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_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 8 – How

Posted by joespencer on July 7, 2012

The last chapter of Robinson’s Believing Christ sees him shift from the more practical to the more theoretical, from the more concrete to the more abstract, from the more applicable to the more doctrinal. I’m actually rather skeptical about such distinctions, but I’ll ignore that skepticism for the moment. It’s best, anyway, to say that Robinson here turns from grace as it is given to us to grace as it is brought into existence. The focus here becomes, in a word, the “how” of the atonement. What did Jesus do? How did He do it? And what should we learn from that?

Here, again, I feel I’ve got to be critical, as I’ve been up through my last post. It’s as if we finally get behind the paneling to see the motor that has been running the Robinsonian machine. And so the criticisms I’ve been raising from the very beginning—coupled, note, at every moment with words of appreciation and recognition!—can finally be worked out fully. It’s here, I think, that we find where Robinson really goes wrong, and why—in my opinion, anyway—he can still get so much right when he sometimes gets things muddled.

The first part of the chapter is titled, simply, “The Divinity of Christ.” The point, first, is to make clear that Jesus could effect the atonement because “Jesus was God, not only the Son of God or the Elder Brother, but God in his own right” (p. 109). Any non-Mormon Christian reading this claim could only be shocked that it’s necessary to explain how Christ received the power to effect the atonement. This detail makes clear the extent to which Robinson is resisting widespread Mormon theologies of works—theologies that often make the Son so distinct and separate from the Father that His power has to be explained. Robinson is right, more than right, to resist this idea. Christ is divine, the very God of the Book of Mormon (“God himself will come down,” etc., the Nephites testify again and again). So I have no major quibble with this first part of the chapter (except with regard to something that will come up later). The next part, then, concerns “The Humanity of Christ.” Here the emphasis is on the idea in Hebrews that Christ experienced temptation in a real sense. This is radicalized in important ways in Alma 7, so there’s no getting around it. Robinson takes all this to motivate talk about the way Christ isn’t distant from us. We’re dealing with a compassionate God who came to feel all that we feel. That’s right as well. And again, no major quibbles here.

Problems arise only when we come to the third part of the chapter, “Vicarious Suffering,” a topic already mentioned in the first part of the chapter, but not as the focus there. This is where, I think, Robinson gets a bit derailed. Let me see if I can explain.

The way Robinson sets up the question is interesting. He doesn’t simply assert that the atonement was a matter of vicarious suffering, of sacrifice—he motivates it. Here’s how: “Still, some are haunted by the final three words in Hebrews 4:15, ‘yet without sin.’ After all, human beings aren’t just tempted to sin—they actually do it. Since I have on occasion given in to my temptations and Jesus never did, since I am guilty and he never was, how can he understand the sinner?” (p. 116). Note the move here. Robinson identifies a problem with all our talk about the humanity of Christ, about all the experienced compassion, etc. Jesus, never sinning, didn’t experience enough to know what I feel. Unless, that is, He suffered vicariously. There’s the motivation. And so Robinson points, inevitably, to the Garden of Gethsemane and what (we usually say) happened there. If in experiencing mortal life, Jesus experienced most of what it is to be human, in Gethsemane, He experienced the rest of what it is to be human. That’s the idea.

I’m skeptical. Very skeptical. For one, where does scripture teach that Jesus suffered vicariously for our sins? I can name only one passage—part of Amulek’s sermon in Alma 34—and that’s one that I think the text goes on to criticize in subtle but important ways—in Alma’s words to his son in Alma 40-42. I don’t find any scriptural warrant for the idea that Jesus suffered vicariously on our behalf. When Robinson says (p. 117) that Christ assumed both our deserved punishment and our earned guilt, I think he steps out into the void beyond the scriptural text. Now, of course, there has been plenty of this sort of talk in Mormonism generally, and often enough by those in authority, but I know of no canonical, binding source that teaches this idea, and I think there are canonical, binding sources that motivate real concern about it.

How does the atonement work according to the Book of Mormon, for instance? Lehi, Jacob, Benjamin, Abinadi, Alma—they’re all agreed on a few basic points. The saving event was Christ’s resurrection—there’s no redemption in Jesus’ suffering, but only in His triumph over the grave. That event trumps death, that force which introduced sin into the world. By uncoupling us from the insuperable horizon of death, Christ uncoupled us from any necessity to sin; we become free to do good if we so desire, or to continue in evil if we so desire. Our works will demonstrate our desires, and so it is by our works that we’ll be judged. The atonement, then, is a matter entirely of the resurrection and the way that it overcomes not only death (giving us to rise again) but sin (giving us the freedom to do good now). The atonement gives us, in uncompromised grace, to work. Justice is satisfied because what we are now—in response to the resurrection—is what we’ll be in the hereafter—after the resurrection has had its physical and not just its spiritual effect on us. And mercy, obviously, holds sway because we’re freed from the otherwise tyrannical power of death. Mercy and justice are worked out before we come onto the scene; we just have to decide whether we like the weave of mercy and justice, or whether we hate it and desire wickedness and death.

That’s the doctrine of atonement in the Book of Mormon. No talk of vicarious suffering, of our having incurred some kind of debt through our sins, of our needing to have all of our shortcomings made up for—none of that. The atonement is a matter, pure and simple, of Christ’s conquest over death, the chief spiritual effect of which is freedom from the power of sin. We don’t have to sin if we don’t want to. We’re not depraved. If we sin, it’s because we selfishly cling to our deaths, reject the implications of the resurrection, would rather be in charge than God, etc. That’s, as it were, the whole story.

Except that there’s Amulek. He has a number of things to say that make it sound as if there’s this other story to be told. He talks about incurred debt, about an infinite God transgressing the boundaries of personal individuality in order to release our debts, etc. He seems to give us the picture we usually paint when we talk about the atonement. So, shouldn’t we just say that Amulek gives us another part of the story—the most important part?

But let’s step very carefully here. Amulek is the only Nephite figure we have who tells us about the atonement without having the status of prophet. He’s a missionary, yes, and one who is often under the influence of the Spirit, no question, but he’s not exactly of the same status as Lehi or Jacob or Benjamin or Abinadi or Alma—and that’s important, I suspect. I think it’s also important that Amulek’s sermon on the atonement—Alma 34—comes rather suddenly to an end without much of an epilogue. His words just end abruptly, and then the missionaries leave town and a war ensues. That’s odd, and very unlike Mormon to tell the story that way. Moreover, we learn a few chapters later that there have been unfortunate things happening among the Nephite missionaries. Corianton, Alma’s son, has been using certain unidentified doctrinal ideas in order to justify wicked desires. And when Alma corrects him, he qualifies, clarifies, and in a few places outright contradicts the teachings of Amulek from Alma 34.

Without providing a full argument—which I need to do at some point—I’ll say that I see the Book of Mormon as offering a subtle critique of Amulek’s understanding of atonement. The point of the larger narrative there is in part to say that the atonement can’t be understood in vicarious terms, in terms of satisfying abstract justice through vicarious suffering, etc. The atonement works otherwise. The one text that might justify our usual way of talking is, at any rate, complexly contextualized, and we ought to be extremely careful interpreting it. I won’t say there’s only one possible way of interpreting it—the one I’ve outlined—but I will say that we’ve not been nearly careful enough in its interpretation when it is in rather obvious tension with every other Book of Mormon sermon on atonement.

So I can’t blame Robinson for his understanding of the atonement here, but I can worry that he’s missed the most consistent Book of Mormon account of things. If we pay attention to that account, we’ll have a rather different picture—one in which we don’t begin in a crisis of justice, though we might invent such a crisis in order to comfort ourselves about our corrupt desires. If we pay attention to that account, we might begin to recognize that we are indeed saved by grace—only by grace—but that our works are the crucial indicators of our relationship to that salvation. If we pay attention to that account, we might finally get over the idea that we’ve got to motivate God to save us, since He’s already done that, delivering us from death and sin. If we pay attention to that account, we might just begin to work in the right way, getting serious work in the kingdom done, instead of wringing our hands all the time about whether we’re going to be saved some day.

Believing Christ. It’s an important book, make no mistake. But in the end, I suppose I want to say that there’s a still better, still more relevant book on grace we might do well to begin investigating: the Book of Mormon. I suggest we get started.

91 Responses to “_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 8 – How”

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  3. Robert C. said

    Great stuff, Joe.

    As a brief note, I think D&C 19:16 is often read as an instance of vicarious suffering (I think Blake mentions this somewhere in his second volume — if not, I recall him making this claim in some discussion with him at the New Cool Thang blog a few years ago…).

    • joespencer said

      It is often read that way, Robert, but I don’t think it’s a good reading. The words say only that Christ suffered so that we wouldn’t have to—not that He suffered in our place. There are other ways of suffering so that others don’t have to suffer….

  4. Roberta said

    “…there’s a still better, still more relevant book on grace we might do well to begin investigating: the Book of Mormon. I suggest we get started.”

    I agree. I wonder if this might be a subtle hint that you’ll resume the Book of Mormon notes…..?

    • joespencer said

      I don’t think I’ll be resuming my Book of Mormon notes, sorry. :) But I may begin to do other kinds of Book of Mormon notes…. :)

    • Robert C. said

      Joe, just to busy to resume the BoM notes? I’m slowly catching up on those, but that also means I’m slowly reaching the end, and I’m sad. FWIW, these are truly fantastic notes, comprising basically the best BoM commentary currently available, in print or otherwise. Julie’s seem worth checking out, but I will deeply miss your notes, and I suspect I’m not alone….

  5. Jason McBride said


    I enjoyed your review and critique. I am glad you “kicked the tires” of the idea of vicarious suffering. I would argue, and maybe someday will do more fully than I will here, that supposed chasm of a perfect God not understanding what it is to “give into” temptation is another human attempt to reject grace and deny the divine. It also ignores that the sinless Saviour suffered the very worst consequence of sin, a separation from God the Father. Why is vicarious suffering required?

  6. Ben S said

    Uh, Gal 3:13ff?

    • Karen said

      I’m not sure “being made a curse for us” amounts to vicarious suffering for a debt incurred through sin….

