2. "We Have Now Received the Atonement"

By Matthew O. Richardson

Matthew O. Richardson, “We Have Now Received the Atonement,” in Shedding Light on the New Testament: Acts–Revelation, ed. Ray L. Huntington, Frank F. Judd Jr., and David M. Whitchurch, (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 30–45.

“We Have Now Received the At​onement”

Matthew O. Richardson

Matthew O. Richardson is a professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.

When considering the most significant events of history, none compare to the Atonement of Jesus Christ. President Gordon B. Hinckley described the Atonement as “the miracle that encompasses all who have lived upon the earth, all who now live upon the earth, and all who will yet live upon the earth. Nothing done before or since has so affected mankind as the atonement wrought by Jesus of Nazareth.”[1] With the Atonement being the most transcendent event in human history, it may be surprising to some to learn that the word atonement appears only once in English in the entire King James Version of the New Testament. It was Paul who wrote, “And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement” (Romans 5:11). But to conclude that the New Testament has nothing more than a single verse dealing with the Atonement is folly.

Obviously, the New Testament does not favor the word-search approach to investigating the Atonement—at least, in English. What the New Testament does provide, however, is a necessary context for understanding the Atonement more deeply. We can deepen our understanding of the Atonement in an unparalleled way by framing this context with restorative scripture and inspired insights of living prophets, seers, and revelators. This is critical because, ironically, what is considered by many as the most transcendent event in human history may very well be the least understood event as well. “The atonement of Christ,” Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught, “is the most basic and fundamental doctrine of the gospel, and it is the least understood of all our revealed truths. Many of us have a superficial knowledge and rely upon the Lord and His goodness to see us through the trials and perils of life.”[2] Sadly, the term atonement has lost some of its impact. The term is readily used in our vocabulary but only as a quick and pithy answer to almost every gospel question. While the answer is correct, it is doubtful that the reasons why it is correct could be given. Because of this, the Atonement can be described much in the same manner that Elder Neal A. Maxwell described repentance: “too little understood and too little applied by us all, as if it were merely a word on a bumper sticker.”[3] Obviously, the Lord requires more of His disciples.

The New Testament provides two important means for those wanting to better understand the Atonement. First, the Gospels render the accounts of the event itself. For example, one can read about the Atonement in Matthew 26–27, Mark 14–15, Luke 22–23, and John 18–19. The second means is mostly found in the latter half of the New Testament, namely in Acts through Revelation. Here the Atonement is not always addressed not by name, per se, but by interconnected concepts. These concepts are often viewed as distinct topics and discussed separately but in truth they are, as Elder D. Todd Christofferson described, “elements of a single divine process that qualifies us to live in the presence of God the Father and Jesus Christ.”[4] Such concepts include, but are not limited to, reconciliation, redemption, justification, and sanctification. These are foundational principles that are interconnected with the Atonement in such way that they cannot be separated from the Atonement at all. For example, one cannot really have a meaningful discussion regarding the Atonement without talking about justification. Granted, some may not use the word justification in their conversation, but the principles of justification should, at the very least, be part of the discussion. The relationship of these concepts with the Atonement is similar to the metaphor used in describing the connection between the Aaronic Priesthood and the Melchizedek Priesthood. While these two priesthoods are often approached as distinctly separate items, they are also inseparably connected. As a result, the Aaronic Priesthood is best described as an appendage of the Melchizedek Priesthood (see D&C 107:14). In this same way, reconciliation, redemption, justification, and sanctification are actually appendages of the Atonement.

The creation of the English word atonement is attributed to Thomas Moore in 1513 and was used to described the condition of being “at one” with others or God.[5] While this definition is easy to remember, it skirts any real worth for those not willing to consider what it really means. Paul taught that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). In other scriptures, it is clearly outlined that “God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (D&C 1:31) and that “no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of heaven” (Alma 11:37). With this in mind, we begin to understand a very real problem. Unclean and clean can never mix. With no allowance for sin or uncleanliness, God’s kingdom will be essentially vacant, for we will “be shut out from the presence of our God” (2 Nephi 9:9).

