The Atonement and the Holy Ghost in the Work within Souls

David Wetzel, “The Atonement and the Holy Ghost in the Work within Souls,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2008 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008), 170–179.

The Atonement and t​​​he Holy Ghost in the Work within Souls

David Wetzel

The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob declared, “I know if there should be no atonement made all mankind must be lost” (Jacob 7:12). This fact alone should cause anyone interested in salvation to persistently seek to more fully understand the Atonement. President James E. Faust explained: “My reason for wanting to learn all I can about the Atonement is partly selfish: Our salvation depends on believing in and accepting the Atonement. Such acceptance requires a continual effort to understand it more fully. The nature of the Atonement and its effects is so infinite, so unfathomable, and so profound that it lies beyond the knowledge and comprehension of mortal man.”[1]

President Faust not only described our need to persistently seek to understand the Atonement but also identified the reason that the subject must be approached carefully, never presumptuously: it is beyond our ability to fully comprehend.

As a starting point, we must note that the Atonement is an active power in the universe. Hugh Nibley observed: “In its sweep and scope, the atonement takes on the aspect of one of the grand constants in nature—omnipresent, unalterable, such as gravity or the speed of light. Like them, it is always there, easily ignored, hard to explain, and hard to believe in without an explanation. Also, we are constantly exposed to its effects whether we are aware of them or not.”[2]

The Atonement is not merely a static force in the universe that simply exists; it is a dynamic power that performs a work within willing individuals. It drives a change. It acts. Even a cursory examination of Book of Mormon scriptures that expound this doctrine reveal that the Atonement is an active force within cooperating individuals. Building upon this fact we naturally ask, how do we get the Atonement to perform its miracle within us? In answer to this question, I propose that as the Holy Ghost comes into our lives, the Atonement works within us. I cite as my evidence passages from the Book of Mormon that show that many of the functions of the Atonement are also functions of the Holy Ghost.

The Book of Mormon indicates that a remission of sins comes through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. After King Benjamin taught his people about the Savior, they exclaimed, “O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mosiah 4:2). They clearly invoked the Atonement to receive the blessing they desired. Nephi recorded that his people talked, preached, prophesied, and wrote of Christ that their “children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:26). Moroni also taught that a “remission of sins [comes] through Jesus Christ” (Moroni 3:3). Helaman implied that it was because of His sacrifice that Jesus has power to forgive sins: “And if ye believe on his name ye will repent of all your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through his merits” (Helaman 14:13).

The Holy Ghost also plays a role in remitting sins. Nephi taught that after baptism “cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost” (2 Nephi 31:17). The Savior corroborated this teaching when He said at the temple in Bountiful, “Blessed are they who shall believe in your words, and come down into the depths of humility and be baptized, for they shall be visited with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and shall receive a remission of their sins” (3 Nephi 12:2). This sequence of events suggests that the gift of the Holy Ghost—rather than simply the manifestations of the Holy Ghost—conveys the Atonement to a soul, resulting in the remission of sins. Therefore, the comparisons being drawn between the Atonement and the Holy Ghost refer specifically to the gift of the Holy Ghost and apply to those who have taken the steps to receive it. Another passage in the Book of Mormon teaches that remission of sins comes through the Atonement in cooperation with the operation of the gift of Holy Ghost: “And it came to pass that after they had spoken these words the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ who should come, according to the words which king Benjamin had spoken unto them” (Mosiah 4:3).

This passage is significant because in the previous verse, the people called upon the power of the Atonement to forgive their sins. Then that prayer was answered by a visitation of the Holy Ghost, and the pardon was granted. These passages show that although remission of sins comes through the Atonement, the Holy Ghost transmits that gift to a human soul.

Both powers also work to cleanse a person from stain.[3] To the church at Zarahemla, Alma preached that “there can no man be saved except his garments are washed white; yea, his garments must be purified until they are cleansed from all stain, through the blood of him of whom it has been spoken by our fathers, who should come to redeem his people from their sins” (Alma 5:21). In that same sermon, Alma taught that Jesus Christ has power, through the Atonement, to cleanse: “Have ye walked, keeping yourselves blameless before God? Could ye say, if ye were called to die at this time, within yourselves, that ye have been sufficiently humble? That your garments have been cleansed and made white through the blood of Christ, who will come to redeem his people from their sins?” (Alma 5:27).

Moroni invited his readers, “Turn ye unto the Lord; cry mightily unto the Father in the name of Jesus, that perhaps ye may be found spotless, pure, fair, and white, having been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, at that great and last day” (Mormon 9:6). This invitation also credits the work of cleansing to the Lord’s sacrifice. Moroni also recorded that those who were properly baptized “were wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 6:4). This reference credits the Holy Ghost. The Savior declared that the receipt of the Holy Ghost would result in being made spotless: “Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day” (3 Nephi 27:20). The Savior’s phrase “stand spotless before me” and Alma’s concept of “garments . . . washed white” seem to be synonymous. The Holy Ghost and the Atonement both perform this work of cleansing.