      • Ben S said

        In the full context (which is assumed by Paul to be obvious to the reader, and not presented) it’s completely substitutionary. I’m not suggesting this passage override all others, but the idea of substitution is clearly there.

      • joespencer said

        Substitutionary, perhaps, but vicarious suffering for incurred debt?

      • Ben S said

        I think you’re defining this so narrowly as to rule out anything. Debt? No. Sin? Clearly. I’m working from iPad, so reluctant to type extensively. Should I spell out the OT background here?

      • joespencer said

        Sorry if my attempts at brevity (I’m away at a conference) have come across as either facile or combative! Apologies!

        At any rate, no need to spell out the OT background. I don’t at all deny that there’s a strong sense of the vicarious there. I’m just trying to be very careful about how we translate that into the Christian context, as well as into the Book of Mormon. And what I’m most worried about is the usual motivation for outlining a theory of vicarious atonement—namely, a certain way of thinking about sin (as incurred debt that has to be balanced due to a distinctly modern and unmistakably abstract notion of justice).

        So, I’m happy to say that there’s talk of the substitutionary in scripture (indeed, I don’t want to be rid of that at all!), and I’m happy to say that there’s even talk of vicarious suffering (though I want to be very careful about it), but I want to divorce anything along either of those lines quite radically from a certain way of thinking about sin….

  7. I know we have discussed our different readings of alma 34 in the past but either way we get to the same conclusion, that vicarious suffering and in particular penal substitution is not what the BoM teaches.

    We are an odd species, us humans, who cannot accept grace. Even when faced with a loving, merciful God who gives us grace, WE esteem him stricken by God in order to satisfy our demands for what we think justice is.

    • chrislambe said

      J. Madson,

      You bring up a good point… Isaiah 53-54 talks about vicarious suffering.

      • J. Madson said

        Except that it doesn’t. Sure thats a popular reading of it but a number of scholars have dissected that and show it to not be the case. WE ESTEEM him stricken. Its us humans that place our sins on Jesus and think he is suffering our sins.

        Let me add that the goat that take’s the communities sins in the OT is not the one that is sacrificed. The sacrifice is an unblemished goat that is given as a gift and never carries any sin. The goat whose sins are placed on it is sent into the wilderness

      • chrislambe said

        I guess the issue then becomes can you save yourself from your sins? Can you have eternal life without the Atonement? Why then did Jesus Christ not suffer vicariously for us?

      • J. Madson said

        I think Joe lays out a pretty good analysis here that shows how you need grace/atonement to overcome sins. Yet none of that entails or needs vicarious suffering.

      • chrislambe said

        I dont understand how this doesnt entail vicarious suffering. Christ has to suffer in behalf of us.

        I think Joe lays out a pretty good analysis here that shows how you need grace/atonement to overcome sins. Yet none of that entails or needs vicarious suffering. The definition of vicarious means “acting or done for another.” How does Christ’s Atonement not show this? He had to suffer for our sins and did it in behalf of us because we cant do it ourselves.

      • J. Madson said

        Joe lays out that sin is a reaction to grace not that sin precedes grace. Sins, per his explanation, are a reaction to grace. You may want to read through the posts again. And again how does this means Christ “has to suffer for our sins” as a substitute?

  8. rameumptom said

    Great series, Joe.

    Being an “infinite” atonement that affects worlds without end, both before and after this earth, tells me that Gethsemane was not for us, but for Christ. Without it, he would not fully understand the human condition, suffering and pains, and so could not succor and heal us.

    For me, the resurrection is the great power that brings forth the atonement. The atonement is where we believe in Christ, repent, and then enter into a covenant relationship with Christ. At that point, Christ justifies us by washing our sins away in his blood, and then the Spirit comes into our life to purify and sanctify us.

    Perhaps you could take on a few other older LDS books that we tend to still use, such as Miracle of Forgiveness? It has lots of good stuff in it, but tends to focus on us working out our own salvation, instead of Christ healing us. And the part about Cain and Sasquatch really does not add any strength to the book, either….

  9. chrislambe said

    Joe, I enjoy reading your commentary on this book…

    You asked the question, “where does scripture teach that Jesus suffered vicariously for our sins?”

    I am going to put what it says in the NIV… Romans 3:25-26 “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” Through this passage it is understood that God’s reasoning was to redeem his people through Christ’s Atonement and why God did it vicariously. Through Christ’s sacrifice God was able to turn away his wrath which held all mankind under condemnation. In the secular Greek world sacrifices were to turn away the wrath of gods in behalf of the people. These sacrifices were types of propitiation between their gods and man. In a Jewish sense, God’s propitiation was a type of grace which was demonstrated before the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant during the Day of Atonement hinting that Christ became the propitiation (Romans 3:25) to turn away God’s wrath that he held against us.

    Christ died in our place, as a substitute or vicariously for our sins. We couldn’t do it for ourselves because the fact that it had to be an “infinite and eternal sacrifice” (Alma 34:9-12). The Bible states “God is angry with the wicked every day (Psalm 7:11); “the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23); “the soul who sins must die” (Ezekiel 18:4); “knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death” (Romans 1:32). Sin and death came into the world and condemn all souls because of the fall of Adam (Romans 5:12). God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance (D&C 1:31).

    This result of God being just (him not tolerating sin) is a negative one where people are kept in condemnation because of their sins, kept in their filthiness, separate from God, and enemies of God. Mosiah 3:19 says “For the natural man is an enemy of God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever.” This is what the scriptures say is enmity or hatred between God and man. It is a universal unrighteousness that all mankind has because of the fall; however, as Paul pointed out the revelation of God’s righteousness constitutes the gospel. “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Romans 1:17).

    No one is perfect who has been born to this earth. The standard of righteousness for us to gain salvation is perfection, Christ’s perfection. If we are all evil in God’s sight then we should be, by God’s justice, consigned to death because of our sins “for the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23).

    Only through faith can one receive the good righteousness or mercy and grace that is in God. This is the first principle and ordinance of the gospel. That faith is in Christ’s suffering and dying on the cross in behalf of the sins of the world or vicariously for all mankind. It’s available to those who believe because “all have sinned.” Because of this no matter Jew or Gentile, as Paul explained intimately, everyone has fallen short of God’s glory. Gerald N. Lund explained this as, “those who are uncomfortable with Paul’s statements about grace and salvation should bear in mind that the same teachings are found in other scripture as well… Lehi’s explanation of the Atonement to Jacob is remarkably similar to Paul’s explanation of justification by faith in Romans 3.”

    Robinson does have it right… Jesus did suffer vicariously for our sins… again this is my belief though.

    • Jim F. said

      Here’s another, though non-LDS, take on Romans 5:25-26: “The central claim in the hymn is that Christ provided a new means of access to God that reached beyond the sins of Israel. In view of Paul’s other statements about atonement, moreover, it seems unlikely that he shared an expiatory theory, which concentrates so exclusively on the matter of forgiveness, a matter of decidedly secondary interest in his theology. Propitiation also seems far from Paul’s intent. The likely alternative is found in 2 Cor 5:19, 21, reiterated in Rom 5:10, where we find a distinctively Pauline formulation of atonement as reconciliation: ὡς ὅτι θεὸς ἦν ἐν Χριστῷ κόσμον καταλλάσσων ἑαυτῷ.… τὸν μὴ γνόντα ἁμαρτίαν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἁμαρτίαν ἐποίησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς γενώμεθα δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ (“Because in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.… For our sake he made him who knew no sin to be sin, in order that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”) This form of atonement aims not at assuaging divine wrath or repairing damage to divine justice, but at overcoming human enmity against God and restoring humans to righteousness “in him,” that is, in the new community of faith. While traditional interpreters construe this passage as “putting away of God’s wrath against human transgressions,” exhausting “the effects of divine wrath against sin,” Frank Matera wisely observes that “there is no need for God to be reconciled to humanity as appears in 2 Macc 1:5; 7:33; and 8:29. To the contrary, humanity stands in need of reconciliation with God.” The situation resolved by the death of Christ was the massive human assault on the righteousness of God, an assault that dominates the argument of Romans from 1:18 through 3:20 and is reiterated in 3:23″(Robert Jewett and Roy David Kotansky, Romans: A Commentary, ed. Eldon Jay Epp, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, 286 [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006]).

      • chrislambe said


        I agree with Frank Matera on this… God is holy and doesnt have to be reconciled to anyone. God is our loving Heavenly Father and cares for us tremendously. We are commanded to be perfect as he is perfect, yet we are not. We sin, its common among all men everywhere and none of us are not perfect without the atonement of Jesus Christ. Man needs to be reconciled to God (2 Ne. 10:24) and the plan of salvation was instituted from the beginning to atone for those who cannot do it …Christ had to atone in a vicarious way (in behalf of us) for our sins so the justice of God would not fall upon our imperfect souls because of the flesh but to reconcile us to God through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

    • J. Madson said

      So I can forgive people, which I do all the time, but God apparently cannot because he is bound by this thing called justice which we think corresponds to western notions of retribution as opposed to restoration as Alma describes it? Odd that us flawed humans can show greater love and forgiveness than the God who demands penal substitution for sin.

      • chrislambe said

        He doesnt have to forgive men… not that he cannot… “For I the Lord will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:10). You also know the scripture, “I the Lord am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say ye have no promise” (D&C 82:10). God is bound by justice, the ends of the law must be met and those who sin under the law will be judged by the law (Romans 2: 12-16).

        God must abide by the law, even justice, this is why Christ came and atoned for the sins of man so that man can be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism by emersion for the remission of sins and the laying on of hands for the gift of the holy ghost (AoF 4). Christs atonement answered the ends of the law and He applies His grace on us so that we can enter into his presense.

      • J. Madson said

        Again, you are defining justice in a certain way which leads you to these conclusions. Read Alma 40-42 in its entirety where is tays out a very different idea of justice. You are reading western retributive notions of justice back into a text

      • Jim F. said

        Chrislambe, where is this law about justice? Who decreed it? How does it exist? I don’t understand the appeal to law beyond God. Where did it come from?

