible with my own experiences of God, experiences that lightened some of the spiritual burdens I picked up during my early years.
To begin with, Robinson establishes pretty clearly that we do not have to become perfect, or even close to it, in this life in order to quality for the celestial kingdom. He says:
...the good news [of the gospel] is not that perfect people can be reconciled to God, but that imperfect people can be. In the long run, [Christ's atonement] makes it possible for us to actually become perfect...at some future time, but that time is long after the Judgement and long after we have already inherited the kingdom of God... Normally, we think of only one winner in a race, but in the gospel race, all who finish win. In addition, the differences in their finishing times are irrelevant.
To illustrate this point, he tells the following story:
Many years ago I came into contact with a woman who was, initially at least, one of the roughest persons I have ever known. Abused as a child, she had run away from home and had lived on the streets for years. As a young women, she traveled around the country with a motorcycle gang. In late middle age...she spent most of her time in a pub, where some missionaries met her when they went in to get change for a pay phone outside. When she was baptized, many of the members worried that her conversion wouldn't last... For a long time after her baptism, this sister still swore like a trooper, even in Church, and never quite lived the Word of Wisdom one hundred percent. On one occasion during her first year in the Church, she lost her temper during a Relief Society meeting and punched out one of the other sisters. Her ex-husband is an alcoholic, and her children have all spent time in jail.
He then goes on to describe the sincere attitude of this sister, and the progress she made, little by little, over the years. He concludes that she can expect to inherit the kingdom of God. (And wouldn't she bring a desperately needed dose of diversity to most any ward!)
The next thing I liked was author's observation about God's gifts to us. He says, "This gift is offered to you because I love you and want to help you, not because I owe it to you... For what I've done out of love for you, you can only love me back, and seek to become what I am -- a giver of good gifts."
I also like the analogy he uses when raising the possibility of believing everything we've been taught, without ever really experiencing the power of Christ's atonement in our lives. He says:
...we are like people sitting in a cold, dark house surrounded by unused lamps and heaters, people who believe in electricity but who never throw the switch to turn on the power. People like this often pretend to themselves and to others that merely believing in electricity makes them warm and gives them light, but they still shiver in the darkness... Though the appliances may all work and the wiring may be in good order, until we accept the power itself, beyond merely believing in the theory of power, we cannot enjoy the warmth and light.
Robinson also offers helpful definitions of perfection and mercy. Of perfection he says:
I dislike the word perfect because it is often misused. ...more often than not it is used with its philosophical meaning of "unimprovable," and this is almost never its scriptural meaning. Latter-day Saints believe in eternal progress.... In the New Testament the Greek work translated [into English as] "perfect" ...means ripe, mature, ready, complete, whole...
And of mercy he says:
...by definition, mercy can only be mercy if we don't deserve it. For if we deserve something, then it becomes a matter of justice that we receive it. ...Thus...to give or receive mercy is always somewhat unfair. ...the gospel sometimes isn't fair, but that is actually part of the good news. It isn't fair -- it's merciful, and thank God it is...being judged by justice alone is our worst nightmare. ...The threat of hell is the threat of getting justice, of getting what we deserve...the atonement of Christ offers a way to receive mercy instead of justice...
And lastly, I like his observation about one of our sacrament prayers. He says:
"...and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them." Why are the three words "are willing to" necessary here? ...Would it make a difference if the prayer left these out and just read: "...and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments..."? Yes, it would make a difference... because I cannot do this latter thing. I can't witness...that I do always remember him and keep his commandments. I would be lying, and I know it...I can't keep all the commandments all the time no matter how hard I try... However, I can with...honesty witness that I am willing to.
These are some of the hopeful and helpful things I found in the book. However, other parts of it seem to have little application to my own experience of Christ's atonement. In discussing these differences, I do not wish to in any way demean Robinson's experiences or beliefs. Each of us has our own understanding of our encounters with God, and I'm sure his are as valid and meaningful for him as mine are for me. In presenting my own understanding of God, I do not claim to speak with any authority other than that of my own experiences.
My areas of disagreement with the book begin with its explanation of a "great dilemma" it says we mortals find ourselves in:
"For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance." D&C 1:31. God cannot tolerate sin or sinfulness in any degree. ...The celestial standard is complete innocence, pure and simple, and nothing less than complete innocence will be tolerated in the kingdom of God. ...[But] none of us is innocent in the celestial sense. We fail to be perfect on a more or less regular basis. Our actions are inconsistent with the behavior required for being worthy of the divine presence in the kingdom of God.