Both are also agents, or active forces, that perform the work of sanctifying. Cleansing from stain and remitting sins are both closely related to sanctifying, as suggested by the following scripture in Moroni: “And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins that ye become holy, without spot” (Moroni 10:33). Moroni teaches that sanctification is a process that leads up to the remission of sins and that remission of sins necessarily precedes becoming “holy, without spot.” Of particular interest, however, is his statement that sanctification comes “through the shedding of the blood of Christ.” Alma also articulated that connection. He instructed that men who were called after the order of the priesthood “were sanctified, and their garments were washed white through the blood of the Lamb” (Alma 13:11). Not only does this statement show that sanctification is a process that results in being spotless, but it shows that both gifts come through the power of Christ’s sacrifice. Significantly, in the adjacent verse, Alma maintains that those same gifts, in that same order, come by the power of the Holy Ghost: “Now they, after being sanctified by the Holy Ghost, having their garments made white, being pure and spotless before God, could not look upon sin save it were with abhorrence” (Alma 13:12). Alma states that the Holy Ghost did the work. These back-to-back verses share a speaker (Alma), a theme (the process of sanctification unto being made spotless), and a subject (those who received the priesthood). The only thing that changes is the agent that is credited for performing the work of sanctification and cleansing. Because all else is parallel, these verses provide evidence that Alma used the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Ghost interchangeably in describing the work they do within faithful individuals. Because of the close relationship between the Holy Ghost and the Atonement, perhaps it can be said that when the Holy Ghost is present, the Atonement is taking effect. The Savior confirmed Alma’s teaching when He said, “Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day” (3 Nephi 27:20). As with the remission of sins, the Book of Mormon teaches that sanctifying occurs through the power of the Atonement and by the power of the Holy Ghost.

The Book of Mormon teaches the same regarding being born again. After King Benjamin’s people had had their sins remitted through the Atonement by the reception of the Holy Ghost, he taught them, “This day [Christ] hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters” (Mosiah 5:7). This verse states that Jesus is the father of spiritual regeneration, but it doesn’t specify how He obtained that power. Presumably, Jesus Christ obtained the power to regenerate mankind through His sufferings.

This seems to be Abinadi’s meaning when he preached to King Noah and his court. To teach the subject of the Atonement, Abinadi recited Isaiah’s suffering servant chapter, which clearly foretells the Atonement. Isaiah testified that the Savior “was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed” (Mosiah 14:5). After quoting the chapter, Abinadi explained it. He carefully joined two lines which are separate in Isaiah’s text. The first line is a question, and the second line is Abinadi’s proposed answer: “Who shall declare [Christ’s] generation? Behold, I say unto you, that when his soul has been made an offering for sin he shall see his seed” (Mosiah 15:10). In other words, who will be Christ’s children? Those who make His soul an offering for their sins. Christ becomes the father of—He spiritually begets—those who receive the effects of His sacrifice. When Christ performed the Atonement, He gained the power to be the spiritual father of His disciples. Abinadi’s intent is further evidenced in the ensuing verses:

And who shall be his seed?

Behold I say unto you, that whosoever has heard the words of the prophets, yea, all the holy prophets who have prophesied concerning the coming of the Lord—I say unto you, that all those who have hearkened unto their words, and believed that the Lord would redeem his people, and have looked forward to that day for a remission of their sins, I say unto you, that these are his seed, or they are the heirs of the kingdom of God.

For these are they whose sins he has borne; these are they for whom he has died, to redeem them from their transgressions. And now, are they not his seed? (Mosiah 15:10–12)

By referring to His death and sufferings, Abinidi connects the Atonement with Christ’s power to cause mankind to be born again.

The Book of Mormon plainly teaches that the Holy Ghost causes people to be born again. When he was converted, Alma proclaimed, “I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit” (Mosiah 27:24). Alma then clarified what he meant by being born of the Spirit: “And the Lord said unto me: Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters” (Mosiah 27:25).

Alma equated being born of the Spirit with becoming sons and daughters of God. The Book of Mormon attests that both the Atonement and the Holy Ghost drive this change.

Alma also associated being born again with receiving a significant change of nature. At a later date, referring to Abinadi’s converts, he described the change: “Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word; yea, they were encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell, and an everlasting destruction did await them” (Alma 5:7).

Likewise, King Benjamin illustrated the change of nature that the Savior, through the Atonement, causes. He taught, “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, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).