      • chrislambe said


        The law of justice comes from God. He is holy and cannot go against His character. Lets look at those scriptures that people keep referencing about a different justice of God…. Alma 41:3-5 “It is requisite with the justice of God that men should be judged according to their works; and if their works were good in this life, and the desires of their hearts were good, that they should also, at the last day, be restores unto that which is good. And if their works are evil they shall be restored to their proper order, every thing to its natural frame—mortality raised to immortality, corruption to incorruption—raised to endless happiness to inherit the kingdom of God, or to endless misery to inherit the kingdom of the devil, the one on one hand, the other on the other— The one raised to happiness according to his desires of happiness, or good according to his desires of good; and the other to evil according to his desires of evil; for as he has desired to do evil all the day long even so shall he have his reward of evil when the night cometh.”

        God will restore those who accepted the sacrifice of Christ and held true to it happiness. This is the mercy of God. The justice of God is to restore wickedness to an endless misery to inherit the kingdom of the devil because they choose evil over the Atonement which was prepared in behalf of them…

        Now in verse 8 “Now, the decrees of God are unalterable; therefore, the way is prepared that whosoever will may walk therein and be saved.” God’s decree in the Garden of Eden with the Fall of Adam and Eve was that they would die… spiritually as well as physically. They sinned or transgressed the law of God and because of that God’s justice (spiritual and physical death) hung over all mankind. A plan was prepared to crush the head of the serpent to save mankind from the fall… This is the Atonement of Jesus Christ, to answer the ends of the law of justice so that God can be merciful to those who have faith in Christ. Those who dont repent of their sins and come unto Christ will be judged accordingly…

        verse 11, “And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; they are without God in the world, and they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness.” These are they who do not take part of the Atonement in this world because they choose not to do so, they choose not to listen, they choose not to repent. God is not bound by the law of mercy over them, neither is the Atonement a part in the process but they are consigned to inherit the wrath and the justice of God to restore them back to what they were upon the earth, evil and the punishment of that is hell.

        Verse 12 and 13 “And now behold, is the meaning of the word restoration to take a thing of a natural state and place it in an unnatural state, or to place it in a state opposite to its nature? O, my son, this is not the case; but the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish—good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous; just for that which is just; merciful for that which is merciful.” God is bound to His laws and decrees to restore things to what they were intended… This does not contradict what Amulek taught in Alma 34:34. Alma 34:34 shows the law God has decreed and he is bound to it.

      • Jim F. said

        Chrislambe: I don’t disbelieve the scriptures you quote. I disagree with the interpretation you give them. I don’t disagree with the plan of salvation. I’m quite familiar with it and believe it. But it doesn’t follow that you’re interpretation / understanding of that plan is the only or best one.

        Notice that the justice of God as you describe it after quoting from Alma 41 is not a justice decreed by some anonymous law. It also isn’t a justice decreed by God. It is merely allowing people to be what they have made themselves, either by accepting the mercy he offers or by rejecting it. There’s no mention of him obeying a law there.

        Later you speak of him being bound by a law–mercy–but scripture does not say that he is. Scripture speaks of him being merciful, but does not say he is merciful because some law demands that he be. Mercy could be an attribute of a perfectly good being without being the consequence of a law.

        You speak of those who do not accept the atonement as being “consigned to inherit the wrath and the justice of God.” But as far as I can tell, that too is not scriptural. It is your understanding of what scripture teaches. You have every right to come to an understanding of scripture and to explain it. But we don’t have to believe that your understanding is the only reasonable one.

        In this case, though, your understanding seems to go against the teachings we have concerning the lower kingdoms, none of which appear to be kingdoms of wrath. Except for Sons of Perdition, those who refuse the atonement do not inherit kingdoms of wrath and justice. They too receive mercy. And we don’t know what happens to the Sons of Perdition, so it may also be incorrect to say that they inherit wrath and justice.

        If “God is bound to his laws,” then why did he decree laws that required the shedding of his Son’s blood? I honestly don’t know why the suffering in the Garden and on the cross was required. The only explanation from latter-day scripture is that of Alma 7:11-12, which says nothing about needing his blood to be spilled. As I think everyone knows, Paul’s statements about what happened have been read in several very different ways, so biblical scripture doesn’t give us a definitive answer either. In other words, I don’t think there is a scriptural answer to my question.

        I find your theological answer deficient because if God decreed the laws that required the suffering and death of his Son, then it would seem that either he didn’t foresee that consequence when he decreed those laws or, foreseeing them, he decreed those laws anyway. Neither option makes him particularly worth of worship, so I reject the assumption that leads to those options.

        As I said, I reject the belief that God decreed some law called “the law of justice” because it leads to unacceptable consequences. But I don’t have an alternative theory. “I don’t know” works just fine for me. I do know that I must recognize the sacrifice that Jesus made for us and be willing to covenant my life to him in response. That’s enough.

      • rameumptom said

        Jim F’s explanation is dead on right. Another point regarding Alma 41 is that the atonement “restores” us back to how we were in the life. There is not statement of God dropping wrath down upon a person, but that the person is restored to the being he/she is. If Satan is miserable (2 Ne 2) and seeks for us to be miserable as he is, then we have a choice to accept joy from God, or misery from Satan. Whatever we choose will be restored to us. There is no evidence of God demanding/seeking vengeance and lowering the boom. There is only God allowing each of us to decide our own destiny of happiness or misery.
        That said, D&C 76 states that the Telestial Kingdom is a kingdom of salvation and of great joy – so Jim’s statement that it is not a wrathful place is absolutely correct. To obtain it, though, one must humbly believe in Christ and repent. For some, this will be hard and their struggles (here and in Spirit Prison) will compel many to be humbled and repent (compare that concept with Alma 32). In fact, Alma himself was compelled to be humbled as he suffered the wrath of God, which in reality is only Alma being confronted with the fullness of his own reality (and not God punishing him). Still, the wrath was temporary, as he did come to believe and repent, immediately worthy to see God on his throne (Alma 36). This is very different than the God of Justice that demands the law of justice be satisfied.

  10. Mike H. said


    This has been an excellent series. Your thoughtful discussion of Robinson’s book has been very thought provoking, and eye-opening. Also, I was a faithful reader of your Book of Mormon class notes and I feel they’ve been very helpful in really illuminating the BOM in a new way (though it appears my hopes for your return to them have been in vain!).

    However, I must say that I feel this final installment of the series leaves me less than convinced of your point. I’m not saying you’re wrong–I’m willing to hear you out–but I feel that what is presented here doesn’t flesh out your argument well enough to change my prior notions of the standard Mormon view on the atonement.

    Let me explain my reservations: your critique of Robinson appears to pivot on his argument of the Lord’s vicarious suffering through the atonement. Indeed, you say that in this last chapter we’re able to see how Robinson’s “motor has been running” that informs his close-but-not-quite-there views on grace, and this idea of vicarious suffering is the only notion in the chapter that you take issue with. Yet, this post does not do a satisfactory job of delineating Robinson’s vicarious suffering notion with what you are arguing is a scripturally-based view of the atonement. You wrote “The saving event was Christ’s resurrection—there’s no redemption in Jesus’ suffering, but only in His triumph over the grave.” Apparently, you don’t quibble with Christ’s suffering, but it seems that you argue against the view that Christ suffered _for_us_. This is the first time I’ve heard it put quite this way, but your support for your view is not persuasive. I respectfully ask that you clarify your argument here.

    Specifically, can you please clarify your views and comment on the following scriptures / conference talks on Christ’s suffering?

    1 — You assert that Amulek’s teachings in Alma 34 are contrary to all others in the Book of Mormon, and that Alma subtly critiques Amulek’s teachings in Alma 40-42. I’ve read these chapters many times before, but never saw the conflict / criticism you claim. Can you please spell this out? I see that you say you intend to flesh out the details in a different post later, but I feel at least some details of this volley of perspectives between Alma & Amulek is central to your argument here and are necessary for me as a reader to be persuaded of your alternative view.

    2 — How do you position Isaiah 53:5 in this discussion? That scripture reads “he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities…with his stripes, we are healed”. I see that being aligned with Robinson, though can’t see how it squares with your hypothesis.

    3 — A particularly memorable general conference talk on the Atonement in recent history is that of James E. Faust in Oct. 2001 titled “The Atonement: Our Greatest Hope.” In this talk, Pres. Faust rhetorically states, “I wonder how many drops were shed for me” in contemplating the Lord’s suffering (these words have been set to music in the song “This is the Christ”). Again, this seems more aligned with Robinson’s vicarious suffering argument.

    I feel much of this series has been great, but this post leaves me a little baffled, to be honest. I’m not claiming that I know how the atonement works, but I was expecting a more detailed analysis parsing the Robinson view from your view.

    Thanks for anything you can provide.

    • Mike H. said

      I should clarify on points 2 and 3 above, I’m not asking for a response to the specific quotes, but to the overall notion contained therein. When I read Isaiah 53, I generally interpret it in the sense of the vicarious suffering hypothesis. Same goes for Faust’s talk on the atonement–has a very strong element of vicarious suffering that seems to counter your alternative view put forward here.

  11. chrislambe said

    Gerald N Lund a member of the Seventy teaches this about vicarious suffering and the justice of God:

    “In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ stood before the law and paid the price in suffering for every sin as though he himself had committed them.” (vicariously)

    “Such suffering was beyond the power of any mortal man to endure. We can’t understand how he did it, only that he did, and that “through Him mercy can be fully extended to each of us without offending the eternal law of justice” (Packer, p. 56). In terms of our parable, he generated sufficient payment to satisfy the debt of every other man. He met the demands of the law for himself through obedience, and for all others through suffering.”
    (Vicarious suffering)

    Alma told his son Corianton that mercy could not rob justice, or else “God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:25). And the merciful love of the Father and the Son did not rob justice of its rightful demands. Rather, it paid justice! Their Love said to Justice, by virtue of the price paid in the Garden, “Here is payment for the wrongs committed. You are paid in full. Now let the captives go free” (Salvation: By Grace or by Works? 1981).

    You might not like the way that scriptures, general authorities and what the truth is about justice, especially God’s justice but it is what it is.