...God's absolute demand for perfection and our absolute inability to come up with it... represents the most serious problem with the direst consequences in all the universe. We want the kingdom of God. We want to go home to our heavenly parents... But the horrible price -- perfect performance -- is hopelessly beyond our means.”
So, according to the book, our great dilemma in mortality is based on these two premises: 1) God demands absolute perfection and will not tolerate anything less, and 2) no human being is or ever has been capable of this perfection.
I disagree with the notion that God is simply unable to tolerate anything less than total perfection from us, and cannot be in our presence unless we are perfect. It doesn't make sense to me. In both Christ and the Holy Spirit, God has come to be with us in our sin and imperfection, in order to save us from it. I think there's a big difference between not looking upon sin itself with allowance, and not being able to tolerate being in our presence until we are completely perfect. God can be in the presence of sinners and work to redeem them from their sins without endorsing those sins.
What kind of parents would demand something from their children that they know from the start we are incapable of giving, and refuse to allow us into their presence unless we can first pay this impossible price? And if our Heavenly Parents really cannot tolerate being in the presence of imperfect beings, I wonder how they tolerated being with us up until our mortal birth? Did we used to be perfect? Did we not ever make even one single mistake in our whole existence before our mortal birth? Or is the perfection of God so fragile and tenuous that it will simply vaporize in the presence of imperfect beings?
I think the idea that we have to be "worthy" before we will be allowed into our parent's presence -- that they somehow threaten to withdraw from us or banish us if we fail to perform perfectly – is emotionally unhealthy. I wish Mormonism would quit threatening children that they will never see their parents (earthly or heavenly) again, unless... It's the same thing we do when we teach children that they will only get to be with their families in the next life if they are really good in this one.
I believe we are here in mortality to experience and learn as much as we can -- to exercise our free will and learn for ourselves the nature of both good and evil. I don't believe the "celestial standard" we strive for is complete innocence or perfect sinlessness, but rather to eventually become as perfectly loving and wise as our Heavenly Parents are. And it's a long journey full of both good and evil, successes and failures, to arrive at that destination.
So to begin with, I disagree with the book when it claims that the "horrible price" of being allowed to return to our Heavenly Parents is "perfect performance." But having established this as the basis for our "great dilemma," the book then goes on to present Christ's atonement as the solution to this dilemma. It says that through the atonement:
Imperfect people can be reconciled to a perfect God and allowed to dwell in his presence. ...Atonement means taking two things that have become separated, estranged, or incompatible, like a perfect God and an imperfect you or me, and bringing them together again. ...The Atonement, the reconciliation, the "good news" of the gospel [is] that though separated from God, there is a way we can become one with him again.
To atone means to reconcile, to bring into harmony, and to make reparation for an offense or injury. I believe Christ's atonement is his ongoing work of making us one with God, not by overcoming some refusal on our Heavenly Parent's part to allow imperfect beings in their presence, but rather by making us into beings like them. I also experience the atonement of Christ as his continuing act of reconciling us with one another by making reparation for the inevitable injuries human beings with free will inflict upon one another.
The book next describes how the atonement releases us from the requirement to become perfect in this life. As I said earlier, I find its assurances that we do not have to become perfect in mortality one of the most helpful and hopeful things about the book. However, its explanation of why this is so just doesn't make sense to me.
When we become one with Christ in the gospel covenant, we gain access to his perfection. Because Christ and I are one in the gospel covenant, God accepts our combined total worthiness, and together Christ and I are perfectly worthy. Taken together as a single entity, the two of us, Christ and I, are perfect. I do not mean (this is absolutely crucial!) that we can become perfect later on. I mean that from the moment the partnership is formed in good faith...the partnership is celestial. True, this is not individual perfection, which will indeed come...much later, rather it is perfection-in-Christ, through which we receive the benefits of our partner's merits. In his mercy he offers us the use of his perfection, in the absence of our own, to satisfy the demands of justice. ...[this] very perfection-in-Christ and nothing else is what will allow me into the celestial kingdom at the day of judgement."
I question my need for "perfection-in-Christ" today. Today I am imperfect, and I know it. That's okay with me, and I believe it's okay with God. My goal today is to be learning -- to be experiencing life, loving people, and growing towards becoming more like God. I don't see Christ's perfection as a commodity I can "borrow" or "use," and I don't see what good it really does me to have Christ's perfection "called" mine. The book says it's so that God will let me into the celestial kingdom when I die. But surely it's no secret from God that I won't be perfect by the time I die, so why is the pretense of my hiding behind someone else's perfection necessary?