Fortunately, God’s divine plan is centered on bringing about the “immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). Amulek taught that in God’s infinite wisdom and love, His plan included an atonement. “For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made” (Alma 34:9). The New Testament testifies that this expedient atonement which brings about repentance and forgiveness of our sins was provided by “a Prince and a Saviour” (Acts 5:31). While the word savior is now considered more of a title than a term, it originally meant “one that saves” or “one that delivers.” It may seem elementary to ask the question, saves or delivers us from what? But it is an important question that requires a straightforward answer. Some suppose we are saved from the burden of sorrow, grief, or pain. Others believe that the Savior came solely to save us from our sins. While both are true, the heart of the Savior’s mission was to save or deliver us from the awful reality that we will always be separated from God without any hope to be with Him ever again. The means for providing this act of salvation is the Atonement. The New Testament testifies that the person to save us from this awful predicament is Jesus Christ and, as such, He becomes “our hope” (1 Timothy 1:1).

Reconcil​iation

When Paul wrote of the Atonement received through Jesus Christ in Romans, he used the Greek word katallagē, which is typically translated as “reconciliation.”[6] Katallagē and its related verbs katallassō and apokatallassō are used twelve other times in the New Testament, and all references deal with reconciliation. In the Book of Mormon, Jacob linked the Atonement to reconciliation when he taught that we are “reconciled . . . through the Atonement of Christ (Jacob 4:11). Paul wrote to the Hebrews that Christ would “make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). Whether linked by words or through a process, it is evident that one cannot separate reconciliation from the Atonement. Obviously, a better understanding of reconciliation also yields a better understanding of the Atonement.

The word reconciliation comes from the Latin reconciliare, which means “to bring together again, reunite, or reconcile.”[7] This is especially pertinent because the scriptures teach with unwavering certainty that when we break the law in the very least degree, we are estranged from God, and such a chasm is created between Him and us that our chances to be with Him are bleak. Fortunately, the Atonement or reconciliation makes it possible for us to reunite with God again. This is only possible if the divide is bridged, the gap is narrowed sufficiently, or the wall between us and God is broken down. Paul explained to the Ephesians that Jesus “hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us . . . that he might reconcile [us] unto God” (Ephesians 2:14, 16). We also learn that Christ reconciled sinners by “not imputing their trespasses unto them” (2 Corinthians 5:19), thus clearing the way to be with God. Through this action we find that the Atonement allows us to be reunited with God again.

Paul described those reconciled by the Atonement as “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20). This seems to indicate that the outcome of reconciliation is more than just being pardoned of our transgressions. To be an ambassador for Christ denotes more than shared proximity; it connotes the highest sense of agreement. Elder James E. Talmage also likened the Atonement to reconciliation, which he defined as “bringing into agreement of those who have been estranged.”[8] From this point of view, reconciliation not only makes it possible for estranged individuals to be with each other again, it also makes it possible for estranged parties to be like each other. Elder McConkie taught, “Reconciliation is the process of ransoming man from his state of sin and spiritual darkness and of restoring him to a state of harmony and unity with Deity.”[9]

This transformation is described well by King Benjamin. He taught, “The natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever” (Mosiah 3:19). The natural man is God’s enemy, for they cannot agree. Paul stated, “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). There is hardly a better description of being estranged from God than Paul’s and King Benjamin’s explanations together. As long as man remains natural, he will be an enemy of God and is irreconcilable. If, however, it were possible that man could no longer be a natural man and overcome the effects of the fall, then reconciliation would not only be possible, it would be ensured. King Benjamin taught this very point nicely as he informed us that by yielding to the enticings of the Spirit and partaking of the Atonement of Christ, the natural man can actually become a saint (see Mosiah 3:19). Once again, there is hardly a better description of coming into agreement with God than this.

Redemp​tion

One may wonder how the Atonement or reconciliation can pardon a sinner from the consequences of sin without robbing justice. A price does, after all, need to be paid. To better understand this, it is helpful to consider yet another appendage to the Atonement. Paul emphasized that we should be looking for a Savior who would “redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14). The word “redeem” in this verse is translated from the Greek lutroō, which means “to free, rescue, or liberate by paying a ransom.”[10] Elder Boyd K. Packer explained that a redemption or atonement could not be made by just anyone. In fact, he explains that “by eternal law, mercy cannot be extended save there be one who is both willing and able to assume our debt and pay the price and arrange the terms for our redemption.”[11] Notice that redemption cannot be made by a willing party alone. Surely there are noble individuals that are more than willing to give their own life in exchange for the lives of others—especially those they love. But this act of mercy can be provided only by one who is willing and able.

