Atonement is a 16th century English contraction of the words at and one, attributed to William Tyndale’s biblical translations; it signifies the state of being at-one, at-oneness, or at-one-ment and the process of reaching that state — unity with God. The word appears over a hundred times in the Old Covenants from the root kaphar (כָּפַר), meaning to cover, 1 and appears in the New Testament only once in Romans 1:22 as katallagē, (καταλλαγή), meaning reconciliation, exchange, esp. money.2 “From all the meanings of kaphar and kippurim, we [conclude] that the literal meaning…is a close and intimate embrace, which took place at the kapporeth or the front cover or flap of the tabernacle or tent. The Book of Mormon instances are quite clear: Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men; for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith, Repent and I will receive you (Alma 3:6). But behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell — I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love (2 Nephi 1:3). To be redeemed is to be atoned…. [This] kind of oneness is meant by the atonement — it is being received in close embrace of the prodigal son, expressing not only forgiveness but oneness of heart and mind that amounts to identity.”3 “The standard guide to the atonement is the Gospel of John. Four solid chapters, 14–17 [in the KJV], are devoted to showing that the atonement is literal; it is real”4 (see John 9 and The Testimony of St. John, chapters 8–10). Mankind is placed in a situation on this earth where, without a Redeemer and an atoning sacrifice, progression — as well as any hope of escape from the grave and the justice of the Lawgiver — would be impossible. Without the atonement, the possibility of ascension and return to the presence of God could not take place.
The Father’s doctrine is that all men everywhere [must] repent and believe in [Christ] (3 Nephi 5:9). This is what the whole of creation hangs on: the atonement of the Son. It is through the Son’s sacrifice that the Father’s plan became operational. Now, in order to return to the Father, all must do so in reliance upon the merits of the Son (John 2:2).5
It is impossible to become altogether clean in this fallen world. Despite mankind’s best efforts, in the end they’re going to find they are lacking. The scriptures admit this. All are in need of redemption from an outside power — someone with greater virtue and power who can lift mankind from the fallen condition into something higher, cleaner, and more godly. This is the role of Christ. His atoning sacrifice equipped Him to accomplish this. The atonement, however, is not magic. Through it, Christ accomplished some very specific things and has the power to lead all back to the presence of God, the Father. The process was difficult for Him and is necessarily difficult for each person seeking it.
Christ participated in the ordinance of the atonement to acquire two things, the first of which is knowledge (see Isaiah 19:2). It is through His knowledge that He is able to justify many. This knowledge was acquired through His suffering the pains of all mankind, which allowed Him to know exactly what weaknesses afflict mankind and how to overcome them. This allows Him to succor, relieve, and teach mankind how to overcome every form of guilt, affliction, and weakness (see Alma 5:3). This knowledge was gained by suffering guilt and remorse for sins He had not committed, exactly as if He were the one who perpetrated them. He performed this great burden in the presence of His Father, who would never leave Him, even in His hour of temptation, despite the fact that all His followers would abandon Him (see John 9:18). When He suffered the guilt of all mankind, it was necessary for His Father to draw near to Him (see Luke 13:9), because it was impossible for Christ to know how to redeem mankind from the guilt and shame of sin unless He experienced the pain of uncleanliness before God the Father, just as mankind will do if they are unclean in the day of judgment (see Mormon 4:6). Unlike all of mankind, however, Christ knows how to overcome this shame, because He has done so. Secondly, Christ acquired the keys of death and hell by suffering, reconciling, dying, rising, and reuniting with the Father (see Revelation 1:6). Because the keys of death and hell belong to Him, He has the power of forgiveness. He can forgive all men all offenses, but He requires them to forgive others (see T&C 51:3). If they fail to forgive others, they cannot be forgiven (see Matthew 3:30).
Mankind does not move from a state of evil to redemption by Christ’s sacrifice alone. It is required for them to follow Him (see John 6:29). They follow Him when they allow Him to succor them, to impart knowledge to them, and when they forgive others through His knowledge gained from the atonement. Through the keys of death and hell, Christ’s atonement cleanses them from errors, from failings, and from deliberate wrong choices. He provides cleansing from those failings. But His atonement does not change their character unless they follow Him. The atonement, if properly acted upon, frees them to develop character like His, unencumbered by the guilt of what they’ve failed to do. He removes guilt. But developing character like His is mankind’s responsibility. They cannot be passive and obtain what He offers. They are required to actively pursue the redemption they seek from Him. When the sin is removed from them, they are free to pursue virtue without the crippling effects of remorse which He removed (see Alma 14:7). When freed from the guilt of sin, the past mistakes no longer haunt them. Their sins are no longer remembered by the Lord, and they are free to confess and forsake them (see T&C 45:9). The reason they can publicly confess their sins is because they are no longer a part of them. The sin does not define them. They have chosen to follow Him into a new life.
The development of a godly character happens in stages, gradually, but forgiveness comes in an instant, suddenly (see Alma 17:4). The forgiven one necessarily turns to a new life, in which sharing the joy of forgiveness and the joy of redemption through Christ is the abiding desire (see Alma 17:5). The mind changes in proportion to the joy found in the new life (see Romans 1:33). Such new people are no longer the sons of men, but they become the sons of God (see Romans 1:34). They know the joy of having the voice of the Father declare to them that they have been begotten by the Father and are the sons of God (see Psalms 2:2). The fullness of the atonement is the fullness of knowledge, which comes by following Him and abiding the conditions. No one can receive what He offers unless they conform to the conditions He has established for redemption (see T&C 93:9). This is the Gospel of Christ. This is the news which comes from the Lord, the Messenger of Salvation. Those who know Him will declare these things in unmistakable words to allow others to come and partake of the same fruit of the tree of life. (See Come, Let Us Adore Him, chapter 12.)6 Christ described what He went through, saying, I…finished my preparations (T&C 4:5). The atonement is not really a singular event, apart from the completion of the preparation. The atonement process is Christ reasoning with, persuading, and forgiving each repentant sinner on an ongoing basis to redeem them. The atonement (not capitalized) is His great work, while the Atonement (capitalized) is when it is done, finished, and over.7See also REDEMPTION.
1 James Strong, Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), H3722.
2 James Strong, Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), G2643.
3 Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 567.
4 Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 605.
5 “3 Nephi 11:31–32,” Sept. 27, 2010, blog post.
6 “Forsake, come, call, obey, keep, see, and know,” July 12, 2011, blog post. Edits by email to Scripture Committee, Mar. 5, 2018.
7 Instructions to Scripture Committee, May 31, 2018.