The book makes this need for "perfection-in-Christ" today the foundation upon which its whole theory of the atonement is built. It is a construct which seems artificial and contrived to me. I don't believe this demand for our immediate perfection, either today or by the time we die, was ever God's. For me, the meaning of Christ's atonement is not that he will loan me his perfection in order to temporarily appease the demands of some contrived system of justice which requires what it knew from the start was impossible, but rather that if I allow Christ into my heart, he can change me and make me more like he is.
The book argues that, "If we could be justified by our own efforts, then we wouldn't need a savior at all, and Christ's infinite sacrifice would have been all for nothing." So in other words, we have to be imperfect, and it has to be impossible for us to be in God's presence in this imperfect state, because if it wasn't, then Christ's suffering would have been for nothing?! This kind of circular logic seems to further demonstrate the book's construction of an artificial theological scaffolding in order to create a place to set Christ's atonement, and I don't see the need for it. We need Christ's atonement simply because the nature of reality is such that at present, we are not like God (including not being immortal), and are incapable of becoming like God without divine intervention and assistance. There doesn't need to be any more of a reason than that.
The book concludes that, "There is no heavier yolk than the demand for perfection...But the good news is that in Christ we are set free of that crushing burden." I do believe Christ sets us free of the crushing burden of perfection, but not by some hat trick in which his perfection is switched for our imperfection. I believe we are set free by the simple knowledge and personal assurance that if we have received Christ in our hearts and are moving forward in our journey in the Spirit, then God's mercy and grace will continue to be extended to us when we move into the next life, so that we can continue to learn and progress there.
In addition to our need for perfection, the book also addresses the issue of our guilt or innocence before God. It says:
In the new covenant...perfect innocence is still required. When human beings keep their covenants...they are...declared innocent, to be acquitted of all charges...to stand guiltless before the law. ...To be justified, then, is to be declared by God to be not guilty, to be free of any taint of sin... In the atonement, Jesus does not just suffer our punishment for us, he becomes the guilty party in our place -- he becomes guilty for us...
I don't feel a need in my life for this declaration that I am "not guilty" or "perfectly innocent." For me, a big part of Christ's mercy is the fact that he freely forgives me for crimes that I am, in fact, guilty of. The truth is that I am not innocent of any wrongdoing, and God and I both know this. Having to be declared "perfectly innocent" just seems like another version of having to be declared "perfectly worthy" by the time I die, and neither one of these declarations would be true. What I hope to be declared is "forgiven" and "changed."
The book has Christ saying, "...whatever your sin was or is, I can erase it, I can clean you up and make you innocent, pure, and worthy, and I can do it today; I can do it now." I would change this statement to read, "Whatever your sin was or is, I can help you to overcome it. I can help you to face what you've done. I can help you to see why you did it. I can change your heart so you can stop doing it. I can heal the hurt it has caused to everyone involved. And I can make you into a person who wouldn't do that again."
In order to further illustrate how perfection-in-Christ works, the book offers several different analogies for the atonement. Two similar ones are the corporate analogy and the team sports analogy. In the corporate analogy:
When we enter into the covenant of the gospel and become one with Christ, we create a new corporate entity, a partnership, that is immediately profitable and immediately justified through the infinite merits of the Savior...as long as we don't dissolve the partnership, we are justified by his merits... As an individual I may have no hope, but as a junior partner in a joint venture with Christ, I have every assurance of success.
And in the team sports analogy:
In making the gospel covenant, we become part of a team whose captain and quarterback is Jesus Christ, a cosmic Heisman Trophy winner who throws nothing but touchdowns. If we are on his team, we will go undefeated. Even if I miss my block throw now and then, even if he asks me to just sit on the bench most of the time, as long as he's the captain, we're going to win.
Neither of these analogies really capture the meaning of my own experience of Christ's atonement. For me, God is not like a corporation, and neither is heaven, and redemption is not some kind of celestial business deal. The crucial thing about Christ's atonement is not that it allows the corporation to be declared immediately profitable by hiding the deficiencies of the junior partner, but rather that through the union, the junior partner in enabled to become just like the senior partner, which will take a lot of time.