Paul taught that the qualified Redeemer, He who would deliver us, was none other than Jesus Christ (see Galatians 1:4). It was Jesus who was uniquely qualified as one both willing and able to redeem the world. Elder Bruce C. Hafen explained, “Somehow, through his sinless life, his genetic nature as the Only Begotten of the Father, and his willingness to drink the bitter cup of justice, the Lord Jesus Christ was able to atone unconditionally for the original sin of Adam and Eve and for the physical death, and to atone conditionally for the personal sins of mankind.”[12] Because of His unique heritage and life, Christ was not subject to Adam’s fall and thus not subject to death. Thus, His willingness to be the ransom was actually more than a choice to accept a fate (death) that would eventually be His anyway. His was a choice to accept a destiny that could only come by His choice alone. Thus, Jesus Christ was able to assume the debt, pay the necessary price, and actually make a free-willed choice.

Remember that redemption required a ransom to be paid. Paul taught that Jesus “gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6). I cannot help but think of the enormous size of the debt, when I consider how many people “all” must mean in this verse or how Alma taught that Jesus would atone for the sins of the world (see Alma 34:8). Jacob explained that the term “all” included “every living creature, both men, women, and children, who belong to the family of Adam (2 Nephi 9:21). In addition, President Boyd K. Packer taught that the ransom included the “sum total of all wickedness and depravity; for brutality, immorality, perversion, and corruption; for addiction; for killings and torture and terror—for all of it that ever had been or all that ever would be enacted upon this earth.”[13] Finally, Elder Maxwell added that “since not all human sorrow and pain is connected to sin, the full intensiveness of the Atonement involved bearing our pains, infirmities, and sicknesses, as well as our sins.”[14] With all this in mind, Elder Maxwell’s chilling description of “the awful arithmetic of the Atonement”[15] becomes more meaningful. Yet Christ willingly paid the ransom for all who would believe in Him (see Acts 13:39). This debt was of infinite proportions, which must be why Amulek taught that “there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world” (Alma 34:12). Thus, an infinite ransom would require an infinite atonement or sacrifice. As Elder Russell M. Nelson testified, “Jesus was the only one who could offer such an infinite atonement.”[16] With this in mind, the Apostle Paul’s statements that “our Saviour Jesus Christ . . . gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity” (Titus 2:13–14; emphasis added) and “might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father” (Galatians 1:4) make much more sense. The ransom of such a mighty debt could be nothing less than the Son of God, who is “infinite and eternal” (Alma 34:14). While the ransom would require Christ’s blood (see Acts 20:28; Hebrews 9:12), it also required much more. It required all of Christ—His blood, His obedience, His innocence, His dedication to the Father’s will, His love, all of His unique godly attributes.

How this ransom was actually paid is not known. “No mortal watched,” President Packer said of the event, “as evil turned away and hid in shame before the light of that pure being. . . . When what was done was done, the ransom had been paid.”[17] While we may not understand how the Atonement took place, we are assured that it did take place. The Apostle Paul taught that “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13), and Abinadi testified that Christ was filled with compassion, having “taken upon himself their iniquity and their transgressions, having redeemed them, and satisfied the demands of justice” (Mosiah 15:9).

Just​ification

The redemption of Christ naturally leads to us to consider justification, another important appendage of the Atonement. Paul taught that we are “justified only by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Joseph Smith Translation, Romans 3:24). Just prior to Paul’s declaration that “we have now received the Atonement” in Romans 5:11, he declared that we are justified by Christ’s blood and “shall be saved from wrath through him” (v. 9). This reference is actually quite important, for it emphasizes that justification is made possible only by the Atonement and that justification will ultimately save us from wrath or the effects of our sins. Thus the Atonement, through justification, narrows the irreconcilable gap between God and sinners by pardoning the sinners from the punishment of their sins. How is this done? “Justification” is translated from the Greek dikaioō, meaning “to be acquitted or pronounced as righteous.”[18] Thus, the Savior, He who paid the ransom and thereby redeemed us, can acquit or render us just or innocent by His good grace and thus make us heirs of eternal life (see Titus 3:7).