    • rameumptom said

      That is a reading based upon the traditions of the Church, but not based on what the scriptures teach. Christ paid for our sins, but in a different sense. He suffered so he would know how to succor us. Both New Testament and Book of Mormon teach this. We are saved by grace. Period. We are judged by works.

      Justice demands that we pay for our sins, because our sins cast us out of the presence of the Lord – a major theme in the Book of Mormon. Mercy states that when we believe and repent, we are admitted back into the presence of God. It has nothing to do with a payment being made. God is the one who determines who can and cannot be with Him. Nowhere is there anything that says God has imposed upon himself the requirement to pay directly for others’ sins, but that he only requires them to believe and repent in order to restore the relationship.

      As Joe notes with Amulek, we often take one-offs out of the scriptures, and turn a verse here or there into a whole doctrine, while ignoring what the vast majority of scriptures say in regards to the issue.

      Elder Lund is a great writer and definitely holds priesthood authority. That does not mean he fully understands the scriptures being used here. And that’s what Joe and many of us are attempting to do in helping members actually look at what is written, and not just what is assumed to be in the text.

      Elder McConkie and many other GAs taught that the Telestial and Terrestrial kingdoms were not salvation, but were terrible places where people were damned.. Yet, a cursory reading of D&C 76 shows that is completely wrong.

      As a Church, we’ve spent almost 200 years using the Book of Mormon as a place holder for “proof” that the Church is true. Only in the last few decades (from about Robinson’s Believing Christ onward) have we begun to take a new look at scripture and what it is saying to us. Today’s group of scholars are amazing in the theology they are doing. We will do well to consider what the actual scriptures as a whole tell us, and not just use one-offs to support our personal belief systems.

  12. rameumptom said

    According to Paul, Jacob and Alma (as well as others), Christ suffered that he would know how to “succor us.” In this manner, he suffered for us. Without suffering what we suffer, he would not be able to heal us. And he suffered more than all of us. I think Jesus’ toughest moment was not in Gethsemane, but on the cross, when he said, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In that moment, he was totally left alone, completely outside of God’s presence. He suffered even as a son of Perdition would suffer from not feeling the Spirit or presence of the Lord in any way in his life. D&C 76 expresses the intense pain and suffering of the place, allowing Joseph Smith to see it for but a moment, and then shutting it up, so it would not harrow up his mind with such pain.

    Robinson seems to be straddling a fence between the old view of the atonement, where he earned our salvation through works, and the way it is taught in the Book of Mormon. He still suggests we earn our salvation. As Joe noted in a previous post, Robinson teaches we are saved by works and judged by grace.

    Instead, if you look at Alma’s conversion (Alma 36), you see that Alma is in a spirit prison/hell of some form. He merits hell, because of the guilt he has for his own sins. He merits it, and actually wishes to stop existing in order to escape his pain. It is only when he humbly accepts the atonement of Christ that he is instantly rescued from hell and death. He finds himself in the presence of God and angels, filled with exquisite joy, then returns to mortal life. He did not have to perform any acts of obedience, keep any commandments, or anything else of the kind. He just had to be willing to enter into the covenant relation with Christ, and he was saved and healed.

    Christ’s resurrection would allow him to live forever without being forced to be a demon of Satan’s (as Jacob teaches), and with agency to choose. I like how Blake Ostler explains the atonement. When we believe and repent, we enter into the covenant relation with Christ. He embraces us in his infinite love. He absorbs our pain and suffering, and we absorb his healing. Perhaps in that instant he feels the pain we suffer, but it quickly diminishes as the wound is healed.

    There is no need for a penal substitution. Did Christ suffer for us? Yes. But not in the way many think. He suffered in Gethsemane and on the cross in order to be able to succor and heal us. It was not to make payment for a penalty. For me that just does not make sense. He is God, and yet does not have the power to heal and save us without having to pay a penalty for us? Then, we are told to be saviors. Yet, then comes the conundrum, which I’ve seen many LDS worry about: how can we be like Christ if we do not also pay some penalty for others? I’ve seen some speculate that each of us will have to be a Savior on some earth, returning to mortality, in order to pay the penalty. Or some other strange teaching that we just do not see in the scriptures. Some Fundamentalist Mormons actually believe in a form of reincarnation, in order to get such a concept to fit their theology!

    We cannot and do not pay a penalty for anyone’s sins but our own. We will suffer until we believe and fully repent. We become as Christ, because through our own sufferings, we learn how to heal and comfort others.

  13. mjberkey said

    Joe & Jim, could you help me see if I understand what you’re saying. Perhaps you don’t necessarily disagree with a vicarious atonement, insofar as scriptures like Gal 3:13 or 2 Cor 5:19-21 can be read with the idea of substitution. What you disagree with is that the substitution was a penal substitution. That we incurred a debt and Christ paid it for us.

    It’s already been pointed out that Isa 53:5 is used to imply penal substitution and I think v.6 (“the Lord hath laid on him the iniquities of us all”) sounds like it too. Whether or not that’s even talking about Christ, Joe, I’d need to read your book before I can begin to discuss that. But there’s also Alma 42:15. Is there a way to read “appease the demands of justice” in that scripture as anything but penal substitution? Perhaps you’ve already said, and I just missed it.

    The definition of atonement on lds.org reads “As used in the scriptures, to atone is to suffer the penalty for sins, thereby removing the effects of sin from the repentant sinner and allowing him or her to be reconciled to God.” Preach My Gospel says, “To fulfill the plan of salvation, Christ paid the penalty for our sins.” I spent an hour this morning combing through church literature trying to find how the Church supports the doctrine of _penal substitution_ specifically. I didn’t find any of the scriptures they provided convincing – all could be read in other ways. Interestingly, I also looked all over for statements by President Monson (and I briefly skimmed through the Joseph Smith Manual) supporting penal substitution, and I couldn’t find anything at all. Here’s an example of the kind of things I found by President Monson – “He provided for you and for me the greatest gift we shall ever receive: the Atonement and all that it conveys. He willingly died that we might forever live.”

  14. chrislambe said

    IF there is no need for wrath and punishment from God why then would there be an atonement? Why is it important to have Christ atone for your sins?

    • chrislambe said

      You want Christ to be your Saviour but why receive him if is work doesnt mean anything? Why did He die? How can you have mercy if it robs justice?

    • Jim F said

      Chrislambe, that’s a good question. But it doesn’t lead to the conclusion that there must be wrath and punishment from God. The Doctrine and Covenants teaches that we may suffer for our sins while we await the resurrection. It doesn’t teach that our suffering is a consequence of God’s wrath, nor does it teach that our rewards in the afterlife are punishments. So LDS doctrine makes your question quite interesting because it amounts to “Why did Christ atone for ours sins?” and it excludes the answer that he did so to expiate the debt that we owe the Father because of our sins.

      As I said, the idea that God decreed a law of justice that required that his Son suffer means either that he didn’t foresee that consequence and had to make up for what he hadn’t foreseen or that he is unbelievably cruel (because he foresaw that result of his decree and decreed it anyway). I don’t accept either of those consequences, so I don’t accept the premise on which they are based, namely that he decreed such a law.

      As I also said, I don’t have an alternative theory that explains the atonement, though I know of several, some of which have been referred to in this discussion–N. T. Wright’s for example, or Jewett and Kotanksy’s argument that Paul didn’t have an expiatory theory in mind, but a theory of reconciliation of man to God (which doesn’t explain Christ’s suffering). There are others, such as theories based on Alma 7 or theories based on the thought of Rene Girard. I’ve found all of them interesting and helpful, but I haven’t felt intellectually compelled by any of them.

      So I don’t have a theological answer to your question but (1) I have theological reasons for rejecting your answer and (2) I’m comfortable saying “I believe that Christ’s atonement is what made my return to Heavenly Father possible, though I don’t understand what happened.”

  15. Robert C. said

    I’m hoping to hear more from Joe, Jim and others challenging the common penal substitution view of atonement. In the meantime, I tracked down a couple of links that I think nicely address many of the questions that have been raised:

    * A Covenantal View of Atonement. Starting with the section “The Covenant Connection,” this article written by an Anabaptist theologian gives a very nice overview of thinking about Biblical concepts of atonement, apart from later-imposed penal-substitutionary concepts. The outline of a grace-based vs. law-based view of justice is esp. good.

    * The Cross and the Caricatures. This is an article by N. T. Wright (a famous New Testament scholar and bishop) that enters a heated Anglican debate about these issues. Because of the context, it’s a rather meandering article so I’d recommend just starting with the paragraph that begins, “This is abundantly clear,” with the background knowledge that “J, O and S” are defenders of a common version of the penal substitution theory which Wright is challenging. (Wright does an esp. nice job of addressing the Biblical verses that mjberkey asked about — Wright does end up embracing a version of penal substitution, but a quite different version than the standard view, which is what Chrislambe seems to be defending here.)

    • chrislambe said

      Robert C., can you answer these questions….

      Can you save yourself from your sins? Can you have eternal life without the Atonement? Why did Christ die? Can mercy rob justice? Is Adam’s transgression a universal action which affected all humanity? Are we separated of God and condemned because of sin?

      • Jim F. said

        Chsrislambe, I’m not going to answer for Robert C, but I bet his answer will be much like mine: No I cannot save myself from mys sins nor can I have eternal life without Jesus’ saving atonement. I don’t really understand what we are talking about when we speak of mercy robbing justice, but I assume it is a metaphor that helps us understand that there are limits to mercy. The consequences of Adam and Eve’s act in the Garden of Eden had affects on us all, separating us from God. Sin separates us further.

        You seem to think that anyone who answers those questions as I have will be compelled to believe your theological explanation of Christ’s suffering. But Robert C, Joe, and I are three among others who answer those questions in similar if not the same ways that you do but who do not accept your view of the atonement. We aren’t being irrational to do so.

        That means that though some who believe in the necessity of the atonement agree with you, others who also believe in that necessity do not. We may not agree with each other about what the alternative is. But it doesn’t matter that we agree on this theological question. What matters is that we recognize our absolute dependence on the atoning work of Jesus Christ. We can do that with or without a theological answer to the question of how that work worked.