Likewise, in the team sports analogy I would argue that each one of us needs to become just as good a player as the quarterback is. I disagree that what's important is that the team be declared a winning team with a perfect record today, so that everyone but the quarterback won't go to hell. What's important are the long-term changes in each team member's soul, and what he or she can become.
The book offers a second kind of analogy in the bank account analogy and the parable of the bicycle. In the bank account analogy:
It's as though two people with separate bank accounts got married and formed a joint account. ...The Savior, who has infinite assets, proposes a merger with the individual, who has finite liabilities. ...In the covenant union, what is mine becomes his, and what is his becomes mine. Thus my sins become his for payment, and his righteousness becomes mine for justification.
The parable of the bicycle makes the same basic point as the bank account analogy, only on a more personal level and with a smaller amount of money. This parable resulted from a situation in which Robinson's young daughter despaired of ever being able to save enough money to buy a bicycle. When she came to her father in tears, he asked:
"Sarah, how much money do you have?" "Sixty-one cents," she answered forlornly. "Then I'll tell you what... You give me everything you've got, the whole sixty-one cents, a hug and a kiss, and this bike is yours." ...You see, we all want something desperately, but it's not a bicycle. We want the kingdom of God. We want to go home to our heavenly parents worthy and clean. But the horrible price -- perfect performance -- is hopelessly beyond our means. ...[So] the Savior steps in and says, "So you've done all you can do, but it's not enough. Well, don't despair. ...How much do you have? ...You give me exactly that much (the whole sixty-one cents)...and I will provide the rest for now."
Once again I find these analogies to be inadequate explanations of the effect of Christ's atonement in my life. I don't experience redemption as some kind of spiritual commodity that I purchase by having Christ make up the amount I'm short. And I don't believe Christ's perfect love and wisdom are things which can be bought and sold. Rather they are something each of us can become, in the ongoing presence of his love and grace.
And as far as eternal rewards are concerned, I believe that in the end, each of us is our own final reward or punishment. Our reward isn't some kingdom or prize that God either does or does not give us. It is something we either become or don't become (and are incapable of becoming through our own best efforts). Our reward or punishment is nothing more or less than who and what we are -- the love and joy we have within us and are able to know and experience, or the lack thereof.
The mind set created by these kinds of analogies leads to needless arguments such as this one: "[It is a] distortion [of the doctrine of grace]...to argue that since in the covenant relationship Christ makes up what I lack...I can relax and let Jesus do everything for me." If one views perfection as a process of personal transformation, rather than as a commodity to be obtained, then it becomes obvious that it would be impossible for Jesus to change "for me." The change has to take place within me, or else what's the point?
Both the corporate and banking analogies also offer an explanation of the role of the Holy Ghost in our lives. In the corporate analogy, "...the gift of the Holy Ghost, ...provides [Christ's] junior partners with a compass for better spiritual navigation, with the comfort of a testimony, and with the assurance that they have indeed been justified through his covenant." And in the banking analogy, "...one reason why the gift of the Holy Ghost is given [is] as a token and assurance of our covenant status and as a down payment to us on the blessings and glory to come if we are faithful."
In my own life, the gift of the Holy Ghost is far more than a spiritual compass or a down payment on future blessings. It is an essential part of the whole process of mortals becoming more like God. I experience the Holy Ghost as God's presence in my heart, God's ability to act in me and change me. It is a power beyond my own present abilities. It softens my heart and changes my feelings. It makes me kinder and more forgiving than I otherwise am. It helps me to see things in new ways. It makes me emotionally able to do things I have been previously unable to do. It guides me to new sources of understanding. In short, it is the Holy Ghost who works the ongoing miracle of making us new creatures in Christ.
Another idea in the book that doesn't make sense to me is the notion of God establishing an "old" and then "new" covenant with us. The book explains that:
Theoretically, one way of being justified, of receiving a "not guilty" verdict from God, is to keep all the commandments all the time -- never to commit a sin and therefore never to be guilty. The terms of the old contract, the Law of Moses, were essentially that if the children of Israel "kept the commandments," that is, observed all 613 commands and prohibitions of the law of Moses, God would save them from their enemies and grant them the promised land and a posterity.
Technically, there was nothing wrong with the old covenant and its law. ...Unfortunately, it turned out that nobody could do it. ...justification by law, though it may be valid in theory, fails in practice to address our real human needs in our actual predicament. ...[So] God in his mercy has provided a new covenant, an agreement with terms we can keep. Jesus Christ is the one who redeems us from the curse of the law – from the demand for perfect performance -- by offering a new means of justification...