It should be pointed out that justification is made by Christ’s Atonement and His good grace and not for any other reason. Likewise, it must be emphasized that only He who paid the ransom is authorized to make any such declaration. This is important because over time, justification has been tweaked, altered, and diluted enough that, while it appears to have the same original meaning, it actually takes us away from the Savior rather than drawing us nearer to Him. For example, a more modern definition of justification is rendered as showing or giving “a satisfactory reason or excuse for something done.”[19] While the concept is still based on receiving a declaration of innocence, this more modern approach to justification focuses mostly on the crime and not on the repentant criminal. In other words, the modern premise focuses on demonstrating why a crime is really not a crime. For example, suppose a person takes another person’s loaf of bread without permission. By law, this is stealing and is considered a crime. If the person, however, gives a satisfactory reason for taking the bread—“I was starving,” for example—they may be exonerated on the basis that why they took the bread will change whether taking the bread was wrong or not. From this perspective, taking something is somehow different than taking something with a reason. According to this mindset, it is easy to see that any sin could be considered justified if one is sufficiently persuasive or presents an acceptable rationale. In truth, this type of justification is really just rationalization by another name.

Among the glaring differences between the two definitions of justification is that one pardons the sinner from punishment of the sin while the other pardons the sinner from sin, because it was determined that there was actually no sin involved after all. Lehi warned that the latter leads to deeper problems. “And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away” (2 Nephi 2:13). To some, Lehi’s conclusion that all this eventually leads one to believe that there is no God may be extreme. But consider how those who rely on stratagem, persuasion, and manipulation to justify their behavior believe they have no real need for the justification of Christ. Thus they have deleted Christ’s role as Redeemer, for they have determined that there was no sin, no law, no punishment, and that righteousness is really nothing more than situational ethics. Because of these things, whether they admit it or not, there is no God.

Paul taught that justification only comes through the “name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Thus, in the New Testament context, justification involves a guilty sinner humbly seeking a qualified Savior to obtain forgiveness. There is no need to present a case of innocence, for guilt has been well established and confession has already been made. “One is not repentant,” President Spencer W. Kimball taught, “until he bares his soul and admits his actions without excuses or rationalizations.”[20] As such, receiving justification is an act of faith in the Savior, for we seek resolution when we really do not deserve it.

As we begin to understand the principle of justification better, we soon realize that its scope is probably broader than we thought. Even though we may recognize the importance of being justified, some might think it possible for one to refuse to repent and still satisfy the demands of justice by paying for their own sins. They then reason that such individuals will be permitted to enter celestial glory. “After all,” they quip, “justice was satisfied.” Some thought on the matter would lead us to conclude that such individuals could never receive celestial glory since they achieved salvation by another means (themselves) and not Jesus Christ (see Philippians 3:9). We are reminded by Joseph Smith that the “Lord is God, and beside him there is no Savior” (D&C 76:1).

Another important consideration regarding justification is that those who choose to evade the process of repentance also skirt the full experience of reformation and rehabilitation that comes only through divine assistance. In his final sermon, Lehi taught that “there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:8). While the unrepentant may actually pay the price demanded by justice and ultimately find their slates wiped clean, they have failed to rely on the merits, mercy, and grace of Christ and thus have failed to develop spiritual character by becoming sanctified in Christ.

Sanctification

According to Paul, the purpose of Christ’s suffering outside the gates of Jerusalem was that Jesus “might sanctify the people with his own blood” (Hebrews 13:12). The English word sanctification is derived from sancire, meaning “to render sacred, holy or inviolable,” which is the same root word for saint. [21] It shouldn’t be surprising then that sanctification is directly connected to Christ’s Atonement (see 1 Corinthians 1:30). After all, sanctification is typically thought of as the process of being purified or cleansed from sin. What may be surprising to some, however, is the realization that sanctification is much more than just purification from sin.

Paul taught the Thessalonians that sanctification required abstaining from impure behavior. At the same time, he beseeched them to “increase more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:10) and admonished them to edify others, “comfort the feebleminded,” “support the weak,” “quench not the spirit,” and abstain from the appearance of evil (see 1 Thessalonians 5:11–23). Paul concluded that by doing such things, we will be sanctified wholly or completely. Thus, sanctification is more than an absence of sin; it is also a presence of godliness. With this in mind, the Atonement takes on additional importance. It is not merely the means of pardoning sins alone but the means of fulfilling Christ’s charge to “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Peter emphasized this same principle as he taught the Saints that “he [God] which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy” (1 Peter 1:15).