      • Mike H. said


        These references you provided were very helpful in understanding the view that doesn’t entail vicarious suffering–thank you for contributing them to the conversation.

        I’m still curious about how to square this view with, for instance, Pres. Faust’s conference talk on the atonement. Also, I see that some have said there is an alternative reading of Isaiah 53 that is aligned with this view, but I’m not quite sure what that is. Any clarifying comments on those points would be appreciated.

      • rameumptom said

        I think you are completely missing what we are saying here. We cannot save ourselves, only Christ can do that. His atonement brings us “at one ment” or in unity with God. It restores the relationship. There is no divine wrath upon us. We bring any punishments upon ourselves as a natural outcome of our choices. When we pick up one end of the stick, we pick up the other end, as well. Christ died so he could resurrect. The resurrection saves us from physical death. Chist’s atonement, which is infinite and not just occurring in Gethsemane, saves us from spiritual death, then restores our relationship with God to the level that we repent and become Christ-like.

        Adam’s transgression is not the same as original sin. His transgression does have a universal action which affects all humanity: we are (or will be) dead both physically and spiritually. There is nothing we alone can do about either situation. The resurrection saves us from physical death. The atonement saves us from spiritual death upon believing, repenting and entering into a covenant relationship with Christ.

        We are separated from God because of sin. But Christ does not pay for our sins in the way you think. There is no payment for each individual sin we commit. Instead, he restores us to a sinless/guiltless point called justification. Then, we can seek to be sanctified through the purifying power of the Holy Ghost, which makes us holy and help determine our level of salvation.

    • Robert C. said

      Chrislambe, I’ll just amen the replies by Jim F. and Rameumptom, and add that I think the articles I linked to answer your questions.

      Mike H., regarding Isaiah 53, I don’t have a great answer, but I’ll say two things: (1) I like N. T. Wright’s discussion of Isaiah 53 in the article I linked to above, though the discussion is prior to what I recommended reading. (2) I have been looking at this link to an Eastern Orthodox “Incarnational Theory of Atonement” that I really like so far, and that seems very consonant with Mormon scripture (esp. Alma 7). I’m anxious to think about this view more (and to study related participatory theories of atonement, esp. as articulated in this paper). Of course just giving these links is a lazy response on my part, but hopefully it’s helpful in some way, to someone….

      Regarding Elder Faust, I love his teachings and I whole-heartedly sustain him. But I don’t think his teachings excuse me of my responsibility to search the scriptures myself, to ponder, study, pray, etc. And, in line with KenR’s comment #16, I think Elder Faust is giving one parable-like interpretation of the atonement, not the only (or a wholly satisfying theoretical) understanding of atonement, scripture, etc.

  16. KenR said

    I have appreciated the dialogue on the atonement but think the atonement may mean different things to different people. I think it important to remember that the Parable of the Creditor and the Parable of the Bicycle are just that: Parables. The purpose of a parable is to help someone understand a specific concept better. If learning occurs then the parable has been a success. But different people understand parables at different levels. Lessons learned in parables cannot always be extended to a literal interpretation of a specific topic.

    I personally struggle with extending the concept of the Parable of the Creditor to completely explain the atonement. I struggle with the concepts of “The Law of Justice” and “The Law of Mercy” as they are commonly explained. I struggle for various reasons. First, neither are scriptural. If you read the scriptures closely they address the “demands of justice” and the “plan of mercy,” never are they “laws.” (The closest you will find is in Alma 34:16 which uses the phrase the “law of the demands of justice.”) I think the demands of justice are much different than our present explanation of the law of justice. Also, I feel the law of justice as it is commonly explained is not just. If there is an eternal law requiring suffering for every broken law, then why can we suffer if no law is broken? To me that would not be just. I don’t think we can separate the question of suffering with that of the atonement; they have to be part of the same unified theory.

    I also struggle with the concept of “one or two drops of Christ’s blood paid for MY sins.” Again if we extend this concept, then He had a drop of His blood for everyone. However, the amount of blood He shed at Gethsemane was finite and it did end. You can’t have an infinite atonement with a finite amount of blood if it is applied in that manner. We really struggle with separating things literal and figurative.

    The concept of the law of justice leads to a quid pro quo approach where an amount of suffering “pays” for a sin. As the amount of sin increases, so does the suffering. Interestingly the amount of sin that will occur in this world (and even all other worlds tied back to Christ) will be finite. We explain that by having an amount of suffering larger than this amount then the atonement is in effect “infinite.” I struggle with using a quantitative measure and labeling that as infinite. Clearly whatever number you can think of I can think of one that is larger. To become infinite cannot occur. If a quantitative atonement is not possible then we should change our thinking. Instead of being infinite in a quantitative way, I believe the atonement is infinite in a qualitative sense. Hence it is not the amount of suffering but the depth (descended below all things…).

    I personally believe that while in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ experienced a necessary and sufficient event that he can now offer us salvation. The extent of His sufferings is difficult for us to understand. I believe that somehow he was exposed to forces from beyond the veil that I can only understand as similar to a different sphere. We would describe that as a different dimension. For example, see Burton, Robert P. and Bruce F. Webster, Some Thoughts on Higher-Dimensional Realms, BYU Studies Vol. 20, No. 3 or Abbott, Edwin A., Flatland, a Romance of Many Dimensions. If any of us were to be put in that situation we would just vaporize. By being exposed to this “He comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever.” (D&C 88:41) In this way he now becomes our Savior and can offer us exaltation. Hence the atonement is not just a saving atonement but an exalting atonement (difficult concept if we stay focused on the atonement simply satisfying the law of justice).

  17. chrislambe said

    count me out of your guy’s view of the atonement and the resurrection because its blasephy to believe it. You guys dont understand the Book of Mormon or the prophets, and especially the bible.

    • rameumptom said

      Well, for people who you think are committing blasphemy, you are including some BYU professors, members of high councils, and people who are very diligent in their search of the scriptures. BTW, blasphemy means to speak against God and Christ. None of us have done so, but instead tried to explain what the scriptures say to us. Our view of the resurrection is not different than that of the GAs in the Church. Our view of the atonement and how it works is what is taught in the Book of Mormon. BTW, I’ve read the Book of Mormon over 70 times all the way through, and studied it by themes many other times. How many times have you read it so as to establish who really understands what the Book of Mormon says?

      • chrislambe said

        great to hear you’ve read it over 70 times. Doesn’t mean that you understand it Rameumptom. Your works will never save you, only through God’s grace by Christ’s vicarious sacrifice can all 1 be resurrected, and 2 receive forgiveness of sons, 3 satisfy the demands of justice of God. This is how I know you dont understand the scriptures you stated earlier that “Robinson teaches we are saved by works and judged by grace.” Actually it is the other way around. We are saved by grace and judge by our works. This is taught all through out the standard works and throughout the words of the prophets.

    • Jim F. said

      Chrislambe, I haven’t gone back to reread Rameumpton’s posts, so I can’t be sure I’m right. In spite of that my impression has been that he has not been arguing that we are saved by works and judged by grace. I think he agrees with you that we are saved by grace and judged by our works. I certainly agree. I am fairly sure that Joe and Robert C also agree. All of us agree that we are saved by grace rather than works. But that hasn’t been the question.

      The question has been whether the best explanation for the atonement is penitentiary substitution. Those you’ve been arguing with don’t think it is. You appear to think that it is. But you not only think it is, you think that the belief is doctrinal and have accused those of us who don’t believe it of being blasphemers–in spite of the fact that penitentiary substitution has never been declared to be doctrinal nor is it explicitly stated in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, or the Pearl of Great Price.

      So we are arguing about our understanding of how to explain the atonement. We are not arguing about the atonement or about the necessity of grace rather than works.

      This is exactly what is wrong with theology: at its heart, it sets one of us against the other, creating divisions in the church. ("Division" is the original meaning of "heresy.")

      Paul was more concerned with the divisions in the church at Corinth than he was with the particular disagreements about doctrine that were creating those divisions. He is as bothered by those who follow him as he is by those who followed Apollos, Cephas, and (to their understanding) Christ. His commandment was "that there be no divisions among you," not that everyone agree with each other about theology. He urges them to come together in the same purpose (KJV: judgment).

      The same thing applies here. We may disagree about which explanations of things that we find most convincing, but we ought not to let that create divisions in the Church. Our purpose–carrying out the work of Christ on the earth through the vehicle he has provided, the Church–must remain the same for all of us, and it must remain paramount.

      • rameumptom said

        Thanks, Jim. In the posts, Joe has noted that Robinson teaches judged by grace, and saved by works. I do not hold to that idea, as chrislambe suggests I do. I was agreeing with Joe that we are saved by grace, not works. Where I was going, which he completely missed, was a disagreement on how we are saved. I do not agree with a penitentiary or substitution theory, as some in the Church do. Instead, I believe in an infinite atonement, where Christ suffered so he would know how to succor us, a teaching found both in the Book of Mormon and Bible.
        I guess the first step in unity is to first try and understand and not misunderstand.

  18. joespencer said


    My apologies that I’m out of town and more or less unavailable for serious response—and will continue to be that way until early next week. Let me insert only this for the moment:

    (1) Mike H. – It seems Robert has already done the hard work for me. I’m more than happy to say more about what I’m thinking here, but, as you’ll guess, can’t get to it for a few days.

    (2) Chrislambe – You’ve misunderstood what I’m arguing in this post (and its predecessors). The whole point of this series is to try to argue that it is precisely (and only!) by grace that we’re saved. But part of that argument—and this, I take it, is where you actually disagree with me—is that the idea of vicarious suffering may, inadvertently, make it difficult actually to assert (with theological consistency) that we are saved by grace and not by our works. Jim, Rameumptum, and others have already helped to clarify that vicarious suffering for incurred debt is more read into than simply found in scripture. It may be the best reading, but that remains to be shown. If an assertion that grace can or even should be thought in other terms than vicarious suffering amounts to blasphemy, and if I (or we) can’t see why that’s so, you’re task is to instruct us charitably and patiently—if you care to, but, certainly, uncritical calls to repentance aren’t in order.