First of all, it doesn't make sense to me that an omniscient God would be the author of a plan for our justification that "fails in practice to address our real human needs in our actual predicament." And then, after this plan fails (predictably) to ever justify even one person, God in his mercy provides us with a way out of it -- Christ is sent to rescue us from the impossible demands of his Father's failed plan. None of this makes any sense to me. And secondly, I don't believe an unchanging and impartial God who is no respecter of persons would come up with one plan for those people who lived on earth before a certain time, and then offer a better plan to everyone who was born after that.
I realize of course that Robinson did not invent the idea of an old and new covenant. This notion, as well as some of the other ideas in his book, comes straight from the New Testament, and some Old Testament prophecies. But it doesn't make any more sense to me when I read it in the Bible. The early apostle's understanding and experiences of God were shaped by a world view in which religious life was based on the Law of Moses, and an Old Testament God of retribution who demanded satisfaction through blood sacrifice. They understood redemption through Christ in terms of one final blood sacrifice to appease once and for all God's demand for justice, and the freedom Christ brought in terms of a new covenant which released them from the burdensome requirements of the Law of Moses.
But a religious world view based on a jealous God who demands perfection and blood sacrifice, or justification through the law of Moses, is foreign to my life. Explaining Christ's atonement in these terms makes little sense to me, and has little application to my own experiences of God. I have difficulty even believing in the God portrayed in the Old Testament, let alone loving him or worshiping him. (However, other parts of the New Testament's explanation of the atonement, such as when Paul writes of Christ's unfailing love, or our new life in the Spirit and it's power to transform us, or the liberation we find in Christ, or the preeminence of the commandment to love one another, resonate deeply with my own experiences of Christ.)
Perhaps one way to view the Law of Moses is not as God's old plan for the justification of the Israelites, but rather as the Israelite's best attempts at reaching the perfection of God. And perhaps one day hundreds of years from now future Christians will look back on us and see Family Home Evening, or the Word of Wisdom, or monthly temple attendance, as our best attempts at reaching God.
The next concern I have is with the way the book portrays the actual process whereby we become perfect. It says, "[Christ] supports us in his arms and says, OK, now pay your tithing. Pretty good. Now pay a full tithing.' And so we begin to learn perfection." I find this to be a trivial idea of perfection. Rather than looking at how the power of Christ's love and the workings of the Spirit in us can transform our very natures, the book's focus seems to be on Christ just sort of covering for us, for "about a million years," while we just keep getting better and better at obeying the commandments.
The book portrays our final attainment of total perfection in this way:
...I envision a scene about a million years from now, after we've been in the celestial kingdom a very, very long time. I will approach the Savior and say something like, "OK, I finally did it. I have overcome eating fruit out of season (or whatever). Now what comes next?" And he will look at me and say, "Hey -- that was it! Congratulations! That was the last one. You have finally learned to keep all the commandments all of the time!" And I suppose we'll invite the neighborhood and have a little "Steve-finally-made-it" party. But that's a million years from now...
Once again I find this to be a trivial and simplistic view of the process of sanctification. My eternal goal is not to "learn to keep all the commandments all of the time." It is to become a fully mature spiritual adult, and to possess the same wisdom and love God does.
My own best opportunities and lessons in learning love and wisdom come through my relationships with others. Jesus said, "By this shall all...know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." I believe that our many different relationships provide the earthly laboratory in which we learn to know ourselves and others honestly, and to love more and more purely. When we truly love another to the best of our present abilities, I believe we touch that part of God which exists within each of us. And I have felt God's love for me through the instrument of another person's love.
But the fact that we both have free will and are imperfect means that inevitably there will be times when we use our free will to hurt both ourselves and one another, sometimes horribly. In my own life, the suffering I experience as a result of my sins comes from the things I do that end up hurting myself and others. I don't think we can come close to the love of God without being wounded by the realization that we have harmed others. It isn't a wound God inflicts on us out of divine justice or judgement, it's simply the nature of reality, of real love. Sooner or later, whether in this life or the next, I believe we will each have to come face to face with the truth of our lives, including the harm we have inflicted upon others. The mercy in Christ's gospel is that when this happens, God can forgive us, and can heal the wounds we have both given and received in this process of learning good and evil through our own experiences. And when Christ has healed our wounds, we are then able to forgive and be reconciled to those who inflicted them.