We learn from the New Testament that the mission of Christ was to bring about the “perfecting of the saints” that they might come “unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12, 14). “Fulness,” as used in the New Testament, is translated from the Greek pleroō, meaning “to fill, complete, or finish.”[22] In some interpretations, the related word plerōma is described as a patch or filler that rounds out imperfections or dents or makes something complete or smooth.[23] Thus more than removing our blemishes of sin, the Atonement is designed to complete us—to fill in our imperfections, making us smooth. Joseph Smith described the inhabitants of celestial glory as those “who are just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood” (D&C 76:69). Notice that he described just men (those justified) as those who were made perfect through the Atonement of Christ. Such individuals have received the Father’s fulness (see D&C 76:56). In other words, they have been “filled in” perfectly by Christ and are like Him. Since many of our personal imperfections, dents, or dings are not the results of sin, we come to realize that the Atonement is not just for sinners and for fulfilling the demands of justice. The Atonement sanctifies us both by pardoning our sins and by empowering us to us to receive God’s character. Thus, through the Atonement of Christ, we become new creatures (see 2 Corinthians 5:17).

Conclu​sion

The New Testament provides wonderful insight for a deepening understanding and appreciation of the Atonement. As we consider the concepts of reconciliation, redemption, justification, and sanctification, we begin to understand the deep significance of the Atonement and exhibit a greater appreciation for the Savior, Jesus Christ. Fortunately, restored scripture and living prophets, seers, and revelators illuminate these principles in such a way that our understanding is more complete. President Hinckley said: “Everything depended on Him—His atoning sacrifice. That was the key. That was the keystone in the arch of the great plan which the Father had brought forth for the eternal life of His sons and daughters. Terrible as it was to face it, and burdensome as it was to realize it, He faced it, He accomplished it, and it was a marvelous and wonderful thing. It is beyond our comprehension, I believe. Nevertheless, we glimpse it in small part and must learn to appreciate it more and more and more.”[24] With this in mind, it is of little wonder that Paul rejoiced and found “joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement” (Romans 5:11).


[1] Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Greatest Miracle in Human History,” Ensign, May 1994, 72.

[2] Bruce R. McConkie, “The Purifying Power of Gethsemane,” Ensign, May 1985, 9.

[3] Neal A. Maxwell, “Repentance,” Ensign, November 1991, 30.

[4] D. Todd Christofferson, “Justification and Sanctification,” Ensign, June 2001, 18.

[5] William Tyndale used the word atonement in his 1526 and 1534 editions of the New Testament. Subsequently, other editions began using the word atonement as well (see Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Eric D. Huntsman, and Thomas A. Wayment, Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament: An Illustrated Reference for Latter-day Saints [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2006], 261).

[6] William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), s.v. “καταλλαγη.”

[7] Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, eds., A Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), s.v. “reconcilio.”

[8] James E. Talmage, A Study of the Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1973), 75.

[9] Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971), 2:422; emphasis added.

[10] Arndt and Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. “λυτροω.” Redemption is from the Latin redemptare, which means “to ransom or buy back.” Lewis and Short, Latin Dictionary, s.v. “redempto.”

[11] Boyd K. Packer, “The Mediator,” Ensign, May 1977, 54.

[12] Bruce C. Hafen, The Broken Heart: Applying the Atonement to Life’s Experiences (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 7.

[13] Boyd K. Packer, “Atonement, Agency, Accountability,” Ensign, May 1988, 69.

[14] Neal A. Maxwell, Not My Will, But Thine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988), 51.

[15] Neal A. Maxwell, “Willing to Submit,” Ensign, May 1985, 70.

[16] Russell M. Nelson, “The Atonement,” Ensign, November 1996, 33.

[17] Packer, “Atonement, Agency, Accountability,” 69.

[18] Arndt and Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. “δικαιοω.”

[19] The World Book Dictionary (Chicago: Field Enterprises Educational Corporation, 1972), s.v. “justify.”

[20] Spencer W. Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 88.

[21] Lewis and Short, Latin Dictionary, s.v. “sancio.”

[22] Frederick William Drucker, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), s.v. “πλεροω.”

[23] Arndt and Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. “πλερωμα.”

[24] Gordon B. Hinckley, mission presidents seminar, June 23, 1996, in Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley (Deseret Book: Salt Lake City, 1997), 30.