    That said, it seems to me that the most deeply rooted difference between what I’m spelling out in these posts and what you’re assuming concerns the definition of sin. I emphatically reject the idea that we can save ourselves from our sins, as do you, but I wonder what you understand by “sin.”

    • chrislambe said

      Guys, please here me out here… You guys argue that the Atonement was for Christ to suffer so that he would know how to succor us which constitutes an infinite atonement. Also you guys argue something that I do disagree 100% with the idea that Christ did not suffer vicariously for the sins of mankind.

      Let me try to clarify my point here of how Christ’s atonement was vicarious for us. My argument is that it is a substitutionary atonement. This refers back to Christ dying as a substitute for sinners. The penalty for sin is death (Romans 6:23). This verse teaches several things to us. Without Christ dying in behalf of us, we are going to die, physically and spiritually and live forever under this condemnation.

      2 Corinthians 5:21 “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This states clearly Jesus died in our place on the cross. He did not deserve death because he knew no sin, yet the demands of justice was upon all mankind and the only way to take away the sins of the world was through a infinite and eternal sacrifice by one who knew no sin. He took the punishment of death upon himself in our place and substituted himself on our behalf to what we rightly deserve.

      1 Peter 2:24 “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” Here again we see Christ’s substitutional sacrifice for us by taking upon us our sins. He paid the price for us. And then also in 1 Peter 3:18 it states, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit.” Not only does this teach the vicarious atonement but it satisfies the payment due for the sinfulness of man.

      Now for Isaiah 53:5, But he 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.” This verse talks about the coming of Christ who was to die on the cross for our sins. Notice the substitutional and vicarious definitions of these words “for our,” and “was upon him.” Christ paid the price for us!

      We can only pay the price of sin on our own behalf by being punished and placed in hell (Romans 6:23). Because Christ did this we can be succored because we have a hope in Christ’s Atonement.

      • chrislambe said

        Some years ago, President Gordon B. Hinckley told “something of a parable” about “a one room school house in the mountains of Virginia where the boys were so rough no teacher had been able to handle them.

        “Then one day an inexperienced young teacher applied. He was told that every teacher had received an awful beating, but the teacher accepted the risk. The first day of school the teacher asked the boys to establish their own rules and the penalty for breaking the rules. The class came up with 10 rules, which were written on the blackboard. Then the teacher asked, ‘What shall we do with one who breaks the rules?’

        “‘Beat him across the back ten times without his coat on,’ came the response.

        “A day or so later, … the lunch of a big student, named Tom, was stolen. ‘The thief was located—a little hungry fellow, about ten years old.’

        “As Little Jim came up to take his licking, he pleaded to keep his coat on. ‘Take your coat off,’ the teacher said. ‘You helped make the rules!’

        “The boy took off the coat. He had no shirt and revealed a bony little crippled body. As the teacher hesitated with the rod, Big Tom jumped to his feet and volunteered to take the boy’s licking.

        “‘Very well, there is a certain law that one can become a substitute for another. Are you all agreed?’ the teacher asked.

        “After five strokes across Tom’s back, the rod broke. The class was sobbing. ‘Little Jim had reached up and caught Tom with both arms around his neck. “Tom, I’m sorry that I stole your lunch, but I was awful hungry. Tom, I will love you till I die for taking my licking for me! Yes, I will love you forever!”’” 8

        President Hinckley then quoted Isaiah:

        “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows. …

        “… He 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.” 9

        No man knows the full weight of what our Savior bore, but by the power of the Holy Ghost we can know something of the supernal gift He gave us. 10 In the words of our sacrament hymn:

        We may not know, we cannot tell,
        What pains he had to bear,
        But we believe it was for us
        He hung and suffered there. 11
        He suffered so much pain, “indescribable anguish,” and “overpowering torture” 12 for our sake. His profound suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, where He took upon Himself all the sins of all other mortals, caused Him “to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit.” 13 “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly,” 14 saying, “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.” 15 He was betrayed by Judas Iscariot and denied by Peter. He was mocked by the chief priests and officers; He was stripped, smitten, spat upon, and scourged in the judgment hall. 16

        He was led to Golgotha, where nails were driven into His hands and feet. He hung in agony for hours on a wooden cross bearing the title written by Pilate: “JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.” 17 Darkness came, and “about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” 18 No one could help Him; He was treading the winepress alone. 19 Then “Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.” 20 And “one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.” 21 “The earth did quake” and “when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.” 22 In the words of the hymn, “Let me not forget, O Savior, / Thou didst bleed and die for me.” 23 I wonder how many drops were shed for me.

        James E Faust – http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2001/10/the-atonement-our-greatest-hope?lang=eng

  19. joespencer said

    Just a quick note, Chrislambe:

    I don’t deny substitution; I deny vicarious suffering for an incurred debt. And I don’t deny it vehemently; I deny only that it’s scriptural. As I said before, it may be true, but I can’t make any real sense of it—particularly because I can’t see how it doesn’t reenthrone works as the source of salvation.

    In a word, I don’t deny that Christ died for us. Indeed, I testify that He did so! I deny only that that “for us” means “in our place within a juridical system that takes sin to be an incurred debt against an abstract and distinctly modern notion of (eternal) justice.”

    • chrislambe said


      Is your view of grace and being saved meant that is must be freely given to man without a cost? Whas is the better gift one that is freely given or one that is bought with a price?

      • joespencer said

        Can you clarify your question? There’s a typo or two in there, and the second question is ambiguous (bought by whom, do you mean? the giver or the receiver?). A little help?

    • Jim F. said

      Joe says well what I think.

  20. chrislambe said

    What do you define vicarious suffering as?

    • rameumptom said

      I think that Christ suffered so that he would know how to succor us.

      “For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).

      “And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12)

      There is no requirement in these verses for Christ to have suffered exactly for every sin ever committed on every world God has created. There is a requirement for Christ to suffer “for us”, as explained in D&C 88:6:

      “He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth;”

      He suffered so that he could go below all things. In doing this, he can raise all others up to the Father as the “light of truth.” He comprehends our pains, and in so doing can heal and save us.

      This does not require a direct substitution of virtue for sin, though it may. It does require that Christ has placed himself in the position where he can restore us to God’s presence. He does this with the resurrection and the atonement, which literally means “at one ment” or of one mind. His atonement may not substitute for sins, but it does cleanse us from sin and makes us one with God.

      • chrislambe said


        I am truly sorry if you cannot see the requirement of Christ vicariously suffering for the sins of the world. You cant just pull out a verse out of the Bible the way that you do and have it mean something… Lets look up the context of your verse Hebrews 2:18. It goes from Hebrews 2:14-18.

        “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who hold the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. FOR THIS REASON HE HAS TO BE MADE LIKE HIS BROTHERS IN EVERY WAY, IN ORDER THAT HE MIGHT BE A MERCIFUL AND FAITHFUL HIGH PRIEST IN THE SERVICE OF GOD, AND THAT HE MIGHT MAKE ATONEMENT (reconciliation) FOR THE SINS OF THE PEOPLE. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted he is able to HELP (replaces succor) those who are being tempted.” (NIV)

        He was ordained to take upon himself the sins of all men to make atonement for their sins. David A Bednar has explained clearly that, “in mortality we all are tempted by the natural man… In mortality we all are tempted by the flesh. The every element out of which our bodies were created is by nature fallen and ever subject to the pull of sin, corruption, and death.” He later states that, “Jesus Christ came to earth to die FOR US – THAT IS FUNDAMENTAL AND FOUNDATIONAL TO THE DOCTRINE OF CHRIST.”

        Mosiah 3:19 “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been form the fall of Adam 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.”
        We have to put off the natural man in us but as Paul states there are two laws that exist in us, one being the law of God the other being the law of sin (Romans 7: 21-25). Please understand, because of our condition to the law of sin – and we sin on a daily basis – without Christ’s atonement IN BEHALF of us we can’t ever be cleansed of our sins. If it wasn’t for the atonement IN BEHALF of us we would be consigned to hell forever because we would have to suffer for our own sins. (2 Nephi 9)

        “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful men to be a SIN OFFERING. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous REQUIREMENTS OF THE LAW MIGHT BE FULLY MET in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8: 1-4).

        What I don’t understand is with all of these scriptures in their full context how one can say “His atonement may not substitute for sins, but it does cleanse us from sin and makes us one with God.” Yes, it does make us one with God, only by accepting his offering which he took on behalf of us can we EVER be reconciled to God. He was the eternal SIN OFFERING (as explained in Leviticus)! He took upon himself the sins, sorrows, infirmities, and frailties of man! He became the Lamb who took away the sins of the world (John 1:29)! He gave us the gift of having mercy and grace given to us by buying us with a price (1 Cor. 7:23)! All of this is fundamental and foundational to the Atonement, one cannot say that it doesn’t substitute for sin! Christ did because our works are never good enough and none of us is righteous enough to atone fully for our own sins to answer the law of justice upon us.

    • joespencer said

      I think you and I would define vicarious suffering in the same way, Chrislambe: it’s some kind of suffering that is experienced on someone else’s behalf or in someone’s place. But the trick is that I don’t (necessarily) deny vicarious suffering. I deny vicarious suffering for incurred debt that has to be rectified in accordance with an abstract principle of justice. What I’ve just italicized is what I’m trying to uproot here. Christ suffered. That’s undeniable. He did it for us. That’s also undeniable. That may have been in some sense vicarious. I’m a little nervous about that, but I think it can be asserted if we think carefully about it. It’s the next step—a certain notion of justice, a certain notion of sin, etc.—that I’m unprepared to take.

  21. CEF said

    Chrislambe, I said I was going to say out of this discussion, and yet, here I am. :) I think I tend to offend some people, not sure why (my abrasive personality?), but because of that, I tend to just read these things and keep my mouth shut. But, I thought I might be able to help some. So here goes. This might be a rather long post.

    When I first joined LDS-Phil, a long time ago, Dennis Potter was still there and the first discussion I remember was something along these lines. It was way over my head at the time and I made some comment that I am sure he thought, where did this nut come from? It was not long after that, Dennis left the LDS-Phil list. I have always blamed myself for his leaving. I never did understand a thing he said, but I really enjoyed reading what he said. I wish he was till there.