Another problem I have with the book is the conditions it places on Christ's grace. It offers this definition of grace: "Theologically, the grace of God is his goodwill toward us, his predisposition to act in our best interest even before we can earn or deserve such consideration." Some of the ways the book says God has demonstrated this goodwill toward us include: making us his spirit children in a premortal life; loving us before we had the ability to love him back; saving those who die before the age of accountability, the mentally handicapped, and those who are ignorant of God's commandments; resurrecting everyone; and offering us a Savior. The book concludes that, "[The] willingness on his part to pay more than his fair share and to carry more than his fair load in order to grant mercy to others constitutes the grace of Christ."
I find this to be a limited definition of grace. I experience God's grace as far more than a "predisposition to act in my best interest." No doubt all of these things the book lists are good gifts a loving God has provided us with for or own good, but in a way they seem impersonal to me. They are all things that were either said and done for all of humanity long before we were born, or will not take effect until after we die. But for me, the real meaning of Christ's grace is in what happens in my life today -- in the ways he saves and redeems me in the present moment. And what he gives me in the present is far more than "a willingness to pay more than his fair share." He saves me from those parts of myself that are weak, sinful, damaged, and damaging. He redeems what is of worth in me from my own dark side. He sets me free from my ignorance and fears. His forgiveness liberates me from my past and allows me to move forward. I experience my ongoing salvation and redemption through Christ as the freely given power of his love and Spirit to heal and change me.
Setting aside its list of those things it acknowledges God has already given us free and clear, the book next explains that our salvation, our "perfection-in-Christ," is conditional, based upon our best efforts at keeping the commandments:
...the idea of "keeping the commandments" is still a vital part of the arrangement, but "keeping the commandments perfectly" isn't, at least not for now. In return for this wonderful concession, we agree to repent whenever and however we fail to keep the commandments perfectly, and to try again, and again, and again...
So, perfection is no longer a requirement, but always trying to be perfect, and immediately repenting and resuming the effort whenever and however we fall short, is. Well, to me it's all the same difference, for all practical purposes. This new requirement simply replaces one crushing and impossible burden (perfection) with an almost equally crushing and impossible one (a constant, conscious attempt at perfection). If this is the "good news" of the gospel, I have to say it really doesn't seem that good to me.
I also believe these constant attempts at perfection make us so spiritually self-absorbed and obsessed with our own state of worthiness that genuine spiritual growth can be difficult. We're forever taking our own spiritual temperature. Our focus is self-centered and narcissistic. Under this heavy burden, service to others can easily become just a means to our own spiritual ends. We serve in at attempt to merit or become worthy of the celestial kingdom. (And that, for all the book's talk of grace, is still what it is saying -- that there is a qualifying level of performance, albeit a lower one than perfection, that we must meet in order receive God's full grace.) The book says that, " ...enduring to the end' does not mean enduring in perfection.' " But it makes it clear that enduring to the end does mean enduring in the constant attempt at perfection.
It seems as though the book tries to have it both ways when it comes to grace. In the same breath it makes unconditional offers of grace, and then takes them away. For example, it says, "...our salvation is not hanging in the balance, for that issue is already settled if we are keeping our covenants." So then the issue is not settled, and our salvation is hanging in the balance – hanging in the balance of whether or not we adequately keep our covenants, which in this book includes a consistent attempt at perfection.
The book asks:
Suppose a dear relative offered you an all expense paid trip to Hawaii gratis (i.e., by grace) and asked that you respond to the invitation by a certain date. Would the required condition of an affirmative response make the offered trip any less an act of goodwill and favor based on love? ...Does being required to acknowledge a gift and affirm our desire to receive it change it from a gift to a wage?
I certainly agree that we must want, accept, acknowledge, and open our hearts to receive God's grace. The problem is that throughout the book, this is not all that is said to be required. Such an offer would cease to be a free gift if our relative then turned around and said, "Well, that is, I'll give you the trip if you can come up with at least part of the cost. Just save all the money you can for the next two or three years. You won't have to pay for the whole trip, just however much you can reasonably afford to." That would no longer be a gift.