Both Alma and King Benjamin ascribe the change to the power of Jesus Christ. Mormon, the editor, assigned the function to the Holy Ghost. Speaking of the change of nature that came upon the sons of King Mosiah, he wrote, “Now they were desirous that salvation should be declared to every creature, for they could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble. And thus did the Spirit of the Lord work upon them, for they were the very vilest of sinners” (Mosiah 28:3–4).

Again, Alma in a single passage specifies that the Holy Ghost and Jesus Christ are each actors in this miracle. And, as before, he seems to refer to these two agents interchangeably:

I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit.

And the Lord said unto me: Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters;

And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God. (Mosiah 27:24–26)

By comparing the function of the Holy Ghost and the function of the Atonement, as taught by the Book of Mormon prophets, we see that they are partners in the work that they perform within faithful individuals. Understanding this eternal verity will help the faithful do what is necessary for the Atonement to work inside their hearts. President Henry B. Eyring explained, “Now that is a fact you can act on with confidence. You can invite the Holy Ghost’s companionship in your life. And you can know when he is there, and when he withdraws. And when he is your companion, you can have confidence that the Atonement is working in your life.”[4] This statement not only shows that the Holy Ghost and the Atonement work together, but it also suggests what baptized members of the Church must do for the Atonement to work in our hearts.[5] To obtain the forgiveness and transformation offered by the Atonement, we must simply obtain and retain the companionship of the Holy Ghost. This is not to say that forgiveness and cleansing come all at once upon receipt of the Holy Ghost. Becoming clean, sanctified, and born again is a lifelong process, as expressed by the hymn: “As I walk daily here on earth, give me Thy Spirit as I seek, a change of heart, another birth, and grow dear Lord to be like Thee.”[6] Therefore, we must seek the Holy Ghost as our constant companion for Christ to accomplish His work and glory (see Moses 1:39). On another occasion, President Eyring instructed, “The words of confirmation into the Church are an invitation: ‘Receive the Holy Ghost.’ And that choice must be made not once, but every day, every hour, every minute.”[7] Knowing that when we receive the Holy Ghost we also receive the effects of the Atonement inspires us to make that choice more consistently.

Understanding that whenever the Holy Ghost is our companion the Atonement is working in us, we naturally seek to know what we can do to enjoy the influence of the Holy Ghost. There are many things we can do to invite the Holy Ghost to be with us. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to keep the covenant stated in the sacrament prayer: “That they may . . . 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 hath given them, that they may always have his Spirit to be with them” (Moroni 4:3). The sacrament prayer explicitly articulates the covenant by which the Lord is bound to send the Holy Ghost—and thereby the powers of the Atonement—to those who keep the covenant. The sacrament prayer is the ultimate example in the Book of Mormon of the Holy Ghost and the Atonement working together to achieve God’s purposes. We not only commemorate the Atonement through the sacrament but also gain access to the powers of the Atonement. The sacrament gives us access to the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost and therefore the constant inner miracle of the Atonement.

The greatest miracle in the universe is the fashioning of a natural, fallen man into the image of Christ. It is making gods of mortals. This miracle is the actualization of God’s plan, and it happens on an individual basis, one by one. Understanding that the Atonement and the Holy Ghost work together to perform this miracle greatly increases a person’s ability to access the Atonement. When a person understands this theology, accessing the Atonement ceases to be a mystery. Such a person will seek the Holy Ghost more earnestly and value its companionship more sincerely. Such a person will, through a daily walk with the Holy Ghost, come to have “Christ be formed in [them]” (Galatians 4:19). But intellectual understanding of this doctrine and principle is worthless without experiential knowledge. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf explained, “Faith in Jesus Christ and a testimony of Him and His universal Atonement is not just a doctrine with great theological value. . . . The powers of reason may be used to try to understand this gift, but those who feel its effects most deeply are those who are willing to accept its blessings.”[8] Thus, only those who are changed by the Atonement—through a daily walk with the Holy Ghost—truly understand the Atonement.


[1] James E. Faust, “The Atonement: Our Greatest Hope,” Ensign, November 2001, 18.

[2] Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion (Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain, 1989), 603.

[3] Admittedly, the phrase “cleansing from stain” has similar meaning to the phrase “remission of sins.” The purpose of this paper is not to compare and contrast the stated functions of the Atonement, but rather to show that many of the functions of the Atonement parallel those of the Holy Ghost.

[4] Henry B. Eyring, “Come unto Christ,” in Brigham Young University 1989-90 Devotional and Speeches (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1990), 41.

[5] Unbaptized persons must have faith in Christ, repent, and be properly baptized and confirmed to receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost and thereby the effects of the Atonement.

[6] “With Humble Heart,” Hymns (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), no. 171.

[7] Henry B. Eyring, “True Friends,” Ensign, May 2002, 26.

[8] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Fruits of the First Vision,” in Conference Report, April 2005.