Feast upon the Word Blog

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“If it weren’t for the Atonement, then we would have to be perfect,” I said.

Posted by BrianJ on June 7, 2008

As part of our scripture study, my daughter (7) told me that in Primary she learned that “we must be perfect to go to heaven.” Sparing you all the details, I found myself saying that, “If it weren’t for the Atonement, then we would have to be perfect.”

This wasn’t the first time I had said something like that—or even those exact words—yet now I say, “found myself saying” because it struck me that I may be wrong. Very wrong.

“…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)

Here’s the standard explanation (often related to scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 15:22):

  1. We were in a non-progressing state premortally,
  2. We came to earth to be tested—to see whether we would do all that God asks of us,
  3. We all fail at some point(s) and are thus cut off from the presence of God,
  4. Christ, the only perfect (i.e., never broke any commandments) person to live on earth, made redemption possible through the Atonement,
  5. If we could be perfect (i.e., keep all the commandments), then we wouldn’t ever be cut off and wouldn’t need to be redeemed.

What’s wrong with that? It puts Christ right in the center of our lives and leaves us completely dependent on him, right?

The problem, I think, is that it supposes that the “only” value of the Atonement is in the redemption—in freeing us from mistakes we make and/or the effects of the Fall. That the former is not our only problem—i.e., that the Fall is a barrier from our birthday onward—is evidenced by Mosiah 3:16:

“…even if it were possible that little children could sin they could not be saved; but I say unto you they are blessed; for behold, as in Adam, or by nature, they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins.”

And certainly the Atonement is essential to being freed from sin and the Fall, but it seems that exaltation (which I’ll define here as “being made one with God”) is much more than merely the absence of sin. In a sense, we were at some “level” premortally, we fell from that level, and the Atonement allows us to be lifted to higher level than at the beginning.

Saying “If it weren’t for the Atonement…,” takes exaltation lightly, suggesting that it is possible to “behave oneself” into celestial glory, and overlooks the fact that the Atonement not only justifies the faithful, it also adds “thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions” (D&C 132:19).

(I suppose that another way to look at this is: Jesus’ was a fitting sacrifice not because he had never sinned, but because he was God and had never sinned.)

11 Responses to ““If it weren’t for the Atonement, then we would have to be perfect,” I said.”

  1. RuthS said

    “Saying “If it weren’t for the Atonement…,” takes exaltation lightly, suggesting that it is possible to “behave oneself” into celestial glory, and overlooks the fact that the Atonement not only justifies the faithful, it also adds “thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions” (D&C 132:19).”

    There is something here that makes me uneasy. Could it be that if it weren’t for the Atonement we would all be subject to the devil. We would be lost and without hope for redemption, justification or exaltation. If weren’t for the Atonement there would be no need to worry about our behavior at all as it would make no difference. If it weren’t for the Atonement the existentialists would be correct. In the end we are all dead.

  2. Robert C. said

    Brian, Jacob Morgan’s Dialogue article on the atonement (“Divine Infusion Theory” I think is in the title, published within the last few years) talks in terms of a super-fallen state where we wouldn’t really have any free agency (cf. 2 Ne 2:16 regarding not being able to act unless we’re enticed, and b/c of the fall perhaps not even being able to feel good enticements—or something…). That is, if it weren’t for the atonement we would be in a super-fallen state without any hope or goodness in us, so we’d basically be like animals (i.e., “natural man”). So, if I’m remembering Jacob’s argument at all correctly, we are born into this non-super-fallen-state only b/c of the atonement, and so free agency is a gift of the atonement, and then if we choose evil and then repent, repentance is a second level gift of the atonement (from what I’ll call a “personally-fallen” state, contra the super-fallen state w/o free agency, to a redeemed state).

    Some thoughts anyway (sorry if they’re not very coherent…).

  3. BrianJ said

    Ruth and Robert: thanks for your comments, and if I understand you both, then you are essentially saying the same thing: the Atonement makes righteousness possible. I completely agree with that.

    But let me phrase part of the issue another way. Part of this discussion is whether or not it is possible to be so righteous that one is exalted without need of repentance/redemption. The implication is that if you were perfectly obedient (a theoretical possibility), then you would not need the redemptive aspect or the exaltatory aspect Atonement (you would still need its effects of “setting up the playing field” as you both describe).

    To put it in Robert’s terms, there are several states:


    At any rate, I think we are all in agreement that it is a bad idea to teach any kind of “if it weren’t for the Atonement” ideas.

  4. Gerald Smith said

    I think we need to define all the components of the atonement. First, it redeems us from spiritual and physical death. But if that is all that was involved, then Christ’s role would essentially be over.
    As mentioned Morgan’s Divine Infusion theory and Blake Ostler’s Compassion theory both involve the atonement of Christ, using the Light of Christ. Basically, we are filled with light from Christ, and in so receiving it become perfect. If we kept all the commandments, we would yet not be perfect. Why? Because we would not be filled with Christ’s light to a celestial level. That is something we cannot do for ourselves, but can only make ourselves vessels worthy to hold the light.
    Blake sees it as entering a loving relationship with Christ, and then Christ fills us with his light/love. In so doing, we indwell in Him, and He indwells in us; causing Christ to absorb the pains of our sins, and purifying us in an ongoing atonement.

    So, even if we kept all the commandments, we still would require the atonement. Repentance suggests change and submission, which are required to receive the greater light. And Christ showed the path, receiving grace for grace (light), while moving from grace to grace (D&C 93).

  5. mondo cool said

    Above you say:
    We were in a non-progressing state premortally,

  6. mondo cool said


    Above you say:
    “1. We were in a non-progressing state premortally….”

    Don’t want this to be a threadjack, but I think we were able to progress in the pre-mortal existence until the time of our births and that act (our birth) ended our pre-mortal progression.

    But, I have wondered (& this is merely my speculation) if 1) the fact that Adam & Eve partook of the fruit at the invitation of Lucifer and incurred mortality, rather than being given the fruit by the Father AND 2) the result was a “fallen” condition of mortality AND 3) we are the inheritors of Adam’s nature, THAT; therefore, we need the Atonement to cover the effects of Adam’s nature (as well as our sins), AND it is, therefore, impossible to just “behave ourselves” into a Celestial glory. No way to know for sure at present, though.

  7. BrianJ said

    Smith: well said.

    mondo: perhaps it would be better to say “a state of limited progression premortally.”

  8. robf said

    I’m not sure we know enough about premortal progression to say exactly what that might mean.

  9. BrianJ said

    true—but then, what do we know enough about to say exactly what it means? {grin}

  10. lxxluthor said

    Nice insight Brian. I’m realizing that I’ve unwittingly made this mistake myself. Well presented.

  11. BrianJ said

    {blushing} Thanks lxx!

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