And I disagree when the book says that, "...the terms of [our] new contract are (1) faith in the Lord Jesus Christ... (2) repentance..., and (3) baptism. When we have done all this, we are worthy to (4) receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." I don't believe that, "When we have done all this, we are worthy to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." The gift of the Holy Ghost isn't something we have to merit by proving ourselves worthy to receive it. It is a free gift of God's grace, given because we need it and are willing to open our hearts to receive it. The Spirit has been with me and helped me many times in my life when I have not been "worthy." Receiving the gift of the Spirit in our hearts leads to an improved ability to live Christ's teachings. It is not something we have to be worthy to receive, it's something that makes us more worthy the longer it works in us.
The book rightly asserts that, "Without our assent and participation, salvation would amount to nothing more than predestination, a happy accident that arbitrarily happens to some people and not to others." Of course we participate in our own salvation -- not because God refuses to save us if we don't, but because it would be impossible for it to be any other way. Our salvation is about what we are, and what we will become. How could it not involve our participation? But I differ with the book as to what conditions must be met in order for Christ's grace to be fully active in our lives. I don't believe a constant attempt at perfection is what is required. The condition which must be met is a condition of heart -- an earnest desire for God and goodness. "The Lord requireth the heart, and a willing mind." "Behold he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered."
I believe the book completely misses the point when it argues that, "The false doctrine of salvation by grace without commitment or loyalty violates the terms of the gospel covenant by asking Jesus to do for me what I could very well do for myself -- but don't want to." Well, if I didn't already want to become like Christ, I wouldn't have turned to him in the first place! If we've been through the whole experience of realizing and acknowledging our sins and weaknesses, feeling sorrow for them and a sincere desire to be better, and seeking Christ's forgiveness and help, then of course we're going to attempt to live Christ's teachings as they speak to our hearts, and try to follow where the Spirit leads us. And when this happens, somebody else laying out a spiritual path for us and saying, "you must walk here," isn't necessary. We find our own way to God, one step at a time, by responding directly to the Spirit's workings in our hearts.
At this point, it isn't a matter of forcing ourselves, through will power or determination, to do something we really don't want to do. What we do now, we do willingly. And when someone tries to make it into an obligation or duty, and threatens that we will never be allowed into our Heavenly Parent's presence again if we don't fulfill this obligation, they take all of the joy and free will out of it, and make the whole thing a burden instead of a wonderful gift. We end up feeling pressured, afraid, and guilty, instead of grateful.
I also believe we do a real disservice to the inherent value of Christ's gospel when we teach that people should accept it because if they don't, they will be forever banished from their Heavenly Parent's presence, or will otherwise suffer the punishments of hell. It is as though we're implying that Christ's gospel is not something desirable enough that we would freely choose it for its own sake if there were no threats attached to it. If this gospel isn't the way of life that will bring us the greatest joy possible, then perhaps we should look elsewhere. There seems to be an underlying assumption in the book that if God's love and grace were to completely remove all threats of death and hell, then we would no longer have any compelling reason to continue trying to live Christ's teachings.
Part of the book's explanation of conditional grace includes the idea of our making a bargain with God. It says that,
By definition, a covenant is a mutual obligation. God is bound by his own word to keep the terms of his covenants as long as we keep our part of the bargain. In the gospel covenant, we exchange the burden of [our sin] for the obligation to love him and each other and to do the very best we can.
Obligation? Bargain? I don't believe Christ does what he does for me because he's "bound" by the terms of some "bargain." He does it because he loves me, and I need his help. What we need to trust and have faith in is not that he will uphold his end of some bargain, but rather that his love for us will never fail. In my experience, our "covenant" with God is this -- God will come to us and be in our hearts to love, help, change, and redeem us, if we desire it and will open our hearts to it.
And my personal experience of Christ does not lead me to love him out of obligation. I don't believe we can make ourselves feel genuine love for anyone, including God, because we're commanded or obligated to. But how can you not grow to love someone who knows your darkest sins and still loves and accepts you, someone who is with you wherever you are at, even in your sins, to help and encourage you, someone who freely forgives you no matter how many times you screw up? Genuine love for Christ is the natural result of having received his love, and doesn't have to be asked for or commanded. To attempt to make that love an obligation distorts it, and does it a real disservice. And when I try to live Christ's teachings, it's not because I'm obligated to. It's because I can see something good that I want to be.
We can try to live the kind of virtues Christ teaches out of duty or obligation or fear (or some other compulsory reason), and this can have some benefits. It may be better than not trying to live them at all. It might make us better citizens and family members, and help us feel good about ourselves. But that only takes us part of the way -- it only gets us started on a road that will hopefully someday lead to our own one-on-one experience of God's grace and power to truly change our hearts.