    The point to this, is, and I learned this somewhere on the blogs, that *every* metaphor, if pushed too far, breaks down at some point. So what really smart people have figured out is, when pushed too far, the atonement theories that we have, breakdown at some point. None of them really work. I think Blake has one that makes about as much sense to me as any.

    So I think what Joe, Jim and Ramey are saying, is that even tho we have lots of statements by GAs talking about the atonement in the light you understand, those ideas just do not hold-up under criticism. So to try and make more sense out of the scriptures, they have come up with a different way of seeing things. They are not necessarily saying they are correct, just different, another way of understanding the scriptures. Nothing really wrong with that.

    I have a lot more to say, but no more time now. I hope this helps in some small way. I really should stay out of this.

    • chrislambe said

      CEF, please by all means explain in your own words what Blake is trying to say because the way they put it I cant accept it because of what scripture and General Authorities have said.

      I understand that there are different ways at looking at the scriptures, I still have to see how scriptures can be interpreted in a way that the Atonement doesn’t equal vicarious sufferings for sin. From what context shows it is a requirement in my mind. This is what I have been taught in church, seminary, my undergrad in religion and also in the M. Div program.

      • CEF said

        Gosh Chrislambe, I feel your pain. I don’t have time now, and it has been a few years since I read Blake’s books, and I am afraid I probably have incorporated some of my own beliefs into the mix. So I would need to reread his book on this matter. But here is my best advise to you. Please do not take this wrong. I like you and think you are a very bright person, so do not take this as some kind of pejorative.

        If you are not careful, you are about to take the red pill, and there is no going back if you do. I am saying this trying to be a little bit funny, but at the same time, I am serious.

        I attended a FAIR conference a few years ago, and Jim, Blake and some other guy was there talking about a few things. What they said that I still remember, is that they (all three) had a disease, (I think something along the lines of wanting to know/understand everything) and that there is no cure for it. I have that same disease, it is not fun to have it. So if it is not too late, just walk away from this discussion and leave things alone. Other wise, you will forever change the way you see things. And in my case, I no longer fit in with the people in my ward or stake. Meaning, you will not be able to share the things you are learning, I am sure Joe would not try and teach much of anything he is saying here in a SS or Priesthood class. So I am not sure what good it does to learn these things.

      • Jim F. said

        I plead guilty to saying something like what CEF says I said. There is a “red pill” called philosophy and theology, and its questions are as much like a disease as anything else. It is a dis-ease. Thinking about or answering those questions certainly isn’t essential to one’s life in the gospel. If it were, my wonderful grandmother, who didn’t have an intellectual bone in her body, wouldn’t be a candidate for celestial glory. But I think she’s likely to be there far ahead of many of us who’ve taken the pill.

        But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that philosophy / theology is useless. Some of us have already swallowed the red pill and can’t help but ask the questions. Perhaps some of us swallowed it before we were born. If you’re a person who really hankers to think about philosophical and theological questions as they relate to the gospel, then this blog and others are a good place to find people with whom you can talk. As CEF says, you’re not likely to find them in your ward–and I don’t think you should be looking for them there.

        Sacrament meeting, Sunday School, and priesthood and RS classes aren’t the place for these discussions. I guess I could add “unless you’re a high priest.” As I meeting I was attending at BYU was about to begin, in response to a theological question from one of the attendees, Elder Eyring once said “The average high priest group knows more about the answers to those kinds of questions than the First Presidency does.”

        I’m pretty sure he didn’t intend to denigrate the First Presidency with his remark. I think his point was that they don’t concern themselves with those kinds of issues be cause from their point of view those issues are not important. They are concerned with preaching salvation, spiritual and temporal, which doesn’t require preaching theological explanations of salvation. Similarly, church is for preaching salvation. Sometimes we don’t do that well, but introducing philosophy and theology would make it worse rather than better.

        So, if you’ve been bitten by the philosophy / theology bug (or swallowed the pill, if you prefer that metaphor), you should feel all right about it. It’s a disease with no cure, but is usually chronic. It needn’t be debilitating–though it can be if you let it. So don’t let it. Paying attention to such questions can also be strengthening to those who have the disease.

        I like–very much–the metaphor that Adam Miller uses for theological speculation, Rube Goldberg machines (http://www.gregkofford.com/products/rube-goldberg-machines-essays-in-mormon-theology). A good Rube Goldberg machine does the same work that can be done simply otherwise, such as opening a door or turning off the light. But it does it in a complicated way. The measure of a good Rube Goldberg machine is that it gets the same thing done that gets done without it and that it does it in an interesting, perhaps even beautiful, way. It seems to me that we could measure good theology in the same way.

        Some of us need those machines, but most don’t. So we ought not to muddle things in church by insisting on showing off our theological Rube Goldberg machines.

      • joespencer said


        I think Jim F. has really nicely outlined here how we ought to think about the theological implications of statements by general authorities. I can’t take a handful of general authority statements as a source for theology for at least three reasons: (1) general authorities’ statements aren’t canonical; (2) general authorities often disagree with one another if we take them to be spelling out theological positions; (3) general authorities don’t claim to be doing theology, and if we take them to be doing so we may well be misusing their words in a way that might bother them. For these reasons at least, when doing theology, I stick with scripture as the source that binds me.

      • rameumptom said

        chrislambe, I think we all agree that the scriptures say Christ suffered for our sins. What we question, though, is exactly HOW he paid for those sins. Many people accept the penal substitution theory, which is what you are promoting. We are saying that this is just one of several theories on how Christ might have paid for our sins, but not the only valid one. Joe Spencer has broken it down into smaller pieces for us to digest, and show that what the scriptures say, and how we often describe it, are not always a perfect match. As mentioned, General Authorities are called to witness of Christ and his atonement, not be theologians. As President Kimball once stated, it does not matter whether the Pearly Gates swing open or slide open, as long as they open. For those who do theology, we try and study the scriptures to see the how. There are basic things we all agree upon, and then there are the assumptions that are built upon those basics. A close reading of the Book of Mormon tells us that Christ did suffer for our sins, but may not have paid for them in the exact method you suggest.
        You will note that even General Authorities have differed in their descriptions of the atonement in the past. Or, at least on how it works. Some have taught we are saved by grace and not works. Others have taught that “obedience is the first law of heaven”, even though the scriptures do not say it exactly that way. Some have taught that we must earn our own salvation with Christ making up the difference. In fact, this is exactly what Robinson was writing about and how that concept is wrong. Joe’s teaching here is that Christ paid for everything. No amount of obedience can save us, although works are important and we will be judged by them in regards to our final destination (kingdom of glory, etc).
        Joe is attempting to break things down into smaller pieces, look at each piece, and say, “this part is doctrinal, while this other piece is conjectural or theoretical or perhaps not even supported by the scriptures.”

        In such an instance, before we call people blasphemers, we should first try to actually understand what it is they are trying to say. President Marion G Romney warned about misunderstanding what it is being taught. I think this is one of those instances.

  22. chrislambe said

    CEF, Rameumtum, Jim, Mike, Joe,

    Are you guys all part of FAIR-lds?

    • Jim F. said

      I’m not.

    • joespencer said

      Nor am I.

    • CEF said

      I am not either, I just like the conference they put on every year, and it gives me a chance to see some friends that live in the area. And I always hope to meet some of the people that hang out in places like this. But, I have always been too shy to introduce myself to anyone.

    • Mike H. said

      I’m not…I was drawn here several months ago by Joe Spencer’s notes on the Sunday School lessons, and I find the content engaging so I’ve stuck around. My career is in research and I have a PhD, though not in religion, so the tediousness and exactness of the discourse and the presentation of competing ideas is something I’m at home with.

  23. Fred Stewart said

    Just joining the discussion, so I don’t have much to say, but I do want to ask a question or two.

    The first question I ask when contemplating the atonement and the resurrection is: “Who says?” Why does Jesus resurrecting his own body because the grave could not hold him mean that we all are assured resurrection? Who says that the magnificence of Jesus Christ’s atonement means that He has the power to forgive our sins?

    It seems to me that the eternal existence operates on certain conditions or laws and that the Savior’s atonement had to be magnificent enough to satisfy them with His ability to judge who should be forgiven and who should not, and what level of glory their commitment merits. So the question, it seems to me is, “Why did his atonement so impress them (whoever “them” is) sufficiently that they are willing to accept His word when he says, “Let him (or her) come. They are with me.” I think that puts the question of grace in a whole different light. I also think it explains why there are so many places in the Book of Mormon where we are counseled to “come unto Christ.”

  24. Robert C. said

    I like what Jim F. said within comment #21 about rube goldberg machines and theology, though I think well-done theology can do more than the aesthetically pleasing image of a rube goldberg machine suggests (though I’m not strongly contradicting Jim, who said theology isn’t useless).

    Part of my understanding of the usefulness of well-done theology is perhaps best understood in a negative sense in that it can help guard against abuses of the Spirit. For example, what I like about some of the Girardian stuff I’ve linked to is the way that it helps shed light on the connection between bad theology (in this case, an overzealous or overliteral understanding of penal substitutionary atonement theory) and a tendency for violence.* Jim’s grandmother might not need the crutch of improved theology, but I think most communities can benefit from improved theology.

    That said, there’s a very fine line between the kind of importance of theology to the project of building Zion that I am suggesting, and taking theology too seriously. And this latter concern is serious enough that I enthusiastically endorse the main thrust of Jim’s comment.

    * I think Joe’s series here is addressing an issue very similar to Girard’s critique of violence, though Joe is dealing with a more figurative “economic” kind of violence at work in legalistic understandings of justice and atonement.

  25. Jim F. said

    I was working on my weekly column when I took part in this discussion: http://www.patheos.com/Mormon/Taking-the-Red-Pill-James-Faulconer-07-13-2012.html

    Thanks to CEF for an idea I used to introduce the column and to the rest of you for helping me think about this issue one more time.

    I owe Robert C a column some time on the possibility of theology serving a critical function. I agree that is hypothetically possible, but I’m not so sure how it works in real life. So I’ve got to think about that a bit more.