The last idea in the book that doesn't make sense to me is its explanation of how Christ came to be able to atone for our sins, and what exactly happened to him in Gethsemane. The book asserts that, "Jesus' holiness and perfect obedience were the result of consistently ignoring, rather than of never encountering, the enticements of a carnal nature."
I just don't buy this. I don't believe Jesus' perfection was a matter of simply forcing himself to resist or ignore temptation through the use of willpower. I think he had reached a point where he had no more desire to sin. (And this is what we hope for in Christ -- not to just develop stronger and stronger willpower and more and more self control, but rather to undergo substantive changes, so that we, too, will eventually have no more desire to sin.)
I don't believe Christ doesn't understand what it feels like to sin and make mistakes -- that he's never been in our shoes. But the book seems to be saying that Christ has never experienced for himself many of the things we go through. It says, "...Jesus learned vicariously through the Atonement what it would have felt like to commit the sins he never committed. Thus, in a sense it would be correct to say that while Jesus committed no sins, he has been guilty of them all..."
This notion just doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but the book carries it even further. It says:
The pain and heartaches that [Christ] relieves, he relieves by suffering them himself. ...Christ... experienced vicariously in Gethsemane all the private griefs and heartaches, all the physical pains and handicaps, all the emotional burdens and depressions of the human family. He knows the loneliness of those who don't fit in or who aren't handsome or pretty. He knows what it's like to choose up teams and be the last one chosen. He knows the anguish of parents whose children go wrong. He knows the private hell of the abused child or spouse. He knows all these things personally and intimately because he lived them in the Gethsemane experience. Having personally lived a perfect life, he then chose to experience our imperfect lives.
I absolutely believe Christ knows and understands all my pain, sorrow, and sins. But I just don't believe all of this knowledge and understanding somehow came to him vicariously, in few hours in Gethsemane, and I don't see why it would have to. I don't believe Christ has never experienced for himself the kinds of things we go through. (And how could he have ministered to all the people who lived on earth before he did, if he didn't experience human pains and suffering long before his birth in Bethlehem?)
Once again it feels as though both God and humans are being forced into whatever artificial shapes are needed in order to make everything fit into a theological puzzle that bears little resemblance to my actual life's experience. Like those people who sit in a cold dark house, believing in a theory of electricity without ever really experiencing its power, the book presents the reader with a theory of atonement, but fails to address the actual power of God to redeem and change the human heart.
I don't know if there is a perfect analogy for the effect of the atonement in our lives. I like the way Jesus referred to himself as a physician who heals us. This is one good description of the effect he has in my life. Like a skilled surgeon, he is able to repair whatever damage has been done to our souls. He can make us whole in body, mind, and spirit, as evidenced by his many miracles of healing, both past and present. And having the Holy Ghost working in me could be compared to taking a spiritual antibiotic -- it is a power that brings about a healing change within me, beyond my own present strength and abilities.
But the analogy I like the best so far is the family analogy. In the New Testament, John says, "But as many as received him, to them he gave the power to become the sons [and daughters] of God, even to them that believe on his name." And in Mosiah, King Benjamin says, "And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you...
I like the analogy that accepting Christ's atonement in our lives is like being born into a family. Members newly born into a family may have a long journey ahead of them before they grow into fully mature adults, but once a child has been born, he or she is a permanent member of the family. In healthy families, children don't need to be preoccupied with a long list of the many things they must do (and not do) in order to avoid being disowned. Our place in this family has been secured by Christ, and in the freedom and security this assurance gives us, we are able to thrive.
Our inheritance in this family is an endowment of power. It is a transforming power -- the ability to grow into beings like our Heavenly Parents. This endowment of power comes to us in the form of the Holy Spirit's presence within us. It is the birthright of those who have been born again.
Members of a family go through many different experiences as they grow and mature. There are "I love you's" and "I hate you's." Relationships evolve as we learn to know and love one another. There are conflicts and compromises as people grow and change. At times there is rebellion, as we form our own identities and becoming increasingly independent. And sometimes we may even run away, for hours or days or even years at a time, until we can find our way home again. But through all of this and much more, we have this assurance: we are Christ's, and we are in the family.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ...Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is the unfailing love of our perfect Parent. And children who are loved perfectly can learn to love others with this same kind of love. That is my faith, and what I hope for in Christ.
April 30, 1996
Reflections: A Personal Journal