  26. aquinas said

    Joe, thanks for the series. I’ve been following along although not commenting too much.

    I did want to say a few things about the discussion on this post. I appreciate the civility of those who have discussed their views. For those who have not yet been introduced into the idea of atonement theory it can be difficult to understand the goals and objectives. But I also don’t think this is inherently a religious problem. Like any other community, this blog has certain goals and there are a number of participants more or less in orbit who regularly or semi-regularly comment and who are familiar with the kinds of personalities or positions of others on the blog. In other words, social capital has been built up, which lowers transactional costs of communication. Discussions can build upon each other. Now, it can be difficult for someone who decides to enter into dialogue who is unaware of the make-up of the community, and who may not even accept some of the premises upon which the discussion is built. There is a kind of barrier to entry. One must then back-up and go over some of the premises and even argue and defend them to newcomers to the community (and this post alone has several premises that would take several separate posts to explain). This, however, is not a failing of theology or even theology’s problem and I really want to stress that point. This is just part and parcel of community dynamics.

  27. BLoosle said

    Great, great discussion! I have never posted to a blog in my life. I guess that makes me some kind of parasite. That said, this post by JoeSpencer, who has been my favorite blogger for some time now, has been very enlightening. Thank you Joe for “putting yourself out there.” Jim F, Robert C., Rameumptom – Love you guys. Thanks for your beautiful insights into the gospel. I have learned so much and have become a more serious student because of you guys. CEF, please know that I really enjoy your posts and insights. You would be a welcomed addition to our High Priest Group anytime and anyplace. Know that a bunch of readers like me (parasites that don’t post) are reading and learning and are very blessed to be able to learn from you. Thanks all!

    • CEF said

      BLoosle, thank you for being so kind with your comments. We use the word lurker here, sounds better than parasite. :) Besides, no one would consider you or anyone else a parasite. It is always nice to hear from a different voice.

      It would be fun to be a part of a HP group again. Maybe someday. Thanks again, people like you are always appreciated.

  28. Mark A. Clifford said

    Dear Brother Spencer (and friends):

    Hold the phone! Holy cow.
    You are usually so right about so many things that when you get one wrong it is a surprise.

    However, I think that you have this one quite wrong. I would not be telling you so unless the stakes were pretty high, but in this case they are.

    Okay, so it is clear that the Book of Mormon does not support any penal substitution theory of the Atonement. Got it. Penal substitution stinks.

    However, you seem to be finding the doctrine of penal substitution in Amulek of all places. I will argue that you are unwittingly importing Anselemian thought forms into the text that are simply not there, thereby problemetizing what is, in actuality, the crown jewel of Nephite “anti-substitution” theology. Further, you then seem to be, optioning on this incautious reading of Amulek, creating theological tension between Amulek and Alma which I think the text does not support. Now, I am all for smashing the appearance of univocality in the BOM when that is justified. But it is not here.

    Then, as a final, ungrateful blow to my friend Amulek resorting to de-legitimizing him as a source of doctrine by questioning his prophetic street cred? Yikes!

    I would beseech you to read again.

    What I have found there is different from what you seem to find. You seem to see Amulek as intending that “if a human sacrifice won’t do it, we just need a bigger sacrifice, like: an infinite and eternal one! Where a bird or a human won’t do, then a God will!”

    It seems to me that Amulek has already dis-allowed that reading; he is unequivocal not about the identity of the payee, but of the moral possibility of payment. He has undermined the possibility of payment as an option. He is not holding that blood will pay for sins. Rather, he emphatically repeats, only an END to the shedding of blood will do it. It is not the death of the murderer that will fix it, it is the LIFE of the murderer that can fix it. Amulek is not, in my view, foreseeing the elaboration of the subject of sacrifice to God level. Instead, the debt concept must be repudiated completely. Death will not do it. This is the whole meaning of the Law: Justice must be overpowered by Mercy. There must needs be an end to the shedding of blood.

    Now, humans never see things this way (that is the core of the problem). We want to posit immoral payments that no one can make as ways to shield ourselves from grace. Self existing as we are, wildly welded to the notion of getting what is coming to us, we become the gods to whom Jesus (the real God, remember, that is the wind up in this chapter, Jesus is the real God) must offer himself. Jesus does not sacrifice himself to his Father (that concept is not really current in Nephite discourse at the time Amulek speaks) or to himself, or to laws. He offers himself to us. We put him to death. He refuses to stay dead, though. In freely submitting himself to us, dying the death that we crafted for him, he turns suffering and punishment and death on their heads: by living. Only his life will save us.

    When Jesus announces his Atonement to the Nephites he echoes Amulek:

    “And ye shall offer up no more unto me the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away.” (3 Nephi 9:19)

    Other bright folks have gotten over reading Anselem into Amulek (Blake Ostler Exploring Mormon Thought II: The problems of theism and the love of god pg 232 footnote 14 where he repents in footnote form; Dennis Potter in Did Christ Pay for our Sins? Dialogue 32:4 Winter 1999 for instance). Doubtless you are aware of these readings, and find them unpersuasive.

    So again I beseech you to reconsider making Amulek the dumb purveyor of blasphemy. Maybe that was not what he was saying.

    By the way, I love An Other Testament to death.

    • J. Madson said

      mark, I have had a similar conversation with joe in the past. I read amulek closer to the way you do. He is saying that a man cannot pay for the sins of another. full stop. As you point out it was anselm who used the whole jesus is “infinite” to argue for substitionary atonement. I read him as saying it works on an entirely different model than one man paying for another.

    • joespencer said


      Thanks for your response. I’m fully familiar with this reading of Amulek (as in Jacob Morgan’s beautiful piece from a few years ago), and I’m very intrigued by it… but I just can’t convince myself it really makes sense of the text. I don’t think it’s I who bring Anselm to the text so much as Amulek who introduces it… at least to some extent. (There may be a non-Anselmian reading of Amulek, but it’s not the anti-substitutionary reading because that needs Anselm as much as the Anselmian reading—though as a punching bag. Keith Lane has suggested to me an outline of a non-Anselmian substitutionary reading, and I want to think about that further….)

      That said, I emphatically do not mean to make Amulek the dumb purveyor of blasphemy! Nor do I, as some reading this post have suggested, want to throw Amulek under the bus. Amulek is, I think, a perfect mirror of most of us in the text of the Book of Mormon. If I’m throwing Amulek under the bus or making him the purveyor of blasphemy, I’m doing the same for most or all of us. In pointing out that he’s not a prophet in any strong sense, I mean only to say that he’s like the rest of us—inspired on occasion, but not necessarily a figure whose every word is to be taken as unimpeachable truth.

      For what it’s worth. All this by way of clarification, only. I very much appreciate your kind words!

  29. GaryH said

    I’m a “parasite” too, but a very transitory one. I’ve been reading through this dialogue and found it interesting. A few comments if I may, but please understand I’m not a theologian, I don’t know all the theories, and I’ve not read the BOM 70 times, so feel free to enlighten me.

    I think I agree with your atonement theology, but I’m confused about your claim of conflicting teachings in the BOM. I’m wondering which part of Amulek’s teachings in particular you find contradictory. If it’s Alma 34:8, then Alma himself says almost the exact same words in Alma 7:13. Although he says “according to the flesh” it’s the same thought. You might view this not as vicarious suffering as such, but rather that despite God (the Spirit) already knowing all things (i.e. he didn’t need to experience to know), he still needed to personally experience in order to atone. However perhaps the suffering is only part of the atonement. Usually we think of the suffering to overcome spiritual death and death/resurrection to overcome temporal.

    The BOM writers clearly understand the difference between temporal and spiritual death, but seem to write as if his death and resurrection (but especially his death) account for both, particularly in 2 Nephi 9, or 1 Ne 11:33. They are understandably focussed on his shedding his blood, a perspective which I assume is weighted by their Mosaic symbolism. I can accept that not all the details of the atonement were known to them, just as they aren’t to us, but they seem less aware (or acknowledging) of the difference (if any) of the “suffering” and the “death” of Christ. I suppose this is your main support for what I feel is perhaps an overly-resurrectionist view of the atonement, because it is so prominent in the BOM.

    I’m surprised your detractors didn’t elaborate more on D&C 19. The Lord describes the punishment of the impenitent, then immediately states he has suffered “these things” that they might not, otherwise they must suffer “even as I”. That sounds pretty vicarious – the suffering is the same, either ours or his for us. However I do reject the crude penal interpretation, or the quantitative perspective (how many drops of blood for this particular sin, etc). We are “bought with a price” but he didn’t necessarily “pay the price” of our sin, because the effect of sin is not counted in demerit points.

    Rather it is implicitly stated that our punishment/suffering is just as infinite as his atonement. Any degree of sin warrants punishment, endless and eternal. Only an infinite atonement can overcome the effects. But rather than it being a specific vicarious payment for debt incurred, it is a positive infinite effect to absorb/overcome a negative. The actual effect is to mercifully allow us to avoid the punishment. His suffering what we would have to suffer gives him the authority/credibility/whatever to allow those who appeal to him to avoid punishment.

    You mentioned Alma 42. We all sin, and are worthy of endless punishment. The atonement allows the penitent to avoid punishment for sin, and be left to be judged for their works (it’s up to them to ensure they are good). His mercy hasn’t robbed his justice, it’s just filtered it to leave only that which rewards to happiness. The impenitent don’t have the benefit of mercy’s filtering and are left to the full spectrum of justice. To those who appeal to (faith/repent) and align with (baptised) him he gives mercy and justice, to those who don’t he gives only justice.

    That’s my understanding of your perspective, but I can’t see how Amulek or anyone else is in variance with it. I guess I’m uncomfortable with the idea of internal contradiction, however benign. Mormon compiled the book – he would exclude anything inconsistent, and I’m convinced he and Moroni had a more informed retrospective understanding of the atonement than their predecessors. And besides, if it’s the “most correct” book then surely we can be confident of avoiding any internal contradictions.

    Sorry I wasn’t shorter. I’m sure someone could rephrase it more concisely.

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